Law or Promise?
Galatians 4:31: “So then, brothers, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.”
Dear Christian Friends,
Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to address a very specific controversy. It may seem like a small thing, but Paul goes to great lengths to show how it is the biggest thing of all.
There were some false teachers, that we call the Judaizers, who were teaching something that sounds kind of reasonable on the face of it: that it was necessary for Christians to follow the Jewish customs. In particular, Christians also needed to be circumcised and follow the Jewish dietary laws. This seems like just a tiny addition to the Gospel, which tells us that we are saved by grace alone through faith in Christ’s innocent suffering and death. But is it really such a small addition? What difference does it make, really?
Many, but by no means all, of the earliest Christians were Jews who had grown up in the Jewish ways. They followed the Jewish Law because to them it wasn’t the Jewish Law, it was the Law, period. Their fathers had followed it, and so had their fathers for thousands of years. It was what they knew, the fact that they had the Law was proof that they were God’s chosen people. The Law had been given by God himself, through Moses!
But even before Moses, was Abraham. Abraham was not always Abraham – he started out as Abram, and he was seen as the father of the Hebrews. This is because God made him a promise – a very important promise, the promise of a Savior. He was not the first to hear such a promise; the first ones to hear it were Adam and Eve, just after they fell into sin and were expelled from the Garden of Eden. But God re-iterated that promise to Abram – Gen 12:3 “And I will bless those that bless you and curse the one who curses you. And in you shall all families of the earth be blessed.” How else can all the families of the world be blessed in Abraham, except by the promise of a Savior from their sins?
A further promise was that Abram would have numerous children (though he had no children at the time this promise was made, and, in fact, Abram’s servant Eliezer of Damascus was due to inherit his estate): Gen 15:5-6 “And He brought him outside and said, Look now toward the heavens and count the stars, if you are able to count them. And He said to him, So shall your seed be. And he believed in the LORD. And He counted it to him for righteousness.”
It is very important – crucial, in fact – that at the time God made these promises to Abram that the covenant of circumcision had not yet been established. This would come later, after Abram and his wife Sarai tried to hurry God’s timeline along by giving Hagar, Sarai’s slave, to Abraham, who then bore a son named Ishmael. But Ishmael was not the son that God had promised – that would be Isaac, who would be Abram’s natural son with Sarai. God promised Isaac to Abram, changed Abram and Sarai’s names to Abraham and Sarah, and established his covenant of circumcision all at the same time, in Genesis chapter 17. And this covenant of circumcision, and later the addition of the Mosaic Law, would define the nation of Israel until that promised Messiah would come.
But what does this have to do with our Galatians, and what does it have to do with us?
To us, it may seem that asking people to follow the Jewish law in addition to believing in Christ is no big deal. But here, Paul is making the point that it is the biggest deal in the world. Why should that be?
The Law claims to be a path to salvation. And in a very real way, it is – the Law is very simple – follow it perfectly, and you can be saved. The rules might be simple, but following them is another thing entirely. Let’s take a look at the Law – what does it require of us?
As Jesus said, “Love the Lord God with all your heart, soul, strength and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” That’s the summary, at least – getting into all the details of the Jewish ceremonial law covers most of the books of Exodus, Leviticus, and Deuteronomy. Eat this, don’t eat that, males must be circumcised eight days after being born. There are many, many other laws but these were the most important ones in the Galatian Judaizer controversy. There are many other aspects of the Law, including the moral law – the thing we most closely associate with the ten commandments. Those still very much apply to us, and while we often try to minimize or deny it, we have an incredibly hard time following even those laws. They are expressed as the most serious possible offenses, in most cases – murder, theft, adultery. Surely we are not murderers! Surely we are not thieves! We haven’t committed adultery, have we?
And yet our consciences tell us that even if we haven’t committed these exact acts, we have given in to temptations to do things like this. Maybe we haven’t committed murder … but I bet we have all let our anger get the best of us, and spoken in anger to someone, maybe even someone we love. We may not have robbed a bank, but have we dawdled, or goofed off, or not made the best use of our time? I know that I certainly have. The world has so many opportunities to tempt us to have sexual desire for those we should not desire. Do we flee temptation, or do we give in sometimes? This is what the Law demands of us – perfect obedience to every single command. No exceptions, no do-overs, and it does not matter if anyone else saw us or not, or knew about it – perfection means perfection, and nothing less is good enough. Each time we break God’s Law we are guilty of sin, and sin separates us from God. Paul says this very eloquently in his letter to the Romans, 3:23: “For all have sinned and come short of the glory of God.”
The prophet Ezekiel writes: 18:20 “The soul that sins, it shall die.” Not just the soul that sins a lot, or sins in really obvious ways, but the soul that sins. Period. Sin separates us from God and from eternal life – when we sin, we can no longer be counted righteous, cannot claim the right to stand before God and live with him forever.
