The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians stands out in all our minds as the epistle which especially treats the subject of Christian Liberty. In the major portion of this letter, up to chapter 5, Paul carefully explains the Christian’s relation to the law and so establishes the doctrine of Christian Liberty. In the chapters 5 and 6 the subject is applied to our actual life. A study of the epistle is therefore very profitable for practical Christian living.
Of fundamental importance to a correct understanding of the subject of liberty in relation to law, which is assigned to me for another article, is an understanding of the term law as used by Paul in Galatians. This article is concerned with that subject.
There is a problem. The question is not what is the meaning of the term law as such. The meaning of the word itself is clear. It means rule, canon, ordinance, that which has been established. But the problem is, to what particular rule or law does Paul refer to in his use of the term. We have the laws of the Old Testament: the moral, civil, and ceremonial laws. In some passages in this epistle to the Galatians where Paul speaks of ‘The law” it is explained as referring to the ceremonial law. Others object and explain that it refers to the entire Mosaic legislation. The difference is vital. For the ordinary Bible reader it is difficult to determine.
Paul in some instances in this epistle uses, the word “law” without the definite article. This point is lost in our English transitions which use the definite article throughout the epistle. In other places Paul does use the definite article. We have the expression several times of “the law”. Once in Gal. 5:3 there is the expression “the whole law”. In Gal. 5:14 we find the expression “all the law”. The explanation of some commentators is that with the definite article attached to the term “law” the apostle has reference to the ceremonial lawn Other commentators disregard the distinction made by the definite article, but nevertheless distinguish on the one hand, a reference of Paul to the entire Mosaic legislation and on the other hand a particular reference to the ceremonial laws only. They determine this from their explanation of the context. A few expositors maintain that there is only one reference made by [he apostle when he refers to the Mosaic legislation, and that is, the entire code with the moral as, well as civil and ceremonial laws.
My conclusion is that nowhere in the epistle does the apostle direct our attention to the ceremonial law as such in distinction from the decalogue, when he uses the term “law”. This will change our conception of liberty in relation to law to be sure. An easy interpretation has always presented itself to me with the explanation that the apostle refers to the ceremonial law in Galatians and shows how that the Galatians and the Christians of the New Testament are free from those Old Testament ordinances. That has never been satisfactory, however. Especially because it is superficial and does not show exegetical proof is it not satisfactory.
Let us examine the main passages where it is contended, that the apostle refers to the ceremonial law exclusively and see that this is not true.
The first passage to which we wish to call your attention is found in Gal. 2:16 where Paul explains that a man is not justified by the “works of law”. This expression is used several times in following passages and is therefore important.
The occasion for the attack of Peter by Paul, which is the context of this passage, 2:16, is the question of observance of the ceremonial law. This account of his attack of Peter, Paul uses by way of introduction to his subject of law and freedom in relation to law. The main difference however, between Paul and Peter here is not the superficial question whether those Old Testament ordinances are to be observed by Peter in the presence of the Gentiles. That is the occasion for Paul’s reminder to Peter of the deeper matter, the vital question of the way of salvation. In verse 16 of chapter 2 Paul touches that deeper matter and reminds Peter that a man is, justified by faith and not by “works of law”. It is a matter of works versus faith, The expression “works of law” includes the Old Testament ceremonial observances but surely is not limited to them. It also includes other works,—the pretention of the rich young ruler, who maintained he observed the law of loving his neighbor. That is not the way of salvation, working it out by ourselves in conformity to law. And Jesus did not prescribe more and different laws for the young ruler. Neither must Peter and Paul build any more upon such a basis which they destroyed when they followed Christ. In this explanation we have a powerful word of God against all present day attempts to observe works of law as a way unto salvation. So we have a grasp of the real issue at stake in the subject of ceremonial observance which remains for all time an issue. It is the issue of humanism versus God’s salvation in Christ Jesus. If it is only a matter of the outward keeping of the ceremonial law that is the concern of Paul in writing this epistle, we almost feel that it is now a dead: issue. That was decided soon in the course of transition from the Old into the New Testament dispensation. In all the uses in this context of the term “law”, that is, in the verses 16, 19, and 21 Paul uses the term without the article and does not refer to a particular ceremonial law, but to the concept law.
In chapter three we have another context in which, the term law appears. In this connection the apostle in the main uses the term with the article. The first passage where this appears is verse 10, where it also seems that he refers to the ceremonial law. We read a quotation from Deuteronomy 27:26: “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” Turning to Deut. 27 we find that the curses which the children of Israel assumed from Mount Ebal were for transgressions of the moral law, judicial law and ceremonial law. It cannot be limited in this case either to just one in particular. The “book of the law” is the book of the entire law.
