The third chapter of Galatians has been Paul’s defense of the gospel he preached to them. In verses 10-14 the apostle Paul taught that relying on the works of the law puts one under the curse of the law, which Christ came to redeem us from by becoming a curse for us. No one is justified before God by the law but the righteous live by faith. But this leads to a natural question: if the law does not save and cannot justify, why was the law given? What is the purpose of the law if the law could not justify those who were under it? Paul is going to use an illustration to answer this question which will help us understand the role of the law and our standing before God.
The Priority of the Promise (3:15-18)
Paul begins by showing the priority of the promise given to Abraham. To do this the apostle uses an illustration. In verse 15 he states that no one annuls or adds to a covenant once it has been ratified. It does not matter what comes along later, nothing can come along to annul the ratified covenant. By using this illustration he is equating God’s promises to covenants. When God makes a promise, it is not like promises humans make which are often broken. God’s promises are covenants. His promises are not broken.
The promise was made to Abraham and his offspring. We have seen this in our study of Genesis. The promise was not to all the offsprings of Abraham, that is, Ishmael, Isaac, and all the children he had through Keturah. The promise was through one offspring, one lineage, which is of Isaac. Christ is ultimately what this promise was pointing to. Now every Christian knew that Christ was the promise. That is not the critical point Paul is dealing with in this illustration. He is not informing them that Christ is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. It is more than just Christ, the individual, but also Christ and his offspring. Though we are not there yet, please notice that this is where Paul ends the argument in verse 29. If you are Christ’s offspring, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. But we are not there yet. I just want us to see that the message is not that Christ is the fulfillment of the promise only. It is also that those who belong to Christ, those who are Christ’s offspring, are recipients of the promise. Let us see how Paul gets there in his argument. The point of verses 16-17 then is that there is only one lineage of the promise. Observing the works of the law was dividing Christ’s family into two family: Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, or the two groups: the circumcised and the uncircumcised. This cannot be, according to Paul, because the law came 430 years after the promise and cannot annul or alter the promise given to Abraham. The promise to Abraham was one family. The law could not come along later and change this promise. All this to observe a simple point in verse 18: the inheritance comes through the promise given to Abraham, not through the law.
The Purpose of the Law (3:19-23)
This brings us to the question: what was the point of the Law of Moses if it was not the means of justification? Paul’s short answer is that the law was added because of transgressions. What exactly does this mean? Does Paul mean the law was given to curb sin, to define sin, to deal with sin, or to increase sin? All these answers are possibilities to the meaning of Paul’s short answer. For help, I will use Paul’s own words to the Romans:
Now the law came in to increase the trespass (Romans 5:20 ESV). The NRSV is also helpful in understanding what Paul is saying. But law came in, with the result that the trespass multiplied (Romans 5:20 NRSV).
The law showed that the law does not curb sin and showed that the law is not the answer to the sin problem. The law simply showed all the sins Israel was committing. The law demonstrates man’s total sinfulness, our inability to please God by our own works, and our need for God’s mercy and grace. This seems to be the point Paul is making in Galatians. The law was put in place until the offspring should come. The law was temporary and subordinate to the promise. Judaism did not see the Law of Moses in this way, declaring that the law would endure forever (Baruch 4.1).
Paul further shows the subordination of the Law of Moses to the promise by showing the difference between their delivery. The Law of Moses was put in place through angels and delivered by an intermediary, which is Moses. The promise, by contrast, was given directly from God.
Does this mean that the law is contrary to the promises? Does the Law of Moses oppose or conflict with the promises God gave to Abraham? Paul’s answer is that they are not contrary because they had different functions. The law could not give life. Right standing cannot come by the law. This was the point Paul made early in this chapter in verse 10-11. It is evident that no one is justified before God by the law. The promise gave life and right standing. Remember what the scripture says: “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Thus, everything and everyone was imprisoned under sin (3:22-23) to set up the necessity of faith in Jesus. The law accomplished God’s plan: for us to depend upon God and not ourselves. John Stott summarized the idea well, “No one has ever appreciated the gospel until the law first revealed him to himself. Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit our need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will we ever believe in Jesus” (Stott, 94).
Please notice that Israel and the law become illustrative of the world’s problem. In verse 22 we see that everything and everyone was imprisoned under sin. In verse 23 Paul writes to Galatian Christians and says “we” were held captive under the law. Everyone falls under this condemnation.
