The Law is an Evangelist: Galatians is not about the “covenant of works”

I haven’t had time to continue my response to Thomas Boston, but I would like to offer some additional thoughts on my points about Galatians in that post.

I wrote in part:

Paul contrasts Sinai to Abraham but where is the evidence that plugs this into the Covenant of Works?  His argument assumes that all reference to “bondage” means a system of demanding perfect perpetual obedience as a condition of eternal life.  But the Apostle Paul explains what he means by bondage and it is not what Boston presupposes:

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.

So, for Paul’s argument, the bondage is that of limitations due to immaturity.  The point is that now that the new has come we must leave behind the old.  Nothing is said about going all the way back to man’s state of innocence to where Adam, as a public person, was given a Covenant that demanded his perfect obedience to secure his own future and that of his posterity.

The quotation from Scripture above is from Galatians 4.1ff.  I should point out that it fits with the immediate verses preceding it:

Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came [NASB: “our tutor to lead us to Christ], in order that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.  For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 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. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

Notice here that “faith” is virtually a synonym for Christ or the new covenant.  It does not mean personal belief in most instances because such faith existed both before and during the time of the Mosaic Law.  Nor does the Law “drive” us to Christ by showing us that we can’t live up to it’s demands.  Nothing is said about that. Rather, the law is an evangelist.  It leads us to Christ. it was our guadian.  It protected us in our minority when Jew and Gentile were separate offsprings.

And while that “imprisoned” language may sound dire, as I have already pointed out, Paul says in 4.1ff that it is simply about childhood.

The fact is that reading one’s prejudices into Galatians has become a sacred tradition in recent Protestantism.  We are told that the problem with the law is that it is the covenant of works which demands perfect obedience and condemns any and all disobedience, when Paul actually says that it condemns apostasy from the Law just as the Gospel condemns apostasy from the Gospel (Galatians 3.12, quoting from Leviticus 18.1-5).  We are told Christ died to save everyone who believes from the consequences of their disobedience at any point, when Paul actually says that Christ died to redeem Israel in order to bring blessing to the Gentiles so that then Israel could receive the Spirit (Galatians 3.13, 14).  We are told that the promise refers to an unconditional gift as opposed to a reward for works, whereas Paul says the promise is that there would be one and only one offspring rather than many different offsprings such as Jew and Gentile (Galatians 3.16-20).

Time and again all the details of the text are bulldozed and flattened to the shape of a simple story that we have decided must be what Paul is saying.  Worse, in Reformed circles, the details are buried under the hypothesis of a “works covenant” that is in some mysterious way “republished.”

9 thoughts on “The Law is an Evangelist: Galatians is not about the “covenant of works”

  1. Jon

    Your quote “Nor does the Law “drive” us to Christ by showing us that we can’t live up to it’s demands”.

    The Bible says “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith”. In Hebrews, it says that the works covenant failed – “For the law made nothing perfect, but the bringing in of a better hope did; by the which we draw nigh unto God”.

    I wiuld have thought the Bibla says quite clearly exactly what you say it doesn’t say!

  2. mark Post author

    Read the post heading again. The Law is an evangelist that leads us to Christ. Paul is saying that the Law obeys the Great Commission. Neither does Hebrews spell out a covenant that was presented to us to make us attempt to win salvation by good works and then give up and turn to Christ.

  3. Jon

    You’ve changed ‘school master’ to ‘evangelist’ to suit your own ends, haven’t you? There is a world of difference between the word ‘pedagogue’ and ‘evangelist’. They’re not the same word at all. The law was added (re-published) because of trangessions. But be clear, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them”. Sounds like works to me, because if this is a covenant of grace, I’m condemned! No?

  4. mark Post author

    No more than you changed the meaning of pedagogue to “someone who scares and torments a person until he gives up.”

    Paul clearly states that the difference between law and gospel is between childhood and adulthood. You’re looking for any hook you can find on which to hang a pre-decided paradigm.

  5. Jon

    And if the law was an evalgelist, why was it weak and unprofitable?

