Justification by Law or by Faith?, 1-14

3:1 You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified!

Wright (The Day the Revolution Began) suggests that ‘Galatians 3 as a whole is about how God’s promises to Abraham always envisaged a worldwide family and how the gospel events have brought that into reality.’

‘Gal 3:1-5:12. This section is the major argument of the epistle, where the differences between Paul’s gospel and the Judaizer’s heresy came to full light. Paul supported his thesis of faith alone on three principles: the gift of the Spirit, the promise and faith of Abraham, and the curse of the law. The gift of the Spirit came to them through faith, not the law. Abraham received the promise and righteousness by faith 430 years before the law was given. People of faith were true children of Abraham and heirs of the promise. Because people did not keep the law when it came, they fell under its curse. The law could only condemn sinners. Christ removed the curse of the law. The law was given as an interim provision until Christ came. Now he has come, and the believer is free. To turn back to the law was to return to slavery. With the coming of Christ, faith and law had become mutually exclusive as ways to approach God.’ (Holman)

In 3:1-4:31 Paul is using the style of a diatribe – ‘a vivid teaching style often characterized by imaginary interlocutors, rhetorical questions and intense reasoning’ (NTBC)

You foolish Galatians! – Paul does not address the leaders only, but the whole church.  He expects them all to be able to follow his argument.  It is not that they were lacking in intelligence, but in spiritual discernment.

There is affection, as well as exasperation, here, just as in Lk 24:25.  It is as if he is saying, “My dear friends, have you gone completely crazy?”  ‘The bluntness of Paul’s language should not blind us to the fact that he had earlier referred to the Galatians as “brothers” (Gal 1:11) and that he would later call them his children (Gal 4:19). Paul’s language here does not contradict his principle of restoring with gentleness those believers who have lapsed into error and sin (Gal 6:1). Paul loved the Galatians and wanted them to be restored to spiritual and theological soundness. To accomplish this, however, something more stern than mushy sentimentality was required. Paul’s harsh rebuke is an example of tough love. He confronted the Galatians with their folly so that by this means he might win them back to the truth they were in danger of forsaking.’ (NAC)

‘What could be more foolish than to take up with a human invention instead of a Divine appointment – to exchange the immovable rock of the Redeemer’s all-perfect atonement for the broken reed of imperfect, uncommanded, human services – to part with that peace of God which passeth all understanding, which arises from a belief of the truth, for a false confidence constantly liable to be disturbed with doubts and fears, and certain ultimately to issue in disappointment and ruin?’ (Brown)

Who has bewitched you? – It is possible that Paul detects a demonic influence behind their foolishness (cf Eph 6:12).  However, this does not excuse them from taking responsibility for their own stupidity.  There is no point in trying to excuse ourselves by claiming, “The devil made me do it.”  Cole mentions a group of pastors who, after the 2nd World War, were lamenting that they had been deceived by ‘demonic forces’.  A senior pastor brought them back to their senses by saying, “Gentlemen, we have all been very foolish.”

The Galatians’ defection from the gospel was not only spiritual treason, Gal 1:6, is was also utter folly.

The word for ‘bewitched’ has connotations of ‘fascination’ (Cole).  It is a reminder to us all of the dangers of being attracted by ideas simply because they seem novel or ‘clever’.  The way in which some people today seem to take pride in adopting ideas that are ‘subversive’ is a case in point.

Paul will go on to acknowledge – emphasise, even – that they had experienced significant manifestations of the Holy Spirit.  And yet their grasp of the essential truth of the gospel was very limited.  This is a warning to us all of the danger of separating word and Spirit, doctrine and experience.  Spiritual experience – however real and however powerful it may be – does not immunise us from doctrinal error.

So stupid are they that they seem hypnotised, or under some evil spell. How else could it be explained that they had deserted the gospel of Christ, when this truth had been so ‘clearly portrayed’ in Paul’s preaching? ‘Who’ is singular, perhaps suggesting that behind these false teachers was the corrupting activity of satan himself, cf. Jn 8:44; 2 Cor 11:3; 1 Pet 5:8. Much of our own dullness and stupidity in grasping the gospel may be due to his malign influence (Stott).

Before your very eyes – A remarkable expression, in which some have seen an allusion to the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified – Moffat translates, ‘placarded before your very eyes’.  A modern analogy would be a roadside hoarding.  ‘Paul here likens his gospel-preaching either to a huge canvas painting or to a placard publicly exhibiting a notice or advertisement. The subject of his painting or placard was Jesus Christ on the Cross.’ (Stott)  We are not to imagine, however, that Paul was interested in actual pictorial representations of the crucifixion.  The ‘portrayal’ has to do with vividness of presentation.  Paul was thinking not about visual, but spiritual, perception.  Christ crucified was centre-stage in Paul’s preaching of the gospel.  They cannot have missed it.  The message of the cross is at once clear and obvious, and yet always in peril of neglect.

Note that it was not just that Christ was clearly portrayed, but that it was Christ as crucified who had been thus placarded. The expression Christ crucified stands for the whole of the gospel of salvation through the finished work of Christ. Cf. 1 Cor 1:23; 2:2; Gal 6:14. In using this expression ‘he means, that they had been taught that Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God, had submitted to die, and to die on a cross, as the victim of human transgressions; that he had been “delivered for our offences;” (Rom 4:25) that he had “offered himself” (Heb 9:14) a sacrifice for our sins; that his sufferings and death had completely answered their purpose; that “His blood cleanseth from all sin;” (1 Jn 1:7) that no human being can be saved but through the efficacy of that sacrifice which he offered and that every believing sinner, whether Jew or Gentile, shall, through the power of this bloody atonement, assuredly escape everlasting destruction, and obtain everlasting salvation; in one word, that what he did and suffered is at once the sole and the sufficient procuring cause of salvation to every one that believeth.’ (Brown)

‘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. (cf. 1 Cor 1:23; 2:2) The force of the perfect tense of the participle (estauromenos) is that Christ’s work was completed on the cross, and that the benefits of his crucifixion are for ever 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 realised 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, as we saw in Gal 2:21.’ (Stott)

‘The gospel is Christ crucified, his finished work on the cross. And to preach the gospel is publicly to portray Christ as crucified. The gospel is not good news primarily of a baby in a manger, a young man at a carpenter’s bench, a preacher in the fields of Galilee, or even an empty tomb. The gospel concerns Christ upon his cross. Only when Christ is ‘openly displayed upon his cross’ is the gospel preached.’ (Stott)

Paul was acutely aware of the possibility of lying about God. See also Col 2:8; 1 Tim 4:2-3,7.

‘This verse is a solemn warning to every congregation that gathers for worship and every preacher who stands behind a sacred desk to proclaim God’s Word. However large or small the congregation, however powerful or ineffective the preacher, a contest of eternal moment is being waged, with the souls of men and women in the balance. With so much at stake, the content of our preaching must be nothing less than Jesus Christ and him crucified (1 Cor 2:2).’ (NAC)

3:2 The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?

Paul argues here from their own experience.

Did you receive the Spirit – This is the first of 16 references to the Spirit in this letter.  Something definite and tangible is clearly implied here. Indeed, many think that the expression refers primarily to the manifestation of the extraordinary gifts of the Spirit, such as prophecy, tongues, and miracles. This is supported by the close association of ‘Spirit’ and ‘miracles’ in v5. However, the ordinary saving influences of the Spirit, such as love, joy and peace, may also be included. They had received the Spirit – Paul does not question that – but they must now decide whether they received the Spirit through the works of the law of by believing the apostolic message.

‘It is important to realize that for the first Christians the Spirit was thought of in terms of divine power clearly manifest by its effects on the life of the recipient; the impact of the Spirit did not leave individual or onlooker in much doubt that a significant change had taken place in him by divine agency. Paul refers his readers back to their initial experience of the Spirit again and again. For some it had been an overwhelming experience of God’s love; (Rom 5:5) for others of joy; (1 Thess 1:6) for others of illumination, (2 Cor 3:14-17) or of liberation, (Rom 8:2; 2 Cor 3:17) or of moral transformation, (1 Cor 6:9-11) or of various spiritual gifts. (1 Cor 1:4-7; Gal 3:5) In Acts the most regularly mentioned manifestation of the Spirit is inspired speech, speaking in tongues, prophecy and praise, and bold utterance of the word of God. (Ac 2:4; 4:8,31; 10:46; 13:9-11; 19:6) This is why possession of the Spirit as such can be singled out as the defining characteristic of the Christian, (Rom 8:9; 1 Jn 3:24; 4:13) and why the question of Acts 19:2 could expect a straightforward answer. (cf. Gal 3:2) The Spirit as such might be invisible, but his presence was readily detectable.’ (Jn 3:8) (NBD)

By observing the law – Many of the Galatians would have had to answer this question in the negative, simply because they had not so much as heard of the Mosaic law until after their conversion to Christ. Any that were Jews knew only to well that they had not received these blessings until they believed the gospel.

By believing what you heard – ‘By hearing and believing’ (Cole).  They were saved through their ears, not by their hands; by what they had heard, not what they had done; because of what they had received, not what they had given.

These two ways of seeking acceptance with God – law and gospel – have already been contrasted in 2:16. The law says, “Do.” The gospel says, “Done.” ‘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.’ (Stott)

3:3 Are you so foolish? Although you began with the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by human effort?

‘The religion you at first adopted was a religion which, from its perfection, renders any addition utterly useless. You may – you must – debase it, but you cannot possibly improve it, by any supplement. Your progress is not improvement, it is degeneracy. It is not the child becoming the man, but the man becoming the child. To pass from Judaism to Christianity is – having begun in the flesh – to be perfected by the Spirit. For the Jew to become a Christian, was for the child to become a man – a natural, desirable course. For the Christian to become a Jew, is for the man voluntarily to sink into a second childhood – a most unnatural and undesirable course. They, in receiving the gospel, began with what was spiritual – knowledge, faith, holiness, hope, joy; in submitting to the law, they end in “meats, and drinks, and divers washings.”‘ (Brown)

We often talk about ‘beginning as we mean to go on.’  Here, we are being taught the absolute necessity of going on as we began.  It is about trusting that ‘he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion’ (Phil 1:6).

As Timothy George (NAC) remarks, there is no evidence that the ‘agitators’ were denying either Christ crucified or the Spirit manifested.  But they thought that these needed to be supplemented and brought onto a higher plane by the addition of work of law.  Faith in Christ needs to be completed by adherence to Jewish law.  But Paul shows that faith and law are not complementary, but antithetical.  The ‘higher life’ that was being promoted was actually a retreat ‘into the negative sphere of human self-justification and rebellion against the grace of God.’

