The proper function of the law. 3:19-25


In our passage for study, Paul sets out to explain the divine purpose of the Old Testament law. In arguing for the priority of faith against those believers who saw law-obedience as a necessary requirement for the blessing of new life in Christ, Paul points out that the Mosaic law was given as a temporary measure to address Israel's rebellion against God; it was given "to condemn, enclose and punish", Timothy George.

The passage

v19a. Given that obedience to the law does not secure for us God's promised blessings, what purpose then does it serve?

v19b-20a. Paul now sets out to answer this question. First, he explains that the law is inferior to grace:

[i] The law was given in order to expose the true nature of Israel's sin and hold the covenant community to the consequences of that sin. The law was given because of Israel's transgressions.

[ii] The Mosaic law was given to deal with a specific situation, namely, a temporary interim dispensation from the time of its giving at Mount Sinai until the coming of the messiah, Jesus Christ.

[iii] The law was given, not directly by God, but by His angels through Moses, and therefore it cannot carry the same weight as a direct promise from God.

v20b-22. Given that God is one it could be argued that the law was designed by God to facilitate his promise of new life, a kind of supplement to the Abrahamic covenant. Paul shows that this can't be the case because the function of the law is quite separate from the promise, separate from grace. The Mosaic law was not given to "impart life", it was not given to facilitate the promised blessings to Abraham, now realized in Christ. If that were the case, then it would be possible to stand approved before God by law obedience, but as Paul's readers know well, that's impossible. The whole world is bound by sin and there is just no way that the law can do anything about it. The simple fact is that God's promised blessing, the fullness of new life in Christ, is ours on the basis of what Christ has done for us, appropriated through faith, and not on anything that we might do.

v23. In the final three verses Paul summarizes his argument. Prior to Christ's coming, the people of Israel were in a state of confinement under the Mosaic law, bound by sin and under the curse of the law (divine judgment). This confinement lasted until the coming of the messiah, Christ, and the escape offered through his faithful obedience.

v24. God did not give the law to facilitate the promised blessings to Abraham, rather, the function of the law was to hold Israel to its state of sin "until Christ came", NRSV.

v25. With the coming of the seed of Abraham, Christ, God's covenant community is no longer held prisoner to the Mosaic law, with its attached curse, constantly holding Israel to account and denying its possession of the Abrahamic promise. So, the temporary servitude of the law has ended.

The function of the law

The human problem, as it was for Israel, is sinfulness. Sin cast us from the Garden of Eden and undermined any hope of sharing in God's blessings. When the law was given to the people of Israel, its prime function was to evoke the curse and so condemn them. Like a strict governess the law exposed the failings of God's historic people, held the people to their sin, and in so doing forced them to rely on God's mercy as they awaited the coming day when God's messiah would set all things right. In the coming of Christ, this temporary role for the law has ceased.

The problem we now face as believers, is how we are to handle the law in our day-to-day living for Christ. The Christian church has always oscillated between two extremes - no law and all law.

Marcian, an early Christian heretic, taught that Christ was the end of the law and that therefore, the law was no longer applicable in the Christian life. Martin Luther tended toward the same position. This view is held by many today. For example Harvey, a prominent theologian, states "by Christ the law was discredited". This antinomianism promotes the idea that the law has no place in the Christian life.

The other extreme centers on another early Christian heretic, Pelagius. Pelagianism promotes the idea that righteousness can be obtained by meritorious works. Although most believers affirm that eternal life comes only through the merit of Christ, there is always the tendency to see good works as deserving of merit, of keeping us in with God so that we can access the fullness of his blessings.

Setting aside the extremes of Marcian and Pelagius, we need to recognize that the law still has a place in the Christian life. First, like an old memory, it serves to remind us of what we once were, bound under sin, but now set free by God's grace in Christ. Second, the law also serves as a guide to the Christian life, it points the way to Christ-likeness, which likeness we begin to realize through the indwelling power of the Spirit of Christ.


1. In what sense are we no longer under the supervision of the law?

2. The "true effect of law is to nail man to his sin. As the prison holds the prisoner, so man is shut up by the Law under sin. Rightly understood then, the Law prevents any attempt on man's part to secure righteousness before God in any other way than that promised to Abraham", A. Schlatter. Explain this function of the law.

3. "A good deed is never lost; he who sows courtesy reaps friendship, and he who plants kindness gathers love", St. Basil. Comment on this saying in light of Christ's guiding rule, "love one another." Explain this function of the law.

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