The Expositor's Bible

Epistle to the Galatians

Rev. Prof. G. G. Findlay, B.A.

The Doctrinal Polemic
Chapter 3:1 - 5:12

Chapter 14


"What then is the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise hath been made; and it was ordained through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one; but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could make alive, verily righteousness would have been of the law. Howbeit the Scripture hath shut up all things under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. But before faith came, we were kept in ward under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. So that the law hath been our tutor to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith."—Ga 3:19-24

"WHAT then is the law?" So the Jew might well exclaim. Paul has been doing nothing but disparage it.—"You say that the Law of Moses brings no righteousness or blessing, but only a curse; that the covenant made with Abraham ignores it, and does not admit of being in any way qualified by its provisions. What then do you make of it? Is it not God’s voice that we hear in its commands? Have the sons of Abraham ever since Moses’ day been wandering from the true path of faith? "Such inferences might be drawn, not unnaturally, from the Apostle’s denunciation of Legalism. They were actually drawn by Marcion in the second century, in his extreme hostility to Judaism and the Old Testament.

This question must indeed have early forced itself upon Paul’s mind. How could the doctrine of Salvation by Faith and the supremacy of the Abrahamic Covenant be reconciled with the Divine commission of Moses? How, on the other hand, could the displacement of the Law by the Gospel be justified, if the former too was authorised and inspired by God? Can the same God have given to men these two contrasted revelations of Himself? The answer, contained in the passage before us, is that the two revelations had different ends in view. They are complementary, not competing institutes. Of the two, the Covenant of Promise has the prior right; it points immediately to Christ. The Legal economy is ancillary thereto; it never professed to accomplish the work of grace, as the Judaists would have it do. Its office was external, but nevertheless accessory to that of the Promise. It guarded and schooled the infant heirs of Abraham’s Testament, until the time of its falling due, when they should be prepared in the manhood of faith to enter on their inheritance. "The law hath been our tutor for Christ, with the intent we should be justified by faith" (ver. 24).

This aspect of the Law, under which, instead of being an obstacle to the life of faith, it is seen to subserve it, has been suggested already. "For I," the Apostle said, "through law died to law". (Ga 2:19) The Law first impelled him to Christ. It constrained him to look beyond itself. Its discipline was a preparation for faith. Paul reverses the relation in which Faith and Law were set by the Judaists. They brought in the Law to perfect the unfinished work of faith (ver. 3): he made it preliminary and pro paedeutic. What they gave out for more advanced doctrine, he treats as the "weak rudiments," belonging to the infancy of the sons of God. (Ga 4:1-11) Up to this point, however, the Mosaic law has been considered chiefly in a negative way, as a foil to the Covenant of grace. The Apostle has now to treat of its nature more positively and explicitly, first indeed in contrast with the promise (vv. 19, 20); and secondly, in its co-operation with the promise (vv. 22-24). Ver. 21 is the transition from the first to the second of these conceptions.

I "For the sake of the transgressions (committed against it)99 the law was added." The Promise, let us remember, was complete in itself. Its testament of grace was sealed and delivered age’s before the Mosaic legislation, which could not therefore retract or modify it. The Law was "superadded," as something over and above, attached to the former revelation for a subsidiary purpose lying outside the proper scope of the Promise. What then was this purpose?

1. For the sake of transgressions. In other words, the object of the law of Moses was to develop sin. This is not the whole of the Apostle’s answer; but it is the key to his explanation. This design of the Mosaic revelation determined its form and character. Here is the standpoint from which we are to estimate its working, and its relation to the kingdom of grace. The saying of Ro 5:20 is Paul’s commentary upon this sentence: "The law came in by the way, in order that the trespass (of Adam) might multiply." The same necessity is expressed in the paradox of 1Co 15:56: "The strength of sin is the law."

This enigma, as a psychological question, is resolved by the Apostle in Ro 7:13-24. The law acts as a spur and provocative, rousing the power of sin to conscious activity. However good in itself, coming into contact with man’s evil flesh, its promulgation is followed inevitably by transgression. Its commands are so many occasions for sin to come into action, to exhibit and confirm its power. So that the Law practically assumes the same relation to sin as that in which the Promise stands to righteousness and life. In its union with the law our sinful nature perpetually "brings forth fruit unto death." And this mournful result God certainly contemplated when He gave the Law of Moses.