You Are Christ’s (3:24-29)
This brings Paul to a glorious conclusion in verses 24-29. Paul summarizes that the law operated as our guardian until Christ came (3:24). It is hard to put an English word on this individual. Some translations read, “tutor” or “disciplinarian.” This “guardian” refers to a household slave or free person who was in charge of the children until their later teenage years. He was not a teacher, but was one to keep watch over the children during the years of their immaturity. The closest word that I can think of that gets us close to the idea is one of a babysitter. Once the children are old enough, they do not need a babysitter because they have come to maturity. Paul’s point is that by yielding to circumcision and going back to the works of the law is to go back to something that was temporary and immature. The law was to steer us to justification by faith.
We are not under the guardian and cannot go back to the law at all. Why? Because you have graduated. You are all children of God through faith, not through the law! The point is that you are not in Christ if you are under the law. Now, how are you in Christ? The answer to this question is critically important. Being in Christ means that you are sons of God through faith (3:26). When does one belong to Christ? Verse 27 contains the answer. “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.” You have clothed yourself with Christ when you were baptized into Christ. What is important to see from the words of Paul is that justification by faith and baptism are not incompatible. In fact, baptism is how we are justified by faith. As we see in the other writings of Paul, baptism is our display of faith in the power of God to take away our sins (Colossians 2:11-14). Paul told the Romans that we are united in a death like his when we are baptized (Romans 6:1-4). Yet Paul has been teaching justification by faith in chapters 4-5. Justification by faith and baptism must not be pitted against each other. Rather, baptism is the response of faith in the work of Jesus.
Now look at what this means for us. There is no distinction in our standing before the Lord Christ Jesus. We are all one. It does not matter where you came from when you come to Christ. You have an equal privilege and equal access to God. In a time where our world is full of division and crisis we must proclaim this message of equality in Jesus. We seem to be splintering under every description under the sun, trying to encourage division and separation. But because of Jesus there is only one thing we are: Christians.
As an aside I must mention that some will use this verse to argue that this means women can be elders and preachers in the church because now there is no more male or female in Christ. If this was true, then why did Paul write about the distinction in worship of Christian men and women in 1 Corinthians, 1 Timothy, and Titus? The slave was still a slave though a Christian. The Greek was still a Greek though a Christian. The male is still a male though a Christian. The point is that there is no distinction in terms of our salvation, our access, our privileges, or our status before the Lord. A Jewish free male Christian has no greater privilege than a Gentile slave woman, to use the descriptions of verse 28. We are equal in our standing before God.
Notice the privilege in particular in verse 29. “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring.” Belonging to Christ means you are Abraham’s offspring (cf. Galatians 3:7,9). If you are Christ’s, you have it all! Once you are in Christ, you are heirs of the promise. This shows us what we observed in verse 16. We are part of the one offspring who belongs to Christ. “The promises were made to Abraham and his offspring” (3:16). We are the offspring because we belong to Christ. This is what is means to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, as we read in Acts 2:38. We are recipients of the promises made to Abraham and his offspring because we belong to Christ through faith.
Friends, I fear that we simply do not see what we have in Christ and what it means to be in Christ. I think we have stopped short when we think of having our sins forgiven in Christ. This is just the tip of the iceberg. The offspring of Abraham would inherit the promised land. Abraham was looking for a city whose architect and builder is God (Hebrews 11:10). Abraham was told that his offspring would be a great nation. Do you think of the Christian family as a great nation? The scriptures do.
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. (1 Peter 2:9–10 ESV)
Do you see the new family that has been created, even before our eyes in this very congregation? We are brothers and sisters together in Christ. We are the new family. The old connections are secondary to this family that we have been put into by Christ. We are children of God through faith. We are cursed under the law but set free by Jesus to be children. It is only when we see our condemnation under the law that we can begin to appreciate the status we have received: justified in Christ through faith because of the cross of Jesus so that you are a child, with all the rights and privileges of being a child of God. Do not take lightly the concept of being a child of God. The child receives all the blessings, privileges, and protections of the family. How great is that on a spiritual level! It is so amazing that the words of Paul to the Ephesian Christians should chill us:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Ephesians 1:3–4 ESV)
Praise God for all that we have in Christ that we have received by faith when we came up from the waters of baptism. Will you enjoy these privileges and give your life to Jesus today?