4. Faith Is the Key, not Law (Galatians 3:1-25)

by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Audio (30:58)

What is the core of the gospel? Paul summed it up in his first letter to the Corinthian church:

"For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures." (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)

This doesn't sound very doctrinal. This is because the Christian faith is not primarily philosophical, but is based on two historical events: Jesus'death for our sins and his resurrection. It is from this historical basis that our faith, and our understanding of the world, flow. It is because the Galatians are misunderstanding the vital importance of Christ's crucifixion for our sins that they have become susceptible to the Judaizers'distortions of the gospel. So Paul begins this section with the words:

"You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified." (3:1)

"Foolish" is not a compliment. It doesn't refer to an innocent frivolous, airhead. Rather it means, "unintelligent, dull-witted."[96] In American vernacular it probably should be translated, "You stupid people in Galatia!" (NJB). Why would they do such a thing as to desert what Paul had so clearly portrayed[97] for them -- Christ crucified? It's almost as if someone had put a hex on them,[98] to result in such a change of understanding[99] -- though I don't think Paul really attributes this to black magic.

  Paul had made clear to them that Jesus'death and resurrection changed everything! Jesus fulfilled the law, which is now obsolete. Rather than the Galatians needing to be circumcised in order to be saved, they need only to put their faith in Christ's finished work on the cross. Faith, not law, is the order of the day.

Galatians 3 consists of a series of five arguments that Paul gives to demonstrate to the Galatians that salvation is by faith, not by the law:

  1. Argument from receiving the Spirit (3:2-5)
  2. Argument from Abraham's justification by faith (3:6-9)

  3. Argument from the law bringing a curse (3:10-14)

  4. Argument from the unchangeable nature of a covenant (3:15-18)

  5. Argument from the purpose of the law (3:19-20)

Let's look at these arguments one by one. Remember, Paul is arguing against a Jewish-Christian heresy. If he were trying to argue before Westerners in the twenty-first century, he would doubtless use different arguments that are compelling to us in our culture.

Argument 1. Receiving the Spirit through Faith (3:2-5)

Paul's first argument of faith rather than law is drawn from the Galatians'common experience of the Holy Spirit.

"I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal[100] by human effort? Have you suffered[101] so much for nothing -- if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?" (3:2-5)

Paul's argument is simple. They had received the Holy Spirit long before the Judaizers came trying to get them to observe the Mosaic Law. Therefore, the Holy Spirit came through faith rather than the law.

The average Christian's experience of the Holy Spirit in many of our churches is minimal. Many believe in the Holy Spirit because they've been taught to, but the whole doctrine is pretty fuzzy and ghostly. It's theory, but not experience for far too many.

But Paul's argument in 3:2-5 rests on two inescapable truths: that receiving the Spirit was both (1) clear to the Galatians and (2) something that isn't found in Judaism.

How did the Galatians experience the Holy Spirit? According to this passage it is two-fold:

  1. They "received" the Spirit (3:2) or were "given" the Spirit (3:4) -- the two sides of the transmission of a gift: receiving and giving.
  2. They experienced miracles among them that were attributed to the Holy Spirit (3:4). "Work miracles" is two words. First, the verb energeō (from which we get our English word "energy"), "to bring something about through use of capability, work, produce, effect."[102] The second word, "miracles," is dynamis, "power" (from which we get our words "dynamite, dynamic"). Here it refers to "the power that works wonders."[103] 

  There has been a "cessation movement" within the Evangelical branch of the church to relegate miracles to the apostolic age, with the assertion that they died with the apostles, since they were needed only to establish the church. Once the New Testament was completed, there was no further need for miracles, they say. Rather we should put our faith in the Word.

However, there is no indication in the New Testament that we should expect the miraculous gifts of the Spirit to cease. To use 1 Corinthians 13:8-10 to support cessation of the gifts is sloppy Bible interpretation. Indeed, a careful study of Church history has found evidence of miracles in every age. The twentieth century especially saw an outbreak of the miraculous gifts, most often in groups that were influenced by the Azusa Street Revival (Los Angeles, 1906) and the Charismatic Movement (1960s-1980s).

