Galatians 3: Law and Gospel

Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Art by Stephen W. Hiemstra

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

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. Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for the righteous shall live by faith (Galatians 3:10-11 ESV).

The question of the relationship between law and Gospel is one of the hottest debates today; perhaps, this could be said of the entire history of the church.

F.F. Bruce, in his Commentary on Galatians (1982. NIGTC.  Grand Rapids:  Eerdmans.  147-191), divides chapter 3 of Galatians into 7 sections:

  1. The primacy of faith over law (vv 1-6)
  2. The blessing of Abraham (vv 7-9)
  3. The curse of the law (vv 10-14)
  4. The priority and permanence of the promise (vv 15-18)
  5. The purpose of the law (vv 19-22)
  6. Liberation from the law (vv 23-25) and
  7. Jews and Gentiles one in Christ (vv 26-29).

Every verse is carefully parsed in book after book because the content of these 29 verses seriously affects our attitude about Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the secular society.  Clearly, a one-page reflection cannot address all that is being said here.

For example, we read in verse 2:  Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? (v 2).  Here the Apostle Paul makes the assumption that the Galatians know firsthand the work of the Holy Spirit in their own lives. The inference is that this experiential knowledge of the Holy Spirit is not only evident, but the sole source of eternal salvation. This question alone condemns religions focused on law as insufficient to warrant salvation. Among Christians, this statement would likely identify you as a charismatic. Do you think Paul is a charismatic?

In this same vein, one could argue that verse 28 defines the basis for social progress over the past 2,000 years, but especially in the modern and postmodern eras.  Paul writes:  There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.  Tim Keller, in his study guide (Galatians for You. 2013. Good Book Company. 92-93), observes that Paul has broken down three important barriers:  the cultural barrier (neither Jew nor Greek), the class barrier (neither slave nor free), and gender barrier (neither male nor female).  Do you think Paul is politically correct?

Paul’s comments about who is chosen probably got him in the most trouble. Verse 6 quotes Genesis 15:6: And he [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness. Abraham is not righteousness of himself, he is counted as righteous. Why?  Because he believed God’s promise of providing him an heir. Why is this remarkable?  Abraham was 100 year old at the time and his wife was 90.  This principle of justification by faith alone expressed here (v 11) and in Romans 3:20-27 was the foundation of the protestant reformation [1].  This is because time and time again parts of the church have erred in adding other requirements, especially cultural requirements, on believers beyond that of faith in Christ.  What cultural add-ons to faith can you identify today?

Does justification by faith alone mean that we can ignore the law?  Certainly not! (v 21). The law of Moses was given to restrain evil, to instruct us, and to guide us until we come to faith (vv 24-25).

Elsewhere Paul wrote:  But whatever gain I had [under law], I counted as loss for the sake of Christ (Philippians 3:7 ESV).

[1]Martin Luther was nearly martyred for his faith at the Diet of Worms; but his own journey of faith began with understanding of this passage (Roland H. Brainton. 1995.  Here I Stand.  New York:  Penguin Group.  49-50, 146-149).

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