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Galatians 3:19-22

19. 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.

19. Quid igitur Lex? transgressionum causa adjuneta fuit, donee veniret semen, cui promissum fuerat, ordinata per angelos in manu mediatoris.

20. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.

20. Porro mediator unius non est; Deus autem unus est.

21. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law.

21. Lexne igitur adversus promissiones Dei? absit; nam si data esset Lex, quae posset vivificare, vere ex Lege esset justitia.

22. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.

22. Sed conclusit Scriptura omnia sub peccatum, ut promissio ex fide Iesu Christi daretur credentibus.


When we are told that the law has no influence in obtaining justification, various suggestions immediately arise, that it must be either useless, or opposed to God’s covenant, or something of that sort. Nay, it might occur, why should we not say of the law, what Jeremiah says of the New Testament, (Jeremiah 31:31,) that it was given at a later period, in order to supply the weakness of the former doctrine? Objections of this kind must be answered, if Paul wished to satisfy the Galatians. First, then, he inquires, — what is the use of the law? Having come after the promise, it appears to have been intended to supply its defects; and there was room at least for doubting, whether the promise would have been effectual, if it had not been aided by the law. Let it be observed, that Paul does not speak of the moral law only, but of everything connected with the office held by Moses. That office, which was peculiar to Moses, consisted in laying down a rule of life and ceremonies to be observed in the worship of God, and in afterwards adding promises and threatenings. Many promises, no doubt, relating to the free mercy of God and to Christ, are to be found in his writings; and these promises belong to faith. But this must be viewed as accidental, and altogether foreign to the inquiry, so far as a comparison is made between the law and the doctrine of grace. Let it be remembered, that the amount of the question is this: When a promise had been made, why did Moses afterwards add that new condition, “If a man do, he shall live in them;” and, “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them?” (Leviticus 18:5; Deuteronomy 27:26.) Was it to produce something better and more perfect?

19. Because of transgressions. The law has manifold uses, but Paul confines himself to that which bears on his present subject. He did not propose to inquire in how many ways the law is of advantage to men. It is necessary to put readers on their guard on this point; for very many, I find, have fallen into the mistake of acknowledging no other advantage belonging to the law, but what is expressed in this passage. Paul himself elsewhere speaks of the precepts of the law as profitable for doctrine and exhortations. (2 Timothy 3:16.) The definition here given of the use of the law is not complete, and those who refuse to make any other acknowledgment in favor of the law do wrong. Now, what is the import of the phrase, because of transgressions? It agrees with the saying of philosophers, that “The law was made for restraining evil-doers,” and with the old proverb, “From bad manners have sprung good laws.” But Paul’s meaning is more extensive than the words may seem to convey. He means that the law was published in order to make known transgressions, and in this way to compel men to acknowledge their guilt. As men naturally are too ready to excuse themselves, so, until they are roused by the law, their consciences are asleep.

“Until the law,” says Paul, “sin was in the world:
but sin is not imputed where there is no law.” (Romans 5:13.)

The law came and roused the sleepers, for this is the true preparation for Christ. “By the law is the knowledge of sin.” (Romans 3:20.) Why?

“That Sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful.” (Romans 7:13.)

Thus, “the law was added because of transgressions,” in order to reveal their true character, or, as he tells the Romans, that it might make them to abound. (Romans 5:20.)

This passage has tortured the ingenuity of Origen, but to no purpose. If God summon consciences to his tribunal, that those qualities in their transgression, which would otherwise give them pleasure, may humble them by a conviction of guilt, — if he shake off the listlessness which overwhelmed all dread of his judgment-seat, — if he drag to light; sin, which lurked like a thief in the den of hypocrisy, — what is there in all this that can be reckoned absurd? But it may be objected: “As the law is the rule of a devout and holy life, why is it said to be added ‘because of transgressions,’ rather than ‘because of obedience?’” I answer, however much it may point out true righteousness, yet, owing to the corruption of our nature, its instruction tends only to increase transgressions, until the Spirit of regeneration come, who writes it on the heart; and that Spirit is not given by the law, but is received by faith. This saying of Paul, let the reader remember, is not of a philosophical or political character, but expresses a purpose of the law, with which the world had been always unacquainted.

