Why Then The Law? Galatians 3:19

By Robert F. Turner

A friend writes, “In Galatians 3:19 we are told the law was added because of transgressions. That seems strange, because without law there is no sin. Is this saying that what was a sin under the Old Law was already a sin before the law, but the law had to point it out? Did the law make people guilty of more -sins, or just aware of how guilty they already were?” I believe the law did identify moral sins that previously existed, though it also gave new positive orders. However I would not agree with those who say the law is responsible for more sins. God may require something of us we do not want to obey, but the responsibility for sin is with Satan and our own desires. Think with me on this Bible matter.

As the second affirmation of his Galatian letter, Paul argues we are not justified by law, but by faith (Gal. 2:16f). Those who seek justification via law are under a curse, the curse of demanded perfection (3:10); and we were redeemed from this curse when Christ died on the cross to make forgiveness possible for all who put their trust in Him (3:13-14). Through much of this discussion the Greek text does not have the article “the” before “law,” even though the law (of Moses) is clearly the chief example of a law system. But Paul knows that his teaching concerning law poses certain problems for the Judaizing teachers, so he raises two questions for consideration. “Wherefore then serveth the law?” (3:19, K.J.), and, “Is the law then against the promises of God?” (3:21). We are taking a close look at Paul’s first question.

The question itself varies in different translations. The A.S.V. reads, “What then is the law?” while the New K.J. reads, “What purpose then does the law serve?” The R.S.V. has, “Why then the law?” while Marshall’s interlinear says, “Why therefore the law?” All are asking, since the new covenant or system of faith supplants the law, why was it given in the first place? The key Greek word in Paul’s answer is charin, which all the above versions except Marshall’s translate “because” of transgressions. Marshall says “by reason of” transgressions. But this brings up the problem perceived by our querist, viz., if transgressions were the cause of the law they must have existed first and without the law. Various scholars agree that charin can mean causal, but it is also translated “by reason of,” “with a view to,” “for the sake of,” etc. Paul certainly is not saying sin created the law, or was first cause.

We are, perhaps, wedded to the concept of dispensations: Patriarchy, Judaism, Christianity; and have lost touch with a most basic principle. “Law” in the sense of obligation to God, exists by virtue of the Creator-Creature relationship. Man has always, even unto today, owed God allegiance because He is God, and we are His creation. He is the potter, we the clay (Rom. 9:20f). There are two things any intelligent being can know about God by looking at the universe: the eternal power and divinity of the Maker (Rom. 1:19-21). All of God’s creatures, having this capacity, are obligated to glorify God and be thankful. When we fail to make such a response, God “gives us up” to the consequences of our folly, and specific sins ensue (Rom. 1:24f). When Paul says, “For as many as have sinned without law shall also perish without law” (Rom. 2:12), he refers to codified law. But having no codified system does not excuse the violation of conscience and moral obligation before God (2:14f).

The purpose of revealed law is also discussed in Romans. Paul says, “for by the law is the knowledge of sin” (3:20). Again, “The law entered that the offense might abound” (5:20). When he says, “I had not known lust except the law had said. . . ” he does not mean he would not have coveted, but rather, the law made his sin apparent (7:7). Paul commends the law as holy, just, and good; then says, “Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me. . . ” (7:12f). Revealed law identifies sin, spells it out, stipulates its details, and makes us know our true condition before God. His laws are for man’s benefit, telling us His will, and giving us standards by which to keep constant check on ourselves. The negation of the Old Covenant, denying justification by a system of law, does not argue against the need for or proper use of law.

Expositor’s Greek Testament rightly considers “the law” of Galatians 3:19 to be a reference to the Law of Moses. Concerning why it was given, the writer says, “The real meaning is that it was added with a view to the offenses which it specifies. . . . The prohibitions of the Ten Commandments reveal their own purpose: they were enacted in order to repress the worship of false gods, idolatry, blasphemy, Sabbath breaking, disobedience to parents, murder, adultery, theft, false witness, covetousness. These sins prevailed before the Law, but by pronouncing them to be definite transgressions it called in the fear of God’s wrath to reinforce the weakness of the moral sense and educate man’s conscience.”

To this Paul adds one more reason for law: “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). As the law made sin apparent, focused attention upon sin, those who wanted to stand justified in God’s sight were made to realize the need for mercy. Law showed them their own inadequacy, and brought them to the feet of Him who died in their behalf, and whose blood made forgiveness possible. In a sense requirements of the New Covenant serve that purpose today, making us humbly aware of our need for an Advocate (1 Jn. 2:1-6).

Law and grace are in conflict only with reference to justification; for to be “free of guilt” on a law basis would require perfection on our part. Since everyone sins (Rom. 3:23-26) justification requires forgiveness – mercy – and to this end Christ died on the cross. But this does not negate the need for the stipulation of God’s will for mankind. Our faith must be based upon His word (Rom. 10:17); and by our response to His words we shall be judged in the last day (Jn. 12:48). Law, as instruction and command, is necessary to tell us what to do to be saved. I fear our failure to appreciate these most basic truths has led some to become legalistic, requiring perfection; and others to stress a false concept of “grace.” We are not under the same covenant with David, but our desire should be one with his, “Give me understanding, and I shall keep thy laws” (Psa. 119:34).

Guardian of Truth XXXI: 8, pp. 231, 247
April 16, 1987