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How does "The Law" fit in to Christianity?

I've been back in Galatians again, dwelling on the joys of being a Christian ahead of a couple of Christian Union weekends that I'm speaking at next month. As some context for preaching on Sonship a bit of background is needed to answer the idea that Christian life happens through keeping the law. By "The Law" I mean the Biblical law that God gave to Moses via angels 430 years after Abraham.

Galatians 3:14-26 shows us how the Father made a promise to Christ directly, how promises cannot be modified once they've been made, and therefore whatever else the law was for it wasn't to change the promise. In fact it was a temporary measure to imprison (guard/protect/preserve) Israel until Christ, after which it remains useful and sweet-tasting and beautiful Scripture that testifies all about Jesus, but once he has come Jews need not be enslaved to law nor Gentiles enslaved to sin - for they can by faith be Sons in Christ, as is unpacked in 3:27-4:7.

Adjusted diagram with a bit more detail...


  1. Good diagram. Could be improved with "Promise to Abraham and Christ" and a text box explaining how the fire icon fits in.

    Another paragraph explaining that the Law doesn't imprison Gentiles until they come to Christ would help too (sin does that).

  2. Yeah - I did have Abraham and Christ in the box, a space saving move which I'm prepared to reconsider!

    I'm hoping the subsequent teaching on the Spirit will explain the reference to the fire icon. I think I might attach it to the side of the cross to show that faith in the cross and receiving the Spirit go together.

  3. Imprison?

    Ah, Marcus already asked about that.

    The law actually also brought freedom, to those who understood it rightly though, didn't it?

    Law was:
    Protection of God's people
    Description of God's character
    Communication of God's reality
    Prophecy about God's future rescue

  4. Yeah does those things - but in Galatians 3 it imprisons (twice) and guardian. Not every passage says everything...

    And like I say it "remains useful and sweet-tasting and beautiful Scripture that testifies all about Jesus"

  5. Slightly off the normal track I know but below is the link to an article that I highly highly recommend offering a new + more coherent reading on Galatians than is usually offered.

  6. Thanks Kip. Helpful stuff - and I think getting to part of what I'm doing. It is still an answer to legalism though - for the same (and bigger reasons... right?)

  7. Well what do you make of this comment from the article

    "As far as I can tell, much of modern, orthodox Protestantism sees Galatians as an argument against “legalism.” Legalism is the idea that one can earn or merit salvation from God either in part or in whole... I believe this view of the topic as well as of Paul’s arguments is incorrect, and this paper is designed to contrast this misunderstanding with what I believe is a proper understanding of Galatians. Along these lines, I believe Paul’s letter can be summarized as follows. The topic of Galatians is not the mechanics of how an individual is saved from his sins. Rather, it is the Messiah’s fulfillment and transformation of the old covenants. Paul’s Jewish Christian opponents were teaching that the Advent of the Messiah did not significantly alter the form of the covenants. Thus, gentiles who wanted to be in a saving, covenantal relationship to God still needed to do what the Jews had always needed to do: get circumcised and follow the Mosaic Law. This was not a call to legalism, but it was a call to be faithful to the old covenants as if those covenants had not been affected by Jesus’ Advent. Paul responded by showing that Jesus had in fact fulfilled the promise to Abraham so that the old order was transformed. Jesus is the true heir to the Abrahamic covenant and because of His fulfillment and transformation of the old covenants, people acquire a saving, covenantal relationship with God through the Messiah apart from the old covenants. Thus, the theological categories of “Jew” and “Greek” no longer exist. Jesus fulfilled the old covenant promises and He thereby transformed the old order into a new creation -- a new covenant where all of God’s people have equal status and standing before God.

  8. I agree there is strong drive in Galatians against return to the OT law, which has done it's job. I guess the question is - how that same sort of approach would apply now...

    I guess it's in part a Reformed approach to the law that re-imposes at least some parts of the OT law despite it having been fulfilled?

    It seems that the issue of legalism is also very similar. I suppose the argument would be that instead of seeing it as a treatment to legalism we should, and also with Hebrews, recognise that no-one in 1st Century Christianity would have ever thought you could add to salvation... no question of being able to contribute anything at all, which only serves to expose our legalistic tendancies as all the more absurd.

