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4. The Cross And Christ’s Substitution (Gal. 3:10-14)

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The cross of Christ is central to the apostolic message. For them, as for us, the cross of Christ is the bedrock of their faith and his resurrection is the basis of their hope for eternity. The apostle Paul is abundantly clear that the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ together form the foundational pillar on which our faith rests. Without that, our faith is vain, our message is false, and we are of all men the most to be pitied (1 Cor. 15:12-19). But the fact is that Christ was crucified, buried, and raised from the dead and on this indisputable fact we rest our faith and hope for time and eternity.

Indeed, the message of the cross not only lies at the centre of our faith but also at the centre of world history. For the death and resurrection of Christ divides the world chronologically, ethnically, morally, religiously, and culturally. Thus, the centrality of the cross is of vital importance for us – for Christians as to the reality of our faith, hope, and security; and for non-Christians as to the reality of their existence, their morality, and their destiny “for we must all stand before the judgement seat of Christ” (2 Cor. 5:10).

The centrality of the cross for the apostle Paul is vividly displayed in the epistle to the Galatians where it is emphasized in every chapter (1:3-5; 2:20; 3:1; 3:10-14; 4:4-7; 5:11; 5:16-25; 6:12-15). This is the fourth article in our series on “The Centrality of the Cross in Galatians.” Previously, we have studied the following passages in Galatians:

1. The cross and salvation (Gal. 1:3-5).

2. The cross and the exchanged life (Gal. 2:20).

3. The cross and preaching (Gal. 3:1).

Now, in this article, we are studying “The cross and Christ’s substitution” (Gal. 3:10-14). The subject of this text is “The substitutionary atonement of Christ” and the central theological principle we learn from it is that if we approach God on the basis of our own merit, we will die under God’s judgement; but if we approach God on the basis of faith, we will live through Christ.

This is probably one of the clearest expositions of the necessity, meaning, and consequence of the cross. Paul addresses the central and most important issue of life, namely, how to be “justified before God” (3:11), how to truly “live by faith” (3:11, 12). Or to put it another way, he is arguing the case for how a person can be reconciled to God, have a right relationship with God, to be in right standing with God, to find favor with God, to have fellowship with God (see 1 Jn. 1:3, 6-7). To be in a right standing with God and to have fellowship with God are inextricably linked: you cannot have one without the other.

The question is, how can we who are rebels against God, sinners by nature and practice, possibly be reconciled to God and have fellowship with him? On what basis can this take place – by works of the law or by faith? Paul’s clear and forthright answer is that our only means for gaining a right relationship with God and enjoying fellowship with God is on the basis of faith. To have faith, in Paul’s terminology, is to be “justified.” Justification is a term that is often misunderstood. Simply put, justification is an act of God by which he declares a sinner who believes to be righteous.

While it is probably true to say that most serious thinking people want to be accepted by God, not everyone chooses to be justified by God on the basis of faith in Christ’s work on the cross. Some people desperately try to be accepted by God on the basis of their own works. This contrast could not be more strikingly stated than here in our passage where, as Paul lays out his case, he contrasts these two opposing ways in which people attempt to achieve the goal of acceptance by God. Paul’s resounding conclusion is that the only way in which we can be accepted by God is on the basis of faith, without any merit of our own, trusting the work of Christ by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone, on the basis of God’s word alone, all to the glory of God alone.

Our passage falls into two distinct sections as follows…

I. Those Who Rely On Their Own Works Are Condemned (3:10-12)

In this section, Paul gives two reasons why those who rely on their own works are condemned…

1. Because they can’t keep the law perfectly in its entirety (3:10). For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (3:10a). To “rely on the works of the law” means (1) to depend on the law for acceptance with God; (2) to try to be justified before God by obedience to rituals; (3) to try to do something to placate God and incur his favor. To be “under a curse” means to come under the righteous judgement of God, to be doomed to face eternal punishment at the hand of God.