But are we compelled to out so harsh a sense on the Apostle’s words? May we not say that the Law was imposed in order to restrain sin, to keep it within bounds? Some excellent interpreters read the verse in this way. It is quite true that, in respect of public morals and the outward manifestations of evil, the Jewish law acted beneficially, as a bridle upon the sinful passions. But this is beside the mark. The Apostle is thinking only of inward righteousness, that which avails before God. The wording of the clause altogether excludes the milder interpretation. For the sake ofάριν, Latin gratia) signifies promotion, not prevention. And the word transgression, by its Pauline and Jewish usage, compels us to this view.100 Transgression presupposes law. It is the specific form which sin takes under law—the reaction of sin against law. What was before a latent tendency, a bias of disposition, now starts to light as a flagrant, guilty fact. By bringing about repeated transgressions the Law reveals the true nature of sin, so that it "becomes exceeding sinful." It does not make matters worse; but it shows how bad they really are. It aggravates the disease, in order to bring it to a crisis. And this is a necessary step towards the cure.

2. The Law of Moses was therefore a provisional dispensation, -"added until the Seed should come to whom the promise hath been made." Its object was to make itself superfluous. It "is not, made for a righteous man; but for the lawless and unruly". (1Ti 1:9) Like the discipline and drill of a strictly governed boyhood, it was calculated to produce a certain effect on the moral nature, after the attainment of which it was no longer needed and its continuance would be injurious. The essential part of this effect lay, however, not so much in the outward regularity it imposed, as in the inner repugnancy excited by it, the consciousness of sin unsubdued and defiant. By its operation on the conscience the Law taught man his need of redemption. It thus prepared the platform for the work of Grace. The Promise had been given. The coming of the Covenant-heir was assured. But its fulfilment was far off. "The Lord is not slack concerning His promise,"—and yet it was two thousand years before "Abraham’s seed" came to birth. The degeneracy of the patriarch’s children in the third and fourth generation showed how little the earlier heirs of the Promise were capable of receiving it. A thousand years later, when the Covenant was renewed with David, the ancient predictions seemed at last nearing their fulfilment. But no; the times were still unripe; the human conscience but half-disciplined. The bright dawn of the Davidic monarchy was overclouded. The legal yoke is made more burdensome; sore chastisements fall on the chosen people, marked out for suffering as well as honour. Prophecy has many lessons yet to inculcate. The world’s education for Christ has another millennium to run.

Nor when He came, did "the Son of man find faith in the earth"! The people of the Law had no sooner seen than they hated "Him to whom the law and the prophets gave witness." Yet, strangely enough, the very manner of their rejection showed how complete was the preparation for His coming. Two features, rarely united, marked the ethical condition of the Jewish people at this time—an intense moral consciousness, and a deep moral perversion; reverence for the Divine law, combined with an alienation from its spirit. The chapter of Paul’s autobiography to which we have so often referred (Ro 7:7-24) is typical of the better mind of Judaism. It is the ne plus ultra of self-condemnation. The consciousness of sin in mankind has ripened.

3. And further, the Law of Moses revealed God’s will in a veiled and accommodated fashion, while the Promise and the Gospel are its direct emanations. This is the inference which we draw from vv. 19, 20.

We are well aware of the extreme difficulty of this passage. Ver. 20 has received, it is computed, some four hundred and thirty distinct interpretations. Of all the "hard things our beloved brother Paul" has written, this is the very hardest. The words which make up the sentence are simple and familiar; and yet in their combination most enigmatic. And it stands in the midst of a paragraph among the most interesting and important that the Apostle ever wrote.

Let us look first at the latter clause of ver. 19: "ordained through angels, in the hand (i.e., by means) of a mediator." These circumstances, as the orthodox Jew supposed, enhanced the glory of the Law. The pomp and formality under which Mosaism was ushered in, the presence of the angelic host to whose agency the terrific manifestations attending the Law-giving were referred, impressed the popular mind with a sense of the incomparable sacredness of the Sinaitic revelation. It was this assumption which gave its force to the climax of Stephen’s speech, of which we hear an echo in these words of Paul: "who received the law at the disposition of angels—and have not kept it!"101 The simplicity and informality of the Divine communion with Abraham, and again of Christ’s appearance in the world and His intercourse with men, afford a striking contrast to all this.

More is hinted than is expressly said in Scripture of the part taken by the angels in the Law-giving. De 33:2102 and Ps 68:17 give the most definite indications of the ancient faith of Israel on this point. But "the Angel of the Lord" is a familiar figure of Old Testament revelation. In Hebrew thought impressive physical phenomena were commonly associated with the presence of spiritual agents.103 The language of Heb 1:7 and 2:2 endorses this belief, which in no way conflicts with natural science, and is in keeping with the Christian faith.

