The Law was Added: A Paraphrase of Galatians 3:15-29
When working through a text I often find it is helpful to write out an extended paraphrase–which is not the same as a translation–of the passage in question. Doing this forces you to answer those “second order” exegetical questions that don’t necessarily show up in the translation. It forces you to express the meaning of the text in (roughly) the order, cadence, tone, and language of the text. It takes a ton of time, but I always find that it is worth it, especially when there are a lot of little problems to solve and miscellaneous questions to answer.
I found myself doing just that today with Galatians 3. As I was reading it I felt I understood the “gist,” but there were a lot of verses here and there I found challenging. For example, why does Paul say go into the seeming digressing in 3:19-22 about “intermediaries” and God being “one?” How does that fit into the overall point? Also, he seems to use words like “law” to mean “Covenant of Moses,” but does “promise” then mean “Covenant of Abraham?” If so, what hypothetical “law” is being described in 3:21?
So here’s my current working paraphrase. I owe a heavy debt to Ridderbos’ commentary, and I often “leaned on” the ESV translation (since that’s what I will be preaching this text from). I use brackets “[ and ]” to express logic I think is implied by the text, or missing premises, or other thoughts related to the passage that are not strictly “in” the passage. Critique appreciated, the comments are open!
There’s another reason why you should be confident that you have received the inheritance of salvation through the promise, that is the covenant made with Abraham, and not through the law, that is, the Mosaic covenant. This reason comes from ordinary life. This is how covenants work even in our own daily experience: it cannot be modified or cancelled after it has been formally certified. In our case there was already a covenant in place before the Covenant of Law came, namely, the Covenant of Promise made with Abraham. This covenant was made with Abraham’s seed—that is, to a single line of offspring, which ultimately is fulfilled in the promised Messiah, the Son who is the Christ.
The Covenant of Law came later—a lot later in fact, about 430 years!—and it was not given in order to annul or amend the prior Covenant of Promise. The Covenant of Promise was certified and confirmed by God himself, and the Covenant of Law cannot and does not void that promise. Therefore the inheritance—which is to say all of salvation, and preeminently justification and the sending of the Spirit—was never to come by adherence to the Covenant of Law. That would be to contradict the earlier Covenant, which God assured to Abraham not through conditions and commandments, but by his promise.
Ok, but then why add the Covenant of Law at all? What purpose would it serve? Why not just fulfill the Covenant of Promise without any intermediate Mosaic period? [Why do we need a national covenant, one which would establish the seed as national Israel)? The law was added to illustrate, illuminate, incubate, impede but also aggravate the problem of transgression. [The Covenant of Promise, after all, does not address the deadly power of transgression, but simply promises blessing.] It was added in order to do this until the offspring promised should come into the world and receive the promised inheritance. What is more, the fact that it was put in place by various intermediaries—Moses for one, but even he received it through angels (rather than directly from God, who is one)—further proves that it cannot and does not annul the Covenant of Promise, which was ratified directly by God Himself.
Is the Covenant of Law then working against the Covenant of Promise? Absolutely not. If a different set of commandments could have been given, a different covenant of laws, one which was able to guarantee new-creation life (which is to say, the blessings of the promise) to its recipients, then righteousness would certainly have come by adherence to that covenant’s laws. Since that was not possible [as no set of laws can solve the problem of sin, but only make it worse], The Scripture (you will remember that we read from Deuteronomy earlier that “everyone who does not do all of the law is under a curse”) was given to enclose and contain all sinful things under the power and rule of sin. He did this so that the blessing promised in the Covenant of Promise might be given to those who believe through faith in Jesus Christ
What was life like under the Covenant of Law, before the era of faith came in the coming of Jesus? [I know it personally, since I was there!] It was like being kept in custody, like being confined while waiting for something, in this case waiting for the era of faith to be revealed? The Covenant of Law was thus like a kind of warden or custodian or tutor that watched over us until the Christ should come, so that we might be justified not under the era of the Law, but under the Covenant of Faith.
Now though the Era of Faith is here, and so we are no longer under the custody of a warden. Rather, we have reached maturity. In Christ Jesus you are all—we are all!—sons of God [which means we have received the promised inheritance]. For when you were baptized, you were baptized in Christ, and therefore you have put on Christ. Because we have put on Christ there are no longer the divisions and classifications that there were in the old age; there is no Jew or Greek, no slave or free person, no male or female. Everybody is one in Christ Jesus. This is the sum of it all: if you belong to the Christ, then you are the one seed of Abraham. You have received the promised inheritance that has been given to the Son of God.
 Ridderbos’ commentary: two options for the sense of the “because:” either (1) to restrain transgression, or (2) in line with Rom 4:15 and 5:20 to call it forth “and make them manifest. This is to say more than that by means of the law sin could be acknowledge as transgression in its proper and terrible character: it is to say also that by means of the law sin should come out into the open and multiple itself…. This had to take place so that the indispensability of Christ would come to be rightly understood” (138).