Why Can’t I Obey the Rules?
Why did God give us the Law?–part 1 Galatians 3:19-22
Is it impossible to obey God’s Law? If you were super disciplined and committed, aren’t you able to at least obey the Ten Commandments? How difficult is it to keep yourself from murdering, committing adultery or bearing false witness? As you evaluate your own life, have you murdered, been unfaithful in marriage, or perjured yourself in court? Chances are, most of you look pretty good compared to others—until . . . until what? Until you consider what Jesus required.
Holiness means you are to obey His commands perfectly and not merely externally, but also internally. The Lord Jesus makes this really clear in the Sermon on the Mount. Read what He says in Matthew 5:21-22,27-28, “You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘You shall not commit murder’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court; and whoever says to his brother, ‘You good-for-nothing,’ shall be guilty before the supreme court; and whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. . . 27You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery’; 28but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
Jesus says obeying the Law is more than outward conformity, but the Law demands absolute purity of thoughts, even total purity of motives. When you look over the Ten Commandments with Christ’s eyes, it takes on a whole new meaning, doesn’t it? Using Jesus’ explanation of keeping the commandments, how many do you think you’ve kept–all of them? Most of them? None of them? Be honest.
You’ve broken every one of them–we’ve not kept one of them perfectly. No one here is without idols. We’ve all put people, possessions, and priorities ahead of the Lord in our lives. All of us have lied. Out of discontentment, we’ve all wanted something someone else has. And those are just the sins we can remember. Imagine all the times we sin in thought and deed we’re not even aware of. Chuck Swindoll suggests, at this point you might expect me to walk through the big ten and grade yourself on your performance. Rate yourself–how well are you doing at keeping the then? But friends, that is the farthest thought from my mind.
Instead, today I want you treat the Law with the respect it deserves–as a standard written to show us how far we all fall short, in order to admit your guilt, to embrace God’s condemnation for your disobedience, to realize you have defied God and sinned against Him. You and I need to come clean–we can’t keep the Law for even a day. But praise God, someone kept the Law for us. Jesus Christ knew no sin, did no sin, could not sin and had no sin. His every thought, motive and action complied with God’s Law. He always honored His earthly parents. He never put anything ahead of His heavenly Father. He never lied. Jesus Christ earned for us the righteous life sin keeps us from attaining.
Clothed in His perfection, we appear as perfect Law-keepers before the Great Judge. When God looks at us, He sees the flawless obedience of His Son and fully accepts it. This is the sweetness of the Gospel message. Christ took the punishment for our sin upon Himself. Then when we surrender in faith to Him He covers us with His perfect righteousness. And here’s the capper, you would never know your need of salvation unless you saw the awfulness of your sinfulness. And you can never see your sin nor the extent of your sinful actions, thinking, or desires, or your corrupt sinful nature, without the Law.
As Paul wraps up his teaching in chapter 3 this week and next, Paul explains the purpose of the Law. Why does Paul talk about the Law? To again, address another objection of the Judaizers, who are trying to corrupt the Gospel in the Galatian churches. Salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. But the Judaizers would say you need to add the Law, circumcision and Jewish tradition in order to be saved.
One of the arguments of the Judaizers would be as follows–“Paul, your teaching fuses Abraham and Christ so closely, that you squeeze out Moses and the Law! In that case, it makes the Law pointless, like a confusing intrusion. Surely God wasn’t just wasting His time by giving us the Law, was He? Why then the Law?”
Verses 19 to 29 answer this question, which we will study this week and next. Having shown the superiority of the promise to Abraham in providing salvation in verses 15 to 18, Paul now describes the inferiority of the Law, and its purpose in verses 19 to 29. And though its purpose is inferior to God’s salvation promise, you and I still need God’s moral Law in our lives. The Law reflects God’s character and show us what God wants. Under grace, we don’t follow the Law because we have to–but now as born again believers, we seek to obey God, even empowered to obey God’s Law because we want to.
Read aloud with me verses 19 to 22 for this week. “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. 20Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one.
21Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. 22But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
We need these verses, because some of us are 1) trying to please God by being a rule-follower, or 2) we do what is right because we are guilt-driven. A few of us are 3) Law-followers, but not born again–we’re just external in our faith. Others think 4) living good means being saved. Could you be one of those? We know we are saved by grace, so then why do we obey God’s Word? As we sin, we are not certain what it means that all our sins are forgiven. So . . .
