Galatians 3 – Laws, Flaws, and the Ratified Clause

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Today’s Passage: Galatians 3

Paul’s got a two-pronged argument here for those among the Galatians who would want to hang onto the Jewish law and insist that it’s necessary for salvation. He starts with a contrast between law and faith, similar to his arguments in the first handful of chapters from Romans, then moves into one based on chronology. But before we get into all that, I just want to note: the Galatians are by and large not Jews themselves! But they’ve bought into this false gospel from diehard Jewish legalists that being a Christian means getting circumcised and getting your kosher on and keeping the Sabbath. Which, honestly, strikes me as a serious feat of persuasion, getting predominantly Greek Gentiles to adopt the restrictive legal code of a minority religious-ethnic group that enjoys no particular popularity in the Roman Empire.

That said, it’s time for prong one: the work of the Holy Spirit in faith. Paul asks the Galatians: “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (2). They’ve got the Holy Spirit, and they didn’t get it by keeping the Torah. When they exercise spiritual gifts, they do so by faith, not by their assiduous devotion to The Rules. Paul appeals both to their experience of the Spirit and to the teaching of the Torah narratives to corroborate the priority of faith over Law. He cites the well-known verse “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6), and he reiterates that Jesus Christ bore the penalty of the Law’s curse on the cross.

As Paul reminds his readers, you have to keep the entire Law in order to live by the Law; one failure to measure up, and you stand condemned. He points them to Deuteronomy 27:26: “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” No human being–leastways, no human being who is not also God in the flesh–has managed to live in complete obedience to God’s commands. That route’s not available to us. But Paul maintains that Jesus Christ has opened up another way for those who trust him. If you let him carry the curse, remove the Law’s death penalty from your life, then you can receive justification and real life.

Prong two is about the chronology of the Law and God’s promise. Paul points out that when God promises to bless the nations of the world through Abraham’s offspring (specifically, through Jesus Christ), he gives the promise before the law. He tells us: “[A] man’s covenant…when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it” (15). Like a legal document, God’s promise of blessing is binding, and cannot be augmented or superseded by the Law. The agreement that is chronologically prior is therefore ontologically prior.

Why even bother with the Law, then? If all you need is faith, then isn’t the Law reduced to a useless appendix (pun absolutely intended) that might as well be removed? Paul’s got a response ready. It’s a hair on the complicated side, and I encourage you to try and parse it out for yourself in vv.19-25. But at the risk of oversimplifying, here’s the thrust of it: the Law is there to make us aware of our own imperfections. Paul says: “Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith” (24). The Law is intended to bring to light our need for a savior, our need for God’s forgiveness. It’s there to point us to Jesus Christ.

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