“What purpose does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; …” (Galatians 3:19, New King James Version)
Some — if not most — people who read the above Bible passage assume that “the law” mentioned here is the law of God that defines what sin is and what righteousness is [see: Barking up the Wrong Tree]. They understand this verse to say that that law of God was added only because man had — beginning with Adam and Eve — “transgressed.” That, before that, there had been no other law. Now that Christ (“the Seed”) has come, that law, supposedly, is no longer necessary.
In the case of Adam and Eve, they transgressed the one prohibition God gave them that far then: they were not to eat of the fruit of the tree of good and evil or else they were going to die (see: “Your Eyes Will Be Opened!”). As for the rest of mankind, what have been our “transgressions?”
Interestingly, the Apostle Paul shows (in Romans 5:12-14) that, since sin entered the world through the one man (Adam), all of mankind has “sinned” — although not in the same manner as Adam and Eve did. “For until the law [that is, as “codified” by Moses] sin was in the world…” Since “sin is not imputed when there is no law” [as in the law of Moses], there had to be some kind of law, nevertheless, that convicted man of sin.
Thus, we find God saying to the world’s first murderer, Cain: “If you do well,will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin lies at the door. And its desire is for you, but you should rule over it” (Genesis 4:7). Even without the “law of Moses,” it was already considered a sin for Cain to have murdered his brother Abel, for which he was duly punished. Mankind has since followed the way of wickedness and evil (Genesis 6:5). Long before Moses’ day, God had declared that “Abraham obeyed My voice, and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws” (Genesis 26:5) — in whatever form they were framed.
1 John 3:4 (especially the King James Version) defines “sin” as the transgression of God’s law. If, as many understand that law to be the law “added ” (Galatians 3:19), wouldn’t Paul have been engaging here in some kind of “double talk?” That would be the case — unless Paul meant, by that “added law,” a different or separate law from the “law” that defines what is right and wrong thought and conduct — the “moral” law. It has to be a case of law added to law transgressed!
In Romans 7:7 we understand Paul to be referring to that moral law: “What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said ‘You shall not covet.'” Paul also wrote: “…where there is no law there is no transgression” (Romans 4:15).
The law “added” because of transgressions of God’s moral law has to be a different law in order for Galatians 3:19 to make sense!
Paul cannot be saying, in one breath, that the “added” law which has become a “yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1) is also the same law that is “holy…just and good” (Romans 7:12 and is upheld by faith (Romans 3:31). [See: Freed From Bondage.]
Because of moral failure
Because Israel failed to obey God’s moral law, God instituted other, additional laws to remedy Israel’s sin — on a temporary basis. Such were the laws or ordinances regarding ritual purification (animal and meal sacrifices, various washings). As Jeremiah 7:22 testifies, God had not originally commanded these sacrifices when He gave Israel the Ten Commandments and His statutes and judgments.
Paul explains that all these sacrifices and washings merely pointed Israel to the true “Remedy” for sin: Jesus Christ (Galatians 3:19, 24-25) — the “Lamb of God” that takes away the sin, not just of Israel, but of the whole world (John 1:29).
Paul describes the “law added” as a “tutor” to lead Israel (as well as people of other nations) to our Savior Jesus Christ. Paul compares Israel, under that law, to a child that is under the tutelage of a teacher (Greek paidagogon, “a child-leader”). But even worse: Paul compares the sinful children of Israel (and all of sinful mankind, for that matter) to slaves who are “in bondage under the elements of the world” (Galatians 4:1-3).
Redemption in Christ
But with Christ’s coming as our Savior from sin, the children of Israel who believe in Jesus are no longer slaves “in bondage” to worldly or “fleshly” ordinances that cannot bring about forgiveness of sins or “justification” (Hebrews 9:9-10). They have become the true spiritual, mature, children of God, and no longer need the leading of that teacher. The Teacher – Jesus Christ Himself – has come to those who believe, not only to teach but to justify (to free from sin and its consequence, death, and thus to make one righteous) and give everlasting life. [See: Transgressions Under the First Covenant.]
“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ… And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-27, 29; see also 4:1-7)).
To insist on the “law added” as a means to become just or righteous (or purified from sin) would be retrogression from faith in Christ. “For if righteousness [becoming right or just] comes through the law [the “law added”], then Christ died in vain” (Galatians 2:21).
Only as we understand the distinction between the two sets of “law” implied in Galatians 3:19 can we make sense of Paul who upholds the law of God, and also make sense of Jesus’ saying “I did not come to destroy [the Law or the Prophets] but to fulfill” (Matthew 5:17).
To confuse the “added” law with the law that defines righteousness can lead one to a lawless mindset — a hostility to the law of God, which is a mark of the carnal or fleshly mind (Romans 8:7). Once a person descends to this, he is in grave danger of losing his salvation in this life, for Jesus — at His return — will tell such a person, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23). [See: “I Never Knew You!”]
Paul exhorts us to be “rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15) – God’s Word (John 17:17). The phrase “rightly dividing,” is translated from the Greek word orthotomounta — which means “rightly” (as in “orthodox”) “cutting” (as in dichotomy).
We need to be “rightly dividing” — properly discerning — the difference between law “added” and law “transgressed” in order that we can present ourselves “approved to God” and so we can be workers that do “not need to be ashamed” (2 Timothy:15).
I trust that this article has been of help in that understanding.
Pedro R. Meléndez, Jr.