What the Law Cannot Do (Galatians 3:10-18)
In June of 1967 my wife, our daughter Beth, and I were on our way to Dallas from our home in the Pacific Northwest to attend Dallas Seminary. We had loaded all of our possessions in our trailer. There was only one problem. We were able to go only one block before we had to stop. The reason: I had attempted to “beat the system” by building my own trailer. I had purchased a single axle, 6 x 12 foot trailer, and to be extra cautious I had put on new tires and added an extra leaf to the springs. Empty, the tongue of the trailer was so heavy one man could barely lift it. And I was planning to pull this heavily loaded trailer 2,300 miles behind my little Rambler.
As our day of departure drew near, friends and relatives came to help us load. It was almost impossible to put everything into that trailer, and we had to reload several times. The back of our Rambler nearly touched the ground, and the trailer actually did drag the ground. The springs had bottomed out, the axle was firmly fixed against the frame, and the tires were rubbing against the sides of the trailer. We drove one block and realized to our dismay that we could never reach Dallas in that trailer.
The next day, we unhooked the trailer, drove into the city, and rented a 7 x 14 foot U-Haul trailer. The trailer hardly settled on its springs, having been designed to easily handle the weight of our worldly goods. The back of our little Rambler wagon actually cleared the ground, connected to a load which easily doubled (and perhaps tripled) its own weight. The 2,300 miles to Dallas went by without so much as a mishap. The reason: we had a trailer which was designed to handle the task.
Just as I was foolish to expect that little homemade trailer to make such an arduous trip, the Galatian saints were foolish to expect the Law to achieve what it was never intended to do. They had fallen for the false teaching of the Judaizers, which promised to produce righteousness and God’s blessings if they would submit to circumcision and the keeping of the Mosaic Law. The difference between the Galatians and me was that they already possessed, if you would, a heavy-duty U-Haul trailer and were eager to trade it in for a homemade single axle replacement. They were willing to set aside what was proven for something promoted as superior. They had been saved and had received the Holy Spirit, who continued to work mightily in their midst, on the basis of faith alone, apart from law-keeping. But now, bewitched by the Judaizers, they were willing to adopt law-keeping as the operating principle of their spiritual lives.
In the first nine verses of Galatians 3, Paul sought to correct this error by reminding the “foolish Galatians” of their Christian experience, as well as that of Abraham, the “father of the faith.” In verses 2-5, Paul’s penetrating questions forced the Galatians to acknowledge that it was by faith alone that the Spirit of God had been given and that He continued to work mightily among them. In verses 6-9, Paul shows that faith was the basis of Abraham’s righteousness as well.
The Judaizers would not have been caught off guard by the mention of Abraham’s faith. They would have quickly responded, “Yes, Abraham was declared righteous on the basis of his faith, but he was also circumcised.” Since circumcision was a sign of one’s acceptance of the Mosaic Covenant, Abraham’s faith led to circumcision, and in time, also led to “law-keeping.” Paul thus found it necessary to address the matter of the Law of Moses in relation to the Abrahamic Covenant. In verses 10-12, Paul shows that the Law cannot commend men to God, but can only condemn them. Paul assures us in verses 13 and 14 that the curse which the Law has pronounced on all men does not nullify the promise of blessing for all men which God made to Abraham because Christ has borne the curse of the Law. In verses 15-18, Paul continues by demonstrating that the Law of Moses cannot nullify or modify the previous promise of God to Abraham because a covenant, once ratified, cannot be changed by a later covenant.
The verses we will consider address the heart of the theological battle between Paul and those who wished to add law to grace. Let us observe carefully and seek to determine how the error of the Judaizers can be identified and avoided in our lives.
The Law Cannot Commend Men, But Can Only Condemn Them
10 For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” 11 Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” 12 However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live by them.”
The first word of verse 10, “for,” indicates a close link with the preceding verses. We can expect verses 10-14 to explain, in particular, the concluding statement of verse 9: “So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.”
