The Law Was Our Schoolmaster

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In the Bible it is written, “Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus.” This text describes how God’s Law, the Mosaic Law, the Torah, brings us to Christ, and how our relationship with Torah changes once we come to Christ. It is a significant text to consider as we seek to understand how we relate to God and view His commandments.

Many have understood this text in Galatians 3:24-26 as a comprehensive statement of the purpose and function of Torah, and draw from it the idea that after we become Christians by receiving Christ that God relieves us of any obligation to obey Torah, or at least certain parts of it. Let us consider the text in detail and understand if this view is implied in the text, and then look to the whole of scripture to help us fully understand what these verses mean.

In this text Paul shows us that the Torah is like a personal tutor assigned to the child of a wealthy family. Schoolmaster is translated from the Greek word paidagogos, from which we get our word pedagogue, which Webster defines as a teacher or schoolmaster. It describes one whose function is to guide and train a young person in order to help them grow up into a healthy, wholesome, well-balanced adult, one who will live in a manner that honors and blesses their parents and others. The schoolmaster obtains his authority to train and guide the child from the parents themselves, who entrust the child to him with the understanding that the schoolmaster shares their beliefs and values and that he will faithfully impart their values to the child.

At first, when the child is largely untrained, the instruction of the schoolmaster may seem foreign and unnatural to the child. From the child’s perspective much of the discipline may seem arbitrary, harsh, inconvenient and unreasonable. The child may resist, resent and chafe against some or perhaps all of this instruction. The doctrine, standard and value system of the schoolmaster, which is the measure of wholesome adulthood also held by the parents, is at first only on the outside of the child, telling the child what an adult is supposed to be like, how he is supposed to act, and reprimanding the child, rebuking him, disciplining and punishing him when he fails to meet this standard.

As the child matures into a healthy adult, what was once only on the outside of the child is now permeating his soul and mind from within. The child has grown up to become like his parents by internalizing their value system and standards, not just complying outwardly due to threats of inconvenience and punishment. Now he is not just a biological child, but a child of their hearts and minds as well.

Thus Paul likens coming to faith in Christ to graduating from school into adulthood: the transition one makes from being under a schoolmaster to one who lives and acts as a healthy adult on their own. In this state there has been no change in the parental standard that was embodied in the schoolmaster; the expectations placed upon the young adult are consistent with this standard. The difference is that in well-adjusted young adults the parental standard has been internalized such that the close supervision, constraints, rebukes and disciplinary actions of the schoolmaster are no longer needed. When this is not the case, and the young adult persists in violating the common standard of adulthood held by both the parents and the schoolmaster, the consequences of these violations are generally delayed, and yet much more severe than those applied in school.

So, where in this text do we find support for the idea that the Torah is obsolete or no longer applicable to those who have come to faith in Christ? Like a healthy young adult who has just graduated from school, delighting in both our schoolmaster and our parents and in what precious instructions and guidance they have so richly provided us, we in Christ now have the Torah written on our hearts and in our minds. (He 8:10, 10:16) We are transformed from the rebellious selfish little child who resists self-control and discipline; we no longer need to be threatened with punishment for disobeying Torah because God’s standards and ways are no longer foreign or unnatural to us, they have become our delight and we find them wholesome and perfect.

This state, where Torah is being written in our hearts and minds and woven into the fabric of our consciousness, is what Paul is referring to in his final statement; that believers have become the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. The idea of being a child of something or someone does not necessarily suggest mere physical lineage or adoption, but in such contexts also conveys the thought of being of similar character, disposition and behavior. Consider Paul’s children of disobedience (Ep 2:2, 5:6, Col 3:6), and children of light. (Eph 5:8) The connotation is that of resembling, approving the conduct of, and inheriting the feelings, dispositions and general character of the parental source. Paul is thus showing that when we have become children of God by faith, and so are no longer under the schoolmaster, it is in a context where we have internalized God’s fundamental values and instructions as our own, orienting ourselves to grow into His likeness by continually aligning ourselves with His instructions (Torah, the Law). In other words, in this context Torah is being written into our very DNA and therefore we are becoming holy in deed and practice as well as in a legal, positional sense.

In considering the above, it is clear that one wonderful effect of Torah is that it does initially tend conduct us to Christ, even when we have no natural desire to come to Him. It does this by showing us our sin, since violating Torah is the very definition of sin (1Jn 3:4), and of the problems that sin produces in our natural lives and in our relationship with God. This tendency of Torah is not only helpful for unbelievers, it remains helpful for believers as well. Yet, many tend to read the word only into the text, as if Torah is only helpful for unbelievers, and to imply that once Torah has initially introduced us to Christ we have no further need to obey Torah and that it has fulfilled its unique purpose. However, this sentiment is neither stated nor implied in the text, and it actually contradicts the very value Torah has in bringing us to Christ. Torah happens to have such an effect on us as unbelievers because of our unholy response to its demands, but this is not actually a statement of its sole purpose.

