The Shocking How of a Shocked How (Galatians 3:8–11)

“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.” —Galatians 4:8–10

Here, Paul is shocked that those who were once the lowest of slaves but who have become sons of the highest of kings, would turn back to their slavery. But just as shocking is the how of this how. How is it that these sons are turning back to slavery to the “elemental spirits of this world”? How is it that these former idolators are returning to the bondage of those that are not gods (cf. Deuteronomy 32:17)? By observing days and months and seasons and years.

The context of Galatians insists we understand these to be the Jewish Sabbath and Feasts. These are part of those works of the law wherein they were seeking to stand just before God (Galatians 2:15). The law is a pedagogue meant to bring sinners to Christ (Galatians 3:24–26). To return to the law from Christ is to swim against the current towards death. To turn from Christ back to the law is to turn from the law as it is of God, to a perversion of the law that is of demons. Luther comments,

“Whoever falls from the doctrine of justification is ignorant of God and is an idolater. Therefore it is all the same whether he then returns to the Law or to the worship of idols; it is all the same whether he is called a monk or a Turk or a Jew… For once this doctrine undermined, nothing more remains but sheer error, hypocrisy, wickedness, and idolatry, regardless of how great the sanctity appears on the outside.

…There is no middle ground between human working and the knowledge of Christ; if this knowledge is obscured, it does not matter whether you become a monk or a heathen afterwards.”

To the Jews who insisted that they were the children of Abraham and that God was their father, but who rejected Jesus, Jesus said, 

“If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me. Which one of you convicts me of sin? If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (John 8:42–47).

The highest moral efforts, devoid of Christ, are nothing more than slavery to demons.

Law Judo against the Legalist (Galatians 2:17–21)

“But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!” —Galatians 2:17

Paul, for his defense of his apostleship and the gospel, is now is dealt a foul backhanded in return. Paul doesn’t simply dodge the accusation, he does a bit of judo, flipping things around, slamming his perceived opponent to the ground with his own strength.

The accusation is that of antinomianism, of being anti-law, anti-obedience. People’s pride dresses up as piety, human hubris as holiness, and attacks the gospel as antinomian. Paul is basically dealing with the same accusation that follows his presentation of justification in Romans.

“What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? (Romans 6:1–2)”

There are true antinomians, and their teaching is heretical, but the Judaizers were saying that the gospel itself is antinomian. They were accusing the gospel of freedom as frivolousness and the gospel of liberty as leading to license. The legalist will always slander the gospel as license. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones took comfort in such accusations.

“The true preaching of the gospel by grace alone always leads to the possibility of this charge being brought against it. There is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amounts to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do; you can go on sinning as much as you like because it will redound all the more to the glory of grace. That is a very good test of gospel preaching. If my preaching and presentation of the gospel does not expose it to that misunderstanding, then it is not the gospel.”

Paul demonstrates that the legalist ironically doesn’t understand the law, for if Paul rebuilt what he tore down, namely, his efforts at justification by works of the law, then he would be a transgressor of the law (2:18). It is only because Paul died to the law, by the law, in the death of Christ, that he can live unto God by faith in Christ. Herein is the paradox, if you don’t die to the law as a means of justification, all your law-keeping is law-breaking, but if you die to the law as you are in union with Christ through faith, then you live in Christ, by faith, unto God.

The Exegetical Systematician: Obedience

Do we recoil at the notion of obedience, of law observance, of keeping commandments? Is it alien to our way of thinking? If so, then our Lord’s way is not our way. —John Murray, The Christian Ethic

All Sizzle and No Bang? (Exodus 20:17)

Bursts of swirling blue, splatters of crackling gold, and explosions of racing red fill the sky, and then, for the finale, some kid comes out and twirls a sparkler. Is that what we have with this final word from the fire? Has the fire died so that were left with only smoldering embers. No, we may have left the glories of the heavens, but now we are plunged to the depths. These ocean depths can be as mysterious as the starry heavens.

