Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
December 20, 1951
NUMBER 33, PAGE 6-9c

What Then Is The Law?

Robert H. Farish, Tarrant City, Alabama

Misunderstanding of the nature and design of the Law of Moses is a prolific source of division in the religious world. The knowledge and acceptance of God's answer to the question, "What then is the law"? would remove this division. Paul raises the question, "What then is the law"? (Gal. 8:19), to discuss the character and purpose of the Law of Moses.

The background for the question, as is seen from a study of the context, is Paul's reasoning about the relation of the law and the gospel, or the promise? He reasoned that confirmed covenant could not be added to nor voided. (Gal. 8:15) The promise was confirmed to Abraham, hence it could not be added to nor voided by the law which came 480 years later. The law was not given to Abraham but was added 430 years later, hence, could not impose additional restrictions on the inheritance. The promise embraced "all nations," but the law was made for the Israelites only. (Deut. 5:23) The promise was more comprehensive than the law so according to Paul's argument, if the inheritance were limited to those who kept the law, you would have a case of a confirmed covenant having additional restrictions made subsequent to the confirmation. Then Paul expresses this inspired conclusion, "For if the inheritance is of the law it is no more of promise: but God hath granted it to Abraham by promise." (Gal. 8:18) The fact that God granted the inheritance by promise ruled out the possibility of its being "of the law" according to this inspired reasoning. Yet some will contend that if a man keeps the Ten Commandments he will go to heaven. Heaven is the inheritance (1 Peter 1:3, 4), hence such a contention indicates that the one making it is conditioning the inheritance on the Law of Moses, making the inheritance "of the law."

Before leaving this point we will notice Gal. 3:11, "Now that no man is justified by the law before God is evident—." Here the Holy Spirit denies that a man can be justified by the law. But some men affirm that a man can be justified by the law. Thus men affirm what the Holy Spirit denies. Human speculation is arrayed against divine revelation in such efforts.

In order to grasp the import of the question, "What then is the law" and to understand the apostle's answer, we need to study some of the principles laid down by the apostle, leading up to the question. In the preceding chapter he has stated, "by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal. 2:16), and in the third chapter, verses two and three, he states that it was foolish for them to think that "having begun in the Spirit" they could be perfected "in the flesh." Further, he argues that "as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse" (Gal. 3:11), and that the law could not disannul the promise which preceded it by four hundred and thirty years (Gal. 3:17), and finally, if the "inheritance is of the law, it is no more of promise but God hath granted it to Abraham by promise." (Gal. 3:18)

"What then is the law" would be the natural and reasonable question that would come to the mind at this point. Up to this point, Paul has been pointing out things the law could not accomplish. Some reader might think that Paul was disparaging the law—that the law was a useless instrument, unable to accomplish anything—hence, a mistake. Such a conclusion would reflect on God who gave the law. The law was "holy, and the commandment holy and righteous, and good." (Rom. 7:12) But the Jews made the mistake of depending on the law for things which God had not included in his purposes with reference to the law. He had never intended that justification or inheritance could be obtained by the law. Paul was not reflecting on the law but was correcting the Jews' misconception of God's purpose with reference to the law, by denying that it was designed for the ends the Jews were claiming.

A similar mistake is made today with reference to the place of prayer in God's scheme of redemption. Nowhere in the New Testament do we find alien sinners taught to pray for salvation, yet, on every hand men are telling alien sinners to pray to God and he will save them. The Word of God instructs the alien to believe, repent and be baptized unto the remission of sins. (Mark 16:15, 16; Acts 2:38) Prayer was not designed to gain salvation for the alien. When we protest that prayer cannot be substituted for obedience, we are not reflecting on the efficacy of prayer. Neither was Paul reflecting on the efficacy of the law to accomplish the end for which God designed it. He was simply leading up to a definition of the nature and design of the law by denying that the law was intended to justify man or that man could gain the inheritance "of the law." If the law could not accomplish these things which some of the Jews were claiming, what could it accomplish? Or in the language of Paul, "What then is the law"? The apostle answers the question in his discussion, which immediately follows the question.

But before considering the apostle's answer to the question, we need to determine what law is contemplated in the question, "What then is the law." The law under consideration is the Law of Moses. This is apparent from an over all view of the context. The contrast between the Law of Moses and the gospel is the theme of the Galatian letter. This contrast reveals that the promise was not co-extensive with the law, but that it preceded the law by 430 years and endures after the law was abolished. That the law is the Law of Moses is also evident from some particular statements, e.g., it was the law under which Christ was born. (Gal. 4:4) It was the law from Mt Sinai. (Gal. 4:24) The giving of the law from Mt. Sinai was the occasion when God "madest known unto them the Holy Sabbath—." (Neh. 9:14) This identifies it as the ten commandment law for the fourth commandment of the ten commandments was the Sabbath commandment. The Law of Moses was the law in which the curse against those who were "of the works of the law" (Gal. 3:10), was recorded. Clearly the Law of Moses is the law of our question. Remember that this law included the Sabbath command. Hence, all that Paul says, in answer to the question, refers to the Law of Moses—the law made at Mt. Sinai. Understanding and accepting Paul's answer to this question will remove the "veil" of misunderstanding from the hearts of those who "unto this day, whensoever Moses is read, a veil lieth upon their heart." (2 Cor. 3:15) This veil remains upon the heart of those who seek to justify their practices today by the Law of Moses. "—For until this very day at the reading of the Old Covenant the same veil remaineth, it not being revealed to them that it is done away in Christ." (2 Cor. 3:14) The answer to the question will clearly reveal that the law was done away in Christ. The Holy Spirit by the question provokes inquiry. This inquiry the Holy Spirit answers by means of the apostle's discussion.