“21 For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. 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. 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,” (Gal. 3:21-22).
Throughout Galatians, Paul talks about the limits of the law in comparison to the promise. The law cannot sanctify (Gal. 3:3). The law cannot justify (Gal. 3:10-11).
The inheritance (forgiveness of sins, righteousness, salvation, eternal life) does not come by law but by promise (Gal. 3:18). We do not have to work for an inheritance! Salvation is a matter of grace not work. The law, Paul says, cannot impart life (Gal. 3:21).
So why the law? “The Law, Paul writes, “has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.” The law reveals sin. The law condemns law breakers. The law stirs up more sin (Rom. 7) not because the law is bad (Rom. 7:12, 14) but because man is bad, sold into bondage to sin (Rom. 7:14).
The law can show a Christian how to live for Christ but it cannot impart any power to the believer to do so. So, there are limits to the law. But, the Good News is that what the law demands but is unable to do, the Gospel of grace freely gives (e.g, Titus 2:11-14).
So, the law and gospel operate on entirely two antithetical principles. The law continually commands and drives us with whips and chains, threatenings and warnings and leaves us powerless. But, then Christ comes to us in the Gospel and rescues us and prays to the Father to forgive us of all our sins against the law and to not impute what we are still obligated to give.
The law is merciless. Yet, in the Gospel, we find a God who is exceedingly gracious to sinners.
To be sure, God is not gracious to sinners so that they might live as they please. Consider the words of Martin Luther,
“For God is not gracious and merciful to sinners to the end that they might not keep his Law, nor that they should remain as they were before they received grace and mercy; but he condones and forgives both sin and death for the sake of Christ, who has fulfilled the whole Law in order thereby to make the heart sweet and through the Holy Spirit to kindle and move the heart to begin to love from day to day more and more,” (Martin Luther, Complete Sermons of Martin Luther, vol. 3, “Eighteenth Sunday After Trinity. Second Sermon: Matt. 22, 34-36.” p. 188).
The law drives us to Christ and Christ then directs us back to the law not as a means for obtaining life but as a rule to show believers how to live the Christian life. As believers increase in the knowledge of the law they become more and more aware of their sinful nature, and therefore are driven to seek more eagerly the forgiveness of sins and righteousness in Christ (Ps. 32:5; Rom. 3:19-26; 7:7, 24-25; 1 John 1:9).
Moreover, through the law, believers are increasingly made aware of their need to constantly pray to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, that He may more and more renew them into the image of God (1 Cor. 9:24; Phil. 3:12-14; 1 John 3:1-3).
The law offers life but only to those who can keep it perfectly (Matt. 5:48). Therefore, the law does not and cannot give life. If the law could, then the promise would be unnecessary (Gal. 3:21). Moreover, if life came through the law and not faith in Christ alone then Christ died needlessly (Gal. 2:21). The law is not of faith. The law operates on the principle, “He who practices them shall live by them,” (Gal. 3:12).
But, the Good News is that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.”, in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith,” (Gal. 3:13-14).
The law is quite effectual but it does have its limits. The law can reveal our sin and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that we are guilty sinners. But, the law cannot give life. It cannot rectify our situation. It can expose our problem but then only leave us hopeless for a cure. Martin Luther writes,
“For this distinction is plain, that the law is a thing far differing from the promise. Even natural reason is compelled to confess that it is one thing to give, and another thing to take. The law requireth and exacteth of us our works, the promise of the seed doth offer us the spiritual and everlasting benefits of God, and that freely for Christ’s sake. Therefore, we obtain the inheritance or blessing through the promise, and not through the law. Therefore he that hath the law hath not enough, because he hath not yet the blessing,” (Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, pp. 185-186).
There is nothing wrong with the law but it does have its limits. When used properly, the Law is not contrary to the promises of God (Gal. 3:21). On the contrary, the law complements the promise by pointing to the promise which in turn directs believers to faith in Christ, which alone justifies (Gal. 3:22).
“13 For the promise to Abraham or to his descendants that he would be heir of the world was not through the Law, but through the righteousness of faith. 4:14 For if those who are of the Law are heirs, faith is made void and the promise is nullified; 15 for the Law brings about wrath, but where there is no law, there also is no violation. 16 For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all,” (Rom. 4:13-16)