You and I need to understand the purpose of the Law–what is it? Answer—God’s Law reveals our greatest need, our need of Christ, our need of salvation. If salvation has always been by faith and never by works, and if the covenant of promise to Abraham was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, then what purpose did the Law have? Look at six reasons, six points that come out of this text.
#1 The LAW was given to EXPOSE sin Verse 19a
“Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions,” (verse 19). RC Sproul asks, “Weren’t there always transgressions? Of course, there were, but the apostle is saying that it is not that the law of Moses replaces the promise to Abraham, but that it quickens the promise to Abraham.” As the descendants of Abraham (Isaac, Jacob and the sons of Jacob) increased in number, they decreased in their consciences and excused repeated and horrible sin. They deceived themselves into thinking they didn’t need a Redeemer who would justify them by faith. So God gave them the Law through Moses as a huge wake-up call to expose their need for a Savior.
So Paul states, the Law “was added because of transgressions”–transgressions means stepping over the boundary. The Law exposes your violation of God’s character. The Law brings to light your inability to please God and your desperate need for God’s mercy and grace. The Law reveals your utter sinfulness, your inability to save yourself, and your desperate need of a Savior. It was never intended to be the way of salvation, but to drive you to see your need for salvation–your need for a Deliverer.
When the Law was given to Moses, its purpose was both practical and theological. Practically, Israel was a nation of slaves, and the Law created order out of chaos. The Law was added to provide regulations for the new nation of Israel after their departure from Egypt, to keep them from spiraling into total apostasy. Theologically, the Law provided God’s people with a clear expression of His righteous character, exposing the Israelites’ own sinfulness and driving them to trust in the mercy and grace of God.
Get this–the Law not only reveals the perfect character of God, but it also reveals the imperfect character of Mueller. Sometimes the Law restrains sin, but this is not why God gave Moses the Law with all its regulations. He did not give it to decrease transgression, but actually to increase it. Verse 19, “The Law was added because of transgressions.” The Law exposes sin for what it really is–namely, a violation of God’s holy standard. That is what transgression means–the crossing of a legal boundary, or the breaking of a specific law.
Plus, have you noticed that the law has a way of making people want to break it? Paul explained this effect of the Law to the Romans in Romans 7:7b, “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’ “ Romans 5:20, “The Law came in so that the transgression would increase; but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”
Sometimes the Law serves as a stimulus to sin, and each of you knows this is true. Will you confess to seeing the sign, “Don’t do this”, and it made you want to do it? “Do not enter”–and you have to break in. “Do not trespass”, and you want to see what’s there. My favorite was a Christian camp–I dubbed it the “No Camp”. They had signs everywhere telling you what not to do. My favorite was the sign on the fence surrounding the pool during the winter that said, “Do not throw rocks in the pool.” And what filled the floor of the pool in the winter? Rocks–the sign was like an invitation to jr high and high schoolers.
Yet this is a good thing. When the Scripture says in verse 19 that the Law was “added”, it literally means that the Law came in by a side road. The Law feeds into the promise–the Law is the onramp to the Gospel highway. The more we know the Law, the more we see our sin. And the more we see our sin, the more we confess our need of a Savior. Calvin wrote, “The law was given in order to make transgressions obvious, and in this way to compel men to acknowledge their guilt.” And it is only when we see our guilt that we see how much we need Jesus. The Law was given so we’d run to Christ.
The Law was never meant to provide a way of salvation, but to reveal our need for salvation. And though important, the Law is not as crucial as the promise of salvation by grace. Paul goes on to say in verse 19 that the Law has limits–it required mediators. Verse 19, “Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator.” Remember, Paul is destroying the arguments of the Judaizers, who are teaching that even though God gave His salvation through faith promise to Abraham, it was overshadowed by the Law of Moses, which is now necessary to follow in order to be saved.
So Paul reminds the Galatians, that God gave the Law through two sets of mediators–first through angels, and then by angels to Moses, then to the people of Israel. Deuteronomy 33, Hebrews 2, and even Acts 7 through Stephen declares that the Law was “delivered by angels” (Acts 7:53). Paul mentions God giving the Law through angels here, because it was probably a main point of the Judaizers, giving extra credibility to their errant salvation-by-Law teaching.