3:4 Have you suffered so many things for nothing?—if indeed it was for nothing.

Suffered – Paul may be referring to their suffering at the hands of Jews. After all, Paul and Barnabas had been harrassed and attacked when they first brought the gospel to that area (Acts 13:14).  However, this seems foriegn to the context, and the underlying word does not always refer to suffering in the negative sense. It sometimes just means ‘experiences’. In this case, the apostle is asking, ‘Have you experienced all this in vain?’

If it really was for nothing? – One of several expressions that indicate that the situation, although serious, was not irretrievable.  Timothy George (NAC) reminds us that throughout the history of the Christian Church periods of reformation and revival have often been preceded by times of apathy and error.

They were in serious danger of treating both the death of Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit as if they had no purpose.

‘Three times in Galatians Paul has raised the specter of the absurd consequences of justification by works. In Gal 2:2 Paul raised the possibility that his missionary labors may have been in vain. In Gal 2:21 he raised the stakes and suggested that if righteousness could be gained through the law, then even Christ would have died in vain. Now here in Gal 3:4 he queried the Galatians about whether the Spirit had not been given to them in vain. In effect, he was saying to them: “See where this kind of theology will lead you! If salvation is not the work of God from first to last, then the preaching of the gospel is vanity, the cross of Christ was a farce, and the gift of the Holy Spirit means nothing!” By presenting these terrible alternatives to the Galatians in such a startling way, Paul sought to jar them from their folly and break the spell that had left them bewitched.’ (George)

3:5 Does God then give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law or by your believing what you heard?

Having considered the matter from the point of view of their reception of the Spirit, Paul now views it from the point of view of God’s donation of the Spirit.

‘The verbs…do not necessarily refer to a continuous activity of God. It seems more probable that they are timeless, referring still to Paul’ s visit when they received the Spirit, but that now he is speaking of their experience from God’s point of view.’ (Stott)

The donation of the Spirit is here linked to the working of miracles.  Elsewhere in this letter, the Spirit’s influence is associated with filial prayer (Gal 4:6), hope of eternal life (Gal 5:5), holiness (Gal 5:16f), and spiritual fruitfulness (Gal 5:22f).

3:6 Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, 3:7 so then, understand that those who believe are the sons of Abraham.
What is faith?

George draws out three principles from this passage in the context of Paul’s theology as a whole:-

(a) Faith excludes boasting.  Self-determination, self-justification, and self-promotion lie at the heart of the sinner’s rebellion against God.  If we were saved by anything that we did, we would have reason to boast.  But we are saved by grace through faith, and all the glory belongs to God.

(b) Faith transcends reason.  This is not, of course, to suggest that faith contradicts reason, but that reason alone, apart from divine revelation, cannot lead us to a knowledge of God.  Abraham took God at his word, and believed the promise, even at the point that he was about to kill his own son.

(c) Faith issues in obedience.  While excluding works as a basis for our acceptance with God, Paul nevertheless insists that a life of faith will be life that seeks to please God in all things.  This is not motivated by servile fear, but is the outcome of the indwelling of God’s Spirit, who features so prominently in Galatians 5 and 6.

George observes that the argument from experience, though valid, would have been insufficient on its own.  The reason is that then, as now, genuine and spurious religious experiences can be difficult to distinguish.  The dark force alluded to in v1 can masquerade as an angel of light.  His followers can appear as wolves in sheep’s clothing.  It has been claimed the ‘the person with a doctrine is never be at the mercy of a person with an experience’, but the NT writers would not have agreed.  We are to ‘test the spirits’.  So Paul turns to an argument from Old Testament history. And it is here that the weight of his argument will fall.  ‘For Paul the verdict of Holy Writ is the court of final appeal in all matters related to God and the revelation of his will to human beings.’

Paul’s argumentation from this point until the end of chapter 4 will focus on the following proposition: Those who have faith in Jesus Christ inherit all the blessing God promised to Abraham.  In George’s helpful analysis, three inter-related questions are explored: (a) How was Abraham made right with God? (Gal 3:6-14); (b) What is the true purpose of the law? (Gal 3:15-25); Who are the real heirs of the promise? (Gal 4:21-31).  Within this analysis, Gal 4:1-20 stands as a parenthesis.

In chapters 3 and 4, Paul greatly expands his vocabulary of salvation.  To the concepts of gospel, faith and justification he adds the Spirit, redemption, promise, covenant, inheritance, sonship, and freedom. (George)

In this passage (6-14) Paul quotes five times from the law of Moses and once from the Prophets, making out a case that those who claimed to respect the law were compelled to accept.

Paul’s sustained reference to Abraham may give us a clue as to how the ‘agitators’ were arguing: The question is, “Who are the true children of Abraham.”  Paul answer is clear: “Those who have faith in Christ are the true children of Abraham.”  But the agitators would say, “That is well and good, but we must also do the works of the law.  In Gen 15, after God had accepted him by faith in ch 12 God instituted circumcision, and this included all the gentiles in his household.  In the same way, we must add to faith in Christ a requirement to be circumcised.”

Consider Abraham – An excellent example, since all Jews looked to him as the father of their nation. The Judaizers were appealing to Moses the law-giver; Paul went back further, and there can be no doubt that Abraham was a justified person. But it is clear that he was justified on the basis of faith, not on the basis of circumcision. Moreover, he cannot have been justified on the basis of adherence to the law, since the law was not given until much later!

It is possible that Paul was setting out to ‘trump’ the arguments of the agitators: they appealed to Moses, the giver of the law; he, on the other hand, went back further, to Abraham, the father of the nation.  In George’s view, however, it is more likely that Paul’s opponents did appeal to Abraham themselves, using as the basis of their argument the fact that the Abrahamic covenant was sealed with circumcision, and that this included to Gentile members of his extended family (Gen 17:4-14).  They might then argue that though Abraham lived centuries before the giving of the law, he nevertheless kept the law in an anticipatory way by his life of obedience to the Lord.

The process with regard to Abraham was as follows: he was given a promise; he believed the promise; his belief was reckoned as righteousness.

“He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” – The quotation is from Gen 15:6, which is also quoted in Rom 4:3.  It is important to note that the declaration of Abraham’s righteousness through faith comes before circumcision, and therefore cannot have been dependent upon it.

‘Abraham entered into his particular blessing by realising that he could do nothing himself, by confessing that fact to God, and by throwing himself on God, counting on God to do that which he could not.  That is the paradox of faith, as true for us as for Abraham…any other attitude is stubborn pride and self-righteousness, which God opposed (James 4:6).’ (Cole)

Understand, then – This ‘indicates his determination to teach the Galatians the lesson of Genesis 15:6 – a verse the Judaizers doubtless omitted to quote!  For as Abraham’s faith, which antedated his circumcision by many years, was the vital factor in his acceptance with God, so the possession of the same justifying faith is ever that which distinguishes his true ‘sons’ from those whose connection with him is pureful physical. (Mt 3:9; Jn 8:39; Rom 2:28f).’  (Wilson)

Those who believe are children of Abraham – Not because they are physically descended from him, but because they bear the distinguishing feature of membership of his family – faith.  This introduces the thesis which will underpin Paul’s discussion through to the end of chapter 4.

The Judaizers said, ‘You cannot be the children of Abraham, and heirs of his blessing, unless you are circumcised.’ The Apostle says, ‘You are the children of Abraham, and heirs of his blessing, if you are believers.’

As we have seen, Paul’s opponents probably argued that Abraham was a man of notable obedience and righteousness and that he had been accepted by God because of his anticipatory law-keeping.  But Paul responds: ‘Well, let’s go back to Abraham himself. How was he declared righteous before God in the first place? Was it because he forsook his fatherland, his family, and all his friends back in Ur of the Chaldees? Was it because he accepted circumcision and observed the law? Was it because he was ready, at the command of God, to sacrifice his son Isaac? No! Abraham was justified not on account of his outstanding virtues and holy works, but solely because he believed God. And his faith was reckoned as righteousness long before he knew anything about circumcision or had taken the first step in his long journey toward the promised land. Although he became the father of the Jews, he was justified when he was still a Gentile!—just like you Galatians, who were justified and received the Holy Spirit through the hearing of faith, not through works of the law.”‘ (George)

George adds: ‘Paul’s argument resonates with the discussion Jesus held with the Jewish leaders of his day concerning their status as children of Abraham. If Abraham were your real father, Jesus said, you would act more like him, you would embody his characteristics—rather than those of the devil to whom you really belong (John 8:31–47).’

3:8 And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, proclaimed the gospel to Abraham ahead of time, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.”

The Scripture foresaw – Paul personifies Scripture in such as way as to demonstrate that he clearly believed that ‘what Scripture says, God says’. See also Gal 3:10,13,16.

That God would justify the Gentiles by faith – This is in the present tense in the original: ‘that God justifies…’  This underlines the fact that God has no other way of justifying people.  Ellicott refers to it as ‘the ethical present, with significant reference to the eternal and immutable counsels of God.’ (Quoted by Wilson)

The gospel – Or, because we attach a rather technical meaning to this word, ‘the good news’.  Still, it is fair to say that ‘God’s promise was a prior preaching of the gospel, for it showed that the pattern of future blessing for the world would be found in connection with “believing Abraham,” (v9).’ (Wilson)

Perhaps there is more to it than this.  Note what Jesus says in Jn 8:56: “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”  We know from John’s Gospel that Jesus is the Word of God.  Now, in the OT, ‘the word of the Lord’ sometimes described the embodied God of Israel.  Heiser (I Dare You Not To Bore Me With The Bible) expands:

‘For example, Jeremiah was visited by “the word of the LORD” (Jer 1:2, 4) whom he called Lord GOD (Jer 1:6). The Lord GOD, the “word,” is embodied in human form in Jeremiah 1:7: “Then the LORD put out his hand and touched my mouth.” There are other such passages in the Old Testament. One of them is Genesis 15, where the covenant promises between God and Abraham were sealed: “After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision.” Notice that this was a vision. Genesis 12, the passage Paul quoted in Galatians 3, has the same language: “Then the LORD appeared to Abram.”’

Heiser concludes: ‘Abraham had met the Word, and through that encounter, he understood the salvation plan of God.’

“All nations will be blessed through you” – Quoting Gen 12:3. (cf. Gen 22:17-18; Acts 3:25)

In this verse, ‘justify’ and ‘blessed’ are virtually synonymous. Justification is the queen of blessings.  The only difference between Abraham and us is that the means of justification in Jesus Christ is made plain to us.  (Cole)

3:9 So then those who believe are blessed along with Abraham the believer.

