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The Grace Project

The Law and Its Limitations: Agape Paradigm Chapter 3

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The genius of the Law lies in its ability to expose self- righteousness not to produce righteousness. Unless the Law is set within its limits the unbeliever will be trapped in a lifetime of futility.

Paul's conviction of the "failure to produce righteousness both as right standing with God and as behaviour that conforms to the character of God" is deep-seated. However, the Law, in and of itself, had not failed. Its true genius lies not in the production of righteousness but in its unique ability to expose self-righteousness. Paul did not underestimate Torah's potency, having had his own guns spiked by it. Torah had discharged its necessary duty in Paul who himself testified to its resounding success [Phil. 3:3-8].

Confusion occurs when the Law is taken beyond its limits, such as when it is employed as an instrument of:

  • effecting justification [2:16; 3:11];
  • effecting sanctification [2:19];
  • imparting the Spirit [3:2-5];
  • imparting righteousness [3:21];
  • imparting inheritance [4:30];
  • imparting life [3:21]; or
  • imparting freedom [4:21-5:1].

The Law is a paidag gos [3:22-25], i.e. a tutor to lead men to Christ through their failure to meet its standard [4:1-5; Rom. 7:24]. The goal of Torah is disillusionment. Progress in the Christian life is predicated on a crisis of self-confidence. Paradoxically, the observance of Torah is the necessary preamble to the freedom from Torah. In this regard, the Law and the Spirit collaborate as Divinely-appointed co-conspirators to bring us to the recognition of our need of Christ. Torah's vocation is that it "should convict Israel of sin" . In addition, Jesus disclosed to the disciples that the Spirit is engaged in the same occupation of "convicting man concerning sin and guilt" [Jn. 16:9-11]. But, as Norman Grubb suggests, after the Law and the Spirit's initial joint venture, the Law's career takes a different direction - "First, the Law came to teach us our guilt; now, it comes to teach us our helplessness" . In contrast, the Spirit's career turns to facilitating the believer's new life in Christ which Barclay summarises as follows:

"The Spirit brought God's truth to men and the Spirit enabled men to recognize that truth when they saw it."

This is in contradistinction to the claims of the Agitators. The views at issue are summarized below:

Fig. 1

Agitators' View

Pauline View

Attempted Torah observance will be rewarded with a life of blessing and Torah infractions, a forfeiture of blessings.

Attempted Torah observance results in inevitable failure since its intrinsic blessing is to convict natural man of his need for Jesus.

Torah confers an important external status symbol.

Torah exposes internal impotence and meaninglessness of the external status symbol.

Would-be adherents would anticipate help from God.

Would-be adherents recognize their helplessness before God.


Our inability to maintain Torah is its success, making its would-be adherents amenable to Christ's offer of salvation. Only through the Law can a person die to the Law in order to live to Christ [2:19; Rom. 8:1-4]. Having been redeemed from the Law [4:4-5], the Galatians must not allow themselves to be enslaved by its yoke once again [5:1] lest they place themselves under the curse of the Law [3:10]. Although Wright argues that the curse of the Law "is to be understood in terms of Israel's ongoing exile" , Kruse's assessment that there is "little in the context to think that Paul was thinking about the curse in those terms" is to be preferred. Kruse suggests that to be under "the curse of the Law" meant that one would "miss out on being justified by God, on sharing in the blessing promised to Abraham and on receiving the Spirit" . In the author's estimation, the curse is not so much "the loss of acceptance by God" but rather, it is the consequence of our refusal to accept or recognise what has been accomplished for us by Christ. Failure to appropriate our new life in Christ leaves us marooned in a wilderness of uncertainty, prevented by unbelief from entering into His rest [Heb. 4:1-12].

In Galatians 5, Paul anticipates his thesis in Rom. 5:11-8:39. Salvation liberates man to a "paradoxical servitude" . The believer is transferred from being a "slave to sin" to being a "slave to righteousness" [Rom. 6:17-19]. This liberation is evidenced in "loving one another" [Jn. 13:35] - men and women will either "serve" one another or "devour" one another [5:15]. "No common life is possible when all the individual components are centred on themselves. They simply devour one another" . However, Paul's main objective was not to show how the Law could be fulfilled but to insist on "the total abolition of the Law for Christians" . Moreover, rather than resulting in anarchy, abrogation produces a harvest of righteousness [6:8b]. In contrast, any recourse to the Law will result in "diminished spirituality" [6:8]. If the Galatians want to maintain their union relationship with Christ, they will need to abandon their dalliance with Torah [5:4].


 Fee, p. 421.
NT Wright, p. 406.
Grubb, God Unlimited (Pennsylvania: Christian Literature Crusade, 1989), p. 103.
William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of John, Volume 1, Chapters 1-7 (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrews Press, 1975), p. 53.
NT Wright, The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 1991), pp. 140-141.
Colin Kruse, Paul, the Law and Justification (Leicester: Apollos, 1996), p. 82.
Kruse, p. 82.
Kruse, p. 82
Rudolf Bultmann, Theology of the New Testament, Volume One, 8 th Edition (London: SCM Press, 1976), p. 331.
Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians , p. 74.
Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians , p. 115.