The stepdaughter was essentially a slave in her own home. But, what could she do? Her father had died, and the cold and cruel stepmother wasted no time in forwarding the prospects of her own two homely daughters. And so, bit by bit, the poor stepdaughter became no better than a servant—forced to sweep, clean, cook, and tend to the very home in which she had known such joy and carefree light when she was a little girl.

I’m speaking, of course, about Cinderella. There is a moment early in the film when word comes from on high that there was to be a royal ball in honor of the Prince. The boy hadn’t yet married and so the King and the Grand Duke had decided enough was enough—“it’s high time he married and settled down!”

The stepmother, Lady Tremaine, saw her chance. What an opportunity for her daughters! If she could marry one of them off to the Prince, her life’s work would be nearly complete! Cinderella, lurking in the corner, sidled over bravely and declared she could go to the ball, too! Her stepsisters mocked her. How ridiculous! Never!

But Lady Tremaine, never one to miss an opportunity to twist the knife into the odd back, said she could go. “I see no reason why you can’t go… if you get all your work done.”

Cinderella is ecstatic, and rushes away to dig out an old dress from a closet. The stepdaughters descend upon their mother, aghast. How could she agree to such a thing! Outrageous! Didn’t she realize what she’d just said? Lady Tremaine smiled like an evil cat and purred, “Of course. I said, ‘if.’”

There is a moment of silence. Then, they all begin cackling. Cinderella won’t go to the ball—not if they can help it! They’ll make sure she doesn’t get her work done.

Lady Tremaine and her schemes are a helpful way to picture Paul’s point in our passage (Gal 3:15-22). God made a promise to Abraham—a promise based on faith and trust, not merit. Jesus is the ultimate “child of Abraham,” the one who makes all these promises come true. So, who partakes in these promises? It’s the ones who believe in the true “son of Abraham,” Jesus.

The alternative is to see God as a bit like Lady Tremaine, putting a theoretical “if you do this, then I give you that” out there all while knowing we can’t pull it off. This is basically what the Judaizers are proposing (see Gal 3:1-6). It’s a warped twisting of the Old Covenant, and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Cinderella wouldn’t have made it to the ball without a divine intervention from the Fairy Godmother, because she was trapped in a cycle she couldn’t break. So too, we can never complete a “follow these rules and I’ll give you salvation” program—it’s an escape room from hell from which we won’t ever find our way out.

Paul says there is a different way—a better way. The way it was supposed to be from the beginning. A way Abraham understood. He wants us to understand that, so he begins with an analogy about Abraham.

This article is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. This article covers Galatians 3:15 – 22. You can find the rest of the series here: Galatians 3:1-6, and Galatians 3:7-14, and Galatians 3:23 – 4:7, and Galatians 4:8-20, and Galatians 4:21 – 5:12.

Let’s see what Paul has to say.

Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case (Galatians 3:15).

Galatians 3:15

Sometimes it’s helpful to put things in everyday terms. Suppose you have a contract or some other legal arrangement.[1] We all know that, once the signatures are on the dotted line, then the deed is done. It’s sealed. You can’t add to or delete anything. It is what it is. Well, Paul says, it’s the same in this case with God and His arrangements with us!

“How so?” you ask. Paul answers …

The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ.

Galatians 3:16, quoting Genesis 12:7; 13:15; 24:7

God made a promise—an irrevocable contract—with Abraham and his descendant. But Paul points out something pretty curious. The promise was to Abraham and his descendant—singular. It wasn’t to all Abraham’s offspring, but to one descendant in particular, who is Christ.  

What does this mean?

If you’re a believer, then you’re metaphysically fused with Christ—made one with Him on an invisible level. Your bible translation probably has the phrase “in Christ” a lot in Paul’s letters, because it’s one of his favorite expressions. We’re “baptized into Christ,” “buried with Him through baptism into death,” “crucified with Him,” and “alive to God in Christ Jesus,” (Rom 6:1-11). All this language is expressing that, when we trust in Jesus, we’re made one with him in an unseen way. Perhaps the closest thing I can compare it to is a marriage; there’s a oneness that happens in marriage that’s unseen, hidden, but very real. What Paul is saying is these promises were to Abraham and His crowning descendent, Jesus—along with everyone else who has been made one with Him (see Gal 3:29).

God made several promises to Abraham (see Genesis 22:17-18), and all of them are fulfilled through Christ—including the promise of the land. Paul wrote, “Scripture does not say ‘and to seeds,’ meaning many people, but ‘and to your seed,’ meaning one person, who is Christ,” (Galatians 3:16). This “and to your seed” quotation is from the Greek version of Genesis 17:8, which refers to that land promise. Paul is saying that all the promises to Abraham—even the one about “the whole land of Canaan” (Gen 17:8)—are fulfilled by Christ as the representative son of Abraham (Mt 1:1).

This suggests that Abraham and his physical descendants are a foreshadowing of Jesus and His spiritual brethren.[2] If so, then we can understand all the precious promises to Abraham as shadows of a greater fulfillment—maybe something like this:

So, back to the point.

Paul is saying that, if God made unbreakable promises to Abraham and his descendant—a promise based on faith and trust—then God certainly hasn’t changed the terms of the promise later on. “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring (singular—Jesus) received the promise that he would be heir of the world, but through the righteousness that comes by faith,” (Romans 4:13). So, the Judaizers who are peddling the “work to earn your salvation” message are wrong. They have to be wrong. If they’re right, then God changed the terms of the agreement.

Darth Vader once said, “I’m altering the deal! Pray I don’t alter it any further …”[3] Well, God doesn’t alter deals. Unlike Vader, he’s trustworthy.   