The conclusion of this section is that the Galatians should have known, from their own experience and from Scripture, that justification cannot be, and never was, by works of the law. Such as notion is a downright contradiction of the message of the cross. ‘We too should learn to test every theory and teaching of men by the gospel of Christ crucified.’ (Stott)

Those who have faith – ‘those who are faithful’ is possible linguistically, but this suits the context less well.

It has been said that the true descendants of Abraham are not blood brothers, but soul brothers.  What they have in common with him is not his genes or his circumcision, but his faith.

There has only ever been one way of salvation.  ‘From the creation of Adam and Eve until the second coming of Christ, God has provided one and only one way of salvation for all peoples everywhere: the atoning death of his Son on the cross applied to all of the elect through the regenerating ministry of the Holy Spirit. Thus Paul could claim that the faith of Abraham was the same as ours with this noticeable difference: he believed in the Christ who was to come, just as we trust in the One who has already come.’ (George)

The gospel

Stott summarises as follows:-

  1. What the gospel is. It is Christ crucified.
  2. What the gospel offers. It offers blessings, v8. These blessings include justification, v8, and the gift of the Spirit, vv2-5.
  3. What the gospel requires. It does not require anything. We have only to believe. The response required is not obeying the law, but hearing with faith.
3:10 For all who rely on doing the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not keep on doing everything written in the book of the law.”

Paul might well have jumped straight from verse 9 to verse 26, and therefore directly from Abraham to Christ and then to the Galatian Christians.  Instead, he inserted a passage which many scholars consider to be one of the most complicated and controverted in all his extant writings.  The reason for this, George suggests, is that he wants the Galatians (and all Gentile Christians) to take the Old Testament seriously.  He does not merely want to bypass the law, but rather to show its true place in redemptive history.  In other words, if we are to be the true ‘Israel of God’, we must take seriously ‘the God of Israel’.

In this section, Paul will outline four propositions, each based on an Old Testament passage:-

(a) All those who rely on observing the law are under a curse, because, as Deut 27:26 affirms, the law requires complete obedience, and so to break it in one respect is to break it all.

(b) No one can be justified by the law, because, as Hab 2:4 teaches, the righteous ones will live by faith.

(c) Law and faith are not compatible as ways to God, because, as Lev 18:5 indicates, those who keep the commandments will live by them.

(d) Jesus Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for, as Deut 21:23, everyone who hangs on a tree is accursed.

What about the law, then?  Does not the more recent modify or even replace what went before?  What what happened to Abraham was only a temporary measure because the law had not yet been given?

Paul’s reasoning is to show that, although the law cannot save, it can and it does show us what we are saved from.  By it we do not obtain a path to righteousness but a measure of condemnation.

These verses (10-14), says Stott, ‘are fundamental to an understanding of biblical Christianity. For they concern the central issue of religion, which is how to come into a right relationship with God.’

Having shown that justification is by faith, Paul goes on to show that it is not by works of the law. Such a notion is shown in this verse to be unreasonable, and in v11f to be unscriptural.

All who rely on observing the law are contrasted with those who have faith, v9.  These are the two categories that Paul recognises.

Paul is citing Deut 27:26 here. The word ‘all’ seems to have been borrowed from Deut 28:1, but this does not alter the sense significantly.

As George states, Paul’s argument in this verse hinges on an unstated premise: that all who do not obey the law perfectly are cursed (cf James 2:10), and that no-one (Jesus excepted) does obey the perfectly.  All who seek to be justified by law-keeping are therefore doomed to failure and condemnation.

Many recent scholars find a problem here.  ‘How could Paul have concluded that a single infraction would lead to condemnation, when he knew perfectly well that the law itself provided for repentance and remediated via sacrifice?’  Precisely so.  But, as the Epistle to the Hebrews makes clear, the sacrificial system was never able to deal effectively with sin.  Its purpose was to ‘announce in advance’ the true Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world (cf Jn 1:29).

‘The remark made by the apostle has a direct reference to those who were expecting justification by obedience to the Mosaic law; but it is equally applicable to all who, by their own obedience to any law, are expecting to stand approved before God. It is true of that law under which all intelligent creatures are placed, as well as of the Mosaic law, that every violation of it exposes to the Divine displeasure, and cannot obtain the Divine favour by obedience to a law which already condemns him to punishment.’ (Brown)

“Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” – Quoting Deut 27:26 (where the very next verse includes the word ‘all’).  Beginning with Gen 3:14-19, the OT consistently uses this language to describe God’s reaction to human sin.

‘The Scripture cited confirms that the law can bring only a curse to those unable to render exact and unvarying obedience to all its commands.  It is important to realise that the Judaisers divorced the law from the context of grace in which it had been given to Israel, for under the old economy the law remained subservient to the promise (Gal 3:13).’ (Wilson)

The ‘curse’ which falls on those who fail to perfectly observe the law stands in stark contrast to the ‘blessing’ experienced by those who believe.  If the Galatians remove themselves from the blessings of faith, they must incur the curse of the law.

Cole informs us that it was commonly held by Jewish scholars of Paul’s day that the ‘common people’, who had no knowledge of or interest in the law, were under God’s curse (cf Jn 7:49).  But Paul turns the tables on them, by saying that it is the very people who rely on keeping God’s law who are under the curse.

Stott agrees, adding, ‘But the apostle here shocks the Judaizers by asserting that the people who are under the curse are not just the ignorant, lawless Gentiles, as they imagine, but the Jews themselves as well.’ (Stott) Cf. Rom 3:22f.

This quotation from Deut 27:26 shows that Paul is not thinking only of Jewish ‘boundary markers’.  For the text he quotes encompasses everything that is written in the Book of the Law.

‘Now since it was manifestly impossible to keep all the commandments of the law, that meant that…all those who tried to keep the law came under this curse.’ (Cole)

We can only avoid the force of the argument by either lowering the standard of the law, or by adopting an unrealistically high view of our obedience to it.  ‘The average Jew believed whole-heartedly that no circumcised son of Abraham would go to Gehenna.  We cannot afford to smile at them when we remember how superstitiously some today can look on “membership” of a church, or even the mere physical reception of water-baptism, or some other rite.’ (Cole)

‘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 not a sentimental old Father Christmas, but the righteous Judge of men. Disobedience always brings us under the curse of God, and exposes us to the awful penalties of his judgement, to “curse” meaning not to “denounce” but actually to “reject.” So if the blessing of God brings justification and life, the curse of God brings condemnation and death.’ (Stott)

3:11 Now it is clear no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous one will live by faith.

This, says Cole, ‘is a key verse for Paul’s great doctrine of “justification by faith”.’

‘The Judaizers wanted to seduce the Galatians into a religion of legal works, while Paul wanted them to enjoy a relationship of love and life by faith in Christ. For the Christian to abandon faith and grace for Law and works is to lose everything exciting that the Christian can experience in his daily fellowship with the Lord. The Law cannot justify the sinner; (Gal 2:16) neither can it give him righteousness. (Gal 2:21) The Law cannot give the gift of the Spirit, (Gal 3:2) nor can it guarantee that spiritual inheritance that belongs to God’s children. (Gal 3:18) The Law cannot give life, (Gal 3:21) and the Law cannot give liberty. (Gal 4:8-10) Why, then, go back into the Law? ‘ (Wiersbe)

‘Paul’s knowledge of the Old Testament is thorough: he has selected the only two texts in the entire Old Testament that speak of both righteousness and faith together (in Gal 3:6 Gen 15:6; here Hab 2:4).’ (NT Background Commentary)

A right relationship with God is described in two ways. It is (a) to be justified before God; and (b) to live. ‘Justification means to be in favour with God; ‘eternal life’ means to be in fellowship with God.’ (Stott, cf. Jn 17:3)

Justified before God – The opposite of which is to be condemned before God. ‘It is to be declared righteous, to be accepted, to stand in his favour and under his smile.’

If no one is justified before God by the law, what then was the purpose of the law? Briefly, the law (a) restrains evil; (b) convicts sinners; (c) guides believers.

“The righteous will live by faith” – The reference here (and in the following verse) is not, of course primarily physical life, but spiritual life. The quotation is from Hab 2:4.  RSV translates: ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live’.

But is Paul faithful to the meaning of Habakkuk?  Schreiner comments:

‘Many claim that Habakkuk speaks of human faithfulness rather than faith. Such an interpretation misreads the prophet. Habakkuk predicts a day of judgment when the Chaldeans will punish sinful Judah because the nation has failed to keep God’s Torah (1:4–11). Such a judgment is a test of faith for the remnant. Will they still believe God’s promises, which include a future judgment of Babylon (ch. 2) and a future renewal of the work of the exodus for Israel (ch. 3)? The many allusions to the exodus in Hab 3 indicate the promise of a new exodus, a new deliverance for the people of God. Hence, Habakkuk functions as a paradigm for the people of God. He will continue to trust the Lord even if the fig tree does not blossom and vines are lacking fruit (Hab 3:17–18). He will continue to trust in and rejoice in God’s promise of future salvation.

 The canonical context of the book assists us in interpreting Hab 2:4. Like Abraham the people of God are summoned to trust in Yahweh when circumstances conspire against such trust. The fundamental call of Habakkuk is to trust in the Lord. This is not to deny that faithfulness flows from faith, for the former always proceeds from the latter.37 Faith is the foundation and faithfulness is the superstructure. It follows that Paul is a brilliant interpreter of Habakkuk and does not distort its message but capsulizes it. A right relationship with God is obtained by faith, not by keeping the law.’

‘It is the function of the law to convict men of their sin and drive them to faith in the promise. Consequently even the Old Testament saints were saved by their faith in the promise, and not by their obedience to the law.’ (G.B. Wilson)

So, in focusing exclusively on he law, the agitators were missing not only the point of Christ’s death, but also a critical teaching of the OT itself.  The message of justification by faith was there all along.  The agitators would argue: “It is written…”, but Paul could respond, “Again, it is written…”

3:12 But the law is not based on faith, but the one who does the works of the law will live by them.

The law is not based on faith – that is, the supposed means of obtaining a right standing before God by law-keeping is not based on faith.  Paul will argue that the law does have a role; but that role is not to put us right with God.

The reference is to Lev 18:5. Verse 11 has indicated one way to life: faith. This verse outlines another: doing the things commanded by the law. In fact, however, no-one observes the law in its entirety, and so all lie under its curse, rather than its blessing, v10. Obedience to the law, as a way to God, is a dead-end.

