Learning From the Law
What does Paul mean when he says “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ” (Gal. 3:24)?
This is a question about the role of the law. I will provide a brief summary of the law in Galatians, then look at a couple illustrations used by Paul, including the one you mentioned, to clarify the role of the law.
1. The Law: False teachers in Galatia were requiring believers to be circumcised in order to be part of God’s people. According to Paul, such teaching went against the concept of salvation through Christ (Gal. 1:6-9). He interprets this imposition as an attempt to use the law as a contributing element in our search for divine acceptance. For Paul, divine acceptance is exclusively through Christ, not on the grounds of the works of the law (Gal. 2:16). His critical point seems to be quite clear: The law cannot give us what we desperately needed, namely, life (Gal. 3:20), which is accessible only through Christ. If the law can give life, then Christ’s death was unnecessary.
The apostle would even argue that far from giving life, the law sentences us to death! He states: “Through the law I died to the law” (Gal. 2:19). The law can only pronounce a curse against us because sinful human beings cannot obey it (Gal. 3:10; cf. Rom. 8:6-8). Christ gives life because He took upon Himself the curse of the law, dying in our place, and redeemed us from that deadly curse (Gal. 3:13): “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). When it comes to our justification, the law has nothing to contribute. In Christ the law’s death sentence against me was executed, and I now enjoy life through Him.
2. Law and the Prison of Sin: Using the illustration of a prison, Paul asks: “What purpose then does the law serve?” (Gal. 3:19). He then states that the law was given to Israel “because of transgressions.” Although the phrase could be interpreted in several ways, the best interpretation within this context is that the law reveals sin; it makes us aware of our sinfulness, our brokenness (Rom. 3:20), but it cannot resolve the problem.
To clarify, Paul indicates that according to the Scripture the whole world is a prisoner “under sin” (Gal. 3:22) and that the warden of that the prison was the law (verse 23; cf. Rom. 11:32). He restates the idea that we were under the curse of the law until the coming of Christ. The human race was imprisoned, waiting for the execution of the sentence. The only escape from this prison was faith in Christ. He came, was “born under the law” (Gal. 4:4), entered the prison of sin to redeem those who were “under the law,” and made them children of God (verse 5). The curse of the law makes salvation through Christ indispensable.
3. Law as a Tutor: The Greek word translated “tutor” (Gal. 3:24; paidago¯gos) has no English equivalent. It was commonly used to designate a slave or freeman hired to protect the child of the master from harm, to instruct him in moral matters and in the use of language and speech, and to apply discipline whenever needed. When the child reached adulthood the control of the paidago¯gos ended. The term combines the ideas of strict discipline, submission, and instruction.
Paul uses this illustration to indicate that before the coming of Christ we lacked freedom and were, like slaves, under submission to a power over which we had no control. The law instructed and disciplined us, but it did not have any redeeming power. Although the emphasis is not on the law as pointing toward or leading to Christ, the idea is not totally absent. The child looked forward to adulthood to enjoy freedom, and for Paul our childhood ended with the coming of Christ. Now obedience to the law is an expression of love and gratitude (see Gal. 5:6, 13, 14, 19-24; Rom. 8:3, 4). For those who are in Christ the condemnatory function of the law has ended.
Angel Manuel Rodríguez lives in active retirement after serving the church as a pastor, professor, and theologian.