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From Captives to Sons


Galatians 3:7-9, 22-27 (text); Genesis 15:1-6

May 10, 2015 (Pasig Covenant Reformed Church and Trinity Covenant Reformed Church)

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papyrus_scrollThis is why they are often called “Judaizers.” Because of these false teachers, there was confusion and division within the church.

Among Paul’s letters to the churches, this letter to the Galatians is the most critical and severe of all. Nevertheless, by writing this letter, Paul does not consider the situation as hopeless, saying, “Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” (3:4).

These false teachers not only required the Gentiles circumcision, but even other requirements of Jewish law, such as dietary laws and feasts. Paul was telling them that they had been“bewitched” by these false teachers by going back to their captivity and slavery to the whole law. He didn’t mince words, calling them “foolish” in adding works under the law to the perfect freedom from the impossibility of completely obeying the law through faith alone in Christ alone.

This is the great dilemma of all who think that they are basically good people, and that the good works are good enough to get a ticket to heaven. In his homily just last Wednesday at the Vatican, Pope Francis said, “The Lord has redeemed all of us with the Blood of Christ: all of us, not just Catholics. Everyone! ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.” Clearly, this Pope, like many other Popes before him, believe in salvation by works alone, and not in faith alone, nor even in faith and works together. But there are Reformed people who have a very similar teaching about salvation, saying that “there is a separate and final justification grounded partly upon righteousness or sanctity inherent in the Christian.” (emphasis added) 1 Is this anywhere close to what Paul says?

Absolutely not! This is light-years away from what Paul is saying. Because under the law, they are captives and slaves of sin, but through faith in Christ, are now children of God.

“Captives Under the Law”

In verses 7-9, Paul explains to the confused Galatians that even in the Old Testament, when God’s chosen people were given the law, those of faith are the ones who are counted righteous by God. They are the recipients of God’s promises to Abraham. And one of these promises is the multitude of nations that would be blessed through him, the man of faith.

But then Paul says that the law was given so that the Jews would know their sin, and the impossibility of obeying God’s law perfectly. Therefore, all those who think that they will be justified by obedience to the law are under the curse of the law, “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (Rom 3:9-10).

But Paul knew what the Galatians would ask next, for if no one will be saved by obedience to the law, then what happens to God’s promises to Abraham that multitudes will be blessed? “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God?” Paul answers, “Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal 3:21). The law can never give anyone life, only the curse of sin and death. If God intended obedience to the law as the way of life, then righteousness would then come by the law.

hands of a prisoner on prison barsThis is such bad news to the whole world. How then can anyone be saved? Everyone is a sinner, and there is no salvation through good works. We’re all under the curse of sin and death brought about by our first parents’ sin in the Garden of Eden. Paul likens the whole world to prisoners, “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed” (Gal 3:23). No escape, no way out. In fact, the whole world is in death row, “For the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). Because of Adam’s sin, “death spread to all men” (Rom 5:12).

If the law serves no other purpose but to point out our sin and its curse of death, why did God give the law to his chosen people? Earlier in verse 19, Paul gives an answer, “It was added because of transgressions.” God’s law reveals and points out our sinfulness, as he says in Romans 3:20, “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 3 restates this, “From where do you know your misery? A. From the Law of God.”

Many Christians today mistakenly say that believers are not under law, but under grace. So they ignore the Ten Commandments, and even the whole Old Testament altogether, again mistakenly saying that the Old Testament is equal to law. Only the New Testament is gracious. Why should we bother with it? When they visit our church, they are bothered when we read the Decalogue or other texts we call the law. Doesn’t the writer of the Hebrews say that the law is obsolete?

Yes, there are two kinds of laws that have become obsolete with the coming of Christ. Christ has fulfilled all that is required of him under the law (Matt 5:17; Rom 10:4). He has fulfilled all ceremonial laws, as he is the once-for-all Great High Priest of his people. Also, all the laws pertaining to the life of Israel have since expired, since Israel has served its purpose as a type of the church, “the Israel of God” (Gal 6:16). The church has fulfilled Israel’s calling as “a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession” (Exo 19:5-6; 1 Pet 2:9).

But Paul says that the moral law, the Decalogue, still serves a purpose. To unbelievers, the law points to their hopeless sinfulness. To their imprisonment in Death Row. There’s no escaping the yoke of sin and death under the law. As a former Pharisee, Paul knew what it was like to be a captive of the law, strictly obeying all its littlest details, but still knowing that it is sorely lacking. This is because “the work of the law is written on [ubelievers’] hearts” by God, but “by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 2:14-15; 1:18-21).

Therefore, Paul says that before Christ came, the moral law was our “guardian,” a Greek word from which we get the word “pedagogue.” So is the law our tutor or schoolmaster before faith comes? In the first-century Graeco-Roman world, a pedagogue is a slave who watches over his master’s children throughout the day. He sees to it that the children do not violate their father’s rules. He keeps them safe from any harm. But he is not like today’s “tutors” who give educational instruction.

So then the law points us to our sinfulness. And it guards and restrains us from committing sins. This is why before faith in Christ comes, we are captives and prisoners of the law. How then does anyone escape from this law-prison with its watchful guard?

