The Promises Came First Before the Law

Title: The Promises Came First

Text: Galatians 3:14-18

Time: January 9th, 2011

We’re examining the difference between faith and works, between grace and payment, and between promise and law in God’s plan of salvation. Today, We continue further where we left off last Sunday, because if you remember last time I didn’t actually finish explaining the last verse dealing with the blessings of Abraham that are received by faith in God’s promises. In order to understand this we have to back up and look again at what God said to Abraham and the faith Abraham had in order to receive the promises. Here’s last week’s verse that I failed to explain, Galatians 3:14, “He redeemed us in order that the blessings given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” This verse makes a lot more sense when we read the next few verses, which will serve as the basis for this week’s message. Galatians 3:15-18, “Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: the law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.” Now what’s all this about and why does it matter? We’ve still got an economic recession going on it our nation, people are still unemployed, some are losing their home through foreclosure, and others are struggling to make ends meet each month. Families are suffering through marital breakup and divorce. We’ve got enough problems to deal with in our daily lives, why focus our attention on what may seem to be abstract theology? I could hear someone say, “What does all this talk about Abraham’s promise, God’s law, faith and blessing have to do with me and my life today?” Well it all has something to do with you and me today because it deals with the very meaning and purpose of life – why it matters to keep on persevering and struggling in life. God’s Word doesn’t tell us how to do everything in life, but it tells us why life is important. It doesn’t tell us “how to” in every instance, but it tells us “what for” to life in general. Why carry on? Why bother trying? What’s the point of life? Where is life – my life in particular and human life in general – where is it going? What’s the meaning and purpose of life? The Bible gives us answers to these questions. Now you may not think these issues are important right now, but I can guarantee you that such questions will present themselves to us at different times in our life. Will we have the answers when we need them? That’s how God’s Word can help us ask and answer the biggest questions of existence. So just because every lesson isn’t strictly or immediately practical to your everyday life, don’t reject it. There are some truths that we need to know, not because we’ll use them right away, but because we need to have them on hand. It’s like a fire extinguisher. How practical normally is a fire extinguisher in your house? Typically it just sits there taking up space, doing nothing. But it sure is useful when you need it, when there’s a fire. So it’s not very practical every day or most of the time, but when there’s a fire, it’s the most important thing around. That’s a lot like biblical truth – it may not seem very practical, not something you can use all the time, but when you really need it, you’d better have it. So with that in mind, let’s look at a few “impractical” truths that we need to know to understand God’s work of salvation in our lives.

First, the promises of God came first by faith. Galatians 3:15-16, “Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ.” Now if we look back into Jewish history we’ll find that God didn’t come first to Abraham with the Law, or in other words, with a body of legal regulations. Instead, God came to Abraham with promises requiring faith. Was there law at the time of Abraham? Yes, but not like the Law of God established by Moses at Mount Sinai, where God gave the Ten Commandments and other laws for the nation of Israel. Before all that there was the promise given to Abraham that he would be the father of many people and that he would inherit the promised land of Israel. These promises were given by God and only required faith in order to be fulfilled. God didn’t come to Abraham with a long list of rules, of does and don’ts. No. It was all very simple, very clean, very uncluttered – “Abraham, here’s my promise to you and your offspring. Simply believe it, accept it, trust me, and it’s yours.” Now I guess if you want to get technical about things you could look back to the early chapters of the Book of Genesis and say, “The first Law of God was given to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden when they were told not to eat from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Yes, that is the first recorded instance where God gives a law. Then, from that point on, after Adam and Eve fall into sin, God gives a few other laws here and there. But we don’t see any kind of comprehensive law until the time of Moses at Mount Sinai. He certainly did not give Abraham any kind of comprehensive law, but instead gave him promises that required only faith. Of course, faith, that is real faith, always comes along with works because a lot of the time the only way to express faith is in action, in behavior. But the covenant or agreement between God and Abraham was established on the basis of faith not obedience to Law. Now why is this point important? Because the Jews had forgotten that Abraham, the father of their faith, had entered into a covenant of faith with God based on promises, not law. By the time of Christ, the Jews were mostly about law and not much about faith. Paul points back to a time before Moses, before the Law, and says, “See, God’s first word to us through our father Abraham was about promises and calling us to faith.” His point about a covenant or contract still being in force is that the faith promises made by God are still valid even after the covenant of Law was given at Mount Sinai. The Law didn’t invalidate the previous covenant God made to Abraham by faith. I’ll come back to this point later, and it will make more sense.

Second, the Law of God came in order to deal with the consequences of sin. Galatians 3: 17-18, “What I mean is this: the law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.” So then we see that God first dealt with the Jews through Abraham with a promise that required only faith to fulfill. Then, hundreds of years later, God gave the Jews his Law at Mount Sinai through Moses. I’m sure I don’t have to review the whole story of the Exodus – we’ve all seen the movie “The Ten Commandments” with Charlton Heston. I think it comes on television every year around Easter. I have the DVD so I can watch it at any time, but if you haven’t seen it, and I can’t believe you haven’t seen it, but if you haven’t, I’d recommend that you rent it or buy it or watch it on television this year because it really gives a history of the Jews and shows the giving of the Law of God at Mount Sinai. Now the Jews often looked back to the Law of God given to Moses after the Exodus, but they often forget to look further back in their history to the giving of the promises to Abraham. Paul’s point is that God’s promises to Abraham came first. The covenant of faith was established before the covenant of obedience. The promises of God were given before the Law of God. God required faith before he required obedience. Whereas every instructed Jew would know all about the giving of the Law at Sinai, many wouldn’t remember, or were never taught about the giving of promise to Abraham. The two events were two separate things. The first one, God giving promises to Abraham, required only faith. “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now like I said before, faith shows itself in acts, so we then see Abraham acting out his faith by following God’s instructions, but even in this he didn’t follow them perfectly or completely. But that wasn’t necessary in God’s eyes because faith was the requirement, not perfect works. So then if the covenant of faith was in force between God and man why was the Law given at Mount Sinai by Moses? It was to deal with the sinful condition of mankind, to provide for a minimal degree of order in life and society, and also to lead us closer to God by faith. More on that last point next week, but for now, the law was never intended to actually save anyone. It was never ever given by God to actually provide a means for man to please God, because God knew that man’s sinfulness could never please him through partial obedience to the Law. Faith was and still is the only way to please God.

