The Thirteenth Sunday after Trinity

September 14, 2014

“The Law and the Promise”

Galatians 3:15-22


Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: though it is only a man's covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it.  Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, "and to seeds," as of many, but as of one, "and to your Seed," who is Christ.  And this I say, that the law, which was four hundred and thirty years later, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect.  For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise.  What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator.  Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one.  Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.  But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Galatians 3:15-22



Last Sunday we talked about the difference between God’s law and his gospel.  The law kills us while the gospel gives us life.  We don’t trust in the law to save us.  That would be embracing a religion of death.


The proper distinction between the law and the gospel is a vital skill for us Christians to learn.  If we can learn to distinguish between these two main teachings of God’s word we can learn what faith and life are all about.  The law teaches us about life.  It tells us how to live.  You want to live a good life?  Obey the Ten Commandments.  Gather together all the successful living books you bought from the Christian bookstore and burn them.  Fire your therapist, your counselor, and anyone else who is peddling the latest psychobabble about how to turn the dysfunctional into the functional.  Stop watching those awful television shows that feature know-it-all ignoramuses who couldn’t even recite to you the Ten Commandments.  Then get a copy of Luther’s Small Catechism and memorize it.  Memorize the explanations to the Ten Commandments.  Do that.  Then do what those commandments tell you to do.  This is the way to live your life.  The law teaches you how to live.


The gospel teaches you what to believe.  It doesn’t teach you how to live.  When we talk about living our lives we’re talking about what we do and do not do.  But the gospel is not about what we do or do not do.  It is about what we believe.  We don’t do the gospel.  God does.  The gospel is what we believe and by believing receive and it is all about what Jesus Christ did and suffered.  What we believe, what we trust, that on which we rely for life, is the promise of God concerning Christ. 


Listen to what Moses writes in the book of Genesis about the promise God gave to Abraham concerning Christ.  In Genesis 12:3 God says to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”  What does this mean: “in you”?  In Genesis 22:18 God says to Abraham, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed.”  Who is the seed of Abraham?  Who is the promised Descendant of Abraham in whom all the nations of the earth would be blessed?  He is none other than Jesus Christ, true God, begotten from his Father from eternity and true man, born of the Virgin Mary.  He is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.  He fulfilled the promise when he became sin for us.  He, who knew no sin, became sin.  He, the Source of divine blessing, was cursed for us.  He bore the curse of the law as the sin of the whole world was imputed to him.  Isaac was spared on Mt. Moriah when the Angel of the Lord told Abraham not to kill him, his son, his only son, whom he loved.  The Angel of the Lord was none other than God’s Son, his only Son, whom he loved.  Two thousand years later, he was to be the Sacrifice that Isaac was not.


Abraham was a Christian.  He trusted in the Seed who would not be born for another two thousand years.  Through faith in Christ, Abraham was reckoned by God to be righteous.  As Moses writes and as St. Paul cites, “And he believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”  God promised.  Abraham believed the promise.  God reckoned Abraham to be righteous.  He was righteous for Christ’s sake.  There is no other way to become righteous than through faith in Christ.  Abraham is the model of faith because he trusted in Christ.


The promise God gave to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the promise he gives to us and this promise is the foundation and source and strength of our lives. 


The gospel gives us the life to live.  The law tells us what God wants us to do as we live this life the gospel gives us to live.  The law doesn’t give us the life to live.  Only the promise, that is, only the gospel can give us life.  The message of St. Paul in today’s Epistle Lesson is quite simple.  You cannot trump the gospel with the law.  You cannot appeal to the law as the way to eternal life when God has already established that it only through faith in the gospel that anyone receives eternal life.


To prove his point, the Apostle argues from the legitimacy of a human contract.  You make a deal, you keep the deal.  You cannot sign it and then annul it or add to it or dismiss it as having no effect.  In Bible times, contracts were not signed with ink on paper.  They were cut and sealed with blood.  A covenant was cut.  That’s how it was made.  Paul sets forth a simple and irrefutable argument against those who teach that we gain eternal life by obeying the law.  He points out that Abraham received eternal life by God’s gracious promise.  Abraham trusted in the gospel God gave him and through faith he was righteous.  God told Abraham that the promise was to him and to his Seed.  The Seed was Christ.  The promise cannot be annulled, vitiated, violated, denied, or abrogated by the law.  This would make God into a liar and God cannot lie.  God told Abraham that the inheritance of life was by the promise, that is, by the gospel.  If a human contract must be honored for the sake of honor, how much more must the New Testament in Christ’s blood be honored?  It’s either by law or by promise.  It cannot be both.  To teach that we inherit life from God by means of obeying the law is to deny Christ and that God will not tolerate.


Well then, what’s the point of the law?  Why did God give the law if not to make us righteous?  Paul tells us why.  He says,


It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.


The law was added because of transgressions, Paul writes.  It was given to point out what are and are not transgressions; what is and is not sin.  It was given as well to curb sin so that folks could live in safety, where home, marriage, lives, property, and honor were protected.  The law exists on account of sin. 


The word “law” as it is used in the Bible doesn’t refer only to the Ten Commandments.  It refers also to the five books of Moses.  The law contains much more than the moral code that God gave.  It includes also the religious rituals that God required his Old Testament Church to follow.  These rituals pointed forward to Christ.  Paul points out that the law was added “till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.”  The Law of Moses served the promise.  Remember that!  The law serves the promise.  It serves the promise by showing you your sin, as St. Paul writes:


For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law.  But the Scripture has confined all under sin.


The Bible says everyone is a sinner.  If you read the Bible and don’t learn that you are a sinner who needs to be righteous but is not righteous, you are not paying attention.  The primary purpose of God’s law is to teach us that true righteousness cannot come by our obeying the law.  We need someone else to obey the law in our stead and that someone is Christ.  The law leads us to Christ by destroying our faith in ourselves and our own righteousness.  The law does not elicit faith.  It prepares us for faith.  As St. Paul writes:


But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.


The promise is by faith.  It is given to those who believe.  It does not say that it is given to those who obey.  It says it is given to those who believe.  Do those who believe obey?  Yes, they do.  They obey imperfectly, and this imperfect obedience comes from the perfect righteousness they have received from Christ.  They obey because they are righteous.  They do not obey to become righteous.  They are already righteous through faith in Christ for whose sake God reckons them to be righteous.  Righteous people do righteous things.  As Jesus says, “A good tree bears good fruit.”


As long as people follow the world’s wisdom they will be confused about how to distinguish law and gospel.  They will turn the gospel into a new law, robbing themselves and others of the assurance of eternal life that only the pure gospel can provide.  They will change the law of God that shows them their sins into something that won’t be so demanding, something they can obey, something that will make them feel good about themselves.  Don’t fall for this deceit.  The end of it is death.  You need God’s law, not only because it alone will guide you according to true standards of right and wrong, but because it will show you your sin and your need for a Savior.  Remember Paul’s words,


For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. 


But no such law has been given.  We have something better: the promise.  Against everything the wise of this world would expect, the great moralists would teach, and the highest and most noble thoughts natural man could possibly achieve, there is a righteousness God gives freely to undeserving sinners who lie helpless in their sin and hunger and thirst for a righteousness they do not have.  God gives this righteousness freely for Christ sake.  Those who trust in this promise are saints.  They are righteous for Christ’s sake.  The gospel gives them lives to live.  The law shows them how to live.  And when the law accuses them, they don’t make excuses or deny the truth.  They repent of their sins, run to Christ, and claim as their own the promise God gave to father Abraham. 


Rolf D. Preus


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