Thus, those who rely on their own works are under a curse because they can’t keep the law perfectly in its entirety: “For it is written ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law and do them’” (3:10b). This is a quote from Deuteronomy 27:26, where Moses pronounces a curse on “anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” – i.e. anyone who fails to keep perfectly all the requirements of the law.

Why are those who rely on the works of the law cursed? Because, if they want to try to please God on the basis of the law (by works), then they must “abide by all things that are written in the Book of the Law and do them.” They must perfectly keep, practice, and live by all the precepts of the law. Therein lies the rub because no one can perfectly keep the law in its entirety. This failure incurs God’s wrath and this is the “curse.”

Why is this judgement so harsh, you might ask? Because the law is God’s written code that expresses his will for obedient human behavior based on his perfect and holy nature. Thus, anything less than perfection is unacceptable to God. Indeed, to accept anything less would be a denial of God’s nature and character. Thus, the person who perfectly obeys the law of God is obeying God’s will and, consequently, is blessed by God. On the other hand, the person who fails to obey the law of God is disobeying God’s will and is, consequently, cursed by God. To be cursed by God is to be condemned by him, cast out of his presence, eternally separated from God.

This destiny does not just apply to one of group of people, one section of society, one ethnic background, but to “all who rely on the works of the law” - Jews and Gentiles alike. The Scripture is clear: 22 For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22-23). Sin is lawlessness as the apostle John points out: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4). Thus, since we are all sinners by nature and by practice, we are all lawbreakers – disobedient to the law of God, rejecters of the law of God. Therefore, we are all under the curse of God because of our failure to live by the law’s requirements.

It’s not enough to keep part of the law, you must keep it all. The law is a unit and must be kept in its entirety, as James says: “Whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for it all” (James 2:10; see also Gal. 5:3). Unless you keep the law perfectly in its entirety, you are “under a curse.” This is what the law does – it condemns; it does not justify. Try all you like, you will never keep the law perfectly in its entirety and to fail in one point is to fail in all. Who can measure up to that standard? Who hasn’t failed in one point of the law? Jesus Christ is the only person who has ever perfectly kept the whole law. But none of the rest of us has perfectly kept the whole law. Therefore, it’s humanly impossible to be justified by the works of the law.

Indeed, as Paul explains, the law wasn’t given to justify anyone. 19 We know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Rom. 3:19-20). The law wasn’t given to justify us, it was given to expose our corrupt moral condition with a view to making us conscious of our guilt and acknowledging that guilt before God. Consequently, we have no defense before God and, outside of the redeeming work of Christ, we stand condemned.

So, those who rely on their own works are cursed, first, because they can’t keep the law perfectly in its entirety and…

2. Because righteousness is only by faith (3:11-12). Between 3:10 (that condemns all of us on the basis of the law) and 3:13-14 (that provide the only way of escape from such condemnation) Paul inserts two pieces of supporting evidence for what he has just stated in 3:10 as to why the works of the law are incapable of justifying us before God.

First: Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘the righteous shall live by faith’” (3:11). If acceptance by God is not on the basis of works, then what is the basis of our acceptance before God? How can anybody be accepted before God? What does the Scripture say? “The righteous shall live by faith.”

There has been much debate over the years by scholars as to the correct translation of this quote from Habakkuk 2:4 (see also Romans 1:17 and Hebrews 10:38). Is it, “The righteous shall live by faith” (the traditional rendering per KJV, ESV, NASB, NIV), or He who through faith is righteous shall live” (the revised rendering per RSV)? In other words, does “by faith” modify “live” (i.e. “live by faith”) or does it modify “righteous” (i.e. “righteous by faith”). Both translations are grammatically possible but the former, traditional rendering (“live by faith”) seems to be contextually the most probable in that one’s life reflects one’s standing before God. You are righteous (justified) on the basis of your faith in Christ (i.e. you have eternal life) and as a consequence you show your faith in your practice (i.e. how you live; your walk with God). As Calvin puts it: “The word ‘live’… does not refer to a fixed length of time…It speaks, instead, of a life lived by God’s grace every moment, in which we seek his presence and grace day by day to the end of our earthly lives.”

