Which Came First: The Law or the Promise?

The 13th Sunday after Trinity—6 September 2020

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

The Reading from Holy Scripture: Galatians 3:15–22 (ESV)

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. 

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.

My father died in 2007; my mother died in 2013. And with my mother’s death, my parents’ estate was distributed among my two sisters, my brother, and myself, with of course a portion given to the church. My portion of the proceeds was accompanied by this note from my parents: “To our dear son, Larry: here is your inheritance, which we have decided to give you because you were always such a dutiful child. Not once did you disobey us. You always kept the rules we had set. You truly deserve this inheritance. And so enjoy it. Love, your father and mother.”

Actually, there was no such note written by my parents. I’m just using this fabricated note to make a point. Truth be told, I was not such a dutiful son. In fact, my mother once said that I was a more mischievous child than the other three children combined! If my parents had decided to dole out their estate on the basis of merit, they would have had every right to cut me out of their will. But they didn’t. Rather, they distributed their wealth based on the gift of our being a family. All whom they acknowledged to be their children received the promise and the gift of sharing in the inheritance.

Now, of course, living together as a family, there were rules established by my parents which we children were expected to keep: “Hang up your clothes. Make your bed. Keep your room clean. Do your chores and your homework.” But which came first, the household rules or the gift of being a family? Of course, our family came first, both in terms of existence and in order of priority. That is why my siblings and I received an inheritance from Dad and Mom as a pure gift.

That is the point in today’s text to which I would like to draw your attention. Which came first: God’s Law or God’s promise of salvation? And also, a second question: do you receive the inheritance of eternal life through obedience to the Law or by faith in the Promise?

Moses brought the Israelites to meet God at the foot of Mount Sinai. And this was not a pleasant meeting. Here is how the meeting is recorded in Exodus and in Hebrews: Now Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke because the LORD had descended on it in fire. The smoke of it went up like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled greatly. And … the sound of the trumpet grew louder and louder…Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die” (Exodus 19:18-19; 20:18-19). Indeed, so terrifying was the sight that Moses [himself] said, “I tremble with fear” (Hebrews 12:21). What was it that caused the people and Moses to be so fearful? The smoke and fire, the thunder and lightning, the whole mountain trembling greatly and the sound of a trumpet growing ever louder—all of that caused them to shake in fear. But the very root of their fear was the terrifying prospect of God speaking His Law to sinners. For that was the main event—God delivering His Law in the form of the decalogue—the Ten Words, or as we call them, the Ten Commandments—to sinners.

And you would have reacted in the same way. In fact, you must react in the same way. When God speaks His Law to you, He intends for you to shake and tremble in fear. For suddenly you realize that you are not righteous and that you cannot justify your sin; you have no excuses, no defenses that can stand before God. As the psalmist confesses: If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3).

Psalm 75 gives a good description of a key component of Christian worship: We give thanks to you, O God; we give thanks, for your name is near. We recount your wondrous deeds (v.1). Every Lord’s Day, with thankful hearts, we recount God’s wondrous deeds. Now if we had to recount the giving of the Law as the first and foremost of God’s deeds, our worship would be quite somber, even depressing. But there is a wondrous deed that precedes the giving of the Law both in terms of time and priority. This wondrous deed is the covenant God made with Abraham 430 years prior to the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai.

Genesis 12 gives us the details of God’s covenant with Abraham: Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” So Abram went, as the LORD had told him, and … came to the land of Canaan…Then the LORD appeared to Abram and said, “To your offspring I will give this land” (vv. 1-5, 7).

Here, God gives Abraham an inheritance. God promises to make of Abraham’s descendants a great nation and to make his name great. But at the core of God’s promise is the Offspring, singular—Jesus the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of the living God, through whom all the world shall be blessed. Those who dishonour this Offspring of Abraham will fall under God’s curse. But all who bless this Offspring in true faith will themselves be blessed by God. 

