Download Audio


Galatians 3:21-25

May 9, 1999

Text Comments

We said, last week, in regard to vv. 15-20, that Paul is making an argument in two parts to the effect that the law does not supersede or set aside the promise of justification by faith. First, the law came later and in its manner of revelation was indicated to be secondary, subsidiary to the promise that God had made to Abraham. But, in the second place, the function of the law was to serve the interests of the promise, to bring people to faith in the promise of God and to faith in Christ the Son of God. The law is the gospel’s servant. This is the case he is now to make in vv. 21-25.

v.21     He has said things, as we noticed last week, that seemed to disparage the law, that might have left people with the idea that Paul thought the law a bad thing, an inferior thing, a thing that played no vital role in the salvation of sinners. But, he anticipates that possible misunderstanding of his views and goes on to show that the law plays a vital role in the gospel’s work of salvation by grace. If the promise is God’s promise, the law is God’s law.

            He has already made the hypothetical point that if it were possible for righteousness before God to be gained by obedience to the law, there would have been no need for Christ and the cross (2:21). Now he makes the same point still more boldly. If it had been possible for men to be justified by the works of the law, that would have been the way chosen. But he is speaking only hypothetically. As Paul says in Romans 8:2-3, “what the law could not do, God did…” The law (and Paul is always meaning by “the law” our obedience to the law, or keeping of the law) cannot make a man spiritually alive, it cannot regenerate him, it cannot erase the record of his past, full of sin as it is.

v.22     On the contrary, the law, while it cannot impart life, can and does serve the life-giving gospel and God’s grace by showing men the bankruptcy of every human effort to save oneself and by shutting men and women up to the grace of God and the sacrifice of Christ as their only hope. This is another way of saying what Paul says in Romans 3:21: “through the law comes the knowledge of sin.” That is, sin that we cannot get rid of by ourselves, sin we cannot escape, sin that produces a guilt that renders us liable to God’s holy judgment.

v.24     Note first that comparing v. 23 with v. 22, “a prisoner of sin” is the same thing as a “prisoner of the law.” That is the sense of the terms. We are prisoners because we are shut up by the law to our helplessness to put ourselves right with God on account of our sin. The law proves this to us and won’t let us escape into fancies of justifying ourselves by our works.

            But now, here is the great question: by “before this faith came” does Paul mean “before Christ came”, i.e. “before a distinctively Christian faith came” (that is, before the Christian dispensation began, before Pentecost, before the beginning of the new epoch introduced by Christ and his apostles)? Or, does he mean, rather, “before you people in Galatia believed in Christ”? Is the contrast between two epochs in the history of salvation succeeding one another in time (what people think of as the OT and the NT, the age of law and the messianic age), or, rather, between two spiritual states, unbelief and faith, in whatever epoch.

            Many people have supposed that Paul is talking about the change of epochs and the new situation introduced by Christ and the apostles because 1) he has already said of the law that it was given “until the seed should come” in v. 19 and 2) he speaks here of faith “in Jesus Christ” which would, so they think, have been impossible for OT believers, for people who lived before the incarnation. [We spoke last week of the phrase “until the seed should come” and its use in Paul’s argument.]

            But, there are a good many reasons for rejecting that view and for holding that Paul is talking and must be talking about the before and after of personal faith, not the before and after of OT and NT as ages in the history of salvation.

            First, the situation Paul describes here — being shut up as a prisoner of the law and of sin — has nothing to do — in Paul’s teaching or in the Bible’s as a whole — with the OT epoch per se. He has already made a great point in his argument so far that justification by faith alone was the Bible’s doctrine from the beginning and that the saints of the former time were justified by their faith. He makes this point at still greater length in Romans 1-5. The OT believer wasn’t in bondage to sin or to the law any more than the NT believer is. What is more, someone living in this age is just as much in bondage to sin and the law if he or she still does not believe in Jesus and still has not been justified.

            And the proof of that, very simply, is that Paul is writing largely to Gentiles, not Jews. He is describing their deliverance from this bondage to their freedom in Christ from sin and from the law. But these were not Jews who were subject to the Mosaic law — and that was their supposed bondage. These were Gentiles and this was perhaps twenty years beyond the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This point is going to be confirmed in vv. 26-27. The point at which these people were delivered from bondage into freedom was not when Jesus Christ appeared in the world, but when they believed in Christ and were baptized.

            Second, the function of the law that is being discussed in these verses is that of shutting men up to the hopelessness of trusting in one’s own obedience for his justification before God. Paul has said this with the images of locks and chains and prisoners. And he has also said it with the word that the NIV renders “put in charge to lead us” in v. 24. All of those words translate a single noun “pedagogue.” Now we use the word “pedagogue” as a fancy name for educator. But in Paul’s day a pedagogue was something else.

