Completed by the Spirit Part 3: The Law Cannot Cope With Sin

June 2, 2011 — Leave a comment

This is the third part of a series of posts adapted from a paper I pre­sented at a New Covenant The­ol­ogy think tank in upstate New York in July 2010.

The first of the five propo­si­tions we intro­duced in Part 1 of this series is that the law can­not cope with sin.

The law can­not pre­vent sin; the law can’t curb sin; the law is pow­er­less against sin.

In fact, Paul tells us, the law pro­vokes sin.

Moses smashing the tablets of the lawAlthough what the law com­mands is holy, it was given to stiff-necked Israel to increase trans­gres­sions until the Mes­siah, the sin­gle seed of Abra­ham, was to come:

[19] Why then the law? It was added because of trans­gres­sions, until the off­spring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an inter­me­di­ary. [20] Now an inter­me­di­ary implies more than one, but God is one.

[21] Is the law then con­trary to the promises of God? Cer­tainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then right­eous­ness would indeed be by the law. [22] But the Scrip­ture impris­oned every­thing under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

[23] Now before faith came, we were held cap­tive under the law, impris­oned until the com­ing faith would be revealed. [24] So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be jus­ti­fied by faith. (Gala­tians 3:19–27)[1]

In his analy­sis of this pas­sage, Jason C. Meyer ref­er­ences Thomas Schreiner’s argu­ment that, “although the phrase ‘because of trans­gres­sions’ could refer to defin­ing or increas­ing trans­gres­sion, the lat­ter option is prefer­able.”[2] Schreiner gives three rea­sons for that inter­pre­ta­tion: first, that the con­text of the pas­sage is that sal­va­tion can­not be attained by the law; sec­ond, that the rela­tion­ship of “under law and under sin” reveals the law’s role in arous­ing sin; and third, that there is a par­al­lel with Romans 5:20: “Now the law came in to increase the tres­pass. …”[3]

Meyer expands upon Schreiner’s argu­ment with five observations:

First, the view that stresses the restrain­ing func­tion of the law does not make sense con­tex­tu­ally. Paul could not per­suade the Gala­tians to for­sake cir­cum­ci­sion and the Mosaic law by telling them of the law’s power to restrain sin. Sec­ond, while the open-ended phrase “because of trans­gres­sions” could refer to either the defin­ing or increas­ing func­tion of the law, con­text favors the lat­ter view.

Third, there are com­pelling rea­sons to think that the law’s pur­pose of increas­ing trans­gres­sions actu­ally pro­vides a coher­ent argu­ment in the con­text. The down­ward spi­ral intro­duced by the advent of the law reveals that the law did not save Israel then and will not save any­one now. Humankind needs a Sav­ior, not more stip­u­la­tions. Paul accen­tu­ates the down­ward spi­ral pre­cisely so that the upward spi­ral intro­duced by the com­ing of Christ would be all the more evi­dent. Fourth, Rom 5:20 pro­vides an instruc­tional par­al­lel for this dis­cus­sion of the law’s func­tion. The par­al­lel pro­vides a Pauline prece­dent for this type of logic, though it does not prove that Paul is say­ing the same thing in Gal 3:19. Fifth, the view that the law increases trans­gres­sion receives fur­ther sup­port from places in Paul like Rom 7:7–11. There­fore, Gal 3:19b reveals the impo­tent nature of law in that the law can­not restrain sin (onto­log­i­cal prob­lem); it only increases it (because of the anthro­po­log­i­cal prob­lem.)[4]

In using the terms onto­log­i­cal and anthro­po­log­i­cal, Meyer makes ref­er­ence to a pre­vi­ous dis­cus­sion on Paul’s ref­er­ence to Leviti­cus 18:5, “You shall there­fore keep my statutes and my rules; if a per­son does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord,” in Paul’s antithe­sis between law and Spirit in Gala­tians 3:11–12: “[11] Now it is evi­dent that no one is jus­ti­fied before God by the law, for ‘The right­eous shall live by faith.’ [12] But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’” Meyer explains: “The offer of life con­di­tioned on human obe­di­ence never becomes a real­ity because ‘the one who does these things’ can­not obey them (anthro­po­log­i­cal), and the law (‘these things’) can­not pro­vide (onto­log­i­cal prob­lem) the power to over­come the anthro­po­log­i­cal prob­lem.”[5] (Meyer also notes a third prob­lem ­– chrono­log­i­cal – because Israel had not received the Spirit.)

Even though believ­ers are indwelled by the Spirit, sin remains in the old man, in the flesh. That cre­ates an anthro­po­log­i­cal prob­lem for which the law can­not pro­vide an answer. In fact, the law by design causes that which it seems given to prevent.

Meyer ref­er­ences Romans 7 as a par­al­lel pas­sage to sup­port Paul’s asser­tion that the law increases trans­gres­sion. Indeed, the apos­tle also makes it quite clear in his dis­course in Romans chap­ters 6 through 8 that the law is inef­fec­tive against sin and, what’s even worse, arouses sin­ful pas­sions in man.

Indeed, in Romans 6, Paul shows us that liv­ing under law is to live under the power of sin:

[8] Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. [9] We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has domin­ion over him. [10] For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. [11] So you also must con­sider your­selves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. [12] Let not sin there­fore reign in your mor­tal body, to make you obey its pas­sions. [13] Do not present your mem­bers to sin as instru­ments for unright­eous­ness, but present your­selves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your mem­bers to God as instru­ments for right­eous­ness. [14] For sin will have no domin­ion over you, since you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:8–14)

How­ever, those who advo­cate three uses of the law – to restrain soci­ety in gen­eral, to con­vict the non-believer of his sin, and to, as the West­min­ster Con­fes­sion of Faith states, “to restrain their cor­rup­tions, in that it for­bids sin” – argue that the third use of the law is a curb against sin in the believer. We will look at their argu­ments in Part 4.

Next: Com­pleted by the Spirit Part 4: The ‘Poverty of our Sanctification?’


[1] Verse 27 is trans­lated var­i­ously as “to lead us to Christ” instead of “until Christ came” in edi­tions such as the New Amer­i­can Stan­dard Bible. Could the pref­er­ence of the NASB in law-preaching cir­cles be a the­o­log­i­cal deci­sion? Fur­ther­more, the choice of “school­mas­ter” or “tutor” instead of “guardian” (or per­haps bet­ter yet “nanny” or “babysit­ter” as a word for the slave or ser­vant who super­vised the con­duct of a child) for παιδαγωγὸς gives the sense that the law teaches and leads the indi­vid­ual to Christ rather than being a covenan­tal law to guide the covenant peo­ple until the time of the Mes­siah. The lat­ter under­stand­ing seems to fit Paul’s the­ol­ogy more con­sis­tently while the for­mer more neatly tai­lors itself to the the­ol­ogy and con­fes­sions of third-use proponents.

[2] Jason C. Meyer, The End of the Law: Mosaic Covenant in Pauline The­ol­ogy (Nashville: B&H Pub­lish­ing Group, 2009), 168.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.,168–70.

[5] Ibid., 161.