At the core of who we are as Christians is a spirit of thanksgiving for God’s Promise of blessing the world through the singular Offspring of Abraham. The giving of this Promise preceded the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai by 430 years. And the giving of the Promise of the blessing found in Christ also precedes the giving of the Law in terms of priority.

That is not to say the Law is of no value to the Christian. Is the law… contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! There is much to commend in the Law, most of all that the Law shows us our sin and our need for a Saviour. You and I are naturally disposed to presume that we are righteous in and of ourselves. Because we are not murderers, adulterers, or thieves,—because we abstain from external sins—, we swear that we are righteous and we rely on our good works. But, as Luther says, as long as the presumption of righteousness remains in a man, there remain immense pride, self-trust, smugness, hate of God, contempt of grace and mercy, ignorance of the promises and of Christ. The proclamation of free grace and the forgiveness of sins does not enter his heart and understanding, because that huge rock and solid wall, namely, the presumption of righteousness by which the heart itself is surrounded, prevents this from happening (1). Our presuming to be righteous prevents God’s free grace and mercy from entering our hearts.

That is why God uses the Law to tear down our wall of pride and our contempt for God’s Promise. As the Lord said to the prophet Jeremiah: My word…[is] like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces (23:29). The Law is the hammer of God that softens, humbles, breaks, and crushes the heart. Again, as Luther says: the Law accuses and terrifies the conscience—“You must do this or that! You have not done so! [Therefore,] you are condemned to the wrath of God and to eternal death!”—[here], the Law is being employed …for its proper purpose [of crushing] the heart [] to the point of despair (2).

God promised to bless this world of sinners through Jesus, Abraham’s Offspring and God’s Son. 430 years later, the Law was added because of transgressions, so that your conscience would be so terrified by your sins that you would know without a doubt that your salvation cannot be based at all upon your human works, that the salvation you so desperately need must come as a gift from God.

Which brings us back to our two questions: which came first: God’s Law or God’s promise? Of course, God’s promise of salvation though One of Abraham’s offspring. And how do you receive the inheritance of eternal life? Of course, by faith in the Promise!

The Promise, the Gospel—the Good News of salvation in Christ—is always greater than the Law and is of first importance. However, the Law does still serve an extremely necessary purpose. For the Law accuses sinners of not being righteous in and of themselves and of thus needing a Saviour. 

Sometimes, I find myself troubled by a memory of a sin I committed long ago. I used to think it was wrong to remember my past sins. But now I welcome those memories. For I have learned to greet those troubling memories with these words: “welcome, you memory of a past sin that has been long forgiven, for you remind me that I am truly a despicable sinner and that my need for a Saviour is immense”. In the same way, I speak to the sins I commit fresh each day: “you my sins—so plentiful and so grievous—you do me the great service of reminding me just how wicked I am. I therefore abandon my self-righteousness and I cling alone to God’s promise of salvation in my Saviour Jesus!”. 

That is how the Law is meant to work in your life and in mine: to accuse us of our sins so that conscience is so terrified that we yearn for salvation in the only place where it may be found—outside of ourselves and in Christ alone, who in His dying on the cross embraced a whole world of sinners in love.

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 (Galatians 4:4-5). Which brings us back to my fictitious note about my receiving an inheritance from my parents because I was such a dutiful son. That wasn’t true at all. Rather, I received an inheritance only because of the gift of family. And the same is true of our inheritance of eternal life. We receive God’s holy inheritance not through our obedience to the Law but by our being adopted by God as His sons and daughters who cling to His promise of blessing in Christ. The Law cannot give life. The Law cannot make you righteous. The Law cannot adopt you into God’s family. The Law cannot promise you heaven. But what the Law cannot do, the Gospel of Jesus does. Jesus gives you life. Jesus makes you righteous. Through Jesus’ dying in your place upon the cross, God has adopted you into His family, so that now you live in the gift and the promise of receiving the inheritance of eternal life. This promise of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ is given to you and to all who believe. Thanks be to God! Amen.

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(1 and 2) (Luther’s works, vol. 26: Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4 (pp. 310-311)