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The Role of the Law in Galatians 3:19-25

Doug Ward

One of the issues that dominates Paul’s letter to the Galatians is the function of the law after the death of Jesus Christ. Clearly this is a matter of contention between Paul and the believers in Galatia, and it is this issue which consumes the author in Galatians 3:19-25.

Galatians 3:19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring would come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained through angels by a mediator. 3:20 Now a mediator involves more than one party; but God is one. 3:21 Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. 3:22 But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 3:23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 3:24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian.

At the heart of this dispute is an exegetical debate over the role of law observance and faith in Genesis. This article will attempt to examine this dispute, and the rhetorical clues in the letter to better understand the role of the law in Galatians. To pursue this course a linguistic and grammatical examination will also be done in order to yield clues as to Paul’s role for the law.

While the written structure of Galatians as a letter has been well known and discussed, a greater structure has often been overlooked. Galatians appears to be structured as a public defense speech. It was common for writings to take on established rhetorical forms in the Graeco-Roman world, and the public defense speech was one common format. We should not be surprised that Paul would be familiar with these forms, and Galatians bears the classic marks of a public defense speech. The centerpiece of the public defense speech is the propositio, the part of the speech that states the issue at hand. Typically the propositio would state the broad area of agreement between the contending parties before moving on to the point of contention. In Galatians this element has been identified in 2:15-21. [1]

2:15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 2:16 yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 2:17 But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 2:18 But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 2:19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 2:20 and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 2:21 I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

When one applies this structure to Galatians a different issue emerges from the well-worn faith versus works issue that Martin Luther initiated. No longer is the issue in Galatians a dispute between the saving value of faith versus meritorious works. Instead the primary issue is that Paul has been seemingly accused of some in Galatia of being a "Gentile sinner." Applying a rhetorical structure to Galatians, verse 15 demonstrates the broad area of agreement between Paul and his opponents, "we who are Jews by birth, and not Gentile sinners, know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by the faithfulness of Christ." [2]

The point of contention follows in verses 17 and 21. Because of his message of freedom and ministry to the Gentiles, Paul has been accused of setting aside the grace of God, and has been called a sinner. The central point is that Paul, a Jew, is not observing the law while the Gentile Galatians are turning to an outward observance of the law. [3] Having gone to the greater and more stringent lengths of circumcision and other law observances, many within the church now accuse Paul of being disobedient and a sinner.

It is helpful to remember that the issue is not about what model brings salvation to an individual. Paul and his opponents both agree in 2:15 that people are justified by faith. The issue is the identity of those who are in the community.

It is safe to say that this dispute was an honest interpretive disagreement over the meaning of Scripture, with crucial stakes in its resolution. Paul came to Galatia proclaiming a new message of freedom from the restrictive demands of the law. He grounded his argument safely in the text of Genesis 15, arguing that Abraham believed God before any outward observance of the law was given to him, and that belief was credited to him as righteousness. Paul’s opponents in Galatia then entered the picture and said that yes, faith was how one came to be a child of God, but Genesis 17 demands that circumcision be practiced. In effect, Paul then was only partially right, and failed to tell the whole story of the necessity of law observance. So when Paul willfully fails to require believers to submit to these practices, and he fails to follow some himself, his opponents quickly label Paul a sinner.

But for Paul, something has drastically changed since his experience on the road to Damascus. The risen Christ has replaced the Torah as the central theme of his life, and as the primary identity marker of the community of faith. After laying out the nature of the dispute in chapter 2, "who is a sinner?" Paul begins to argue his case in Galatians 3.

Paul pursues two different courses as he makes his case here. First, he denies the charge that he is a sinner for proclaiming this freedom in Christ. He does this by turning the charge on its head and asserting that going back to law observance was itself sinful. Secondly, after thoroughly assailing the law, Paul then must find a place of value for it. He introduces this discussion in Galatians 3 by asking, "what then is the purpose of the law?" (19)

The Text Examined

At the early part of chapter 3 Paul once again turns to the familiar Abraham story, and the promise of Genesis 15. It should be seen that Galatians 3 is an extended discussion of Genesis 15. [4] The discussion is not about which salvation principle is effective, faith or works. Instead this is an argument about who can be considered a child of God. Being a Jew and a part of the chosen people, Paul needed to demonstrate how non-Jews could be a part of God’s family, so he turns to Abraham. In this accounting, the heirs of Abraham are not the ones who are circumcised but those who believe as Abraham did. Since the promise of God concerning descendants for Abraham (Genesis 15) came before the law at Sinai (Exodus), Paul asserts believing in Christ supersedes law observance as an entry point into the community of faith. Faith is the fulfillment of the promise that all nations would be blessed through Abraham, as Gentiles are now able to participate in the blessing promised to Abraham.

