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Galatians 3:19-4:7

May 2, 2016

Now that Paul has made his case–through experience and scripture–that we are made right with God through identifying with Jesus’ faithfulness to God, this leads to the question: What’s the purpose, then, of the Law that was given to Moses? For Judaism, the Law is absolutely central to its faith. The Law was given directly by God to Moses on Mt. Sinai, creating a special covenant relationship between God and the people of Israel prior to their entry into the Promised Land. For Judaism, this is the high point of the biblical story! But if Jesus’ death on the cross fulfills or completes God’s intended way for all of humanity to be made right with God, what is the point of the Law?

Good question! Unfortunately, Paul’s answer in these verses is not very clear and has led to many diverse and confusing interpretations. Here is a summary of what I think Paul perhaps intended:

In verse 19 Paul says the Law was added by God “because of transgressions” until Jesus would come. What does this mean? It probably has two meanings. First, the Law reveals God’s moral will (consider the Ten Commandments which forbids such things as stealing, lying, adultery, selfish greed, and murder). This is a good and necessary role for God’s Law. It teaches us what is moral and what is immoral. But, along with teaching us what is moral and immoral, it also reveals something else: our failure to live it out! The Law makes clear just how enslaved we are to our own selfish desires. And the Law, by itself, cannot free us from this enslavement.

Verse 22 lifts up this second meaning of the Law.  As the NIV says: The Law (which is at the heart of scripture) “declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” As verse 23 then goes on to say, the Law, in effect, keeps us locked up in sin. It shows us the goal God wants, and it shows us the problem that is preventing us from attaining the goal, but it doesn’t give us the solution!

Does this make the Law bad? Does this mean the Law is opposed to God’s grace that rescues us through Christ? No, Paul insists in verse 21. The Law prepares us for the grace that is coming. The Law is disciplining and guiding us. It is a supervisor (verse 24) as well as  a legal guardian (verse 4:2) until we are mature enough and ready to inherit the promises of God that have come to us through Jesus’ faithful act on the cross. Just as a child is under a trustee or guardian until old enough to inherit a trust fund, so we are under the Law until Christ came.

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians was used by Martin Luther (and most Protestants since then) to make a complete distinction between Law and Grace. Luther identified Judaism as Law, and Christianity as Grace. For Luther, the Law’s purpose is to make us feel so helpless and guilty that it drives us to grace. We aren’t supposed to actually try to live by the Law because that would be works-righteousness, and it would be impossible to live by it anyway. The implication of Luther’s view is that Judaism is a useless and legalistic religion, and the radical ethical teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount are not meant to actually be followed–they’re just meant to make us realize how sinful we are.

But I (and most scholars today) believe that Luther significantly misunderstood Paul and the Law. First of all, in the Bible the Law is never separated from grace. God’s grace always comes first, and the Law itself is a gift for those who choose to respond to God’s grace. The first statement in the Ten Commandments is not “You shall have no other gods before me,” but “I am the LORD your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.” In other words, the context for the moral commands that follow is God’s act of grace. Israel is invited to follow the commandments out of gratitude for grace! So Luther (and Paul) is wrong to divide grace from Law.

Second, the aspect of the Law that Paul is opposed to (for Gentiles) is not its moral teachings but its ritual identity markers. Paul’s argument is not with the Ten Commandments. His argument is with Jewish-Christian missionaries who are telling Gentile converts that they need to be circumcised and observe dietary laws in order to be the “real”people of God. Paul’s point is that Jesus’ coming represents a decisive “next step” in God’s plan to bring wholeness to humanity. Following the identity markers of the Law is to go back to the last step–a step that takes us away from God’s rescuing grace rather than toward it. We are now made part of God’s people, not through identity markers in the Law, but through our trust in Jesus’ faithfulness to God.

Third, now that we are made right by identifying with Jesus’ faith, our self-centered nature no longer controls us. Christ’s crucifixion literally frees us from the self-centered power of sin. Self-centeredness is now replaced with Christ-centeredness, and we recognize a new joy and freedom in our lives that results in us crying out “Abba!” in prayer (4:6)–the same intimate prayer Jesus prayed to God. Now we are empowered to live the moral will of God that we see in the Law and which is summed up by loving our neighbors as ourselves.

So the Law is not negative. When properly connected to grace and Jesus’ sacrifice, it is our joyous discipleship.

One of the most remarkable results of being reconciled to God through trust–and through trust alone–is that the basic social divisions of humanity are broken down as inconsequential. When a person has been made right with God through Christ there is no longer any real boundary between a Gentile and a Jew; there is not even a real difference between a slave and a free person; there isn’t even the basic division, found in the original creation of Genesis 1, of “male and female”! This shows just how fundamentally crucial Jesus’ ministry and death and resurrection really are–they mark a whole new creation, the beginning of the “world to come” that God has been working toward for thousands of years.

So why didn’t the Christian faith abolish slavery right way? Frankly, Paul thought the end of this world was coming so soon that there wasn’t time to worry about the political and legal institution of slavery. For him, the immediate need was to bring people into a right relationship with God and experience the new creation dawning in our world through the new fellowship of the church. For the same reason, Paul did not spend his energies trying to change the legal status of women. Unfortunately it has taken the church two thousand years to figure out that slavery and gender-based oppression and restrictions are incompatible with the Christian faith!

 

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