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The Giving of the Law: Part I (Commentary on Gal. 3:19-4:5) by John Brown

By April 19, 2011April 12th, 2016The Law of God

The following material by John Brown (1784-1858), Professor of Exegetical Theology at the United Presbyterian College, Edinburgh, illustrates the classical Reformed doctrine that under the New Testament there is a ‘discontinuance of certain regulatory provisions in the jurisprudence of Israel under the law of Moses.'(1) Professor John Murray writes further: ‘It is true that certain regulations both preceptive and punitive, regulations which governed the observance of the Sabbath under the Mosaic law, do not apply to us under the New Testament. In Israel it was distinctly provided that they were not to kindle a fire throughout their habitations upon the Sabbath day (Exod. 35:3). It was also enacted that whosoever would do any work on the Sabbath would be put to death (Exod. 35:2). . . . Now there is no warrant for supposing that such regulatory provisions both prohibitive and punitive bind us under the New Testament. This is particularly apparent in the case of the capital punishment executed for Sabbath desecration in the matter of labor. . . . There were regulations in connection with the other commandments, regulations which we have no warrant to believe apply to us under the New Testament. For example, in respect of the fifth commandment it was provided that the man who cursed father or mother was to be put to death (Exod. 21:17; Lev. 20:9). In respect of the seventh it was provided that the adulterer and the adulteress were to be put to death (Lev. 20:10). Now, however grievous these sins are, we do not believe that the sanction by which they were punished under the Mosaic law is applicable under the New Testament. Such provisions of the Mosaic law are so closely bound up with an economy which has passed away as to its observance, that we could hold to the continuance of these provisions no more than we could hold to the continuance of the Mosaic economy itself.'(2)

See also Patrick Fairbairn’s treatment of the distinction between the decalogue, the judicial law and the ceremonial law, in Lecture IV of his The Revelation of Law in Scripture. Fairbairn (1805-74) was the author of several Reformed classics in the field of biblical interpretation, such as Typology of Scripture and The Interpretation of Prophecy, and taught at the Free Church Colleges in Aberdeen and Glasgow in the same period that William Cunningham was principal of the college in Edinburgh.

A commentary on Galatians 3:19-4:5, taken from John Brown, An Exposition of the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Edinburgh 1853.

Design and Mode of Giving of the Law

What then was the design of the law? This is the question which, in the next paragraph, the apostle considers; and in its discussion he makes it evident, that the Mosaic law, so far from being opposed to the covenant or arrangement revealed to Abraham, was a necessary means of securing the accomplishment of its provisions. Let us look at the passage with that closeness of attention which it at once requires and deserves.

‘Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.’

There can be no reasonable doubt as to the meaning of the term ‘the law’ here. It is obviously the Mosaic institution viewed as a whole. It is neither what has been termed the moral law, nor the ceremonial law, nor the judicial law, which theologians have been accustomed to treat of as three distinct codes; but it is the whole arrangement or covenant under which the people of Israel were placed at Sinai.

The apostle has showed that that law could not be the means of justification, and that it was never intended for this purpose. Now, if it cannot serve this purpose, what purpose does it serve? I do not think we are to consider the question as an inquiry into the designs and uses of the Mosaic law generally, but as to its design and use in reference to the arrangement that justification was to be by faith through the Messiah; and especially, that justification by faith through the Messiah was to be extended to the Gentiles. If this is not kept in view, the apostle’s account may appear defective, while in reality it is complete, so far as his object required.

The answer is, ‘It was added because of transgressions.’ The law was added or appended. It was a separate subordinate institution, not an alteration of or addition to the original arrangement. Now, in what way was it added? The question is easily answered. The revelation of justification by believing, which was substantially the same revelation that was made to our first parents after the fall, was given to Abraham, and was to be preserved by his descendants. This was a sacred deposit which they were to preserve pure and entire, till the great Deliverer, to whom it referred, should make his appearance. To this revelation, termed ‘the promise,’ committed to the Israelites, ‘the law’ was added or appended. God, who gave the promise to Abraham, thought fit, at least four hundred and thirty years after, to impose the law on his posterity.

