The law is not the problem (October 29, 2023)

When reading Galatians, it can be easy to conceptualize the law as an evil disciplinarian. Rose Schrott Taylor argues that this isn't what Paul is saying.

When it comes to bowling, I am either on – hitting strikes and spares – or I am off – sending gutter ball after gutter ball. There is no in-between. As a competitive person, I hate playing games where I can’t manage to hit a pin. In those instances, I find myself looking longingly at any children who may be bowling nearby with bumpers blocking the gutters. Isn’t it nice to have guidance at times?

When I read Paul’s description of the law in Galatians 3:23-4:7, I think of those bumpers.


The past four lessons have looked at Romans and Galatians to pinpoint how Jewish Christians’ relationship to the Torah changed with Jesus’ life, death and resurrection — and how first-century Jewish Christians processed this change. We continue this theme in today’s lesson.

Some background on Galatians: this letter captures a very angry Paul. He is angry because the Galatian church has turned away from the gospel (1:6-9). Based on Paul’s writing, we can surmise that there were leaders in the Galatian church saying believers must follow the law in the Torah if they want to be followers of Christ. These leaders tied salvation with things like circumcision and eating kosher. This opposes what Paul believes: that we are saved by faith alone and the grace of God (Ephesians 2:8), that Christ’s resurrection is for all people (not just law-keeping Jewish people).

Well, if God’s plan was to ultimately send Jesus to bring salvation, why would God offer the law in the first place? This is what Paul addresses in today’s Scripture.

The law is not the problem

Paul’s main argument is that the law served a temporary purpose. As Paul puts it, “Before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law” (3:23), and “the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came” (3:24). These words can paint a dark picture regarding the Torah, but the original language offers a kinder take. “Imprisoned” (v. 23), for instance, comes from ephrouroumetha which means to set a guard or garrison — to protect. “Disciplinarian” (v. 24) comes from paidagōgos — a teacher. The function of the law was to direct people toward abundant life like bumpers direct your bowling ball toward the pins.

The law was not evil, just incomplete. It was meant for good. When the law becomes evil is when it is used to manipulate human hierarchy and power. In the new world Jesus inaugurated, our actions mean nothing. We are called to love one another, yes, and the Holy Spirit changes our hearts and minds so that we can better love God and love our neighbor, but our salvation comes from God. We are justified by faith. We do not take actions to earn the right to salvation — that line of thinking is what Paul is opposing. He argues that the law must be viewed differently in light of Jesus’ incarnation and resurrection. There is a new way forward. The church, he says, must change its relationship to the past.

Freed to be mutual blessings

As Carla Works writes in her commentary on Galatians 3:23-29 for Working Preacher, “The law can point toward goodness, justice, and peace, but it cannot create a peaceable, loving, and just people. The law is not in the business of transformation.“ Transformation, redemption, new life: that comes from Christ alone. And this belonging to God, more than our other identifiers, defines followers of Christ. We are children of God, we are beloved, before our gender, social status, nationality or ethnicity.

Our faith does not erase the aspects of our identity that create our personality and worldview. These continue to inform who we are, but in Christ, we do get a glimpse of the world God is trying to create, a place where “relationships that once contained power dynamics and strife are now relationships of mutual blessing” (Works).

A man does not get to tell me that his voice matters more than mine because he is a man and I am a woman. No, we are equal. We are children of God, saved by grace and justified by faith. I do not get to overlook the discrimination against people of color because my skin is White and, therefore, prejudice doesn’t impact my daily life. No, we are all children of God, saved by grace and justified by faith. What happens to my siblings is my concern.

Freedom, in the Bible, is different from how we regularly conceptualize it in the United States. In our country, when we hear “freedom” we think of our forefathers, of democracy, of the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (at least, that is where my mind goes). Freedom is deeply connected with independence in our culture. Our God, however, is inherently relational. So the freedom offered by our Creator means that we are liberated to love one another, to love ourselves, to believe that there is hope and goodness and reconciliation — and somehow, we need each other to find these things. When the world feels dark, it’s good to remember this.

Questions for discussion

  • When reading Paul, it can be tempting to fall into dualistic thinking around the Torah. Law = bad. Jesus = good. How can we add nuance and depth to this view (especially in a way that honors our Judeo-Christian heritage and our Jewish siblings)?
  • What does freedom mean to you? How can we live in the freedom offered by Christ as a community?

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