Till the seed should come. If it has respect to seed, it must be to that on which the blessing has been pronounced, and therefore it does not interfere with the promise. The word till, (ἄχρις οὗ,) signifies so long as the seed is expected: and hence it follows, that it must have been intended to occupy not the highest, but a subordinate rank. It was given in order to rouse men to the expectation of Christ. But was it necessary that it should last only until the coming of Christ? For if so, it follows that it is now abolished. The whole of that administration, I reply, was temporal, and was given for the purpose of preserving among the ancient people an attachment to the faith of Christ. And yet I do not admit that, by the coming of Christ, the whole law was abolished. The apostle did not intend this, but merely that the mode of administration, which for a time had been introduced, must receive its accomplishment in Christ, who is the fulfillment of the promise. 6060     “Qui est le parfait accomplissement de la promesse.” “Who is the perfect accomplishment of the promise.” But on this subject we shall have occasion to speak more fully afterwards.

Ordained by angels. The circumstance, that it was delivered through angels, tends to the commendation of the law. This is declared by Stephen (Acts 7:53) also, who says, that they had “received the law, (εἰς διαταγὰς ἀγγέλων,) into the dispositions of angels.” The interpretation given by some, that Moses and Aaron, and the priests, are the angels here meant, is more ingenious than solid. Nor is it wonderful that angels, by whom God bestows on us some of the smallest of his blessings, should have been intrusted also with this office of attending as witnesses at the promulgation of the law.

In the hand of a Mediator Hand usually signifies ministration; but as angels were ministers in giving the law, I consider “the hand of the Mediator” to denote the highest rank of service. The Mediator was at the head of the embassy, and angels were united with him as his companions. Some apply this expression to Moses, as marking a comparison between Moses and Christ; but I agree rather with the ancient expositors, who apply it to Christ himself. 6161     “Though some learned men have been of opinion that the mediator here mentioned is the Son of God, yet I think no reasonable doubt can be entertained as to its denoting Moses. Strictly speaking, Aaron, or rather the priesthood, was the mediator of the old covenant. It answers to the Great High-Priest, (ἀρχιερεύς,) Mediator, (μεσίτης,) and Surety, (ἔγγυος,) of the new covenant. But the reference seems here to the giving of the law: that was by Moses. ‘The law was given by Moses.’ (John 1:17.) God speaks to Moses, and Moses speaks to the people; and this arrangement was entered into by the express request of the people themselves. Moses himself says, ‘I stood between the Lord and you at that time. (Deuteronomy 5:5.) Philo calls Moses μεσίτης.” — Brown. This view, it will be found, agrees better with the context, though I differ from the ancients likewise as to the meaning of the word. Mediator does not, as they imagine, signify here one who makes reconciliation, which it does in these words,

“There is one Mediator between God and men,
the man Christ Jesus,” (1 Timothy 2:5,)

— but an ambassador employed in promulgating a law.

We are thus to understand, that, since the beginning of the world, God has held no intercourse with men, but through the agency of his eternal Wisdom or Son. Hence Peter says, that the holy prophets spake by the “Spirit of Christ,” (1 Peter 1:11,) and Paul makes him the leader of the people in the wilderness. (1 Corinthians 10:4.) And certainly the Angel who appeared to Moses, (Exodus 3:2,) can be no other person; for he claims to himself the peculiar and essential name of God, which is never applied to creatures. As he is the Mediator of reconciliation, by whom we are accepted of God, — the Mediator of intercession, who opens up for us a way to “call on the Father,” (1 Peter 1:17,) — so he has always been the Mediator of all doctrine, because by him God has always revealed himself to men. And this he intended to state expressly, for the purpose of informing the Galatians, that he who is the foundation of the covenant of grace, held also the highest rank in the giving of the law.

20. Now, a mediator is not a mediator of one. Some are disposed to philosophize on this expression, and would make Paul’s meaning to be, that the twofold nature of Christ is not one in essence. But that Paul is here speaking of the contracting parties, no man of sound judgment entertains a doubt. And so they commonly expound it, that there is no room for a Mediator, unless when one of the parties has a matter to transact with the other. But why that statement should have been introduced they leave undetermined, though the passage manifestly deserves the most careful attention. There may, perhaps, be an Anticipation (πρόληψις) of some wicked thought that might arise about a change of the divine purpose. Some one might say, “As men, when they change their mind about their covenants, are wont to retract them, so has it happened with the covenants of God.” If you take this to be the meaning, then, in the former clause, Paul would acknowledge that men, who occupy one side of this contract, are unsteady and changeable, while God nevertheless remains the same, is consistent with himself, and partakes not of the unsteadiness of men.