Positively, Paul has shown in verses 1-9 that the faith of the Galatians resulted in the reception and ministry of the Spirit, just as faith resulted in the righteous standing of Abraham before God. Negatively speaking, Paul will show in the following verses that while faith is the basis of God’s blessings, the Law cannot accomplish anything except to pronounce a curse upon those who strive to earn righteousness by keeping it. Blessings come by faith as has always been the experience of the righteous beginning with Abraham, while condemnation (a curse) comes from the works of the Law. Verses 10-12 explain why this is true, while verses 13 and 14 show the solution to the problem of the Law in Christ.
Those who are “of the works of the Law” follow the teachings of the Judaizers, putting themselves under obligation to keep the Law of Moses. Paul says that in so doing, such men do not in any way bring about the blessing of God, but instead call a curse upon themselves, the curse of the Law. One cannot be a little bit under the Law just as a woman cannot be a little pregnant. Once you are under the Law, you are wholly obligated to meet its demands without failure.
No doubt the Judaizers sought to minimize the full implications of circumcision. After all, the Gentiles might have reasoned, what would be so bad about undergoing the rite of circumcision, especially if it would win the favor of the Jews and reduce the persecution which they often precipitated (cf. Acts 14:19). Being circumcised however was much like signing induction papers into the Army. Both of these seemingly insignificant acts make one subject to many other demands. When you join the Army, you get up when the sergeant calls you, dress as you are told, and eat what you are given. Joining the Army costs many of your personal freedoms. Similarly, Paul seeks to point out the demanding nature of the Law, which results in a curse: “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.’” (vs. 10).
There are two broad and inclusive expressions in this verse: “every one” and “all things.”62 Paul wanted the Galatians to realize that when they subject themselves to the Law, they subject themselves to it in its entirety. The Law demands that its subjects keep the whole Law, without exception. Paul fortifies this point by citing Deuteronomy 27:26 where we see that the consequence of failing to keep the whole Law is to be under the curse of God. While the Judaizers may have sought to reinstate the Law in order to produce genuine piety, their course of action went too far, to the point of producing a curse, rather than blessing.
The Old Testament verifies Paul’s interpretation of Deuteronomy 27:26: the Law, because it cannot be wholly kept, can only condemn men. It was by faith that men, like Abraham, were justified before God, not by law-keeping. As proof of his point, Paul refers to Habakkuk 2:4 in verse 11: “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘the righteous man shall live by faith.’”
Some have suggested that the meaning of Habakkuk 2:4 in its context does not really square with that given by Paul. The issue, we are told, is not faith as opposed to works, but faith as opposed to arrogance and pride. This is true, so far as the immediate context (2:4a) is concerned, but the broader context is even more significant in my estimation. The prophet Habakkuk has complained to God about Israel’s (Judah’s) iniquity (1:2-4). Specifically, he has protested that the nation’s sin has been evidenced by her neglect of the Law:
Why dost Thou make me see iniquity, And cause me to look on wickedness? Yes, destruction and violence are before me; Strife exists and contention arises. Therefore, the law is ignored And justice is never upheld. For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore, justice comes out perverted (Habakkuk 1:3-4).
It is the sin of God’s people which troubled Habakkuk, sin which was evidenced by their disregard and disobedience of the law (1:4). God’s response to the prophet’s protest is that He is going to chasten His people with the Chaldeans (1:5-11). This is a horrifying thought to Habakkuk, who objects that the Chaldeans are even more wicked and violent than the people of God. How can a God so righteous use a nation so wicked (1:12-17)? Habakkuk waits for God’s response (2:1) which follows (2:2ff.). God’s answer is that the pride of the Chaldeans is sinful and will eventually be punished (2:4a). In contrast, the righteous will live by his faith (2:4b).