As Torah leads us to Christ by showing us our sin and its consequences in our relationship with God, it also shows us how to abide in Him by continuing to reveal His ways to us and showing us His holiness; the nature of Torah does not change after we come to faith. If it is a sin to violate Torah before we believe in Christ, it is a sin to violate it after we come to Christ. And as Torah illustrates the nature of propitiation to help unbelievers trust in Christ, it continually reinforces the nature and power of His sacrifice for believers; strengthening their faith and enabling them to continue to trust in Him and appreciate the power and fullness of His salvation. Any aspect of Torah that helps us come to Christ also helps us walk with Him.

In fact, no living mortal has fully arrived with and in Christ in some final sense; though believers are eternally secure in Christ, we all remain in practical and continual need of being regularly guided and pointed back to Christ. (1Co 2:2) We all are certainly prone to wander from Christ into sin, and are often coerced in such directions by our spiritual enemies. In this daily struggle, as God’s standard of spiritual health and holiness, Torah persists in leading believers back to Christ all throughout their lives, at every step along their journey in holiness. (Pr 6:23)

As the perfect standard of God, Torah is the delight of the spiritual man, something Christ in us loves. (Ro 7:22), Ps 119:97) As such, Torah is our only sure means of consistently and accurately detecting and rejecting the old man, the flesh, the carnal mind that continues to harass and plague the believer after justification. (Ro 8:7); Torah is a constant irritant to our sinful self; any and all within us that is at enmity with God’s Law is also at enmity with Him and cannot be otherwise. (Is 8:20) Torah then is our litmus test, our plumb line, our stethoscope giving us a window into our spiritual health. To ignore any part of it is to neglect the primary means we have been given to enable our sanctification. (Ja 2:10)

These insights reflect the primary purpose of Torah as documented by Paul in 1 Timothy 1:5 when he says, “Now the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.” End is from the Greek telos, which is the point aimed at as a limit or goal. This is the purpose of Torah: to provide a standard of perfect holiness by which we may participate with God in conforming to His image. The goal in this pursuit is that we be filled with a godly concern for others that springs from a clean and holy motivation (charity out of a pure heart), that we have a pure and healthy sense of right and wrong (a good conscience), and that we are fully convinced of God’s truths, nature and ways in an organic, authentic way (faith unfeigned). This purpose certainly is in some sense identical to “bringing us to Christ” when we understand this process in a more holistic, ongoing transformational context.

In all of the above thought, there is nothing in being “no longer under a schoolmaster” that suggests or implies an inferiority or badness in Torah, nor any change in our moral duty now that we are not under law. We merely have a description of a state in which the relatively minor and artificial consequences designed to train the immature and unruly in an academic setting are no longer needed because now God’s law is being written in our hearts — new hearts which are now being inclined to obey Torah as we fellowship with Him. If this is not convincing in itself, that the text may not be used to dismiss or neglect obedience to the whole of Torah, please continue as we discuss the opinions of those who may not yet see this.

Albert Barnes has the following comments on our text. “The word rendered schoolmaster (paidagogos, whence the word pedagogue), referred originally to a slave or freedman, to whose care boys were committed, and who accompanied them to the public schools. The idea here is not that of instructor, but there is reference to the office and duty of the paidagogus among the ancients. The office was usually entrusted to slaves or freedmen. It is true, that when the paidagogus was properly qualified, he assisted the children committed to his care in preparing their lessons. But still his main duty was not instruction, but it was to watch over the boys; to restrain them from evil and temptation; and to conduct them to the schools, where they might receive instruction. See, for illustrations of this, Wetstein, Bloomfield, etc. In the passage before us, the proper notion of pedagogue is retained. In our sense of the word schoolmaster, Christ is the schoolmaster, and not the Law. The Law performs the office of the ancient pedagogue, to lead us to the teacher or the instructor. That teacher or instructor is Christ.”

Disregarding the (literally) hundreds of other scriptures that clearly describe the role of Torah in our instruction in holiness, and the fact that our English word pedagogue taken from the Greek actually does mean teacher or tutor or instructor, Barnes seems to be diminishing the instructional function of the Law for believers, explicitly contradicting the apostle Paul. (Ro 15:4), (2Ti 3:16-17) He draws on the fact that the ancient Roman paidagogus did not always, especially in the later centuries after Paul wrote, provide the primary source of instruction to children but was often more of a private bodyguard to conduct the child to and from school. In such cases the task of the paidagogus was merely to protect the child and keep him out of trouble. From this, Barnes asserts that the AV is in error when it translates paidagogus as schoolmaster, insisting that only Christ himself is our schoolmaster or instructor, not Torah. This position is evidently unreasonable from a number of perspectives.

