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Galatians 3:15-29: The Law, in Canonical Context

15 Brothers and sisters, 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. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 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. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

19 Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

23 Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. 24 So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (NIV)

It's been a long time since I've written one of these posts, but we've come to a spot where I think it's critical to do a canonical reading of the text. Particularly from verses 17-20, one could get the impression that Paul had a negative view of the law. From passages like this some Christians also get the idea that the law has no function anymore in the life of the believer. De facto they say that it was the word of God to a people of a past age but it is no longer.

Besides the fact that I think that those stances go far beyond what Paul actually says (see my earlier post on this passage), there are other good reasons to reject that view. First, we should notice the high degree of intertextuality in Galatians 3:7-4:7. Paul constructs his entire argument on the Torah, especially on Abraham. Galatians 3:20 is particularly helpful in that Paul cites a portion of the Mosaic law approvingly.

The second problem for this view is the rest of the NT. Probably the most obvious spot to go to would be Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount in Mt. 5:17-20. There Jesus gives the law the strongest affirmation that he possibly could. It is eternal and its commands are not to be set aside. So if Jesus and Paul aren't in disagreement, how do we merge their views together.

It's helpful to recall what Paul is trying to do here. His argument is very specific; namely the Law is no longer the boundary marker defining who are 'in' the people of God. The Spirit is now the guide that keeps our behavior within the boundaries fitting for God's people. The law, though, can still have a positive function (and occasionally does for Paul - in addition to Gal. 3:17 also see e.g., Eph. 6:1-3). The Spirit can work through the law in our hearts, but it will be through the law understood as a picture of how God wanted people to live at a particular point in salvation history, a period we no longer are in. It's not a neat process. There's a lot of cultural translation required. However, we do need to have our imaginations inspired by the vision that God had for his people Israel (Christopher J.H. Wright's book Old Testament Ethics for the People of God is indispensable). Thus, there isn't really a disagreement between Jesus and Paul on the law here. In Galatians 3 Paul is simply clarifying that the role doesn't have a constitutive role for the people of God (later Paul will state that the Spirit and the 'law of Christ' are the wellspring of Christian ethics which is in no way inconsistent with what is stated above, but we will look at that when we get to the relevant places in our study of Galatians).


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