From Galatians 3:2-5 it's obvious to me that the Holy Spirit was very real and precious to them -- the force of Paul's argument requires it. May He be as real to us and powerful in our midst as he was to the "foolish Galatians"!

Before we leave this section, we need to examine again a key verse -- and a question that is the crux of the letter.

"After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort (sarx)?" (3:3)

What is the meaning of sarx ("flesh") here? As we'll see in Lesson 6, where we study sarx at length, the word can have a variety of meanings. Here Paul seems to be suggesting two ideas in a kind of double entendre, with sarx referring at the same time: (1) to mere human effort as well as (2) to the flesh cut in circumcision (as in 6:13).[104] The Galatians began their Christian life with the supernatural power of the Spirit, but now they want to bring it to perfection by observing the law, attempted by generations of Jews with unassisted human effort, weakened as it was by its tendency toward sin.[105]

Q1. (Galatians 3:2-5) What argument for salvation by faith does Paul give from the presence of the Spirit? What does this tell us about the spiritual environment of the Galatian churches? How can we regain this dynamic environment in our own congregations?

Argument 2. Abraham's Justification by Faith (3:6-9)

Paul's second argument for faith over law comes from Abraham, the Father of Faith.

"6 Consider Abraham: 'He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'
7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance[106] to Abraham: 'All nations will be blessed through you.'9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith." (3:6-9)

 Paul's argument is as follows:

  1. Abraham was justified by faith, according to Genesis 15:6: "Abram believed the LORD, and he credited it to him as righteousness." The word
    "credited" (NIV), "reckoned" (NRSV), "counted" (KJV) is Hebrew ḥāshab, "to think, plan," here with the idea of "to impute" (a specialized sense of 'to make a judgment.').[107] In Greek, logizomai is an accounting term, referring to a calculation.[108] Abraham believed what God had told him and this faith was imputed or counted to him as righteousness.
  2. The Gentiles are Abraham's spiritual children, since God promised Abraham that, "All nations will be blessed through you" (Genesis 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).
  3. Therefore, originally salvation came by faith, without law being in the picture at all. Furthermore, Gentiles especially should expect their salvation to come through faith, since they are Abraham's spiritual children.

Notice two important words in this passage: "righteousness" (dikaiosynē, 3:6) and "justify" (dikaioō, 3:8). They're both formed from the root díkē, "that which is customary, that which is laid down by law," then, "what is righteous."[109]

Dikaiosynē, "righteousness," is "the quality of being upright." In 3:6 it is the "quality or state of juridical correctness with focus on redemptive action, righteousness."[110] If you have a number of unpaid parking tickets, you can be arrested for them. You are legally under a judgment. But if those parking tickets have been paid, when a police officer checks your license, he or she will find no warrant for your arrest. You are righteous in the sense that there is no outstanding charge against you.

Dikaioō, "justify," is used especially of persons, "be acquitted, be pronounced and treated as righteous" and thereby become righteous, receive the divine gift of righteousness through faith in Christ Jesus and apart from law as a basis for evaluation.[111] To justify someone is to declare the righteousness of that person. We have been declared righteous since Christ has settled all the charges against us, taking them upon himself and paying fully the punishment for them in himself. Justification is an important concept in understanding Pauline theology. The term "justification by faith" was Martin Luther's rediscovery from Galatians and Romans that changed his whole understanding of salvation -- that we are made right with God on the basis of our faith in Christ's death for our sins, not on the basis of fulfilling the law, or establishing our own righteousness (Philippians 3:9).

Q2. (Galatians 3:6-9) What is Paul's argument for salvation by faith based on Abraham? In what sense are we "children of Abraham"?

Argument 3. Redeemed from the Curse of the Law (3:10-14)

Paul's third argument for salvation by faith rather than law is based on a concept of curses found in Deuteronomy 21:23 that is somewhat remote from our experience.