But while such intermediacy, from the Jewish standpoint, increased the splendour and authority of the Law, believers in Christ had learned to look at the matter otherwise.104 A revelation "administered through angels, " spoke to them of a God distant and obscured, of a people unfit for access to His presence. This is plainly intimated in the added clause, "by means of a mediator, "— a title commonly given to Moses, and recalling the entreaty Ex 20:19 De 5:22-28: "The people said, Speak thou with us, and we will hear; but let not God speak with us, lest we die." These are the words of sinful men, receiving a law given, as the Apostle has just declared, on purpose to convict them of their sins. The form of the Mosaic revelation tended therefore in reality not to exalt the Law, but to exhibit its difference from the Promise and the distance at which it placed men from God.

The same thought is expressed, as Bishop Lightfoot aptly shows, by the figure of "the veil on Moses’ face," which Paul employs with so much felicity in 2Co 3:13-18. In the external glory of the Sinaitic law-giving, as on the illuminated face of the Law-giver, there was a fading brightness, a visible lustre concealing its imperfect and transitory character. The theophanies of the Old Covenant were a magnificent veil, hiding while they revealed. Under the Law, angels, Moses came between God and man. It was God who in His own grace conveyed the promise to justified Abraham (ver. 18).105

The Law employed a mediator; the Promise did not (ver. 19). With this contrast in our minds we approach verse 20. On the other side of it (ver. 21), we find Law and Promise again in sharp antithesis. The same antithesis runs through the intervening sentence. The two clauses of ver. 20 belong to the Law and Promise respectively. "Now a mediator is not of one": that is an axiom which holds good of the Law. "But God is one": this glorious truth, the first article of Israel’s creed, applies to the Promise. Where "a mediator" is necessary, unity is wanting, -not simply in a numerical, but in a moral sense, as matter of feeling and of aim. There are separate interests, discordant views to be consulted. This was true of Mosaism. Although in substance "holy and just and good," it was by no means purely Divine. It was not the absolute religion. Not only was it defective; it contained, in the judgment of Christ, positive elements of wrong, precepts given "for the hardness of men’s hearts."106 It largely consisted of "carnal ordinances, imposed till the time of rectification". (Heb 9:10) The theocratic legislation of the Pentateuch is lacking in the unity and consistency of a perfect revelation. Its disclosures of God were refracted in a manifest degree by the atmosphere through which they passed.

"But God is one." Here again the unity is moral and essential—of character and action, rather than of number. In the Promise God spoke immediately and for Himself. There was no screen to intercept the view of faith, no go-between like Moses, with God on the mountaintop shrouded in thunder-clouds and the people terrified or wantoning far below. Of all differences between the Abrahamic and Judaic types of piety this was the chief. The man of Abraham’s faith sees God in His unity. The Legalist gets his religion at second-hand, mixed with un-divine elements. He believes that there is one God; but his hold upon the truth is formal. There is no unity, no simplicity of faith in his conception of God. He projects on to the Divine image confusing shadows of human imperfection.

God is one: this great article of faith was the foundation of Israel’s life. It forms the first sentence of the Shem, the "Hear, O Israel," (De 6:4-9) which every pious Jew repeats twice a day, and which in literal obedience to the Lawgiver’s words he fixes above his house-door, and binds upon his arm and brow at the time of prayer. Three times besides has the Apostle quoted this sentence. The first of these passages, Ro 3:29-30,107 may help us to understand its application here. In that place he employs it as a weapon against Jewish exclusiveness. If there is but "one God," he argues, "there can be only one way of justification, for Jew and Gentile alike." The inference drawn here is even more bold and singular. There is "one God," who appeared in His proper character in the Covenant with Abraham. If the Law of Moses gives us a conception of His nature in any wise different from this, it is because other and lower elements found a place in it. Through the whole course of revelation there is one God—manifest to Abraham, veiled in Mosaism, revealed again in His perfect image in "the face of Jesus Christ."

II So far the Apostle has pursued the contrast between the systems of Law and Grace. When finally he has referred the latter rather than the former to the "one God," we naturally ask, "Is the Law then against the promises of God?" (ver. 21). Was the Legal dispensation a mere reaction, a retrogression from the Promise? This would be to push Paul’s argument to an antinomian extreme: He hastens to protest.—"The law against the promises? Away with the thought." Not on the Apostle’s premises, but on those of his opponents, did this consequence ensue. It is they who set the two at variance, by trying to make law do the work of grace. "For if a law had been given that could bring men to life, righteousness would verily in that case have been of law" (ver. 21). That righteousness, and therefore life, is not of law, the Apostle has abundantly shown. (Ga 2:16 3:10-13) Had the Law provided some efficient means of it own for winning righteousness, there would then indeed have been a conflict between the two principles. As matters stand there is none. Law and Promise move on different planes. Their functions are distinct. Yet there is a connection between them. The design of the Law is to mediate between the Promise and its fulfilment. "The trespass" must be "multiplied," the knowledge of sin deepened, before Grace can do its office. The fever of sin has to come to its crisis, before the remedy can take effect. Law is therefore not the enemy, but the minister of Grace. It was charged with a purpose lying beyond itself. "Christ is the end of the law, for righteousness". (Ro 10:4)

