BIBLE READING: Galatians 3:1-14
TEXT: For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith. (Galatians 3:10-11)
There have been many, many books and articles written about the role of the law in the Christian life. It seems as though spiritual lawyers like arguing about the law. Is this because the Bible is unclear? No – it’s because there are great depths in the Bible and sometimes there is great potential for misunderstanding – not least because we are sinners who struggle with these issues, because they affect every one of us.
The first difficulty is when we ask – what do we mean by the term The Law? Sometimes it can be used for the whole revealed Word of God. Sometimes Paul uses the word ‘law’ in general to refer to a principle or rule. Most often in the New Testament it is used of the Old Testament and especially the first five books of Moses known as the Pentateuch. It is a body of commands that are summarized in these books that came at a particular time in history.
What role does the Law in this latter sense have in our lives? Basically, there are in theory two ways to be saved. We can keep the whole of God’s Law perfectly and so earn our own salvation. Or we can accept the sacrifice of Christ who died for our sins and kept the Law perfectly for us. The latter is known as justification by faith alone. It is only faith in Jesus that saves us. Not faith in Jesus plus our good works or our keeping the law.
It would be worth your while to read the whole of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It is an unusual letter because of all his letters it is the only one which does not commend the church. Instead he goes straight to the point – his astonishment that they were so quickly turning from the grace of Christ to something which was really no gospel at all. They were basically adding the Law to the Gospel and thus creating a new Gospel. Paul tells us that we are not saved by the Law and we do not receive the Spirit by the Law.
So what is its purpose? Firstly it is a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ. If we rely on the Law we end up being under a curse – because none of us can keep it and as a result the Law condemns us. The Law acted as a kind of guardian for us until Christ came and now we live by faith. When we come to faith in Christ we now live in the new way of the Spirit, not the old way of the written code.
Does this mean that the Law has no place in the Christian life as some Christians would argue? They believe that because we live by faith and are under grace we don’t need God’s law at all. This is what we call ‘anti-nomianism’ (against the law). Others go the opposite extreme and would suggest that we are under law – this is what we call legalism. Paul provides us with a different and more balanced perspective.
We are not under the law but we have been set free to obey God. We cannot be saved by keeping the Mosaic Law, and we cannot be sanctified (made holy) by keeping the Mosaic Law. However, this is not to say that there is no law, rules or principles in the Christian life. Even in Galatians Paul warns us about ‘the acts of the flesh’, disunity and unrighteousness. Christians are not set free to sin; we are set free to serve.
What the law does is show us the standards and purity of God. Having been born again our desire is to please him and so walking in the new way of the Spirit, means that God’s law is written on our hearts. We can learn from the Pentateuch; we read the law of Christ as given to us, for example, in the Sermon on the Mount; we see the high standards of holiness and the practical outworkings in the New Testament letters and our hearts desire is that God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven. The role of the Law is to educate, tutor, enlighten – but it cannot save or sanctify. However, those who are saved and those who are being made holy will seek to keep God’s purest standards.
CONSIDER: Why is it foundational to the Christian life to understand the role of the Law? What is the difference between law and grace? What can we do to avoid the dangers of both anti-nomianism and legalism?
RECOMMENDED FURTHER READING: A Little Book on the Christian Life – John Calvin. 40 Questions About Christians and Biblical Law – Tom Schreiner
PRAYER: Be good to your servant while I live, that I may obey your Word. 18 Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. (Psalm 119:17)
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