"Made Guilty Enough for Grace"
(Delivered Sunday, March 23, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
This morning, we will begin what I hope will be a very profitable study - a study of the Ten Commandments. The Ten Commandments are given to us in the Bible twice - once in Exodus 20:1-17, marking the beginning of the journey of the children of Israel to the Promised Land; and once again in Deuteronomy 5:6-21, marking the end of their journey and their preparation to enter in and possess the land of God's promise. It's hard to imagine a portion of Scripture that is better known and more significant - and of course, in our day, more controversial - than the Ten Commandments. And even though I'm tempted to jump right into a study of these majestic commandments of God, I have felt that it would be wise for us to take the time to talk about some preliminary matters first.
Did you know that the Bible warns that the Ten Commandments can be mishandled in the way they are taught? It's a very dangerous thing to teach about the Ten Commandments in a way that isolates them from the whole message of God - particularly the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The apostle Paul wrote to Pastor Timothy and warned him not to allow people to teach false doctrines or get caught up in religious fables and endless genealogies. And he said,
Now the purpose of the commandment is love from a pure heart, from a good conscience, and from sincere faith, from which some, having strayed, have turned aside to idle talk, desiring to be teachers of the law, understanding neither what they say nor the things which they affirm. But we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully, knowing this: that the law is not made for a righteous person, but for the lawless and insubordinate, for the ungodly and for sinners, for the unholy and profane, for murderers of fathers and murderers of mothers, for manslayers, for fornicators, for sodomites, for kidnappers, for liars, for perjurers, and if there is any other thing that is contrary to sound doctrine, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God which was committed to my trust (1 Tim. 1:5-11).
Clearly then, someone who attempts to be a teacher of the law of God can either do so "lawfully" - that is, in a way that is consistent with its purpose - or in such a way as to show that they understand neither what they say nor the things which they affirm. I want us to learn how to use the law "lawfully"; and so, I hope you'll understand that, before we can talk about the Ten Commandments, we need to make sure that we are correctly understanding their purpose.
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One of the most serious and dangerous mistakes someone can make when it comes to the Ten Commandments is to believe that the commandments were given to make people righteous. I call this the most serious and dangerous mistake someone can make about the Ten Commandments, because persisting in such a belief will ultimately lead that person to eternal separation from the God.
There's a story about Jesus that I believe helps illustrate this. It's repeated in three of the four Gospels. Jesus was going down the road when a man came running up to talk to Him. It was a young man who had been very successful in life, and who had become very wealthy. But his desperation before Jesus revealed that his wealth and success had not filled the emptiness in his heart.
Now behold, one came and said to Him, "Good Teacher, what good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" So He said to him, "Why do you call Me good? No one is good but One, that is, God. But if you want to enter into eternal life, keep the commandments." He said to Him, "Which ones?" Jesus said, "You shall not murder,' 'You shall not commit adultery,' 'You shall not steal,' 'You shall not bear false witness,' 'Honor your father and your mother,' and, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'" The young man said to Him, "All these things I have kept from my youth. What do I still lack?" Jesus said to him, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give it to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me." But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions (Matthew 19:16-22).
The man's question was very specific: "... What good thing shall I do that I may have eternal life?" He wanted to know what "good thing" he himself had to "do". And indeed, Jesus had said, in answer to his specific question, "... If you want to enter into eternal life, keep the commandments." In other words, if the young man wanted to know what he himself had to "do" to gain eternal life, then Jesus told him he needed to keep the commandments. And if obedience to the law was what it took to earn eternal life for one's self, then the young man felt quite sure that he had kept the commandments that Jesus had mentioned.
But then Jesus put His finger, as it were, on the young man's wealth; and that's when the young man discovered that he, in fact, was not perfect in his obedience to the commandments. When Jesus called on him to sell all he had, give the money to the poor, and follow Him, the young man found he could not part from his wealth. Jesus' challenge revealed that the young man had not kept the very first commandment - to have no other gods before the One true God. His money had become his god.
This helps illustrate why it's so dangerous to believe that the Ten Commandments can make us righteous before God. The problem isn't with the commandments; because they themselves are holy and good. The problem is with us. Those commandments can never make us righteous before God, because - no matter how hard we try - we cannot keep them to the perfect degree that righteousness before God demands. Just trying to do so only ends up making us into guilty sinners.
