The Right Way to Think About the Law (Galatians 3:7-14)

The Right Way to Think About the Law (Galatians 3:7-14)

This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. It began with Galatians 3:1-6. This series will progress until the book is finished, then circle back and cover ch. 1-2.

Here, we begin the most difficult portion of Paul’s letter–the relationship of the Mosaic Law to saving faith. Before we begin, I’ll restate some principles from the first article that will help you understand the position this commentary takes. Here they are:

  1. Paul is not arguing against the Mosaic Law as it was. He was arguing against the perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law that was common in his day (and Jesus’ day, too).
  2. The Mosaic Law is not a vehicle for salvation, and it was never intended to be one.
  3. The Law was given to teach God’s people (a) how to worship Him rightly, which includes instructions about forgiveness of sins (moral cleanness) and ritual uncleanness, (b) to have a written moral code that is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, and (c) to live as brothers and sisters in a particular society for a particular time.
  4. The Law is a tool for holy living, a guardian to keep people in a holy “holding pattern” while the plane circled the airport, waiting for Jesus’ first advent so it could “land.”
  5. It is incorrect to believe the shape of a believer’s relationship with God has ever been about anything other than wholehearted love, which ideally produces loving obedience (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19).
  6. Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Now, to the Scriptures!

Children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7-9)

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.”

Galatians 3:7-8

Who is a child of Abraham? Well, it certainly isn’t about biology. About genetics. About who your parents are. John the Baptist understood that (Mt 3:7-10). No, it isn’t about race or ethnicity—it’s about common faith in Jesus. If you have Abraham’s faith, then you’re one of his children. Easy. Simple.

In fact, Scripture foresaw that the “child of God” concept wasn’t really an ethnic thing at all. God announced the Gospel to Abraham in advance when He announced that “all nations will be blessed through you,” (cf. Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).

This is extraordinary. The false teachers skulking around the area are Judaizers—folks who push the rules-based legalism we noted, before. The apogee of their “faith” is to be as Jewish as possible which, in their warped understanding, means to follow the rules and traditions of the elders very strictly (cf. Phil 3:4-6). Thus, you violate the Sabbath if you put spices into a pot, but all is well if you add spices to food served on a dish![1] 

Not so, says Paul. Your pedigree before God has nothing to do with this. It only has to do with whether your relationship with God is based on faith and trust in God’s promise, and love—just like Abraham’s.

So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Galatians 3:9

Paul is making a conclusion based on what he’s just said. It could be translated as something like, “this means, then, that those who rely on faith are blessed with Abraham.” If you want to be one of Abraham’s children, then follow his lead and rely on faith!

Choose Your Path! Galatians 3:10-14

Now, we get down to the hard part. Remember that question about which I said you must have an opinion? Let’s ask ourselves again:

  • Did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation?

The answer is no. Never.

This means that, however difficult Paul may be to follow from here on out, he cannot be agreeing with the false teachers that the Mosaic Law was a vehicle for salvation. Never. It isn’t an option. God doesn’t change the terms of salvation. It’s always been by faith.

So, remember this question and the right answer, because here we go …

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

Galatians 3:10, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26

If the Mosaic Law was never about salvation, then Paul is not seriously suggesting the Mosaic Law means this. He can’t be. Rather, his point relies on you understanding everything he just wrote, in vv. 7-9.

  • Salvation is by faith—always has been.
  • Abraham had faith and was counted righteous.
  • That’s how you become one of Abraham’s children—faith in the promise.