            A pedagogue was “the personal slave-attendant who accompanied the free-born boy wherever he went, from the time he left his nurse’s care. It was his duty to teach the boy good manners (with the use of the birch, if necessary), take him to school…, wait for him there…, then take him home and test his memory by making him recite the lesson he had learned.” [Bruce, ad loc] In classical literature, we find the pedagogue a man who was often severe and usually unpopular. The basic idea of Paul’s metaphor, as the rest of the material suggests, is that of subjection, just as the earlier image of a prison warden in vv. 22-23.

            But this means, of course, that Paul is definitely not talking about such changes as we might say occurred when Christ and his apostles introduced the new epoch. The law still holds sinners under bondage with a view to their believing in Christ. It certainly did so in the case of these Galatian Gentiles. It did so, as Paul argues at length, in the case of the Christians (mostly Gentiles) in Rome. You cannot make this difference that Paul is speaking about here — which is a difference between bondage and freedom, guilt and peace with God, enemies of God and sons of God, a difference between the OT and the NT. Indeed, in Romans 11:32 Paul says that the very same effect of the law is continuing today, still today it holds men in bondage to sin so that God may show them mercy.

            Let me quote the summary of a German scholar [Gutbrod, TDNT, iv, 1074-1075]:

            As a prison holds the prisoner, as a [pedagogue] keeps “the boy under his authority, so man is shut up by the Law under sin. This is according to the verdict of Scripture, which means according to the will of God, Gal. 3:22ff. Rightly understood, then, the Law prevents any attempt on man’s part to secure righteousness before God in any other way than by faith in Jesus Christ and by the pardoning grace of God, i.e., in any other way than that promised to Abraham.

            “The Law and Christ do not succeed one another in temporal history or even religious history. The transition takes place in salvation history. Only for him who in faith appropriates the righteousness of God in Christ is [their freedom from imprisonment to the law]…”

            This is what Luther said, long before. “The clause ‘before faith came’ is to be understood not only of the faith which was revealed after Christ but of all faith of all the righteous. For the same faith also came long ago to the fathers, because the Law of God, when first revealed to them, also compelled them to seek grace.” [LW 27, 277]

            Third, “Before faith came…” in v. 23 is parallel to “when the commandment came” in Romans 7:9. There Paul is saying that he was happy in his self-confidence until “the commandment came” — that is, until the commandment came home to his heart and he realized the full extent of his sin — then he died, he says; died to any hope of self-justification. Now he says that when “faith came” he found his freedom from that bondage. When the commandment came the bondage was felt in his conscience; when faith came he found deliverance. In each case he is talking about things that happened in his own personal history, not about events that followed one another in the history of the unfolding of God’s plan of salvation in the world. Paul is speaking subjectively, not objectively.

            It is also worth pointing out once more in this connection that Paul never says that only NT believers believe in Jesus Christ, as if the OT believer believed in God in general. Paul seems always to assume where he does not explicitly say that faith was the same then as now and had the same object then as now. It was the gospel that was believed by believers in the OT, they were summoned to faith in Christ as we are. They may have not known him by his name, Jesus, but it was the same Son of God and Savior that they trusted for their peace with God and hope of eternal life.

            The problem with a view of 3:23-24 that takes Paul to mean that one thing was true of even believing Jews before the incarnation and another is true of people since is that Paul never teaches that view or gives evidence that he believed it, not here and not anywhere else in his letters either. There are reasons for the tenacity of this view of Paul’s words, but they are not [the] rooted in the simple meaning of his argument here in Galatians.

v.25     No longer prisoners, but freemen, through faith in Christ. Paul’s “we” clearly includes both himself and his Gentile converts in Galatia as the following verses demonstrate. If the law brings us into subjection so as to lead us to faith in Christ, then our coming to faith in Christ has brought an end to our subjection to the law, especially as threatening us with God’s wrath.

Now, we have before us the spiritual reality of the law of God bringing conviction of sin and that conviction of sin bringing, finally, faith in Christ as alone able to lift our guilt off our shoulders. This is one of the law’s functions — to bring conviction of sin and guilt and so open one’s eyes to his need of Christ — and it is absolutely necessary. But, in this role, Paul is arguing, obviously the law is the servant of the gospel not its substitute.

I have often repeated to you Thomas Erskine’s little verse:

            When once the fiery law of God

            Has chas’d us to the gospel road,

            Then back unto the holy law,

            Most kindly gospel grace will draw.

