The Law Was Our Schoolmaster


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 3:24-6 as a comprehensive statement of the purpose and function of Torah, and draw from the text 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 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.

When 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: 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 standard of adulthood or in the expectations placed upon the young adult. The difference is that the parental standard has been internalized such that the close supervision, constraints, rebukes and disciplinary actions of the schoolmaster are no longer needed. And when this is not entirely the case, and the young adult persists in violating the common standard of adulthood, 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 have now the Torah written on our hearts and in our minds. (Heb 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. 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 end state, where Torah is 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 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 (Eph 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 and sentiments 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. 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. To explore further here please see Not Under the Law, But Under Grace.

In considering the above, it is clear that one wonderful effect of Torah is that it does initially conduct us to Christ when we have no natural desire to come to Him. However, many tend to read the word only into the text, as if this were the sole function of Torah, and to imply that once Torah has initially introduced us to Christ we have no further need of Torah and that it has fulfilled its unique purpose. However, this sentiment is neither stated nor implied in the text. 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 purpose.

In fact, no living mortal has fully arrived with and in Christ in some final sense; we are all in practical and continual need of being regularly guided and pointed back to Christ. We all are certainly prone to wander from Christ, and are often coerced in such directions by our spiritual enemies. In this daily struggle, Torah persists in leading believers back to Christ all throughout their lives, at every step along their journey in holiness. As the perfect standard of God, Torah is our only sure means of detecting and rejecting the old man, the flesh, the carnal mind that continues to harass and plague the believer after justification. (Rom 8:7) Torah is a constant irritant to our sinful self; any and all within us that is at enmity with God is also at enmity with His law and cannot be otherwise. Torah then is our litmus test, our plumb line, our stethoscope. To ignore any part of it is to neglect the primary means we have been given to enable our sanctification.

The primary purpose of Torah is 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 us a standard of perfect holiness by which we 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, that we have a pure and healthy sense of right and wrong, and that we are fully convinced of God's truths, nature and ways in an organic, authentic way. This purpose certainly is in some sense identical to "bringing us to Christ" when we understand this process in a more holistic, ongoing 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 the schoolmaster, nor any change in our moral duty now that we are no longer under him. 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. 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 argues that the principle function of the Law is not in our instruction. 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 in some cases 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, 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 10:11, De 4:1). The Psalms give consistent and extensive witness to this fact (Ps 19:7-11, Ps 119), as well as the Apostle Paul. (Rom 15:4, 2 Tim 3:16-17)  Torah forms the basis and content of Christ's instruction, which Christ never violates or contradicts. (Matt 5:17-19) Christ himself is the author of Torah, in which He reveals His very nature and His values as supreme -- impossible to trump by any higher standard. (Matt 22:40) 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 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 unable to conduct us to Christ by 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 his third point, Barnes makes the customary mistake of imposing on Torah an arbitrary and useless partition, referring to some laws as "moral," and so inferring that the remainder of Torah is in some sense amoral. Most Christian expositors make this mistake, violating the plain teachings of Paul (Acts 21:24), James (James 2:10) and of Christ himself. (Matt 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, and in spite of any inherent disposition to minimize the value of Torah, we find that Barnes effectively agrees with our exegesis of the text, showing us that Torah leads us 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.