April 3, 2013

Is the law a school master to lead us to Christ?

by Jesse Johnson

“Before this faith came, we were confined under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith was revealed. The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian” (Galatians 3:23-25).

Does Galatians 3:23-25 mean that in witnessing to the lost, the evangelist must use the Ten Commandments in order to faithfully proclaim the gospel? I don’t think so. Here are three reasons why:

1). As we’ve explained on this blog before (here, and here, for example),  “the Ten Commandments” is not what is meant by the New Testament’s use of the word law. When the NT uses the word law, there are various meanings determined by context. Sometimes law refers to the dietary commands  in the Torah (Gal 2:16). Sometimes it refers to all of the commands of God in the Torah (Gal 3:10). Sometimes it means any of God’s commands, even if those commands “came 430 years” before the giving of the Ten Commandments (Gal 3:18). Sometimes it means “the Law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).  

So the question in relationship to Galatians 3:23-25 is what is meant by the word law? The context makes it clear that Paul is referring to the entirety of the commands in the Torah. He says that this law “imprisoned” people until the coming of Christ. Paul could not possibly be referring to the law written on people’s consciences (which he does refer to in Rom 2:14-16), because the law he’s talking about here was “temporary, secondary and preparatory” (FF Bruce in NIGNTC). It was “added” after the promise to Abraham and “given through angels” (Gal 3:19). Obviously this is not the moral law written on people’s hearts. This description really only fits the Torah as a whole.

tutor2.  The word guardian (or tutor in the NASdoes not imply that the law teaches each individual how to come to Jesus, but rather speaks of someone who watched over the world until the Messiah came. The KJV did not help us with this verse by rendering the law as a “schoolmaster,” which undoubtedly led to the NAS’s use of “tutor.” Today, tutors teach algebra and prepare you for a final. They don’t watch over you until you come of age, which is exactly what the word in Gal 3:24 means.

The word is paidagogos, which was a person who worked for a wealthy family and was responsible for raising a child from around age six until adulthood. Here is how George explains it in the NAC:

“In ancient Greece and Rome wealthy parents often placed their newborn babies under the care of a wet-nurse who in turn would pass them on to an older woman, a nanny who would care for their basic needs until about the age of six. At that time they came under the supervision of another household servant, the paidagōgos, who remained in charge of their upbringing until late adolescence.”

This was not a person who taught a lesson, but rather a person who had custody rights for years. The image of the law as this kind of guardian was not meant to be positive. Even in the context, Paul had just compared the law to a prison guard, and those who were under it were “captives” (Gal 3:23).  It is through that lens we should see Paul’s comparison of the law to a guardian.

3. The ministry of the law is over. Paul writes that the law was a guardian “until” the Messiah came to the world. Paul is not implying that the law teaches each individual what to do in order to become a Christian. Rather, he is saying that the Mosaic Law watched over Israel from the time of the Exodus until Jesus fulfilled it. Now graduation day has arrived and it’s time to move on from the law. Don’t be the 19-year-old hanging out at your high school. You are done. Go get a job, or (in this case) grow up and believe by faith rather than by the works of the law.

To say that we need to use the OT law in order bring people to Christ is really the opposite of what this verse means. Paul’s entire point is that the law prepared the Jews to receive their Messiah. So Peter needs to stop avoiding the Gentile buffet at the church lunch, as if the dietary laws were still valid. And the Galatians need to stop acting like they are sanctified by keeping the law. The law is done, Paul says. If the law were an employee, he’s off the clock; he punched out, went home, and he’s not returning calls. Leave him alone. He taught you that you needed the Messiah. Remember what he taught you, and now exercise faith.

So how does this affect evangelism? I strongly believe that the evangelist needs to confront sin. I agree with Ray Comfort and Tim Keller both when they say that a person has to know the bad news before they are able to understand the good news. For people to come to faith in Jesus as their savior, they first have to realize what they are saved from (God’s wrath), and second they have to understand why they deserve God’s wrath. If you don’t understand sin, you can’t understand forgiveness or grace.

Practically, non-believers have to be confronted with the fact that they have violated God’s law as revealed in their conscience and in the world, and as explained in the Bible. In Romans 1 Paul lists the kind of acts that people do that justify the wrath of God being poured out on them. He says that they are:

“filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unloving, unmerciful;  and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also give hearty approval to those who practice them.”

A good evangelist will help people see themselves in this list, and help them understand that they are broken, and that they need a savior from the wrath they deserve. But to use the Galatians 3 principle of the law as a tutor is to walk backwards from that. It is to take somebody back to the Old Testament, and place them under the authority of a guardian that they don’t even need. Not only do they not need that particular  guardian, even when he was working he was unable to save those under his protection. That’s not what he was paid to do.