But let’s go back to Genesis for a moment. Remember that Abram trusted God before he followed the Law, before he even had the Law to follow? And remember how God credited that to him as righteousness? God credits righteousness to us in exactly the same way, when we trust his promises in the Gospel.
What has God promised to us? Paul goes on in his letter to the Romans: 3:24-26 “Being justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus; whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in His blood, to declare His righteousness through the passing by of the sins that had taken place before, in the forbearance of God; for the display of His righteousness at this time, for Him to be just and, forgiving the one being of the faith of Jesus.”
God has promised us the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation through the sacrifice of Jesus, his Son – and when we trust in that, we can and are counted as righteous in God’s sight. It wasn’t circumcision that saved Abraham; it was the faith that laid hold of God’s promise to bless all nations through his seed, who was not yet born.
So, then, circumcision and the Law followed God’s promise to Abram, and did not set that promise aside in any way. Further, they are a weaker covenant that was given to remind Israel of their coming Savior, to be shadows or types that point to Christ, and Paul says in his letter to the Colossians: 2:16-17 “Therefore let no one judge you in food or in drink, or in respect of a holy day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbaths. For these are a shadow of things to come, but the body is of Christ.”
That is the difference between Hagar and Sarah. Being the child of Hagar, the slave woman, means trusting in our own merit and works to be righteous before God. Being the child of Sarah means trusting in God’s promises to forgive our sins out of his own mercy, for Christ’s sake. Being the child of Hagar, after coming to faith, really means turning one’s back on God’s mercy, which is the biggest deal in the world, and leads to eternal condemnation. Salvation must come by one means or the other – it must either come from our own merit, or it must come from God’s mercy and Christ’s sacrifice. If it is a mixture of the two (our merit and Christ’s merit), Christ’s merit disappears because the difference then is only our own merit.
Our great Lutheran forebears understood this, and confessed boldly when their lives were on the line to this truth. These are the words of Philip Melanchthon in the Apology, or Defense of the Augsburg Confession (Article IX, Part 7), which show that there will always be those that try to blur this crucial distinction between Law and Gospel, and risk the destruction of the Gospel message:
“But our adversaries absolutely abolish the free promise when they deny that faith justifies, and teach that for the sake of love and of our works we receive remission of sins and reconciliation. If the remission of sins depends upon the condition of our works, it is altogether uncertain. [For we can never be certain whether we do enough works, or whether our works are sufficiently holy and pure. Thus, too, the forgiveness of sins is made uncertain, and the promise of God perishes, as Paul says, Rom. 4, 14: The promise is made of none effect, and everything is rendered uncertain.] Therefore the promise will be abolished. Hence we refer godly minds to the consideration of the promises, and we teach concerning the free remission of sins and concerning reconciliation, which occurs through faith in Christ. Afterward, we add also the doctrine of the Law. [Not that by the Law we merit the remission of sins, or that for the sake of the Law we are accepted with God, but because God requires good works.] And it is necessary to divide these things aright, as Paul says, 2 Tim. 2, 15. We must see what Scripture ascribes to the Law, and what to the promises. For it praises works in such a way as not to remove the free promise [as to place the promise of God and the true treasure, Christ, a thousand leagues above it].
“For good works are to be done on account of God’s command, likewise for the exercise of faith [as Paul says, Eph. 2, 10: We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works], and on account of confession and giving of thanks. For these reasons good works ought necessarily to be done, which, although they are done in the flesh not as yet entirely renewed, that retards the movements of the Holy Ghost, and imparts some of its uncleanness, yet, on account of Christ, are holy, divine works, sacrifices, and acts pertaining to the government of Christ, who thus displays His kingdom before this world.”
So far Melanchthon and our Lutheran confessors.
While it is crucial to understand how our righteousness does not depend on us following the Law, it is also important to understand that that does not mean that the Law is useless to us as believers. Indeed, it is only as believers in Christ that we can begin to follow the Law and do good works, which are pleasing to God. The Law shows us what works we should do – not out of fear of going to hell, but out of love and thankfulness to God for his great mercy.
So, then, let us hold fast to God’s promises, and let us take great joy in being the children of the free woman, Sarah. Let us rejoice that we are saved by the same faith that Abraham had – trust in the promises of a merciful God, who above all loves us, and sent his Son to pay the ransom for our sins. And let us remember that our thankfulness and love will show itself in good works – not because we are trying to earn God’s favor, or because we believe we must do good works to earn salvation, but because we know that our sin has been paid for, our entire debt has been paid by the price Christ paid on the cross, and our hearts can only break out in thankfulness and gratitude to God and service to one another. In doing all of these things, we will be children of the free woman, as Paul says we should be.
In Christ’s name, Amen.