The title of the Sabbath School lesson this week is, “The Road to Faith.” What does this mean? Is the author referring to another path leading to salvation that exists prior to or separate from faith in Jesus Christ? Are there two paths, one for Jewish Christian believers and another for Gentiles? Or are we all on the same road of faith all along. There is a fear among some Adventists that talking too much about faith somehow diminishes the law. For some people, such as the false teachers in Galatia, our relationship with God is really all about the law and keeping the law. Paul says in Galatians 3:21, “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not!” We have seen that the law has a role to play and is a good thing. These past few weeks we have discussed the role of the law and faith and tried to understand what Paul is getting at when he says we are saved by grace through faith. But by the law comes the knowledge of sin. We are going to further investigate this week what it means when Paul says that we were under the law until Christ came, but we are no longer under its supervision (Gal. 3:24, 25). Was Paul in the end rejecting the law?
The Law as a Tutor
In my undergrad at university in Australia, all classes were assigned tutors and students had to attend a ‘tutorial’ each week. This was a practical discussion class, in addition to attending two lectures, which gave us the opportunity to have face-to-face interaction with an instructor to ask questions, look more deeply into the subject in addition to making presentations. Our tutors also graded our papers and our exams at the end of the semester. I learned quickly that tutors could be very useful resources and I gained a lot of insight about the content of the course from them. I felt more comfortable going to visit the tutor (usually an MA or PhD student) during their office hours than I did the “bigwig” professor who realistically could not be readily available to a class of over one hundred students. The tutor could answer my questions about anything I wasn’t clear on. They taught me how to do research and write papers, and gave other useful advice that enabled me to be successful in the classes I took because they reflected to us what the professor of the course wanted from us.
Paul writes in Galatians 3:22 that “Before the coming of this faith, [the faithfulness of Jesus Christ] we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed.” The Ten Commandments delivered to Moses on Mount Sinai and the laws recorded in the Mosaic Law and Torah were highly instructive to God’s people in the Old Testament. They hadn’t met Jesus yet. They looked forward to a Messiah, but they did not have the revelation of God in Jesus Christ that we take for granted from the time of the New Testament onwards. Those laws were one of the closest and most instructive things that they had into God and His character. The principles contained in the laws instructed them, and corrected them. The law could never be a substitute for Christ and His perfect character. Jesus said that He came to fulfill the law and He did just that (Matt. 5:17). That’s why Paul says, in v.21, “For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” But this is not the case. It was never God’s plan to set us free from sin through the law. Our sinfulness required a far more perfect atonement than our efforts to keep and obey all of God’s statutes. His promise concerning the Seed, and the promise to Abraham was that he would be the means through which the promise should come. Such a promise therefore was not against the law but represented its perfect fulfillment.
The example I give of being tutored at university also illustrates in a way the impact the law can make. From the tutor, I learned what the professor required of myself and other students. By the law, we know what God requires of us and we gain insight into the Lawgiver. But the law cannot give life. While I did not meet directly with the professor, the knowledge I gained through the tutors helped me to succeed in the course by learning what was expected of me. It is similar to the law, which gives us a picture of the God we serve. But the law is not a substitute for God and neither can it be a substitute for Christ and what His perfect life and atoning sacrifice for my sins has done for me. Paul writes in Galatians 3:34, “So the law was put in charge of us until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.” We have been trained by the law to become familiar with the righteousness of God, but the faithfulness of Christ is what sets us free from sin and death by faith in Him.
We understand that faith was not introduced with the coming of Christ because Paul already told us that Abraham lived by faith. Abraham believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness and those who have faith are children of Abraham (Gal. 3:6-7). Faith has always been the basis for our relationship with God. The coming of Christ introduced another dimension, in that Christ’s faithfulness means that we are no longer under the supervision of the law (Gal. 3:25). What does this mean?
The Protective Function of Law
Law governs most, if not all, societies. What is commonly referred to as the “rule of law” contains the idea that people are not free to exercise power over others however they wish. People and institutions are accountable to the laws established by a society, according to its system of government. Without law, or rules to protect human rights and promote peaceful relationships, anarchy may prevail. Where the rule of law breaks down, anxiety and terror may ensue as people become fearful for their families safety and their future. Other types of rules exist that govern people’s behavior. These include unspoken rules—what we typically understand as cultural norms of behavior. These rules, if broken, may not carry legal consequences. But if broken, there may be social stigmas attached and people may find themselves ostracized or excluded. Whether right or wrong, old or new, laws exist and they keep human behavior in check.
Having introduced the idea that the law is part of how we live, I want to apply this issue to the ancient law or code given by God, in the form of the Ten Commandments. Seventh-day Adventists frequently like to refer to these as a transcript of God’s character. This comes from a statement made by Ellen White in an article she penned called, “The Relation of Christ to the Law is Not Understood” (February 4, 1890, Review and Herald). She writes, “We have only a glimmering light in regard to the exceeding breadth of the law of God. The law spoken from Sinai is a transcript of God’s character.” The problem, as she sees it, is that people don’t understand the relationship between the law of God and the gospel. She goes on to say that, “Our righteousness is found in obedience to God’s law through the merits of Jesus Christ.” This is only made possible by the atoning death of Christ and the reception of the Holy Spirit by the individual believer. For White, the law is essential for understanding God’s character and therefore obedience to law is crucial for the formation of Christian character.
In Galatians, Paul is not discussing the role of the law in general. His statements about seeking to be justified by the law relate to the very nature of salvation. We all know that in society, having a system of law does not mean that all people abide by the law. If that were the case, jails would be empty and the police would be out of a job. Likewise, the judiciary would have very few cases to adjudicate. Laws give us a standard of behavior. For example, speed limits for driving a vehicle are established that promote safe driving speeds in a given area. Failure to keep to speed limits would result in untold accidents and deaths if everyone drove as they pleased at any and every speed limit. We are required to drive slower in residential areas where the risk of hitting and killing a pedestrian is greater than on a freeway, where people are not free to enter or use this space for walking. Such laws function as important guidelines for appropriate behavior. God’s Ten Commandments have a similar function in that they help protect us from harmful or dangerous behavior towards God, others or ourselves.
In the end, there are not two paths to God. It’s been the same path all along. He has always invited us to come to Him by faith. The laws He gave were important and they remain so. They are not the direct means by which we come to know God and experience Christ. That is the point of the letter to the Galatians. We do not come to Christ through the keeping of the law because the promise of the Seed was made to Abraham, the father of faith. The law revealed who God is for a time, until Christ came and is a far greater revelation of the Father.