1. For, in the first place, the law cuts men off from all other hope of salvation.

On the Judaistic hypothesis, "righteousness would have been of law." But quite on the contrary, "the Scripture shuts up everything under sin, that the promise might be given in the way of faith in Jesus Christ, to them that believe" (ver. 22). Condemnation inevitable, universal, was pronounced by the Divine word under the Law, not in order that men might remain crushed beneath its weight, but that, abandoning vain hopes of self-justification, they might find in Christ their true deliverer.

The Apostle is referring here to the general support of "the Scripture." His assertion embraces the whole teaching of the Old Testament concerning human sinfulness, embodied, for example, in the chain of citations drawn Ro 3:10-18. Wherever the man looking for legal justification turned, the Scripture met him with some new command which drove him back upon the sense of his moral helplessness. It fenced him in with prohibitions; it showered on him threatenings and reproaches; it besieged him in ever narrowing circles. And if he felt less the pressure of its outward burdens, all the more was he tormented by inward disharmony and self-accusation.

Now the judgment of Scripture is not uttered against this class of men or that, against this type of sin or that. Its impeachment sweeps the entire area of human life, sounding the depths of the heart, searching every avenue of thought and desire. It makes of the world one vast prison-house, with the Law for jailor, and man. kind held fast in chains of sin, waiting for death. In this position the Apostle had found himself; (Ro 7:24-8:2) and in his own heart he saw a mirror of the world. "Every mouth was stopped, and all the world brought in guilty before God". (Ro 3:19) This condition he graphically describes in terms of his former experience, in ver. 23: "Before faith came, under law we were kept in ward, being shut up unto the faith that was to be revealed." The Law was all the while standing guard over its subjects, watching and checking every attempt to escape,108 but intending to hand them over in due time to the charge of Faith. The Law posts its ordinances, like so many sentinels, round the prisoner’s cell. The cordon is complete. He tries again and again to break out; the iron circle will not yield. But deliverance will yet be his. The day of faith approaches. It dawned long ago in Abraham’s Promise. Even now its light shines into his dungeon, and he hears the word of Jesus, "Thy sins are forgiven thee; go in peace." Law, the stern jailor, has after all been a good friend, if it has reserved him for this. It prevents the sinner escaping to a futile and illusive freedom.

In this dramatic fashion Paul shows how the Mosaic law by its ethical discipline prepared men for a life which by itself it was incapable of giving. Where Law has done its work well, it produces, as in the Apostle’s earlier experience, a profound sense of personal demerit, a tenderness of conscience, a contrition of heart which makes one ready thankfully to receive "the righteousness which is of God by faith." In every age and condition of life a like effect is wrought upon men who honestly strive to live up to an exacting moral standard. They confess their failure. They lose self-conceit. They grow "poor in spirit," willing to accept "the abundance of the gift of righteousness" in Jesus Christ.

Faith is trebly honoured here. It is the condition of the gift, the characteristic of its recipient (vv. 22, 24), and the end for which he was put under the charge of Law (ver. 23). "To them that believe" is "given," as it was in foretaste to Abraham (ver. 6), a righteousness unearned, and bestowed on Christ’s account; (Ga 3:13 Ro 5:17,18) which brings with it the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, reserved in its conscious possession for Abraham’s children in the faith of Christ. (Ga 3:14 4:4) These blessings form the commencement of that true life whose root is a spiritual union with Christ, and which reaches on to eternity. (Ga 2:20 Ro 5:21 6:23) Of such life the Law could impart nothing’; but it taught men their need of it, and disposed them to accept it. This was the purpose of its institution. It was the forerunner, not the finisher, of Faith.

