Christ, the Purpose of the Law


The law was […] offered to fallen man in order that, lacking all faculty of fulfilling the law, he may fulfill it through Christ.

Therefore, the promulgation of the law to Israel on Mount Sinai was a very gracious act. (Johannes Wollebius, Compendium Theologiae Christinae, p. 76)

Throughout this series we have been answering the question from which we began, “how was Christ administered to the saints of the Old Testament?”  We have shown that Christ was administered and dispensed by means of the Land and Seed promises, the ordained Sacrifices, the Sacrament of Circumcision, and we have for the last couple of posts been discussing the Law itself as part of the administration and dispensation of the one redemptive work of Christ to the saints of the Old Testament.

Contrary to the assumption of many, the Law was not simply a ministration of death (2 Cor. 3:7), that which slew Paul (Rom. 7:9), the sting of death (1 Cor. 15:56), etc., but was rather a very gracious act of God—a redeeming act of God—Christ Himself promulgating the Law to His own people from Mt. Sinai, carrying them on eagle’s wings through the Wilderness, and in the Law displaying His own perfect and most desirable character.  As we discussed last time, the Law became death to apostate Jews, not because it was not holy, righteous, and good in itself, but because we are fallen and evil by nature.  What the Jews had failed to see was the purpose of the Law, preferring in the pride of their uncircumcised hearts to “do this and live,” rather than believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths the faith that was by it brought near.

So, what was the true purpose of the Law? Why did Christ the King in His everlasting love and kindness give that which was found to be death to many, especially when there were so many abundant promises given to the Jews in the Old Testament?

In Galatians 3, having just successfully proven that “the inheritance is not of the Law”—the promise having always been in Christ, Paul goes on to ask the very question at hand:

What purpose then does the law serve? (Gal. 3:19)

If the Law was merely added to the promise given to Christ (vv. 15-17), in no wise contradicting it (v. 21), and was never the means for conveying the promise anyhow, then why was it ever given in the first place? What was its purpose and intention?

Paul begins his answer,

It was added because of transgressions. (v. 19)

A few senses of this phrase seem to be allowable in the text, each finding warrant in parallel passages in Paul’s corpus. It might seem reasonable at first to simply assume that Paul is saying that the Law was added in response to sin, to curb sin, and to increase holiness through law keeping. But, nearly to the contrary, it is more likely that Paul means that it was added to (1) expose sin—to make it known, (2) to objectify the legal condemnation of sin, and (3) to increase sin itself, thus showing the wicked, fallen, hopeless state of mankind.  Each of these senses are explicitly represented in the following passages from Romans, and each in quite similar contexts as the Galatians passage above:

[T]he law brings about wrath; for where there is no law there is no transgression. (Rom. 4:15)

For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law. (Rom. 5:13)

[T]he law entered that the offense might abound. (Rom. 5:20)

Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. (Rom. 7:7)

[S]in, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. (Rom. 7:8)

Has then what is good [the Law] become death to me? Certainly not! But sin, that it might appear sin, was producing death in me through what is good, so that sin through the commandment might become exceedingly sinful. (Rom 7:13)

All of these passages come to much the same point, summarized by Paul in Romans 3:19-20:

Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin.

The Law was added because of transgressions, to make them known, to make them legal transgressions, to make them abound, and even to stir them up through the concupiscence of men’s hearts. And all to what end? To shut the mouth of the whole world, making public and known each and every man’s stone-cold guilt before God. This is precisely what Paul wrote in Galatians 3 as well:

the Scripture has confined [συνέκλεισεν, “imprisoned, hedged in”] all under sin… (v. 22)

and he immediately tells us why:

…that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Just as in Romans 3, the purpose of this Law was to condemn all, that the promises might be by faith in Jesus Christ.  Going back to our opening question from Paul,

What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made. (Gal. 3:19)

Now, we must understand that this is not just referring to believers now, such that the Law held the Old Testament saints under sin so that New Testament believers could be saved by faith. No, the very purpose and intention of the Law from the very beginning was to lead to Christ. So, Paul continues,