Second: “But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them (i.e. God’s statutes and rules) shall live by them’” (3:12) – i.e. the one who keeps God’s legal requirements will live according to them. Paul’s proposition, then, is that either (1) you are justified before God on the basis of your faith in Christ, by which faith you live physically and temporally as well as spiritually and eternally; or (2) you are attempting to be justified before God on the basis of your works, by which works you live physically and temporally but without spiritual or eternal life. The contrast between these two diametrically opposite propositions is stark and the conclusion is clear: one cannot be justified on the basis of keeping the law, only on the basis of faith.

Acceptance before God is on the principle of faith alone, not works. God’s promise in Leviticus 18:5 is still valid: You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” To rely on the works of the law means you have to live by them perfectly. To break the law in one place is to break it completely. The person who claims right standing before God on the basis of works must practice them perfectly and, if he or she does so, then they will obtain spiritual life as a result.

The contrast, then, in 3:11 and 3:12 is between two different people following two different means in attempting to achieve the same end. But how can these two totally different means (namely, faith and works) of achieving the same end (namely, eternal life) both be true? Well, I suppose, hypothetically, they could be if it were possible for someone to keep the law perfectly in its entirety. But that’s where things break down because of who we are, sinners who are incapable of keeping the law. Because of that, these two contrasting propositions cannot both be true.

Hence, Paul’s unequivocal conclusion: only by faith can we be justified before God. Living according to faith and living according to law are two different states. They are mutually exclusive principles. Salvation by works and salvation by faith are in opposition to one another. “The law is not of faith” (3:12). The law, as a means of obtaining God’s favor, does not require or rest on faith, it has nothing to do with the idea of receiving right standing before God. A right standing before God is a gift of God (Rom. 6:23; Eph. 2:8-9), as a result of faith in him. It is not that the person of faith does no works but rather that faith and works are both necessary – first comes faith as the basis of our justification before God and then come works that demonstrate that faith (see James 2:14-26; Romans 3:28-31). The point is that the person who is declared righteous by God, on the basis of faith alone in Christ alone, demonstrates that righteous standing in how they live. Or, to put it another way, spiritual life is imparted on the basis of the faith of a righteous person and it is proven by their works.

Theoretically anyone who perfectly keeps the law can obtain life, but in practice no one ever has nor ever will. Not only can we not be saved by keeping the law, we are actually cursed by it because that is the consequence of breaking the law - the judgement of God rests upon us. Such is the frightening predicament of the lost – those who rely on their own works for salvation are condemned. But what a relief – all is not lost for…

II. Those Who Rely On Christ’s Work Are Blessed (3:13-14)

We are blessed because…

1. The curse of the law is transferred to Christ (3:13). Though we cannot justify ourselves before God by the works of the law, we can be justified by Christ’s work on the cross. What we could not do, he has done for us. Our works condemn us because we fall short of God’s standard, but his work saves us from condemnation. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (3:13a). Christ has ransomed us from the bondage of sin by taking our curse upon himself, by becoming our substitute on the cross.

This is the greatest act of substitution in the world. Christ’s substitutionary atonement is the only means of our justification because by faith in him, his sacrifice pays our penalty. He died the death we deserved, for God said “The soul that sins shall die” (Ezek. 18:20). The apostle Paul affirms this: “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). The writer of Hebrews puts it this way: It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). But Christ died in our place, bearing the wrath of God on account of our sins. The punishment of death was born by him and, therefore, will not be born by us. “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’” (3:13; quoted from Deut. 21:23). Apparently, in ancient times, they hung a dead criminal on a tree, a place of public humiliation, the public sign of one who was cursed. Jesus’ death on the cross was the same as being hanged on a tree (see Acts 5:30; 1 Peter. 2:24), “having died under the divine curse” (Stott, Galatians, 81). Such a message of a crucified Savior is not popular or attractive. No wonder the gospel of “Christ crucified” was a “stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).

