“Why then the law?”
In Galatians 3:19, Paul poses that question, and in the rest of the chapter, he sets out to explain the purpose of the law. To answer his own question he says that the law came to increase sin (v. 19; cf. Rom 5:20; 7:7ff) and to imprison all mankind under sin (v. 22). Why would God do that? Why would God do something that would increase law-breaking in the world? If God knew that adding law to the world would increase sin, why wouldn’t he do something else to help rehabilitate his people?
Because God is not in the business of rehabilitation! His aim is to destroy the works of the devil, defeat death, and render powerless the curse of the law. So…
God sent the law to enfeeble and imprison all mankind–Jews and Gentiles–in order to that all who are held captive by the law would feel the effects of its shackles, so that the sinners woudl be spurred to long for the gospel of grace. In God’s wisdom and according to God’s word, it appears that God instituted his law to crush us in our self-confidence, to reveal our wickedness, and magnify our unworthiness, so that in the end, you and I would look away from ourselves, disgusted by our sin, and to gaze upon Christ, the only one who can free us from the law, sin, and death.
Like chemotherapy, God’s law does not make us better; it makes us worse, so that our lives might be spared as we turn to the Great Physician.
Hear Martin Luther’s stunning commentary on how the law tills the soil of our heart, preparing the way for justification, but not accomplishing justification itself:
The Law with its function does contribute to justification–not because it justifies, but becasue it impels the promise of grace and makes it sweet and desirable. Therefore we do not abolish the Law; but we show its true function and use, namely, that it is a most useful servant impelling us to Christ…; for its function and use is not only to disclose the sin and wrath of God but also to drive us to Christ [Amen!]… Therefore the principle purpose of the Law in the theology is to make men not better but worse; that is, it shows them their sin, so that by the recognition of sin they may be humbled, frightened, and worn down, and so may long for grace and for the Blessed Offspring: [Jesus Christ]!” (Luther on Galatians, quoted in Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians, p. 137).
When was the last time you heard something like that? “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life,” namely that God intends to “humble, frighten, and wear you down” so that you will find grace in time of need (Heb 4:16).
The law shows us our need, our weakness, and our God-forsaking sin. It points us to Christ, the blessed redeemer and the one who is full of grace and mercy. He is a sympathetic high priest, who extends to us God’s hand of favor, when we look to him in faith.
May we embrace the law with its terrifying vision of ourselves, and may we flee to the gospel where we find forgiveness and freedom purchased on Calvary’s hill.
Soli Deo Gloria, dss