Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, "And to seeds," as referring to many, but rather to one, "And to your seed," that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made. Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
Which Came First?
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
Paul is wrestling in our text with the relationship of the Law and the Gospel with one another. That is one of the fundamental questions confronting the Christian and the Church as she proclaims the Gospel. As I read the text, it struck me that the question was a great deal like that old question, "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?". Naturally, as we read the Bible, the answer has to be, the chicken! God created all the animals first, and then told them to be fruitful and multiply, and enabled them to reproduce after their own kind. It is really not a difficult question.
In the modern world, when someone asks the question, you probably need to ask them a question or two: "Which specific chicken, and which specific egg?" Most of the time, people are not really looking for first causes any more. Typically when someone asks that question seriously today, they are approaching the world from an evolutionary perspective, which is about as useful as trying to describe what it would be like to breathe if there had never been any air. It is to ask a question that sounds serious, but does not deal with reality, but rather with a fiction that does not exist. 'Imagine, if nothing we know today existed, and the laws of nature were entirely different, what would a tomato taste like?' You see, total nonsense.
Paul is dealing with reality, and there is an answer which can be discerned from the original authoritative source material. He is asking how the Law and the Gospel relate to one another for people who have struggled with it because they knew the Law first, and take it quite seriously, as we all should. The question is summed up in our theme this morning, Which Came First?
The theme of Galatians is a response to the Judaizers. They were the ones who were telling the Galatians that they needed to be good Jews before they could become good Christians. They apparently were dealing with the law concerning circumcision, but leaving that specific issue aside, they were saying that the Law came first in history and for the Jews, and so the Law must come first for the Christian. You have to keep the Law before you are worthy of the Gospel - a common thought in a lot of Protestant preaching today. Paul takes on this issue by saying that the Law did not come first. Paul asserts that the Gospel came first, although he doesn't call it Gospel. He calls it "the promise".
He says that the promise was given first, to Abraham. Back in verse six, nine verses before our Epistle lesson begins, we read the famous words, "And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to Him as righteousness." The promise of God to Abraham was one of the early promises of the Gospel to come, the salvation that would be worked out in time by the plan of God. "And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'ALL THE NATIONS SHALL BE BLESSED IN YOU.' So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer."
Paul says, then, that the promise came first, and he describes that promise as communicated by a covenant. The word covenant can also mean a man's will, as in 'last will and testament'. Then Paul writes that a covenant, even one of a mere man, cannot be set aside, once it has been ratified, nor can it be altered by another. It is fixed. The covenant with Abraham, and his descendants in the faith, which speaks the promises and contains the Old Testament Gospel, is also set and fixed and has been ratified, according to Paul, by God. Therefore, it cannot be altered, amended, or added to by subsequent conditions or events. Therefore, the Law, which came to Moses four hundred and thirty years later, cannot supercede, cancel out, or modify the original covenant. The promise - the Gospel - came first, and so it precedes and does not require the prior application of the Law. Those who cling to the Law as an added codicil to their salvation do so at their own risk, because the Gospel does not demand it nor set the Law as a precondition for the Gospel. You don't need to be a good Jew first, and you don't need to prepare by obedience to the Law before you are fit, or worthy, or eligible for the Gospel.
Of course those who cling to the Law don't take this bit of news lying down. They insist, even though God says differently, that the Law is required. The argument takes the form of something like this, "If the Gospel is true, why then was the Law even given to us?" It is a sort of theological tantrum: The Law must be true! God gave it and so we must need it!
And Paul agrees with part of the assertion while he answers the question. The Law is, in fact, true. It is, after all, God-given. But God gave the Law for a reason different than those who cling to it expect. He gave the Law to prepare all men for the coming fulfillment of the Gospel in Jesus Christ, and to prepare us to understand our need for the Gospel. Paul says it was added for the sake of transgressions. It was intended to teach us that we need saving. God gave the Law to teach us about human failure and sin and make us fully aware of our need to be rescued, redeemed, and forgiven. Far from making us holy, the Law leads us into sin. The Law stirs up the sin within us. It commands what we can recognize is right and holy and good, and yet we must also confess that we simply cannot keep the Law. It shows us our sinfulness by commanding what is holy, and what we acknowledge to be holy, and yet we sin against it nonetheless. What terrible sinners we are!
The idea that we can include the Law into our salvation, along with the Gospel, is also rejected by the Apostle. Back then, the counter-argument was apparently that the Law was good and necessary and we would be just fine if we insisted upon the Law as well. You will hear the same sort of preaching on Television, and in many churches today. They will say that the Gospel is fine, but we need the Law too. Fail to keep the Law and such teachers will kick you out of the Gospel as well.
Now, aside from the points Paul made about not altering a covenant once it has been ratified, he also makes note of the truth that if the Law were able to serve our salvation, we would have no need of the Gospel. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. The Law and the Gospel do not compete. They serve entirely different purposes. Those who cling to the Law for salvation are clinging to that which cannot save them. The purpose of the Law was never to save anyone, but to show them that they needed to be saved from their own wickedness and evil and sin. The Gospel was given precisely because the Law could not save, and no one was able to keep the Law well enough to earn eternal life.
Except Jesus. He kept it and earned the life which is promised to all that believe in the Gospel. His is the righteousness with which we are reckoned by faith. He is the One who has made the Gospel and filled the promise of the Gospel with life and forgiveness and all that we hope in it for. He died the death the Law demanded, in our place. His resurrection filled the Gospel with forgiveness, life, and peace! His death is the one that made conditions of covenant, the last will and testament, now applicable! He died and we inherit -we who believe with faith of Abraham - the heirs named it the covenant.
Those who cling to the Law do so because it is there, it was given by God, and it makes such good sense to us. It appeals to our flesh, even though we are unable to obey it fully. We can sense and feel its truth and rightness. So mankind does not want to let go of it. They like the Law better than the Gospel by nature. So they continue to fight for it. Their argument continues something like this: "The Law is still God's Word, so what do we do with it now? How can we just dismiss it?"
The answer is that we do not dismiss it. We listen to it. "But the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe." The place of the Law is to condemn. It stands to accuse us of being sinners in need of a Savior, and so we listen to it and understand that we truly fit the indictment of the Law. We are guilty! We need a Savior. Then we allow the Law to do its work and soften our hard hearts to hear the Gospel in all of its sweetness and be delighted by the salvation which is ours by grace through faith in connection with all that Jesus Christ has done for us.
And we remember that even with our forgiveness, the Law is still true, and it is still the will of God. God would still have us be holy and do holy and live out the righteousness which He gives us in Jesus Christ. The Gospel is not a license to sin, it is salvation for those who are sinners, rescue and redemption from our own sin. But it is a license to be holy and to do what is pleasing to God. So the Law serves us as a guide, showing us our sin, and helping us, by the same grace of God, to understand what is pleasing to God and how we may live out the holiness to which we have been called by God.
But even under the Gospel, we do not possess the native ability to keep the Law as it ought to be kept. So, the Law should serve to bring us to repentance, and to confess our guilt and sin, and to eagerly hear the absolution with joy and receive the blessed gifts of the Sacrament with thanksgiving. The Gospel doesn't lead us to discard the Law, it simply shields us from the power of the Law to condemn and kill us. We are free from its condemnation, but not from its truth. We are freed by the gift - which is ours through the promises of the Gospel, the covenant which came long before the Law.
Which came first? The Chicken - and the Gospel of our salvation, planned in eternity and promised already to Abraham in the covenant set centuries before God ever gave the Law to man through Moses. Let us give thanks!
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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