It is rightly observed that “faith” in verse 4 could just as easily be translated “faithfulness” (cf. margin, NASB). It seems to me that God’s answer requires the translation “faith,” in the same sense that Paul understood this verse. How was a man to live righteously in days like those of Habakkuk when God’s people neglected God’s law and when Israel’s prideful enemy would prevail? Habakkuk could not expect God’s blessings on the basis of obedience to the law because Israel was unfaithful. All he, or any righteous Israelite, could do was to trust in God and to live by faith—faith in God’s promises which did not rest upon law-keeping. In accordance with Habakkuk’s realization that Israel was unable to keep the law in his day, and therefore must live by faith, Paul explains the impossibility of keeping the law, requiring men of every age to live by faith.
The next Old Testament quotation, a citation from Leviticus 18:5, is found in verse 12: “However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘he who practices them shall live by them.’” (Gal. 3:12). Here, Paul cites this text as proof that the governing principle for law-keepers is works, not faith. If one chooses to live under law, then he must operate within the governing principle of works, while one who chooses grace must live by faith.
Our family’s medical insurance, Kaiser-Prudential, is known as an H.M.O., a Health Maintenance Organization. They actually have two health insurance plans: Plan A and Plan B. Under Plan A, all costs are paid, and all prescription drugs can be obtained for a mere $1 per prescription. Unfortunately, we have Plan B, which means that we must pay $5 per procedure (still a bargain!) and full price for our prescriptions. Recently I picked up a prescription for which the druggist accidentally billed me $1. When I informed him of the mistake, he charged me $22. It was painfully obvious at that point Plan A was better than Plan B.
Following this analogy, Paul’s gospel was Plan A. The Judaizers had concocted another gospel, which we might call Plan B. (To be quite sure, we know that there is only one plan when it comes to the gospel.) In verse 12 Paul has said that when you follow Plan A, you operate by faith, and the results are a matter of grace. If you follow Plan B (the Judaizers’ gospel), you must live by works. You cannot mix the two plans. You must choose either the one or the other, but not some combination of both. Leviticus 18:5 is cited as proof that the Law operates on the basis of works, not faith.
Paul cites Leviticus 18:5 to stress the emphasis on works which is present in the Law. Again, the Law is similar to the Army; it does not matter if you have faith in your sergeant, but only that you obey him. Ideally, obedience to the Law was based upon trust, but the aspect most emphasized was compliance. The same is true today. If I were to ignore a speed limit and be pulled over by a policeman for speeding, he could care less whether or not I believe the law is right. He only cares that I comply fully with the law.
If the Law can only bring a curse upon men, is the Law then not able to condemn all men because of our failure to meet its demands? No matter how good the promises of God to Abraham might have been, doesn’t the curse of the Law override them? If this is the case, we can understand why striving to keep the Law was a temptation to the Galatian Christians. If not, we can see why the Judaizers were wrong. Thankfully, Paul’s answer is that we are no longer under the curse of the Law. There are two reasons why this is true. The first is given in verses 13 and 14; the second is found in verses 15-18.
The Curse and the Cross
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Paul views the curse of the Law as universal, including both Jews and Gentiles. This is implied by the term “us” of verse 13 and the “we” of verse 14. As a standard of holiness, the Law condemns all men, showing them to be worthy of the wrath of God. The good news is that God is free to fulfill His promise to Abraham to bless all nations in him because Christ has borne the curse Himself on the cross. The substitutionary work of Christ on the cross is the heart of the gospel. That is why Paul could begin this section in verse 1 by speaking of his gospel as publicly portraying Christ as crucified. He became a curse for us (3:13). This, too, can be seen from the Old Testament Scriptures. In the Book of Deuteronomy it is written, “Cursed is every one who hangs on a tree” (Deut. 21:23).
Specifically, the Deuteronomy text does not refer to death as a result of hanging nor of crucifixion. Rather, it refers to the public proclamation of the cursedness of a man’s sins represented by hanging the dead body up for public display (regardless of how he was killed). It is in this sense that our Lord’s crucifixion providentially fulfilled the requirements of the Law; He became a curse for those who had been legitimately cursed by the Law which they had broken.
There was no reason for the Galatians to place themselves under the Law, for it could not make them righteous. All it could do was to curse them. The curse of the Law, which falls upon all men, has been removed by the Christ of Calvary, who bore the curse and the penalty of the Law. The Law and its curse are thus no longer to be feared, nor can the Law in any way serve as a hindrance to the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and his “sons” by faith.
