“Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith“ (Galatians 3:21-24)
Have you ever despaired over a certain sin you committed, convinced it was too horrible for God to forgive? Christians shouldn’t go about life doubting God’s ability to forgive, be we certainly should always be contrite and repentant when we sin against God. The Christian life is a constant struggle between our identity in Christ and our sinful nature. Even on our best days, when we put forth every conscious effort to live as Christ lived, we still don’t reach the perfect standard that God has given us in the law. No matter how much we struggle, our sinful thoughts and desires are a part of us until we are taken home to Christ (Romans 7:18-25).
Paul, in his epistles, writes fervently and emphatically about the importance of justification by grace through faith. This is the central doctrine of Christianity, and it is where Christians place all of their hope. The certainty of our salvation does not depend on us. If it did, we certainly would not be able to justify ourselves before God. Rather, our hope of salvation rests on Christ and his saving work. God did this by placing the burden of sin and death on His son, Jesus Christ. As Paul tells Christians in 2 Corinthians 5:21 –
For our sake God made Him (Christ) who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.
Christ died so that we would be released from our captivity to the law and sin. The law is not a means with which we can justify ourselves. The law’s true purpose is to point us to Christ, as said in Galatians 3:24 above. The ESV translation uses the word “guardian” to describe what the law does for us. The KJV translation uses the word “schoolmaster.” Combining the characteristics of both a guardian and a schoolmaster makes an accurate depiction of the original Greek word used, paidagōgos. Strong’s Concordance describes a paidagōgos in this way:
“Among the Greeks and the Romans, [the term paidagōgos] was applied to trustworthy slaves who were charged with the duty of supervising the life and morals of boys belonging to the better class. The boys were not allowed so much as to step out of the house without them before arriving at the age of manhood.”
This word gives a very accurate portrayal of how the law works. All humans, because of their sinful nature, are under the strict supervision and oversight of the law. Before one is brought to faith, he is chained to the standards of the law and is condemned before God. In this way, the law shows us what we can never live up to. It shows us how we are not free from the law (and sin) unless Christ has freed us. The law gives us the picture of what Christ’s life and death fulfilled. When we sin, and in turn see how sinful our hearts truly are, the law drives us to repentance and draws our hearts to Christ’s crucifixion.
Ultimately, the gospel of Jesus gets the final word in our salvation. If we think we can justify ourselves through the law, then why did Christ die for us? Paul states this very plainly – “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21)
When we compare our sinful selves to the perfect standards of the law, we don’t come even close to perfection. But Christ became perfection for us. His perfection has made us heirs to God’s kingdom, for which we wait humbly and faithfully.