Why Can’t We Fix It?

Week of June 17, 2018

The Point:  We are unable to live up to God’s holy standard.

Obey the Lord:  Deuteronomy 5:32-33

[32] You shall be careful therefore to do as the LORD your God has commanded you. You shall not turn aside to the right hand or to the left. [33] You shall walk in all the way that the LORD your God has commanded you, that you may live, and that it may go well with you, and that you may live long in the land that you shall possess.   [ESV]

“Honor the Lord [5:23-6:3].  Once the Ten Commandments had been given to Moses he was under an obligation to serve the Lord as a responsible communicator, immediately sharing the truths which had been revealed to him. He had been commissioned to listen attentively to God’s word and then communicate it faithfully to the waiting people [31]. Truth is not only to be received but shared. There is a sense in which the teaching of this passage is a more detailed application of the first two commandments. Rich truth about their unique [5:6-7] and jealous [5:8] God is communicated both visually and vocally, as God’s people are taught to honor [5:23-6:3], love [6:4-5], confess [6:6-9], remember [6:10-12] and serve [6:13-25] the one and only [6:6] Lord. Once they crossed the Jordan, these travelers would soon be immersed in a culture and lifestyle which encouraged belief in a variety of pagan gods. From the start they must understand that the Lord is to be honored as the one and only true God who had an exclusive claim on their worship and allegiance. Unlike their pagan neighbors, they would honor their God best not by the multiplicity of sacrifices they offered but by their reverence for and obedience to Him. These twin truths were communicated to the waiting people visually and verbally. The Lord would be honored by their reverence. He chose to convey the sense of His holy and righteous presence by an awesome physical manifestation which would convince them beyond all doubt of the closeness, greatness and glory of God. They needed an outward and visible sign that God Himself was speaking to them and that their only appropriate response was to fear or reverence Him. He had revealed Himself in the fire, the cloud, and the thick darkness [5:22], dramatic visual proof of His immediate presence. An appropriate sense of awe and reverence prevents evil from gaining a firm foothold in our lives. Those who honor God shrink at the thought of grieving Him. The Lord would be honored by their obedience. That truth was conveyed vocally as the Lord told them with unmistakable clarity that His word was not simply to be heard, preserved, treasured and taught but obeyed. The people promised Moses that they would hear and do it [5:27], but God knew their instability, waywardness and disloyalty [5:29]. Through Moses therefore they were repeatedly urged to be careful therefore to do as the Lord your God has commanded you [5:32]. Deuteronomy constantly faces us with its plea for obedience: fear the Lord your God, you and your son and your son’s sons, by keeping all his statutes and his commandments, which I command you, all the days of your life [6:2-3]. The command to ‘do’ what God says occurs about fifty times in this book. Here, the Lord promised them that their willing response to the word would guarantee His unfailing provision for their varied needs [5:33].”  [Brown, pp. 94-96].

The Righteous Shall Live by Faith: Galatians 3:10-14,19-25.

[10] For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” [11] Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” [12] But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” [13] Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”– [14] so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

[19] Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. [20] Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. [21] Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. [22] But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. [23] Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. [24] So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. [25] But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian   [ESV]

[3:10-14].  “Paul continues to defend from the Old Testament in this text. He begins with the assertion that all those who rely on the law for justification are cursed. He provides the reason for this assertion in 3:10b-c by citing Deuteronomy 27:26, which maintains that those who do not keep the law are cursed. A new but related argument is given in in 3:11: justification cannot be obtained by keeping the law. The validity of this assertion is supported by the citation of Habakkuk 2:4, where the righteous are said to live by faith. In 3:12, Paul secures his argument with the third assertion, also introduced with but: justification by faith and by law are incompatible. He defends this assertion by quoting Leviticus 18:5, which shows that one who depends on the law for justification lives on the basis of the law. Therefore, faith is excluded as the pathway for blessing. In other words, verses 10-12 contain three assertions that build to a climax, showing that law and faith are incompatible, and they support the main thesis, namely, those who rely on the law in order to be justified are cursed. Verses 13-14, then, function by way of contrast to verses 10-12. Somewhat surprisingly Paul does not use an adversative conjunction to mark the disjunction here. Perhaps he omitted the conjunction to emphasize “Christ,” since that is the first word in verse 13. If the law brings a curse, the only way for the curse to be removed is by the cross of Christ. Hence, Paul asserts in verse 13 that Christ redeemed His people from the law’s curse. Paul explains the means by which the curse is removed in verse 13b: Christ became a curse for His people. The Old Testament support for this is Deuteronomy 21:23, which says that one who hangs on a tree is cursed. The central theme of verse 13 is Christ’s redemption of His people. Why did Christ redeem them? God’s intention is articulated in two purpose clauses in verse 14 (so that). He redeemed His people so that the blessing promised to Abraham would become a reality in the lives of Gentiles. Verse 14b most likely restates the blessing of Abraham. Hence, it does not introduce a new purpose clause but is coordinate with the purpose clause in verse 14a. In other words, the blessing of Abraham can also be described as the promised gift of the Holy Spirit.

