19 What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one.
If religious rule-keeping isn’t the way to relate to God, then why was the law given? Paul explains that the law was added “because of transgressions.” Laws are given to restrain. In society, we have laws designed to restrain the behavior of most people. Some people operate outside of the law regularly; we call them criminals. Most people follow the laws of the land, thereby giving order to society.
The law was given to restrain behavior. Mankind has a sin nature that will run amok if left unrestrained. In setting His people apart, God designed a law system that was intended to restrain their sinful behavior. At Sinai, the nation of Israel was full of complaining and rebellion. The law was added because of transgressions, because sin needed to be restrained.
The problem with the law is that it cannot save. It can show us how far short we fall of God’s standard, but it can do nothing to lift us from our hopelessness. In its restraining capacity, the law is limited – it cannot provide salvation. But notice that Paul says that the law was added only “until the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.” Jesus is the Seed. The law was given to the nation of Israel to restrain sin until the Savior arrived.
We can see that in this letter to the Galatian churches, Paul is building a case against religion based on the finished work of Jesus. The law is the foundation of Judaism. By going all the way back before the law, explaining why the law was given, then finally clarifying that it was only a placeholder until Jesus performed His redemptive work, Paul is completely undercutting the premise of the religious argument that we must relate to God through the law.
It is so important to understand the truth that Paul is communicating because it is the foundation of New Covenant theology. Performance-based religion is law-based religion, and it is the very thing from which Jesus has freed us. When we use performance standards to measure ourselves and others, we are saying either that Jesus wasn’t the Seed or that His work is incomplete. If neither is true, then why would we want performance-based religion? Jesus is the Seed to whom the promise was made. The purpose of the law has been fulfilled. Brave grace today by ignoring religious demands and just loving your Savior.