"10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.'
11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, 'The righteous will live by faith.'12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, 'The man who does these things will live by them.'13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." (3:10-14)

In this passage, Paul cites four verses and then argues from them, as might a rabbi, that Christ has freed us from the curse of the law on the basis of our faith. Here are the passages:

"'Cursed is the man who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out.'Then all the people shall say, 'Amen!'" (Deuteronomy 27:26)

"See, he is puffed up; his desires are not upright -- but the righteous will live by his faith." (Habakkuk 2:4)

"Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD." (Leviticus 18:5)

"If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree,  you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance." (Deuteronomy 21:22-23)

Paul uses the word "redeem" as a commercial technical term in 3:13 -- though we think of it only as a theological term. The word here is exagorazō, from ek, "removal, separation"[112] + agorazō, "buy, purchase," especially, "to secure the rights to someone by paying a price, 'buy, acquire as property.'"[113] The compound verb in our verse carries the meaning "to redeem," that is, by payment of a price to recover from the power of another, "to ransom, buy off."[114] In the Old Testament, the word "redeem" came from the concept of a kinsman-redeemer, gāʾal, whose responsibility it was as kinsman to redeem his kin from difficulty or danger, to keep their property in the family in case of poverty, to redeem them from slavery if they lost their liberty due to debt.

Thus, when we talk about Christ redeeming us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, we get just a glimpse of what it cost the Holy One to bear upon himself our sin, "to be sin for us" (2 Corinthians 5:21). The cost both to the Father and to the Son can be seen in that lonesome lament from the cross, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1).

Q3. (Galatians 3:10-14) What is Paul's argument for salvation by faith based on the concept of the "curse of the law"? On what basis do the Gentiles receive "the promise of the Spirit" (3:14)?

Argument 4. An Enduring Covenant vs. a Temporary Law (3:15-18)

Paul's fourth argument rests on the enduring nature of a covenant.

"15 Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. 16 The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. The Scripture does not say 'and to seeds,'meaning many people, but 'and to your seed,'meaning one person, who is Christ. 17 What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. 18 For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise." (3:15-18)

His point is that the Abrahamic covenant was duly established and cannot be simply displaced by the law given centuries later. The covenant and promise are still valid. Thus the promise of blessing to Abraham's seed, especially his ultimate descendent, the Messiah, is still in effect. And this promise is based on faith, not on law.

We might question Paul's point that "seed" is singular not plural. But realize that Paul is no fool. He knows that sperma ("seed") can have a collective sense in the singular (as in Roman 4:18). But he is making an important point here. Cole comments:

"He is saying, in typically Jewish fashion, that there is an appropriateness in the use of the singular here in that the true fulfillment is only in connection with Christ."[115]

Now Paul contrasts the still-in-effect covenant with Abraham to the temporary Mosaic Law which is now obsolete.

"19 What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come." (3:19)

Since Paul is just sketching out an argument (developed more fully in Romans), these verses aren't easy to understand. What does "added because of transgressions" mean? This question has been the object of much discussion by Pauline scholars. But to provide a simple answer, Paul believed that the law had three purposes:

  1. To restrain fallen human nature,
  2. To make wrongdoing a legal offense, and
  3. To point us to faith in the Messiah as our only hope.

1. To Restrain Fallen Human Nature

That the law would be given to restrain human nature from unrighteous acts and the corruption of Israel's neighbors is obvious (see 3:23-25). If the Holy God was to dwell in the midst of Israel's camp in the wilderness, then the people need to be holy -- put away the degradations and false gods of Egypt and have a way to atone for their sins. The law restrained them, but it could not change their character or justify them before God. Only the Spirit could do that, as we'll see in 5:17-18.

2. To Make Wrongdoing a Legal Offense or Trespass

Paul sees as an underlying purpose of the law to help people identify their wrong acts as sin, and then to show them their utter need to depend upon God to deliver them from sin. Paul develops this train of thought much more extensively in Romans.

"I would not have known what sin was except through the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, 'Do not covet.'" (Romans 7:7)

"In order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful." (Romans 7:13)

"The law was added so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 5:20-21)

The Pharisees contended that by perfect obedience they could be justified by the law, that is, seen as sinless before God. But Paul opposed this misunderstanding:

"Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin." (Romans 3:20)

3. To Point Us to Faith in the Messiah as Our Only Hope

"So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith." (3:24)

We'll come back to this in a moment in 3:21-25.