For what reason was it imposed? It was, ‘because of transgressions.’ This passage has very generally been considered as parallel with the declaration of the apostle, – ‘Moreover, the law entered that the offence might abound,’ and has been very variously interpreted. The ordinary interpretation is very well given by Barnes. ‘The meaning is, that the law was given to show the true nature of transgressions, or to show what was sin. It was not to reveal a way of justification, but it was to disclose the true nature of sin; to deter men from committing it; to declare its penalty; to convince men of it, and thus to be ‘ancillary’ to, and preparatory to, the work of redemption through the Redeemer. This is the true account of the law of God as given to apostate man, and this use of the law still exists.’ It is strange that so acute an interpreter did not see that the clause, ’till the seed should come,’ is quite inconsistent with this exegesis. If ‘the law’ referred to could do all this, ‘why,’ as Riccaltoun shrewdly remarks, ‘why was it limited to the time that the Seed should come who had the promised blessing to bestow, as the apostle plainly says it was?’ Without noticing any more of the different ways in which these words have been explained, I shall state as clearly and briefly as I can what appears to me to be the apostle’s meaning.

‘The transgressions,’ on account of which the law was added, refer, I apprehend, to the criminal conduct of the Israelites, which rendered the introduction of such a system as the law necessary in order to the attainment of the great object of the covenant about Christ, and justification by faith through him. This arrangement was first made known in the first promise, but from the prevalence of human depravity, it seems to have been in the course of ages almost entirely forgotten. ‘All flesh corrupted its way on the earth.’ The deluge swept away the whole inhabitants of the ancient world, with the exception of one family, among whom the true religion was preserved. In the course of no very long period, the great body of their descendants, the inhabitants of the new world, became idolaters. To prevent the utter extinction from among mankind of the knowledge of God and the way of obtaining his favor, Abraham was called, and a plainer revelation made to him of the Divine purposes of mercy, and his descendants by Isaac and Jacob chosen as the depositories of this revelation, till He should come to whom the revelation chiefly referred. In consequence of the descendants of Jacob coming down into Egypt, they gradually contracted a fondness for Egyptian superstitions, and were fast relapsing into a state of idolatry, which must soon have terminated in their being lost among the nations, and the revelation with which they were entrusted being first corrupted and them forgotten, when God raised up Moses as their deliverer, brought them out of Egypt, and placed them under that very peculiar order of things, which we commonly term the Mosaic law – an order of things admirably adapted to preserve them a distinct and peculiar people – and by doing so, to preserve the revelation of mercy through the Messiah, of which they were the depositories, and to prepare abundant and satisfactory stores of evidence and illustration when the great Deliverer appeared – evidence that he was indeed the person to whom the hopes of mankind had from the beginning been directed, and illustration rendering in some measure level to human apprehension what otherwise would have been unintelligible.

Every person acquainted with the principles of depraved human nature, and with the history of the Jews at and subsequent to their deliverances from Egypt, will see that their ‘transgressions’ rendered some such arrangement as the Mosaic law absolutely necessary, on the supposition that the Messiah was not to appear for a course of ages, and that the revelation of salvation through him was to be preserved in the world by means of the Jewish people. We are not so much, if at all, to consider the Mosaic law as a punishment for the transgressions of the descendants of Abraham. We are rather to consider it as the means which their transgressions rendered necessary in order to secure the object of their being chosen to be God’s peculiar people. To be preserved from being involved in the ignorance, and idolatry, and vice in which the surrounding nations were sunk, was a blessing, at whatever expense it might be gained. At the same time, had it not been for the transgressions of the Israelites, the more spiritual and less burdensome order of things under which Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob were placed, might have been continued, and the law as a distinct order of things never have existed because never needed.

The law was for this reason added, ’till the seed should come to whom the promise was made.’ I have already stated my reasons for understanding ‘the seed’ here of the Messiah, and of course rendering the words ’till the seed should come, in reference to whom the promise was made.’ The promise referred to is, ‘in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ – a promise made not to the Messiah, but in reference to the Messiah. This view of the law being rendered, by the transgressions of the Israelites, necessary to preserve them a separate people, and to gain the ends connected with this till the coming of the Messiah, when the necessity of this order of things should cease, exactly corresponds with what the apostle afterwards says of the Israelitish people, as ‘kept’ imprisoned, confined, ‘shut up’ by the law.