    Given, however, what Galatians says about the Galatians fleshly living (whether pagan sin or religion) as being equivilant to returning to 'BC' living under law - it seems that it is a good antidote to any effort-based self-based approach to Christianity, by contrast to the Spirit/faith approach of the gospel.

    So - to read it against legalism is probably not great Biblical Theology, but I'd think it probably is still a legitimate route for some application, though it ought to be taken via the right Biblical Theology approach first to help us know what Christianity actually is.

  9. Dave,

    Your last paragraph is key especially the line that to read it [Galatians] against legalism is probably not great Biblical theology. I think this is where I am although I agree with you that Galatians may well have implications that touch on the issue of Legalism.


  10. Hi Bish,

    I must admit I'm not sure what you mean by 're-imposes' in your decription of a Reformed approach to the law. Re-imposes for meriting salvation? Requires in separation from the work of the Spirit? Imposes without consideration of Christ and his work? Or is your objection to the law having any role in instructing the Christian in his/ her living?

    No doubt I've missed many of the options, and probably the one you're getting at.


  11. Pete - re-imposes for salvation raises the question of whether it ever was for that - I guess the issue I'm seeing is about re-imposing by saying people should do what it says - like getting circumcised, or keeping food laws and days, for example.

    Kip - want to keep good biblical theology controls and to let that drive application.

  12. Hey there Kip, good to hear from you. I'm glad to hear "Galatians may well have implications that touch on the issue of Legalism." Made me chuckle!


  13. "I guess the issue I'm seeing is about re-imposing by saying people should do what it says - like getting circumcised, or keeping food laws and days"

    I'd be interested in hearing about the Reformed writers who re-impose the law in order to support circumcision or the keeping of the food laws.

  14. ...or indeed other aspects of it. Sure we shouldn't murder (for example) but is that really because God said it to Israel after he brought them up out of Egypt or is there a better reason, one that doesn't require a return to the time before Christ had come?

    Reformed writers might not have suggested circumcision but they do seem to say other parts of the law, and certainly that was happening in Antioch and Galatia.

  15. Your complaint seems to be that some Reformed writers don't use 'biblical theology enough' but in the absence of something more specific than that it's difficult to see what you mean, or indeed view the examples you gave as anything other than strawmen (because I doubt if anyone was actually suggesting circumcision, the food laws etc. the arguments for sabbatarianism are generally being founded on the biblical theological reading of Genesis 1-2)

    "Sure we shouldn't murder (for example) but is that really because God said it to Israel after he brought them up out of Egypt or is there a better reason, one that doesn't require a return to the time before Christ had come?"

    There are biblical theological ways of looking at the 'time before Christ had come' that would view the law as, in part, setting forth God's perfect will which is ultimately fulfilled in Christ.

    So I'm not sure what you are arguing for or against.

  16. I guess my beef might not so much be with these unnamed Reformed writers, but with what I find when talking with the Christian in the pew who invariably seems to think that the way to live the Christian life is to obey the law - and they might not quite know what that means, but at the very least they think it means keeping the 10 commandments, and living with inconsistencies when they find other Laws that seem strange to them.

  17. I'd typed a comment yesterday saying a bunch of stuff, but couldn't get it to publish unfortunately. In the meantime Chris e, you said most of the things I was trying to say.

    The reformed 3rd use is emphatically not works-salvation. The guys who came up with it were reformation guys - it might just be that they understood what salvation by grace alone does and does not entail a little more carefully than we generally do.

    And, since it is not works-salvation, nor is it separating God's commands to us from his work in us by the Spirit, nor simply lifting things out of Moses wholesale without reference to the contours of salvation history, I think it is difficult to make the 'galatian heresy' mud stick to it. One can disagree with some of the specific applications of parts of the law of Moses, and maybe on the basis of Galatians, but then the reformed haven't exactly been all the same on the details either - the issue of the sabbath being a perfect example.