“Sons of God Through Faith”

bolton_law_gospelPaul answers in verse 22, “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” Faith in Christ! This is diametrically opposed to the law that tells unbelievers to do all they can to obey the law to be right with God. Earlier in verses 7-9, Paul says that God “preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham.” What was this gospel? “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” How are the nations going to be blessed? “Those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Therefore, even in Genesis 15:6, Moses says, “And he believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (see also Rom 4:3).

What was this faith that Abraham had? It was faith in one of his descendants, his “offspring, who is Christ” (3:16), who was promised to him. So Paul repeats the contrast between the law that imprisons sinners, and the gospel of faith and promise in Christ that releases sinners from this captivity. In verse 19, we were all captives to the law of sin, “until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” In verses 22-23, we were prisoners of sin “so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe … until the coming faith would be revealed.” And in verse 24, were were under the guardianship of the law, “until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.”

Finally, in verse 26, we “are all sons of God, through faith” in Christ. Do you know how glorious this is? Jesus is the only-begotten eternal Son of God. But through faith in him, we too have become “sons of God.” Christ redeemed us from the law, “so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal 4:4-5). Jesus is the firstborn Son of God, but we too are also called firstborn children of God, “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven” (Heb 12:23). In the first-century world, adopted children were counted as natural children, with equal rights and privileges, including being legal heirs. Therefore, just as Christ as the firstborn has an inheritance from his Father—the multitudes of believing peoples and nations promised to Abraham—we too will be given an inheritance (Gal 3:29; 4:7). What is this inheritance? Salvation, eternal life and dwelling with God, glory, and all the spiritual blessings in the heavenly places.

So God not only uses the law to convict sinners of their hopeless sinfulness, but also to drive them to Christ. When a sinner chosen by God hears the preaching of the law, the Holy Spirit convicts him of his sin. Then when the gospel of Christ’s perfect life, sacrificial death for his sin, and his resurrection from the dead for his salvation, the Holy Spirit drives him to his Savior Jesus Christ. He believes in the eternal Son of God, repents of his sin, and asks forgiveness from God. He is saved!

What about those of you who are already believers? Do you still need to hear the law and gospel preached to them every Lord’s Day? Many Christians do not think so, since they have been convicted of their sin and have repented on the day they were saved. But do we stop sinning after we are saved? No, we do not. We continue to sin everyday of our lives until our last day on earth. And this is why we so need to hear the law every Lord’s Day, in fact, every day. We are forgetful people, who have to be constantly reminded of our violations of the law, and Christ’s commandment to repent of our sins and confess them before God. We need to be driven into the arms of our merciful Mediator every time we sin.

For several quotes on the law-gospel distinction, see “Law and Gospel from a Bunch of Dead Lutherans.”

All Christians struggle with problems with their families, spouses, finances, jobs, and many other things in life. But all these problems are rooted in one thing: man’s sinful nature. And how is sin restrained? By being convicted of sin, and by knowing that the gospel of Christ has conquered sin only through the holy Gospel (HC Q&A 18 and 19).

And this constant reminder of God’s law and sin also helps both unbelievers and believers. With the law written on the conscience of unbelievers, they are aware of their violations. They know disobedience to parents, murder, adultery, stealing, lying and greed are all against their own conscience. Even whole nations and societies have laws against these crimes.

What about believers? In verse 27, Paul tells the Galatian believers that they have been “baptized into Christ,” which means they have been united to Christ in his sufferings, death and resurrection. Therefore, they “have put on Christ.” Putting on Christ means putting off sin. We are to remove sin in our lives, put sin to death. And then we are to dress in righteousness and holiness. Paul puts it this way in Colossians 3:9-10: you “have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self.” Then we will see God’s purpose in writing the law in our hearts: that we may obey his commandments with thankfulness, delight and diligence. So that whenever we do not, we are driven back to our Savior!

Beloved Christian Friends: The law and gospel work together for our salvation and holiness. Although they are distinct, they cannot be separated. Where do we find them? Only in God’s Word. We find both law and gospel in the Old Testament and in the New Testament. Whenever we read something like Leviticus 18:5, “Do this and you shall live,” it is law. But whenever we read something that assures us that “Christ has done it and fulfilled it” (Rom 10:4), it is gospel.

But good works in obedience to the law can never save anyone. Only the gospel of the grace of God through faith in Christ can. Those who strive to be right with God through obedience to the law are captives of sin, living in death row, waiting for Judgment Day. If you are one of these prisoners, there is a way to freedom, even freedom from death row. Repent and believe in Christ the Savior, who has done all the perfect obedience required by God for you who can not and will not obey.

When you do, you will be freed from your captivity to sin, and become children of God. All the benefits of eternal life are yours. The law of the Lord will then be your desire more than gold, sweeter than honey to your lips (Psa 19:10). Now you have salvation from sin, and the law as a lamp to your feet and a light to your path through the Spirit (Psa 119:105). And in eternity, you will have a glorious inheritance in heaven where God and Christ will dwell with you forever.

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  1. “Nine Points of Schererville,” by the 2007 Synod of the United Reformed Churches in North America.