    I haven’t changed the meaning of anything. The Lord himself says that He would bring in a New Covenant “Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day when I took them by the hand to lead them out of the land of Egypt; because they continued not in my covenant, and I regarded them not, saith the Lord”.

    Why did he do this? Because ‘he (found) fault with them’. I didn’t say a pedagogue was ‘someone who scares and torments a person until he gives up’. The Lord says the problem with the old covenant was that they continued not in his covenant. Not that it was only supposed to be temporary anyway.

    I’d be interested to know your opinion on the following. The New Testament says the new covenant was founded on ‘better promises’. So (a) what are the promises of the old covenant, and (b) what are the promises of the new covenant and (c) why is it said that the promises of the new covenant are better than the promises of the old covenant?

    Thanks Mark!

  6. pduggie

    Jon: while there may be a sense in which the bible teaches that the torah failed, the context in Hebrews is discussing priesthood, not the moral law.

    The Old Testament priesthood and sacrifices (law) didn’t make the participants perfect, and thus is set aside when Christ the perfect priest comes. The author of Hebrews needs to explain why something that seemed very important (the Aaronic priestly line) is completely abrogated when Jesus arrives. Using that quotation to demonstrate that God has unmeetable demands is a non-sequitur.

    The Aaronic priesthood law is a good example of a non-works covenant: it promises NOTHING for obedience. Its just a temporary measure to keep Israel going and prefigure Christ in a world of endless dead priests. The law isn’t a problem in Hebrews because it keeps demanding things people can’t deliver, its because it isn’t delivering the things that God (elsewhere) keeps promising (melchizedekian, perfect priesthood of eternal life.)

    Using that verse just because it says “law” is a good example of the kind of flattening and bulldozering that Mark refers to.

  7. Tim G

    1. Mark, I don’t really think that Paul is saying HERE that the law leads to Christ (although something like it could be argued from Rom 10.4); the verse you cite simply says that the law was our paidagogos until Christ came.

    The rest of my points are for Jon.

    2. Paidagogos doesn’t mean evangelist, no – and I don’t think Mark was implying it did. But neither does the term mean schoolmaster (a very poor translation popularized by the KJV). It referred to a slave who acted as a child custodian during the heir’s years of minority… which sounds an awful lot like Mark’s main point here.

    3. “Added” emphatically does not mean “republished.” It means just what it says. The law was new at the time of Moses.

    4. Paul himself explains why the Mosaic covenant was a ministration of death: the Spirit had not been generally given as in the new covenant. This had nothing to do with a hypothetical offer of salvation by perfect obedience, which would have been news to everybody in the OT.

    5. You quote the Hebrews passage, but don’t seem to realize that “perfect” in Scripture rarely if ever means what you seem to assume. Its most common meanings are “complete” and “mature.” The law made nothing complete, which is why room is left for “fulfillment.” (To fulfill means to fill up.)

  8. Jon


    It’s clear from the beginning of Hebrews that the Lord definitely DID have the moral law in mind. The sum of the first table of the law is ‘Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind’. “And with whom was (the Lord) grieved forty years? was it not with them that had sinned, whose carcases fell in the wilderness? And to whom sware he that they should not enter into his rest, but to them that believed not? So we see that they could not enter in because of unbelief”.

    As I said before, the problem with the old covenant is that people couldn’t fulfil it themselves. You say it says NOTHING about promises for obedience, which again is wrong. ‘The man that doeth them shall live by them’. Or, “if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people”. Which they didn’t, which is why he was grieved with them.

    Tim G,

    I could almost be persuaded to your point of view if I was to read Hebrews 7 in isolation. I think it’s quite convincing to say that when Paul says ‘two covenants’, he means two administrations of the same thing, and that the only problem with the first was that it was temporary. But the scripture clearly says that the Lord ‘found fault’ with the people, as a pedagogue might find fault with disobedient children.

    I really struggle with the ‘law being new at the time of Moses’. In Galatins 3, 17 Paul writes “And this I say, that the (new) covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the (old covenant) law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect”.

    What does Paul mean by ‘the law’ here? The ceremonial law or the moral law? Galatians 3:10 – “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them”.

    All things – which of necessity includes the moral law. “But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them”.


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