Having established the primacy of the promise Paul then asserts that the law has acted as a curse. Instead of acting in its intended role as a blessing to all nations, the law, under the power of sin, instead separated Israel. Israel acted on the law in a narrow, legalistic manner, and hoarded the promise of God at the exclusion of the Gentiles. So not only have the Jews failed to observe the law properly, but also the Gentiles have been excluded as well.

In his comments about the works of the law, Paul is not condemning a continuing attempt to earn heaven through good works here, but he is criticizing a nationalism that excludes all Gentiles from the promise of God. [5] Paul then makes the point that the covenant with Abraham was made 430 years prior to the law, so the law cannot supersede the promise to Abraham, which was based on faith.

What About the Law?

Likely anticipating the objections to his treatment of the law, Paul strives to find a positive role for the law in 3:19-25. Two questions introduce the potential problem that others would have with Paul’s explanation. "What then, was the purpose of the law" (19), and "Is the law opposed to the promises of God?" (21).

Paul answers his own question in verse 19 with one of the most troublesome phrases in his letters, "it was added because of transgressions" (NIV). This phrase could potentially have a variety of translations. 1) The law was added because of transgressions, with a restraining effect. 2) The law was added to create transgressions, acting as a lure. 3) The law was added to increase or intensify transgression, acting as an identifier. One clue within this phrase is the inclusion of the word parabaseon ("transgressions"). This word is used specifically within Paul’s letters to denote wrongdoing done in the presence of the law. Romans 4:15 functions almost like a dictionary entry when Paul writes "where there is no law there is no transgression."

Parabaseon is a specialized word. Before something can be called a transgression, there must be some standard to transgress, and that standard in Galatians is the Mosaic Law. One scholar has rightly noted that with the word transgression "Paul is not thinking of the general condition of sin that justifies the infliction of God’s wrath, but the more specific situation that obtains wherever people are confronted with clearly defined, verbally transmitted laws and commands. Parabaseon always refers to passing beyond the limits." [6] The use of "transgression" here does not imply that the law itself brings sin, but rather a qualitative difference to the sin. Instead of a vague imperfection or general wrongdoing, it now becomes outright disobedience to a known command of God. This is also how this word is used in Romans 5:14, where the first sin of Adam is described as a transgression since it involved Adam’s disobedience to a known command of God.

This consideration of the meaning of parabaseon gets to the heart of what Paul means in Galatians 3:19. If one considers that a transgression is not even possible unless there is a law to transgress, Paul cannot mean that the law was given to restrict transgression, for there was no transgressions to restrict until the law appeared. So the function must be different. The law is valuable here in that it was added to identify the character of sin, labeling it as explicitly contrary to God. So the law was added to label, identify, and condemn sin as something contrary to God.

At the end of verse 19 and in verse 20 Paul begins his attempt to diminish the vital nature of the law. In what has become a passage that has sparked much confusion, Paul declares that "the law was instituted through angels by a mediator. A mediator does not represent just one party, but God is one." While the meaning of this verse is still in some dispute, the tenor of the passage seems to indicate a simple, Jewish thought. The law was given to the people through Moses, and Jewish tradition had angels carrying the law to Moses at Sinai. But the promise to Abraham was given directly and audibly and unmistakably. Paul is using a simple illustration to show that the promise is superior to the law as its transmission was more direct, and consequently to affirm again his foundational belief in the monotheism of God. If the Galatians were to return to the law again then the monotheism of God would be placed in jeopardy. For then there would be one God for the Jews, and not for the rest of the world. Paul is desperately trying to show that God is God of both Jew and Gentile.

Starting again with verse 21 Paul senses the need to answer the charge that might naturally spring from his diminishing the law. "Is the law opposed to God?" Paul strongly answers "Absolutely not," but is left with the task of finding the role for the law. He does this in verses 22-25.