Argument 5. A Mediated vs. Unmediated Covenant (3:19b-20)

Now we come to a verse that Terrance Callan calls, "one of the most obscure in the letters of Paul."[116]

"19b The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. 20 A mediator, however, does not represent just one party; but God is one." (3:19b-20)

When Paul mentions a "mediator,"[117] to whom is he referring? There are three possibilities:

  1. Christ. Though Christ is referred to elsewhere as the "only mediator between God and men" (2 Timothy 2:5) and the "mediator of a new covenant" (Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 12:24). Since the point of Paul's argument seems to be that the law is somehow less important because of its mediation, it is not likely that he is referring to Christ as the mediator.
  2. Moses. Clearly, Moses acted as a mediator between God and the people of Israel. Such a title wasn't used in the Bible, but appears in later Jewish literature.[118]
  3. Angels. The Jews had a strong belief that the law was mediated through angels, reflected in the New Testament (here, Acts 7:53, and Hebrews 2:2).[119]

Good arguments can be made for both Moses and angels as the mediator. Whichever it is, Paul's argument seems to be: In the covenant with Abraham, God dealt directly with mankind, but with the Mosaic Law he dealt indirectly, through a mediator. Therefore, the law is inferior to the covenant.

When Paul says, "but God is one," he is referring to the great affirmation in the Shema, "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one" (Deuteronomy 6:4; also cited by Jesus, Mark 12:29). But why does Paul say this? We're not sure -- probably to emphasize the superiority of God's unilateral covenant in contrast to a mediated covenant between two parties.[120]

The Law is Good but Weak (3:21-22)

Paul, trained as a rabbi, has great respect for the law (Romans 7:12; 1 Timothy 1:8). So he takes a moment to defend it. The law is not bad, only incomplete and never intended to replace faith.

"21 Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. 22 But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe." (3:21-22)

This passage, too, is illuminated by Paul's lengthy study of the law and its purpose in Romans. For example, in Romans 3:9-20, he states, "We have already made the charge that Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin" (Romans 3:9). Then he goes on to prove it by citing a number of Old Testament Scriptures (Psalms 5:9; 10:7; 14:1-3; 36:1; 140:3; Isaiah 53:1-3; 59:7-8; Ecclesiastes 7:20).

We're all sinners, Paul says: "for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), and all of us need a Savior. The law can't impart life (3:21b), only the Spirit which is sent by the Messiah can do that (4:6; 5:16, 22-25).

The Law as a Custodian (3:23-25)

So what was the function of the law? Restraint as well as revelation of our sinfulness until we could put our faith in Christ.

"23 Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. 24 So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. 25 Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law." (3:23-25)

The phrase, "put in charge to lead us" (NIV), "disciplinarian" (NRSV), "custodian" (RSV), "tutor" (NASB), "schoolmaster" (KJV) is paidagōgos, "one who has responsibility for someone who needs guidance, guardian, leader, guide."[121] F.F. Bruce explains in some detail:

"The paidagōgos was the personal slave-attendant who accompanied the free-born boy wherever he went, from the time he left his nurse's care. It was his duty to teach the boy good manners (with the use of the birch, if necessary), take him to school (carrying his satchel and other effects), wait for him there ... then take him home and test his memory by making him recite the lesson he had learned. During the boy's minority the paidagōgos imposed a necessary restraint on his liberty until, with his coming of age, he could be trusted to use his liberty responsibly."[122]

The Pharisees saw the law as perfect and complete. But Paul and the writer of
Hebrews saw it as temporary, awaiting the Messiah and the Spirit he would send to us (Hebrews 8:13; 9:9-10).

Q4. (Galatians 3:19-25) What was the purpose of the law? Was it intended to justify a person? In what ways did it restrain sin? In what ways did it expose sin?

Galatians: Discipleship Lessons, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Available in paperback and e-book formats

Paul has spent quite a bit of parchment arguing in five different ways that justification must be through faith in the Messiah's atonement, not by observing the law.

