Epistles: Redeemed from the Curse of the Law (Galatians 3:1-22)


How could anyone believe it? How could the people taught by Paul himself go so quickly astray into false doctrines? Paul, who had seen many things in his ministry, was flabbergasted. He was astonished that the Christians in Galatia were attracted to a “gospel” that heaped extra requirements on them.

Some people were saying that everyone needed to keep the laws of Moses. Paul wrote a strongly worded letter to stop this nonsense! In chapter 3 Paul explains that Christ died to release us from these obsolete rules.

By law, or by the Spirit?

In Galatians 3:1-5, Paul points out that the experience of the Galatians should have made it obvious — they received the Spirit by faith, not through the law.

Paul expresses his surprise: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal. 3:1, ESV). We might say, Who has pulled the wool over your eyes?

Here’s the starting point for understanding the gospel, Paul says: Jesus Christ has been crucified. That is the foundation on which we build. Paul had made it abundantly clear that Jesus died on a cross; he would have also explained that this ignominious death had a purpose: Jesus died to save us. Salvation comes from him, not from anything we do. His crucifixion changes everything, as Paul will explain.

A few questions should make it clear. “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:2). The answer was obvious: They received the Spirit by faith, by accepting what they heard. This is another foundational point.

Paul was astonished that the Galatians did not see the logical consequences of their experience with the Spirit. The Spirit was the promise of eternal life, and they already had the promise, so why would they think that more requirements might be necessary?

“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (v. 3). The Spirit was given by grace, not law, so what did they hope to achieve by observing laws, such as circumcision of the flesh? It just didn’t make sense!

The Galatian Christians were apparently being taught that they needed to add the Law to their faith. False teachers were saying that they needed to progress further in the faith by observing the Torah. They were teaching circumcision and the entire Law of Moses (Gal. 5:2-3; Acts 15:5).

Paul says this is a ridiculous idea — if a person is given the Holy Spirit on the basis of faith, without deserving this gift, then Christianity is based on faith, and there is no place for works as far as salvation is concerned. (Paul will later comment on how Christians should behave in response to Christ’s work, but here he makes it clear that salvation is on the foundation of faith in what Christ has done.) Our goal cannot be attained by human effort, and that is why Jesus died on the cross. Whatever work had to be done, he did on the cross.

The Galatians had been persecuted for their faith, so Paul asks, “Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” (Gal. 3:4)

Paul asks, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:5). The Galatians had already seen enough evidence: miracles in their midst. And God had done this on the basis of faith, not of works of the Law. The Galatians had been doing great without the law, so why would they now entertain the idea that they needed to start keeping the law?

Evidence from Scripture

Paul’s opponents were apparently saying that Scripture required people to observe the law in order to be counted as righteous (see, for example, Deut. 6:25). They would have cited the example of Abraham, since Jews traced the promise of salvation back to him, and traced the requirement of circumcision back to him, as well.

Paul accepts the challenge and notes that the Torah actually supports salvation by faith. “Just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?” (Gal. 3:6, quoting Gen. 15:16). His faith was counted as righteousness, without any mention of the law.

Paul agrees that people need to be part of Abraham’s family, but he says that the law is not part of the deal: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7). Even in the Old Testament, a right relationship with God came through faith. God counted Abraham as acceptable because he believed, not because of his obedience. God will accept everyone who believes, because they are like Abraham in this significant respect.

Can non-Jewish people really have a relationship with God on that kind of basis? Yes, says Paul, and he again quotes the Torah: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’” (Gal 3:8, quoting Gen. 12:3).

The Torah says that non-Jews will be blessed through Abraham — and that blessing is by faith, not by the Law. Abraham did not need to be given the Law of Moses in order to receive the promise, and his spiritual followers do not need it, either. They are given the blessing even while they are Gentiles, that is, while they are uncircumcised.

Paul concludes: “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (Gal. 3:9). We are blessed in the same way Abraham was: by faith. God’s blessing is by faith.

The curse of the law

Faith is one basis for being declared righteous. Is the law another? Pauls’ answer is an unequivocal “No!” The Law brings penalties, not blessing. “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Gal. 3:10, quoting Deut. 27:26).

The Law is not a way to earn favor with God. It functions in the reverse way, since we all fall short of its demands. If the law is our standard, we are under the threat of a curse. The law can point out where we failed, but it cannot pronounce us righteous; that was not its purpose. If we think we have to observe the Torah, if we want to be under the Law, we will be under its condemnation.

Paul concludes, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Gal. 3:11, quoting Hab. 2:4). The Old Testament prophet connected righteousness with faith, not with law.

These two approaches are contradictory: “But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them’” (Gal. 3:12, quoting Lev. 18:5). The problem, Paul implies, is that no one “does them” well enough.

Righteous people should live by faith, but the Law is based on performance. The law emphasizes human effort and external behavior, but salvation is given by grace through faith in what Jesus has done.

Law-keeping cannot earn us God’s favor. If we look to it, it can bring only a curse, since we all fall short. But even in the curse, there is good news — God has provided a solution to our dilemma. It is in the crucifixion of Christ:

“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ (Gal. 3:13, quoting Deut. 21:23).

