Our experiences shape us. For most of us, “experiences” rather than “truth” carry more weight in defining our understanding of life than anything else. We arrive at the conclusion that what we experience, through our eyes, is truth. As a result of this way of thinking we can end up enslaved and led around by the nose by what we “think” is right and true. This was certainly the case with the false teachers of Galatia who had given their lives to propagating teachings that they held to be true, but were absolutely false. You need to know that God does not hold the same views of “experience” and “truth” that we do. Isaiah proclaimed,
8 “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. 9 “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. (Isaiah 55:8-9 NIV)
Let me give you an example of how experience unchecked by the Truth of God will lead us to erroneous conclusions. Ben broke the law. He was a CPA for a corporation that turned a profit for the past ten years and Ben had prospered with the corporation. Ben was prospering even more than the corporation had budgeted as he was cooking the books and pocketing funds that weren’t his. Eventually, Ben was caught and he learned the hard way that “your sins will find you out.” Ben was tried and found guilty even though in his mind he was justified in his actions because the company hadn’t done him right. Ben, the corporate CPA who once wore $1000.00 suits found himself dressed in state-issue-designer-orange and living large in a ten by ten cell. Instead of taking stock of his surroundings and crying out to God, Ben shook his fist at the heavens and became hardened and defiant.
Monica was just a young girl who went to school, attended church with her family on Sundays, and minded her own business. When Monica began Middle School she met some new friends. Her father and mother didn’t know her friends very well as they were working three jobs between them to make ends meet for their seven children.
As the semester rolled into November they noticed that Monica’s personality was changing. She was becoming more “independent.” She was changing the way she dressed. Gone were the soothing sounds that once emanated from the CD player in her bedroom at night and replacing those sounds were thunderous noises of defiance and profanity that shook the whole house.
One day Monica’s father overheard her talking on the phone to one of her new friends. He heard them talking about the “gang” and he became afraid. Monica’s father spoke with her when she got off the phone and confronted her about the situation. Monica told her father that some of her friends were in the gang, but she was just their friend. He told her that she was not allowed to spend time with those friends any longer because she might get hurt. Monica told her dad that it wasn’t fair for him to take her away from her friends, but he would not relent.
Monica became more and more defiant. She ended up dropping out of school by the time she was in the ninth grade. She became pregnant and had a child by 17. She moved out of the house screaming and yelling at her family two days before her 18th birthday. Defiance, rebellion, bitterness — Monica knew them well.
In both of these instances we can easily see that authority was challenged, the law was broken and rebelled against so that Ben and Monica could captain their own ship…and head it straight into the rocky shore. Both Ben and Monica suffered because of their decisions, but in their brokenness they became hardened and defiant. Oh my friend, make no mistake about it, brokenness comes to the heart of every living soul, but when it arrives we can either clench our fist, grit our teeth, and become bitter and defiant or we can recognize our brokenness as an opportunity to cry out to God and be blessed by His hand of restoration.
For the past several weeks, as we have been studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we have been learning about the unmerited grace and mercy of God. We learned last week that Abraham believed God and was justified in God’s sight more than 14 years before God gave him the mark of the covenant people of God and more than 500 years before the law was given by God to Moses. Since Abraham was justified by faith long before the law arrived, some in Paul’s day, and no doubt some in our day, would then conclude that we don’t need the law, we don’t need parameters for living life. They would conclude that we’ve been liberated from all moral, civil, and legal restraints so that we can kick up our heels, live however we want, and not bear any responsibility or consequences. Paul didn’t hold these beliefs, but the false teachers of his day surely believed that Paul believed this. They were telling the folks of Galatia “Paul is saying that the law is useless!” For the Jews that would have been nothing short of blasphemy.
Paul taught from Scripture that we are not made right with God because of what we “do,” but because we believe God. Paul would never say that the law was useless; he knew the law better than most since he had been a Pharisee for many years. Paul simply wanted the people of his day to understand the purpose of the law in the plan of God to redeem His people.