The Principle of Priority
15 Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man's covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. 17 What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.
There are yet other reasons why the Law cannot hinder the fulfillment of the blessings God promised to Abraham, which are given to us in verses 15-18. The first of the reasons given in this argument is found in the fact that the Abrahamic Covenant precedes the Mosaic Covenant, and thus has precedence over it.
Paul’s point is that a covenant, once ratified, cannot be modified or set aside by a later covenant. Since the Abrahamic Covenant preceded the Mosaic Covenant, it has priority over it. Thus, the Mosaic Covenant cannot, as the Judaizers contended, be viewed as prescribing the conditions necessary for the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant. As we have already seen, the blessings of the Mosaic Covenant were based upon man’s performance (works), while the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant were based upon God’s promise, received by faith.
Newer is not necessarily better. The Judaizers “marketed” the Mosaic Covenant like Madison Avenue sells soap. Over and over, year after year, the same old soap makes the claim that it is “new” and “improved.” The Mosaic Covenant, in their minds, was newer and an improvement over the Abrahamic Covenant. Paul has shown that while the Abrahamic Covenant promises blessings, the Mosaic Covenant can only produce a curse. The Abrahamic Covenant was not only better, but it was in no way superseded by the Mosaic Covenant. Again, the Judaizers are proven to be wrong.
Paul gives a second reason why the Mosaic Covenant cannot modify or qualify the Abrahamic Covenant: “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say ‘and to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘and to your seed,’ that is Christ” (Gal. 3:16).
We have all heard of the “Peter principle,” but let me point out the “Paul principle.” It underlies this passage, and it supplies us with yet another reason for the superiority of the Abrahamic Covenant. The “Paul principle” goes something like this: The more people there are in a program, the more likely they are to mess it up.
This principle strikes hard at the very core of the mindset of the Judaizers, who saw themselves as the seed (plural) of Abraham, the means through which the blessing to the nations would be accomplished. No wonder they saw themselves as smugly superior, as reflected in the motto of Galatians 2:15. The only trouble is that they are wrong—dead wrong.
Thankfully, the fulfillment of the blessings God promised through Abraham and his seed (singular) are dependent upon one person, not the entire nation of Israel. Paul tells us that the one person is none other than Christ, Israel’s Messiah, and Abraham’s seed. The Mosaic Covenant can only curse men because it must be kept perfectly, and no mere man has ever been able to accomplish perfect obedience. The blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant are dependent upon God’s promise, achieved through God’s perfect Son, Jesus Christ. Because He not only perfectly obeyed God’s Law but bore its curse, we can be assured of receiving the blessings promised through Abraham by means of promise, not by our performance.
All of this is very convincing, but some scholars say that Paul’s argument is typically “rabbinical,” which in some ways means that it is fabricated or at least forced.63 They remind us that the term “seed” can be used either singularly or collectively, depending on the context. They are absolutely right about this, for the term “seed” is like the term “sheep”—you don’t know whether it refers to one sheep or a whole flock of sheep, until the context makes this clear.
Paul’s argument though is far from forced or fabricated. Once we recognize to which text Paul is referring, the context clearly confirms Paul’s argument. Let us first look at two texts where the term “seed” (rendered “descendants” in the NASB) is clearly plural:
For all the land which you see, I will give it to you and to your descendants forever. And I will make your descendants as the dust of the earth; so that if anyone can number the dust of the earth, then your descendants can also be numbered (Gen. 13:15-16).
And God said to Abram, “Know for certain that your descendants will be strangers in a land that is not theirs, where they will be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years” (Gen. 15:13).
In these passages the term “descendants” is plural, for it is evident that it is Abraham’s offspring which is being spoken of corporately.