All the other commands, taken on the surface, deal with external obedience, this one goes down to the heart, and thus, acts as commentary on all the Decalogue. Listen to the testimony of M&M&M:

“The tenth commandment is where the Decalogue ends, but it is, in fact, the point at which every breach of the law begins—when by our ‘own evil desire’ we are ‘dragged away and enticed’ (Jas 1:14). —Alec Moyter

“Improper desire is the root of all evil. It can seldom be reached by human legislation, but it is open to the Searcher of hearts. The intent is that which, in the last resort, determines the moral character of the act. This last ‘word’ is, therefore, the interpreting clause of the whole Decalogue (Rom. Vii. 7).” —J.G. Murphy

“It [the tenth commandment] is presented here as the last commandment because it points to the root of all breaches of the covenant as coming from wrong inner disposition.” — John Mackay

You must read all other commands in light of this one. You don’t understand God’s law until you see it as dealing with the heart. All the law is only a sizzling fuse with no bang when read heartlessly. When Jesus says, “You have heard it said, but I say unto you (Matthew 5:21–48),” He isn’t contradicting the law, but the Pharisees heartless reading of the law. His disciples are to display a righteousness superior to that of the Pharisees (Matthew 5:20), a righteousness that is superior, that is true righteousness, because it springs forth from the heart.

God’s love kindles our love. God’s love both ignites and fuels ours. We love because He first loved us (1 John 4:19). Redemption sets the heart right (Deuteronomy 30:6). Redemption replaces a heart of stone with a heart of flesh (Ezekiel 11:19). We come to these words of law through a preface of grace, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery (Exodus 20:2 (ESV).” When the redeemed heart hears, “You shall not covet,” it responds, “Whom have I in heaven but you? And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you (Psalm 73:25 ESV).” When a redeemed heart meets the law of God its like sparks of love meeting a powder keg—from the depths, glory to heaven.

For the Love of the Gospel, Love the Law (1 Timothy 1:8–11)

“The law is good (1 Timothy 1:8).” That short phrase could do a lot of bad theology a lot of good. The law is good, and the gospel is glorious (1 Timothy 1:11); and the gospel’s being glorious doesn’t undo the law’s goodness.

The law is good, if one uses it lawfully. This is like saying that cars are good, if one uses them lawfully. When a drunk, reckless, or irresponsible driver gets behind the wheel, that mass of metal, plastic, oil, and gas becomes a bad thing for humanity; but we don’t outlaw cars. We understand that the problem isn’t the car, but the driver. Likewise, when Paul says the certain persons who are teaching “different doctrine,” want to be “teachers of the law,” we must understand that the problem isn’t the law. Cars are good, but that doesn’t mean we let the immature or blind use them at their leisure. Likewise, when the spiritually blind, or the immature young convert gets behind the wheel of the law  all alone, the best place to be is behind them. Young converts have their permits, but they need a mature Christian to teach them how to drive the law. How then should we use the law? Lawfully.

To make the likening more accurate, when Paul says that the law is to be used lawfully, it is like saying that cars are to be used car-fully. Cars are meant to be used as cars, not kamikaze missiles. How was the law to be used? Protestants have long spoken of three uses of the law. The law is a bridle to restrain sin. It is a mirror to show us our sin. And it is a map for the Christian showing them how to live the blessed life. Amen. But there is something more foundational. How does one use the law lawfully? What was the point of the law?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. —Jesus, Matthew 5:17–19

Jesus shows us what the point of the law is—Him. The law was never meant to be used without reference to Jesus. Never! When God gave His good law to his people at Sinai, a lamb had been slain first, redemption out of slavery had already happened, and a promise had been made to Abraham generations before. We should be slow to throw away as unnecessary that which Jesus kept perfectly for our salvation. The law shows us how to love God and love our neighbor. Jesus kept that good law perfectly for us, and bore God’s just wrath for all of our law breaking. If you love Jesus, you will love the law. If you love redemption, you will love the law. If you love grace, you will love the law. You will plead with the psalmist, “graciously teach me your law (Psalm 119:29).” You will exclaim, “Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day (Psalm 119:97).”