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The apostle Paul wrote much about this dangerous mistake toward the commandments in his New Testament letter to the Galatians. He wrote to this particular group of Christians because someone had crept in among them and had been teaching them that they could maintain a state of righteousness before God on the basis of obedience to God's law. But Paul showed them that even the law itself teaches that no one can be made righteous before God through the law. He wrote;
For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them." (Gal. 3:10).
God's standard for obedience to His law is absolute perfection. Many people believe that the law is simply a scale; and if their "obedience points" tends to outweigh their "disobedience points", then God should declare them righteous. But a better analogy would be to see the Ten Commandments as ten links in a chain. If someone were hanging by their finger over a cliff by the last link in the chain, and if they happen to break one of the links, they won't simply fall one-tenth of the way down. Rather, they'll fall all the way. As the apostle James put it:
For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, "Do not commit adultery," also said, "Do not commit murder." Now if you do not commit adultery, but you do murder, you have become a transgressor of the law (James 2:10-11).
If we break the law once, we must stand guilty before God as a "transgressor of the law". If we are going to pursue the law as a means of righteousness before a holy God, then we need to know that such a God demands perfect obedience to His law. One failure with respect to His law makes us into condemned sinners. Therefore, it's obvious that no one will ever be made righteous before God through His law.
Someone may respond to that and say, "But that's not fair!! God's law makes it impossible for us to be righteous by the law!! What hope do we have, then, of being righteous?" But the fact is that God has made it possible for us to be declared righteous apart from the law. Listen carefully to what Paul goes on to say. He quotes from the Old Testament and says,
But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for "the just shall live by faith." Yet the law is not of faith, but "the man who does them shall live by them." Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree"), that the blessings of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (Gal. 3:11-13).
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The apostle Paul points to Abraham - the father of the Jewish people - as the premiere example of God declaring someone righteous apart from the law. Abraham is the greatest example in the Bible of what it means to be saved by faith. Abraham was a childless man; but God promised that He would give him many descendants. God promised that those decedents would become a great nation through whom the world would be blessed, because it would be through that great nation that the Messiah would come. And then, God promised the land of Israel to Abraham, saying, "To your descendants" - literally "to your seed" - I will give this land" (Gen. 12:7). And it's then that the Bible tells us that Abraham "believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness" (Gen. 15:6).
God declared Abraham righteous by faith - not by obedience to the law. And God made this promise of righteousness through Christ to Abraham long before the law had been given through Moses - 430 years before, in fact. And so, Paul writes,
Brethren, I speak in the manner of men: Though it is only a man's covenant, yet if it is confirmed, no one annuls or adds to it. Now to Abraham and his Seed were the promises made. He does not say, "And to seeds," as of many, but as of one, "And to your Seed," who is Christ. And this I say, that the law which was four hundred and thirty years latter, cannot annul the covenant that was confirmed before by God in Christ, that it should make the promise of no effect. For if the inheritance is of the law, it is no longer of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise (Gal. 3:15-18).
So, understand: the promise to Abraham - the greatest of all promises - came to him not by means of law, but by faith. Abraham believed the promise, and as a result he was declared righteous by faith. And it's true today that a man or woman is justified, not by law, but by faith - just as was true of Abraham. This promise to Abraham and his seed was not annulled by the law, which was given 430 years later.
And so, if a man or woman is not made righteous by the law, but rather by faith - and if the law cannot make us righteous or annul the promise - what then is the purpose of the law? This is the great question I want to draw your attention to as we begin our study of the Ten Commandments, because Paul now answers it in the book of Galatians.
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I find John Calvin to be helpful at this point. He taught that, biblically, there were three uses of the law1. First, the law was useful for revealing sin and declaring us to be sinners - thus creating in us the need to be saved. Second, he taught that the law was useful in restraining evil and putting up a road-block to it - thus preventing fallen man from expressing his evil nature as much as he could if the law had not been there. Third, he taught that the law was useful in the life of Christians for teaching them how God wants them to live - thus providing a standard for practical holiness. I summarize these three uses for the law as (1) revealing sin, (2) restraining scoundrels, and (3) reforming saints. Paul only expounds on one of these uses in our passage this morning - specifically, the first one. But I think it is the most important purpose of the law for us to consider in starting this study.
What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one. Is the law then against the promise of God? Certainly not. For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before the faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor (Gal. 3:19-25).