Notice that Christ’s substitutionary death involves a double imputation: our curse was transferred to him and his righteousness was transferred to us. This is one of the plainest statements of the substitutionary work of Christ. The curse of the law, which we had broken, rested upon us, but it was removed from us and laid upon Christ when he died on the cross. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Pet 2:24).

Christ “redeemed us from the curse of the law.” He purchased our freedom, ransomed us as slaves from the bondage of sin. He bought us out from under the burden of the law and its consequences. He took our place by “becoming a curse for us.” We, who failed miserably to keep the law, deserved punishment, but Christ, who kept the law perfectly, took our punishment instead. He became the “curse,” suffering the punishment of God that we deserved, for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”

A man is not cursed by God just because he is hanged on a tree (i.e. a cross) but death by hanging was the outward sign of being cursed by God. Christ did not become a curse because he was crucified, but he was crucified because he became a curse in taking the full sin of the world upon himself. Death on a cross was a shame to Jew and Gentile alike since it represented the death of a criminal. But for the Christian, it symbolizes the fact that the One who hung there willingly “became a curse” for us. To be made a curse means to be made sin. For our sake he (God) made him (Jesus) to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). God made him both “sin” and a “curse” for us when “in Christ God reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19). That was the cost of our reconciliation to God.

As Martin Luther put it: “Our most merciful Father, seeing us to be oppressed and overwhelmed with the curse of the law, and so to be holden under the same that we could never be delivered from it by our own power, sent his only Son into the world and laid upon him all the sins of all men.” This is spectacular news for which we should praise God. The load has been transferred from us to him. We are free from the curse and condemnation of the law. By faith in Christ and his substitutionary death on the cross we have been set free from sin and condemnation. That is what we remember when we take communion together at the Lord’s Supper.

We are blessed because, first, the curse of the law is transferred to Christ, and second because…

2. The promise of faith is imputed to us (3:14). There were two purposes for Christ taking our curse upon himself. First, Christ took our curse upon himself, so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles (3:14a). What was the blessing? “In your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). Through Abraham’s posterity the Gentiles would be blessed and this promise became reality in Christ. He became the curse so that we could receive the blessing of God. Christ died to redeem us from the curse of the law in order to secure for us the blessing God promised to Abraham, namely, that we might become children of God by faith. In Christ, then, the curse of sin is replaced with the blessing of God - he took our curse and we received his righteousness.

Second, Christ took our curse upon himself, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (3:14b). This promise to Abraham is nothing less than the indwelling of the Spirit. Through our trust in Christ, we receive the promised gift of the Spirit. Paul expands on this promise in Ephesians: 13 In him (Christ) you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, 14 who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Eph.1:13-14). The Gentile believers in the church at Ephesus were brought into the church on the same basis as the Jewish believers (who were the first to trust Christ), namely, by hearing “the word of truth,” believing it, and being sealed by the Holy Spirit, who had previously been promised (see also Matt. 3:11; John 14:16-17; 15:26; 16:13; Acts 1:4-5; 2:4).

Here, then, is the same truth as that of Galatians 3:14. Our salvation is based on faith in Christ’s finished work of atonement and secured by the sealing of the Holy Spirit who indwells us, the one “who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.” That’s the distinguishing mark of every child of God. All who are in Christ are richly blessed and secured by the indwelling of the Spirit of God on the basis of their faith, not on the basis of the law.

Final Remarks

So which course are you following? That’s the all-important question. What are you relying on for favor with God - your own works or the work of Christ? This passage teaches us that if we approach God on the basis of our own merit, we will die under God’s judgement, but if we approach God on the basis of Christ’s merit, we will live through Him.

Acceptance by God is all a matter of faith. Justifying faith involves self-renunciation, a putting away of all confidence in the flesh, in our own merit and works. We must acknowledge with Paul: For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh” (Rom. 7:18), and we must acknowledge with Isaiah: “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Isa. 64:6). Justifying faith involves total reliance on the work of Christ. We have no other way of escape from sin, no other resources. Our only resource is in Christ. Who or what are you trusting for you justification before God?

Related Topics: Soteriology (Salvation)

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