‘He introduced this verse with a strong adversative, alla, “on the contrary,” “but,” in order to show that the method of justification called for by the law is wholly at variance with that established through faith. “The one who does these things, that is, the works of the law mentioned earlier in Gal 2:16; 3:2, 10, will live by them.” In connection with v. 10 this statement can be understood as a hypothetical contrary-to-fact condition: if someone really were to fulfill the entire corpus of Pentateuchal law, with its 242 positive commands and 365 prohibitions (according to one rabbinic reckoning), then indeed such a person could stand before God at the bar of judgment and demand admittance to heaven on the basis of his or her performance. Yet where on earth can such a flawless person be found?’ (NAC)

Lev 18:5 is also quoted by Jesus, in his interaction with the legal expert who asked him what he needed to do in order to inherit eternal life (Luke 10:25-28).  When Jesus quoted this verse, the man immediately began to justify himself, whereupon our Lord told the parable of the Good Samaritan, in order to show just how far our best efforts are from true love for God and neighbour.  (George)

3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (because it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) 3:14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles, so that we could receive the promise of the Spirit by faith.

The apostle now seems to be answering an implied objection: ‘If those who rely on observing the law (v10) are under a curse, how are Jews, condemned by their own law, to receive the divine favour?’ In other words, “Who then can be saved?” (Lk 18:26).

Many interpreters think that Paul is referring to ‘we believers’ here. But it is clear that Gentiles are not subject to the Mosaic law, and therefore do not lie under its curse. Therefore, some commentators think that Paul has in mind here those Jews who had become Christians.

Redeemed – Gk exagorazo, occurring only here and in Gal 4:4. The idea is of securing freedom by the payment of a price. The price here is indicated by the expression, ‘by becoming a curse for us’.

Us – who is being referred to here? The word ‘we’ is used by the apostle in a number of ways: ‘we men’; ‘we apostles’; ‘we sinners’; ‘we believers’; ‘we Jews’; ‘we believers’; and so on. The primary meaning here must be ‘we Jewish Christians’, for Paul will mention the Gentiles by way of contrast in v14.

‘We are redeemed from the curse of the law, redeemed from the guilt and power of sin; redeemed from the fear of death; redeemed from “the doctrines and commandments of men.” But we are not only redeemed from: we are also redeemed to. We are redeemed to God. We are a people for a possession, Eph 1:14. We are God’s inheritance, Eph 1:18. We are not our own. God has bought us with his own blood, Acts 20:28. Indeed, we are now so much God’s property that we must never surrender our Christian liberty, because “for freedom, Christ has set us free,” Gal 5:1. When Luther found justification by faith and redemption by the cross of Christ he also found “the freedom of a Christian man;” and he told the whole world, “I cannot be any man’s slave or any church’s slave!” How can we, for whom Christ paid such a price, undo his work by enmeshing ourselves again in human addenda to the law of God?’ (Donald McLeod)

The curse of the law – is ‘the judgement which God’s law pronounces on those who disobey it’ (Stott). This curse is pronounced on all ‘who rely on observing the law’, because no one in fact does observe the law completely, v10. Those under consideration here, ‘in view of Paul’s polemical purposes in Galatians, must include both Jews (the Judaizers) and Gentiles (those of the Galatian converts who might yield to the Judaizers’ persuasion). It follows that the curse of the Law is envisaged in Gal 3:10 as resting, not exclusively on Jews, but on Gentiles as well, so that when Christ is said to have redeemed “us” from the curse of the Law “by becoming for our sake an accursed thing,” (Gal 3:13 NEB) the first person plural pronouns are most naturally understood as referring to both Jews and Gentiles.’ (DPL)

For the ‘curse of the law’, see Deut 27, Deut 28. These chapters are fitted to induce the exclamation, ‘it is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.’

‘Paul understands the death of Christ on the cross as a vicarious bearing of the curse which rightfully falls on all who fail to continue in perfect obedience to the Law.’ (DPL)

‘In the light of the law all men are guilty. There is no acquittal through appeal to a law that commands and never forgives-prohibits and never relents. The violator of the law is under a curse. His doom has been pronounced. Escape is impossible. But on the cross Jesus Christ endured the curse-for “cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree” (Gal 3:10,13) -and a curse that has overtaken its victim is a spent force.’ (ISBE)

‘It is because of the relation between obedience and blessing, disobedience and cursing (Deut 11:26-28; Isa 1:19-20) that Deut 29:12, for example, can speak of God’s covenant as his ‘curse’, and Zec 5:3 can call the Decalogue the ‘curse’. The word of God’s grace and the word of God’s wrath are the same word: the word which promises life is but a savour of death and judgment to the rebel, and therefore a curse. When God’s curse falls on his disobedient people, it is not the abrogation but rather the implementation of his covenant (Lev. 25:14-45). Paul uses this truth to expound the doctrine of redemption. The law is a curse to those who fail to obey it, (Gal 3:10) but Christ redeemed us by becoming a curse for us, (Gal 3:13) and the very means of his death itself proves that he took our place, for ‘cursed be every one that hangs on a tree’. This quotation from Deut 21:23, where ‘accursed of God’ means ‘under God’s curse’, displays the curse of God against sin falling on the Lord Jesus Christ, who thus became a curse for us.’ (NBD)

Christ ‘redeemed us from the curse of the law’ not by repealing the law, for the law is holy, just and good, Rom 7:12, but by rescuing us from its punishment.

Christ bore what we should have borne.  As Morris (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross) notes:

‘This involves a definitely substitutionary idea. If I should have been under a curse, but instead Christ was made a curse, so that now I am free, redeemed from the curse, then his action is of a substitutionary kind.’

‘Christ has redeemed his people from the curse of the law and not from the command of it; he has saved them from the wrath of God, but not from his government.’ (A.W. Pink)

By becoming a curse for us – What we deserved, as those who had violated God’s law, Christ willingly bore.  ‘He took our curse upon himself, and we bear it no more.’ (Morris) There is something outrageous and shocking about this. It shatters our preconception of God as a ‘Father Christmas’. A similarly bold expression is found in 2 Cor 5:21. See also 1 Pet 2:24.

We associate the curse with sin, and Christ had no sin. But ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all’, Isa 53:6. This is a very clear example of the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. The meaning is not, that the Saviour endured precisely the same kind and degree of suffering that they would have experienced had he not intervened, but that his sufferings ‘rendered it right, safe, and honorable in God to pardon sin, and save those in whose room they were sustained.’ (Brown)

J.O. Sanders probes what substitution does not, and does, mean:

‘By substitution we do not mean the saving of a life by mere assistance, as the throwing of a rope to a drowning man; nor by the risking of one life to save another; it is the saving of one life by the loss of another. Christ, as substitute, takes on himself the sinner’s guilt and bears its penalty in the sinner’s stead.’

‘These words have been described as “startling, almost shocking’.  They declare that the only way by which we can be redeemed from the curse of the law (that is, from the judgment which God’s law pronounces on those who disobey it) is that Christ bore it in our place; that he became a curse instead of us; that he endured in his own innocent person the condemnation we had deserved.  This is called “penal substitution”.’ (Stott, Evangelical Truth, p89f.)


To the doctrine of substitution, it might be objected that:-

1. It is unnecessary, since God could forgive sinners without any additional condition or requirement. But God is not only perfect love, desiring the salvation of the sinner, but also perfect justice. The Puritans used to say that there are three things that even God cannot do: he cannot die, lie, or deny himself. And for God to simply turn a blind eye to sin would be for him to deny his own nature.

2. It is impossible, for guilt cannot be transferred from one person to another, neither can the penalty deserved by a guilty person be born by an innocent party. The innocent may suffer, but surely not as the punishment for the wrong-doing of another?

3. It is immoral for the innocent to suffer in place of the guilty. But it is not immoral when the innocent voluntarily pays the penalty, and shoulders the burden, Heb 10:7. Still less is it immoral when the innocent victim knows he has the ability to bring deliverance to many other, has the power to release himself from the punishment, Jn 10, foresees an ample and unparalleled reward, Heb 12:2; Php 2:8-11.

‘It is this “becoming a curse for us” which explains the awful cry of dereliction, of god-forsakenness, which he uttered from the cross.’ (Stott) The Son was banished from the presence of the Father, he was sent Outside, Rev 22:15; to the place of Outer Darkness, Mt 8:12.

The fact that the righteous Son of God dies an accursed death presents an immense problem, until we realise that it was ‘for us’. ‘In my place condemned he stood.’ It is this that makes Calvary not a catastrophe, but a triumph. ‘Without the for, the cross becomes the supreme argument that God is not love; that God is mad and the universe is mad; that there is no God. But with the for it is the light of the world.’ (McLeod)

As George remarks: ‘For us the Son of God became a curse. For us he shed his precious blood. For us he who from all eternity knew only the intimacy of the Father’s bosom came “to stand in that relation with God which normally is the result of sin, estranged from God and the object of his wrath.” All this—for us! What response can we offer except that of wonder, devotion, and trust!’ (Quoting C.K. Barrett)

Here, in brief, but in essence, is the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement.  Although we can and we must see the cross as the supreme demonstration of God’s love, we cannot and we must not exclude the forensic element.  Christ was cursed by God for us: that is what Paul teaches here, and any doctrine of atonement which excludes this or attempts to explain it away is an impoverished doctrine.  One of the reasons this is so important is that it makes us understand that the cross actually achieves its purpose, and does not merely provide us with an admirable ethical model to follow.

‘Like a black thundercloud the Law hung over men’s heads, and they looked up to it in fear that at any minute the lightning of the divine judgement might flame out from its heart. What Could be done? God took the initiative. Christ came and on the Cross bore for us the doom which sin involved…Christ bore the penalty which in strict justice we ought to have borne…Death was the curse of the Law, and that curse Christ took upon himself.’ (VF. Storr, Q. in Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross)

“Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree” – The reference is to Deut 21:23. The reference is not to crucifixion per se, this being a specifically Roman form of execution.  The Jews recognised four methods of execution: stoning, burning, beheading, and strangling.  When a person was put to death as a punishment for a violation of the law of God, the dead body was hung up on a stake, as a public demonstration that he had been executed as a transgressor of God’s law and as an accursed person. The apostle’s meaning, then, is that Christ, in redeeming us from the curse of the law, was treated as accursed himself, as indicated in the very manner of his death.

