Summary: So which is greater, the Law or the Promise? How are we saved by one and not the other?


A. There is a story about a student at Cambridge University who entered the classroom on exam day and asked the proctor to bring him cakes and ale.

1. The proctor refused, expressing astonishment at the young student’s audacity.

2. At this point the student read from the 400-year-old Laws of Cambridge, which were written in Latin and still nominally in effect.

3. The passage read by the student said, “Gentlemen sitting for examinations may request and require Cakes and Ale.”

4. The proctor was forced to comply. It was decided that Pepsi and hamburgers were the modern equivalent, so the necessary accommodations were made for the student - after all, the law was on his side.

5. Three weeks later the same student was summoned to the office of Academic Affairs to face disciplinary action and was assessed a fine of five pounds.

6. He was not fined for demanding cakes and ale, but for blatantly disregarding another obscure Cambridge law: he had failed to wear a sword to the examination.

B. Trying to manipulate the law for our own purposes can be very tricky and costly.

1. That is true in the earthly realm, but it is even more the case in the spiritual realm.

2. I’m sure that the Judaizers, whom Paul was battling in the letter to the Galatians, thought they had Paul in a corner.

a. Paul had just finished proving from the Old Testament that God’s plan of salvation left no room for the works of the Law.

b. But the fact that Paul quoted six times from the Old Testament to prove his point raised a serious question: If salvation does not involve the Law, then why was the Law given in the first place?

3. So, can you sense the tension?

a. The Judaizers might have argued: If Paul quoted from the Law to prove the insignificance of the Law, and if the Law is now set aside, then his very arguments are worthless, because they were taken from the Law.

4. Paul was trained as a Jewish rabbi, and he was fully equipped to argue his case.

5. In today’s section of Galatians (3:15-29), Paul made four points that help us understand the relationship between the Promise and the Law.

6. And all of this is so important because it gets back to the question of our salvation.

a. How are we made right with God?

b. Is it about believing or achieving?

c. Is it by works of the Law or by grace through faith?

Paul’s first point about the Law and the Promise is…

I. The Law Cannot Change the Promise (3:15-18)

A. The Bible says in Galatians 3:15-18: 15 To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16 Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. 17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

B. The word promise is used 8 times in today’s section of verses, and these uses of promise refer to God’s promise to Abraham that in him all the nations of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3).

1. This promise involved being justified by faith and having all the blessings of salvation.

2. The promise to Abraham came hundreds of years before the Law was given.

3. The Judaizers were teaching that the giving of the Law changed that original covenant of promise, but Paul argues that it did not.

C. Paul used the illustration of human covenants or agreements that we make in every day life.

1. We all understand that once two parties make an agreement, a third party cannot come along years later and change that agreement.

2. The only persons who can change an original agreement are the persons who made it.

3. For anyone else to add anything or take anything away from the original agreement would be illegal.

4. So if this is true for sinful humans, how much more does it apply to our Holy God?

D. But Paul reveals another wonderful truth: God made this promise, not only to Abraham, but also to Christ – “And to your seed (or offspring) who is Christ.” (3:16)

1. The Bible concept of “the seed” goes back to Genesis 3:15 – God states that there will be a conflict in the world between Satan’s seed (children of the devil) and the woman’s seed (God’s children, God’s Son).

2. Satan’s ultimate goal was to keep the Seed (Christ) from being born into the world and from accomplishing God’s will, because Satan knew that God’s Son would one day crush his head.

E. In the final analysis, God made this covenant of promise with Abraham.

1. The Law of Moses that came 430 years later cannot alter this covenant.

2. And certainly the Judaizers of Paul’s day cannot change the original covenant.

F. We can imagine the Judaizers proposing: suppose a later revelation, such as the Law of Moses, was greater and more glorious than the earlier one, what then?

