Limitations of the Law

What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. – Galatians 3:19-22

In the context of Galatians chapter three Paul made four distinct observations about the Law:

1) The Law could not give the Holy Spirit, 3:1-5
2) The Law could not give righteousness, 3:6-9
3) The Law could not justify; it could only condemn, 3:10-12
4) The Law could not change the fact that righteousness always comes by faith in God’s promises, 3:15-18

If the Law of Moses was so impotent, does it have any purpose? Is the Law so limited that it is contrary to the very promises of God? These are the questions Paul brings up and then answers concerning the Law of Moses.

First Question

Paul’s first question is: “What purpose then does the law serve?” (3:19a). Since salvation has always come via faith, how can one find a valuable aim or goal which the Law served? It may have seemed that the connection of faith between Abraham and belief in Christ was of such that there was no room for the Law of Moses to serve in God’s scheme of redemption.

Limitations of the Law of Moses

  • The Law Given to Spotlight Man’s Sinfulness

Although the Law had its limitations, Paul notes it did serve three valuable aims. First, “it was added because of transgressions” The term “transgressions” carries the idea of one who moves off of the designated path. Deviating from God’s will has always been man’s mistake. Even at Mount Sinai God set up boundaries around the Mountain. Those who transgressed, either man or animal, would pay with their lives.

For man to understand the sinfulness of sin God gave the Israelites the Law of Moses. Paul wrote to the Romans, “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, “You shall not covet’” (Rom. 7:7).

Understanding sin and that all men are sinners points all to the necessity to experience the Grace of God. Again, this is where the Law assists sinners. “Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more” (Rom. 5:20). Punishment restrains man from committing sin. The Law was filled with examples of such punishment to warn others not to sin (1 Cor. 10:1-11). So, the Law showed men what sin was, that they were sinners, and dependent upon God for salvation from sin.

  • The Law was Temporary

Next, Paul points out that the Law was not God’s permanent solution or answer to sin. It was only to continue “till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made” (3:19c). The term “till” indicates the Law was but an impermanent step in God’s overall plan. The Seed promise came first in Genesis 3:15 and later in chapter twelve. Next, came the Law of Moses. The Seed was, of course, Jesus. This promise was not fulfilled until He came, lived, died, and arose.

Could we cut the law out of our Bibles and be just as well off? Jesus said, “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill” (Matt. 5:17).

  • The Law Came Through Mediators

The third goal of the Law was to bring us to the coming of the one and only Mediator between God and man. “Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one” (3:20).

Ridderbos declared that “There are four hundred and thirty interpretations of Galatians 3:20.” E. Huxtable, The Pulpit Commentary (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1950, Vol. 20, p. 139).

But before we explore which one of these is correct, first we need to understand what is a mediator? A mediator is one who stands between two individuals who are at odds and reconciles them. Mediators act to assist communication, resolve a dispute and encourage both parties to accept the term of an agreement. There are always at least two parties in a mediation and in the case of Christ, just one Mediator.

When it came to the Law, angels played a role (Acts 7:38; Heb. 2:2-3) and so did Moses (Ex. 20;19,21). The Law did not come directly through God to man. The Law worked only so far as both sides of the covenant were kept. God kept His promises. The Israelites failed to keep the part of the arrangement called The Law of Moses.

Under the New Covenant or Testament, Christ is the only mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5). Christ is One with God. God can mediate an agreement between man and Himself.

Second Question:

One of Paul’s methods of argumentation was to raise the questions that his opponents would likely raise in objection and then answer them. Paul raises a second question about the Law. “Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not!” (Gal. 3:21a) He then answers his own rhetorical question: No! The very idea is unthinkable.

More Limitations of the Law of Moses

  • The Law was Never Designed to Give Spiritual Life

Paul lists two more limitations of the Law of Moses. The fourth limitation: “For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law” (3:21b) The Law was given to be kept and promises of God enjoyed. “You shall walk in all the ways which the Lord your God has commanded you, that you may live and that it may be well with you, and that you may prolong your days in the land which you shall possess” (Deut. 5:33). The Law was not defective, but man was disobedient to the Law. Since they sinned, they needed forgiveness through obedient belief in Christ. “For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes” (Rom. 10:3-4).

  • The Law Kept Man Imprisoned Under Sin

The final limitation of the Law of Moses is: “but the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (2:22). The meaning of “scripture” is the “Law of Moses”. “All” refers to mankind, all of whom have sinned (Rom. 3:23). The term “confined” means to be locked up in a prison, secured on all sides, and in every way. So as to eliminate the possibility of escape. Under the Law all were sinners and all were on death row with no hope of pardon through the Law of Moses. The Law showed the helplessness of sinners without a Savior.

Being on Death Row had its benefits. It included many promises of hope through the coming Messiah who would procure their pardon. The promise was the seed promise to Abraham to bless every nation. The means of obtaining a pardon was through faith in Jesus Christ.

Although the Law of Moses may have had its limitations these negatives prove in the end to have very positive outcomes. The Law of Moses is shown to be indispensable to God’s Scheme of Redemption. But it is not able to dispense redemption apart from Christ.

The Gospel is a pardon for all who will believe in Christ and obey His Will. Do not delay. Be released today.

– Daniel R. Vess

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