2. Paul makes use of a second figure to describe the office of the Law; under which he gives his final answer to the question of ver. 19. The metaphor of the jailor is exchanged for that of the tutor." The law hath been our παιδαγωγς for Christ." This Greek word (boy-leader) has no English equivalent; we have not the thing it represents. The "pedagogue" was a sort of nursery governor, -a confidential servant in the Greek household, commonly a slave, who had charge of the boy from his infancy, and was responsible for his oversight. In his food, his clothes, his home-lessons, his play, his walks—at every point the pedagogue was required to wait upon his young charge, and to control his movements. Amongst other offices, his tutor might have to conduct the boy to school; and it has been supposed that Paul is thinking of this duty, as though he meant, "The Law has been our pedagogue, to take us to Christ, our true teacher." But he adds, "That we might be justified of faith." The "tutor" of ver. 24 is parallel to the "guard" of the last verse; he represents a distinctly disciplinary influence.

This figure implies not like the last the imprisoned condition of the subject—but his childish, undeveloped state. This is an advance of thought. The Law was something more than a system of restraint and condemnation. It contained an element of progress. Under the tutelage of his pedagogue the boy is growing up to manhood. At the end of its term the Law will hand over its charge mature in capacity and equal to the responsibilities of faith. "If then the Law is a παιδαγωγός, it is not hostile to Grace, but its fellow-worker; but should it continue to hold us fast when Grace has come, then it would be hostile" (Chrysostom).

Although the highest function, that of "giving life," is denied to the Law, a worthy part is still assigned to it by the Apostle. It was "a tutor to lead men to Christ." Judaism was an education for Christianity. It prepared the world for the Redeemer’s coming. It drilled and moralised the religious youth of the human race. It broke up the fallow-ground of nature, and cleared a space in the weed-covered soil to receive the seed of the kingdom. Its moral regimen deepened the conviction of sin, while it multiplied its overt acts. Its ceremonial impressed on sensuous natures the idea of the Divine holiness; and its sacrificial rites gave definiteness and vividness to men’s conceptions of the necessity of atonement, failing indeed to remove sin, but awakening the need and sustaining the hope of its removal. (Heb 10:1-18)

The Law of Moses has formed in the Jewish nation a type of humanity like no other in the world. "They dwell alone," said Balaam, "and shall not be reckoned amongst the nations." Disciplined for ages under their harsh "pedagogue," this wonderful people acquired a strength of moral fibre and a spiritual sensibility that prepared them to be the religious leaders of mankind. Israel has given us David and Isaiah, Paul and John. Christ above all was "born under law—of David’s seed according to flesh." The influence of Jewish minds at this present time on the world’s higher thought, whether for good or evil, is incalculable; and it penetrates everywhere. The Christian Church may with in-increased emphasis repeat Paul’s anticipation, "What will the receiving of them be, but life from the dead!" They have a great service still to do for the Lord and for His Christ. It was well for them and for us that they have "borne the yoke in their youth."  

[99] Τῶν παραβάσεων: the definite article can scarcely mean less than this.

[100] Comp. the reference to this word in Chapter IX., p. 143.

101 Acts vii. 53: comp. διαταγὰς ἀγγέλων and διαταγεὶς δἰ ἀγγέλων. Stephen's last words may well have lingered in the ear of Saul. From the lips of Stephen, they were something of an argumentum ad hominem.

[102] A doubtful citation at the best: the reading of the LXX is more to the point than the Hebrew text.

[103] See the quotations from Jewish writers to this effect given by Meyer or Lightfoot.

[104] Comp. Heb. ii. 2-4; also Col. ii. 15: "(scil. God) having stripped off the principalities and powers"—the earlier forms of angelic mediation. The writer may refer on this latter passage to his note in the Pulpit Commentary, also to The Expositor, 1st series, x. 403-421.

[105] But the title "mediator" belongs to Christ, given by Paul himself—the "one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus" (1 Tim. ii. 5). (Comp. Heb. viii. 6ix. 15xii. 24.) Christ is so styled however under an aspect very different from that in which the word appears here. "There is one mediator," the Apostle writes in 1 Timothy, "who gave Himself a ransom for all," the one atoning mediator. But Christ's manifestation of God was direct, as that of Moses was not. His Person does not come between men and God, like that of the Sinaitic mediator; it brings God into immediate contact with men. Moses acted for a distant God: Christ is Immanuel, God with us. On the human side Christ is mediator (ἄνθρωπες Χριστὸς Ἰησοῦς); He acts for individual men with God. On the Divine side, He is more than mediator, being God Himself.

[106] Matt. xix. 8. Comp. Ezek. xx. 25.

[107] Comp. 1 Cor. viii. 6; 1 Tim. ii. 5; also Mark xii. 29, 30; Jas. ii. 19.

[108] Hence the present participle, συγκλειόμενοι (Revised reading of ver. 23), in combination with the imperfect of the foregoing verb, ἐφρουρούμεθα.