Jesse Johnson

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Jesse is the Teaching Pastor at Immanuel Bible Church in Springfield, VA. He also leads The Master's Seminary Washington DC location.
  • I’d say that, for the most part, this is precisely my own position. I would like to clarify one thing, however: Are you necessarily saying that, since there is little theological necessity to use the law in evangelism, Christians ought therefore never to use it? I would agree that it is a little misleading to make a point to “use the law” in evangelism; but I also think, since the law is a testament to God’s character, we do in fact make use of it at least in principle when we endeavor to show the sinner the error of his ways. So, I would not necessarily stress that the law must be used in evangelism, nor would I say that Gal. 3:23-25 is even alluding to that. But I’m unclear if I would fault others who do. It seems to me that such a person is not necessarily wrong in what he is doing, though he may not have as accurate a theological rationale for doing so as you or I might.

  • I agree in principle, but what are you saying we do to show anyone his guilt in evangelism? You say “non-believers have to be confronted with the fact that they have violated God’s law as revealed in their conscience and in the world” — huh? Like, “Come on, you know you’re a sinner! Admit it! Besides, look at all those good people out there! You’re not one of them, are you? I knew it!” (c:

    But then you point to Romans 1. So would you suggest saying “You’re kinda wicked, greedy, evil, full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slanderer, hatred of God, insolence, arrogance, boastfulness, invention of evil, disobedience to parents, lack of understanding, untrustworthiness, lovelessness, and mercilessness, aren’t you? And you know the ordinance of God, right?”

    IOW, if not the Ray Comfort way (“Have you ever told a lie?”), then what?

    • Dan. Thanks for commenting here.

      When I’m witnessing, I ask the person if they realize that they are a sinner. Do they realize that lying, stealing, being proud, arrogant, lustful, boastful, and materialistic are all horribly sinful, and deserve punishment from God? I have no problem showing people Romans 1 and asking them if they see themselves in this list. I know your comment was tongue in cheek, but I don’t point them to others by way of comparison, but rather to God and his holy standard, and ask them if they see their sin in relationship to that. And I tell them that they are born seperated from God, in love with sin, and in deseperate need of a savior. And I make the point that their greatest sin would be rejecting Jesus.

      I can’t remember a single person who has ever denied that they have sin in their life. More common of course is people who think their good outweighs their bad. But even in that case, I highlight that rejection of the gospel is tatamount to rejection of both God and his son, and (in terms of degree of sin) its tough to top that.

      I have found using Romans 1,Rev 21, 1 Cor 6:9-10, all give lists of sins that are effective in evangelism. Honestly, if a person wants to use the ten commandments (other than the Sabbath one), I’m cool with that too. Why not? I can set aside my dispensationalism for a moment. Honest I can.

      But Gal 3 is one of those rare verses that almost every single commentary treats in way that confirms dispensationalism, yet astonishingly most evangelicals have a wrong view of the passage. Normally it is the other way around. So evangelize away, using whatever method helps you explain the gospel. But let’s just not draft Gal 3 into a mandate to find universal application in the Torah. That’s really all I’m saying.

      • I’ll also add that the main reason I wrote this was not even TWOTM, as much as it is that I’ve been spending the week reading about the Law/Gospel hermenutic, whose adherents ride this verse to death. This post was simply me working through what this passage teaches, in prepration for the Law/Gospel posts that are coming.

  • Cameron Buettel

    Pastor Jesse, I have to admit that when you delve into this subject you spin my head in circles 🙂 Do the Ten Commandments represent the entirety of God’s law, a part of it, or have they been transcended? Should we divide God’s Law into moral, civil, and ceremonial? What law is written on the heart of the Gentiles? etc. I honestly don’t know where I land on these issues and am certain that your knowledge far exceeds mine in this area. For this reason I don’t want to to debate the subject, but I would like to offer some practical observations regarding the Law/Ten Commandments from my experiences in a variety of forms of evangelism because I know many others who struggle to grasp this debate and its implications.

    No matter where we land on these questions regarding the nature and definition of God’s Law, the fact remains that there is no possible human way of overstating the exceeding “sinfulness of sin”. In fact Dr. John MacArthur suggests that true sanctification in the life of a believer produces an even deeper knowledge of our sin as we grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ:
    “It is only those who are aware of their desperate spiritual need who come to Christ for salvation (Matt. 5:6). And it is only those who continue to recognize the need to eliminate sin and cultivate holiness who will make progress in the Christian life. This pursuit by the power of the sanctifying Spirit produces a decreasing frequency of sin and increasing love for holiness, which makes less sin feel like more. The truly mature and godly have the most sensitive awareness of their sins, and are the humblest before God because of it” (John MacArthur, Philippians Commentary, p245).

    The more we see our depravity, the more glorious becomes Christ’s atoning work. Jesus pointed out to the Pharisee in Luke 7 that those who are forgiven of more sin, love Him more. What am I driving at here? Whatever one’s view of the Ten Commandments, they can still be easily used to bring the knowledge of sin. I had a secular upbringing, but I can vividly remember that, prior to conversion, my conscience still readily agreed with the Ten Commandments.

    If I hear you rightly Ps. Jesse, you are saying that all sinners must be exposed to some objective moral standard. Will God wheel out a whiteboard with the Ten Commandments on the day of judgment and take us through them? I doubt anyone would suggest this (although I confess to doing this in a video several years ago), but regardless, whether we are specifically judged by them or not becomes a mute point when we remember that all liars will have their part in the lake of fire and no thief or adulterer will inherit the Kingdom of God. And Paul would have remained unaware of his covetousness were it not for the tenth commandment (Romans 7:7).