Third, the gospel is a fulfillment of God’s faith promises to Abraham. Galatians 3:14, “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” We return to the last verse of last week’s message – the verse I didn’t fully explain. Now we see what it means. The gospel message is the fulfillment of the initial covenant made between God and Abraham. God gave Abraham promises of blessings, and Abraham believe God, his faith was credited to him as righteousness in God’s eyes, and he was granted the blessing on that basis. Now here’s a profound question to ponder – “Was Abraham a Jew when God gave him the covenant of promise, or was Abraham still a pagan Gentile?” Remember, Abraham wasn’t always a Jew, he wasn’t always in covenant with God. There was a time that Abraham was not a Jew, because there were no Jews, and God had not officially made a covenant with a special people. So Abraham was still a Gentile when God called him into a covenant relationship with him by faith. Now we can see how the gospel message can apply to all people, Jews and Gentiles. Abraham represents both Jews and Gentiles because God approaches him with promises and requires faith. Abraham could fulfill the faith requirement, but he couldn’t fulfill the obedience requirement. Or in other words, above all, God requires sincere faith from an individual. He also requires full and total obedience from all individuals too, but that is secondary to faith. Faith was the initial and primary requirement of God to Abraham. Now when the Law was given by God to Moses at Mount Sinai, the faith covenant was already in force – it had been given to Abraham hundreds of years earlier, so whatever the purpose of the Law, it wasn’t to take the place of faith. I’ll talk about this more next week because we really need to go into it deeper, but the main purpose of the Law was to show everyone how badly they failed to obey God. Just in case somebody thought they were holier than thou, the Law reveals to them how sinful they are. So the chief purpose of the Law is to humble us enough to come to God by faith alone. I’ll talk more about that next week. Another purpose of the Law was to provide an order for life and reveal God’s ideal will for us all. Was it given in order to save us? No. Because there is only One who fulfilled the Law perfectly in obedience – Jesus Christ. So we now look to him as our fulfillment of the Law. We can’t fulfill the requirements of the Law, but Christ can and did for us. He took our sins on the cross, and he also fulfilled the Law for us in his life. We can receive the blessings promised to Abraham because we can exercise the faith of Abraham towards God’s promises.

How do you live your life today? Do you walk by faith in Christ or do you try to fulfill the Law by your own strength? What does trying to fulfill the Law of God by our own strength look like? Well, it means we try to please God by doing holy and righteous acts in an effort to impress God enough to save our soul. But here’s the truth – you can’t impress God enough to save your soul. There is only One Person who impressed God the Father, and that’s Jesus Christ the Son. His holy life of perfect obedience and fulfillment of the Law provides the substitute righteousness for us who believe by faith. So don’t try to fulfill the Law by obedience, don’t try to work your way into God’s good grace because you can’t. Only Christ can do that. Only faith in Christ gives us access to God’s grace. There is only One who had perfect faith and perfect works, and that was Jesus Christ. Abraham, it says, believed God and his faith was credited to him as righteousness, but it did so only through the cross of Christ looking forward. Now for Abraham, and all faith-filled Jews of the past, the cross was forward in history, so God the Father applied the blood of Jesus to them forward. To us, the cross is past history, backwards, so God the Father applies the blood of Jesus to us from the past historical event. But either way, we are saved — if we are saved — by the blood of Christ on the cross. Anybody who was or is or will be saved, is saved through Christ. Now do you understand the relationship of the Law of God to the Grace of God. We aren’t pleasing to God because of how we live or because of how well we’ve lived up to the Law. Some people are better at keeping the Law, some worse, but it doesn’t matter as far as salvation is concerned because none of our obedience counts towards salvation. It’s only through Christ we can be saved. It’s only by faith we can be saved. Abraham, the pagan Gentile called by God to faith, was saved it says through trusting God. His faith was counted as righteousness. His faith in what? His faith in God’s promises to him. We have promises from God also in the New Testament, for example, gospel promises. Things like this – though you deserve judgment you can be saved to eternal life, though you are a sinner and disobedient towards God you can be forgiven and granted a heavenly reward. Though you don’t deserve a reward for your life, though you deserve punishment for your life, you can receive an eternal reward through faith in Jesus Christ. Do you believe the promises of God? Does your life show that you believe them? Not perfectly, of course, but in any sense does your life reveal that you trust God? At this point, at the beginning of a New Year, take stock of your life. Are you trusting God? Do you read your Bible like you trust God’s promises? Do you pray like you really believe in God? Are you careful to do God’s will with your life? Do you care about loving others as you love yourself? All of these show whether you have true faith or not, because after all, it isn’t whether we say we believe in Christ or not that saves us, it’s whether we do in fact trust in Christ. Do you trust in Christ with your heart, with your mind, with your life? Let’s pray.


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