Laws are important for society. On the early mining frontier, many towns sprang up around strike areas. These were often terrible places to visit or live. For a long time, there were no laws. Crime was rampant. Vigilante groups finally arose to give some semblance of law and order.
Without laws, chaos would reign. For those who choose to break laws, punishment awaits. This is the deterrent so they might obey. Yet it is impossible to legislate morality. We can never make people moral; they must choose morality. Having laws does not keep people from breaking them. The rise in criminal activity is proof. Only God can create in people the desire to be more than they normally are. The flip side is that we are promised not to be punished if we obey the law.
Paul has reminded the Galatians that faith is the only way to have a relationship with God. If this was not enough, he appealed to the example of Abraham, father of the faithful. He proved from Scripture that God accepted Abraham because he believed God’s promise. He reminded them that all who tried to live under the law were under a curse because one would have to perfectly obey the law and this was impossible. The obvious question now is what was the purpose of the law. If the law could not make one right with God, why did God give it?
Paul also probably anticipated another question from the Judaizers. True, God accepted Abraham by faith, but when he gave the law to Moses the way of salvation changed. Obedience to the law was now the way of salvation. Abraham and others who lived before the law were saved by faith because they did not have the law.
In these verses, Paul answers this imaginary argument. He shows how God’s covenant with Abraham was unconditional. God based it on his faithfulness to the people whereas the covenant with Moses was based on the people’s faithfulness to God. They would be unfaithful, but God would remain faithful. Thus the Mosaic covenant was conditional while the covenant with Abraham was unconditional. The promise made by God to Abraham was superior to the one made with Moses.
Now the law had a purpose. It was to demonstrate to people that they were totally sinful. It showed them they did not have the ability to obey God. They would miss the mark every time. Mercy and grace were needed. The law could never provide these. It was obedience or else. Only the promise of God could bring mercy and grace. The law was designed to drive people to a desperate state of guilt. Paul later says the law was a “tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith.” The law would show a person their living was more than just wrong—it was a sin against God.
While the covenant of the law is long past, it is still necessary to teach and preach the moral and ethical standards of the law to drive people to Christ. Only as people know they are living in violation of God’s law will they appeal to him for help. Only as they see themselves under God’s judgment will they cry out for his grace and mercy. People must know they have offended God before they will see the need for forgiveness. Had the law truly been able to save anyone, there would have been no need for the promise of God nor for God to send Christ to do for individuals what they could not do for themselves. If the law could save people, there would be conflicting ways of salvation. This would have made the death of Christ unnecessary.
Why then is the promise of God superior to the law?
GOD CONFIRMED HIS PROMISE
The covenant of promise made to Abraham and all his spiritual descendants was irrevocable and unchangeable. Covenant refers to a binding agreement and is sometimes used to refer to wills or testaments. A covenant agreement involves two or more people.
God made a covenant promise with Abram. He assured him his servant, Eliezer, would not be his heir. His wife would have a son. He further promised that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. This referred to physical and spiritual descendants. Because Abram believed God, God accepted him. This covenant was based on the faithfulness of God, not Abraham’s faithfulness to God. It was an unconditional covenant.
A ceremony common in the Near East ratified the covenant. Abram took a heifer, a female goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon. He cut them in half and laid the two halves of the animal opposite one another. At sunset, God caused a deep sleep to overcome Abram. The Lord then symbolically passed through the halves in the form of a smoking oven and flaming torch. Ordinarily, both parties would walk through the halves. That only God passed through symbolized God was making a covenant with himself that was unilateral and unconditional.
Now if covenants made by individuals with each other are binding, how much more a covenant made by God with himself. The covenant of promise made to Abraham was superior because God confirmed it.
GOD’S PROMISE IS CHRIST-CENTERED
This promise was made to Abraham and his seed. Paul says this does not refer to seeds in the plural but to his seed. He interprets this seed to be Christ. This covenant made with Abraham, a covenant of faith, is directly related to the new covenant established by God through his Son, Jesus Christ. Thus the covenant of law could not interrupt this promise even though the law was given in the intermediate time period.
Christ fulfilled all the promises given to Abraham in the covenant. The only way a person can become a spiritual heir of Abraham is to have faith in Christ even as Abraham did. He trusted God, and God reckoned this to him as righteousness.
The message of salvation has always been the same. Whether before Christ or after his coming, faith has always been the way of salvation. The perfect offering of Christ of himself on the cross took away the sins of the world. All the millions of sacrifices performed under the law and before it could never do this. Now to be sure, believers before Christ did not know any specifics about him. They anticipated the coming of the Messiah and the work he would do. Some misunderstood what his role would be. Nevertheless, faith has always been the way of salvation. Believers before the cross looked forward to the work of Christ while we who live on this side of the cross look backward to the completed work of Christ.
The covenant of law had a purpose, whatever that might have been. The fact that it came after God made his covenant of promise with Abraham did not change the way of salvation. It was always by faith, and this covenant is superior because it was Christ-centered.
GOD’S PROMISE WAS TIMED PERFECTLY
Paul reminds his readers and us that the law came four hundred and thirty years after the covenant with Abraham. He is careful to point out that this does not invalidate the previous covenant made with Abraham. No amount of time could nullify the promise God made to Abraham.
But even the covenant with Abraham did not establish the principle of salvation by faith. That was the way it always was from the beginning of time. The covenant with Abraham only verified this.
GOD’S PROMISE WAS COMPLETE
Paul speaks of the law and promise as mutually exclusive. If our inheritance is based on the law, it is not based on the promise, and vice versa. Salvation based on the law depends on humans completely and perfectly obeying it. This can never happen. Salvation based on the promise of God depends on God’s power, and he alone had the power to save us.
God granted this promise to Abraham and his descendants. The term granted means to give graciously. It also points to the permanent character of the inheritance. One way is by law and our obedience to it, which is the futile way. The other way is by God’s grace and our faith which is very possible. Though we cannot succeed in obeying the law perfectly, God cannot fail in keeping his promise to Abraham and his descendants.
We do not earn this inheritance of salvation by our obedience, but God gives it freely by his grace. We cannot work for that which God guarantees only by faith. We cannot earn what must be freely given. We cannot add the works of the law to the message of grace. To do so, nullifies the grace of God.