‘The Hebrew Scriptures clearly taught that anyone hanged on a tree was cursed by God (Deut 21: 23). But the biblical cultures did not execute people with nooses as we think of them; Deuteronomy would have originally referred to the impalement of an already dead body on a piece of wood (hence, the NIV, “hung on a pole”).  But Roman crucifixion had become so widespread that the rabbis had already decided the nature and posture of the execution sufficiently matched the intent and disgrace of impalement so that the same principle applied to a crucified victim.’ (Blomberg, Craig L. The Historical Reliability of the New Testament)

A man was not cursed because he was hung on a tree, but rather the hanging was a sign that he was cursed. (Cole)

1 Pet 2:24 ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we may cease from sinning and live for righteousness. By his wounds you were healed.’

Wright (The Day the Revolution Began) offers a  somewhat revisionist reading: ‘This is not a statement of an abstract works-based atonement theology, though it is often snatched out of context and made to play that role. Many sermons have been preached about how the “curse of the law” (seen as the threatening moral code) is removed by the death of Jesus. Some have even supposed that Paul was regarding Israel’s law itself as a bad thing that had no business pronouncing this “curse” and that Jesus’s death had showed this up. But this has nothing to do with Paul’s meaning. He does not go on— as such sermons regularly have— to say, “The Messiah became a curse for us so that we might be freed from sin and go to heaven,” or anything like it. He says in v. 14 that the Messiah bore the curse of the law, “so that the blessing of Abraham could flow through to the nations in King Jesus— and so that we might receive the promise of the spirit, through faith.”’

Thine, and mine

‘Lord, the condemnation was thine, that the justification might be mine; the agony thine, that the victory might be mine; the pain was thine, and the ease mine; the stripes thine, and the healing balm issuing from them mine; the vinegar and gall were thine, that the honey and sweet might be mine; the curse was thine, that the blessing might be mine; the crown of thorns was thine, that the crown of glory might be mine; the death was thine, the life purchased by it mine; thou paidst the price that I might enjoy the inheritance.’

Flavel, The Fountain of Life

3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us (because it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”) 3:14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles, so that we could receive the promise of the Spirit by faith.

This verse summarises the argument of the chapter so far.

The blessing given to Abraham is the blessing of justification by faith. ‘The apostle moves deliberately from the language of crusing to that of blessing. Christ died for us not only to redeem us from the curse of God, but also to secure for us the blessing of God. He had promised centuries previously to bless Abraham and through his posterity the Gentile nations. And this promised blessing Paul here interprets as “justification,” v8 and “the Spirit,” v14; all who are in Christ are thus richly blessed.’ (Stott, The Cross of Christ, 346).

‘The apostle rounds off this part of his argument with four important words. The first is receive (he is speaking of a gift), the second is the promise (this is not to be seen as an unexpected novelty, but as the fulfilment of God’s purpose from of old), the third is the Spirit (for believers are not left to their own efforts as they try to serve God; the very Spirit of God is given to them; cf. Lk 24:49 Acts 1:4f), and the fourth is faith, another reminder of the truth that Christians do not earn their salvation by hard work, but receive it by faith as God’s good gift.’ (Morris)

By faith – ‘The gospel invitation is to all men, but the assurance of salvation is only for those who are in Christ. Only those who have made the journey to him find rest. We simply make that journey. But that journey is as nothing compared to what God did. Faith and atonement are not symmetrical. He gave his own Son. What do I do? I believe. I make my little journey, my reasonable journey, which takes me to be in Christ. Once I am there, I have everything.’ (McLeod)

The promise of the Spirit is ‘the promised Spirit’, Acts 1:4-5; Eph 1:13.

The thought-sequence in this passage has been:-

  1. All who rely on the law are under a curse.
  2. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.
  3. He did this in order that through him the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles.

In this section (vv10-14), ‘the apostle 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. He speaks like a kind of New Testament Moses, for Moses said, “I have set before you life and death, blessing and curse”.’ (Deut 30:19) (Stott)

‘The Charismatic Movement makes a distinction between having Christ and having the Spirit and tells us that we can be Christians and yet lack the Spirit in the richer manifestations of his presence. But here is the Apostle Paul telling us that what we Christians have is the blessing of Abraham; that that blessing consists in the promise of the Spirit; and that we get that through faith. In other words, if we are Christians at all, if we are in covenant with God at all, then we have the Spirit because the Spirit is God’s great covenant promise.

This is where the debate with the Charismatic Movement should be pitched, not at the point of tongue-speaking. The central issue is this: Can you be in Christ and not be in the Holy Spirit? As far as the New Testament is concerned, our relationship with Christ and our relationship with the Holy Spirit are symmetrical. We cannot divorce being in Christ from being in the Spirit. All the promises of God are yea and amen in Christ Jesus. (2 Cor 1:20) All the promises! Because I am in Christ! The Charismatic Movement is doing exactly what the Galatian Christians were doing and what medieval Catholicism was doing: underestimating, minimising, eroding the significance of our being in Christ. The moment we are in him we have everything: all the promises of God; everything that he has, because the moment we become believers we become heirs of God and joint-heirs with Christ.’ (Rom 8:17) (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

Note the way that justification and the reception of the Spirit are associated in the closest possible terms.  ‘The experience of the Spirit and the status of justification are, for the apostle, inconceivable apart from each other. Each implies the other. Those persons upon whom God bestows the Spirit are justified; the persons whom God reckons righteous have the Spirit poured out upon them.’ (S. Williams)

Inheritance Comes from Promises and not Law, 15-22

3:15 Brothers and sisters, I offer an example from everyday life: When a covenant has been ratified, even though it is only a human contract, no one can set it aside or add anything to it.

Brothers – ‘This term of relationship is especially appropriate at the beginning of a passage that will seek to answer the questions: “What makes a family a family? Who are the true children of Abraham, the heirs of the promise, and thus entitled to call one another brothers and sisters?”‘ (George)

The (later) law cannot trump the (earlier) promise.

Paul argues in v15f that the promise to Abrahamic is irrevocable because it has the force of a binding covenant.  Then, v17f he asserts that the law was introduced as a temporary expedient.

No one can set aside or add to a human covenant…so it is in this case – There is a implied a fortiori here: ‘If a human covenant, duly established, cannot be revoked, how much more is this the case with a divine covenant?’

The word for ‘covenant’ (diatheke) commonly meant ‘will’.  Now, a will a valid only after the death of the testator, and Heb 9:11-21 points to the death of Christ in this regard.

3:16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his descendant. Scripture does not say, “and to the descendants,” referring to many, but “and to your descendant,” referring to one, who is Christ.

The promises – of blessing to Abraham and his progeny.

Not…”and to seeds”…but “and to your seed” – This distinction between ‘seed’ and ‘seeds’ has puzzled many commentators, especially since Paul himself seems to be using ‘seed’ as a plural or collective noun in v29. Some have attempted to resolve the difficulty by suggesting that Paul was arguing ad hominem, using a rabbinic method.

‘The Rabbis were very fond of using arguments which depended on the interpretation of single words; they would erect a whole theology on one word. Paul takes one word in the Abraham story and erects an argument upon it. As the King James Version translates Gen 17:7-8, God says to Abraham, “I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee” and says of his inheritance, “I will give it unto thee and to thy seed after thee.” (Seed is more clearly rendered descendant, as the Revised Standard Version has it.) Paul’s argument is that seed is used in the singular and not in the plural; and that, therefore, God’s promise points not to a great crowd of people but to one single individual; and-argues Paul-the one person in whom the covenant finds its consummation is Jesus Christ. Therefore, the way to peace with God is the way of faith which Abraham took; and we must repeat that way by looking to Jesus Christ in faith.’ (DSB)

‘Paul carefully examines the terms of the Abrahamic covenant and notes that the promises of this covenant were made to Abraham and to his seed. The term seed, Paul explains, is not plural but singular. Therefore the covenant designated one person, not many people, to be the recipient of the promises. That one person, says Paul, is Christ…Paul’s definition of seed contradicts the Jewish nationalistic interpretation of this term. Jews were convinced that the term seed referred to the physical descendants of Abraham, the Jewish people. Therefore they believed it was absolutely necessary to belong to the Jewish nation in order to receive the blessings promised to Abraham.

In Jewish literature the generic singular seed was usually interpreted as a collective singular, referring to the nation of Israel. But seed was also understood by the rabbis to be a specific singular, referring to an individual-for example, Isaac or David or Solomon. Paul’s attention to the grammatical form of this term is very much like the rabbinic practice of exegesis. But Paul’s interpretation is based on his conviction that Christ is the sole heir and channel of God’s promised blessing. So while he uses common Jewish methods of exegesis, Paul’s messianic interpretation of seed restricts the reference to Christ and negates the common nationalistic interpretation. It is no longer necessary to be in the Jewish nation to be a recipient of the promises; it is necessary to be in Christ.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

The oneness of the ‘seed’ in this verse is linked to the oneness of God in v20 and the oneness of God’s people in v28.  ‘According to this view, the original covenant with Abraham envisaged one seed, that is, a single family of faith, a unitary people of God.’ (George)  That is why division between Christians, including that which occurred at Antioch, is so disruptive.

3:17 What I am saying is this: The law that came four hundred thirty years later does not cancel a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to invalidate the promise. 3:18 For if the inheritance is based on the law, it is no longer based on the promise, but God graciously gave it to Abraham through the promise.

The law, introduced 430 years later – Paul’s meaning seems to be, that the law was given 430 years after the time of Abraham.  Hendriksen, putting the relevant OT data together, says that the period of time between Abraham and the giving of the law would be over 600 years.

How much later?

Gal 3:17 – ‘The law, introduced 430 years later…’

In this passage, Paul seems to be saying that the law was given 430 years the Abrahamic covenant.

The figure assigned in Gen 15:13 is 400 years, whereas 430 years is the figure assigned in Ex 12:40 (MT) to the length of stay in Egypt.

MT: The length of time the children of Israel lived in Egypt was 430 years.

LXX: The length of time the children of Israel lived in Egypt and Canaan was 430 years.

SP (Samaritan Pentateuch): The length of time the children of Israel and their fathers lived in Egypt and Canaan was 430 years.

Paul appears to be following either a text that agreed with either the LXX or the SP.  This poses a problem for strict inerrantists, for Paul would then be basing his (inerrant) statement on an errant text.

Hendriksen thinks that Paul is not dating the period from the time of the promise given to Abraham specifically, but rather from the time of the giving of the promise to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob considered as a group.  Hendriksen notes that the terms of the promise are the same in each case (Gen 22:18; 26:4; 28:14).