Now that Paul has shown the place of the temporary law, he is ready to turn to the law's permanent replacement -- the Holy Spirit of God. We'll examine this in our next lesson.


Father, thank you for giving the law to Moses to show us our sin. And thank you for giving us the Spirit who can fulfill your love in and through our lives. Let your Spirit be as rich and powerful in our lives and in our congregations as it was in these congregations in Galatia. We need your power! In Jesus'name, we pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?" (Galatians 3:5, NIV)

"Consider Abraham: 'He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'" (Galatians 3:6, NIV)

 "Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, 'The righteous will live by faith.'" (Galatians 3:11, NIV)

"Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'" (Galatians 3:14, NIV)

"He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." (Galatians 3:14, NIV)

"So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith." (Galatians 3:24, NIV)

End Notes

[96] Anoētos, BDAG 84, a. Anoētos derives from a-, negative particle + noeō, "to grasp or comprehend something on the basis of careful thought, perceive, apprehend, understand, gain an insight into" (BDAG 674, 1).

[97] "Clearly portrayed" (NIV), "publicly exhibited" (NRSV), "evidently set forth" (KJV) is prographō, "to set forth for public notice, show forth/portray publicly, proclaim or placard in public" (BDAG 867, 2).

[98] Eugene Peterson, The Message.

[99] "Bewitched" is baskainō, "to exert an evil influence through the eye, bewitch, as with the 'evil eye'someone" (BDAG 172, 1).

[100] "Attain your goal" (NIV), "ending" (NRSV), "made perfect" (KJV) is epiteleō, "to finish something begun, end, bring to an end, finish" (BDAG 383, 1).

[101] "Suffered" (NIV, KJV), "experienced" (NRSV) is paschō, in its original sense, "experience something (pleasant)." Most of the time in the New Testament this word carries a negative idea, "suffer, endure" (BDAG 785, 1).

[102] Energeō, BDAG 335, 2.

[103] Dynamis, BDAG 262, 1b.

[104] Fee (Presence, p. 385) sees both meanings; Burton (Galatians, pp. 149-150), limits the idea of sarx to the flesh of circumcision.

[105] Here the primary contrast between Spirit and flesh is between supernatural and human. However in 5:13 and following, the contrast between Spirit and flesh is different -- between the divine empowerment and corrupt human nature.

[106] Proeuangelizomai, "proclaim good news in advance" (BDAG 869).

[107] Leon J. Wood, ḥāshab, TWOT #767. This variation occurs three times in Qal and three in Niphal, the latter simply being the passive. Genesis 15:6 is cited by both Paul and James (Psalm 105:31; Romans 4:4-6, 9-11, 22-23; James 2:23).

[108] "Credited" (NIV), "reckoned" (NRSV), "accounted" (KJV) is the Greek verb logizomai, "to determine by mathematical process, reckon, calculate," here, "credit something to someone as something" (BDAG 597, 1a).

[109] Gottfried Quell, díkē, ktl., TDNT 2:174-178.

[110] Dikaiosynē, BDAG 248, 2.

[111] Dikaioō, BDAG 240, 2bβ.

[112] Ek, Thayer, VI, 2.

[113] Agorazō, BDAG 14, 2.

[114] Exagorazō, Thayer, 220, 1.

[115] Cole, Galatians, p. 103.

[116] Terrance Callan, "Pauline Midrash: The Exegetical Background of Galatians 3:19b," Journal of Biblical Literature, 99 (1980), 549, cited by Longenecker, Galatians, p. 141.

[117] "Mediator" is mesitēs, "one who mediates between two parties to remove a disagreement or reach a common goal, mediator, arbitrator" (BDAG 634).

[118] Cited by A. Oepke, mesítēs, mesiteúō, TDNT 4:615, 618.

[119] Cole (Galatians, p. 105) notes that, "Like the author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, [Paul] will admit any Jewish claim before show how each such claim is transcended in Christ."

[120] See the various possible meanings discussed in the commentaries, such as Longenecker, Galatians pp. 141-143.

[121] Paidagōgos, BDAG 748.

[122] Bruce, Galatians, p. 182.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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