In our Scripture for today we find Paul talking about the relationship of the law and the promise. Paul asks the question, “Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not!” If the law is not opposed to the promises of God, but we are not made right with God by keeping the law in all of its details, then we need to understand God’s intent for the law that He gave through Moses. Let’s take a look at our Scripture for today found in Galatians 3:15-22.
15Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. 17What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. 19What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. 20A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one. 21Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. (Galatians 3:15-22 NIV)
In these verses is found a deep and life-changing truth for you and me – the law is ordained by God as a road map to grace. I have been praying that this morning the Lord will open our eyes, use my feeble words, and teach us with such clarity and simplicity that there would be no way that we could miss this truth. Take a look at verse 15 with me as we get started.
15 Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. (Galatians 3:15 NIV)
Paul takes an example from everyday life to show the people of Galatia that God’s promises are irrevocable; they have not, do not, and will not change – ever! Paul says that the contracts people make with one another are binding and if people’s covenants are binding then it is even more true that the covenants of God are binding.
The talk of “contracts” or “covenants” in reference to Abraham and God is exactly what transpired in the book of Genesis. God promised Abraham that He would give Abraham and his descendants the Promised Land. God promised Abraham that He would give him more descendants than the stars in the sky. He promised Abraham that through his “seed” all nations would be blessed. When God made Abraham these promises in Genesis 15, Abraham asked, “How may I know that I shall possess it?” John MacArthur writes about this encounter in his commentary on Galatians.
When Abram asked, “O Lord God, how may I know that I shall possess it?” (v. 8), God ratified the covenant by a ceremony common to the ancient Near East. On the Lord’s instructions, Abram took a heifer; a female goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon, then cut them in half and laid the two sides of each animal opposite one another, with a path in between. At sunset, God caused a deep sleep, as well as “terror and great darkness,” to fall on Abram. After reassuring Abram of His promises, the Lord symbolically passed between the animals in the form of “a smoking oven and a flaming torch” (vv. 12-17). Ordinarily, both parties to a covenant would walk between the slain animals, whose blood would symbolically ratify the agreement. But in this case, God alone walked through, indicating that the covenant, though involving promises to Abraham and his descendants, was made by God with Himself. The covenant was unilateral and entirely unconditional, the only obligation being on God Himself. (John MacArthur, Galatians, pg. 83)
God made a covenant, but unlike the covenants entered into by people where each party is required to meet certain obligations, God made the covenant with Himself, for His own glory. God would bless Abraham and give Him more descendants than the stars in the sky because of His own grace and mercy and for His own glory! God justified Abraham because Abraham believed God; he placed his faith in God and His promises rather than in his own ability to make himself “right” with God.
The Jews knew the promise God had made to the father of their faith, but they also believed that when the law was instituted the people of God were required to fulfill its requirements to gain the promise. Paul knew what the Jews believed, he knew how their experience with the Temple and the spiritual leaders had shaped them, but Paul was called to teach the Truth. He wrote in verses 17-18,
17What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. (Galatians 3:17-18 NIV)
The law came a long time after Abraham was dead and gone. The law wasn’t given to take the place of the promise or as a requirement to receive the promise. Paul argues in such a logical way with those who were leading the folks astray. The promise was established because of the grace of God, and His grace alone. Paul says that if the inheritance of the promise was dependent upon the law that the promise would be null and void, something God could never do – deny His own promise. The promise was based on the “I will” of God. The law was based on the “Thou shalts” of the requirements – requirements that were set in place to show the people their inability to live a perfect life. These are two totally different realities!
If the law and the promise were so different then surely one of the two was without purpose in the grand and glorious scheme of things? Surely one or the other had been a mistake of God? Maybe so in the narrow, finite understanding of man, but not in the plan of God. Paul writes,
19What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. 20A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one. 21Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. (Galatians 3:19-21 NIV)
In this section of Scripture Paul answers the critics questions that are rambling around in their heads. Paul’s line of argument goes like this: “If salvation has always been a gift from God, by faith, for those who believe, and never by works, and if the covenant promised to Abraham was fulfilled in Jesus Christ, what purpose did the Law have?” Great question and the answer is found in verse 19. The law was added because of transgressions, or to show people their propensity to constantly step over the line. That is literally what Paul was saying.