In verse 19 we have the important question, “wherefore then serveth the law?” Here it is used with the definite article. The answer that Paul gives to his question in verse 19 is found in the following verses of chapter 3 and therefore the references to the law in this entire section are all the same. My conclusion here too is negative first of all. It cannot refer to the ceremonial law as such. The first reason is again because there is, no special indication made by the apostle in the use of the term nor in the context to warrant such an interpretation. In the second place this mention of “the law” is in connection with his previous mention of the fact that it came four hundred and thirty years after the promise. Certainly that refers to the historical giving of the law at Mount Sinai. The important event of the giving of the law is not remembered as the giving of the ceremonial law. It is the Decalogue which takes; first place and the other laws are secondary, of importance only in relation to the ten words. These laws are inseparably connected. The secondary laws are without significance apart from the moral law. Jesus reminds us that on the essence of the moral law hang all the law and the prophets. In the third place, the reason given for the revelation of law, was “for the sake of transgressions”. Particularly the moral law brings out our transgressions. The ceremonial law contains prescriptions for keeping the types which are promises, of better things to come. The very answer of Paul as to the reason for the introduction of the law into history does not harmonize at all therefore with the answer of some that he refers to the ceremonial law exclusively. It follows necessarily that the reference to the law in verse 24 must also be the entire revelation of law at Sinai. The law in its entirety was a schoolmaster to drive the Church to Christ.
The third context which we must show does not contain the term law as a reference to the ceremonial law. That is the section of chapter 4. The passage which brings out the real issue of the whole context of chapter 4 is verse 4: “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law.” Although the able exegete Meyer explains the preceding expressions of the term law as not referring to the ceremonial law, he nevertheless does so in this passage. He explains the immediately preceding expression “elements of the world” as referring to the “rudiments of ritual” of both Jews and Gentiles. And so also he says Christ was born of a woman and under the Jewish rudiments of ritual, that is, circumcision and all connected with it. That is his understanding of the expression in the fourth verse, “under law”. I have not the space here to give the very good exposition of Dr. Greijdanus of the expression “elements; of the world”. Probably I shall have opportunity in the next article. However, let me state that it can be clearly shown that the expression, “elements of the world” does not refer specifically to the Levitical rites. I wish to give some arguments here to show that the expression “under law” in this fourth verse does not refer to the ceremonial law as such. In the first place the expression certainly refers to the incarnation of the Son of God. He was born of a woman and by virtue of such a birth, becoming like us in every respect, he was under law, the law of God regarding the creature. It is altogether superficial to explain ceremonial law only, which it is true he took as a Jew. In the second place it becomes still more evident that the concept “law of God” is meant here for the following verse gives the purpose, “to redeem them that were under law”. That cannot refer to Jews only. It refers to Jews and Gentiles, the whole body of elect of Old and New dispensations. This is plain from the use of the personal pronoun, “we” which concludes verse 5, “that we might receive the adoption of sons.” In the third place, nowhere are the ceremonial rites referred to as the “elements of the world”. This is not true even in Colossians 2:20. If in that passage it is a reference to the ceremonial rites, then we would have such a strange explanation that Christ Himself died to these rudiments. How could such be true, if these rites themselves were types, of Christ, and of His own death. He would not have to die to free himself of the rudiments, if that is what is meant,—his own shadows. The shadows foretell of Him and fall away when He appears. They were types of His dying to the rudiments. And in both Colossians and Galatians the expression refers to the fundamental laws of creation under which we all are born.
My first conclusion, therefore, is negative. The term law cannot apply specifically to the ceremonial law. If we see that, we have arrived at a richer and deeper understanding of Paul’s subject of liberty in relation to law.
My positive conclusion is very simple. The apostle has essentially only one reference with his use of the term law in Galatians. That reference is to the law of God. There really is no other law. God is the only law-giver. We can still make three distinctions of
that use of the law of God by the apostle Paul. First, when he speaks of law without the article he refers to the concept law, to the will of God as it concerns the creature according to His creation in Paradise. In the second place, when Paul becomes more particular, he uses the article and refers to the historical revelation of His law at Sinai, namely, “the law”. In Gal. 3:22 he even speaks of that historical revelation as written when he speaks of, “the scripture”. In the third place there is the indefinite use, “a law”, also without the article and in this case definitely indefinite. That is a reference to law in the abstract, if II may so define myself. I find one use of that in Gal. 3:21, “for if there had been a law given, which could have given life. . . .” Paul means, if there had been any law given.