Theology in Application.  In Galatians Paul argues that Gentiles who trust in Christ are truly members of the people of God. They do not need to be circumcised or keep the Torah to belong to Abraham’s family. A number of theological implications can be derived from this paragraph relative to Paul’s broader purpose. (1) God demands perfect obedience to be in a right relationship with Him. We see this in the garden of Eden. Adam and Eve are separated from God and sentenced to death for one sin. God does not summon them to trust Him from that point on and then award them life for their 90 percent obedience. No, their only hope for life is in the promise of a seed who will crush the head of the serpent [Gen. 3:15]. It follows, then, that those who pursue the law for justification are destined to fail since the law demands perfect obedience, and all without exception transgress God’s standards. The need for perfect obedience and the human inability to attain such is clear even in the Mosaic covenant since animal sacrifices were required for atonement. The need for sacrifices demonstrates that God requires all to obey perfectly, for only by means of sacrifices are sins removed. Moreover, it is clear in the Old Testament that all must offer sacrifices for atonement inasmuch as all without exception sin. With the coming of Christ the new era of salvation-history has arrived, and the Mosaic covenant is abrogated. Therefore, animal sacrifices cannot forgive the sins committed. The only means of atonement is the cross of Christ. It follows from the above that faith alone is the only way to be right with God. We cannot do anything to merit or earn God’s favor. Our works always fall short, and hence we trust what God has done for us in Christ for our salvation. Our salvation is by grace alone through faith alone. Faith is a needy cry for God, while works try to impress God. Faith is a hand reaching out for help, while works insist that no help is needed. Faith trusts that God alone can accomplish salvation, while works smuggle in human effort and cooperation. (2) This text also brings to center stage the substitutionary atonement of Christ. Paul clarifies that Christ’s atonement, in which he died in place of sinners, is the only hope for believers on the eschatological day of judgment. The doctrine of substitution is repulsive to some and debated by others, but it lies at the very heart of Pauline and biblical theology. It reminds each one of us that we cling to Christ’s righteousness alone as our hope on the last day. (3) The blessing of Abraham is fulfilled in part in the promise of the Holy Spirit. The blessing of Abraham was the missionary promise that all nations would be blessed through Abraham [Gen. 12:3]. It was unclear when Genesis was written that Abraham’s blessing would be fulfilled with the gift of the Spirit. But we saw above that such a connection is implied in Isaiah 44:3. Furthermore, a number of Old Testament texts indicate that God’s promises will only be realized through the coming of the Spirit [e.g., Ezek. 11:18-19; 36:26-27; Joel 2:28]. Paul explicitly identifies the blessing of Abraham with the presence of the Spirit here, showing the fulfillment of salvation history. How to Live in Light of Paul’s Message.  The truths Paul enunciates to the Galatians still speak to us today. First, we must relearn the gospel every day. We may think we already understand the gospel and hence can go on to something new. Almost inevitably we begin to think that we are morally superior to others. We begin to compare ourselves with those who are morally deficient to prop up our fragile egos. We forget how radically sinful we are, but the gospel reminds us that God’s standard is 100 percent perfection. Sin is so subtle that we can even begin to use our work, a gift of God if we enjoy it, as a way to congratulate ourselves about our virtue. If we are praised regularly in our work, it is easy to begin to think that God is impressed with us as well. Our theology can say that we are all sinners who often fall short, and yet we may live our lives day after day without seriously thinking about ourselves as sinners. Therefore, the message of the gospel becomes more and more distant from our real lives. Our sinfulness persists until the day of redemption, and to forget this is to forget the gospel. Second, we must cling to the cross of Christ alone. Focusing on our sinfulness could depress and discourage us, but God does not intend us to live with a constant feeling of failure and condemnation. Our sins should drive us to the cross of Christ, where the full payment was made for our sins. God’s love, then, becomes exceedingly precious in the way we think and feel in our everyday lives. We acknowledge our sins daily, but we cling to the cross of Christ as the means by which we are forgiven. Hence, when Satan accuses us, we remind ourselves that we are free from all guilt and condemnation (not because we are so good, but because God is so loving and forgiving). We live, then, in the joy and freedom of forgiveness. On the one hand, we are conscious of our sin. On the other hand, such knowledge does not cripple us, for the cross is our liberation and freedom from the curse of sin. Faith trusts in what God has done for us in Christ.”  [Schreiner, pp. 219-222].

