Galatians 3:21-29: The Law as the Child Trainer

Galatians 3:21‑29  •  11 min. read  •  grade level: 6
“(Is), then, the law against the promises of God? Far be the thought! [Literally, ‘Let it not be!’] For if a law had been given, one being able to impart life, then indeed righteousness would have been on the principle of law: but the Scripture has shut all [literally, everything] in on every side under sin, in order that the promise, on the principle of faith of Jesus Christ might be given to the believing ones [the ones having faith].
“But before the coming of that faith, we were being constantly guarded under law, being shut in on every side unto the faith about to be revealed. So the law became our child trainer unto Christ, in order that we should be justified on the principle of faith. But that faith having come, we are no longer under a child trainer. For you are all God’s sons by means of that faith, in virtue of Christ Jesus; for you, as many as were baptized unto Christ, clothed yourselves with Christ. There is not Jew nor Greek, there is not slave nor free, there is not male and female; for you are all one in virtue of Christ Jesus. But if you (are) of Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise.” ch. 3:21-29.
The law is not against the promises of God, but it showed man that he could not obtain the blessings of these promises by his own faithfulness and by his own works. For if the law could have given life, the new life given by the law would, of course, have kept the law’s commandments. This would have been human righteousness, and righteousness by the law. Although this righteousness would only be human righteousness, still it would have been pleasing to God. But the law did not, and could not, give such a life to man; and the law did not, and could not, provide man with even human righteousness; it only showed man how sinful he was. If man had kept the law, under which he voluntarily placed himself at Mount Sinai, in order that he might obtain the promise of life and blessing from God, then he would have obtained those blessings which God had promised. But man could not keep the law. All Jews as well as Gentiles, those who had the privileges of receiving the promises and knowing God’s will, as well as those who had not these privileges alike have sinned. God has shown clearly that all men are sinners. The Scripture has shut in all on every side under sin. Whichever way we look at man, we find he is a sinner. There is no way out. The case is quite hopeless. “There is no difference: for all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22-2322Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: 23For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; (Romans 3:22‑23)).
But has God shut in all men, Jews and Gentiles alike, under sin in order to bring all men into condemnation? No indeed! God has shut in all under sin “in order that the promise, on the principle of faith of Jesus Christ, might be given to the ones having faith.” In Rom. 3:21, 2221But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: (Romans 3:21‑22), we read: “But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all....” The offer of righteousness without law is made to all—Jew and Gentile alike—for there is no difference: but this righteousness is only “upon all them that believe” (Rom. 3:2222Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe: for there is no difference: (Romans 3:22)). So the promise on the principle of faith of Jesus Christ is given to the ones having faith. Under law, all are lost: under grace, all may be saved. The law cannot, and ought not, spare sinners. The law pulls down what is evil; but the promise freely gives what is good and builds it up. The law exposes man in all his nothingness and wickedness, and proves he is only a poor lost sinner. Grace makes manifest the faithful promises of God, and His goodness to the poor, lost sinner who deserves nothing. So we see that the law is not against the promises of God. When we understand the true work of the law, and the true result of God’s promises, we see that they are in no way against each other, but that each has its own place. But if we mix them up, then all is confusion.
We come now to a new subject, though, as usual, it flows straight on from what the Apostle has just been saying. The last words we have considered were: “But the Scripture has shut all in on every side under sin, in order that the promise, on the principle of faith of Jesus Christ, should be given to the ones having faith.” The Apostle now continues: “But before the coming of the faith [or, that faith], we were being constantly guarded under law.” This is v.23; but in v.26 there is a change from “we” to “you.” This tells us that in v.23, and the other verses in this connection, the Apostle is speaking of the Jews, who were under law. But in v.26 he turns to the Galatian Christians, and so he addresses them as “you.” The Apostle uses “we” when he speaks of the law, for the Galatian Gentiles were never under law. But when he speaks of being sons, he uses “you,” for they all had a part in this.
“But before the coming of that faith we were being constantly guarded under law.” “That faith” refers to the whole truth of the good news founded on faith in Christ Jesus. Before Christ came and brought the good news of salvation through His death, the Jews were under the law. It is true that the law turned their sin into transgression and showed how bad they were. But the law did more than this. It guarded them from the idolatry that was all around them. There was one nation in the world (even though that nation had failed so terribly) that still held the truth and the knowledge of the One true God. The law (which perhaps here would include the entire Old Testament; see Rom. 3:1, 21What advantage then hath the Jew? or what profit is there of circumcision? 2Much every way: chiefly, because that unto them were committed the oracles of God. (Romans 3:1‑2)) had been the guardian of the Jews, preserving among them this knowledge of God. The law was not the means of justifying them, for they did not keep it; but they were shut in under the obligation to keep it. They were very proud that God had given it to them and were very proud of the promises given in the law, even though they never could obtain them through it. But the law did guard them and did preserve among them the knowledge of the true God.
