We saw yesterday that the law was not some alternative way God developed to bring about salvation, but rather was something that was meant to lead us to Christ. Paul goes into further detail in the next few verses.
But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. (22-23)
A lot of this is similar to what Paul wrote in Romans 7-8. And basically what Paul says there is that before the law came, people were not really aware of what sin was. They just lived their lives, blissfully unaware that a lot of their behavior was displeasing to God. God then brought in the law to show the people, “This is the way to live.”
The problem was, the law didn’t cause people to say, “Oh, really? I didn’t know. I’m sorry. I’ll live your way now.” Rather, for many, it stirred up an even more rebellious attitude toward God.
And even for those who were repentant and wanted to please God, they found that they still weren’t able to keep the law. Their sinful nature still had such a hold on them, it was impossible for them to keep the law. They were in bondage to sin.
Still, what the law did do was help put some restraints on sin until Christ came. The new NIV puts verse 23 this way,
Before the coming of faith, we were held in custody under the law.
In other words, for those Old Testament believers, the law couldn’t make them perfect, but it did help them from going completely wild into sin. Staying with the new NIV in verse 24,
So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith.
A guardian back in those days was someone who was in charge of supervising the life and morals of boys. Wherever the boys went, the guardian went with them to make sure they didn’t get into trouble. It was also his duty to take them to and from school, thus putting them in the hands of the true teacher.
That’s what the law did for Old Testament believers. First, it helped keep them out of trouble (although not all trouble, because all still sinned). Second, it eventually led people to the true teacher, Christ. How?
Through the law, God gave the Israelites many pictures of a Savior to come through, among other things, the sacrifices, the Passover feast, and the Day of Atonement.
These things in themselves could not save them from their sin. But through these pictures, Moses and all the Israelites following after him until the time of Christ saw Jesus and what he would do on the cross (John 5:39, 46). And as they did, they put their faith in him.
The law in itself then, couldn’t make save them. But it led them to put their trust in Christ, though they of course didn’t have all the details yet because Christ hadn’t come yet. And it was on the basis of that faith, not keeping the law itself, that God saved them.
So then, we come to the ultimate point of this passage. Paul said,
Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. (25)
With the coming of Christ, faith has truly come with all the details filled in. We are no longer like the Moses and all the Old Testament believers forced to look at the pictures. Now in Christ, we have the reality, and thus the law is no longer needed as our guardian.
Rather, we look solely to Christ for our salvation. And through the Holy Spirit whom Christ gave to live in us, we start to naturally do the things that are pleasing to God.
So as we go through life, let us not put all our focus on trying to keep a bunch of rules. Rather, let us look each day in gratitude to the cross, and walk each day under the guidance of God’s Spirit. That’s the true Christian life.