[3:19-25].  “To understand this paragraph, we must follow the line of thought beginning in chapter 3. The Galatians were truly members of God’s people because they had received the Spirit of God [3:1-5]. Further, they were sons of Abraham and had received the blessing of Abraham through faith [3:6-9]. Those who attempt to be right before God by circumcision and works of law are cursed, whereas those who put their trust in Christ Jesus and His death have received the blessing of Abraham and the promise of the Spirit [3:10-14]. Beginning with 3:15 Paul focuses on salvation history. The covenant with Abraham is fundamental in the biblical story line, and the covenant with Moses is subsidiary to it since it came later [3:15-18]. The difference between promise and law is not merely temporal, for the inheritance is a gift in the covenant with Abraham, but it is gained by obedience in the Mosaic covenant. Hence, there is a fundamental opposition between the two covenants. If the Mosaic covenant is not an extension of the Abrahamic promise, what is the purpose of the law? Paul argues that the law was given to increase transgressions, that it was intended to be in force only until the Messiah came, and that the presence of a mediator shows that it is inferior to the promise [3:19-20]. But if the law and the promise have such different purposes, does it follow that the law is contrary to God’s promises? Paul’s answer is intriguing, for he argues that the law and the promise have different functions. The law could never grant righteousness, but it enclosed all under sin until Jesus Christ came [3:21-25]. Hence, the law was in force for an interim period in salvation history until the coming of Christ. Now that faith in Christ has come and the promise to Abraham is realized, believers are no longer under the Mosaic covenant and law. And if believers are not under the Mosaic covenant, then circumcision is unnecessary.