Here then is the shocking news. The law was not given for the purpose of making us righteous. Rather, the opposite is true. The law was given for the expressed purpose of making us all into helpless sinners - and all so that we'd flee to the Savior and become justified by His righteousness through faith instead of trying to establish a righteousness of our own through the law. Elsewhere, Paul put it this way: "Moreover the law entered that the offense might abound. But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more, so that as sin reigned in death, even so grace might reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord (Rom. 5:20-21).
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Let's consider carefully the things this passage declares to us about the purpose of the law. First, we see that ...
1. THE LAW MAKES US INTO GUILTY 'TRANSGRESSORS'.
Paul starts off by asking, "What purpose then does the law serve?" And he answers, "It was added because of transgressions ..." (v. 19a). The purpose was not "righteousness", but rather the opposite - "transgressions." Later in this passage, he says, "... If there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin ..."
I remember sharing the gospel once with a man once who was very insistent that he was not a sinner. "I'm not some dirty sinner," he kept insisting. "I haven't murdered anyone!" He kept declaring his innocence with respect to that one commandment. "I'm not some murderer or something!" I don't know why he thought that the commandment against murder was the only important one; but I did point out that there were nine others. We can be innocent with respect to nine of the commandments; but breaking only one is all it takes to make us "dirty sinners."
But that illustrates the purpose of the law. It's very easy for us to say that we haven't sinned if we are careful not to look at the Ten Commandments. We can just compare ourselves with other people worse off than us, and we'll come out fine. But even Paul himself could not escape the condemning power of the law. He wrote,
What shall we say then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! On the contrary, I would not have known sin except through the law. For I would not have known covetousness unless the law had said, "You shall not covet." But sin, taking opportunity by the commandment, produced in me all manner of evil desire. For apart from the law sin was dead. I was alive once without the law, but when the commandment came, sin revived and I died. And the commandment, which was to bring life, I found to bring death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it killed me (Rom. 7:7-11).
You'll notice that Paul, in our passage, says that the law "was added because of transgressions ..." It was an addition. It came after the promise through faith was established, in order to make the justification by faith that Abraham experienced a necessity for the rest of us.
* * * * * * * * * *And so, as we read on, we find that ...
2. THE LAW THUS 'CONFINES' US UNDER SIN FOR JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH.
Paul writes that the law was added "because of", or "on account of transgressions" - that is, for the purpose of declaring sins to be "transgressions" of God's standards - "till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made ..." (v. 19). Or, as Paul says later, "But the Scripture" - another name here for the law - "has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe" (v. 22).
We can all think that we're pretty good drivers - until we read the state drivers manual; then it declares us to be "transgressors" of state driving laws! We can all think that we're pretty good writers - until we use the spell-checker on our computer; then it declares us to be "transgressors" of the rules of good spelling! Similarly, we can all think that we're pretty righteous people - until we stop comparing ourselves to other people, and compare ourselves instead to the standard of God's holiness as embodied in the Ten Commandments! Then, the law turns our otherwise unnoticed sins into "transgressions of the law", and makes "transgressors" out of us. For this reason, John Calvin compared the law of God to a mirror2. We can go along thinking that we're very clean and looking good - but one look into the law will reveal to us just how dirty and messed up we are.
The law thus "confines" us under the curse of sin. "Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them." Thus it is that, by the law - as Paul writes elsewhere - "every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law no flesh will be justified in His sight, for by the law is the knowledge of sin" (Rom. 3:19-20).
But the law does not confine us under sin as an end in and of itself. Rather, it confines us under sin as a means to an end. It confines us under sin in order to take away our every other option, and leave us only with the hope of God's merciful grace toward sinners like us - grace which He has already poured out through His Son Jesus Christ - so we can then be declared righteous by faith. Paul wrote,
... Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified (Gal. 2:16).
The moment you look into the law, you see the truth about yourself. You see that you are a helpless sinner before a holy God. You see that you are such a helpless sinner that you have no hope of making yourself righteous before God. And then, you throw up your hands in despair of yourself and cry out to God for mercy. And the moment that happens, the law has fulfilled its purpose in guiding us to salvation! It has confined you inescapably under the condemnation of sin; so that you realize your need for the Savior, and turn in faith to Him for salvation.
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Now; someone might be tempted to argue that God was somehow being contradictory in all this. He established a promise by faith through Abraham; and then established a law of works through Moses that seems completely contrary to it. But consider carefully Paul's argument. He said that the law was "appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator" (v. 19). When God gave the promise to Abraham, he gave it directly to him. There was no mediator. But when God gave the law, it was (1) "appointed" or "enacted" through angels, and (2) was given "by the hand of a mediator" - that is, Moses.
