“What purpose then does the law serve? It was added because of transgressions, till the Seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was appointed through angels by the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator does not mediate for one only, but God is one” (Galatians 3:19-20).
The ceremonial portion of the Old Testament Law prescribed the manner in which an individual could approach God under the Old Covenant sacrificial system. But if the Law did not represent the ultimate way to salvation, then what purpose did it serve? That is the question that Paul the Apostle will begin to address starting here in Galatians 3:19: “What, then, is the purpose of the laws given to Moses? They were added to identify what wrongdoing is” (GW).
Many translations of this passage use the word transgressions to describe the particular form of sin that is illuminated by the Law. Although the word “transgression” seems to have fallen out of common use, it represents a key Biblical concept that is important to know and understand. You see, this word refers to a deliberate or intentional act of wrongdoing. In other words, a transgression occurs whenever someone consciously, knowingly, or willfully commits a misdeed.
To put it another way, this word describes the actions of a person who has deliberately crossed a line and purposely violated a law. One commentary offers a further definition of this word in the context of Galatians 3:19-20…
“Transgressions (Gr parabasis) mean a step beyond a fixed limit into forbidden territory. It is a willful act of violating an explicit law, overstepping what is right into the realm of what is wrong. The law was added much later to make men conscious of the existence and the extent of sin (Rom 3:19; 5:20). The law was added to reveal sin, not remove it. To show men the need of righteousness, not to be a means of securing righteousness.” (1)
With these things in mind, we can say that the Law functions as a benchmark that identifies moral and immoral behavior. That would include sins of omission (or those instances where we have failed to do what is right) as well as transgressions (those instances where we have knowingly, intentionally, and deliberately done something wrong).
Thus the Law serves an important purpose- it exposes us to the inappropriate attitudes that exist within our lives and directs us to the Savior who can effect real change in our thoughts, motivations, and behaviors.
(1) Hindson, E. E., & Kroll, W. M. (Eds.). (1994). KJV Bible Commentary (p. 2387). Nashville: Thomas Nelson.