The apostle adds that this law was ‘ordained’ by angels. Perhaps there is a tacit contrast as to the manner in which the promise was given, ‘not by the ministry of angels,’ not ‘by the hands of a mediator,’ in the same sense as the law was. It is obviously the apostle’s design to exalt the promise viewed alongside of the law. The promise is first, the law second in order. The promise is the principal transaction, the law is secondary and subservient. The promise speaks of nothing but blessing. The law is ‘added because of transgressions,’ and curses transgressors. The promise is forever; the law only ’till the seed should come.’ The promise was made directly by God; the law ‘given by angels.’ The promise was given directly to Abraham – God speaks to him as a man with his friend; the law to Israel by the hand of a mediator, the people not being able to bear the things which were spoken. He comes to them not as to Abraham, as a man comes to converse with his friend, but in awful majesty as an offended, though still merciful and placable sovereign.

State of the Church under the Law

‘But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith.’

The first thing to be inquired into here is the meaning of the phrase, ‘the coming of faith.’ By ‘faith’ some interpreters understand the system or order of things in which faith is the grand means of justification. But this mode of interpretation is obviously inadmissible. For in this sense ‘faith’ came immediately after the fall, or in the revelation of the first promise. There has been but one way of justifying sinners all along. Adam, if he was justified, as we have reason to hope he was, was justified by believing. Abraham was justified by believing. It was true under the Old, as well as under the New Testament dispensation, that it was the person justified by faith that lived – enjoyed true happiness in the possession of the Divine favor, which is life.

By faith, I apprehend we are to understand, not the act of believing, but the revelation believed, just as in our language we call the article which a man believes ‘his creed,’ ‘his belief,’ ‘his faith.’ The expression literally rendered is, the faith, and looks back to the phrase, faith of Christ, in the preceding verse. ‘Before the faith of Christ came,’ is just equivalent to, ‘before the Christian revelation was given.’

Now, what was the state of the Jewish church previously to this period? ‘We,’ says the apostle, ‘were kept under the law shut up.’ The apostle in using the pronoun ‘we,’ plainly speaks of himself as belonging to the Jewish church previously to the coming of the Messiah. ‘We Jews were kept under the law shut up,’ or, ‘shut up under the law.’

It has been common to connect the words ‘shut up’ with the concluding clause ‘to the faith,’ and to consider the words as conveying the idea, that the design and effect of the commands and threatenings of God’s law on the mind of an awakened sinner, is to close every avenue of relief but one, and shut him up to accept of the free and full salvation of Christ by believing the gospel. But though this is a truth, and an important one, it is not the truth taught here.

The apostle is speaking of the design of the law in reference to the Jewish church or people as a body, and their situation under it. They were kept shut up under it. They were kept as under the care of a sentinel; they were shut up as in a fortress, or confined within certain limits. The general idea is, they were in a state of restriction. They were kept from mingling with the rest of mankind, preserved a distinct people; and to gain this object, were subjected to many peculiar usages. The law was ‘the middle wall of partition’ which kept them distinct from the other nations of the world. The making one city the seat of religion, the laws with regard to food and ceremonial pollution, the institutions directly opposed to the prevailing customs of the surrounding nations, and the express prohibition to form alliances with heathen nations, all these formed a more powerful barrier to commixture with the surrounding nations than any physical separation of mountains, or seas, or distance could have done.

The apostle seems obviously to have intended to convey the accessory idea of uneasy confinement. Their state was necessary, and it was happy when compared with that of the heathen nations; but still it was a state of restriction and confinement, and in this point of view not desirable. Their state was, however, never designed to be permanent. It was intended to serve a purpose, and when that purpose was served, it was intended to terminate.

