Are Law and Gospel in Conflict?
“Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God?” (Galatians 3:21). Of course the Law is contrary to the promises of God. The promises set forth the gospel. God gave Abraham a promise. God promised Abraham a seed, a son, to be his heir. Paul tells us this seed is Christ (Galatians 3:16). Abraham believed this promise and those attending to it (Genesis 15:6). Paul goes so far as to say Abraham heard and believed the gospel. “The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘all the nations will be blessed in you.'” Is the Law contrary to the gospel? Of course it is.
But the apostle Paul, speaking by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, startles us. “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be!” Paul’s answer is negative. Do you see that? Paul’s answer is negative. This needs some explanation! The apostle provides it. “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law.” Gaining righteousness, right standing with God or justification, by keeping the Law, is indeed contrary to the gospel. The principle of gaining eternal life through obedience to the Law is legalism. A legalistic approach to life is opposed to faith and salvation by grace. “This Pharisaic philosophy asserted that the law was intended, on the principle of merit, to enable Israel to earn the blessedness of the world to come” (J. G. Vos, Biblical Theology, 126). But God did not give the Law with the intention Israel, or those of us living today, should merit favor with God by obedience. Look again at Galatians 3:21. “For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law.”
There are three areas of misunderstanding. We look at two of them now. The first has to do with texts such as Leviticus 18:5. “So you shall keep My statutes and My judgments, by which a man may live if he does them; I am the Lord.” The interpretation of the first glance seems to indicate obedience to God’s laws yields eternal life. However, to live by the Law actually means to live in accordance with the Law. It is your standard for life. Leviticus 18:4 uses similar language. “You are to perform My judgments and keep My statutes, to live in accord with them; I am the Lord your God.” Second, we must remember Israel was already redeemed from bondage when God gave the Law. The Law is a standard of life for those already saved and redeemed by God’s grace. We never merit salvation by keeping the Law. Nor do we merit the continued blessings of salvation by our obedience. Leviticus 18:5 refers to life before God, set apart by God, following the dictates of God, maintained by the grace of God.
The Judaizers of old connected law and merit. “But the Judaizers went wrong in inferring that the connection must be meritorious, that, if Israel keeps the cherished gifts of Jehovah through observance of His law, this must be so, because in strict justice they had earned them” (Vos, 127). Don’t fall into this legalistic trap. Don’t connect law and merit this way in your own life. Remember Galatians 3:21. “Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law.”