1. Paul was ready for this and answered that in his next point.

Paul’s second point about the Law and the Promise is…

II. The Law is Not Greater Than the Promise (Gal. 3:19-20)

A. Galatians continues: 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.

B. The account of the giving of the Law in the Old Testament was indeed impressive.

1. Exodus 19 tells us that there was thunder and lightning, and that the people trembled.

2. That was a rather dramatic event compared to the calm giving of the covenant to Abraham.

3. Nevertheless, Paul points out that the Law is inferior to the covenant of promise in at least two ways.

C. First, we notice that the Law was temporary.

1. Paul points out that it was added…until the offspring should come…” (vs. 19).

2. With the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus, the Law was done away with.

3. You will remember that when Jesus was about to die, he declared: “It is finished.” (Jn. 19:30)

4. In Colossians 2:14, Paul explained: “having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.”

5. Therefore, we understand that the Law played a temporary role.

D. Second, we notice that the Law required a mediator.

1. When God gave the Law to Israel, He did it by means of angels and through the mediation of Moses.

2. In other words, Israel received the Law third-hand: from God to angels to Moses.

3. But when God made His covenant with Abraham, He did it personally, without a mediator.

E. So the points that Paul was making are clear.

1. The Promise is greater than the Law for two reasons.

2. The Law was temporary and required a mediator.

3. The Promise was permanent and needed no mediator.

4. Therefore, the Promise was greater than the Law.

Paul’s third point about the Law and the Promise is…

III. The Law is Not Contrary to the Promise (3:21-26)

A. Galatians continues: 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. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

B. We can almost hear the Judaizers shouting the question in Gal. 3:21: “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God?”

1. In other words: Is God contradicting Himself? Does God’s right hand not know what the left is doing?

2. As Paul responded to that question, he revealed his deep insight into the ways and purposes of God.

3. Paul explained that the Law does not contradict the promise, rather it cooperates with the promise as it fulfills the purposes of God.

C. So, why was the Law given? That is a very good question and Paul gives three good answers.

1. First, Paul explained that the Law was not given to provide life.

a. Certainly the Law of Moses regulated the lives of the Jewish people, but it did not and could not provide spiritual life to the people.

b. If life could have come through the Law, then that is all that would be needed, but the Law could not deliver life.

2. Second, Paul explained that the Law was given to reveal the prison of sin.

a. The Law shows the sinner his guilt and the prison from which he needs to be freed.

b. Paul is saying that we are locked up in sin.

c. All of us are confined and shut up with no apparent possibility of escape.

d. The Law reveals that everything and everybody is brought under the inescapable power of sin, and that we are hopeless within ourselves to escape.

e. We remain locked in that prison of sin until through faith in Jesus we experience deliverance.

f. Ultimately, the Law of Moses was a good law. It was good at making us aware of the prison of our sin, but it is not good at redeeming us from that prison.

g. The law served to prod us into seeing the depth of our inability to safe ourselves by perfectly keeping the Law.

3. Third, Paul explained that the Law was given to prepare us and lead us to Christ.

a. Here Paul used an illustration that was familiar to all his readers – the illustration of the guardian or governess.

b. In many Roman and Greek households, well-educated slaves took the children to and from school and watched over them during the day.

c. The work of the guardian was protection and preparation for the child’s maturity.

d. Once the child came of age, he or she no longer needed the guardian.

e. So the Law was a preparation for Israel until the coming of the promised Seed, Jesus Christ.

f. The Law has performed its purpose, and now the Savior has come and the “guardian” is no longer needed.

g. It is tragic that the nation of Israel did not recognize their Messiah when He appeared and so God finally had to destroy the temple.

h. Today it is impossible for a devoted Jew to practice the faith of their fathers, because they have no altar, no priesthood, no temple and no sacrifices.

i. All of these have been fulfilled in Jesus so that any person who trusts in Jesus becomes a child of God.

D. Let’s review for just a minute before we look at the last point – what has Paul said so far about the Law and the Promise?

1. First, the Law cannot change the Promise.

2. Second, the Law is not greater than the Promise.

3. Third, the Law is not contrary to the Promise.

The final point that Paul made about the Law and the Promise is…

IV. The Law Cannot Do What the Promise Can Do (3:27-29)

A. Galatians chapter 3 ends: 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to promise.

1. In those verses, Paul teaches that there are three things the Promise can do that the Law cannot do.

B. First, The Law could not bring us into oneness with God like the Promise Can.

1. If you remember, there was a fence around the tabernacle and there was a curtain between the holy place and the most holy place.

