The Restrainer

The law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane” (v. 9).  

- 1 Timothy 1:8–10

Our study of Galatians 3 looked at Paul’s comment that the Law was “added because of transgressions” (v. 19). Over the centuries, theologians have explained the apostle’s meaning here in two senses. The first of these we have already covered, which is the Law’s role in revealing to us our transgressions, making us despair of our own righteousness, and pointing us to Christ who kept the Law on our behalf (vv. 19–29). This, the first use of the Law according to John Calvin, is the use of the Law as a mirror. When we look at God’s commandments as we might look into a mirror, we see reflected back only our depravity and lack of holiness. The truth about ourselves is then used by the Holy Spirit to drive us to Jesus that we might be justified by faith alone (vv. 23–24).

There is a second sense, however, in which our Creator added the Law on account of sin. This use, which Calvin calls the second use of the Law, is its use as a restrainer. As today’s passage tells us, the presence of all kinds of wickedness led God to reveal His moral will in order “to check the raging and otherwise limitlessly ranging lusts of the flesh” (Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.7.10). Having fallen in Adam, those who are not followers of Jesus think only evil in their hearts continually (Gen. 6:5). Were there to be no limits upon humanity, society would quickly degenerate into anarchy, that is, if society could even be established in the first place. Everyone would be a law unto himself, with no regard for the welfare of other people. There would be no civilized order at all, and without civilized order people could not gather to hear the gospel, engage in productive labor, or bear children.

The Law restrains people through fear of punishment. In view here again is what is generally termed the moral law, which is revealed generally in nature and explicitly in the five books of Moses. Thus, it is available to all people. Everyone instinctively knows the general parameters of right and wrong and that they will be judged for breaking them (Rom. 1:18–32). This serves to keep most people from committing heinous violations of the law such as murder. If nothing held us back, we would destroy one another in our selfishness.

Coram Deo

John Calvin says that those who obey our Father’s law only out of fear of punishment “are neither better nor more righteous before God” (Institutes, 2.7.10). Only Christians are able to please the Lord in the doing of His Law because only we have been given hearts able to follow Him out of the sheer joy of doing so. As we grow in holiness we should be serving Him with gladder and gladder hearts. Do you serve the Lord with reticence, or are you happy to obey?

Passages for Further Study

Deut. 17:14–20
Judges 21:25
Romans 2:25–29
2 Thess. 2:1–12

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