Now, look at this passage, where “seed” is used in both the plural (or corporate) sense, and in the singular sense:
“By Myself I have sworn,” declares the Lord, “because you have done this thing, and have not withheld your son, your only son, indeed I will greatly bless you, and I will greatly multiply your seed as the stars of the heavens, and as the sand which is on the seashore; and your seed shall possess the gate of their [lit. his] enemies. And in your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed, because you have obeyed My voice” (Gen. 22:16-18).
In the first instance of “seed” in verse 17, it is the collective sense which we are intended to understand. The whole point of God’s promise here is that He will multiply Abraham’s seed so that it is as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore or as the stars in the heavens. However the second and third occurrence of the term has the singular sense. Notice that Abraham’s “seed” will possess the gate of his enemies. In this “seed,” all of the nations will be blessed.
The context of this promise confirms that Paul’s interpretation was correct. So far as Abraham was concerned, he had only one son. Abraham had just been commanded to offer up his son, his only son. It took years for Abraham to come to the conclusion that his “seed” was singular—that is, a very specific individual, not just any child. At first Abraham had suggested that God regard Eliezer of Damascus as his heir, but God refused (Gen. 15:1-4). Then, Abraham sought to have God accept Ishmael as the heir, but God again refused, for only Isaac would be his heir (Gen. 17:18-21). By the time we reach Genesis 22, Isaac is viewed as Abraham’s only son. Abraham’s seed, through whom the blessing would be accomplished, would always be singular. Abraham’s seed, to whom the blessings were to be given, was plural. Throughout the remainder of the Old Testament we find the “seed” more and more restricted. The promise was to be fulfilled through Jacob, not Esau (Gen. 25), then through the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10), then through David (2 Sam. 7:12-13).
What a blow this simple singular definition of “seed” was to the theology of the Judaizers. They seemed to believe that the blessings promised to Abraham would become theirs by virtue of their being Abraham’s seed, as well as by their keeping of the Mosaic Covenant. As Abraham’s descendants, they felt that they had a secure and even privileged position under the Law, and that they could thus regulate the Gentiles who sought the same blessings. Paul has completely turned their thinking upside-down. The blessing of salvation and, as Paul describes it, the gift of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:14) which God promised to Abraham, He also promised to all nations. This blessing was not brought about through Abraham’s descendants (the Jews), but through one descendant, the Lord Jesus Christ. The arrogance of the Judaizers was thus shown to be false.
In these verses Paul has shown the Galatians what the Law could not do, in spite of the promises and preaching of the Judaizers. The Law could not bring about God’s blessing but only a curse (vv. 10-12). The Law could not nullify the promise of God to Abraham for several reasons. (1) Christ has borne the curse of the Law (vv. 13-14); (2) the Mosaic Covenant cannot change the conditions of the Abrahamic Covenant (faith not works) since it was ratified before the Mosaic Covenant was given; and (3) the fulfillment of this promise was always viewed as accomplished through a singular “seed,” the Lord Jesus Christ.
This argument should strike us not only as convincing but also as convicting. Paul was not merely debating the meaning of certain words and the fine points of theology; he was waging war against another gospel, a gospel which could only lead men astray. The same kinds of error which plagued the Galatian churches are still raising havoc in churches today. Let us carefully consider several avenues of application to our own lives.
First, let those of us who are dispensational in our theology be careful not to miss Paul’s point. Somehow dispensationalists are inclined to contrast the grace of the New Testament with the Law of the Old. Such is not Paul’s understanding of the issue. In this passage Paul does not argue from the New Testament, but from the Old. He does not seek to promote grace as something new but to proclaim it as something which is old.
Paul believed in the grace of God from beginning to end, from start to finish. Paul understood the Abrahamic Covenant as an unconditional covenant which was not dependent upon law-keeping but solely dependent upon God’s grace, appropriated by faith. The Mosaic Covenant does not lay down any new conditions which must be met in order for the promised Abrahamic blessings to be earned. The essence of the Judaizers’ theology and practice was based upon their understanding of the Mosaic Covenant as a later, greater, better covenant. The essence of Paul’s theology and practice was based upon his understanding of the Abrahamic Covenant as foundational and fundamental and in no way modified by the Mosaic Covenant.