Alternatively, it could be argued that Paul is using a round number, and the precise duration is irrelevant to his argument.  Cole argues: ‘The round figure has no special importance in itself, except to show the lateness of the Torah as compared with Abraham’s covenant. Whether the Mosaic covenant is later than the Abrahamic covenant by one century or four, there is no contradicting the order in which they occurred.’

Longenecker thinks that Paul is not pitting Genesis 15:13 against Exodus 12:40, ‘but only repeating the traditionally accepted number of years for the time span between the Abrahamic covenant and the Mosaic law.’

The promise – referring, in the first instance, to the promise made to Abraham, but, by extension, looking ahead to the promise of the Holy Spirit (cf. v14).

‘It is not often enough seen that no obligations are imposed upon Abraham. Circumcision is not originally an obligation, but a sign of the covenant, like the rainbow in Genesis 9. It serves to identify the recipient(s) of the covenant, as well as to give a concrete indication that a covenant exists. It is for the protection of the promise, perhaps, like the mark of Cain in Genesis 4. The covenant of Moses, on the other hand, is almost the exact opposite. It imposes specific obligations on the tribes or clans without binding Yahweh to specific obligations.’ (Mendenhall)

3:19 Why then was the law given? It was added because of transgressions, until the arrival of the descendant to whom the promise had been made. It was administered through angels by an intermediary.

It was added because of transgressions – ‘A plumb line can only prove that a crooked wall is crooked. No matter how you use it, a plumb line can’t make a crooked wall straight. The law was God’s plumb line, designed to show all people that they are crooked, or sinful. It was never intended to make us straight or righteous – and, indeed, it never could.’ (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 212)

The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator – The is no indication within the OT itself that angels were involved in the giving of the law.  According to Enns (The Evolution of Adam), Paul is using here a piece of ‘common knowledge’, the source of which is unclear (although it may date at least as far back the 2nd-century BC Book of Jubilees).  Enns’ point is that Paul is writing as a man of his own day and culture, and using current ideas without necessarily vouching for their factual accuracy.

3:20 Now an intermediary is not for one party alone, but God is one.
3:21 Is the law therefore opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that was able to give life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.
3:22 But the scripture imprisoned everything and everyone under sin so that the promise could be given—because of the faithfulness of Jesus Christ—to those who believe.

The Scripture – Paul is probably thinking of the Law, although in Rom 3:9-20 he will demonstrate universal sinfulness from the other two divisions of Hebrew scripture, the Prophets and the Writings.

Faith in Jesus Christ – or, ‘the faithfulness of Jesus Christ’.  The latter interpretation (in Rom 3:22, 26; Gal 2:16; 3:22; Phil 3:9) has been popularised by by Richard Hays; see the online article by Pahl.

Sons of God Are Heirs of Promise, 23-29

3:23 Now before faith came we were held in custody under the law, being kept as prisoners until the coming faith would be revealed. 3:24 Thus the law had become our guardian until Christ, so that we could be declared righteous by faith.

The law was put in charge – A glance at v17 shows that Paul is not referring more narrowly to what we might call the ‘moral law’, but to the Torah as a whole.

The word paidagogos suggests, not a tutor or school-master (as in some of the older translations), but a slave who was entrusted to take a boy to school and elsewhere. He would often be responsible for the boy’s discipline. Thus the purpose of the law was to instruct, supervise, discipline, and lead to Christ.

Wright (Paul for Everyone) likens the role of the law in this case to that of a babysitter, child-minder, or au pair.  The point is that Israel had formerly been a child and needed the law to specially look after it.  But now Israel has reached the age of responsibility, or trustworthiness (for so pistis can be translated) and the child-minder is no longer needed.

George (NAC) cites ancient texts suggesting that paidagogos implies, especially, the idea of discipline.

To lead us to Christ – or ‘until Christ came’ (ESV).

3:25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.
3:26 For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God through faith.

‘The idea that all are children of God is not found in the Bible anywhere. The Old Testament shows God as the Father, not of all, but of his own people, the seed of Abraham. “Israel is my firstborn son, . . . ‘Let my son go’” (Ex 4:22–23). The New Testament has a world vision, but it too shows God as the Father, not of all, but of those who, knowing themselves to be sinners, put their trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as their divine sin–bearer and master, and so become Abraham’s spiritual seed. “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. . . . You are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed” (Gal 3:26–29). Sonship to God is not, therefore, a universal status into which everyone enters by natural birth, but a supernatural gift which one receives through receiving Jesus. “No one comes to the Father”—in other words, is acknowledged by God as a son—”except through me” (Jn 14:6).’ (Packer, Knowing God)

3:27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Baptized into Christ – This may mean, (a) baptized into the body of Christ, i.e. the Christian community; (cf. 1 Cor 12:13) or (b) baptized into Christ himself, i.e. into spiritual fellowship with him.

3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female—for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Compare the similar statements in 1 Cor 12:13 and Col 3:11.

The three spheres of relationship mentioned here – male-female, Jew-Gentile (Greek), slave-free – are also treated in 1 Cor 7.

Fee: ‘These three pairs represent the primary ways people were divided/separated from each other in the structures of the present age that was now passing away (1 Cor 7:31; cf. 1 Cor 2:6): on the basis of race, social standing and gender.’ (in Discovering Biblical Equality, p176)

Noting that this statement follows on immediately from a reference to baptism, George (NAC) suggests that it may itself be part of a baptismal formula.  He adds: ‘Paul was not making a general anthropological claim that can be extrapolated without remainder into political philosophies and social programs.’

‘For Paul, the purpose of Christ’s redemptive work was to set God’s creation free from the curse of Eden. Those “in Christ” were new creations, (2 Cor 5:17) freed from the bondage of sin and its expression in human relationships. (Rom 6:5-7) In the new humanity created in Christ, the culturally and religiously ingrained view that some human beings, on the basis of gender or race or social status, were in some sense inferior could no longer be maintained. (Gal 3:26-28) That was surely one of Paul’s central theological convictions.’ (HSB)

Jew…Greek – ‘Of course, the notion that the gospel has undone the division between Jew and Gentile (cf. Eph 2:11-18) lies behind everything that Paul is saying in this letter. In v 28, however, the apostle gives expression to that truth in powerful fashion, stressing that other divisions as well (slave/free, male/female) have no bearing on our standing before God. While this verse has been used and abused in the attempt to develop a Christian ethic, we cannot afford to ignore its great significance for the subject at hand. And especially in our day, when we have become very conscious of the destructive power of prejudice – whether based on ethnic identity, social standing, or gender – we should both rejoice in this gospel that countenances no spiritual preferences, and learn to conduct ourselves in a way that sets forth that truth before a confused world.’ (NBC)

Slave…free – ‘Surely in this vision the seeds were sown for the ultimate destruction of slavery and all other forms of bondage.’ (Hard Sayings of the Bible)

‘Outside Palestine, where the churches were often established on a household basis, the membership included both masters and servants. Slavery was one of the human divisions that became meaningless in the new community in Christ. (1 Cor 7:22 Gal 3:28) This apparently led to a desire for emancipation (1 Cor 7:20) and perhaps even to the active encouragement of it by some. (1 Tim 6:3-5) Paul was not opposed to manumission if the opportunity was offered, (1 Cor 7:21) but studiously refrained from putting pressure on owners, even where personal sentiment might have led him to do so. (Phm 8,14) Not only was there the practical reason of not laying the churches open to criticism, (1 Tim 6:1f) but the point of principle that all human stations are allotted by God. (1 Cor 7:20) Slaves should therefore aim to please God by their service. (Eph 6:5-8 Col 3:22) The fraternal bond with a believing master should be an added reason for serving him well. (1 Tim 6:2) A master, on the other hand, might well let the fraternal sentiment prevail (Phm. 16), and certainly must treat his slaves with restraint (Eph 6:9) and strict equity.’ (Col 4:1) (NBD)

‘As a rabbi, Paul had given thanks daily, as part of the eighteen benedictions to God, that he had not been born as a Gentile, a slave or a woman. It was his experience of Christ that led him to recognize that these distinctions of superior and inferior were abolished in the new order of things inaugurated in Christ.’ (Hard Sayings of the Bible)

Male nor female – Mk 10:6 – “But from the beginning of creation he made them male and female.”

‘Only Galatians 3:28 contains the phrase neither “male nor female”. In the Greek the phrase stands out because it reads literally “male and female” in distinction from “Jew nor Greek,” “slave nor free.” The phrase exactly echoes the Septuagint of Genesis 1:27: God created man “male and female.” Perhaps early Christians chose this phrase deliberately so as to signify that in baptism a new creation occurs (cf. 2 Cor. 5:17), one that redefines even the most basic features of the original creation.’ (Jervis)

‘There is no distinction, spiritually, into male and female. Difference of sex makes no difference in Christian privileges. But under the law the male had great privileges. Males alone had in their body circumcision, the sign of the covenant, (whereas baptism applies to male and female alike); they alone were capable of being kings and priests, whereas all of either sex are now “kings and priests unto God” (Rev. 1:6); they had prior right to inheritances. In the resurrection the relation of the sexes shall cease (Luke 20:35).’ (JFB)

‘Since each individual now has put on Christ in baptism and wrapped Christ about himself or herself like a garment, each individual now wears, as it were, the same uniform; the differentiating marks that belong to the prebaptismal self no longer appear or have value. Where all are “one,” dyadic differentiators no longer have place.’ (daSilva)

Contrast Paul’s teaching here with that of Tertullian: ‘You are the devil’s gateway; you are the unsealer of that (forbidden) tree; you are the first deserter of the divine law; you are she who persuaded him whom the devil was not valiant enough to attack. You destroyed so easily God’s image, man. On account of your desert – that is, death – even the Son of God had to die.’ (Q in Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 235)

‘William Barclay sums up the low view of women expressed in the Talmud in these words: “In the Jewish form of morning prayer…a Jewish man every morning gave thanks that God had not made him a Gentile, a slave or a woman…In Jewish law a woman was not a person, but a thing. She had no legal rights whatsoever; she was absolutely in her husband’s possession to do with as he willed.’ (Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today, 235)

‘Thomas Aquinas…went so far as to opine that the birth of a girl is the result of a male embryo going wrong; that while a married man’s wife is a convenience to him, in that she enables him to procreate and avoid concupiscence (roving passion, prompting promiscuity), in all other respects a man will always make him a better companion and helpmeet than his wife, or any woman, can ever be. Furthermore, affirmed Aquinas, women are mentally as well as physically weaker than men, and more prone to sin, and are always by their nature subject to some man. Husbands may correct their wives by corporal punishment if necessary, and children ought to love their father more than their mother.’ (Packer, Among God’s Giants, 342f)

No distinction at all?