Back then, like today, angels are trendy. Angels have their own books, calendars, movies, and television programs. There are even angels in the outfield. But real angels have no interest in being worshiped themselves. They are totally absorbed with God, and all they want is for us to join them in adoring our Lord. Paul’s point is this–Abraham’s promise of salvation by grace through faith was direct, unequivocal, and immediate.
When God spoke to Abraham and promised Him salvation, Abraham believed God and was justified. That’s the message of salvation in the Old Testament and New Testament. There was no mediator with salvation by grace. Salvation came directly from God. But the Law required angels and Moses as mediators, making it indirect. The promise of salvation came unmediated, straight from God to Abraham. However, the Law required a mediator because sinners cannot come directly into God’s presence.
Paul is not disparaging or rejecting the Law–the Law is heavenly in its origin, therefore it is holy and good. Rather, Paul is putting the Law in its proper place in the outworking of God’s plan. Paul was warning the Galatian believers not to exalt Moses or angels over God Himself like the Judaizers were doing.
Paul finishes verse 19c also affirming that the Law is temporary. Read the end of verse 19, “until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made.” The promise of salvation by faith was so precious to the heart of God that He gave it to Abraham in person. That is the way God desires to come to every person who turns to His Son as Lord and Savior–in person. Salvation is personal between you and the Lord Jesus, who is the verse 19, }”seed”, the offspring, the relative of Abraham. Christ is the seed of Abraham who was to come, and to whom the promise had been made.
And Paul is saying that the Law was temporary until the Savior would come, unlike the promise of salvation through belief which came directly to Abraham. But the Law was delivered by angels to Moses, which made the Law secondary and indirect. And the Law eventually was overshadowed by the promise in the person of Christ, making the Law merely a revealer of sin, but never the Savior from sin.
#2 The LAW is CONDITIONAL but salvation is unconditional Verse 20
“Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one” (verse 20). The Greek text of verse 20 is very difficult to interpret; but Paul seems to be pointing out that a mediator (literally, one who stands between two parties) is needed only when more than one party is involved. God gave the covenant directly to Abraham without a mediator, because He was the only one involved in making the covenant. Remember the animals cut in half, Abraham asleep, and God alone? Abraham was a witness to the covenant and a beneficiary of the promise, but he was not a party to it. Abraham had no part in establishing or keeping the covenant. That responsibility was God’s alone–God who is one made the one promise of salvation to Abraham.
So Paul is highlighting the conditional nature of the Mosaic Law (evidenced by the use of a mediator between two parties), versus the unconditional nature of the Abrahamic covenant (evidenced by the fact that God alone cut the covenant with Abraham). In any case, Paul is once again emphasizing the priority of -the promise over the Law. The promise was unilateral and unconditional. The Law was bilateral and conditional. Why, then, would anybody try to trade in the superior and eternal for the inferior and temporary? Paul states clearly . . .
#3 The LAW is not AGAINST salvation Verse 21a
Here’s the big assumed question of this section–Did God change his mind in the middle of redemptive history? And instead of redeeming His people solely on the basis of trust and faith in His promise, like Paul teaches, radically change directions and base redemption now upon obedience to the Law, like the Judaizers teach? The Law and the Gospel are profoundly different, but they are not opposing.
Read verse 21, “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be!” Paul is anticipating his readers’ response, so Paul asks rhetorically, “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God?” The preposition “contrary to” is better rendered against (KJV) or opposed to (NIV). Paul is clearly stating that God is not against the Law–no, God has a purpose for the Law. So the opposition might ask, isn’t that purpose for the Law somehow at odds with God’s promise of salvation?
Paul shocks his readers with a hot answer. Paul uses the strongest Greek negative, “May it never be!” to disdain the idea that the Law and the promise of salvation are opposing purposes. Since God gave them both and does not work against Himself; both Law and promise work in harmony. Verse 21b, God’s Law reveals our greatest need.
#4 The LAW cannot GIVE salvation or make anyone righteous Verse 21b,c
“Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law” (verse 21). This is exactly what the Judaizers had been telling the Galatians–they would say that the way to get a righteous life was by keeping the Law. They would affirm these popular sayings from the Mishnah–“Lots of Torah, lots of life”, “If he has gotten teachings of Torah, he has gotten himself life eternal.”
