More Help from Ryken on Galatians

Ryken-Galatians

Anyone who tries to be justified by working the law is attempting the impossible. God did not give us the law to make us good. Part of the law’s purpose, in fact, is to show us how bad we really are. Therefore, it is completely hopeless to get right with God by keeping the law; “the law is a matter of performance, but a performance that is beyond human possibility.”5 If justification did come by the law, we could not be justified, because we cannot keep the law. The Puritan William Perkins explained it like this: “If we could fulfill the law, we might be justified by the law: but no man can be justified by the law, or by works: therefore no man can fulfill the law.”6

The problem with the law, then, is not the law; the problem with the law is our sin. Since we cannot keep the law, the law cannot bless us. All it can do is curse us, placing us under the condemnation of divine wrath.[1]

Here Paul summarizes everything he has been saying in this chapter. He reminds us of the blessing given to Abraham: a right standing with God. He reminds us that this blessing is for all the nations of the Gentiles. He reminds us that God’s blessing includes receiving the Holy Spirit, with all his gifts and graces.

All these blessings could never come by works of the law. They come only “in Christ Jesus.” This is the doctrine of union with Christ—that all of God’s blessings come to us when we get into Jesus Christ. And the way to get into Jesus is by faith. All of God’s blessings come only through faith in the cross of Christ. Through the old cursed cross the nations of the world receive forgiveness for their sins. Through the old cursed cross we are accepted by God’s justifying grace. Through the old cursed cross we receive the promised Holy Spirit.

We receive all these things by faith in the crucified Christ. Faith deserves to have the last word because it is the last word in Galatians 3:14. What was a curse for Christ becomes a blessing to us by faith.[2]

§

The Holy Spirit gives us real liberty in Christ. True Christian freedom is not to sin but to serve. It is not license to indulge our sinful nature, but liberty to serve one another in self-renouncing love.

When we love one another in the Spirit, we also enjoy a third kind of freedom: freedom to fulfill the law. Here we come to one of the most surprising verses in Galatians. After we are commanded to “serve one another” through love (Gal. 5:13), we are told that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ ” (Gal. 5:14; cf. Rom. 13:9–10). The Spirit makes us free to keep the law of love.

This law of love is familiar. It comes from the law of Moses: “you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” (Lev. 19:18). Jesus taught the same thing. When someone asked him to name the greatest commandment, he said, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37–39).[3]

§

The answer is that the law has to be kept in its place. As we have noted before, the Protestant Reformers spoke of several different uses of the law. The first is to drive us to Christ. The law does this by showing that we cannot justify ourselves before God. The law is not the means of our salvation. It cannot make us right with God. The most it can do for us, before we come to Christ, is to show us our sin.

Once the law has driven us to Christ, however, it does something else for us. It shows us how to live for God by telling us to love our neighbor, among other things. It does not tell us this as a way of getting right with God—as far as justification is concerned, we are “not under the law” (Gal. 5:18; cf. 4:21)—but as a way of living free in the Spirit. Our liberty is not lawless. We are not under the law; nevertheless, we fulfill the law. Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892) explained this in a picturesque way:

What is God’s law now? It is not above a Christian—it is under a Christian. Some men hold God’s law like a rod, in terror, over Christians, and say, “If you sin you will be punished with it.” It is not so. The law is under a Christian; it is for him to walk on, to be his guide, his rule, his pattern: “we are not under the law, but under grace.” Law is the road which guides us, not the rod which drives us, nor the spirit which actuates us. The law is good and excellent, if it keep its place.10

It is vital to understand that God has never done away with his law. His basic commands have not changed. His will for our lives, as expressed in his moral law, is eternal. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15). God still wants us to love our neighbor as ourselves, and by doing so to fulfill his law.

The way to keep the law in its place is always to think in the proper theological categories. Although the law cannot justify, it can help to sanctify. Justification has to do with God declaring us righteous; sanctification has to do with God making us holy. The law cannot justify us because it declares that we are not righteous. But once God has declared us righteous in Christ, the law helps to sanctify us by showing us how to be holy. John Stott writes, “Although we cannot gain acceptance by keeping the law, yet once we have been accepted we shall keep the law out of love for Him who has accepted us and has given us His Spirit to enable us to keep it.”11[4]


5 Donald A. Hagner, “The Law in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians,” Modern Reformation 12.5 (Sept./Oct. 2003): 34.

6 William Perkins, A Commentary on Galatians, Pilgrim Classic Commentaries, ed. Gerald T. Sheppard (London, 1617; repr. New York: Pilgrim, 1989), 163.

[1] Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 110.

[2] Ibid, 118.

[3] Ibid, 222.

10 Charles Haddon Spurgeon, The New Park Street Pulpit (1857; repr. Pasadena, TX: Pilgrim, 1975), 2:124.

11 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Galatians: Only One Way, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1968), 143.

[4] Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians, ed. Richard D. Phillips, Philip Graham Ryken, and Daniel M. Doriani, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005), 223–224.

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