Personal Checklist

Lesson Focus:  This lesson looks at the dangers of a legalistic approach to the Christian life and the superiority of grace.

Forgetting Faith:  Galatians 3:1-3.

[1]  O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. [2]  Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? [3]  Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?  [ESV]

Throughout most of chapters 1 and 2 Paul has been stoutly defending the divine origin of his apostolic mission and message. They had been derived from God, he insists, and were independent of men. Now he comes back to the Galatians, and to their unfaithfulness to the gospel as a result of the corrupting influence of the false teachers. The Galatians turning away from the gospel was not only a kind of spiritual treason [1:6], but also an act of folly. Indeed, so stupid was it that Paul wonders if some sorcerer has bewitched them. What have the Galatians done, which leads Paul to complain of their senselessness and to ask if they have been bewitched? They have yielded to the teaching of the Judaizers. Having embraced the truth at the beginning (that sinners are justified by grace, in Christ, through faith), they have now adopted the view that circumcision and the works of the law are also necessary for justification. The essence of Paul’s argument is that their new position is a contradiction of the gospel. The reason for his astonishment at their folly is that before their very eyes Jesus Christ has been publicly portrayed as crucified. This, then, is the gospel. It is not a general instruction about the Jesus of history, but a specific proclamation of Jesus Christ as crucified. The force of the perfect tense of the participle (crucified) is that Christ’s work was completed on the cross, and that the benefits of His crucifixion are forever fresh, valid and available. Sinners may be justified before God and by God, not because of any works of their own, but because of the atoning work of Christ; not because of anything that they have done or could do, but because of what Christ did once, when He died. The gospel is not good advice to men, but good news about Christ; not an invitation to us to do anything, but a declaration of what God has done; not a demand, but an offer. And if the Galatians had grasped the gospel of Christ crucified, that on the cross Christ did everything necessary for our salvation, they would have realized that the only thing required of them was to receive the good news by faith. To add good works to the work of Christ was an offence to His finished work. Paul now exposes the senselessness of the Galatians. They should have resisted the spell of whoever was bewitching them. They knew perfectly well that the gospel is received by faith alone, since their own experience [3:2-5] and the plain teaching of Scripture [3:6-9] had told them so. In verse 2 Paul assumes that they have all received the Spirit. His question is not whether they have received Him, but whether they received Him by works or by faith. He assumes also that this is how their Christian life began. What he is asking concerns how they received the Spirit and so began the Christian life. What part did they play in the process? The contrast Paul sets forth in verse 2 is between law (works of the law) and the gospel (hearing with faith). The law says ‘Do this’; the gospel says ‘Christ has done it all’. The law requires works of human achievement; the gospel requires faith in Christ’s achievement. The law makes demands and bids us obey; the gospel brings promises and bids us believe. So the law and the gospel are contrary to one another in the sphere of justification. They are not two aspects of the same thing. God gave them the Spirit and they received the Spirit, not because they obeyed the law, but because they believed the gospel. This, then, was a fact of their experience. Paul had come to Galatia and preached the gospel to them. He had publicly portrayed before their eyes Jesus Christ as crucified. They had heard the gospel and with the eye of faith had seen Christ displayed upon His cross. They had believed the gospel. They had trusted in the Christ exhibited in the gospel. So they had received the Spirit. They had neither submitted to circumcision, nor obeyed the law, not even tried to. All they had done was to hear the gospel and believe, and the Spirit had been given to them. These being the facts of their experience, Paul argues, it is ludicrous that having begun with the Spirit, they should now expect to complete with the flesh [3]. This is another way of saying that, having begun with the gospel, they must not go back to the law, imagining that the law was needed to supplement the gospel.

Pursuing a Religious Checklist:  Galatians 3:10-14.

[10]  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." [11]  Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith." [12]  But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them." [13]  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree"– [14]  so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