The Greek word that Paul uses for “transgressions” is the word, “para,basij” (parabasis) which means, “to step over, to disregard, violate, or breach a definite, ratified law.” John MacArthur writes,
The Law … was added to show the depth of man’s transgressions against God. It was given to drive him to desperate guilt and the awareness of his need for the Deliverer.
It is imperative that we understand the purpose of the law. The law was given by God to show us our inability to redeem ourselves, justify ourselves, and make ourselves impressive to God. The law was given to shine a brilliant light upon our hypocrisy, uncleanness, and unrighteousness. The law accomplished its purpose my friend. Even for those who held the law in such great regard, for those who gave every ounce of their energy to keeping the law, they found themselves lacking and failing day after day. Paul wrote to these folks in his letter to the Romans and said,
17Now you, if you call yourself a Jew; if you rely on the law and brag about your relationship to God; 18if you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law; 19if you are convinced that you are a guide for the blind, a light for those who are in the dark, 20an instructor of the foolish, a teacher of infants, because you have in the law the embodiment of knowledge and truth-21you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? 22You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? 23You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? 24As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:17-24 NIV)
The authorities, the spiritual leaders of Israel, were teaching the folks to obey the law, yet none of them were able to keep the law in all of its detail. When Paul writes, 23 “You who brag about the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” he is asking, “Do you dishonor God by disregarding the law, violating God’s commands, and stepping out of bounds?”
The purpose of the law is to show us our failures and our lack of ability to live an upright life of integrity and moral strength. When the law, “Thou shalt not steal” was instituted then people who took things that were not their own recognized their violation of the laws of God. Paul wrote in Romans 3:20,
20Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:20 NIV)
Four chapters later in Romans, Paul is still hitting on the same theme when he writes and says,
7What shall we say, then? Is the law sin? Certainly not! Indeed I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “Do not covet.” (Romans 7:7 NIV)
Paul is saying that the law, in his life, was like a referee for a young football player. The kid goes out to play his first game. He knows that his team is supposed to score if they are going to win. He knows that they must keep the other team from scoring as well, but he doesn’t know the rules for the game.
When the kick-off takes place he runs downfield and hits another player in the back. The referee throws a flag and goes to the middle of the field to make the announcement. When he calls the number of the player who broke the rules, the young guy can’t believe it. He thought he had made a good block, until the referee pointed out his violation to everyone in the stands. From that time on he thought about what had happened. From then on, whenever he hit someone in the back, he looked around for a flag because he knew that he had broken the rules. That’s the way the law works in your life and mine. The law shows us when we step out of bounds. The law points out to us the times that we violate the rules of the game of life.
For the person who thinks they don’t have to play by the rules of the game, the law shows them that they won’t play at all. The law squashes self-righteous. The law, as it crushes us, points us beyond ourselves to the One who alone can justify and lift us up. Martin Luther wrote about this in great commentary on Galatians,
So, in answer to the question, ‘If law does not justify, what use is it?’ Paul answers as follows: Although it does not justify, it is a civil restraint on those who are rebellious and obstinate. Moreover, it is a mirror that shows us ourselves as sinners, guilty of death and worthy of God’s everlasting wrath and indignation. What is the purpose of this humbling, bruising, and beating down? It serves to bring us into grace. So the law is a minister that prepares the way for grace. God is the God of the humble, the miserable, the afflicted, the oppressed, and the desperate and of those who have been brought to nothing. His nature is to exalt the humble, to feed the hungry, to give sight to the blind, to comfort the miserable, afflicted, bruised, and brokenhearted, to justify sinners, to bring the dead to life, and to save the very desperate and damned. He is an almighty Creator, making everything out of nothing. (Martin Luther, The Crossway Classic Commentaries, Galatians, pg168.)
