III. Justified by Faith, Not by the Law (Galatians 3:1–4:31)
III. Justified by Faith, Not by the Law (3:1–4:31)
3:1 You foolish Galatians! In the Bible, a fool isn’t someone who lacks intelligence, formal education, or rational capacity. It’s someone who lacks spiritual sense. The Galatian church had been tricked; they’d been duped. It was as if someone had cast a spell on or hypnotized them. After all, they had clearly heard the gospel from Paul. They had come face-to-face with the reality that Jesus Christ was crucified, which made the law obsolete (Heb 8:13). This was central to the gospel. To believe the false teachers who were encouraging the Galatians to embrace circumcision was, in essence, to make Christ’s death unnecessary (2:21). It showed a lack of spiritual sense.
3:2-4 Paul highlights their inconsistency by asking a series of questions. Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard? (3:2) In other words, did you get saved and receive the Spirit by keeping the Ten Commandments? Clearly, the Galatians were saved and received the Holy Spirit when they put their faith in Christ alone. After beginning by the Spirit, are you now finishing by the flesh? (3:3). Are you justified (beginning) by the Spirit’s application of the death of Christ to your life, but being sanctified (finishing) by your flesh—by your human effort apart from the work of the Spirit? No. Sanctification comes through the empowerment of the Spirit in our lives (see 2 Cor 3:17-18), not from our own will power, effort, or rule keeping.
3:5 Does God . . . work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law? Of course not. Miracles by definition involve the invasion of the supernatural world into the natural world. No matter how hard you work, you can’t pull off the miraculous. This can only happen through faith in the power of the Holy Spirit.
3:6 What God requires is faith, complete trust that he can and will do as he promised. Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, citing as an example Abraham who believed God. Abraham’s faith was credited to him for righteousness. When God promised Abraham numerous descendants, Abraham didn’t try to earn that promise from God; he simply believed what God said. If, therefore, the great patriarch Abraham was declared righteous on account of his faith (and not because he was circumcised), why did the Galatians need to become circumcised?
3:7-9 Abraham’s sons—his spiritual children, both Jews and Gentiles—are those who have faith in God, not those who seek to keep the law (3:7). The Judaizers were just plain wrong. The gospel was announced ahead of time to Abraham when God promised that all the nations would be blessed through him (3:8; Gen 12:3). They would be blessed through “the seed” of Abraham, Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16, 19). God’s blessings come to those who have faith like Abraham (3:9), who exercised faith before the giving of the law. Trying to keep the law to earn acceptance from God is a dead-end street.
3:10 Blessing doesn’t come through law keeping. If you depend on it to make you right with God, you’re in for a shock because those who rely on the works of the law are actually under a curse. Why? Because Scripture says in Deuteronomy 27:26, Everyone who does not do everything written in the book of the law is cursed. When it comes to our standing before a holy God, only perfection is acceptable. But even on our best days, we’re nowhere close to perfect. Unless you obey everything in God’s law, you’re under his judgment. His righteous nature demands it. As James says, “Whoever keeps the entire law, and yet stumbles at one point, is guilty of breaking it all” (Jas 2:10).
Consider two travelers who are running late. One misses his plane by one hour; the other misses the same plane by one minute. Which man is better off? Neither—they’ve both missed the flight! Regardless of your track record of attempting to obey God’s commands, your efforts are not good enough because you’re not perfect. To meet God’s standard, you’d have to obey all the law, all the time, all your life—even in your thoughts and motivations. Ninety-nine percent won’t cut it.
3:11-12 Paul continues to point to the Old Testament. Even there it was clear that justification comes through faith, not through the law. According to Habakkuk the prophet, the righteous will live by faith (3:11; see Hab 2:4). The same faith that saves also sanctifies believers who live their lives by faith. The law, on the other hand, says that the righteous will live by doing things (Gal 2:12; see Lev 18:5)—that is, by keeping the Mosaic law or any other set of fleshly performance-based rule keeping. But perfect obedience to the law is impossible. The law simply shows us that we are incapable of keeping it.