So, the Apostle continues, the law became our child trainer unto Christ, in order that we should be justified on the principle of faith. Among the wealthy families of Greece and Rome, it was a common practice to have a man take charge of boys from about the age of six years until perhaps sixteen. This man would have complete charge of the boy, and would be responsible for his manners and for his morals. He would have the authority to punish him when necessary. He would take him to school, though he would not generally teach him. This man was very often a slave. You must remember that slaves in Greece and Rome were often captives in war, and so might be well-educated men, quite able to take charge of the boys of their master. You will understand this man was really more of a guardian than a teacher. Perhaps it is because the Apostle had just been saying that the law was our guardian that brought to mind this custom in the families of Greece and Rome. Even in old English history of a thousand years ago, we read of those who held the title in noble families of the “child trainer.” This is just what the law was to Israel. It was given to train them, to show them their own wickedness, and to punish them. All this it did; but it could not justify them, so the Scripture says: “The law was our child trainer unto Christ, in order that we should be justified on the principle of faith.” The law had shown them that all was lost, all was hopeless, and now Jesus, the Savior, comes—“the faith” comes—and we are justified on the principle of faith.
The Apostle continues, “But that faith having come, we are no longer under a child trainer.” The law had done its work and now the faith has come; the good news of salvation through Christ has come, and the need for the child trainer no longer exists. Just as in the old families of Greece and Rome, when the child grew out of his childhood, when he became sixteen or seventeen years old and was reckoned as a mature son, then the child trainer was no longer needed. So the Apostle says, turning to the Galatians, “You all” (Jews and Gentiles alike, all the Christians in the assemblies in Galatia) “are God’s sons by means of that faith, in virtue of Christ Jesus.” The emphasis is not on the word “all,” but on the word “sons.” In the Greek this word means a son who is of full age. This is the important part of the argument. You are no longer children, so you are no longer under a child trainer, but now you all are full-grown sons; you are no longer subject to the severe and humiliating discipline of the child trainer, very likely a slave himself. Now you are a son, now you are mature, now you are free.
“For you, as many as were baptized unto Christ, clothed yourselves with Christ.” The Apostle assumes that everyone in the assemblies in Galatia had received baptism. Every believer in those days, whether Jew or Gentile, gladly accepted this very blessed sign of having part with Christ. Baptism cannot save us, or take our sins away. “Without shedding of blood is no remission [of sin]” (Heb. 9:2222And almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission. (Hebrews 9:22)). But baptism is the mark that a man is a Christian. When a man is baptized he takes upon him the name of Christ; he puts on Christ: he clothes himself with Christ. This is all outward, and it may be nothing more than profession without true change of heart, for baptism is like the door that lets us enter into that great circle of profession which we call “Christianity.” Thank God, there are many in this great circle who are true; but, alas, there are very many who are false, who bear the name, but they have never been born again, born into the family of God: they are not truly sons. But these believers in Galatia were baptized “unto Christ.”
This is not at all a question of law. Christian baptism supposes man to be dead; and nobody asks a dead man to keep the law. The only death that can deliver man from his own death is the death of Christ. Therefore, when a man is baptized, he is not baptized unto his own death; he is baptized unto Christ’s death. So when believers in Galatia were baptized, at that moment they “put on Christ,” or “clothed themselves with Christ.”
Every true believer is clothed with Christ. When God looks at me, He sees me in Christ, clothed with Christ. And when I have been baptized, and man looks at me, he says, That man has been baptized; he is a Christian; he bears the name of Christ; he has put on Christ: he has clothed himself with Christ. And this is true of every believer, Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female. We all have put on Christ. When God looks at us, He sees Christ. So the Apostle exclaims: “There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” All is Christ and only Christ. It is not an old creation, but a new creation. In the old creation there were all these differences, but this is something entirely new. We are all one in Christ: and if you are Christ’s, what need to be circumcised? You do not want to become the children of Abraham Jews in that sense, the fleshly sense. The Apostle now closes this part of the argument saying, “But if you are of Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to promise.” Of Christ: you are part of Christ: you are members of Christ: not merely the property of Christ, but you are identified with Christ. See ch. 5:24: “But the ones of Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh.” These Galatian believers are already Abraham’s seed, entirely apart from any question of circumcision or the law; and more than that they are “heirs according to promise” (vs. 29). The Apostle has shown that Christ is the one true Seed; so if we are a part of that one true Seed, then we are Abraham’s seed, Abraham’s children, heirs according to promise, and all without law or circumcision.