The Two Alternatives. In verses 12-13 Paul quotes twice from the Old Testament. The first quotation is from the prophets in Hab. 2:4 and the second from the law in Lev. 18:5. Both say of a certain man that he shall live. In other words, both promise him eternal life. Despite these common features, however, the two statements describe a different road to life. The first promises life to the believer, the second to the doer. The first makes faith the way of salvation, the second, works. The first says that only God can justify (because the whole function of faith is to trust God to do the work), the second implies that we can manage by ourselves. These are the two alternatives. Which is true? Is a man justified by faith or by works? Do we receive eternal life by believing or by doing? Is salvation entirely and only by the free grace of God in Jesus Christ or do we have some hand in it ourselves? And why does the Bible seem here to confuse the issue and teach both, when they appear to us to be contradictory?  The Alternative of Works.  Verse 10 contains another Old Testament quotation, this time from Deut. 27:26. Paul is at pains to show that he was teaching nothing but what the prophets and Moses said. In this verse from Deuteronomy a solemn curse is pronounced on every one who fails to keep all the commandments of the law. To our modern and sensitive ears these words sound crude and even harsh. We like to think of a God who blesses rather than of a God who curses. Indeed, there is no need to be embarrassed by these outspoken words. They express what Scripture everywhere tells us about God in relation to sin, namely that no man can sin with impunity, for God is the righteous Judge of men. Disobedience always brings us under the curse of God, and exposes us to the awful penalties of His judgment. To curse does not mean to denounce, but actually to reject. So if the blessing of God brings justification and life, the curse of God brings condemnation and death. This is the position of every human being who has ever lived, except Jesus Christ. Paul assumes the universality of sin here: all who rely on works of the law [see Rom. 3:22-23]. We also know this in our own experience. John defines sin as lawlessness [1 John 3:4], a disregard for the laws of God. And all of us are lawless, for we have neither loved God with all our being, nor our neighbor as ourselves. Further, having broken the laws of God, we have brought ourselves under the curse of the law, which is the curse of God. This is true of all men, not only the irreligious and the immoral, but Jews descended from Abraham, who were circumcised and in the covenant of God. So this is why no man can be justified before God by works of the law. Because everybody has failed to keep the law, Paul has to write that all who rely on works of the law are under a curse. The dreadful function of the law is to condemn, not to justify. We may strive and struggle to keep the law, and to do good works in the community or the church, but none of these things can deliver us from the curse of the law which rests upon the lawbreaker. So this first supposed road to God leads to a dead end. There is neither justification nor life that way, but only darkness and death. The Alternative of Faith. The second alternative in verses 13-14 introduces Jesus Christ. It tells us that Jesus Christ has done for us on the cross what we could not do for ourselves. The only way to escape the curse is not by our work, but by His. He has redeemed us, ransomed us, set us free from the awful condition of bondage to which the curse of the law had brought us. The words of verse 13 are astonishing words. The curse of the law from which Christ redeemed us must be the curse resting upon us for our disobedience [10]. And He redeemed us from it by becoming a curse for us. The curse was transferred from us to Him. He took it voluntarily upon Himself, in order to deliver us from it. It is this becoming a curse for us which explains the awful cry of dereliction, of God-forsakenness, which He uttered from the cross. Paul now adds a scriptural confirmation of what he has just said about the cross. He quotes Deut. 21:23: Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree. Every criminal sentenced to death under the Mosaic legislation and executed, usually by stoning, was then fixed to a stake or hanged on a tree as a symbol of his divine rejection. The fact that the Romans executed by crucifixion rather than hanging makes no difference. To be nailed to a cross was equivalent to being hanged on a tree. So Christ crucified was described as having been hanged on a tree and was recognized as having died under the divine curse. No wonder the Jews at first could not believe that Jesus was the Christ. How could Christ, the anointed of God, instead of reigning on a throne, hang on a tree? It was incredible to them. The fact that Jesus died hanging on a tree remained for Jews an insurmountable obstacle to faith, until they saw that the curse He bore was for them. He did not die for His own sins; He became a curse for us. It was in Christ that God acted for our salvation and so we must be in Christ to receive it. We are not saved by a distant Christ, but by an existential Christ, who, having died and risen again, is now our contemporary. As a result we can be in Him, personally and vitally united to Him today. But how? Granted that He bore our curse, and that we must be in Him to be redeemed from it, how do we become united to Him? The answer is through faith. Faith is laying hold of Jesus Christ personally. There is no merit in it. It is not another work. Its value is not in itself, but entirely in its object, Jesus Christ. Christ is the Bread of life; faith feeds upon Him. Christ was lifted up on the cross; faith gazes at Him there.

CONCLUSION. Paul sets the alternatives before us in the starkest contrast. He tells us of two destinies and of two possible roads by which to reach them. Paul calls the two destinies of man ‘blessing’ and ‘curse’. It is very striking to see them contrasted in verses 13 and 14, where it is written that Christ became a curse for us, that we might inherit a blessing. So far we have concentrated on the curse; what is the blessing? It is termed the blessing of Abraham [14] because it is the blessing which Abraham himself received when he believed. As it is unfolded in these verses, the promised blessing includes justification (being put into favor with God), and eternal life (being received into fellowship with God) and the promise of the Spirit (being regenerated and indwelt by Him). This is the priceless threefold blessing of the Christian believer. By what roads do we attain to the curse and the blessing? The first road is called the law; those who travel by it are those who rely on works of the law; they are under a curse. The second road is called faith; those who travel by it are men of faith; they inherit the blessing. The first group trust in their own works, the second in the finished work of Christ. The challenge of this passage is straightforward. We must renounce the proud folly of supposing that we can establish our own righteousness or make ourselves acceptable to God. Instead we must come humbly to the cross, where Christ bore our curse, and cast ourselves entirely upon His mercy.

Embracing Faith in Christ:  Galatians 3:19-26.

[19]  Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. [20]  Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. [21]  Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. [22]  But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. [23]  Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. [24]  So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. [25]  But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, [26]  for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.