3:13 God, thankfully, stepped in. In the midst of our despair, while we were under his curse because of our sins against his law, Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law. Redemption is a beautiful picture of what Christ did for us. A slave could be redeemed for a price and set free (see Lev 25:47-49). God had redeemed Israel from Egyptian slavery (Deut 24:18), and Christ redeemed us from sin and death. How could he do this? By becoming a curse for us. On the cross, God took the sins of the whole world and credited them to Christ’s account. Thus, he was cursed for us so that he might serve as a perfect substitute for us, and so that he might fulfill Scripture: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree (Deut 21:23).
3:14 Paul tells us God’s purpose in all of this. It was that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles by Christ Jesus. Remember: God promised to bless all the nations (the Gentiles) through Abraham (3:8; see Gen 12:3). This blessing—justification by faith—comes to the world through the seed, the descendant of Abraham: Jesus Christ (Gal 3:16, 19). As a result of Christ’s work, all people who have faith in him can receive the promised Holy Spirit. You cannot inherit, earn, or buy the Holy Spirit. You can only receive him as a free gift from God through his Son. It is the Spirit’s role to activate the perfect righteousness of Christ, who has already fulfilled the law, in the life of the believer who lives by faith.
3:15 Paul uses an illustration of an earthly reality to help his readers understand a spiritual reality. A validated human will can’t be altered. You can’t make changes to it or supersede it. The Galatians would not have argued with this.
3:16-17 Having established this, he moves to the spiritual reality. First, he reminded them that God spoke his covenant promises . . . to Abraham and to his seed—not to multiple seeds, but to one seed, Christ (3:16). Jesus is the true seed of Abraham. And, as Paul will explain, those who are united to Christ by faith inherit Abraham’s covenant promises (3:19-26). Second, Paul makes it clear that the law—which came 430 years after God’s covenant with Abraham—could not invalidate that covenant (3:17). In fact, all the law could do was validate Israel’s fellowship with God. It could not establish a relationship or empower their fellowship. It served as a measuring tool.
Just as a human will cannot be supplanted (3:15), so the Abrahamic covenant could not be supplanted by the Mosaic law. God’s covenant with Abraham existed long before he gave Israel the law. And it was ratified unilaterally since it was solely dependent on God (see Gen 15:1-18).
3:18 By pushing the law as the basis for salvation, the Judaizers were essentially saying that God’s law had eradicated God’s promises to Abraham. But God unconditionally promised Abraham an inheritance—the blessing of all nations through justification by faith. Therefore, this inheritance is not based on the law. So keeping the law has nothing to do with being justified before God.
3:19-20 If the law can’t justify (2:16), can’t provide the Spirit (3:2), and only brings a curse (3:10), what was its point? Why then was the law given? What was God up to? Paul gives three answers. First, God gave the law because of Israel’s transgressions (3:19). Their sin produced the need for the law, which served as a means of restraint. Sometimes parents establish a rule (which formerly didn’t exist) to deal with behavior in their children that cannot be tolerated. The law identified the actions that were contrary to God’s will and that would result in his wrath.
Second, the law was temporary. It was given until the Seed to whom the promise was made would come (3:19). Paul has already said that this Seed is Christ (3:16), the descendant of Abraham. God’s promise to bless all the nations through Abraham has been fulfilled through Christ (3:8, 14). Through faith in him, we receive the blessing of justification, a righteous standing before God, and the power for sanctification through the work of the Holy Spirit. The coming of Christ issued in a new administration of grace, cancelling the old administration of the law (Eph 1:9-12).
Third, the law was second class. Why? God put it into effect through angels by means of a mediator (3:19). He used both divine intermediaries (angels; see Acts 7:53; Heb 2:2) and a human intermediary (Moses; see Exod 32:15-16) to establish the law. But when it came to God’s covenant with Abraham, God spoke his promises directly to the patriarch. “A mediator” is used when two parties are involved. Such was the case with the law. God established the law, and Israel was obligated to keep it. In the case of the Abrahamic covenant, though, only one party was obligated: God (3:20). He alone would fulfill his promises.
3:21-23 In light of all this, one of Paul’s readers might have concluded that the law was contrary to God’s promises—that they were opposed to one another. Thus Paul exclaims, Absolutely not! God doesn’t work against himself. One simply has to understand what the law can do and what it cannot. People couldn’t become righteous on the basis of the law because people are sinners, incapable of keeping it. The law can’t empower sinners to obey; it can’t give life (3:21). Instead, the law served the promises by helping prepare the way. It revealed God’s righteous standards and imprisoned everyone under sin’s power so that people were positioned to receive the promise through faith in Jesus Christ (3:22).
