A woman died and her will left all her property to a Christian university. The woman’s children, who lived on the other side of the country, were surprised to discover they had been left out of their mothers will. Actually “surprised” is an understatement; they were outraged. And they decided to contest the will in a court of law. But, in the end they lost the case and with it any chance of gaining the inheritance. There was nothing they could do to change the will. The law said, a will could not be changed. So, the inheritance that we receive as children of God is based on a will that cannot be changed, sealed in the blood of Christ. I preach the word of God under the theme:
Union with Christ, is based on God’s promise, not on the law
- The promise is superior to the law
- The law points to the promise
The Promise is superior to the law
Verse 15, “Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case.” Notice: Paul calls them brothers here. He has called them foolish, bewitched, and felt betrayed, perplexed and forlorn because of them, yet they were still brothers. Sometimes family can do some of the craziest things, but they are still family. You still love them. And it is a good way to start a discussion on how we are the family of God.
He starts by taking an example from everyday life. Paul is probably thinking of the ancient Greek law that said a last testament and will could not be repealed, revoked, or modified once it had been registered and brought to the public records office. Once submitted to the authorities this document could not change. If this is the case between humans, then it is definitely so with God.
Nothing in the universe could add or take away anything from the promises of God. The promises he is speaking of here are the promises that God made with Abraham and his seed, that he would give them the land as an inheritance and that all nations would be blessed through him. The law which came after, could not eliminate the promise that God has made with Abraham, and neither did it add anything to it. The promise was all about Jesus Christ – He was the one that secured our place as heirs of God. That’s Paul’s point in the next verse. The covenant promise was not with a group of people, but with one person. And whoever believed in him, shared in his inheritance. Yes, Jesus Christ shares with you all that is His. And everything belongs to him. As we read in in 1 Corinthians 3, “All things are yours, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God.”
It is all in Christ as we read in verse 16, “The promises were spoke to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say, “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but” and to your seed”, meaning one person, who is Christ.” Seed here is a collective noun, kind of like family. A family refers to many, but is singular. So, seed can refer to many but is a singular noun. And Paul says when the Spirit made those promises to Abraham a few thousand years before, he was thinking about Jesus Christ. It was a promise to Christ that through him all nations would be blessed and those that believe in him, would enter into the land of eternal rest. A new and perfect creation with people remade in the image of Christ. These promises came way before the law, and the law did not take away from them or add to them one bit.
In verse 17 he summarizes what he is trying to say, “What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later does not set aside the covenant previously established by God, and thus do away with the promise” This is what I am driving at. This is my point. Listen carefully. The law did not at all somehow replace the promises to Abraham or do away with them. The covenant promise was already there, they had been made, and nothing was going to stop it. So if you think that you receive the promises of God through the law then you are dead wrong, and you are missing the mark by 430 years. You need to go back to the promises made to Abraham and to his Seed, which is Christ. In Him the promises were fulfilled.
The word “promise” here is key. It is used 8 times in the last verses of this chapter. In the promises God is saying, “I will do this. I will do this. I will do this.” But the law of Moses says, “you shall do this, you shall do this, you shall do this.”
In this way Jesus is the fulfillment of the promise, and the law, because he did it. A promise is to be believed, the law is to be obeyed. A promise is God’s plan, God’s grace, Gods initiative. The law is man’s duty, man’s works, man’s responsibility. Paul uses the word promise instead of covenant probably because covenant had a loaded meaning in that time – of promise and obligation. Sometimes we think this way too. Partly because we quickly misunderstand the idea of promise and obligation. Paul warns us to make sure we see the promise as having a higher priority than the law. Be careful not to hold up the law on too high a pedestal – it is neither the rubric not the centerpiece of Gods ordering of this world. It has a side role, a temporary role. Don’t think: God does this, and we do this, and then we are good. God does it all, and we are part of his work. What was promised could never ever be won through obedience or the law.
As we read in verse 18, “For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.” It is one or the other – if it comes by the law it cannot come through the promise. The inheritance was the land in the Old Testament which points to the new creation in the New Testament, of which Christ is the first fruits. There are no human criteria that can make you enjoy the new creation. Only faith in Christ. That is why Paul says at the end of this letter that neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, what matters is a new creation.” That new creation is found in Christ.