Theology in Application.  The Role of the Old Testament.  One of the central issues in biblical theology is the role of the law and the Sinai covenant. Paul does not often use the language of covenant when referring to the law, and yet it is clear from 3:15-18; 4:21-30; and 2 Corinthians 3:1-18 that the law, in Paul’s mind, is part of the Sinai covenant. As part of the Mosaic covenant, the law, according to this section of Galatians, is restricted to a certain era in the history of salvation. The interim character of the law and therefore of the Mosaic covenant is a distinctive and indeed revolutionary feature in Paul’s theology. Before Paul believed in Jesus Christ, he fervently believed what most Jews of his day asserted, that the law remained binding until the end of history. Rabbinic Judaism after the time of Paul also assumed and promoted the continuing validity of the law. Therefore, Paul’s notion that the promise to Abraham takes precedence over the law is a striking innovation. He read the Old Testament in terms of its story line and did not conceive of it as a flat entity that could be mined apart from the overall story. One cannot cite any part of the Old Testament as binding for people today (like circumcision, food laws, tithing, or Sabbath laws) without considering where such commands are in the entire story. The Old Testament as a whole must not be thought of as a gigantic book of Proverbs but must be read and interpreted in light of the unfolding story of redemption. Indeed, Paul makes it clear that the Mosaic law is not binding on believers today, for the Mosaic covenant is no longer the standard for believers. Of course, all of the Old Testament is part of sacred Scripture and is authoritative for believers. Still, the application of laws in the Mosaic covenant to today must be discerned in light of the entire story of redemption culminating in the coming of Jesus Christ. Clearly some of the commands of the Mosaic covenant are cited as authoritative for believers today, but whether and how commands from the Old Testament law apply to today cannot be resolved by simply appealing to a command in the Mosaic law. Virtually all those who proclaim the Scriptures argue that circumcision and food laws are no longer binding. But it seems that the same should be said about the Sabbath and tithing, for they are also tied to the Mosaic covenant. Many preachers insist that Christians must tithe today, but in most instances the reasons why this command of the Mosaic covenant is still normative remains unexplained, especially since the tithe went to the priests and was brought to Jerusalem. But it is obvious that the Old Testament priesthood is no longer in force today since Christ’s Melchizedekian priesthood has arrived [Heb. 7:1-10:18]. The Role of Law.  Another astonishing, at lease to Paul’s contemporaries, element of his teaching is the notion that the law, instead of restraining sin, provokes and exacerbates it. If immediate punishments follow infractions, then the law, of course, may restrain sin since human beings wish to avoid retribution. Paul does not address the role of the law restraining sin in Galatians [3:19] or Romans [5:20; 7:5,7-25]. The typical Jewish view was that the Torah was an agent for moral transformation. Hence, the popular saying, “the more study of the Law the more life”. The notion that the Torah led to life was common in Judaism. Certainly Paul must have concurred with such a view before his conversion. As a Christian, however, he was persuaded that the law actually incited human beings to sin, and indeed sin became even more insidious after the onset of the law since it was now colored by rebellion. Most secular people, and even many religious people, believe that moral education is the pathway to humane living. If we can only succeed in teaching “morals,” justice and truth will prevail. The Pauline view of the law and the goodness of human beings is much less optimistic. The law is not the solution but part of the problem. It does not follow, of course, that we should not teach moral principles. Still, any hope that morality is the answer flies in the face of the Pauline gospel. We will not curb the problem with sexual sin by making rules about sexual harassment. Many institutions and places of work have long handbooks on what is permitted and disallowed. Such rules are not necessarily bad, but Paul reminds us that they do not touch the human heart. Human beings may obey laws because they want to avoid getting in trouble, but the law itself grants no power to obey. Only the gospel truly transforms our hearts. God’s commands cannot transform those who hate God. Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard his spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to do evil [Jer. 13:23]. The law cannot produce life. It cannot change our nature. We cannot by rules and commands produce life. The Law and the Promises as Complementary.  Finally, the law and the promises are not contradictory but complementary in God’s purposes. One could easily conclude from this that the law and the promise have the same function, but Paul clarifies here that complementarity ought not to be confused with identity. The purposes are complementary but distinct. The promise secures the inheritance, whereas the law provides no power for righteousness and life. If the law frustrates the realization of the promise by revealing human disobedience, how does it harmonize with the promise? The law promotes the promise because it reveals to human beings the full extent and power of sin. Hence, the law drives us to Christ and the promise by teaching that the only hope of salvation lies not in ourselves but in Christ crucified. Consequently, teaching the law remains invaluable, for it punctures human pride and uncovers human sin. Luther rightly saw that one of the purposes of the law was that it convicted human beings of their sin and directed them to Christ for salvation. God uses the law and our failure to keep it to drive us to Christ. The law is a mirror that shows us our sin, and we despair of ourselves and turn to Christ and His cross and resurrection alone for our salvation. So, the law kills us, but we are not left in the state of death. Praise God, He grants us new life and hope in Christ!”  [Schreiner, pp. 235-252].

Questions for Discussion:

  1. In Deut. 5:23-6:25, the Israelites are taught to honor, love, confess, remember, and serve their unique and jealous God. In 5:32, Moses instructs the people that they can only perform these duties as they do as the Lord your God has commanded you. Where do you need to obey God in order to honor, love, confess, remember and serve Him?
  2. In Gal. 3:10-14, why is faith alone the only way to be right with God? Why is it impossible for humans to be justified by the law? What does faith accomplish that the law cannot? Why is faith able to accomplish this? How does this truth impact the way you live your life?
  3. In Gal. 3:19-25, what is the purpose of the law? Why does Paul call the law a guardian? What is the relationship between the law and the promise?


The Message of Deuteronomy, Raymond Brown, Inter Varsity.

Galatians, Thomas Schreiner, Zondervan.

The Message of Galatians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

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