‘We were,’ says the apostle, ‘kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed.’ ‘Unto,’ is here equivalent to ‘until.’ A parallel mode of expression, though the subject is different, is to be found, I Pet. 1:5. The phrase is parallel, though not quite synonymous, with that used in the nineteenth verse, ’till the Seed should come in reference to whom the promise was made.’ ‘The faith’ here, is plainly the same thing as the faith in the first clause of the verse. The Jewish church was not without a revelation as to the way of justification, for in that case they could not have been justified by faith. We know that the Divine method of justification is ‘witnessed by the law and the prophets.’ But it was not manifested – fully, clearly, made known – till the fullness of the time, when ‘the mystery which had been kept secret’ was disclosed. The phraseology adopted by the apostle, the revelation of faith, makes it evident that faith here refers to doctrine. He speaks of it as ‘afterwards to be revealed.’ The gospel revelation formed a principal subject of Old Testament prophecy; and the believing Jews under the law were encouraged to look forward to a period when ‘the glory of the Lord should be revealed, and all flesh should see it together.’ When his ‘salvation should be brought near, and his righteousness should be revealed.’ The apostle’s assertion then in this verse is, ‘previously to the Christian revelation, we Jews were kept in a state of separation from other nations by the restrictive ordinances of the Mosaic law, till that revelation was made to which we had been taught to look forward.’ He expresses nearly the same idea under a different figure in the following verse.

‘Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith.’ ‘Wherefore’ does not here intimate that what is contained in this verse is a logical inference from what has preceded. It is not properly an inference, but a superadded illustration. It is just as if he had said, ‘Thus the law was our schoolmaster,’ etc. ‘Schoolmaster,’ in the modern use of the term, scarcely answers the apostle’s idea. A pedagogue, a tutor, was anciently among the Greeks and Romans – and let it be remembered Paul is writing to a Gentile church – a servant or slave to whom the charge of the children was given while they were under age, and whose business was not solely, or chiefly perhaps, to instruct them, but to keep them from mischief and danger. The pedagogue and the preceptor were two different persons, and had entirely different duties to perform. Now, says the apostle, the law acted to us the part of a tutor or pedagogue, restraining, chastising, and protecting us, and preparing us by its discipline for a higher and better order of things. The apostle’s object is plainly to lower the idea of the Galatians respecting the state of the Jews, and the economy under which they were placed. He intimates that they were in an infantine state, and that the economy they were put under suited it. They were wayward children, put under the care of a faithful, but somewhat severe and strict, tutor – a servant or slave only temporarily employed till the children should arrive at maturity.

‘The law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ.’ These words have often been applied to express this idea, – that it is by the commands and threatenings of God’s law brought home to the conscience of the sinner by the effectual working of the Holy Ghost, that he is induced to believe the revelation of mercy, and gladly to receive Christ Jesus as the only and all-sufficient Savior. But this, though a very important truth, is obviously not what the apostle means. He is speaking of the church as a body, and the law it was subject to. Nor is the somewhat more plausible exegesis, that the apostle means to say, that the law by its typical ordinances introduced the Jews into an acquaintance with the Messiah whom they prefigured, satisfactory, for the leading idea in the word tutor or pedagogue is not teaching, but custody – restriction – correction. You will notice that ‘to bring us’ is a supplement, and is one of the supplements which might as well have been omitted. ‘Unto Christ’ is equivalent to ‘until Christ.’ The three following expressions are obviously parallel, and throw light on each other. ‘The law was added because of transgressions till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made.’ ‘We were kept shut up under the law till the faith was revealed.’ ‘The law was our tutor till Christ, that we might be justified by faith.’ These last words may signify, ‘Thus the law was our tutor till Christ; this was its character; so that if we Jews are justified at all, we are justified by faith. The law restrained, commanded, and punished, but it did not justify. If we Jews are justified, it is not by the law, but by faith.’ The substance of the apostle’s assertion is, that ‘the law was added because of transgressions till the Seed should come, in reference to whom the promise’ of justification to the Gentiles by faith ‘was made’; that ‘before faith came,’ before the gospel revelation was given, the Jewish church ‘were shut up under the law,’ till the good news promised afore was announced; and that ‘the law was the tutor or pedagogue’ of the infant church ’till Christ.’ The apostle now proceeds to show that the law, though an institution necessary in and suited to that imperfect and preparatory state, was utterly unnecessary and unsuited to that new and better state into which the church had been brought by the coming of the Savior, and to the full and clear revelation of the way of salvation, and therefore to endeavor to perpetuate it was the height of criminal folly. This is the principle which the apostle lays down in the verse which follows, and which he illustrates down to the close of the eleventh verse of the next chapter.


(1) John Murray, Collected Writings (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1976-82), 1:211.
(2) Ibid., pp. 211-12.