The Law as a Guardian
To be under someone else’s custody can mean many things. It could mean in the sense of government authorities placing a criminal under their custody, in order to restrain him from doing more criminal activities. That is, they will detain him and put him under the rule of the jail warden. Or perhaps it could mean a person who takes good care of something or someone. A library custodian, for example, is responsible for making sure that no books would go missing.The custodian would see to it that the books were properly returned on time. They’re also in charge of the cleaning, and protection of the books from damages. But if we are talking about a child, then to be under someone’s custody means; to be cared for by a guardian until the child matures.
Paul will argue here in Galatians 3:23-29 that we, before faith came, were held in custody under the law until the coming faith would be revealed, thus the law acts us our guardian until Christ. But what’s the main point of this imagery?
The law is good, but if met with the sinful hearts of the unbelievers, sin is provoked.
Following Paul’s reasoning from verses 19-22, you’ll notice that he’s just virtually saying the same thing. Except that the focus here is on the law’s temporal nature, and not its purpose and use. Verses 23-29 is just a restatement of the interim character of the law. This is very important. As you will see later on that the source of much debates, and disagreements on the interpretation of verse 23-24, lies on the thinking that Paul’s main point here is still about the purpose, and or function of the law. So our primary aim is to learn how to understand properly what Paul meant when he said that we are under a guardian before the coming of faith. We’ll look at some of the common views that deals with this subject, and see which view can best represent Paul’s meaning. Lastly, I’ll give some words on the reasons and implications of being no longer under a guardian.
Before faith came(vv. 23)
Paul begins this section with the clause “Now before faith came”(Πρὸ τοῦ δὲ ἐλθεῖν τὴν πίστιν). The first obvious problem that jumps right out to us from the text is the notion that under the old covenant, there’s no faith, or faith is inexistent. In fact, others have suggested that faith was not the means of justification in the old testament. This interpretation, however, flies into the face of what Paul said earlier in verse 6 about Abraham’s justification through faith. So what’s the meaning of, or what is implied in “before faith came”?
What’s being said here is not before the coming of the individual’s faith, but it is talking about before the age of faith. The era or epoch of faith. This means therefore that in the old testament, the granting of faith was limited only to the remnants. But now, in this age, comes the inclusion of the Gentiles. The coming of faith is referring to the age of fulfillment. According to Thomas Schreiner, “The coming of faith, in this verse, represents the inauguration of a new era in redemptive history, the time when God was fulfilling his eschatological promises. Faith is portrayed as an objective reality that has now dawned.”
So before faith came means before the dawning of the age of faith.(Galatians 1:4-5, 3:7, 3:27-28, 4:4-6)
Delegated reign of the Law(vv. 23)
Now before faith came we were held in custody under the law, by being kept as prisoner until the coming faith would be revealed.
Now Paul said that “before faith came, we were held in custody under the law, [by] being kept confined until the coming faith would be revealed.” To understand the phrase “held in custody under the law” and the word “confined” or “imprisoned” we must look at the closest parallel from verse 22. It says there that “the Scripture imprisoned (or confined) everything under sin” Notice the correlation of being “under the law” and “under sin”. In verses 21-22, Paul states what the law cannot do. It cannot give life, because no one can in fact abide by the law. What it does is confine everything under sin, and as a result everyone is under a curse according to Galatians 3:10. So to be under the law is to be under sin, and to be under sin and law is to be under a curse. The purpose of this chain of rule according to verse 22 is to ensure that the only means by which we are to receive the promise is by faith in Christ Jesus. Now, even though that what’s being said here can also be said of everyone, we must remember that the particular focus of the personal pronoun “we” are the Jews, including Paul. Because what we’re talking about here is redemptive history. The Jews were the only recipients of the Mosaic law.
The Pedagogue(vv. 24-25)
Therefore the law had become our guardian until Christ, in order that by faith we could be declared righteous. But now that faith has come we are no longer under a guardian.
So how do we make sense of the words custody and confined or imprisoned?
Theologians have differing views as to what it means. Others saw verse 23 and verse 24 as two illustrations defining for us the two functions or purposes of the law. By far this is the most popular view. The picture of imprisonment in verse 23 has to do with restraining sin. On the other hand, verse 24 is a picture of a tutor teaching us what sin is, and pointing us to Christ for our justification. However, others viewed verse 24 not as a tutor that points to Christ, but merely as a disciplinarian when Israel disobeys God. It is meant to drive them to Christ. Others even added the idea that the law protects Israel from being contaminated by the surrounding pagan nations.