Well, here Paul is talking about the first two lines: “When once the fiery law of God has chased us to the gospel road…” Another of Erskine’s verses reads:

            A rigid master was the law,

            Demanding brick, denying straw,

            But when with gospel-tongue it sings,

            It bids me fly, and gives me wings.

Paul is here speaking of the law as the rigid master, demanding brick but denying straw.

Looked at in another way, we have the splendid lines of the hymnwriter, Joseph Hart: “What comfort can a Savior bring, to those who never felt their woe.” Paul is talking about the law as bringing woe, the knowledge of our guilt and of our just deserts at God’s hands, sinners that we are.

Now there are two dangers, illustrated fulsomely in the history of Christian thought, preaching, and living, in connection with this ministry of the law to awaken sin and produce a conviction that only Christ can make a sinner right with God.

First, there is a danger of making too much of this ministry. This has happened in the past and has produced controversies of various kinds that would be too confusing to mention. But, very broadly, the error consists in thinking that, given what Paul says here, every Christian must have an experience like this one, like Paul himself had. It is a natural mistake. You can easily see why it might be made. How can someone really come to Christ who isn’t convinced of his own sin? How can you be convinced unless the law of God, with its high and holy requirements, makes its way powerfully into your conscience and shows you and makes you feel just how completely, constantly, and comprehensively you have failed to do the will of God? Why would you ever fly to Christ for salvation unless and until you saw yourself and felt yourself damned?

As Dr. Packer summarizes this teaching and the principle behind it, it is not difficult to see its logic.

            “All the Puritans agreed that the way by which God brings sinners to faith is through a ‘preparatory work’, longer or shorter, of contrition and humbling for sin. This is not repentance (actual turning from sin, which follows faith), but the soil out of which, upon their believing, repentance will spring. The reason why they held this preparatory work to be necessary…is simply because fallen man is naturally in love with sin, and it is a psychological impossibility for him to close whole-heartedly with Christ as a Savior from sin until he has come to hate sin and long to be delivered from it.” [Quest for Godliness, 172]

            “To their minds, it would be the worst advice possible to tell a troubled person to stop worrying about his sins and trust Christ at once when that person had not yet faced the specifics of his or her sinfulness, and has not yet come to the point of clear-headedly desiring to leave all sinful ways behind and be made holy. To give this advice, they held, before the heart is weaned from sin would be the way to induce false peace and false hopes, and so to produce ‘gospel-hypocrites’, which is the last thing that a Christian counselor should be willing to do.” [298]

And so it is thought, if this is true, you must have a time when you are alive apart from the law, and then a time when the commandment comes and you die. You must feel the immensity of your guilt that has been exposed by God’s law, now a living force in your conscience, and realize that you are hopeless to escape God’s wrath and judgment. You are, as Paul puts it, a prisoner of the law, awaiting execution. Only then will you betake yourself to Christ for salvation.

Now it is undoubtedly true that many more people and ministers especially have given the impression that that is what they think than actually believed that, but it has been a problem, a misunderstanding nevertheless.

Such a view requires, for example, that children raised in Christian homes should have the same experience of a law-induced and pre-conversion conviction of sin and sense of bondage to sin and guilt as anyone else and the same experience of deliverance from that bondage.

Richard Baxter, who had devout parents who raised him in the faith, went through a great deal of fear and distress when he was a teenager because, as closely as he examined himself and his spiritual history, he couldn’t find that distinct process of conviction, bondage, and then deliverance that the celebrated Puritans Thomas Hooker and John Rogers had described in their books. Hooker’s book was even entitled, The Soul’s Preparation for Christ (1632). In some of these books, these men placed such an emphasis on the importance of a thorough work of the law before faith that they persuaded people to wait to put their faith in Christ lest they do it before the law had well and truly laid that foundation. [In Packer, Quest for Godliness, 172] But that mistakes what Paul is saying here. He is not here talking about how everyone becomes a Christian, but about what purpose the law serves in salvation. He is not speaking about an experience, but about objective reality. The experience may differ from person to person, and does, but all are shut up by the law for the sake of faith. Some know of it afterward and some before, but it is the truth about everyone who is saved. [The case of covenant infants dying in infancy would be a still more obvious instance of someone who did not ever have the experience of conviction leading to conversion, but who was saved by Christ nonetheless.]

Only later did Baxter realize that God does not take the same way with everyone. And perhaps especially he does not usually take the same way with Christian children that he takes with elect folk that he calls from out of the world. Conviction of sin and a sense of bondage to it comes very often in the case of covenant children after not before they are justified! They have the same conviction, the law proves the same point to them, it shuts them to no possible hope of heaven but the righteousness of Christ, but it does so after they are already Christ’s children and already have faith in him. It helps them to understand their faith and to be sure of their faith and their need for that faith in Christ.