The reason the Law was not at odds with the promise is, it had a totally different purpose. Unlike the promise, verse 21, the law could not give life. If it could have done so, then the promise of salvation would have been unnecessary. The problem with the Law is, we break it every day. This is why performance-based Christianity is so deadly to Christians, and salvation by human achievement is heresy. Therefore, as Paul has been repeatedly stating, no one can be justified by works of the Law. The Law can prove we are sinners, but it cannot make us right with God. The Law is not life-giving. The Law is not, verse 19, “able to impart life.” No, the Law is transgression-increasing, and therefore death-producing.
As Paul confided in Romans 7:9 to 11, “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me.”
The Law is something like chemotherapy. When chemotherapy is used to treat cancer, it does not give life. Actually, it is an instrument of death. The chemicals that are poured into the body destroy healthy tissue as well as cancer cells. During the course of treatment, chemotherapy actually makes the patient feel much worse. But it is all necessary for the patient’s long-term health. In much the same way, the Law makes us worse, so that Christ can make us better. God’s Law reveals our greatest need.
Which is why Paul adds in verse 21, “Then righteousness would indeed have been based on law.” If the Law could save you, then gaining a right standing before God would have come by the Law–but the Law can’t save you. Living good can’t save you. Keeping religious rules can’t save you. Therefore, you’ll not get a righteous standing before God through the Law. The Law is what shows us we do not just “fall short” of God’s will, requiring some extra effort to do better–but we are completely under sin’s power, requiring a rescue.
The Law does have the power to show us we are not righteous–but the Law can’t give us the power to become righteous. In fact, as we see God’s standards, try to keep them, then fail to keep them, the Law shows us we do not have that power. You need to be made righteous/perfect to be right with God. Try to be perfect or believe in Christ, and He will make you perfect/righteous.
So Paul has shown us the purpose of the Law in God’s plan, but the Judaizers still objected, accusing the apostle of teaching that the Law was, in fact evil, in that it contradicted the good promise of salvation to Abraham from God. But Paul again affirms that the Law did its best work convincing people that they were fully and completely disqualified to spend eternity with God. God’s Law reveals our greatest need.
#5 The LAW REVEALS the sinfulness of a person Verse 22a
So far, the apostle has said more about what the Law cannot do than what it can. It cannot give life–all it can do is reveal sin. It does not come straight from God–it was mediated by angels. And it will not last forever–it lasted only until the coming of Christ. Yet even in its apparent failure, the Law was doing God’s work. It was not merely temporary–it was also preparatory. It was leading the way for something else in verse 22–look there. “But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (verse 22).
By “the Scripture”, Paul means especially the Law. So now Paul expands this key purpose–yes the Law is to reveal sin, and in fact to increase it. But why? So that the whole world becomes imprisoned by it—“shut up under sin.” This is true for the Jews, who have the Law of Moses. But also for the Gentiles, who have God’s law written on their hearts, Romans 2:14 to 15. So now the entire world is under the Law, convicted of sin and captive to its guilt.
Ecclesiastes 7:20, “There is not a righteous man on earth who continually does good and who never sins.” Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” Paul portrays all mankind “shut up” under sin, meaning hopelessly trapped in sin, like a school of fish caught in a net. The Greek verb “shut up” means confined or to enclose on all sides. All people are sinners is the clear teaching of Scripture–all are trapped in sin and saturated in sin.
The Law performs a valuable public service to humanity, and proves that it still has a valuable place in the plan of salvation. The Law is powerless to make anyone right with God. The Law cannot justify–the Law can only condemn. The Law cannot make us righteous–the Law can only lock us up in the prison of sin. But by showing that the Law cannot save, the Law helps us look for a Savior. And when the world starts looking for a way out of sin, it discovers that God’s mercy found in Christ is the only escape.
Martin Luther explained it like this—”The Law with its function does contribute to justification—not because it justifies, but because it impels one to the promise of grace and makes it sweet and desirable. Therefore we do not abolish the Law; but we show its true function and use, namely, that it is a most useful servant impelling us to Christ …; for its function and use is not only to disclose the sin and wrath of God but also to drive us to Christ.… Therefore the principal purpose of the Law in theology is to make men not better but worse; that is, it shows them their sin, so that by the recognition of sin they may be humbled, frightened, and worn down, and so may long for grace and for the Blessed Offspring.”