The primary argument against Barnes’ assertion is from the scripture itself. The Torah claims that it is for our instruction in holiness. (Ex 18:20, Le 10:10-11, De 4:1) The Psalms give consistent and extensive witness to this fact (Ps 19:7-11, Ps 119:105), as well as the Apostle Paul. (Ro 15:4, 2Ti 3:16-17) Torah forms the basis and content of Christ’s instruction, which Christ never violates, contradicts or diminishes. (Mt 5:17-19) Christ Himself is one with the Author of Torah, which reveals in the very nature of the Godhead an ultimate, perfect holiness — impossible to trump by any higher standard. (Mt 22:36-40) In His teaching Christ reveals the spirit of Torah, and in His life He exemplifies what it means to live out Torah perfectly in both spirit and letter. To leverage a corner case from Paul’s illustration of the value and effect of Torah in order to dismiss its primary function as our instruction in holiness is at best dishonest.

A second perspective is that of the ancients who, being presently familiar with the role of the paidagogus, give us ample precedent to understand from this text that Paul does view Torah as our schoolmaster. Augustine says, “The unrighteous man therefore lawfully uses the law, that he may become righteous; but when he has become so, he must no longer use it as a chariot, for he has arrived at his journey’s end,–or rather (that I may employ the apostle’s own simile, which has been already mentioned) as a schoolmaster, seeing that he is now fully learned.” (Treatise on the Spirit and Letter, ch. 16)

A third perspective is from mere common sense, a practical insight leveraging proof by contradiction. If we accept Barnes’ assertion that Torah is not our instructor but merely our bodyguard or chauffeur, and then ask by what means Torah conducts us to Christ without instructing us – then what have we? At best, we have nonsense. Torah is only able to conduct us to Christ by instructing us; it cannot employ physical constraints or use of force; it is simply a body of holy laws and a collection of anecdotal evidence showing us how ancient peoples have related to this law. From any practical perspective, Torah’s only means of bringing us to Christ is by instructing and warning us. To fail to see this evidences an innate predisposition against the value, effect and purpose of Torah that is unsupported in the text.

In following comments, in spite of his attempt to minimize the instructional nature of Torah, Barnes must finally admit that Torah does convey us to Christ by its instruction. He says: “The ways in which the Law does this may be the following:
(1) It restrains us and rebukes us, and keeps us as the ancient pedagogue did his boys.
(2) The whole law was designed to be introductory to Christ. The sacrifices and offerings were designed to shadow forth the Messiah, and to introduce Him to the world.
(3) The moral law – the Law of God – shows people their sin and danger, and thus leads them to the Savior. It condemns them, and thus prepares them to welcome the offer of pardon through a Redeemer.
(4) It still does this. The whole economy of the Jews was designed to do this and under the preaching of the gospel it is still done. People see that they are condemned; they are convinced by the Law that they cannot save themselves, and thus they are led to the Redeemer. The effect of the preached gospel is to show people their sins, and thus to be preparatory to the embracing of the offer of pardon. Hence, the importance of preaching the Law still; and hence, it is needful that people should be made to feel that they are sinners, in order that they may be prepared to embrace the offers of mercy.”

In Barnes’ first point, he fails to observe that Torah’s only means of “restraining and rebuking” us is by its instruction; in the second he fails to observe that Torah’s function of revealing Messiah, especially in the sacrificial system, is as or more beneficial for believers as it is for unbelievers. In his third point, Barnes makes the customary mistake of imposing on Torah an arbitrary and deceptive partition, referring to some laws as “moral,” and thus inferring that the remainder of Torah is in some sense amoral. Though God never qualifies any of His laws as ammoral, most Christian expositors make this mistake, violating the plain example of Paul (Acts 21:24) and his teachings (2Ti 3:16-17), James (Ja 2:10) and of Christ himself. (Mt 5:17-19) Such thinking, that it is not immoral to violate any general command of God, is not thinking at all.

However, in the end, his 4th point, and in spite of his inherent disposition to minimize the instructional value of Torah, we find that Barnes must effectively agree with our exegesis of the text, showing us that Torah continually leads us all to Christ by teaching us His holy standard and the dreadful state of anyone who willfully violates it as a manner of life. Thus Torah moves every instructed sinner to flee to Christ, and every converted soul walking in the resurrection power of Christ to pursue this same standard of holiness. In no case may anyone be properly disposed to freely violate any part of Torah as inconsequential or obsolete without dishonoring Christ and bringing harm to themselves and others.

So Torah both leads us to Christ by instructing us in the way of holiness, and it serves to keep us in fellowship with Christ by being a lamp unto our feet and a light to our path. It’s instructions are the way of life in God, and He is writing it’s precepts and principles into the hearts and minds of all of His children. Rather than finding any encouragement in Paul to dismiss Torah as we come to faith in Christ, we find that Paul loves Torah and tells us that it is for our continued instruction in holiness. Torah is our plumb line in measuring righteousness; anyone who diminishes the value of Torah is missing the heart of Christ, and those who neglect or disdain any portion of it are carnal, in sin and darkness, according to the degree and fullness of this neglect.

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