The “new” Covenant then is not really new at all. It is the fulfillment of the old covenant which God made with Abraham. The Mosaic Covenant was a kind of parenthesis, a temporary, inferior covenant. This raises the question of what contribution the Mosaic Covenant made and is the issue which Paul takes up in verse 19. My point here is that those of us who are dispensationalists had better be more precise in distinguishing what is “new” from what is “old.” The New Covenant is not really new at all but a fulfillment of that covenant made centuries ago with Abraham.
Second, there is great danger done whenever Christians fail to distinguish between the Abrahamic Covenant and the Mosaic Covenant. One teacher who has attracted many followers teaches the concept of “walking in covenant.” He attempts to produce purity and piety by putting Christians back under the Law. When we are saved, we “make covenant” with Christ. According to this teacher, when we sin we “break covenant” with Him (whether or not we thus lose our salvation is not specifically said). Whenever we “walk in covenant” by keeping both the Old Testament Law of Moses and the teachings of Christ and the apostles, we are assured of obtaining the blessings promised in Deuteronomy for keeping the Mosaic Law. Whenever we sin, God turns the demons loose on us (this teacher says, “sick ’em”), and we experience all the curses of Deuteronomy. The spiritual life is a matter of keeping all the commandments of God, from both the Old and New Testaments. The reason given for our inability to experience all the miraculous interventions of God (as seen in the book of Acts) is that we do not “walk in covenant.”
By whatever name you choose to call this, it is merely a revived form of that same heretical teaching of the Judaizers which Paul so zealously opposed. The concept of “walking in covenant” fails entirely to distinguish which covenant it is in which we are to walk. It lumps together all of the covenants but in such a way as to make God’s blessing dependent upon man’s works, rather than upon God’s grace. As such by Paul’s definition it is “another gospel” (cf. Gal. 1:6-10).
Third, a Judaizer’s view of the Christian walk does not honor the Law of Moses; it dishonors it in addition to setting aside the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant. If Paul is right in insisting that the Law can only condemn men, then those who elevate the Law as the means of obtaining God’s blessings are guilty of perverting the Law and setting aside its original purposes. According to Paul’s teaching, those who would seek to live under the Law will only find frustration and guilt, for the Law (if rightly understood) cannot and will not pronounce a blessing on us, but only a curse. Only through Christ can the curse of the Law be overcome, and yet, by turning from Christ to the Law, we turn back to the curse of the Law, like a dog returns to its vomit (cf. 2 Pet. 2:22).
There is a very deceptive way in which the Judaizers solve this problem of the curse of the Law: they redefine the Law, making it possible to live up to its standards. They do this by lowering its standards or by providing clever loopholes. No wonder Paul could claim to be blameless as to the righteousness which is in the Law (Phil. 3:5). This is not the Law as God intended it, but the Law as the Judaizers redefined it. This is the point of the Sermon on the Mount. “You have heard it said” refers to what the Judaizers (the Pharisees and scribes) taught about the Law. “But I say to you” is the way God intended for the Law to be understood and practiced. We do not honor God’s Law by altering it, any more than we honor a man’s portrait by penciling in a mustache or modifying it in some other way. Legalism practices and produces the very things it says it is seeking to prevent—disregard for God’s law and unlawful conduct.
Fourth, we need to understand that legalism is rooted in man’s rebellion and unbelief. Paul has very clearly told us that the Law operates on the principle of works, while the promise of God operates on the basis of faith. Whenever we turn from grace to law we have turned from the principle of faith to that of works. I would submit to you that this is the rock-bottom reason when and why legalism is so appealing—when we choose not to believe God in faith.
Why did Abraham strive by his own efforts to produce a son through whom he would be blessed, rather than to trust God? Was it because he did not find God trustworthy? Why do we take matters into our own hands, even when we have God’s promise to the contrary and a prohibition to boot? Is it because we would rather trust in ourself than in God? God’s Word prohibits worry as a sin, and it challenges us to trust in God’s gracious provision for us (cf. Matt. 6:24-34; Phil. 4:6-7, 13, 19). Why do we persist in worrying? Is it because we do not find God worthy of our trust?