  18. "I guess my beef might not so much be with these unnamed Reformed writers"

    Well, they were referred to by you :) If they are now a red herring that's fine.

    "but with what I find when talking with the Christian in the pew who invariably seems to think that the way to live the Christian life is to obey the law"

    This seems more prevalent in movements with pietistic or holiness roots, and it seems to me it is avoided by distinguishing between the various purposes of the Law (and the Reformed/Lutheran three uses are a very good way of understanding these) and by a very firm grip on the concept of "simul justus et peccator". Otherwise it becomes very difficult to differentiate between the law preached as judgement and the law as rule of love, or the third use and works righteousness.

    There is a lot of good, and very little of what you criticise here:

  19. Surely the law is all about the gospel?

    After all, both the priesthood and the monarchy were all about Christ coming in the flesh as God's unique priest-king. The cleanliness rituals and marriage/inheritance laws were there to keep Israel separate from the nations so that the seed could be preserved, leading up to Christ.

    Since Christ has come, the law's reign is over; its purpose was to prepare for Jesus. However, since the law has always proclaimed the gospel (just like the Prophets, the Writings and the New Testament!) then it is still useful for the Christian. The gospel is our pattern for holiness, proclaimed in all the scriptures: the "law of Christ" is simply the outworking of the heart of the gospel in the believer's life (eg. Luke 10:25-37).

    Sorry, that was a bit long-winded!

  20. Yeah - I very much want to say the law is about the gospel, but it also seems to be misused so make people miserable today... and not just the law, but other stuff too that seems to make stuffy, duty-driven Christianity pass as acceptable maturity in some circles (no straw-men, I meet people like that), and surely it doesn't have to be that way.

    In any case this very long thread all seems to have flowed out of my attempt to summarise a passage in Galatians 3 with a diagram (and a bit of commentary), and I guess I'd love to take the conversation back onto that passage if possible.....

  21. Dave, I completely understand your concern. Though I rarely encounter this attitude myself, given the (predominantly) non-reformed circles I tend to hang out in! It sounds to me like some people need to hear the good news again :(

    Well, Galatians 3 it is then! It's interesting how Paul refers to the coming of Christ as the coming of "faith" (v23). So for Paul, justification by faith means justification by Christ, because Christ fulfils the law through his active obedience, bearing its curse for us. (v13) Woohooo!

  22. I guess I'm crossing between reformed and less-reformed circles all the time - though plenty of the 'reformed' people I know have plenty of joy, yet some don't. And yeah, they need to hear the good news again, as I do too!

    The faith / Christ connection in Galatians is great isn't it!

  23. A righteousness apart from Law is now made known to which the Law and Prophets testify.

    They tell us about it, they don't provide it. Not even the moral Law provides it. Christ provides it.

    The mistake Dave eludes to, and I meet all the time, is when people think that somehow Christ provides this righteousness through our obedience to the moral Law (otherwise they don't know how to handle Law passages in the Old Testament, except to apply them directly to Christians).

    And therefore they miss that it is all by Christ's righteousness and live either with a constant feeling of failure and no assurance, or with a pharisaical attention to minute detail to try to be good enough for God. (Actually I meet far more failure-types than Pharisee-types, though I know some of them too).

    I think Dave's argument boils down to this: God doesn't accept us on the basis of our obedience but of Christ's. (Which is not to say that obedience is irrelevant - of course not! Just that it isn't the basis on which we are accepted). But some Christians are indeed taught (either implicitly or explicitly) and believe that their acceptance depends on their obedience, on the basis of Old Covenant logic that doesn't include Christ. That is very close to Galatia and it is spiritually crippling

  24. "I think Dave's argument boils down to this: God doesn't accept us on the basis of our obedience but of Christ's"

    I don't see this in the original post at all. If you hadn't pointed out that it was about double imputation then I would never have known.

    Under his completely sufficient imputed righteousness.

  25. Chris - I think that is the point in the comments, as for the original post the comments tangented a bit... the post was simply an offer of a diagram to summarise the content of Galatians 3:15-26, as context for Galatians 3:27-4:7 which the post wasn't really about.


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