In his letter to the Ephesian believers, Paul argued that salvation comes through faith in Christ alone, apart from any legalistic requirements (Eph. 2:8-9).
Years earlier Paul had shared this same doctrine in his letter to the churches in Galatia. Many Galatian believers had trusted Christ for their salvation but had fallen prey to the Judaizers. Judaizers were legalists who added Law-keeping as a prerequisite for salvation in Christ. Such beliefs could not be tolerated, for to add the works of the law was to teach error and corrupt the gospel of salvation in Christ alone.
In Galatians 3:19–22, Paul addresses the Law and its significance in regards to salvation.
Why Was the Law Added?
Paul asked the logical rhetorical question, “What purpose then does the law serve?” (Gal. 3:19). That is, why was the Law added?
First, “It was added because of transgressions” (v. 19). The word added has the idea of being placed alongside the covenant of promise, meaning that the Law was supplementary and subordinate to it and in no way added conditions for salvation. The Law’s purpose was to reveal sin as a transgression. Instead of providing righteousness for sinners, the Law magnified sin’s guilt and made people aware that they could not be saved by keeping the Law. Thus, the Law could not in any way change the permanent provisions of the covenant.
Second, the Law was to be temporary: “It was added…till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made” (v. 19). After Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the Law was abrogated, but the covenant of promise remained.
Third, God made the covenant of promise with Abraham directly, but the Mosaic Law “was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator” (v. 19). The Law came through a third party—God gave it to angels, who gave it to Moses, who in turn gave it to Israel. Thus, numerous parties mediated the Law, whereas the covenant of promise had no mediator because “God is one” (Gal. 3:20). He confirmed it by Himself (Gen. 15:12–17). Therefore, the covenant of promise is superior to the Mosaic Law.
Does the Law Conflict With God’s Promises?
This brought up another question in the minds of the Judaizers—a question that Paul had already anticipated: “Is the law then against [contrary to or in conflict with] the promises of God?” (Gal. 3:21). Paul’s answer was swift and succinct: “Certainly not!” (v. 21). Law and promise are not in conflict; they have distinct functions and purposes.
The Law was never designed to provide salvation for mankind. Paul said, “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law” (v. 21). In other words, if there were a law that gave eternal life to a person that kept it, then the covenant of promise would no longer be in effect. Thus, God’s grace would have played no role in salvation, and Christ’s death would have been meaningless because it would have no power to save anyone. Yet this was not the case, because life came by the covenant of promise through Christ rather than through the Law.
The Law had a greater purpose than to condemn people; it locked them up to “faith in Jesus Christ” as the only means by which the promise of salvation might be granted to them.
In fact, the opposite is true. Rather than giving life to mankind, the Law “confined [shut up] all under sin” (Gal. 3:22). The Law imprisoned everyone under its curse and condemnation (Rom. 3:9, 19–20, 23; 7:9–14). However, the Law had a greater purpose than to condemn people; it locked them up to “faith in Jesus Christ” (v. 22) as the only means by which the promise of salvation might be granted to them (Rom. 7:24–25).
Paul clearly indicated that law and grace are not in conflict with each other; they simply have different functions. The Law is a revelation of the sinner’s legal standing and as such condemns him. It cannot therefore justify him, as the Judaizers claim.
How Can We Learn From the Law?
The Law provided a powerful case for self-examination. It functioned as a mirror to show people that they were unholy, guilty sinners who could not be saved by keeping the Law. It functioned as a disciplinarian to reveal the holiness of God and restrict Israel for its own good until Christ (the Son of promise) came to free those who would become children of God the Father (heirs of the promise) through faith in Christ alone.
The Law has served its purpose in pointing people to Christ, and it is through Him alone that we can receive salvation!