In the beginning of Galatians, Paul makes clear that we are saved and made righteous because of the work of God, not our own effort. Our merit is insufficient to ever make us good enough. How, then, do we best understand the existence of the Law? Paul said he "died" to it – all those rules and regulations were not where the spiritual action is. Paul "came alive" in Christ when he was filled with the Spirit. That sure sounds (on the surface) like the Law is no longer part of the discussion at all.
On the other hand, Jesus himself said that he came to fulfill the law, not destroy it. Jesus clearly was not anti-law. He was, however, opposed to the way in which His people had misunderstood and distorted its purpose and use.
So were Paul and Jesus contradicting each other? Do we have to worry about trying to be good? Is the law of no use? In Galatians 3 and 4, Paul talks about three ways we can experience the law: a slave to a Law that feels like a jailer; a student to a Law that feels like a tutor; a son to the Lawgiver Himself.
WHEN WE ARE SLAVES TO A JAILER
Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until [Christ] had come… But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin... Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:19-24)
The Greek words denotes people are “held prisoners” and “locked up” by military guards. They are forced to adhere, to go through the motions, because they have a harsh, controlling master. In this scenario, the law enslaves us to an unreachable standard. There is no way anybody could do it right.
My dad was a really good piano player. When I was a kid, he asked me if I wanted to learn to play piano like that, and I said, “Sure!”
I endured lessons for a year or two. I resented it. I played incredibly basic things because I had to. It was hard to do anything right. During this time, my dad would have me play whole notes for a while, then maybe half notes, then maybe a scale if I was groovin’. On good days, I could play “Chopsticks,” but even then I was forced to use one hand instead of the obviously necessary two.
I would be bored the whole time, complaining. Dad would say, "Do you want to play piano?” Sigh…yes… then back to the drudgery of those little notes inside those little lines. I liked the idea of being a really good piano player, but I just wasn't feeling it. Every day, the structure of music just showed me what I wasn’t good at doing.
When it comes to our ability to "play life well" – follow the notes and stay within the moral lines – the law will do is highlight our insufficiency. If this is how we experience the law, we may obey it, but we will learn to hate it. We will resent the success of others, minimize our insufficiencies, and probably conclude that moral living is overrated. We may begrudgingly adhere to the law, but we will never love it.
WHEN WE ARE STUDENTS TO A TUTOR
"As long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees (tutors) until the time set by his father." (Galatians 4:1)
A Greek tutor was hired by a father to prepare his children for life as an adult, as knowledgeable, healthy, free persons. If all went well, the adult child will not have to be coerced into following the teaching of his father, but would instead willingly choose to pattern his life after his father.
As we begin to understand salvation and grace, the Law no longer forces begrudging obedience through coercion and fear. The Law no longer feels like a jailer. The Law begins to make more sense, and we increasingly appreciate why God found certain moral guidelines to be important.
When I was a kid, I eventually began to understand how chords and scales worked. I started to play piano on my own. While this was an improvement, it was just knowledge at this point. It didn’t mean that the art of playing a keyboard was becoming ingrained in my life. I just learned more and it was easier to do. Practice no longer felt like prison. I played sometimes in my free time and when I was bored.
People no longer covered their ears when I sat down on the piano stool, but I was far from amazing. My increasing knowledge and ability was helpful and good, and I was beginning to understand why my own father was excited about this piano thing, but it wasn't yet me. It felt good and seemed important in some way, but it still wasn't clicking.
When we see God's law as a tutor, there is at least a comprehension of what the law is trying to accomplish. There is understanding and perhaps even appreciation (“Oh! Hey! If I play these keys together in this progression - if I make these good choices - cool! That wasn’t bad!”).
We no longer obey God for our sake or to get the “jailer” off our back. We use adherence to the law to purposefully live well, and to please and maybe even to bring glory to God. That’s far better than the first level of understanding law, but it’s still not what the law was made to do.
The Law can guide me just like a musical score – I can learn to play precisely or live morally – but that doesn’t mean that I can make music or life come alive. Being capable is not the same as loving the music or the composer or the God to whom I have given my allegiance. And honestly, I am probably hoping people notice me more than anything else.
WHEN WE ARE SONS OF A FATHER
“God sent his Son, born of a woman - born under the law - to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:1-3)
Paul uses the illustration of a young child who is the heir of a great estate. In most ancient cultures, daughters could not inherit property. Therefore, “son” meant “legal heir,” which was a status forbidden to women. Paul even adds another layer that broadens this message of hope. In the Greco-Roman world, a childless, wealthy man could adopt a servant. This servant immediately received all the financial and legal privileges due to a son and heir. Though by birth he was a slave without status or relationship with the father, he was now a son with a new life of privilege.
This is the heart of the Christian life: There is no slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Now, we can all be adopted into God's family and become equal heirs to the promises and privileges that come with being part of the family.
The piano "tutoring" bore some fruit – even though I never really went anywhere with the piano, I practiced other instruments and eventually picked up a bass. I learned to sing 8-part classical music. I increasingly saw the worth of musical knowledge and ability, and I started to enjoy it more. But I never followed up on the piano. Why?
Because my earthly father couldn't give me his spirit.
My dad gave me the privilege of being “son.” No matter what I did or didn’t do on a piano, I was his son. It didn’t hang on my ability. But Dad was human, and he had no way of putting his musical spirit in me.
That's the beauty of what Paul says about what happens when we become sons of God. The sense of coercion to the Law is gone. Even knowing and understanding it is no longer enough. Now, God's moral code becomes part of who we are because it’s part of who we want to be. We call out, “Abba, Father,” in a voice of awe, not fear.
The Law as Guard controlled our actions no matter how the we felt. The Law as Tutor instructed us with the hope that we would at least understand the ways of God (the Father) so that we would live holy lives not out of coercion, but out of admiration and appreciation. But when we are adopted into a family in which we grow to love the one in whom the Law is grounded, we inherit the moral nature of our spiritual father.
Notice that the Law is not gone; it’s very much still there. In fact, one way we can be sure we are living by the Spirit is if we in conformity with the Law. It helps us make sure we are experiencing God’s spirit within us accurately. True musicians play particular notes in particular scales in particular ways. The laws of music are not suspended just because great musicians hardly think about them; the structure is just so deeply ingrained in them that mastery of the score flows out of them.
In the same way, the Word and the Spirit are deeply intertwined. Without the Spirit, the Word is just ink on paper, the musical notes we follow without soul. Without the Word, the Spirit can be misunderstood, like a musician who takes off on a solo in the wrong key.
The law may keep us from going astray no matter how much we want to; it may tutor us in a healthy way, but that was never going to be enough. Through the work of the Spirit within, we can experience the certainty that God has embraced us into his family, and from that place of… privilege…we naturally play/ live in a way that points to the one who loved us, saved us, and made us His own.
It is then that the song of the redeemed plays most beautifully.
I am indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for helping me to think - and write - more clearly about Galatians.