The Law as Custodian
As the story of Scripture progresses in the Bible, particularly in the New Testament, we begin to see a battle of sorts play out. The battle is between the works of the Law and faith in Jesus (or perhaps the faithfulness of Jesus which brought redemption to all of humanity at the cross and with the resurrection). And in this battle, we know, or at least we think we do, which of these two will be victorious. Living a life defined by the works of the Law is a cycle that continues forever and does not lead to freedom but to death; whereas, living under the faithfulness of Jesus is a life of freedom that leads to life.
And it is at this point that those who are concerned with the Gospel of grace rejoice because the Law, seemingly, has been defeated and we can go about living our lives in freedom now. It is also at this point that those who are concerned that we cannot handle this freedom without inevitably falling back into sin begin to hold on tightly to the works of the Law and to caution the other group to continue to live by the Law in obedience to God.
One group of Christians (nearly) throws out the Law as outdated and irrelevant. The other group holds onto that same Law as a rule of life.
So, what are we to do? Do we live according to the Law or according to Grace? Do we live with freedom or with obedience?
In Galatians 3, Paul describes the relationship between the Law and Grace for those in the churches in Galatia who vascillate back and forth between the two. And the result, I think, is a little bit more nuanced than simply declaring one victorious and discarding the other.
Paul says: “Before faith came, we were guarded under the Law, locked up until faith that was coming would be revealed, so that the Law became our custodian until Christ so that we might be made righteous by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian” (Galatians 3:23-25).
In other words, Paul does declare that Faith “wins” this imaginary battle we have posed and that the Law “loses.” But at the same time, that seems to not be what Paul is saying at all. Paul is not trying to declare winners and losers. Paul is trying to help the people to understand the role that the Law and that Faith play.
The Law is not counter to or opposed to Faith. In fact, it relies upon it. The Law leads Paul to understand, after his encounter with Jesus, that Faith is necessary. It is the complement or completion of the Law. “If a Law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would in fact have come from the Law. But Scripture locked up all things under sin, so that the promise based on the faithfulness of Jesus Christ might be given to those who have faith” (Galatians 3:21b-22).
This imaginary battle that we have posed, and that we occasionally allow to work in our lives and churches, is not a battle at all. It is a progression. The Law leads to and points to Faith in Jesus!
This is, in fact, what Jesus says too: “Don’t even begin to think that I have come to do away with the Law and the Prophets. I haven’t come to do away with them but to fulfill them” (Matthew 5:17).
The Law leads to the Christ, the person of Jesus! And this is truly good news because it means that we can dispense with the comparison game. We can get rid of the scoresheet that balances whether we have been good enough for God. We can even let loose of our judgments against ourself and against others and simply allow God that right while seeking to love as Jesus loved.
Because we are not tossing the Law into a trashcan. Instead, we are allowing the Law to lead us to Christ. To lead us to devotion to Jesus and to knowledge of our need for grace.
And the beauty of this is that we are no longer trapped in the cycle of the Law (living our life which inevitably leads to sin which leads to our need to sacrifice and atone for that sin which leads us back to living our life which inevitably leads to sin again). Now, we trust in the faithfulness of Jesus to do once and for all what we could not do: to sanctify and cleanse us of our sin, past, present, and future. And this leads us to freedom because now we are freed from the cycle of the Law.
But freed for what purpose?
And here again, this journey of faith in Jesus surprises us. Because since we are freed from the requirements of the Law, from the cycle, we now can live
in any way that we want. No! Because we are freed from the Law, we now can live according to the Law so that we can be sources of light, joy, love, and peace in the world.
This is what James described in his book: “Faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead…Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds” (James 2:17, 18b).
John Mark referenced this too, in his sermon on Galatians 3 this past week. In referencing Richard Rohr, John Mark drew our attention to this supposed battle between the Law and Faith. We often describe the story of Christianity as a means of “cleaning up” our lives when in reality, the story of Jesus helps to “wake us up” to a new reality–one in which we have been made clean by Jesus. But the story doesn’t end there, because now that we are awoken, we can live cleanly.
The Law leads us to Jesus, and Jesus leads us to a natural desire to live as Jesus lived. To be faithful and obedient. To be loving, kind, merciful, and gracious. To live with the Fruit of the Spirit in our life. To be as Jesus was and is and will be forevermore.
May it be so in our lives. May we live in the freedom of faith in Jesus who, by his faithfulness, brought grace to us all. And may we live with faithful deeds so that the world may know that our faith is not dead.