First let’s address the view that the law acts as restraints. We already saw from verses 19-22 that the law cannot restrain sin, instead the law even causes the flourishing of sin. So I don’t think that Paul will now emphasize here the idea that the law functions as restraints.
Second, the view that the law functions as a tutor may actually have some validity to it. The idea is that since from the knowledge of the law we come to know sin, and because no one can obey the law, it renders everything to be under sin, and as a result points us to Jesus as the only source of righteousness, therefore the law acts as a tutor. Now even though theologically correct, this view will not work in this context, given the focus on redemptive history. If there is any concept of tutor and student relationship here, it is at the very least limited only to the Jews in the old covenant. In fact the most likely meaning of being under the custody of the law is to be under a guardian who disciplines an immature child. I would quickly add though that this disciplining role of the law does not have any inherent restraining power as evident from Israel’s rebellion against God.
Now let’s look at the view that what we have here are two illustrations describing two purposes or functions of the law. I think that is not the case, since verse 24 is an inference drawn from verse 23 as hinted by the conjunction “therefore” or “so then” that connects the two together. How can Paul argue from a picture of imprisonment to a picture of tutor if they are talking about two different functions? He can’t, instead Paul concludes from the law’s temporary rule that it becomes a pedagogue. The point of saying that “being kept confined until the coming faith would be revealed, therefore the law becomes our guardian” is to show that the law is more like a guardian than a prison. In retrospect, the law is actually a good guardian that takes good care of a child until the child reaches maturity. It is not an unloving taskmaster that only provokes its subjects to sin. The law is good, but if met with the sinful hearts of the unbelievers, sin is provoked. Also take note that the conclusion of verse 24 hinges on the word “until”. That’s our clue that the main point here is the similarity between the law’s short term reign and the temporary delegated rule of a guardian. In other words, the law, like a guardian, is only temporary. You’ll no longer need a guardian when you’re at the right age.
Even though the law is good, since faith already came, we are no longer under its custody.
So here, Paul was actually granting that the Mosaic law is good, useful and can in fact point the Jews to Christ in the old covenant. But don’t hear me saying that we must use the Mosaic law to drive people to Christ in this side of the redemptive history. Because that would be turning the text on its head. Verse 25 tells us that “now that faith has come we are no longer under a guardian.” Nothing can be clearer than that. So even though the law is good, we are no longer under its custody. Again, the clause “now that faith has come” is not saying that you, as an individual, now have faith. But it is saying that the age of faith has come, so we are no longer under a guardian. The age of maturity is the age of faith. We obey God not because a guardian, called the law, will discipline us. That’s like a child obeying a baby sitter’s instructions just because you have no other choice but to obey, else they’ll tell your parents how stubborn you are, and as a result be grounded. Obedience in that sense doesn’t show maturity. But when the child grows, and he no longer needs a baby sitter, yet still obeys his parents’ instructions, not because of punishment but because of love for his parents and siblings, that’s maturity. Obedience in this age is an obedience to the Law of Christ(not the guardian) that is wrought by the Spirit, and is flowing from faith.
Sons of God through Faith(vv. 26-29)
For all of you are sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. [Now as a result] there is no longer Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female. For all of you are one in Christ Jesus. [Therefore] if you are of Christ, [then] you are Abraham’s descendants, [that is, you are] heirs according to the promise.
Now Paul explains why are we no longer under a guardian when faith came. It is because in Christ Jesus we are all sons of God through faith. This means that we no longer need a guardian since in Christ we now have our Father through faith. Notice how Paul shifts from “we” to “you”. He’s now including the Galatians, and virtually all Christians in this passage. He’s wrapping up by going back to his very first assertion about who are the true offspring of Abraham, and who will receive the promises to Abraham in verses 6-9. For as many were baptized into Christ have put on Christ, says in verse 27, and the result of that is a one new man. Verse 28 states that; there’s no longer Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female for you are all one in Christ.
Now according to verse 29, if you belong to Christ(not the pedagogical rule of the law), then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
Typically, a pedagogue is a slave tasked to watch over the children of the master while he is away. Therefore, if you say today that we need to go back to the law, you show yourselves to be desiring more of the care of a slave than the care of your Father, to whom we have access through our union with Christ.