Galatians 3:23-29

Imagine how terrible being in prison would be. Many freedoms are taken away. Having to support the prison system is an economic drain on the taxpayer, even though they provide jobs. Though some prisons have modern conveniences, many are places we would not want to stay. To be placed in some prisons would put us among people who have committed felonies of various natures. Some prisoners are raped, robbed, molested, and even murdered.

Our society is set up so that one who commits a major crime may find themselves in such a place. After a trial by jury and an appearance before a judge, sentence is passed on the one who has committed the crime. The result could be jail time, probation, or a fine.

Once the person enters that cell, many of the freedoms they had on the outside are taken away. No longer can they go anywhere they want or do the things they might enjoy. We could think of all the things we could not do in prison that we take for granted each day. Prisoners are enslaved to a degree as punishment for their crimes.

The Bible says people are imprisoned in a different way. Our sinful nature imprisons us because we cannot help but carry out the desires of that sinful nature. The law we break may not be the law of a given society, but it is the law of God. God has established rules he expects us to obey. Our sinful nature places within us the propensity to rebel against these laws. The only way God accepts us is if we perfectly obey these laws. Since we can’t, we become prisoners of our own making—people in a hopeless situation. The good news is that God’s grace—shown in the Calvary cross episode of Jesus Christ his Son—can deliver us from such a terrible plight. The way this takes place is through faith, and this is the only way.

The Galatians knew this. In fact, they accepted Paul’s message of salvation by grace through faith in Christ. However, the Judaizers taught them they had to work for their salvation. Now many of them were backtracking—trying to earn what was free. They were trying to perfectly obey what they did not have the power in themselves to obey.

Now if the law puts a person under a curse as Paul previously stated, what was God’s purpose in giving the law? If faith was always the only way a person could come to Christ, why the law? Why would God give something he knew we could never obey? Paul answers this question in these verses, and at the same time reminds us that faith is God’s way to freedom from the sin that imprisons us.

The Law Brings Bondage

Paul speaks of being kept under the custody of the law. He was a Jew just like those he now found himself confronting. He had experienced living under the covenant of the law but was now living under the covenant of grace. He uses two figures to represent the law and the effect it has on unbelievers: prison and guardian.

Prior to the time God revealed his plan of salvation in Jesus Christ, people were in a spiritual prison. Paul says this was before faith came. In Romans, Paul says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world his invisible attributes, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor him as God, or give thanks; but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (Romans 1:18ff).

He later writes; “When unbelievers who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Law written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them” (Romans 2:15).

Whether a person is a Jew and familiar with the Law of God or a Gentile who has never heard of the law of God is immaterial. Both are responsible to God. The Jews may have had the written law of Scripture, but the Gentiles had the inward law of conscience. Until a person admits they are in this prison unable to free themselves, they will never appeal to God for salvation. The law becomes their prison. If they will not appeal to God for grace, he will judge them on their obedience to his law, written or otherwise. Of course, all will fail this test of obedience apart from the grace of Christ.

The purpose of the law was to convict people of their sin. It showed them that if they disobeyed in certain areas, they were sinning against God. A part of salvation is a willingness to turn away from these sins. We cannot truly desire salvation and desire to go on sinning at the same time. They are mutually exclusive. Paul again wrote; “For I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet’. . . I was once alive apart from the Law; but when the commandment came, sin became alive, and I died” (Romans 7:7).

If a person is not convinced that what they have done is wrong, forgiveness will mean nothing to them. In the same vein, grace means nothing to a person who does not admit they need it. Something must show us our need of forgiveness and grace. This is the purpose of God’s written and inward law.

Before a person trusts Christ as their Savior, they are in this prison of having to obey God’s law perfectly—a state of helplessness. The impossible demands are designed to condemn us and then drive us to Christ where we can find mercy and grace. In the prison of having to perfectly obey God’s law, we are in a sense on death row. The reason is because the wages or penalty of sin is death (Romans 6:23).

The Jews were locked up in this prison until Christ came and fulfilled the covenant of promise and faith previously given to Abraham. Even the Gentiles were in this prison because they had the law written in their hearts. All were responsible to God no matter what their race or cultural standing. This covenant of law did not rule out faith. It was still the way people came to God.

Even though many realized they could never live up to the demands of the Law, they refused to come in faith to God. They devised games and traditions wherein they convinced themselves that they were obeying the law of God perfectly. They convinced themselves that attaining righteousness before God was possible.

Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount quickly undermined this security. He reminded them that though they had not committed the literal act, the thoughts of the heart were what counted. Although they may not have committed the literal act of adultery, they had lusted in their heart and this made them guilty. He places them back in the prison they thought they had delivered themselves from. Paul was guilty of this same spiritual pride until he met the risen Lord on the Damascus Road.

The law also had a positive side. Sure, it kept people in prison, but it was a tutor to drive people to the grace of God—a guardian and guide to the Jews and in a more general sense to all people. A tutor was a slave employed by Greek and Roman families to supervise young boys on behalf of their parents. They took them to and from school, helped them study their lessons, and trained them in obedience. They were strict disciplinarians. This was not a permanent position. When the child reached adulthood, they were delivered from the tutor.

This was the purpose of the law: to discipline us and lead us to Christ for help in doing what we could not do on our own. After it accomplishes this purpose, a new inner desire takes over. We no longer need any outward set of rules and ceremonies to keep us obedient. The new desire God implants in our heart takes over.

Imagine the football player who injures his knee during practice but who determines to play the next game. He goes to the doctor who in turn gives him cortisone shots and a bottle of ethyl chloride to deaden the pain. He plays the game without mishap, periodically applying the ethyl chloride. The result, however, of covering up the pain was permanent damage to the knee. Pain is the body’s warning system. Ignoring it causes us to pay serious consequences.

God’s law is our warning system. He convicts us through his written word and in our hearts through the working of his Holy Spirit. In addition, all individuals carry this burden of sin. It is God’s law, whether we read it in the Bible or hear it in our inner hearts, that convicts us of this. We are in great bondage. Our responsibility is to flee to Christ for freedom.

Christ Brings Freedom

The law of God was a temporary means to show people their need of grace and mercy from God—to lead them to the Messiah, the Savior. Once a person comes to faith in Jesus Christ, they no longer need this tutor. This does not mean God’s moral standards change—but that the believer now has an inner guide rather than an outward guide to lead him to obedience.

We become sons and daughters of God because of our faith in Christ. Freedom is wonderful, but the added benefit is entering the family of God. God is certainly the parent of all people as far as their life is concerned, but he is the spiritual Father of only those who place their faith in his Son. God’s Spirit bears witness with our Spirit that we are his children. We can approach him with boldness and confidence. We are spiritually immersed into the life of Christ. We identify with him in his death, burial, and resurrection. When God looks at us, he sees us clothed in the righteousness of his Son. Faith appropriates this union.

Paul’s society had well-defined distinctions, but in Christ this all breaks down. We are one in him. There are no social, gender, ethnic, racial, or cultural differences. None are more valuable or significant than the other. The one who joins with Christ is one with all believers. In light of this, prejudice for any reason has no place in the church of God.

Christ frees us through faith in him. We appropriate the promise made to Abraham through our faith in Christ. John Stott writes; “We cannot come to Christ to be justified until we have first been to Moses (the Law) to be condemned. But once we have gone to Moses, and acknowledged our sin, guilt, and condemnation, we must not stay there. We must let Moses send us to Christ.”

All our efforts to please God are useless without faith. Faith is what connects us to the source: God. When in a relationship with him, we can live according to his demands through his strength and not our own.