What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

Galatians 3:17-18

The Mosaic law didn’t change the terms of the deal. If we have faith like Abraham, then we’re children according to the promise. Things didn’t change at Mt. Sinai. Instead, it’s the wrong ideas of relationship with God that has warped the common understanding of the Mosaic law by Jesus’ day, and Paul’s, too. Inheritance of the promise isn’t based on effort, but on faith.

Why, then, was the law given at all?

Galatians 3:19

That’s a fair question. If the Mosaic law was never a vehicle for salvation, then what was it?

It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.

Galatians 3:19

Notice that all the promises to Abraham are summed up as one package (“the promise”—singular), and that Paul attributes this whole bundle to one representative “seed”—Jesus (see the same at Romans 4:13).[4] The Mosaic Law was a tool to hem us in until Christ would come. It told us how to live, how to act, how to maintain loving relationship with God and with each other. It told us how to be God’s people, for a particular time in a particular place, until Christ would arrive on the scene. Picture God’s people from the Exodus to Pentecost as being in a plane, circling the airport, waiting on clearance to land. They know they’ll land, but they aren’t yet there.

So, God told us how to live until He “landed the plane.” We break the law, we feel guilt, we confess our sin and perform the ritual to atone for that sin. We go on. It’s in this way that the Mosaic law “hems us in” and keeps us on the right track, until the Messiah arrives in the First Advent.

The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

Galatians 3:19-20

The Mosaic law was entrusted to a mediator—Moses. But this new arrangement, this new covenant, is different. Now, there’s only one party. God Himself makes the contract and obligates Himself to carry it out. There is a straight line starting from (1) when God chose His people by promise with Abraham, (2) connecting right to His promise to David of a perfect king, and from there (3) on to God’s pledge of perfect peace through a new and better arrangement. Along this track, the Mosaic law is just a guardrail keeping us on the trail. It isn’t a different trail at all.

Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe.

Galatians 3:21-22

So, then, what does the Law have to do with God’s promises to Abraham? Well, first, if righteousness could have come by way of following the law, then it would have (cf. Gal 2:21). But, in the second place—and here is the crux of it all—the Mosaic law showed us our sin, reminded us of it all the time, so that we’d be ever more ready to embrace the permanent solution Christ offered when He came.

Paul uses a strange phrase. He says the Scripture “locked up everything under the control of sin,” (Gal 3:22). He seems to mean that, although it’s theoretically possible that a perfect person could come along, obey the law in every respect, and receive righteousness as a reward—it’ll never happen. Why not? Because Scripture (the entire Old Covenant canon) shows us we’re not that good. We never will be. It shows us that everything is “locked up” under sin’s power.[5] The original imagery is that of a school of fish swept up in a fisherman’s net—caught! We’re all trapped, as if the door of a great dungeon has swung shut on us.[6] So, that “perfect person” won’t ever come along in this world … unless that person comes from outside the bubble.

When we see God’s rules, then consider our own constant failure to live up to them, then we’re driven to put faith and trust in the promised Savior—the One who loved God perfectly and obeyed the law completely, in our place, as our substitute.[7] That dungeon swings shut … but why? “So that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe,” (Gal 3:22). “It was to make them understand their real inner life, their alienation from himself, and their need of his grace.”[8]

All those promises to Abraham—which Paul once more sums up as one bundle of blessings (“what was promised”)—are given to those who believe and have faith in Jesus Christ. Once more Abraham, his physical descendants, and the literal promises in the land corresponded to and prefigured something much better.

That was the Law’s purpose. It wasn’t a vehicle for salvation. It was tool to make us look forward to the Messiah so Abraham’s offspring—the true offspring (cf. Luke 3:8)—would recognize Him when He came.  

[1] The Greek word here is the same one we often translate as “covenant,” and some translators assume Paul is referring to a will. It doesn’t matter—Paul just wants you to imagine a legal contract in your mind. 

[2] See especially Thomas R. Schreiner, Galatians, in ZECNT (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010), at Galatians 3:16a-d.

“… if the blessing promise includes a reconstituting of the “seed” with a global identity in Christ, then one should be cautious to separate the land promise from this same transformation. Indeed, within the argument of Galatians 3, the eschatological fulfillment of the land promise appears to stand behind Paul’s argument,” (Jason DeRouchie, “Counting Stars With Abraham And The Prophets: New Covenant Ecclesiology In OT Perspective, in JETS 58:3 (Sep 2015), p. 480)

[3] See

[4] For the typological implications of Paul’s declaration that Abraham and his offspring would receive the promise (singular) that he would be heir of the world, see especially (1) Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, in NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), pp. 273-274; (2) John Murray, Epistle to the Romans, combined ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1968), pp. 141-142; and (3) Emil Brunner, The Letter to the Romans (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1959), pp. 36-40.

[5] The preposition in this statement conveys authority: ἀλλὰ συνέκλεισεν ἡ γραφὴ τὰ πάντα ὑπὸ ἁμαρτίαν.

[6] A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville: Broadman, 1931), Gal 3:22. Johann Albrecht Bengel, Gnomon of the New Testament, ed. M. Ernest Bengel and J. C. F. Steudel, trans. James Bryce, vol. 4 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1860), p. 29.

[7] “But, with the help of the Holy Spirit, the prisoners’ very consciousness of their galling bondage and of their total inability to burst their chains, causes them to yearn for a divine Deliverer and to shout for joy when they hear his approaching footsteps,” (William Hendriksen, Galatians and Ephesians, combined ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1979), p. 144).

[8] Alvah Hovey, Commentary on the Epistle to the Galatians, in American Commentary (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1890), p. 48.  

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