I love the line in Martin Luther’s commentary that says, “What is the purpose of this humbling, bruising, and beating down? It serves to bring us into grace. So the law is a minister that prepares the way for grace.” When we are broken and without hope of every being able to please God, then the door is opened for God’s promise to lift us up and make us whole. Luther writes,
A common proverb says hunger is the best cook. Just as the dry earth longs for rain, so the law makes troubled and afflicted souls thirst after Christ. To such people, Christ tastes wonderful; to them, he is nothing but joy, consolation, and life. And then Christ and his benefits begin to be recognized. Christ requires thirsty souls, whom he lovingly calls; he delights to water such dry ground. He does not pour his water on ground that is not dry and does not long for water. His benefits are inestimable, and therefore he gives them only to those who need them and earnestly desire them. He preaches good news to the poor; he gives drink to the thirsty (John 7:37; Psalm 147:3). He comforts those who are bruised and afflicted by the law. Therefore, the law is not against God’s promises. (Martin Luther, The Crossway Classics Commentaries, Galatians. pg. 177-178.)
Jesus Christ is the promise of God! Jesus said, “Come to me all of you who are weary and burdened down and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11:28 NIV) For the rest to come, we must come broken and beaten down to the Savior of all who will trust and rest in His provision. How will you deal with the brokenness of life? How will you face the perils that will absolutely undo you and leave you empty? How will you handle your inability to rise above? Will you shake your fist at the heavens and defy God and His authority? Will you recognize your brokenness as a path to salvation and cry out to the Savior?
William Ernest Henley was born in Gloucester, England on August 23, 1849. The first of an impoverished bookseller’s six children, his father managed to send him to the Crypt Grammar School so that Ernest could gain an education. While at the school Ernest became ill and the school was less than sympathetic with the young boy. Ernest was forced to leave the school because of his poor health, but some say that the real reason was due to the lack of funds. When the boy was only 12 years old a doctor diagnosed him with Tubercular Arthritis. The illness was debilitating and just four years after his diagnosis the doctors amputated his left leg below his knee. For the rest of his life, Henley would have to battle illness, depression, and frustration.
Just two years after having his leg amputated, Ernest was forced to give up his educational aspirations as his father died in 1867. The family faced severe financial hardships, but Ernest took responsibility for his brother and mother and worked to support them. In 1869, he became very frustrated with Gloucester and migrated to London to seek employment.
As the hardships kept beating upon his soul and his body, Henley became more and more frustrated and defiant. The physical afflictions continued and Henley’s legs withered while his torso continued to grow. He suffered excruciating pain for many years before his death.
Throughout Henley’s life he fought with vigilance, but continued to profess his agnosticism and skepticism about God. It is tragic that a man who hurt so badly refused to seek help and consolation from the Master Physician.
During one of his hospital visits Ernest wrote a poem that has become his most famous piece. The poem is called, Invictus. Let me read it to you.
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the Pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds, and shall find me, unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate;
I am the captain of my soul.
Against the backdrop of a life of heartache, pain, and confining limitations, Ernest Henley refused to yield to the tender and comforting hand of God.
Years later there was another man who found great comfort in Henley’s words. He was preparing for his death when he sat down to write his last statement in a jail cell in Terre Haute, Indiana on June 11, 2001. His final statement made no mention of remorse for his sin or regret for those he had hurt. His final statement contained nothing more than Henley’s words from “Invictus.” His name was Tim McVeigh.
I pray that this morning someone here will hear the words of hope in the midst of their brokenness. I pray that someone will wipe the tears from their eyes, recognize their need for the Savior, and come asking for His healing touch. The law of God that is written on our hearts is intended to break us so that we will be emptied of our independence and confidence in ourselves. It is at that point that we can cry out to God and declare our dependence upon Him alone. Won’t you come into the arms of hope? Come to the arms of grace? Come to the everlasting arms of salvation this very morning?