The Relationship between Law and Grace


As many of you know, we have a 9 month old little girl. She is precious and we love her dearly, but I am quickly being reminded of what happens when you have a young child…they get into everything! A little baby doesn’t know what things are dangerous to get into, what things are safe to get into, and what things aren’t dangerous, but really annoy their parents when they get into them. So, we try to teach them. With babies, we start by trying to teach them what things they need to stay away from, and as time goes on, we teach them more complex things, like how to behave properly. For parents, the chief task of childhood is teaching our children the rules of life, teaching them how to live properly.

Here’s the interesting thing. No matter how many rules we give our children, no matter how hard we work to teach them the right thing, it is still no guarantee that they will actually do what is right. We can give them the clearest explanation of the rules in the world, and they can understand them perfectly, but the rules themselves do not create obedient children. Rules cannot fix things, they are merely designed to guide us.

In our passage this morning, Paul explains that just as human rules and laws do not create obedient people, neither does God’s law create obedience, and it does not solve the problem of our sin. It is only through faith in Jesus Christ that we can be saved.

The Abrahamic Covenant

This idea flew in the face of the false teachers who had infiltrated the Galatian church. Paul uses a complex argument to prove that Jesus saves, but the law cannot. He begins by referring back to the Abrahamic Covenant. If you recall, God promised Abraham that He would bless him, and that all nations would be blessed through one of his descendants. Last week we saw that God made this promise to Abraham before Abraham had done anything. God didn’t make the promise because Abraham deserved it or because he had earned this benefit—God simply made the promise to Abraham and Abraham believed it.

Paul based his argument on this promise made to Abraham. Let’s look at what he says.

15 Dear brothers and sisters, here’s an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or amend an irrevocable agreement, so it is in this case. 16 God gave the promises to Abraham and his child. And notice that the Scripture doesn’t say “to his children,” as if it meant many descendants. Rather, it says “to his child”—and that, of course, means Christ. 17 This is what I am trying to say: The agreement God made with Abraham could not be canceled 430 years later when God gave the law to Moses. God would be breaking his promise. 18 For if the inheritance could be received by keeping the law, then it would not be the result of accepting God’s promise. But God graciously gave it to Abraham as a promise. (Galatians 3:15-18, NLT)

Paul has two major premises in these verses. The first is that the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham is not found in the Jewish people, but in Jesus Christ. The Jews often thought that the physical descendants of Abraham were the recipients of the promise, but Paul uses a grammatical argument to challenge that notion. He says that God made the promise not to Abraham’s children but to Abraham’s child. This means the promise wasn’t fulfilled in the Jewish race, but in Jesus Christ; and through Jesus people from every nation are blessed.

The word that Paul argues was singular can be translated either way; the word used in the original language would be kind of like using the word “offspring” in English. Offspring can refer either to one child or to a multitude of children over many generations. Regardless, Paul is saying that when God said it was through Abraham’s offspring that all nations would be blessed, he wasn’t referring to the Jewish heritage, but rather to one person: Jesus Christ.

Why does this matter? Because if all nations were intended to be blessed through the Jewish people, it would mean the way to be blessed by God was to become a Jew (that is, to follow the Jewish law). But Paul says God’s promise was not that people would be blessed by becoming a Jew, but by trusting in Jesus Christ alone.

Paul’s second premise is that even though the law was given to Moses 430 years after the promise to Abraham, the giving of the law did not change the promise. It didn’t change the fact that Abraham was justified by faith, not by adherence to the law. He uses the idea of a will—just as a will cannot be altered once it has been put into effect, neither will God alter his promise once he has put it into effect. He said that the law was not intended to supersede the promise to Abraham, and that in fact, the law cannot save anyone—it is faith alone that can save. Salvation never came from adhering to God’s law—it had always come through faith.

The Purpose of the Law

If we are following Paul’s argument closely, then we naturally find ourselves asking an important question: if the law cannot save us, what is its purpose?

Paul anticipates this question and he answers it in verses 19 and 20.

19 Why, then, was the law given? It was given alongside the promise to show people their sins. But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised. God gave his law through angels to Moses, who was the mediator between God and the people. 20 Now a mediator is helpful if more than one party must reach an agreement. But God, who is one, did not use a mediator when he gave his promise to Abraham. (Galatians 3:19-20, NLT)

Paul says that the law was given to show people their sins. That kind of sounds like God gave the law to make us feel bad. But that’s not the case. Think about the purpose of human laws. Human laws are not given in order to make people good—laws can’t make people good. Human laws are enacted in order to show people what is right and what is wrong. They are intended to guide people and to restrain evil.