The “for” at the beginning of the sentence is explanatory. It’s translated a bit stiffly, as if Paul is a Victorian gentleman—and he ain’t one. It could be rendered as something like, “so, this is what I’m saying—everyone who relies on the works of the law …”

He means, “look, if you wanna go that route and try to earn your salvation, then have at it—here’s a quote from Moses that you can chew on!” He accurately quotes the text of Deuteronomy 27:26, but must be deliberately subverting the meaning. Moses didn’t preach salvation by works. When he asked the people to swear that promise in Deuteronomy 27:26 (along with a bunch of others), he presupposed that everyone understood that love was the driving force behind relationship with God (Deut 6:4-5; 10:12-16). I’m saying Paul misapplied Deuteronomy 27:26 the same way the Judaizers were doing. Paul is saying, “if you want to go that way, have fun trying to accomplish this …”

So, the “curse” Paul mentions isn’t the Mosaic Law as it really was. Instead, the “curse” is the impossible burden of trying to adopt the Judaizer’s perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law. Some Christians imagine Old Covenant life as an oppressive burden, a millstone dragging the believers to a watery grave … until Christ came! How absurd. They believe this because they take Paul literally in vv. 10-12—they believe he’s describing the Mosaic Law as it really was. They’re wrong.

As I mentioned, Paul adopts the Judaizer’s arguments to show how bankrupt they are. Read Psalm 119 and see if the writer is being crushed by the law! “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law,” (Ps 119:18). He isn’t! He loves God and loves His word (including the Mosaic Law). The Law is only a millstone if you think it’s a vehicle for salvation. But, it ain’t one, so it ain’t a millstone.

I’m comfortable suggesting this, because Paul then sweeps this silly idea of “earning my salvation by merit” aside.

Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”

Galatians 3:11, quoting Habakkuk 2:4

The law can’t make you righteous. Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, which indeed says that “the righteous will live by faith.” So, when he quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 27:26, he can’t really be saying Moses meant it that way. Paul just adopts the arguments from the Judaizers, or from similar sources floating about in the 1st century interwebs, and suggests they have fun trying to do the impossible. He now continues in that vein:

The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.”

Galatians 3:12, quoting Leviticus 18:5

This accurate quote from Leviticus is ripe for misunderstanding. Again, he rightly quotes the text but suggests the wrong meaning. When Paul says “the law is not based on faith,” he assumes the perverted form of their argument. The “law” he mentions here is the wrong understanding of the Mosaic law, not that law as it really is. “You wanna have eternal life?” he asks. “Then, make sure you do everything in the law—just like it says. Have at it, boys and girls!”

Remember our magic question—did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation? He did not. So, whatever Paul is saying, he cannot be suggesting the Mosaic Law has anything to do with salvation. This magic question is the key to understanding Paul’s argument. Some Christians fail to ask it, and so their explanations of this passage make little sense.

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.”

Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

I think we’re making a mistake if we think “curse of the law” is the Mosaic Law. The Law isn’t a curse. It isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t a burden, because it has nothing to do with salvation. The Mosaic Law is simply a vehicle for holy living, while God’s people remained in a holding pattern waiting for Christ. We’ve always obeyed from the heart because He’s already rescued us—not the other way around. “Give me understanding, so that I may keep your laws and obey it with all my heart … I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees,” (Ps 119:34, 48). The man who wrote this didn’t think he was “under a curse.”

So, to return to our verse (Gal 3:13), from what “curse” did Christ redeem us, then?

I think it’s the curse of the capital punishment waiting for every one of us, because (in our natural state) we’ve rejected God. That’s what Deuteronomy 21:23 is about—a person guilty of a capital offense is to be hanged on a pole. We’ve each committed the “capital offense” of rejecting God, so we’re under that death sentence, but Christ has come to free us from that. After all, we can’t free ourselves—we can’t be good enough (cf. Gal 2:21).

So, rather than try and dig our way (i.e. “earning” salvation by merit) out of a situation from which there is no escape, we should rely on Jesus. He became a curse for us. He suffered for our capital crimes by being hanged on a pole. The word “redeem” has lost its original force, in English. It means something like “buying back from slavery.” We can’t bribe our way out of our mess, so Jesus gave Himself to buy us out of Satan’s clutches.   