You know John 16:8, “And He, [the Holy Spirit] when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment.” Your unsaved family, friends, officemates, co-workers, classroom crew, neighbors all intrinsically know they’re sinful–they must be made righteous, and judgment is coming. No sin they commit will be forgotten and they will answer to God for their entire life. The Law only makes that knowledge clearer and more pointed, driving some to Christ.
#6 The LAW DRIVES a sinner to receive salvation by faith Verse 22b
The Law itself cannot justify, but what it can do is drive us to faith, which does justify. The ultimate purpose of shutting up men under sin and death was verse 22. “But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” The Law shows us our sin, but the Gospel shows us the way to escape from sin’s penalty and take hold of abundant life now and eternal life forever.
In that sense, the Law and the Gospel are complementary, like the two hands of God–grabbing our shoulders, and turning our attention, our focus, our hearts toward Christ. As John Stott wrote, “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.”
Law and Gospel are not two ways of salvation, but the two means God uses to point us to the one way of salvation–verse 22, “so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
A Are you one of the ALMOST saved?
The human heart is hard to figure out, especially our own. Knowing you’re saved can get confusing. Faith without works is dead, but salvation is not by works. You are saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone. But we also know in every church there are truly saved wheat and phony tares. Those whose are genuinely hot saved, and those who are lukewarm unsaved. Some who have done great works for Christ, yet will hear, “Depart from me, I never knew you.”
We know the doctrine of eternal security can’t be broken–once saved, always saved. But assurance of salvation is direction–are you following Christ, obeying his Word? Many testimonies repeat a common theme—”I hoped I was saved, but now I know I am.” Many church attenders are Christ-professors who mend their ways and do religious duties to clean up their lives. They make tearful surrenders to God at church services. They give their lives to Jesus and ask Him into their hearts. But so often, they were really only resolving to live good and be very religious, hoping that this would gain the favor and blessing of God.
At this stage, they tend to have a lot of emotional ups and downs, feeling good when they make a spiritual commitment, and despondent when they fail to keep a promise to God. They often live in fear. So here is the test–is Christ in you, and does He show through you (2 Corinthians 13:5)? Do you have a relationship with Christ (John 17:3)? Even on your darkest day, do you still want to obey Him (Romans 6:17)? Though it’s never enough, are you willing to do anything for Him (Luke 14)? Though we falter often, do you desire Christ would be your first love (Revelation 2) above anyone and anything?
If not, today, right now, cry out for salvation–ask for repentance and faith, plead for a new nature, a new inner person that is born again.
B Have you embraced both LAW and grace?
Law and grace work together in true salvation. Many people want a sense of joy and acceptance, but they will not admit the seriousness of their sin. They’ll not listen to the Law’s searching and painful analysis of their lives and hearts. But unless you see how helpless and profoundly sinful you are, the message of salvation will not be exhilarating and liberating. Unless you know how big our debt of sin is, you cannot have any idea of how great Christ’s payment was. If you think you are not that bad, the idea of grace will never change you.
The Law shows you who you really are, what you really are–the Law is a mirror that allows for no make-up, tummy tighteners or fantasy hopes or dream bodies. The Law is an accurate mirror showing you to be a vile sinner with a nature that loves to sin. It reveals that you can never rise above the Law or escape its judgment. The Law shows you that you must eternally suffer for your sins.
But the purpose of the Law is also to turn you, and point you to the only way of escape. The Law points you to see Christ as He really is–our Savior, the One who obeyed the Law on our behalf, and then died in our place so that you might receive the promised blessing. The Law allows us to love Jesus, and enables us to show our love in grateful obedience to Him. For when we are transformed, now the Law, that which is found repeated in the New Testament, the royal law, the law of love is what we pursue–not because we have to, but because we want to. We love the Law because it is the will of the one we love more than life. We love obedience, because we seek to please the one who sacrificed everything. We love following Christ by keeping His Word, because we know it’s the place of blessing.
Search your heart today and ask, “Lord, is there anything I am doing or saying, or not doing, which does not please you?” And ask Him to empower you to obey Him. Let’s pray.