The same is true for God’s law. When God gave the law to Moses, it wasn’t to make us good people—that’s not what laws do. God’s law shows us what is right and what is wrong. Unfortunately for us, when we look at God’s law we see that we are wrong! When we measure ourselves against God’s law we see that we deserve condemnation

Paul’s point is that the Judaizers’ argument was flawed. We cannot be made acceptable to God by following the law of Moses. We are only made right with God by faith in Jesus. Look at the second half of verse 19:

But the law was designed to last only until the coming of the child who was promised.

Paul says that not only was the law not intended to save us; it was designed to point the Jewish people to the coming of the Messiah (the descendant promised to Abraham). So once the Messiah came, the law was no longer necessary.

The Jewish dietary laws, the laws regarding sacrifices, the laws regarding special feasts and rituals, and the laws regarding the tabernacle and later, the temple, were all temporary in nature. We know this for a couple of reasons: First, when God called Peter in Acts 10, he told him that nothing was unclean anymore. He was telling Peter that the dietary laws no longer applied. Second, we see the ceremonial laws were fulfilled in Jesus. They were intended to foreshadow the Messiah who was to come. They showed people the severity of sin and the necessity of a sacrifice to pay for their sin. The blood of animals was never sufficient to pay for sin, but it pointed to the One whose blood was. So after Jesus came, none of these things were necessary any longer. They had passed away, because Jesus was the perfect fulfillment of the law.

So does this mean that everything God said in the Old Testament has passed away? No. The ceremonial laws, which were intended for a specific people during a specific period of time, have passed away. But many of the other laws God gave were not ceremonial, but moral in nature. Some don’t apply exactly today (e.g. don’t take away someone’s cloak as collateral, or don’t move boundary stones), but the principles that underlie them do (i.e. don’t deprive someone of a basic need in order to collect a loan, don’t try to defraud your neighbor). These principles still serve as a guide for Christians.

This is often misunderstood by opponents of Christianity. When Christians declare a certain behavior sinful we are often charged with inconsistency. We are accused of picking and choosing which parts of the Bible to follow, “Why do you say that’s wrong but you eat pork?” or “You wear clothing woven from two different types of fabric, doesn’t the Bible condemn that too?” God’s moral laws still guide us, but the ceremonial laws have served their purpose and no longer apply to Christians.

While this discussion is important, we must remember Paul’s point: the law is a guide, it cannot save us. Our focus should be on following Christ, not on trying to make ourselves better so God will be pleased with us. Our goal should not be to follow God’s law to earn salvation, but to follow God’s law to honor the One who loved us enough to die for us, and because we believe that His way is really the best way.

A Final Question

Paul asks one final question in verses 21 and 22.

21 Is there a conflict, then, between God’s law and God’s promises? Absolutely not! If the law could give us new life, we could be made right with God by obeying it. 22 But the Scriptures declare that we are all prisoners of sin, so we receive God’s promise of freedom only by believing in Jesus Christ. (Galatians 3:21-22, NLT)

Some people get confused because they think people before Jesus were saved by following God’s law. Paul says that if it were possible to be saved by following the law, sending Jesus to die for us would have been unnecessary. Paul reminds us that every single one of stands condemned by the law, because we are all sinful. We cannot be made right by following the law, and neither could Moses, David, or any of the patriarchs. This is why Jesus had to come and die in our place.

The people in the Old Testament were not saved by rigorously adhering to the Mosaic law, they were saved just as we are, and just as Abraham was: by faith alone. They may not have fully understood who Jesus was, but they had enough information to know they were sinful and that they needed a savior. They understood that God was going to send someone one day who would make things right, and those who believed in that promise were forgiven. Nothing has changed since Abraham; people are still saved by faith—because every one of us has sinned against God. This is the message that Paul argued so vehemently for: that a salvation that is dependent upon following a set of rules is a different gospel entirely, a gospel that cannot save.

We must make sure that we don’t fall into the same trap as the Judaizers. The gospel message is that a person is saved by faith alone. When we start saying that we are saved by trusting in Jesus and something else, we are falling into the same trap. We add all sorts of things to the gospel message. Many churches say that you must trust in Jesus and: be baptized, become a member of the church, go through certain religious rites, speak in tongues, or give a certain amount to the church. Many of these are good things, and many are even things Christians should do, but none of them are what saves us. The gospel message is this: we are saved by trusting in Jesus Christ to forgive us of our sins. It is faith alone that saves.


This passage is rich with theology, and Paul’s argument is, at times, difficult to follow, but I hope you get the point he was making: the message of the Judaizers distorted the gospel and misunderstood the Bible entirely. Though God gave Moses the law, it was never a means of being made right with God. Laws have no power to make people right, they only have the power to show us our sin. When we measure ourselves against God’s law, we clearly see that we deserve condemnation. But once we understand that we are ready for the good news of the true gospel message: Jesus Christ died to pay for our sins. We can do nothing to earn that forgiveness, but we must trust in what He has done rather than trusting in our own goodness.