    No matter where we stand in this debate, the Ten Commandments still remain a simple and useful tool in bringing the knowledge of sin to those who are dead in it. I am also grateful for how you have have unpacked even more transcendent meaning in the character of God and His Law. This has been personally helpful in gaining greater evangelistic impact through communicating the sinfulness of sin in far more profound ways. I don’t think it was ever wrong for me to use the Ten Commandments in evangelism. I also like to believe that my evangelism is improving as I come to greater knowledge of God’s character and His Law. More importantly, it is making me love Christ more as these realities magnify my guilt and His sacrifice.

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  • busdriver4jesus

    I think one of the reasons a presentation of the law is helpful (but not an absolute necessity!) is the dichotomy 99% Americans see between being good and doing sin… I can’t how many folks have freely admitted to some wrongdoing, and then looked me in the eye and with a straight face said…

    “But deep down I’m a good person!”

    So God’s law helps to link our deeds (wholly corrupt) to our nature (totally depraved); that’s what TWOTM shoots for with “What do you call a person who lies?”

  • Ruben Videira

    Dear Jesse, thank you so much for your post. I totally agree with it and I glad you wrote (again) on this issue. I believe that we often do not think of the theological implications of using the law (the Torah as a whole), and that we should teach more on this issue.

    We ought not to create a false distinction between a given law and a covenant. Often the Bible presents the making of a covenant as the establishment of a new relationship regulated by a specific law. Furthermore, Hebrews 7:12 speaks of priesthood in connection to the law. Thus, the elements covenant, law and priesthood should be understood together, especially when it comes to the Mosaic economy. So, if I apply the mosaic law to a person, whether for the sake of evangelism or sanctification, the theological ramifications would imply that this person is under the Mosaic covenant and the priesthood according to the order of Aaron. That is, a temporal covenant, regulated by a law that could not save, and ministered by an imperfect priesthood that could not offer an ultimate sacrifice able to remove the guilt.

    This, I do not think, diminishes the value of the Mosaic administration. The passage you mention in Galatians 3, elevates the former significance of the law. It was given to protect and reveal. It confined the nation of Israel, in order to protect the purity of the Seed. Moreover, it revealed the transgressions to manifest the true Seed, who would not trespass the law. How could we know that David or Solomon were not the promised Seed, unless the law was given to Israel to put on display their imperfections and infractions? The law presents God’s own doing in redemptive history. It exalts His work and sovereignty by setting the path that would lead to the only and true Seed. If we learn to read the Scriptures from God’s perspective, focusing on who He is and what He is doing, we would come to appreciate the Mosaic economy, and yet, respect the distinction between the Old and New covenants/laws/priesthoods.

    So, once again, thank you.

  • Brad

    “Whoever then annuls one of the least of these commandments, and teaches [a]others to do the same, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever [b]keeps and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matt.5:19)

    My question is what of the man who teaches that the entirety of the commandments are annulled? Will he even enter the Kingdom of Heaven or simply be least???

  • Marco Scouvert

    Hi Pastor Jesse,

    Thanks for the post. This section of Galatians is one that I’ve wondered about at times, especially when listening to some explanations that focus only upon the timeline of the nation of Israel and the coming of Christ, without any mention of individual salvation (or the Galatian church which is a group of individuals who were saved). I guess I have a few questions that if you could answer or clarify would help me think through:

    If Law only refers to Torah, then how can Galatian gentiles (now believers), who didn’t have access to the Torah, be described by Paul as being “shut up” under the Scriptures (v.22) and “shut up” and “kept under custody” under Law (v.23), prior to the coming of Christ?

    Could you share some of your exegetical reasons for translating eis as “until” and what the relationship of the hina clause is to the previous parts of v.24? If the hina clause is the purpose of the action of the Law, what role does guarding (without teaching/instructing) have in bringing someone to Christ by faith for justification? Perhaps this is unclear as I re-read it; as I’ve looked at v.24 it seems like the purpose of the Law’s pedagogical relationship to men is to bring them to justification by faith in Jesus Christ – if this is so, then it seems like the guarding and protecting

    Did a pedagogy in those times only guard a person, or were they responsible for teaching them as they guarded them? I see the connection you are making with the shutting up, imprisoning role of the Law (i.e. “holding” us as it were under the judgment of God); but couldn’t this be the way in which the Law shows a person you cannot find justification here, by frustrating them and showing them their condition and inability to be saved in this manner, thus pointing them to Christ where justification can be found by faith?

    If eis is until, and the Law’s (as Torah) pedagogical use ends at the coming of Messiah, then why after Jesus has come and gone, is Paul telling Timothy to use the Law (if we just take it a Torah or even more broad as the entire OT) for ungodly persons (1 Tim. 1:9)? If this is not to show people their sin in hopes of bringing them to justification by faith in Christ, what use (he says the Law is “good” or “useful”) is Paul referring to?

    Thanks Pastor Jesse.