Galatians 3:28 – There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Have all gender distinctions been abolished by the gospel?

Longenecker thinks so, calling this verse the ‘The most forthright statement on social ethics in all the New Testament’ (although he agrees that ‘the elimination of divisions in these three areas should be seen first of all in terms of spiritual relations: that before God, whatever their differing situations, all people are accepted on the same basis of faith and together make up the one body of Christ.’ (My emphasis).  Intriguingly, Longenecker suggests that an emphasis on creation tends toward subordination, whereas a stress on redemption leads towards equality.

Timothy George notes that

‘the violence with which this verse has been taken out of context and misrepresented as a manifesto for contemporary social egalitarianism is seen in a new translation of the Bible that renders Paul’s words thus: “There is no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual, cleric and lay, white and multicultural.” According to this invidious translation, what Paul elsewhere recognized and condemned as heinous and sinful he here embraced as acceptable and blessed!’ (quoting Sister Fran Feder)

According to George, the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas called for the elimination of gender distinctions by relating an apocryphal dialogue between Jesus and his disciples:

‘Jesus saw infants being suckled. He said to his disciples, “These infants being suckled are like those who enter the Kingdom.” They said to him, “Shall we then, as children, enter the Kingdom?” Jesus said to them, “When you make the two one, and when you make the inside like the outside and the outside like the inside, and the above like the below, and when you make the male and the female one in the same, so that the male not be male nor the female female … then you will enter [the Kingdom].”’

In an article on androgyny, D. Smith writes:

‘the equality or oneness of persons without gender-based identity is implied to be the ideal state in the family of God (e.g., Gal. 3:28).’ (Baker Encyclopedia of Psychology and Counseling)

With more nuance, the article on ‘Woman, Doctrine of’ in the Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible states that

‘the position of a woman of faith before God is assured on the same equal footing as any man of faith. In the Lord Jesus Christ there are no stratifications of sex, race, or social station, “for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:28). This verse speaks of justification, not socialization. In Paul’s day there were still great differences based on sex, race, and social station. Within the assertion of justification in this verse are the seeds of change in socialization. Lines of race, of social station (slave and free) blur between those who know God. Debilitating lines of gender are beginning to blur as well.’

David C. Steinmetz writes:-

‘Women may be forbidden to preach, teach, and celebrate the eucharist only if it can be demonstrated from Scripture that in Christ there is indeed male and female (contra Paul) and that in the last days sons shall prophesy while daughters demurely keep silent (contra Peter).  Women already belong to a royal priesthood.  Otherwise they are not even members of the church.’

Carson, quoting the above, notes that the context of the present passage has to do with justification.  It is in respect of their standing before God that there is no distinction between male and female.  Paul wrote other passages (1 Cor 14:33-36; 1 Tim 2:11-15) which do recognise some distinction between the roles of men and women.  (Exegetical Fallacies, 92f)

Chris Dowd places this verse alongside others which present (he claims) gender variant images:

‘…women are called brothers (Romans 14:10, 1 Corinthians 6:5-6). We are all brides of Christ (Ephesians 5:25-27), all part of the one body (Ephesians 5:30). Paul writes of himself as a woman giving birth (Galatians 4:19) and Galatians 3:28 asserts that there is no male or female but all are one in Christ Jesus.’

The above is cited by Davie, who comments that ‘two things need to be noted in relation to this language. First, this language is metaphorical and as such is not intended to describe the human sexual identity of the people concerned. Secondly, in line with this fact the New Testament continues to divide the Church into men and women (as in the advice about Christian conduct contained in passages such as Ephesians 5:22-33, 1 Timothy 2:8-15 and 1 Peter 3:1-7). A clear division between those who are male and those who are female continues to be maintained.’

With regard to the present verse, Davie urges that when we read it in context we realise that it is

‘not about sexual identity but about spiritual identity. What these verses are saying is that anyone who has faith in Jesus Christ and is baptised (regardless of their race, social standing or sex) is an inheritor of the promise of divine blessing made to Abraham and as such part of the family of God. So men and women do not cease to be men and women, but this distinction does not count in relation to their being heirs of the promise to Abraham.’

Elsewhere, Davie puts it like this:

‘These verses are often read as if St Paul were saying that the difference between men and women established at creation has been done away with amongst Christians. However, that is not his point. These verses are not about sexual identity, but about spiritual identity. Paul means that anyone who has faith in Jesus and is baptised is a member of the family of God regardless of their race, social standing, or sex. Christian men and women are still men and women, but they both have equal standing before God, both as those originally made in God’s image and likeness and as the recipients of the blessing promised to Abraham and delivered through Christ.’

Wayne Grudem agrees that this verse is often inappropriately recruited by egalitarians to support their cause.  Their argument is that role distinctions are abolished because we are ‘all one in Christ Jesus’.  But this is not what the verse says.  To be ‘one in Christ Jesus’ is to be united.  It does not mean that we are all the same.

Grudem and Piper say:

‘The context of Galatians 3:28 makes abundantly clear the sense in which men and women are equal in Christ: they are equally justified by faith (v. 24), equally free from the bondage of legalism (v. 25), equally children of God (v. 26), equally clothed with Christ (v. 27), equally possessed by Christ (v. 29).… Galatians 3:28 does not abolish gender-based roles established by God and redeemed by Christ.’ (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood)

Grudem (citing Hove) adds that Paul, when saying that things are ‘one’, never says that those things are identical.  For example, in Rom 12:4f he says that the many members of the body, which do not all have the same function, are ‘one body in Christ’.  Similarly, in 1 Cor 3:8, the apostle says that those who plant and those who water (i.e. different persons carrying out different tasks) ‘are one’.  In each case, the unity is not of role, but of purpose and function.

Stott remarks that Paul does not claim that all differences between the sexes have been eradicated:

‘This does not mean that Jews and Greeks lost their physical differences, or even their cultural distinctives, for they still spoke, dressed and ate differently; nor that slaves and free people lost their social differences, for most slaves remained slaves and free people free; nor that men lost their maleness and women their femaleness. It means rather that as regards our standing before God, because we are “in Christ” and enjoy a common relationship to him, racial, national, social and sexual distinctions are irrelevant. People of all races and classes, and of both sexes, are equal before him. The context is one of justification by grace alone through faith alone. It affirms that all who by faith are in Christ are equally accepted, equally God’s children, without any distinction, discrimination or favouritism according to race, sex or class. So whatever may need to be said later about sexual roles, there can be no question of one sex being superior or inferior to the other. Before God and in Christ “there is neither male nor female”. We are equal.’ (Issues Facing Christians Today, p332)

See also the discussion in Clare Smith, God’s Good Design, chapter 4.

Kevin DeYoung observes that if sexual differences cease to matter for those who are in Christ, then Paul’s logic in condemning same-sex sexual intimacy (Rom 1:18-32) would make no sense.

Along with many other writers, DeYoung argues that Paul is not obliterating all sexual differences:

‘Rather, he is reminding the Galatians that when it comes to being right before God and being together in Christ, the markers of sex, ethnicity, and station are of no advantage.’

There is indeed an equality between the sexes:

‘Both men and women are held prisoners under the law (3:23), both are justified by faith (3:24), both are set free from the bonds of the law (3:25), both are sons of God in Christ (3:26), both are clothed in Christ (3:27), and both belong to Christ as heirs according to the promise (3:29).’

But Paul’s point is

‘not that maleness and femaleness are abolished in Christ, but that sexual difference neither moves one closer to God nor makes one farther from him.’

Guy Layfield: in his review of Beth Allison Barr’s book ‘The Making of Biblical Womanhood) notes that

‘all of Paul’s references to gender roles were written after he wrote the letter to the church in Galatia. If gender was destroyed as a construct or the curse in the garden was reversed by the New Covenant, why would Paul then go on to make all the references he did to gender roles for the New Testament church?’

For T. Martin, Paul’s point relatives to the restrictive nature of circumcision in the old covenant, and the inclusive nature of baptism in the new.  Martin, according to Garlington,

‘proposes that the pairs of antitheses in 3:28—Jew/Gentile, slave/free, male/female—are rooted in the covenant of circumcision, that is, the Abrahamic covenant of Gen 17:9–14, which precisely makes such distinctions. Martin argues that the verse does not proclaim an absolute abolition of these distinctions but only their irrelevance for entrance into the Christian community: participation in baptism and full membership in the new people hinge solely on faith in Christ. The antithesis male/female particularly attracts his attention. “In response to the Agitators’ insistence on the distinctions in the Covenant of Circumcision, Paul simply denies that these distinctions have any relevance for determining candidates for Christian baptism and entry into the Christian community. Whereas not everyone in the Jewish community is circumcised, everyone in the Christian community is baptized. Thus, baptism into Christ provides for a unity that cannot be realized in a circumcised community”’

Martin quotes Stephen Clark:

‘In this context, the phrase “neither male nor female” takes on a special significance, because women could not be circumcised. Circumcision was a sign of the covenant of Israel and was only open to the male.… The woman [according to Paul], then, comes into the covenant relation of God’s people through her own faith and baptism, and is fully part of the covenant relationship with God.… The free circumcised male was the only full Israelite. It is against this background that we have to understand “neither male nor female”.’

Jervis remarks that the link with circumcision had been made long ago by Justin Martyr.

S. Lewis Johnson, Jr. refers to New Testament scholar F.F. Bruce:

‘Bruce comments, “It is not their distinctiveness, but their inequality of religious role, that is abolished ‘in Christ Jesus.’” Professor Bruce complains that Paul’s other bans of discrimination on racial and social grounds have been accepted “au pied de la lettre” (literally), or litteratim ac verbatim, to use a Latin phrase, while this one has met with restrictions, since people have related it only to “the common access of men and women to baptism, with its introduction to their new existence ‘in Christ.’ ” He insists that the denial of discrimination holds good for the new existence “ ‘in Christ’ in its entirety,” although he admits that circumcision involved a form of discrimination against women that was removed in its demotion from the position of religious law. Other inequities among Jewish and particularly among Gentile women existed. Bruce argues that, if leadership may be given to Gentiles and to slaves in the church fellowship, then why not to women? ‘ (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p158)

Bruce accepts that other Pauline passages do place restrictions on female activities, but insists that these passage should be interpreted and applied in the light of the present passage, and not vice versa.

