Assuming that Galatians 3:21–25 is contrasting experiential old and new covenants rather than historical ones, what does Paul mean that “the law was our tutor” but “after faith has come” (i.e., conversion) “that we might be justified by faith,” “we are no longer under a tutor” (NKJV)? Three possibilities are compatible with an experiential interpretation (the third is discussed in inVite).
First, the Protestant reformers adopted a view of the Old Testament’s moral law (namely, the Ten Commandments) that theologians refer to as the “three uses” of the law. The first use is its civil role: it restrains crime in society as a whole by threatening punishment for disobedience. The second role is tutorial: the Holy Spirit uses the law to convict of sin and it leads to saving faith in Christ. Its third role, applied especially to believers, is didactic or normative: the moral law, especially the Ten Commandments, provides a description of godly behavior.
One could easily understand Galatians 3:23 as the law’s first use, its civil use, people being in the law’s custody before they came to faith. In this role “the law” serves society as a whole as a restraint on crime, abuse, discrimination, and so forth. Protestant Reformer John Calvin interpreted 3:24 as the law’s second use, its tutorial role, being used by the Holy Spirit to bring sinners to repentance and to Christ. His commentary on 3:25 defended the law’s third use as “a rule of life . . . ‘profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness’ . . . as much in force as ever and remains untouched” (John Calvin, Institutes [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949], 388; and Calvin’s Commentaries: Romans-Galatians [Grand Rapids MI: Associated Publishers and Authors, n.d.], 1898.
Second, beyond the law’s function of restraining evil (“thou shalt not . . .”) it serves a promissory role in the Holy Spirit’s work of sanctifying believers. Many Old Testament scholars do not use the term Ten Commandments when referring to the Decalogue (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13; 10:4). Rather, they refer to the Decalogue as the “Ten Words.” They do this not to be pedantic but because it is more accurate. The Hebrew and Old Testament Greek terms for the Decalogue (Heb. ‘aseret hadebarim; Gk. tous deka logous) mean “ten words” and can be used as imperatives in some contexts and as promissory in others (Wilhelm Gesenius, Hebrew Grammar, ed. Emil F. Kautzsch [Oxford: Clarendon, 1910], par. 113bb, 113ee.). It is entirely possible that the Ten Commandments were always intended to be received also as ten moral promises from God. Not merely as “Do not . . .” but also as “You will not…,” meaning, “I promise that I will write these laws on your heart so that you will always live this way.” Thus Ellen G. White’s comment: “All His biddings are enablings” (Christ’s Object Lessons, 333).
Viewed in this light, Galatians 3:21–25 could reasonably and easily be understood to mean that in His grace God gave sinful humanity His multidimensional and multi-purpose law (1) as a deterrent against civil disobedience within society as a whole (vv. 22, 23); (2) as a convicting influence in the life of unbelievers, pointing them toward Christ and conversion (v. 24); and (3) as divine promises for what the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying ministry will produce as He writes His law on believers’ hearts (v. 25). At conversion, one, in essence, graduates from the second use of the law (bringing us to Christ) to its third use (the Holy Spirit writing it on our hearts), with baptism as the graduation ceremony. Though as Romans 7:14–25 in specific, the whole of Scripture in general, and our own spiritual experiences all testify, both the second and third uses of the law will necessarily be operative in the lives of believers until Jesus comes.
When Galatians 3:21–25 is understood to be contrasting timeless and universal old and new covenant experiences, rather than the historical old and new covenants, it synchronizes with Paul’s experiential appeal in Galatians 4’s “two covenants” (see lesson 6) and Galatians 5:19–24’s description of the timeless and universal experiential war between the Spirit and the flesh (lesson 5).