2. But all of that has been taken away and now through Jesus we are welcomed into God’s presence and we have a oneness with God.

3. We are baptized into Christ.

4. We put on Christ.

a. What is illustrated in those words is the changing of garments.

b. We take off our old, dirty garments of self and sin, and we put on the holy, righteous robes of Christ.

c. When Paul mentioned the changing of garments, I’m sure the Galatians immediately thought of the Roman practice of coming of age, when the person took off the childhood garments and put on a toga of the adult Roman citizen.

5. And so, the Promise brings us into oneness with God.

C. Second, The Law could not bring us in oneness with each other like the Promise can.

1. The Law created differences and distinctions, not only between individuals and nations, but also between various kinds of foods and animals.

a. The ancient Jewish Pharisee often began the day with this prayer: “I thank Thee, God, that I am a Jew, not a Gentile; a man, not a woman; and a freeman, and not a slave.”

2. But notice how all that changes in Christ.

a. In Christ, there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female.

b. This does not mean that our race, political status, or sex is changed at conversion, but it does mean that none of these things separate us from the salvation found in Jesus.

c. We are all one in Christ and have the same access to God as anyone else.

3. And so, the Promise brings us into oneness with each other.

D. Finally, we learn that the Law could not make us heirs of God like the Promise can.

1. God made the promise to Abraham’s seed, which is Christ.

2. And if we are in Christ and belong to Christ, then we are Abraham’s offspring, and therefore are heirs of the promise.

3. All the spiritual blessings of Abraham and Christ are also passed on to us as heirs.

4. What a great inheritance we have.

5. I love the way Peter described our inheritance: Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you…(1 Peter 1:3-4).

6. And so, the Promise makes us heirs of God.


A. So what have we learned today about the Law and the Promise?

1. First, the Law cannot change the Promise.

2. Second, the Law is not greater than the Promise.

3. Third, the Law is not contrary to the Promise.

4. Finally the Law cannot do what the Promise can do.

B. Let me end with this illustration:

1. In the early 1930s the US had a problem - Crime had run amok.

2. The prohibition of alcohol in the 1920’s had given rise to pervasive organized crime.

3. A frightened public demanded a response, and the government wanted to send a message to criminals.

4. Their message was named Alcatraz, often referred to as “The Rock.

5. Alcatraz is tiny island in San Francisco bay that had previously been used as a military prison.

6. From 1933 to 1963, Alcatraz was a federal prison and housed some of our nation’s most notorious outlaws including Al Capone.

7. During its 30 years of operation, the penitentiary claimed that no prisoner successfully escaped.

8. A total of 36 prisoners made 14 escape attempts, two men trying twice; 23 were caught, six were shot and killed during their escape, two drowned, and five are listed as “missing and presumed drowned.”

C. Alcatraz, “the rock,” was one of the most successful examples ever of an escape-proof prison, but there is one prison even more inescapable and it is the one referred to in the verses from Galatians we have studied today – it is the bondage of sin and of the Law.

1. As we have seen, the false teachers, called Judaizers were teaching that the way to escape sin’s shackles was through obedience to a strict set of rules known as the law of Moses.

2. Paul’s response to these teachers is that the law is not a way to escape the bondage of sin, rather faith in Christ, trusting in His sacrifice on the cross as a payment for sin is the only way to be set free from sin’s bondage and consequences.

3. Our sin bound us, and the law keeps us shackled still, but Christ sets us free.

4. Paul said it well in Romans 8:1, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”

5. Ultimately, Jesus is “The Rock” that sets us free from an inescapable prison like “the rock”, the prison of sin and the Law.

6. We are set free so that we can be one with God and experience oneness with each other and experience life in His name.

7. May we always use our freedom to serve Him gladly.

8. We are set free to serve! That is a theme we will focus on when we get to chapters 5 & 6.


Galatians, The NIV Application Commentary by Scot McKnight, Zondervan, 1995

Galatians For You, Timothy Keller, The Good Book Company, 2013.

Galatians, Maxie Dunnam, The Communicator’s Commentary, Word, 1982.

The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series,

Westminster Press, 1976.

Be Free – Galatians, Warren Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Victor Books, 1989.