Paul then says, "Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one" (v. 20). The law was given through a mediator to the people of Israel in the form of a contract that depended on the performance of the recipients - and, of course, they failed to keep their end of the contract by failing to keep the law. As Stephen testified, his own Jewish countrymen where those "who have received the law by the direction of angels and have not kept it" (Acts 7:53). But the promise was given unilaterally to Abraham through God who "is one". The promise of justification by faith that was given to Abraham was not dependent upon the performance of Abraham for its success - but only upon Abraham's faith in the God who made the promise.
And so, he later asks, "Is the law then against the promise of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith might be given to those who believe" (vv. 21-22). The law, then, is not in contradiction to the promise, nor does it come along to replace the promise. Rather, the law is supportive of the promise. The law works in partnership with faith to bring about our salvation; because the law reveals that we need to be saved by the merits of Another through faith.
* * * * * * * * * *And so, finally, we find that ...
3. THE LAW IS OUR 'TUTOR' TO BRING US TO CHRIST.
Paul writes, "But before faith came" (and in the Greek, he uses the definite article to speak, literally, of "the faith" - that is, the faith that has Christ as its object for the sinner's righteousness ), "we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith" (vv. 23-24).
In ancient times, a wealthy Greek or Roman man would commission a household servant with the job of serving as the guardian of his son. This guardian would be assigned to watch over a boy as he grew between the ages of 6 to 16 years. He would follow him to school and make sure he did his work. He would carefully monitor who his friends were, and would protect him from bad influences. He would not take on the role of teaching or disciplining the child, because that was considered the role of the father. But instead, the guardian would be there to ensure that the child was kept in the sort of situation that would enable him to grow up in a mature and worthy manner. Once the child reached the goal of mature adult, of course, the guardian was no longer needed. Paul uses this same word to describe the function of the law in our life. It is like this guardian - this "tutor" - who brings us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.
And Paul adds, "But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor" (v. 25). In saying this, he isn't suggesting that, now that we have come to Christ, we no longer have any connection to the law. (As we will see later, we still have an abiding obligation to the law even in Christ.) It's just that, now, we are no longer under the curse of the law as a means of righteousness before God; and are no longer bound by the law under a state of sin as a tutor to guide us to Christ. The law, having rendered us into helpless sinners, and having brought us to Christ for justification by faith, has fulfilled one of its most important purposes in our lives; and now being in Christ, that function of the law toward us has now ended.
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There are two important applications I'd like to draw from all this. First, as believers, we need to remember the importance of declaring the law as a preparatory step in presenting the message of the Gospel to people. Just as it would be harmful to preach the law without the Gospel as its end, it would also be harmful to the Gospel without the law as its means. It's the law that makes the Gospel necessary; since no one seeks a Savior from sin unless they realize they are sinners who need to be saved. The law's role in declaring men and women to be needy sinners is, if you will, the "bad news" that makes the "Good News" such good news!! So let's not omit the declaration of God's law from the preaching of the whole Gospel.
And a second thing to consider is the effect that this declaration of the purpose of the law may have had on you. Perhaps you have come to realize in all this that you have sought to make yourself righteous in the sight of God by obedience to His law; and now, you realize that all it does is declare you to be a sinner. What now are you to do?
I would like to direct you to one more story from the ministry of Jesus. The Bible says,
Also He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others: "Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood and prayed thus with himself, 'God, I thank You that I am not like other men - extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even as this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I possess.' And the tax collector, standing afar off, would not so much as raise his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, 'God, be merciful to me a sinner!' I tell you, this man went down to his house justified rather than the other; for everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted" (Luke 18:9-14).
When someone comes into contact with the Law of God, and they see that they are sinners, and they cry out "God, be merciful to me a sinner"; then the Law has done its job. It has "humbled" them in their sins, that they might be justified by faith in Christ. The condemnation of your sins that comes from the law is intentional. The Holy Spirit, through the condemnation of the law, is calling you to give up your effort to be righteous through the law, and turn instead by faith to the Savior from sins. God "made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor. 5:21).
By God's grace, turn to Him right now in faith, that you might be declared "righteous" in God's sight.
1John Calvin, John T. McNeill, ed., Institutes of the Christian Religion (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), II, vii, 6-11; vol. 1, pp. 354-360.
2Calvin., p. 355.
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