This is why legalism is so lethal. At its very core legalism is based upon a distrust of God’s promises; they are exchanged for confidence in our own performance. If we seek to gain God’s favor by our works, we place ourselves under the Law—all of it. In so doing we find ourselves under its curse. The cure for the curse of the Law is the cross of Christ, accepted and believed in by faith alone.
We have come to the bottom line, my friend. In all of life there are really only two choices: God’s promises or our performance; the cure of the cross or the curse of the Law. This is a decision initially made pertaining to our salvation, but it is also one which is persistently made regarding our sanctification. May God give us the grace to choose the cross over the curse.
62 Some have questioned Paul’s use of this passage, pointing out that Paul has added the words “every one” and “all.” Furthermore, they argue that the original intent of this text was to inspire diligent adherance to the Law of Moses, rather than to prove that men should not put themselves under the Law as the Judaizers advocated.
There are several things which should be said in response to the first charge that Paul changed the text. First, Paul’s rendering is largely supported by the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Second, the context of the passage, in Hebrew, English, or Greek, supports the fact that all the Law is to be kept by every person. This verse summarizes and concludes the cursings which are pronounced by the Levites and to which all the people are to respond, “Amen” (cf. Deut. 27:14, 15). In Deuteronomy 28:1, it is again specifically stated that all the commandments which were given that day by Moses were to be diligently obeyed. Paul has cited in accordance with the Septuagint because it clarifies the sense of the verse in its context.
In response to the second charge, we would readily admit that the original intent of the passage was to inspire obedience to the Law of Moses. No one knew this better than Paul. However Paul also knew that the Judaizers went far beyond this intent, promising that obedience to the Law of Moses would make men righteous before God. The Law was given as the means of gaining the specific blessings promised Isreal in the land which they were about to possess (cf. Deut. 30:16). That is a far cry from what the Judaizers promised in return for obedience to the Law. While the intent of the Law was holy, righteous, and good (cf. Rom. 7:12), the effect was that it proved all men to be sinners, worthy of the wrath of God, for no man was ever able to live up to the standard which it set. The Lord made it clear that the Israelites would not keep these commandments and that they would be driven from the land of promise (cf. Deut. 28:15-68; 29:4, 22-28; 30:1-10; 31:16-19). Because the Lord knew His people could not keep this covenant, He made the provision of the sacrifices and offerings for sin which forestalled judgment until the coming of Messiah (cf. Rom. 3:23-26). While the intent of this verse may have been different than Paul’s, the demands contained in this verse explain why Israel did not and could not keep the Law in its entirety, which is the point Paul is seeking to drive home to those who find the teachings of the Judaizers tempting.
63 Barclay, for example, writes, “When we read passages like this and the next one, we have to remember that Paul was a trained Rabbi, an expert in the scholastic methods of the Rabbinic academies. He could, and did, use their methods of argument, which would be completely cogent to a Jew, however difficult it may be for us to understand them. … The Rabbis were very fond of using arguments which depended on the interpretation of single words; they would erect a whole theology on one word. Paul takes one word in the Abraham story and erects an argument upon it.” William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press [revised edition], 1976), pp. 27, 28.
I am inclined to think that too much is made of the rabbinical methods, especially in relationship to Paul’s handling of the Sriptures. I understand Paul to be very aware of such methodology and not only opposed to it personally, but also opposed to the point of instructing Christians to avoid it altogether:
Remind them of these things, and solemnly charge them in the presence of God not to wrangle about words, which is useless, and leads to the ruin of the hearers. Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, handling accurately the word of truth (2 Tim. 2:14-15).
In the light of Paul’s warning in wrangling about words, I believe we must assume that Paul makes fine distinctions about the meaning of the word “seed” or “descendant” on the basis of very foundational and fundamental truth, rather than on skimpy and speculative evidence. When Paul does make such distinctions such as we find in Galatians 3:16, we should take them very seriously.
Related Topics: Law