In verse 24 Paul turns to what would have been a familiar metaphor for his readers in the hope of clarifying his position. This metaphor is more obscure to us, but is vital in understanding the meaning of this text. Verse 24 simply states that the "law was a pedagogue that we might be justified by faith." Simply put, the pedagogue was a household slave who accompanied a free-born boy wherever he went from early life to around the age of sixteen. It was the responsibility of the pedagogue to take the child to school, carry his effects, test him in the memory of his lessons, and instruct him in the social graces of that time. It was the job of the pedagogue to protect, teach, punish, and aid in the moral development of the minor. [7]

There was frequent mention at that time of the pedagogue as a harsh disciplinarian. Philo refers to the rod as the chosen tool of the pedagogues, because no one takes instruction to heart unless there is shame or reproach. Plutarch portrays pedagogues who correct by admonition, as well as compliments. Even though the discipline was sometimes harsh the pedagogue was seen as a friend since by discipline the souls of the minors are improved and efforts toward virtue are initiated. In light of this it should be noted that the role of the pedagogue should not be viewed as a negative one, for there is evidence that a positive view of their role is probable. This is similar to the recollections of many today of a strict nun at Catholic school. Looking back at the discipline the adult is thankful for what was learned under their tutelage.

It is in this metaphor that Paul finds a role for the law. In order to instruct and even restrain, the law, acting as a pedagogue, must first identify the nature of wrongdoing. This is a role that is educational. It does restrain, it does punish, but it must educate first. One is not able to refrain from evil, unless the evil is initially identified. Like the pedagogue, the role of the law is only temporary. It was instituted to identify wrongdoing, and restrain that behavior until the time of maturity. This time of maturity has now arrived with Christ. The law had value, but that value is diminished with the arrival of Christ.

The Passage in its Context

It is now possible fully to grasp the intent of Paul as he considers the law in this passage. Since Paul has diminished the importance of the law, he needs to find a positive role for it, and needs to answer why turning back to the law would make the Gentile believers in Galatia flirt again with sin.

First, Paul answers that the law was added to identify sin as transgression against God. In doing so, the law did more than just identify sin, it condemned those who did these acts. And while the world was under the power of sin, the Jews were imprisoned and guarded by the law (3:22). The law was meant to guard Israel until the arrival of Christ.

Second, Paul is desperately trying to sway the minds of the Gentiles in the Galatian church. When the law was in effect, not only were the Jews guarded, but the Gentiles were excluded from the promises of God. The Jews had so hoarded the promise of God by living it in a legalistic manner, that Gentiles were looked at with contempt and considered slaves like Ishmael. To return to the law willingly would place the Gentiles in the position that the Jews were once in, to be condemned by the law, and to find themselves excluded by the very nature of the law. Being in Christ means freedom from the condemnation the law naturally brings. Paul yearned for the Galatians to remain in the freedom of Christ and removed from the restraint of the law that had formerly enslaved them as Gentiles.

According to Paul then, the law was neither positive nor negative; it was merely a necessity. More importantly it was a necessity for only a limited time, a time that had come and gone. Since that time had been superceded with the arrival of Christ, to continue to live under the law would go back to the time before Christ. No longer would the Gentiles be free, but the law that had condemned the Jews for centuries would now condemn the Gentiles.


[1] For a full description of the rhetorical outline of Galatians, see Hans Dieter Betz, A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Churches in Galatia. (Philadelphia: Fortress; 1979)

[2] When “law observance” is mentioned, good works are not the issue.  Law observance was following those customs that identified one as a Jew, circumcision, dietary restrictions, and ceremonial regulations.  So when I say Paul was not observing the law, I mean that he was sharing food or table fellowship with unclean Gentiles.

[3] See Alan Segal, Paul the Convert. New Haven: Yale; 1990. For a full picture of the religious and sociological concerns of Jews and Gentiles in the first century.

[4] For a good example of this argument see N. T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant. (Minneapolis: Fortress; 1993), 140

[5] In addition to N.T. Wright, one can look at James D. G. Dunn “The New Perspective on Paul,” The John Rylands Library. 112-116.

[6] Douglas Moo. Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary: Romans, 282.

[7] This summary of the role of the pedagogue can be found in F. F. Bruce, Commentary on Galatians. (Eerdmans: Grand Rapids; 1982) 182-3, and in F. Thielman’s article on “Law” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. (Inter Varsity: Downers Grove; 1994) 538-40.

-Doug Ward, Copyright © 2018, Doug Ward and
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