What is the purpose of the law according to Galatians 3?
(This post is part of a series)
The immediate question in Galatians 3:17 is that of the status of the Sinai covenant. Paul’s opponents seem to have been arguing that the Gentiles could only be blessed if they joined the covenant people and submitted to the covenantal obligations. After all, this seemed to be the path to blessing for Ishmael, the slave-child (Gen 17:20–27). They seem to be reasoning that if God chose to enter into a covenant with his people at Sinai, then the obligations that constituted that covenant had to be kept by anyone who wished to receive the blessing. Paul, however, argues that insisting upon such covenantal obligations would, in fact, invalidate the earlier covenant with Abraham (which has been fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice) and so make the promise to Abraham void (Gal 3:17–18). Once the “seed” has displayed supreme loyalty and is sacrificed, God keeps his promise and the blessings flow to the nations. What, then, was the purpose of the legal obligations laid upon Israel at Sinai? The answer, “because of transgressions”, is, as we shall see, part of Paul’s integration of the law into the wider scheme of God’s salvation-historical plans (Gal 3:19–25).
We have seen that Paul mentions the existence of a mediator in order to highlight the disunity between God and Israel at the time of the giving of the law (Gal 3:20).
Nevertheless, the Sinai covenant was not useless. It “was added on account of the transgressions until such time as the seed to whom it was promised should come” (Gal 3:19). In the purposes of God, this disunity between the people and God had an ultimately positive effect—to imprison everything under sin so that it would be clear that justification would be by faith, not by works (Gal 3:22–25). The law’s purpose was not opposed to the promise (Gal 3:21). It formalised and focused the curse on humanity (3:10), it highlighted sin, it made the distance between God and his people obvious, and it pointed to the inevitability of faith (3:19–24). But that purpose was limited to Israel’s national life, and it has been achieved. Now that Christ, the seed, has come and has fulfilled the covenant (and taken the curse), the “many nations” are not required to be a party to these (temporary) covenantal obligations. They are simply required to be immersed into the “one” seed, Christ, to be found “in Christ” by faith (3:26–27). However, by becoming “in Christ” by faith, they actually become the one “seed”, and so heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:28–29). This is “the blessing of Abraham coming about in Christ Jesus for the sake of the nations.” (Gal 3:14). In fact, if the Galatians do place themselves under the law, they are in grave danger because they are identifying themselves with the one part of salvation history that was associated unequivocally with the curse (Gal 3:10).
The covenants with both Abraham and Israel, then, were instruments of international blessing. Abraham’s covenantal obedience foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice, and the covenant of law with Israel foreshadows the need for faith. The nations are blessed, not by entering Israel’s covenant with its obligations, but by trusting the seed who has fulfilled the covenant, and so becoming sons and heirs of God.