The apostle Paul asked the Galatians a salient question that many today believe to be obsolete and utterly irrelevant: “Why the Law then?” (3:19). He, of course, was not referring to human government but to the Law of God. And the answers he provided in his epistles to the Galatians and the Romans clearly indicate that the answer to that question retains the utmost relevance today. Why did God give the Law? Was ist given to keep human behavior within safe or decent parameters? Was it given in order to provide us with a means of pleasing God and saving ourselves? The allotted space will allow us to answer the question only in skeletal form.
1. “Through the Law comes the knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:20). Right up front, Paul establishes the fact that keeping the Law does not save: “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His [God’s] sight” (3:20a[A1] ). Paul elaborates: “I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COVET’” (7:7). Paul chose the perfect example. We have an almost instinctive recognition that murder and adultery are wrong. But covetousness? What harm is there in that? The flesh lives in a perpetual state of covetousness, lusting after everything the eye can see and the mind can imagine. God’s Law reveals that covetousness is not a harmless diversion or a good motivation to work hard and get ahead; it is sin.
2. Through the Law sin is aroused. “For while we were in the flesh, the sinful passions . . . were aroused by the Law” (Rom 7:5). Law reveals the rebellious nature within us. We remain oblivious to our rebellion until a law says “Thou shalt not . . . .” And suddenly, that is the very thing we feel compelled to do. The rebellion existed all the time, but it lacked opportunity to manifest itself until God spoke.
3. Through the Law sin is imputed. “For until the Law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Rom. 5:13). We are under God’s judgment first, not because of sinful acts, but because of a sinful nature. God gave the Law in order to be able to reveal to sinners their sin nature by charging against us the specific sinful deeds we have produced out of our inherently corrupt nature. The Law exposes what might otherwise not be readily recognizable.
4. Through the Law sin “become[s] utterly sinful” (Rom. 7:13). The Law brings sin into proper perspective. Sin is not sinful because it violates societal norms. It is not sinful because it injures another human being. It is sinful because it violates the holiness of God. It is a direct assault on the Person of God. It defies His direct, holy commands. Sin is sinful, not because it opposes man, but because it opposes the Creator/Savior God.
5. Through the Law comes God’s wrath. How contrary to modern religious notions this is! “For the Law brings about wrath” (Rom. 4:15). As Paul explains, God gave the Law in order that God’s wrath might be measured through the violations committed against His specific commandments. The Law of God makes clear that we cannot please God because we constantly break His Law and incur His just wrath.
6. Through the Law “every mouth may be closed and all the world may become accountable to God” (Rom. 3:19). Have you ever lied? Have you ever coveted anything? The Law implicitly asks such questions, which stop the protests of the self-righteous and put them on their faces, not before a human judge or jury, but before the holy God of heaven.
What is the purpose of the Law? It makes clear that we are helpless, hopeless, depraved sinners, unable to save ourselves. That we are justly under God’s judgment. And it makes clear that “the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves” (II Cor. 4:7:b).
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