The law does not justify, faith in Jesus does. If you live by the law then you are under a curse. It’s difficult to read these statements as anything but derogatory about the law. It cannot save and it actually condemns, so what exactly is the purpose of the law? Is there anything good about it at all?
Paul poses this very question in Galatians 3:19. He recognizes that the previous 18 verses have seemingly diminished and undermined the law of God, the very commands God gave his people as a means of being set apart for holiness as his own. Rather than doing what we are often so prompt to do and taking an extreme position Paul answers it in a sequence of clarifying statements adding depth and nuance to our understanding of God’s plan and purpose.
First, the law was “added for the sake of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come.” (v.19) Paul clarifies this a few verses later in 3:24 when says “the law, then, was our guardian until Christ.” The Old Testament law was a protective measure, a gift from God to show his people what sin was, what honoring him required, and to guide them to an understanding of righteousness.
Second, makes abundantly clear that the law is not contrary or in opposition to the promise of God to save through Jesus. In 3:21 he explains that the law was not given with the ability to give life. It was never designed to be the means of justification. Following the law without faith was never salvific. God gave the law to protect his people, guide his people, and teach his people their need for a true and perfect savior.
Jeremiah 31 helps us understand the connection between the law (old covenant) and the promise of Jesus (new covenant). In verses 31-34 the Lord declares that he will make a new covenant, not like the old one which Israel broke (and like we break the law). This covenant will be written on their hearts, that is, it will be believed by faith and given by the Spirit. The old covenant law paves the way for the new covenant. Hebrews 10:1 clarifies even further by describing the law as “shadow of good things to come.” The sacrifices and rituals of the old covenant law could never purify and never justify, but they echoed forward to the promised saving sacrifice of Jesus.
So what was the purpose of the law? It protected. It foreshadowed. It echoed. This was God’s intention, not to save through the law but to create a family for himself: “Through faith you are all sons of God in Christ Jesus.” Before Jesus their faith was in the one true God and a coming savior, and it was credited to them as righteousness. Since Jesus’ ascension our faith is in him as the perfect sacrifice, the mediator and great high priest, and the coming King.
Written by Barnabas Piper