“Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
Galatians 3:19-22 ESV
I’ve noted many times before our tendency to rely upon the law for salvation. I’ve noted our tendency to rely upon our own goodness and actions to justify us before God. And I’ve noted that this is true of not only those outside of the church, but also a majority within.
As we learn that we play no role in our salvation, as we learn that it is all the work of God, it leaves us with many questions. If this is true, we wonder, then why do our actions even matter? If this is true, we wonder, then why did God bother to give us the law in the first place?
This is what Paul addresses in the above passage. After making the point that the law does not annul or alter the promise of God in any way, and after making it clear that we are saved through faith in Christ, Paul asks a very natural question. He asks why the law is even necessary. He asks if the law contradicts the promise of God.
He tells us that the law was added because of transgressions. It was added because of sin until the coming of the Savior. And he tells us that Scripture imprisoned everything under sin.
We find, in Scripture, that there are three uses of the law. There are three functions that the law performs. And two of them are addressed by the words of Paul in this passage.
First of all, the law is used in a civil sense. It’s used to govern mankind. In Israel, the law of God was the law of the land. And even today, a vast majority of our laws flow from the morality prescribed by Scripture. Because we are sinful, sin has to be restrained. And the fear of punishment can do just that.
Secondly, the law reveals to us our guilt. It reveals to us our sin, and the specific ways we’ve violated God’s will. It imprisons us by revealing to us that we can do nothing to save ourselves. And, in this way, it reveals to us our need for a Savior. In this way, it prepares us for the message of the gospel.
When Paul says that the law was given because of sin, this is what he’s talking about. Our sin, in this world, needs to be restrained so that we don’t harm our neighbor. But we also need to see our guilt that we might look to Jesus in faith.
The promise of God, then, is given by faith to those who believe. Those who understand what the law reveals to us, look for the salvation that’s been provided for us in Jesus. We cease all effort to earn God’s blessings and rest in his promise.