3:19 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. 3:20 Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. 3:21 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. 3:22 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. 3:23 But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. 3:24 Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith. 3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
“The Seed … to whom the promise had been made” is Christ, for in 3:16 it says that “the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed … that is, Christ” (3:16). People can also become “heirs according to promise”, but only if they “belong to Christ” (3:29).
The Law is not “contrary to the promises of God” (3:21) because the Law and the promises have different functions:
The Law “was added because of transgressions” (3:19), which implies that the purpose of the Law is to protect against sin. This is confirmed a few verses later, where it reads, “We (Jews) were kept in custody under the law” (3:23), and “the law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ” (3:24). The Greek word that is translated “tutor” refers to somebody that takes children to school. The NIV translates it as a “guardian”. The law acted as guardian to the Jews. The Ten Commandments should therefore not be seen as prohibitions, but as mercy; as a wall of protection against sin, which is a destroyer.
3:21 confirms that the purpose of the Law is not to “impart life”, which is equivalent to grant “righteousness”, which is another way of saying that the Law does not “justify”. Since this is the answer to the question whether “the Law (is) then contrary to the promises” (3:21), 3:21 thereby implies that the purpose of the promises is to “impart life” (to justify). The promise is to be “heir of the world” (Romans 4:13), which is a promise of “eternal life” (Romans 6:23).
“We” (3:23, 25) in this letter refers to Jews; they were the people that were “kept in custody under the law” (3:23).
In 3:19-25 Paul continues to argue that man is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus. His argument is now as follows:
“Scripture has shut up everyone under sin” (3:22), which means that all people have sinned. Therefore the law is not “able to impart life” (not able to grant “righteousness”) (3:21). Therefore (note the words “so that” in 3:22) the promise (to impart life) is “given to those who believe” (3:22).
Thus far in this chapter Paul has provided many arguments to support his claim in 2:16 that man is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus. Some of the arguments supported the notion that man is not justified by the works of the Law. Other arguments supported the statement that man is justified through faith in Christ Jesus. But in the current verses he adds a new line of argument, not previously mentioned in this chapter, namely that Christians are not subject to the Law of Moses:
He wrote that the Law was “added” (to the promises – 3:18), but only “until the seed (Christ) would come” (3:19, 16). The law served as a “tutor … to Christ” (3:23-24), “but now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor” (3:25).
This idea, that the Law of Moses is no longer relevant, is also contained in certain statements in chapter 2, namely:
- Paul indicated that he “died to the Law” (2:19; Romans 7:6).
- Both the reference to Christ as “a minister of sin” (2:17) and the reference to something which Paul “destroyed” (2:18) are interpreted above as referring to the fact that Gentile Christians do not have to obey the Law of Moses.
Christians may generally agree with most of the arguments above, but the conclusion that the Law of Moses is no longer relevant, is disputed by many. There are Christians today that argue that we must adhere to the laws given by Moses, or at least to the moral aspects of that law. They might quote Romans 3:31 and other verses, such in Romans 7, where Paul, for instance, wrote that “I myself with my mind am serving the law of God” (Romans 7:25). They consequently might interpret Gal. 3:19-25 as warning against a wrong use of the Law. But as shown above, 3:19-25 rather clearly states that the Law, as given to Moses, has expired. This includes circumcision and even the Ten Commandments.
Also consider about the wider context. Paul is arguing against the circumcision of the Gentiles and against compelling Gentiles to live like Jews. This also confirms that the Law of Moses has been set aside. Someone may argue that Paul set aside the ceremonial laws, but Paul himself does not make that distinction. The entire Law was “added … until the seed (Christ) would come” (3:19).
To Christians that want to retain the Law of Moses I would like to say that Paul taught that Christians are subject to the “law of God”, but not in the form given to Moses. Rather, Christians are subject to the “law of Christ”:
Paul said of himself that he was “not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ” (1Cor 9:20-21).
He also wrote: “Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).
A reading of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-) would show that Christ did not interpret the Law given to Moses; Christ actually replaced it with His own laws, for instance:
“You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ … “But I say to you that … whoever says, ‘You fool,’ shall be guilty enough to go into the fiery hell. (Mat 5:21-22)
Note that Christ here replaces one of the Ten Commandments with His own version of that commandment. In this way Christ replaced the entire Law of Moses with the fundamental principles that existed ever since creation, of which the laws given to Moses were adaptations suitable for the specific time and place and people.
Therefore, one cannot justify the Sabbath (either Sunday or Saturday) simply on the basis of the laws given to Moses. One has to find the Sabbath in Christ’s teachings. He said more about the Sabbath than about any of the other nine commandments. He probably even said more about the Sabbath than about the other nine commandments combined. If we want to retain the Sabbath, we will have t retain it on the basis of Christ’s teachings, and, perhaps even more important, in the format presented by Christ.
For a more complete discussion, see the separate page on the Law in Galatians.