The law says you can earn God’s favor. But a promise cannot be earned. The only way to receive a promise is to trust it. If someone promises me a million-dollar home in Beverly Hills, there is nothing that I can do to fulfill that promise, I can only chose to believe it or not. I might try to secure my own housing in case my wealthy friend does not come through, but I cannot fulfill his promise to me. So it is with Gods promises – only God can fulfill them. And we can choose to believe him or not. We might even try to build up a pathetic earthly kingdom in case God does not come through. But we can’t make God give it to us. We must accept it by faith.
Here is a very practical point we often forget: God deals with us according to the promises, not our works. Salvation does not rest in the law which we break, it rests in the promises which God cannot break. His promises cannot be taken back. They stand forever. Salvation is not a commercial transaction, it’s not some deal you make with God – it is a promise God makes with you.
What good is the law?
Paul goes on to ask a very logical question, that by this time in the letter I think everyone is asking, “What, then, was the purpose of the law?” If everything God has to offer comes by the promise, why the law? If it’s all through the promise of Abraham why did God even bother with the law, why did he give us the ten commandments and many another rules and regulations? Well, Paul continues in verse 19, “It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.”
It was added because of transgression. What in the world does that mean? The law was added so that God might prove to us that we are transgressors. The word that is used here means the breaking of a specific command.
There are two ways kids get in trouble. At a very young age they get into trouble because of what they don’t know. When my child was young, she did not know that water is not supposed to be poured all over a cell phone, but I still said, “no, that is not allowed.” But as she gets older and older, she begins to get in trouble for what she does know. We have given her a rule and she still breaks it. Both of them are sins, but for Paul the second one is a transgression. It is disobedience, because of what you do know.
Now for Paul – there was no “transgression” from Adam to Moses, because there was no specific law, it was the so-called infant/toddler stage of God’s people. When they received the law of Moses, they transgressed because of what they did know. It increased their guilt. The law exposes our sin for what it is. The law does not make sin better, it makes sin worse because we disobey express commands. Romans 3:20, “For by the works of the law no one will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Luther said this, “the chief and proper use of the law is to reveal to man his sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate and contempt for God, death, hell, judgement and the well-deserved wrath of God.”
And you know what? This is a good thing. Yes, I said good thing – because it’s like the on ramp to get on the gospel highway. With that mirror of the law we see how much we need Jesus. The law shows us the need for the promise. But the law was never meant to enable us to live in a righteous relationship with our Creator. In fact, the law was distanced from God because it was given by angels to a mediator, Moses. There were a whole bunch of degrees of separation between God giving the law. And no separation between God giving the promise.
As we read in the end of verse 19 and 20, “The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. A mediator, however does not represent one party, but God is one.” The promise came directly from God, but not the law. Stephen says in acts 7:53, “the law was “delivered by angels.” And also Hebrews 2:2 says the “message was declared by angels.” The Jews were proud of this fact, but Paul says this just shows the law is inferior to the promise. The promise was made by God himself on the basis of his own eternal will. The law came through Moses the mediator, the promise came straight out of heaven from God. The law required a mediator because sinners cannot come to God. But through the promise God came to man. The law was mediated.
So the law was added not to bring us closer to God, but to show us how far away from God we were. The law was there to show us the deep chasm – the canyon – that was there between us and God. A canyon so wide and so great that there was no way we could ever possibly bridge it. The law showed us that we were goners, that there really was no hope for us. We were under the just and righteous wrath of God. That is what the law did. The law is the reason for the gospel.
Paul asks the next logical question then concerning the law in verse 21, “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God?” At this point it seems like a very reasonable question, which is why his answer is somewhat of a surprise, “Absolutely not!” NO way! AS he explains further, “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” You see, if there was a law that we could obey perfectly then we would be righteous because of the law, and then we would have life. If the law could impart life there would be no need for the promise. The Jews thought the law did give life. An ancient Jewish book said exactly this – “lots of Torah lots of life.” Or “if he has gotten the teachings of Torah, he has gotten himself life eternal.”