So, Paul isn’t making a negative assessment of the Mosaic Law at all. The “curse” here isn’t even about the Mosaic Law. But, if we think Paul is talking about that, then I ask this—are we really to suppose that God “cursed” His people from Sinai to Pentecost with a system whose design was to crush their souls? Is that the “average Christian life” vibe you get from Psalm 119? Is that what a circumcision of the heart is all about (cf. Deut 10:16)? Was the average Israelite like poor Pilgrim, struggling with that loathsome burden on his back?  

No! Paul’s not even talking about the Mosaic Law. He’s just suggesting another way, a better way, the true way—“because if we become righteous through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose,” (Gal 2:21, CEB). You can (1) go the Judaizer’s route and try to earn your way into the kingdom, or (2) you can rejoice and trust that Christ has already redeemed us from our death sentence for rebellion (“the curse of the law”).

He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Galatians 3:14

Why did Christ buy us back from slavery? So that Christ could be the channel for the blessings to Abraham to flow to the rest of the world. We receive the promise of the Holy Spirit by faith. Always have. Always will.


[1] Shabbat 3:5, in Mishnah.  

Bewitched? Galatians 3:1-6

Bewitched? Galatians 3:1-6

About once per month, I’m going to slowly write my way through a short commentary on the Letter to the Galatians. I’ll deliberately skip the usual analysis typical of this genre–no “scholarly” questions, text-critical issues, and minimal formal interaction with opposing viewpoints. I’ve taught through the book four times now, and feel I’m in a position to have something competent to say on the matter. My aim is to write for normal Christians who just want to know what the text means. So, here I stand.

For reasons that aren’t important, I’m publishing this series beginning with Galatians 3:1-6. That is this article. The real fun stuff, of course, comes in Galatians 3:7ff. You’ll have to wait for next time for that!

First things first …

Here are some conclusions of mine, up front, so the reader can know the lay of the land:

  1. Paul is not arguing against the Mosaic Law as it was. He was arguing against the perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law that was common in his day (and Jesus’ day, too).
  2. The Mosaic Law is not a vehicle for salvation, and it was never intended to be one.
  3. The Law was given to teach God’s people (a) how to worship Him rightly, which includes instructions about forgiveness of sins (moral cleanness) and ritual uncleanness, (b) to have a written moral code that is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, and (c) to live as brothers and sisters in a particular society for a particular time.
  4. The Law is a tool for holy living, a guardian to keep people in a holy “holding pattern” while the plane circled the airport, waiting for Jesus’ first advent so it could “land.”
  5. It is incorrect to believe the shape of a believer’s relationship with God has ever been about anything other than wholehearted love, which ideally produces loving obedience (Mk 12:28-32; cf. Deut 6:4-6; Lev 19).
  6. Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Now, to the text!

There is one issue on which every reader of the Letter to the Galatians must have an opinion. How you answer this question will determine whether you rightly or wrongly understand this letter. Here is the question:

  • Did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation?

That’s it. That’s the question. If you can answer it, then you’ve unlocked the key to this letter. No matter what happens, if you continually ask yourself this question and remind yourself of the answer, then you can understand this book. If you don’t ask the question, then you’ll likely go wrong. If you answer it wrongly, then you’ll take a bad turn pretty quick. I’ll explain by and by—let’s dive into the heart of this letter.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?

Galatians 3:1-2

They’ve been tricked. Fooled. Hoodwinked. They know the truth, but they’ve been convinced otherwise. Paul preached the truth to them—they saw him explain with their own eyes, heard with their own ears. They know better than this. As Paul asks his question in v.2, we should picture him holding up his hand to forestall any heated objection from his audience.

“No!” he says. “You listen! Lemme ask you one thing—did you receive the Spirit by doing things to gain God’s favor, or by just believing what you heard? Which one!?”

The question is rhetorical. They know the answer. They know what Paul taught them. There’s nothing to say. The Spirit is tied to salvation, and that has never been by works—by doing things from the Mosaic Law.

Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?