[19-22]  The Law Illumines the Promise of God and Makes it Indispensable. Paul now explains the true function of God’s law in relation to His promise by asking and answering two questions. Question 1: Why then the law? The Judaizers misunderstood and misrepresented Paul’s position. He was far from declaring the law unnecessary, for he was quite clear that it had an essential part to play in the purpose of God. The function of the law was not to bestow salvation, however, but to convince men of their need of it. Satan would have us to prove ourselves holy by the law, which God gave to prove us sinners. So the law’s main work was to expose sin. It is the law which turns sin into transgression, showing it up for what it is, a breach of the holy law of God. The law was intended to make plain the sinfulness of sin as a revolt against the will and authority of God. And it was added until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made. Thus, the law looked on to Christ, Abraham’s seed, as the Person through whom transgression would be forgiven. When God gave the law He spoke through angels and through Moses (an intermediary). There were two intermediaries. But when God spoke the gospel to Abraham He did it direct: God is one. We can sum it up: the promise came to Abraham first-hand from God; and the law comes to the people third-hand – God – the angels – Moses the mediator – the people. Question 2: Is the law then against the promises of God? This second question seems to be addressed not to Paul by the Judaizers, but to the Judaizers by Paul. He is accusing them of doing just this, of making the law contradict the gospel, the promises of God. Their teaching was: keep the law and you will gain life. And they thought they were being practical. Paul denies it. Their position was purely hypothetical: if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But no such law has been given. Turning from hypothesis to reality, the fact is that nobody has ever kept the law of God. Instead, we sinners break it every day. Therefore, the law cannot justify us. How, then, is it possible to create a harmony between the law and the promise? Only by seeing that men inherit the promise because they cannot keep the law, and that their inability to keep the law makes the promise all the more desirable, indeed indispensable. The principal point of the law is to make men not better but worse; that is to say, it shows them their sin, that by this knowledge they may be humbled, terrified, bruised and broken, and by this means may be driven to seek grace, and so to come to Christ. To summarize, the Judaizers held falsely that the law annuls the promise and supersedes it; Paul teaches the true function of the law, which is to confirm the promise and make it indispensable.

[23-26]  What We Were Under the Law. In a word, we were in bondage. The Greek word for held captive means to protect by military guards. When applied to a city, it was used both of keeping the enemy out and of keeping the inhabitants in, lest they should flee or desert. Both verbs, held captive … imprisoned, emphasize that God’s law and commandments hold us in prison, and keep us confined, so that we cannot escape. Paul’s second metaphorical description of the law means a guide and guardian of boys. He was usually himself a slave whose duty was to be the boy’s disciplinarian. He was often harsh to the point of cruelty, and is usually depicted in ancient drawings with a rod in his hand. What do these two similes imply? In what sense is the law like a prison guard and a child’s disciplinarian or tutor? The law expresses the will of God for His people, telling us what to do and what not to do, and warns us of the penalties of disobedience. Since we have all disobeyed, we have fallen under its just condemnation. But, thank God, He never meant this oppression to be permanent. He gave the law in His grace in order to make the promise more desirable. So to both descriptions of our bondage Paul adds a time reference: before faith came … until Christ came. Both verses tell us that the oppressive work of the law was temporary, and that it was ultimately intended not to hurt but to bless. Its purpose was to shut us up in prison until Christ should set us free, or to put us under tutors until Christ should make us sons. Only Christ can deliver us from the prison to which the curse of the law has brought us, because He was made a curse for us. Only Christ can deliver us from the law’s harsh discipline, because He makes us sons who obey from love for their Father and are no longer naughty children needing tutors to punish them. Paul’s but now [25] emphasizes that what we are is quite different from what we were. We are no longer under a guardian in the sense that we are condemned and imprisoned by the law. Now we are in Christ, united to Him by faith, and so have been accepted by God for Christ’s sake, in spite of our grievous law-breaking. We are sons of God, through faith. God is no longer our Judge, who through the law has condemned and imprisoned us. God is no longer our Tutor, who through the law restrains and chastises us. God is now our Father, who in Christ has accepted and forgiven us. We no longer fear Him, dreading the punishment we deserve; we love Him, with deep filial devotion. This sonship of God is only in Christ; it is not in ourselves. And we experience this sonship only through faith, not by our works.  


Questions for Discussion:

1.         What is the gospel? What contrast does Paul set forth in 3:2? What were the Galatians doing that so upset Paul? Examine your Christian walk to see if you are guilty of adding any human work to your justification.

2.         In 3:10-14, Paul describes the only two ways by which we stand before God: either by law or by grace. Why is it necessary for all who come to God by means of the law to receive God’s curse instead of His blessing?

3.         What is the threefold blessing of the Christian believer? This week, meditate on how each of these blessings should impact the way you live.

4.         According to 3:19-26, what is God’s purpose for His law? What relationship does God’s law have to His promises? Since this relationship is by God’s design, how then should we use God’s law in evangelism; in the preaching and teaching of the gospel?


Galatians, Timothy George, NAC, Broadman.

Galatians, Philip Ryken, REC, P & R Publishing.

The Message of Galatians, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

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