But we are all disobedient – we are all under the death sentence, under the law. And death is one of those things that no one wants.
The problem was never with the law, though – it’s us. It’s not life giving because of us, but it is sin increasing because of us. We sin – the law just makes it worse – but in a way also pushes us to find healing. It is kind of like Chemotherapy. When chemotherapy is used it does not give life, it actually destroys healthy tissue as well as cancer. During the treatment patients start to feel worse. But it is necessary for the patient’s long- term health. Similarly, the law is the treatment that makes us feel worse so that we can find healing in Christ.
So, that law can’t give life, it does not come straight from God, and it had a temporary role in redemptive history. So what does it do? verse 22, “As the scripture declares that the whole world was a prisoner to sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to all those who believe.” The whole world was prisoner to sin - there is no one righteous no not one, they have all gone astray. There is no one righteous no, not one. The law cannot make us right with God, but it can drive us to faith, which does justify. By making the declaration that no one is righteous, that we are all prisoners of sin, the law performs a valuable service to all of humanity! It screams out, “WE NEED A SAVIOR”!!! We are stuck! We are in prison! We need someone that stands in the gap and stops our execution.
This is why through the law we were held prisoner to sin, “so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.” It made human sin clear and undeniable as it exposed it as transgression; in this way it drove, and prodded people, across the redemptive-historical time line, to Jesus Christ.
Paul concludes with two illustrations that show how the law leads to Christ. Verse 23, “Before Faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.” I don’t know if you have ever been to a high security prison. You go there when you have a life sentence. The law is like a high security prison that condemns us to a life sentence. This prison is also a protective thing - both for our own good, and for the good of others.
So the law was standing guard, watching and checking every attempt to escape. The law posted the commandments, like so many guards around the prisoner’s cell. And although they try again and again to escape, the iron circle will not yield. But the day of faith approaches – even now the light shines into his dungeon, and he hears the words of Jesus, “your sins are forgiven, go in peace,” There is a Man that breaks the power of the law – the power to condemn – because He was condemned for you. You hear the words and you walk free, with no life sentence over you.
Paul uses another illustration in verse 24-25, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” The law was kind of like a person that raised the child, and disciplined him. He told the children what to do, and would punish them if they didn’t do it. The children did not always like the law, just like teenagers don’t like a chaperone on the first date. But the law was preparing Gods children for maturity. And like any guardian, the law worked itself out of a job. When the child comes to age it no longer needs supervision.
So we see that the law has its function not just in the history of salvation, but also on a personal level. The law is still important because it points out our sin. Without the law we would be moralists, thinking that we could do it, or relativists, thinking that God does not care about sin.
As one commentator says, “Relativists are usually irreligious, or else prefer what is called “liberal” religion. On the surface, they are happier and more tolerant than moralist/religious people. Though they may be highly idealistic in terms of human society, they believe that everyone needs to determine what is right and wrong for themselves. They are not convinced that God is just and must punish sinners. They may talk a great deal about God’s love, but since they do not think of themselves as sinners, God’s love for us costs him nothing. But the law shows His love would cost a great deal. The concept of God’s love in the gospel is far richer and deeper and electrifying, than relativists thing.”
But the gospels all stand against moralism: the view that you are acceptable through your attainments. Moralists are often very religious. When they are, their religion is pretty conservative and filled with rules. Rather than the love-God of relativists, moralists have views of God as being very holy and just. This view will lead either to a) self-hatred (because you can’t live up to the standards), or b) self-inflation (because you think you have lived up to the standards). It is ironic to realize that inferiority and superiority complexes have the very same root. But the depressed moralist doesn’t understand the gospel, and the inflated moralist doesn’t understand the depth of the law.
You see how the gospel keeps us away from moralism, and from relativism. God’s justice and love are united at the cross. And keeping our eyes there will keep us away from the moralistic cliff, and the relativistic swamp. So let the law do its work, and make you look to Christ. As one commentator says, “Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit our need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will we ever believe in Jesus. Not until the law has humbled us even to hell will we turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven.” What a wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?! Thanks be to Jesus Christ!