Johnson responds:

‘First, the antitheses are not parallel, for the distinction between male and female is a distinction arising out of creation, a distinction still maintained in family and church life in the New Testament. Second, it must also be remembered that in this context Paul is not speaking of relationships in the family and church, but of standing before God in righteousness by faith. And, third, the apostle in his later letters, such as 1 Corinthians and 1 Timothy, does set forth just such restrictions as Bruce mentions.’

Richard Hove (Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood) remarks that, taken out of context, this saying could lead to absurd conclusions:

‘In Christ there is neither male nor female’; therefore, there are not two genders, but one; there can be no heterosexual marriage; men and woman should use the same toilet facilities; and so on.  Paul cannot have meant that categories such as male and female do not exist.  He is, rather, using a figure of speech – a merism (a combination of opposites to indicate the entirety) – to express the universality of believers’ status in Christ.  When we say, for example, ‘I search high and low’, we do not merely mean that we search in high places and then in low places: we mean that we searched everywhere.’

That Paul means that there is no distinction between these groups of people as regards salvation, rather than that there is no difference between them, is confirmed by his teaching in Rom 3:21f; 10:11-3.

Hove concludes:-

  1. Oneness in Galatians 3:28 does not imply unqualified equality.
  2. Galatians 3:28 does not primarily address the issue of sexual roles.  This is seen in the overall flow of Paul’s argument, in the logic of the context, and in the meaning of the expression ‘you are all one’, all of which point to Paul’s main concern here being salvation-historical.
  3. Galatians 3:28 does have social implications.  Since all God’s people share in Christ, there is no room for boasting.  Since they are all one in Christ, their attitude and behaviour should be characterised by unity.  Though they are diverse, they enjoy an equal standing in Christ, and all must be cherished and valued.  Since they are diverse, each should seek to understand the perspective and needs of the others (and this applies to mission and evangelism, as well as to church relations).


‘Paul affirms the oneness of males and females in Christ, but he does not claim that maleness and femaleness are irrelevant in every respect. If one were to draw such a conclusion, then Paul would not object to homosexuality, but it is clear that he thinks homosexuality is sinful (Rom 1:26–27; 1 Cor 6:9; 1 Tim 1:10). In the same way, the equality of men and women in Christ does not cancel out, in Paul’s mind, the distinct roles of men and women in marriage (Eph 5:22–33; Col 3:18–19; Titus 2:4–5) or in ministry contexts (1 Cor. 11:2–16; 14:33–36; 1 Tim 2:9–15).’

For Stott, the point is not that all distinctions have been abolished, but that that we have unity in Christ despite these distinctions.

‘What unites the church is a common faith in Christ and a common share in the Spirit. Apart from this one essential, Christians need have nothing else in common at all. We differ from one another in temperament, personality, education, colour, culture, citizenship, language and in many other ways. Thank God we do. The church is a wonderfully inclusive fellowship, in which there is ‘neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female’. In other words, in Christ we have equality. Distinctions of race and status, which are causes of division in other communities, have no place in the Christian community. To bring such things into Christian fellowship is to destroy it. ‘Birds of a feather flock together’ may be true in nature, but it is not a Christian proverb. The glory of the church is not our likeness to one another, but our unlikeness.’ (Christ the Controversialist, p179)

Timothy George cautions:

‘the propriety of women leaders in the church must be decided through careful exegesis of those passages that touch on that issue. Galatians 3:28 cannot legitimately be used either as evidence or counterevidence in this debate. It is regrettable that recent discussions of this theme have obscured the amazing good news Paul set forth in this verse.’


You are all one in Christ Jesus – echoing Gal 3:20, ‘God is one’, which in turn harks back to Deut 6:4.  Just as God himself is unity-in-diversity, so (we might argue) is the church.  Here is the ultimate theological justification of the ‘equal but different’ maxim, favoured by complementarians but rejected by many egalitarians.

“You are all one in Christ Jesus” ultimately reflects the central affirmation that “God is one” (Gal 3:20, reciting Deut 6:4)

Paul does not say that ‘you are all “equal” in Christ Jesus’, but that ‘you are all “one”‘.  He uses the word hen, ‘one’, rather that isos, ‘equal’.  The two words are never used interchangeably.  Hen can carry a range of meanings.  But it does not mean that two things are exactly the same or that they are interchangeable.  In fact, it is used of ‘diverse rather than identical objects’ (A & M Kostenberger, God’s Design for Man and Woman).  Even if we were to regard this phrase as equivalent to, ‘You are all equal in Christ’, we would need carefully to explain and quality it.  Two people are unlikely to be equally good at creative writing, for example, or at lacrosse.  Similar expressions both within the NT (Mt 19:6/Mk 10:8; Jn 10:30; 17:11,21-23; Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 3:8; 10:17; 1 Jn 5:8) and in relevant extra-biblical writings suggest that the underlying thought is of two or more entities that are diverse and different but which are united by some common feature or quality.  So, for example, ‘in 1 Corinthians 3:8 Paul clearly states that the one who plants and the one who waters have different tasks and different rewards, and yet they are one (likely in purpose). Similarly, in Romans 12:5 Paul states that the members of the body are different, with different tasks, but they, too, are “one.”’ (Hove)

What Paul is saying, then, is that they are all united in Christ (not that they are all equal in Christ).  He is stating that there is no difference between believers in respect of their standing and benefits in Christ.  He stresses the universality of these benefits in Gal 3:36,37,38.  This is in keeping with the wider context, which stresses the universality of the new covenant (see also Jer 31:33f, Joel 2:28f, for example).

As George remarks, it is at baptism that this unity is acknowledged, proclaimed and celebrated.  ‘When a person is dipped in the bath of baptism, he comes out a changed man: his former color disappears, he comes out the color of Christ. Whether the person before dipping was a Jew or a Gentile, a slave or a free man, a man or a woman, no longer matters.’ (Bligh)

‘What unites the church is a common faith in Christ and a common share in the Spirit.  Apart from this essential, Christians may have nothing at all in common.  We differ from one another in temperament, personality, education, colour, culture, citizenship, language and in a host of other ways.  Thank God we do.  The church is a wonderfully inclusive fellowship…In Christ we have equality.’ (Stott, Christ the Controversialist, 183)

‘This great statement of verse 28 does not mean that racial, social and sexual distinctions are actually obliterated. Christians are not literally ‘colour-blind’, so that they do not notice whether a person’s skin is black, brown, yellow or white. Nor are they unaware of the cultural and educational background from which people come. Nor do they ignore a person’s sex, treating a woman as if she were a man or a man as if he were a woman. Of course every person belongs to a certain race and nation, has been nurtured in a particular culture, and is either male or female. When we say that Christ has abolished these distinctions, we mean not that they do not exist, but that they do not matter. They are still there, but they no longer create any barriers to fellowship. We recognize each other as equals, brothers and sisters in Christ.’ (Stott, BST)

In what sense have the distinctions between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, been abolished or superseded?  George observes that the three pairs identify the three major cleavages that cut across the human race: ethnicity, sexuality, and economic capacity.  None of these distinctions is inherently evil: without gender differences human procreation would be impossible.  Without ethnic diversity the world of art, music and literature would be infinitely impoverished.  And, even though slavery is a gross perversion of God’s intention, some economic diversity is essential to an orderly society.  Each of these area has become perverted and distorted because of human sin: ‘Nationality and ethnicity have been corrupted by pride, material blessings by greed, and sexuality by lust.’  But a new standard and pattern emerges in the life of the community of the baptised.  Here we discover ‘the existence of a place in the world where things are different: Jews and Gentiles share the same table; slaves and free citizens are treated equally as brothers and sisters; women are accorded a respect that is more substantial than a merely outward and sometimes too-edged “equality.”‘ (Ebeling)

According to Justin Tanis, this passage ‘…calls us to a unity that extends to all and provides us with a way of
seeing one another, not as male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free, but as Christians and children of God first and foremost. Rudy goes on to argue that if ‘Christian’ is the primary identity to which we are called, are the categories of male and female even useful? In fact, if the Christian community fulfils its mission to embrace all, as Rudy suggests, then, she says, ‘surely gender is not the most interesting thing that can be said about each member [of the community].’ This passage paints for us a vision of a world beyond gender, in which there is room for infinite variety and infinite grace.’ (Cited by Davie)

This verse has, in recent years, become the locus classicus for social egalitarians.  One modern rendering of this text seeks to open it up to embrace other distinctions, including that between straight and gay: ‘There is no distinction between heterosexual and homosexual, cleric and lay, white and multicultural.’  As George remarks, ‘according to this invidious translation, what Paul elsewhere recognized and condemned as heinous and sinful he here embraced as acceptable and blessed!’

One problem with this approach is that it tends to ignore, or set aside as less authoritative, Paul’s other statements in 1 Corinthians, the Pastoral Epistles, and elsewhere.  But does this text itself teach that the distinctions mentioned are obliterated for those who are ‘in Christ’?  Looking at Paul’s teaching in the round, we see that he continued to regard himself as a Jew, 1 Cor 9:19–23; Acts 21:26; that he never renounced slavery outright (although he did sow the seeds for its eventual dissolution); and that he recognised the distinctive and complementary roles and ministries of men and women.

‘This does not mean that Jews and Greeks lost their physical differences, or even their cultural distinctives, for they still spoke, dressed and ate differently; nor that slaves and free people lost their social differences, for most slaves remained slaves and free people free; nor that men lost their maleness and women their femaleness.  It means rather that as regards our standing before God, because we are “in Christ” and enjoy a common relationship to him, racial, national, social and sexual distinctions are irrelevant.  People of all races and classes, and of both sexes, are equal before him.  The context is one of justification balone through faith alone.  It affirms that all who by faith are in Christ are equally accepted, equally God’s children, without any distinction, discrimination or favouritism according to race, sex or class.’ (Stott, Issues facing Christians today, 4th ed., p332)

Taking Paul’s overall argument in Galatians, we may re-state the point he is making in this verse as follows: ‘in order to be true believers, Gentiles do not have to become Jews, females do not have to become males, slaves do not have to become free.  The gospel is open to all’.  Questions about the relative roles and statuses of these different groups cannot be settled by this text: their resolution will have to take account of the full biblical revelation.

3:29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to the promise.

‘The declaration of verse 7 is now at length substantiated and expanded by 22 verses of the deepest, most varied, and most comprehensive reasoning that exists in the whole compass of the great Apostle’s writings’ (C. J. Ellicott).

‘There could hardly be a clearer statement of the fact that the church of Christ is the people of God in continuity with the people of God in the Old Testament.’ (Travis, I Believe in the Second Coming of Jesus,p132.