It is easy for us to look at the Judaizers and condemn them for adding to the gospel message. What they were doing was wrong. They were telling people that it was not enough to trust in Jesus. They were telling people they weren’t truly saved unless they also followed the Jewish law, unless they got circumcised and follow the dietary laws. They taught that trusting in Jesus was not enough, that you had to have faith and also live up to certain standard to be saved. What the Judaizers did was wrong, but before we get too self-righteous, we should examine ourselves.

We do much the same thing today. We don’t tell people they have to be circumcised or abstain from eating shellfish and pork, but we do come up with our own list of things people have to do before they are acceptable to God.

  • Stop drinking/partying
  • Stop swearing
  • Stop having sex outside of marriage/living together
  • Stop doing things on Sundays instead of going to church
  • Stop flying off the handle in anger at others
  • Stop being gay

Don’t get me wrong, all of these behaviors are sinful. Each of these behaviors is something that Christians ought to root out of our lives, but when we communicate to people (either explicitly or implicitly) that they aren’t acceptable to God until they get their lives together, we are distorting the message of the gospel. Behavior doesn’t save us, Jesus Christ alone saves us. It is after He saves us that He begins changing the way we live. The change in behavior is a result of Jesus saving us, not the cause of it.

So what does this mean for us practically? What difference does it make we are saved by faith alone? I can think of a couple of applications.

First, we must see the law as a guide, not a means for salvation. In other words, though we should want to follow God’s law, our motivation is not to make God happy with us. It is not to somehow make up for the bad things we have done. It is not even to repay Him for the salvation He has freely given us. Our motivation for following God’s law is a desire to please and honor the One we love, and it comes from a belief that He knows what is best. Our focus should not be on trying to be better people—we can’t do that on our own. Our focus instead should be to honor God in every area of our lives. If we will live with that as our focus, we will discover that we will slowly but surely live more and more in line with His law. Our focus should not be on us, but on Him.

Second, our confidence should be found in what Jesus has done, not in what we do. I hope it is clear that we cannot be saved by doing enough good things. This fact removes any basis for pride and boasting. We are not saved because we are better than others or because God saw that we were good people. We are saved solely because of what Jesus has done. Here’s the good news of this: we don’t have to doubt our salvation when we mess up. The person whose life is focused on their performance rather than on Christ’s sacrifice will constantly question whether they are going to Heaven when they die. The reason is that they see their sin and they worry they aren’t good enough. Let me make it clear, you are not—and neither am I. Our assurance of forgiveness is not because we don’t sin, but because we know Jesus has paid for our sins. This does not mean everyone goes to Heaven; not everyone’s sin is paid for. What it does mean is that you if you trust in Jesus Christ for forgiveness and new life, you have it, even though you don’t deserve it. We can be assured of our salvation, even when our lives are a mess.

Lastly, it should change our focus with non-believers. When I was in college, I once found myself frustrated with a person who wasn’t a Christian. They were doing things I knew were wrong and it upset me. A wise friend chastised me by asking a simple question, “Why are you surprised when non-believers don’t act like believers?” People don’t change their behavior simply because we want them to. They don’t change because we quote Bible verses at them or organize campaigns against them. People are only changed by a relationship with Jesus Christ. This means our focus with non-Christian people (and the world at large) should not be trying to get them to act like Christians; our goal should not be to try to get them to change their behavior; it should be to point them to Jesus. Getting them to follow God’s laws is great, and their lives will be better for it, but it won’t save them. And true change can only come through Jesus Christ. So instead of talking to our non-Christian friends about what things they need to change in their lives, we should be talking to them about their need for Jesus—because He alone can save them, and He alone can change them.


We inherently know that rules don’t make people good. We see it with our children, and we see it in our own lives. Laws show us what right living looks like. When we look at God’s law, we see that we have broken it. No amount of good deeds can change the fact that we are lawbreakers. We cannot earn God’s favor by trying to be good enough.

The good news is that Jesus has made it possible for us to be forgiven and have our sins paid for—He tells us that we are saved by faith, not by what we do. If we will trust in Him, we can have the forgiveness we so desperately need.

So look at your life today. Ask yourself what your focus is in life. Is it on trying to be a good enough person, or is it on trying to follow Jesus? Is your confidence based on the things you do, or on what Jesus has done? Are you pointing others to Jesus for salvation, or to your own list of rules? This is the essence of Christianity: that we are saved by faith alone, through Christ alone. As such, our lives should be focused on trusting and following Him, and on teaching our kids, our friends, our co-workers, and everyone else to do the same.

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