The law is like a mirror. When you look in a mirror, it shows you that you need to brush your hair, wash your face, and straighten your clothes. But it can’t do any of those things for you. The mirror shows your faults, but it can’t fix them. That’s what the law does for sinful people. It reveals our problem, our disobedience. But it can’t enable us to obey.
3:24-26 The law served as our guardian until Christ (3:24). In ancient Greco-Roman society, the paidagogos (translated in the CSB as “guardian”) was a household slave who was responsible for looking after youn-ger children, providing them with moral instruction and discipline. Thus, the law functioned in this temporary way, preparing us to come to Christ by faith, not by works of the law. With the coming of faith, we no longer have need of a guardian (3:24-25). To become sons of God and to grow in our Christian lives requires only faith in Christ Jesus (3:26). The Judaizers were wrong. The Galatians didn’t need anything else.
3:27 Those of you who were baptized into Christ have been clothed with Christ. Here Paul speaks of spiritual baptism, the baptism of the Holy Spirit, which is shared by all believers (see 1 Cor 12:13). Jesus himself baptizes believers “with the Holy Spirit” (Matt 3:11). Everyone who puts faith in Christ is baptized into his body and clothed with his righteousness. Spiritual growth is the ongoing process of the Holy Spirit making our condition equal to our position.
3:28-29 As a result, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male and female; since you are all one in Christ Jesus. Paul is not saying that these distinctions cease to exist. He is saying that in spite of our human differences we are all unified because we are one in Christ (3:28). No one is superior to anyone else before God. We all share equally in our relationship with him through Jesus. Thus, the Galatians didn’t have to keep the law and undergo circumcision as the Judaizers insisted. They didn’t have to become Jews. The Galatians already belonged to Christ (3:29), since they were “clothed with” him (3:27) and were “one in” him (3:28). Since Christ is the true seed of Abraham (3:16, 19), then those united with him by faith are heirs with Christ and, by extension, Abraham’s seed spiritually (3:29; since God still has a plan for the physical seed of Abraham, Rom 11:1).
If you trust in Jesus Christ as the perfect substitutionary sacrifice for your sins, then the same is true of you. You have been justified and have a righteous standing before God because he has clothed you with the righteousness of his Son. Through faith in Christ, you are adopted into God’s family and receive the Holy Spirit, sharing in this relationship with all believers. You cannot earn salvation and grow properly in your walk with the Lord by keeping the law. It is the free gift of God.
4:1-3 Paul uses an illustration to further explain the role of the law. In Greco-Roman society, though a child was an heir who would inherit his father’s estate and become the owner of everything, he was really no different than a slave (4:1). Until the time set by his father, the child wasn’t free to leave and had no inheritance. Instead, he lived under guardians and trustees (4:2). In the same way, we (Jews and Gentiles) when we were children (before coming to faith in Christ) were in slavery under the elements of the world (4:3)—whether Jews under the law or Gentiles under false religion. Both systems were based on a philosophy that you have to perform to get God to accept you and to bless you. This perspective is the essence of legalism and has the effect of putting God in our debt—which, of course, he cannot be.
4:4-7 At the appropriate time, God sent his Son (4:4) This was the time prophesied by the prophet Daniel of an ascending fourth and final human kingdom that would be overcome by Messiah (Dan 2:40-45; 7:1-28). The Roman Empire serves as a miniature, visible illustration of the worldwide scope and dominance of the kingdom Messiah came to proclaim and offer.
He was born of a woman, born under the law (4:4). The Son of God had to become incarnate as a Jew, a member of the Mosaic covenant, so that he could perfectly obey and fulfill the law (Matt 5:17-18). Only then could he redeem those under it (4:5; see 3:13). By paying the price of redemption, Jesus makes the slave no longer a slave but a son and an heir (4:7) because he has been adopted into the family (4:5). Every member of the Trinity is at work in Christians, filling us with the full presence of God as we pray: Believers in the Son have the Spirit in their hearts, leading them to cry, Abba, Father! (4:6). Our former father, Satan (see Eph 2:3), has lost all rights over us, and we have no obligation to obey him or the flesh (see Rom 8:12). We have a brand new family under the stewardship of a new teacher and guide.