Galatians 3:4

Paul is deliberately provocative, here. To miss the Gospel and wander off into Jewish legalism is a terrible mistake. He’ll explain just how big a mistake it is, later (Gal 4:8-10). But, for now, he presses the point home with another rhetorical question. If they admit they did receive the Holy Spirit by simply believing the truth about Jesus (not by working to curry favor), then do they really suppose they have to add “things” to Jesus, to seal the deal? Add works? Add rules?

Rules are fine. Rules are good. God has standards of conduct. But, these flow from a true love for God—not the other way around. This is the great tragedy of Judaism in Jesus’ day, and in Paul’s. It’s why Jesus was so unhappy with the religious establishment. It’s why they were so angry at Him. They spoke different languages, as it were—they had different faiths. They had a different God.

The Jewish establishment had a God of legalism, where relationship was predicated on right conduct (orthopraxy). To have a relationship with God, you gotta follow the rules. So, for example:[1]

  • A beggar who reaches inside a home on the Sabbath to receive a food gift has committed sin. The act of reaching inside the window makes it so.[2]
  • If you search your clothes for fleas on the Sabbath, you have sinned.[3]
  • On the Sabbath, you must only roast meat if there is time for a crust to form on the surface, during the daytime. If you fail in this, you have sinned.[4]
  • If you rise to extinguish a lamp because you’re afraid of Gentiles or thugs, don’t worry—it isn’t a sin![5]
  • God kills women in childbirth because they are insufficiently reverent when preparing the dough offering.[6]

I could go on. But, it’s clear there is little love in this kind of relationship. Where is the love? There can’t be loving obedience under this kind of system. This is why Jesus said, “They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders …” (Mt 23:4). One writer summed up this “other Gospel” pretty well:

Nothing was left to free personality. Everything was placed under the bondage of the letter. The Israelite, zealous for the law, was obliged at every impulse and movement to ask himself, what is commanded. At every step, at the work of his calling, and prayer, at meals, at home and abroad, from early morning till late in the evening, from youth to old age, the dead, the deadening formula followed him. A healthy moral life could not flourish under such a burden, action was nowhere the result of inward motive, all was, on the contrary, weighed and measured. Life was a continual tournament to the earnest man, who felt at every moment that he was in danger of transgressing the law; and where so much depended on the external form, he was often left in uncertainty whether he had really fulfilled its requirements.[7]

So, yes—it’s foolish to fall for this. To believe this is a real relationship with God. To believe the false teachers who are peddling this nonsense. That’s why Paul is upset.

Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?

Galatians 3:4-5

Is everything they’ve accepted about Christ pointless? Was it all worthless? For nothing? Paul repeats his question under a different cover with the same point—do we work to be rewarded with salvation’s blessings, or do we simply believe what we hear about Christ?

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Galatians 3:6

This question is also rhetorical. The answer is “we believed what we heard about Christ.” Good! They’re in great company, then—because Abraham also simply believed God, and was counted righteous. We should all follow Abraham’s example! He had the right idea before the Mosaic Law became twisted up in knots and perverted by the Jewish establishment. So, Paul suggests, let’s go back to Abraham and see what he can teach us about real faith.

We’ll turn to this, next time.


[1] The Mishnah dates from approximately A.D. 200. But, it is a generally accurate compendium of tradition and rules that were around in Jesus’ day. We see a strong resemblance of its Sabbath regulations in Mark 7. Even if one wishes to quibble about the precise applicability of a compiled book ca. 170 years after Jesus’ death, it still captures the flavor and ethos of the relationship this system imagines God has with His people.   

[2] Shabbat 1:1, in Jacob Neusner, The Mishnah: A New Translation (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988), 178–179.  

[3] Shabbat 1:3, in Mishnah.  

[4] Shabbat 1:10, in Mishnah.  

[5] Shabbat 2:5, in Mishnah.  

[6] Shabbat 2:6, in Mishnah.  

[7] Emil Schurer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus Christ, second division, vol. 2 (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1890; reprint; Peabody: Hendrickson, 2012), p. 125. See all of §28.