But when I take a closer view of the whole subject, I rather think that it marks a difference between Jews and Gentiles. Christ is not the Mediator of one, because, in respect of outward character, there is a diversity of condition among those with whom, through his mediation, God enters into covenant. But Paul asserts that we have no right to judge in this manner of the covenant of God, as if it contradicted itself, or varied according to the diversities of men. The words are now clear. As Christ formerly reconciled God to the Jews in making a covenant, so now he is the Mediator of the Gentiles. The Jews differ widely from the Gentiles; for circumcision and ceremonies have erected “the middle wall of partition between them.” (Ephesians 2:14.) They were “nigh” to God, (Ephesians 2:13,) while the Gentiles were “afar off;” but still God is consistent with himself. This becomes evident, when Christ brings those who formerly differed among themselves to one God, and makes them unite in one body. God is one, because he always continues to be like himself, and, with unvarying regularity, holds fixed and unalterable the purpose which he has once made. 6262     “This is confessedly one of the most obscure passages in the New Testament, and, perhaps, above all others, ‘vexatus ab interpretibus,’ (tortured by interpreters,) if it be true, as Winer affirms, that there are no less than 250 modes of explanation, most of which are stated and reviewed by Koppe, Berger, Keil, Bonitz, Weigand, and Scheft.” — (Bloomfield.) Schott remarks, that the bare fact of upwards of 250 interpretations makes it impossible to deny that some obscurity attaches to the Apostle’s language in this passage, arising chiefly from mere brevity of style, but judiciously adds, that, had there not been many commentators more eager to bring forward anything that has the appearance of novelty, than to investigate the ordinary meaning of the terms, the scope of the passage, and the doctrinal statements and reasonings contained in the writings of the Apostle Paul, the interpretations would never have swelled to so large an amount. — Ed.

21. Is the law then against the promises of God? The certainty and steadiness of the divine purpose being admitted, we are bound equally to conclude that its results are not contrary to each other. Still there was a difficulty to be resolved, arising from the apparent contradiction between the Law and the covenant of grace. This is, perhaps, an exclamation. Dreading no farther contradiction, now that the point is settled, Paul concludes, that the former arguments have placed it beyond a doubt, and exclaims: “Who will now dare to imagine a disagreement between the law and the promises?” And yet this does not prevent Paul from proceeding to remove the difficulties that might still arise.

Before answering the question, he expresses, in his usual manner, a high disdain of such folly; thus intimating the strong abhorrence with which pious men must regard whatever brings reproach on the Divine character. But another instance of high address, which claims our notice, is found in this turn of expression. He charges his adversaries with the offense of making God contradict himself. For from him the Law and the promises have evidently proceeded: whoever then alleges any contradiction between them blasphemes against God: but they do contradict each other, if the Law justifies. Thus does Paul most dexterously retort upon his adversaries the charge which they falsely and calumniously brought against him.

For if there had been a law given. The reply is (what is called) indirect, and does not plainly assert an agreement between the law and the promises, but contains all that is necessary to remove the contradiction. At first sight, you would say that this sentence departs from the context, and has nothing to do with the solution of the question; but this is not the case. The law would be opposed to the promises, if it had the power of justifying; for there would be two opposite methods of justifying a man, two separate roads towards the attainment of righteousness. But Paul refuses to the law such a power; so that the contradiction is removed. I would admit, says he, that righteousness is obtained by the law, if salvation were found in it. But what?

22. The Scripture hath concluded. By the word Scripture is chiefly intended the law itself. It “hath concluded all under sin,” and therefore, instead of giving, it takes away righteousness from all. The reasoning is most powerful. “You seek righteousness in the law: but the law itself, with the whole of Scripture, leaves nothing to men but condemnation; for all men, with their works, are pronounced to be unrighteous: who then shall live by the law?” He alludes to these words,

“He who shall do these things, shall live in them.” (Leviticus 18:5.)

Shut out by it, says he, from life through guilt, in vain should we seek salvation by the law. — The word translated all (τὰ πάντα) signifies all things, and conveys more than if he had said all men; for it embraces not only men, but every thing which they possess or can accomplish.

That the promise by faith. There is no remedy but to throw away the righteousness of works, and betake ourselves to the faith of Christ. The result is certain. If works come into judgment, we are all condemned; therefore we obtain, by the faith of Christ, a free righteousness. This sentence is full of the highest consolation. It tells us that, wherever we hear ourselves condemned in Scripture, there is help provided for us in Christ, if we betake ourselves to him. We are lost, though God were silent: why then does he so often pronounce that we are lost? It is that we may not perish by everlasting destruction, but, struck and confounded by such a dreadful sentence, may by faith seek Christ, through whom we “pass from death into life.” (1 John 3:14.) By a figure of speech, (μετωνυμία,) in which the thing containing is put for the thing contained, the promise denotes that which is promised.

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