Galatians 3 features one of Paul’s most extended treatments of the law of God, and it includes this remarkable statement: “If a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (v. 21). If any law could bestow salvation, then it would be the law revealed through Moses, which contains, in written form, the eternal moral law of God that is written on the consciences of all people (Rom. 2:14–16). But even God’s perfect law cannot save sinners, prompting us to ask several questions: Why can’t God’s law save us? Why is it unable to give us the righteousness we need to stand before the Lord unafraid? Is the law inherently defective?
The answer to these questions is that the law’s inability to provide for us the righteousness that avails before God’s judgment has nothing to do with the law itself. In reality, the law cannot give us the righteousness we need because of who we are. Romans 7:8–12 asserts the inherent goodness of the law and tells us that the law brings death, not life, because of what sin does with it. When sinners receive the law of God, they are provoked to greater sin. Our fallenness responds to divine law by stirring up the desire to transgress this law within us. This desire is something we have possessed since the fall, but the law gives it more power apart from our regeneration.
Today’s passage describes the origin of these sinful desires. When Adam sinned, we who are his descendants died (5:12–15). Paul is referring not only to physical corruption and death in this text, although those things are part of the fall. He is also talking about spiritual death. Death entered the world through Adam’s sin, and people die even when they do not have God’s law in its inscripturated form. That people die apart from the giving of God’s law shows that they are sinners who continue to sin. Death reigns even over those whose sinning is not like Adam’s, over those whose sinning is not in response to a direct command from God such as the written law that some possess (v. 14). People die physically because they sin, and their sin is a form of spiritual death that leads finally to physical death.
When in Adam we chose to break God’s law, we inherited not only his guilt and condemnation (vv. 16–17) but also a corrupt nature that makes us unable to keep God’s law. We ourselves are the problem, and our corruption means we can never use the law as a means to justify ourselves even if we wanted to. We simply cannot meet God’s perfect standard.