v23-24: the law “imprisons”, but it is also a “tutor”. The law teaches us that we’re guilty of offending God’s holiness, but it doesn’t help us escape from the prison that our guilt puts us in.
“Run, John, run, the law commands, but gives me neither feet nor hands.”
In the same way that it’s no good giving a dead person practical advice for how to live like a good Christian, it’s no good offering a guilty person the law to try to remove their guilt; the law is what’s imprisoning them.
The law is our tutor “in order that” we might be justified by faith. It teaches us our need of Christ to provide a perfect righteousness for us because we can’t do it ourselves.
v25: “we are no longer under a tutor” – Once we have faith in Christ, that’s the end of the law’s role in our justification.
I say “the end”, but having faith in Christ doesn’t mean we never slip back into phases where we revert to trusting in our obedience again, so I for one regularly need the law to remind me how hopeless that is, and drive me back to Christ to find my justification, over and over again.
What I mean is, or what I think Paul means is, the law doesn’t have any role in our justification beyond driving us to Christ to find the righteousness we need in him.
Not that no longer being under the law as our tutor means we start living contrary to the law. I don’t go to school anymore, but that doesn’t mean I’ve turned against everything they taught me. I learnt some things at school that are still useful since I left. Likewise, some of the things we learned while we were under the law will still be helpful now as we try to live according to God’s will, even though it doesn’t count towards our justification.
Nor am I saying that the law has no other role in the life of a Christian. There is sometimes a place for pointing a fellow Christian to the law to say “Hey look, God’s law says what you’re doing is sin, and he hates it, so much so that Christ was crucified for it, so stop it!”
But there are important differences between that and telling someone they need to obey the law to earn God’s approval.
A Christian who believes they’re still under the law will probably work really hard at trying to change their outward behaviour, and they will probably look like a really faithful Christian, so it might seem like a good idea to hang the weight of the law over people; it gets results. But Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 that any amount of outward obedience is worthless without love.
Showing someone that the law says God hates what they’re doing will only result in real obedience if the person genuinely loves God, and that only happens if they’ve truly grasped the good news of the gospel about how much God loved them first. We need to be transformed from the inside out, starting with our hearts and working outwards to our behaviour, not the other way round.
Christian preachers want people to grow in obedience, but to try to guilt-trip people into changing their behaviour, by pointing to the law and asking “Do you think God’s pleased with the way you’re living your life?” is the wrong way to go about it. It might feel good to listen to a preacher challenge us to work harder at obeying God’s law by making us feel guilty about our failures, but if we have faith in Christ, we’re not under the law anymore. We’re not guilty.
Some might say the gospel should make us want to obey the law, and it’s true it should, but I think that word “should” can be a problem sometimes. If someone says we “should” want to obey the law, I know I don’t delight in the law as much as I should, and my instinctive reaction is to try to work harder to fulfil my duty, so I try to muster up some delight in the law within myself.
So to make sure we get the cause and effect the right way round, instead of saying “if we understand the gospel it should make us want to obey the law”, I would say “if the gospel doesn’t make you want to obey the law, you probably haven’t understood it properly”. That way it’s clear, if/when we don’t delight in God’s law, the solution is not to try to work up a change in our hearts ourselves to want to obey; instead we go back to the gospel and study it and meditate on it until it transforms our hearts.
I really like this passage from Martyn Lloyd-Jones on the subject of no longer being under the law:
“If I preach the law in such a way that somebody goes home thinking, ‘Very well, all I’ve got to do is live like that and I will be a Christian’, then I have preached the law badly and wrongly. But if I have preached the law in such a way as to make somebody say, ‘I’m completely and entirely hopeless and unless I can be saved by someone outside myself, I’m done for’, then I have preached it properly…
I am concerned about this not primarily as a matter of theology; I am concerned about it primarily as a pastor. Almost every Sunday someone who is in trouble about this will come to me and say, ‘But my past life, my sin…’ And the moment I hear that, I know that that person has a problem with understanding this question of the law.
I say, ‘You are confessing to me that you are a sinner?’
‘Oh yes, I’m terrible…’
I say, ‘But that is your right to justification by faith.’
‘But if only you knew…’
I say, ‘It doesn’t matter what I know or what I don’t know: Christ died for the ungodly, he justifies the ungodly.’
And when I see people hesitating and wondering whether they can be forgiven, then I know that they still have a hankering notion somewhere that if only they had lived a better life, then all would have been well. And if only they could get rid of this sin, or if they could stop committing it, all would be well. That means that they are still under the law. It means they are… regarding the law as a means of salvation and of deliverance…
The law will convict you, it will knock you down, it will shut you up, it will leave you in complete and entire helplessness, and by so doing it is acting as the schoolmaster… to lead you to the only one who can save you, our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.”