4:8-9 Previously, the Galatians had lived as idolaters. They didn’t know God and were enslaved to things that were not gods (4:8). After placing faith in Christ, they did know God. And, even better, they were known by God. Why, when they enjoyed this reality, this freedom, would they want to be enslaved once again by bringing themselves under the law? (4:9). Why return to something that binds you when Christ came to set you free?
4:10-12 The Judaizers had sought to convince the Galatians to observe the Jewish religious calendar as part of their law-keeping efforts to obtain acceptance from God (4:10). When he learned of this, Paul became concerned that his efforts at disciple-making were wasted on them (4:11). He therefore urges the Galatians to become like him because he had become like them (4:12)—that is, he was like a Gentile who was under no obligation to keep the law. They, on the other hand, were headed in the other direction, placing themselves back under the law.
4:13-16 Paul reminds them of his first visit with them when he preached the gospel to them. Though he suffered from a physical condition and a weakness of the flesh, they did not despise him but embraced him just the same (4:13-14). They had received him as an angel, as even Jesus himself (4:14). They would have done anything for him (4:15). So, what had happened? Why were they now turning against him and the gospel? He had spoken the truth to them. Why were they now treating him like an enemy? (4:16).
4:17-20 The Judaizers had been working against Paul, undermining him. They courted the Galatians, flattering them and seeking to disconnect them from Paul’s ministry (4:17). They had disgraceful motives. They were false teachers who didn’t want what was best for the churches; they wanted the Galatian believers to revere and honor them. In contrast, Paul had honorable intentions toward the Galatians. He even compares himself to a mother in labor. He was suffering on their behalf, wanting to deliver them from false doctrine and see them transformed into the image of Christ (4:19). But this could only happen if they lived by faith, not by the law. Paul longed to be with them (4:20). His confusion, pain, and sorrow for them demonstrate the great love he had for those he brought to Christ. This group was trading the freedom of a relationship of love for the slavery of the law.
4:21-23 It was clear to Paul that many of the Galatians had been deceived and desired to be under the law (4:21). So he wanted to make sure that they understood what the law was all about. Paul uses two of Abraham’s sons and their mothers to make his appeal. Ishmael was born to Hagar, a slave. Isaac was born to Sarah, a free woman (4:22). Though Ishmael was born by natural means, Isaac was born through supernatural intervention to a woman past her child-bearing years—as a result of God’s promise (4:23).
4:24-27 Paul explains that he is treating the women figuratively in order to contrast law and grace. This contrast is reflected in two covenants (4:24). Hagar represents the Mosaic covenant given at Mount Sinai. The Jews who remain under this covenant are, like Hagar, slaves—slaves to the law (4:25). Such was the earthly Jerusalem. But the Jerusalem above is free (4:26)—that is, “the new Jerusalem,” which will come “down out of heaven from God” one day (Rev 21:2). This city corresponds to Sarah, who represents God’s covenant of promise with Abraham, which was fulfilled in Christ and his new covenant sacrifice. The children of this covenant are free children of grace. Paul then quotes from Isaiah 54:1, which likened Israel in Babylonian exile to a childless woman. Just as Israel would be released from captivity and blessed with numerous children (Gal 4:27), so Sarah—a once barren woman—received a promised son and numerous descendants.
4:28-31 In the same way, the Galatian believers were like Isaac, Abraham’s son, children of promise (4:28). They were the recipients of God’s promise to justify the Gentiles through faith in Christ (3:8-9). They were children of grace, of freedom (4:31). But just as Ishmael persecuted Isaac (4:29; Gen 21:9), so the Judaizers who promoted law keeping in order to be made right or remain right with God were persecuting believers with their false teaching (Gal 4:29). In the same way that Sarah cast out the slave woman and her son for mocking Isaac (Gen 21:10), so too the Galatians should cast out the Judaizers for their legalism.
The legalist, who functions under the law, has no inheritance alongside the believer who is under grace. Law and grace cannot co-exist in the same house (or in the same church). Salvation and spiritual development cannot take place when these two are under the same roof. Followers of Christ are not to live under the law but to live under grace, responding to the love of God by faith through obedience. Paul further explains what this life looks like in chapter 5.