[B]efore faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. […] I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers [παιδαγωγὸς, “pedagogue, tutor”] until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal. 3:23-24; 4:1-5)

Paul treats the one unified Church, Old Testament and New, as a son coming to maturity.  When he was young, though he was truly a son, he was governed as a slave. Though he was heir of the entire estate, he was nevertheless under a manager/tutor/guardian [παιδαγωγὸς]. This is a Biblical Theological description of the Church through the ages, not the state of an Old Covenant nation vs. a New Covenant Church.  Both are sons—heirs of the promise. The one redemptive historical Church is, and always has been, built on the promise given to Christ and His one accomplishment of redemption for His people, Old and New.

And this was indeed the state of each individual Old Testament saint.  As he looked into the perfect Law of God, seeing in it the perfect character of our Lord, he was convicted of his own sin and drawn to repent, offering the bloody sacrifices ordained by God for expiation.  This daily, weekly, monthly, and annual cycle goaded the saints of old toward the intended and final solution to their sin and misery.  The Messiah was not only held out to the saints of old in the Content of the Law itself, the instituted Sacrifices, his own circumcision, and the many Promises given, but also in the inward knowledge and consciousness of sin, exposed and openly condemned by the Law. John Calvin has stated the sense of these passages perfectly:

[T]he law, by displaying the justice of God, convinced them that in themselves they were unrighteous; for in the commandments of God, as in a mirror, they might see how far they were distant from true righteousness. They were thus reminded that righteousness must be sought in some other quarter. The promises of the law served the same purpose, and might lead to such reflections as these: “If you cannot obtain life by works but by fulfilling the law, some new and different method must be sought. Your weakness will never allow you to ascend so high; nay, though you desire and strive ever so much, you will fall far short of the object.” The threatenings, on the other hand, pressed and entreated them to seek refuge from the wrath and curse of God, and gave them no rest till they were constrained to seek the grace of Christ.

Such too, was the tendency of all the ceremonies; for what end did sacrifices and washings serve but to keep the mind continually fixed on pollution and condemnation? When a man’s uncleanness is placed before his eyes, when the unoffending animal is held forth as the image of his own death, how can he indulge in sleep? How can he but be roused to the earnest cry for deliverance? Beyond all doubt, ceremonies accomplished their object, not merely by alarming and humbling the conscience, but by exciting them to the faith of the coming Redeemer. In the imposing services of the Mosaic ritual, every thing that was presented to the eye bore an impress of Christ. The law, in short, was nothing else than an immense variety of exercises, in which the worshippers were led by the hand to Christ. (Commentary on Galatians, 3:24)

And when the fulness of time did come, we see that the saints of the Old Covenant were those who had been eagerly awaiting the solution to Israel’s crisis, our Lord Jesus Christ.  We read of Simeon and Anna, and other faithful saints with her, in the Temple upon the infant Christ’s presentation,

[B]ehold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. (Luke 2:25-26)

Now there was one, Anna, a prophetess, […] who did not depart from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day. And coming in that instant she gave thanks to the Lord, and spoke of Him to all those who were waiting for redemption in Jerusalem. (Luke 2:36-38)

But of the apostate Jews, we read the following:

But Israel who pursued a law that would lead to righteousness did not succeed in reaching that law. Why? Because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone. (Rom. 9:32-32)

They stumbled over Christ, and fell, because they did not attend by faith to the true intention and purpose of the Law.

For Christ is the end [τέλος, “goal”, “consummate purpose”] of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:4)

Truly, Christ was not only the Giver and Content of the Law, but was Himself its ultimate redemptive historical purpose as well.  This is yet another demonstration that the one redeeming work of Christ was in fact administered and dispensed by means of the Old Covenant itself, not in spite of it.

In our next post, we will consider Christ, the Praxis of the Law.

2 thoughts on “Christ, the Purpose of the Law

  1. Edward Agyemang-Gyau August 8, 2017 / 7:25 am

    This is probably the best in the series. Clearly articulated. The Old Covenant now makes more sense to me.


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