Christ, by becoming human, became our representative. On behalf of all humanity, he experienced the penalty prescribed by the law — its curse — death. He let the law do its worst on him, but it was on our behalf. We are rescued because our representative suffered the consequences of our failure. The law has no further claim on us.

Paul is using several lines of reasoning to show that Christians are not under the authority of the Law of Moses; we are not obligated to obey it. Not only is the law ineffective, bringing a curse rather than a blessing, Jesus has also paid its worst penalty, and that counts for all humanity. Jesus’ crucifixion gives Paul the basis for saying that Christians are not under the Law.

Why did Christ do this? “So that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (v. 14). The blessing is by faith as opposed to the Law. Christ removed humanity from the domain of law so that salvation would be given to Gentiles (as well as Jews) through Christ. By faith, we receive the Spirit, the guarantee of eternal life.

The law was temporary

Paul now explains with “a human example”—that of a contract: “Even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified” (Gal 3:15).

In Greek, a human “covenant” may refer to a business contract, or to a “last will and testament.” Once a contract has been made, neither party can change it without permission from the other. Or for a will, no one (except for the person who made it, it goes without saying) can make any changes.

Paul then compares that to the covenant God made with Abraham, which includes being accounted righteous by faith. Paul writes, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Gal. 3:16, quoting Gen. 12:7).

Paul knows that “offspring” [literally, “seed”] is a collective word including many people (Gal. 3:29), but here he points out that the singular meaning fits well with a promise focused on one person, Christ. This scripture finds its fulfillment most perfectly in one particular Offspring: Jesus Christ. It is through him that Gentiles can become part of Abraham’s descendants (Gal. 3:29).

In verse 17, Paul compares that to the covenant God made with Abraham: “This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.” What “law” is Paul talking about? The law given 430 years after Abraham — the Law of Moses.

God would be going back on his word if he originally gave an unconditional promise, and then later started adding conditions. Just as a human covenant cannot be changed, God’s promise cannot be changed, either. The law of Moses cannot impose requirements that take away the promise of salvation. The laws that came through Moses cannot change the fact that God accepts people as righteous on the basis of faith, not by human efforts.

Paul reasons: “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (v. 18). Law and grace are contradictory. Salvation is either by laws and works, or by faith and gift. Paul does not try to combine the two — he is saying they cannot be combined. God gave the promise to Abraham as a gift, which means that it does not come by the law.

Purpose of the Law

Paul has made three points:

  1. Justification is by faith,
  2. The law cannot declare us righteous.
  3. The law is contrary to God’s promise.

So the obvious question is: “Why then the law?” And Paul answers, “It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (Gal. 3:19). Were laws added because the people were already breaking them? Or were they added so that people could see more clearly that they were sinners? Either way, the Law of Moses was added for only a certain length of time — until Christ came.

The law showed, for one thing, that people would continue to sin even after a written law was given. The law made it obvious that humans are incapable of attaining righteousness on their own, and that righteousness can come only as a gift. The Law accomplished its purpose, and is now obsolete.

The law, Paul says, “was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one” (Gal. 3:19-20). Jewish tradition said that the law was given through angels, and the intermediary is apparently Moses, but Paul’s next point about “one” is obscure. There are three possible explanations:

  1. an intermediary implies two parties — in this case, God and the Israelites.
  2. an intermediary represents a group, not an individual — in this case, the Israelites.
  3. an intermediary implies indirect dealings, and is not as good as dealing directly with God, as Abraham did (see Richard Longenecker, Galatians [Word Biblical Commentary 41; Word, 1990], 141). Actually, the verse does not seem necessary for Paul’s logic, and perhaps we cannot see its significance because we do not know what Paul’s opponents were saying.

Paul asks, “Is the law then contrary to the promises of God?” And he answers: “Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law” (Gal. 3:21). If the Law of Moses could have given life, then God would have used it to give life. But that was not its purpose; it was not designed as a means of salvation.

If any law could give life, or make us right with God, then God would have done it that way. But by its very nature, law cannot give life — it can only condemn. People who think they can improve their standing with God by keeping the law are misunderstanding its purpose and are not accepting the biblical evidence that salvation is by faith alone, without human efforts. We receive the Spirit by faith and are counted righteous by faith; keeping the laws of Moses cannot contribute in any way to our salvation.

So what was the result of the law? “The Scripture imprisoned everything under sin…” Everyone falls short of what the law requires. The law made it clear that humanity needs a Savior.

What was the purpose of doing that? “So that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).

Instead of giving life, the Law brings penalties. The diagnosis is that everyone sins and falls short of what the law requires. Consequently, the promise of salvation can come only through God’s grace. God himself provides the solution: salvation is given (by grace) to those who believe the gospel of the crucified Messiah.

Things to think about

  • In what ways have I experienced the Spirit? (Gal. 3:5)
  • Why would anyone want to rely on the law? (Gal. 3:10)
  • In what way did Jesus become a curse? (Gal. 3:13)
  • Did the covenant with Abraham have any conditions? (Gal. 3:18)
  • Should we add some laws “because of transgressions” today? (Gal. 3:19) Do laws cause more transgressions, or fewer?

Author: Michael Morrison, 2007, 2012

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