I do not mean to say that he doesn’t take this very way of an experience of a law-induced conviction of sin, guilt, and hopelessness leading to faith in Christ. He does and has done with multitudes of people through the ages, with many of you. The paradigm conversions of Christian history often followed this pattern closely: Augustine, Luther, Bunyan, the Wesleys and Whitefield, Spurgeon, and many others (Packer and Colson among our contemporaries). These men passed by turns through periods of self-confidence, growing conviction of sin and despair of salvation, and then the sight of Christ and peace with God. And multitudes of lesser men and women have had similar experiences.

Remember, Paul is speaking to a group of people, all of whom are converts from the world. Even their experiences, no doubt, were different from one another. Some more powerful and lengthy experiences of conviction of sin and guilt, others less powerful and shorter. What he is telling them is that the law is the servant of salvation and serves to reveal and explain and prove our need of Christ the Savior. It is not the way of salvation itself.

The second error in regard to this teaching is to minimize it or virtually ignore it altogether. And this has often been done and is being done today very widely. It is done wherever the church and its ministry have lost touch with the Bible’s emphasis on human sin and guilt or its emphasis on Christ as a deliverer from sin and guilt. It does this characteristically in self-satisfied and proud ages, such as ours.

I came across the results of a survey sponsored by Lutheran Brotherhood, a fraternal insurance organization, a survey of 2,200 Lutherans. Remember, Lutherans are the folk who, supposedly, were given with their mother’s milk the conviction that law leads to faith and that justification is by faith alone. These views regarding law and gospel and justification sola fide are supposed to be the defining characteristics of Lutheran piety. But, in this survey, 48% of Lutherans ‘agree’ or ‘probably agree’ that ‘people can only be justified before God by loving others,’ and 60% agree that ‘the main emphasis of the gospel is God’s rules for right living.’ [FT (May 1999) 86] I’m sure a survey of other Protestant denominations would yield similar results.

Well, what is that but evidence that the law has not yet brought these many folk into its prison house, has not yet held them prisoners, locked up until faith should be revealed.

In liberal circles, perhaps, the doctrines of sin, guilt, and judgment are no longer taught because they are no longer believed. But even in evangelical circles, the ministry of the law to bring conviction and a sense of need for Christ has been restrained, done away with almost altogether in preaching, for fear that people won’t stand for it in our day, that it won’t be effective, that it isn’t relevant to people today, who are much more concerned about their problems in this world than their sins against God and the threat of his wrath in the next world.

And so the theory has been that preaching should begin with what are called peoples’ felt needs and go from there. Whether such preaching ever gets to sin and guilt is another question. But Christ clearly is being presented to people today primarily as something other than our deliverer from guilt and divine wrath.

But this mistakes the teaching of the Bible from start to finish. As J.S. Stewart, the Scottish preacher of the last generation put it, “the kingdom of heaven is not for the well-meaning; it is for the desperate…” [The Strong Name, 151]. If you come to Christ for something other than what he has come to give you — forgiveness of sins, peace with God, and the hope of everlasting life — chances steeply rise that you are coming to a different Christ with a different faith than what the Bible describes.

Far-seeing men saw this coming in our day long before it had reached the stage it has now reached. Here is J. Gresham Machen writing in the early 1920s [Christianity and Liberalism]:

            “The fundamental fault of the modern church is that it is busily engaged in an absolutely impossible task calling the righteous to repentance. Modern preachers are trying to bring men into the church without requiring them to relinquish their pride; they are trying to help men avoid the conviction of sin. … But it is entirely futile. Even our Lord did not call the righteous to repentance, and probably we shall be no more successful than He.”

And, then, C.S. Lewis in the late 1930s [Mere Christianity, 39]:

            “The Christian religion…does not begin in comfort; it begins in…dismay…. In religion, as in war and everything else, comfort is the one thing you cannot get by looking for it. If you look for truth, you may find comfort in the end; if you look for comfort you will not get either comfort or truth — only soft soap and wishful thinking to begin with and, in the end, despair.”

When Paul sets out to explain the gospel of Jesus Christ in his letter to the Romans, he begins with three chapters on the universality of human sin, guilt, and hopelessness in the face of the judgment of God. You can’t get to peace and freedom any other way than through the valley of sin and the conviction of sin. That is what Paul is saying here. And no faith is true Christian faith that is not trust in Christ to deliver us from our guilt, our liability to God’s holy wrath, the just judgment of our many sins — the sins we know and feel the evil of because God’s law has showed them to us and rubbed our noses in them.