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In this letter Paul addressed what he termed a “desertion” (NASB) from God to a different gospel (1:6). This was a serious theological matter and quickly brought with it a forceful response from the Apostle (1:8). Those who introduced their heretical teaching of Christian bondage to the Law had done so amid sharp personal attacks upon Paul, his character (1:10-14), and his apostleship (1:18-2:10). Paul begins his retort to this vexing problem brought on by the Judaizers with a historical discussion of the issue as it relates to the Church in general (2:11-21).
Paul recalled how Peter, a Jew, while visiting in Syrian Antioch had dispensed with certain elements of the Law in his personal life, but upon the arrival of other more strict observers of the Law, Peter hypocritically separated himself from the Gentiles. Paul recalled how he rebuked Peter, asking if he, being a Jew, lived like a Gentile, how could he justify compelling the Gentiles to live like Jews? After all, the Law never justified anyone (2:16).
Paul went on to address the question of whether justification by faith and the believer’s release from the curse of the Law makes Christ the cause of sin. The answer is a resounding “No!” Such thinking, as Paul now refutes, is characteristic of legalism. It goes like this: The teaching of grace and release from the Law produces lawlessness. But such legalistic thinking results not in righteousness, but a rebuilding of what was once destroyed (i.e., the curse of the Law) and a re-imprisonment of the soul as a transgressor in bondage to the penalty of the Law. Legalism never produces true righteousness; it only makes its adherents slaves and prisoners. Paul said in verse 19, “For through the Law I died to the Law, that I might live to God.” What does that mean? How does “dying to the Law” result in the ability to live to God? He explains in verse 20 the truth to which the legalists are blind, that those who are in Christ have already died with Christ and that all of the requirements of the Law have been fully satisfied. This is not a setting aside of the Law, but rather the fulfillment of the requirements of the Law in Christ. As such, grace becomes not an excuse to sin, but the power to continue serving God in spite of the fact that we frequently fail, for we are yet imperfect in soul and body. The Apostle John said that those who tout grace as license to sin do not know Christ, or the power of the Spirit of God (cf., 1 Jn. 1:1-6; 3:9-10). Are we so foolish as to think that the Law could accomplish more than the living and indwelling Christ and his Holy Spirit? The idea that righteousness comes through external regulation is the theology of legalism, but as Paul concludes in verse 21, if the Law was a means of righteousness, then Christ died in vain. For Christians to rebuild the Law as a means of obtaining righteousness is to nullify the grace of God. Paul next turned his attention to the question of what, if any, use the Law has for the Christian.
Paul began with a severe reprimand: “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you.” The implication is clear: the church had fallen, as it were, under the influence of a spell. These are tough words both for the Galatians and for those who had misled them. Paul’s first argumentative question is simply this: “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” He has a purpose in asking such a question. The Galatians had received the Spirit of God at the time they placed their faith in Christ; this had undoubtedly resulted in the manifestation of the Spirit through the exercise of spiritual gifts within the church. Paul knew this. He wants them now to consider the absurdity of their shift from grace to law. If the Holy Spirit, whose presence is the evidence of salvation in progress, could not be attained on the basis of law, but by faith alone, how could they now think that the process of salvation could be completed by observance of the Law? It’s easy to see why Paul uses the analogy of witchcraft, for to Paul it seemed that only one under an evil spell could be so thoroughly deceived. Will a man enter salvation by faith and then seek to complete that salvation by the deeds of the Law? That would be like accelerating a five-hundred horsepower speedboat up to top speed, and then switching off the engines and trying to maintain the momentum with a broken paddle! If the Law had sanctifying power, Christ would not have had to die in the first place (cf., 2:21)!
In 3:6-9 Paul makes the case that faith, as the means of obtaining righteousness before God, was established long before the Law was given, since Abraham “believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Thus the principle was established in the Old Testament that justification is by faith, and the Law, which came later, could not change that; it could only lead men to the conclusion that they need God’s forgiveness and righteousness, supplied by his perfect Son, of which the Old Testament sacrifices were merely a prefigurement.
Paul now begins to deal with the true effect of the Law (3:10‑18) and how this relates to God’s intended purpose for the Law (3:19‑4:7). We may well skip to Paul’s question in 4:21, “Tell me, you who want to be under law, do you not listen to the law?” What does the Law accomplish? Paul says it places one under a curse (3:10), that it has no power to justify (v. 11), and that the Law is not of faith (v. 12). Paul was pointing out that faith and Law are two completely incompatible principles. What is the implication of this statement? Simply put, one who walks by the Law is not walking by faith. Could it be that legalists do not realize that in looking to the Law they are rejecting the principle of faith? The incompatibility of the two is certainly evident in this passage. One might ask how faith and Law could be incompatible if they both have their origin in God, but in so saying they miss the point of the Law entirely; the Law was not intended to be a means of obtaining righteousness, but as a light to show man his sinfulness. When I go into a lavatory, I turn on the light so I can see that my face or hands are dirty. I don’t wash with the light; I wash with soap, for soap has the power to cleanse, whereas light has only the power to reveal. In the same way, the Law has only the ability to reveal sin; it has no power to cleanse. Law and grace both come from God, and when used properly they are compatible; they only become incompatible when one attempts to use the Law to do what only grace can accomplish.
Legalists object that the Law is not too difficult to keep (sometimes citing Deuteronomy 30:11-14). However, when God commanded the children of Israel to keep the Law (Deut. 29:9) and told them that it would not be too difficult for them (Deut. 30:11-14), he was referring not to the moral code alone, but to the Law comprehensively, which through the sacrificial system made provision, at least typically and symbolically, for failure to perfectly keep the moral code. In other words, the provision of sacrifice under the Law anticipated failure on the part of the worshipers to keep the moral code even outwardly, to say nothing of keeping it inwardly, yet when the provisions of the sacrificial system were applied, the Law, when viewed comprehensively, was considered to have been kept. In other words, the system contained a remedy of sorts, albeit only symbolic, of God’s ultimate sacrifice of his Son. The point is that while the Law as a system could be kept, if one includes the remedy of sacrifice, the moral component of the Law by itself could not be kept by men in their fallen state. When legalists imply that the Law can be kept, they mean that the moral code can be kept. This is a thoroughly unbiblical idea even from a strictly Old Testament perspective, and not only is it an unbiblical idea, it is contrary to the principle of faith. Faith does not say, “What can I do to establish my own righteousness,” but rather, “I believe that God has done for me what I could not do for myself.” These two principles are mutually exclusive; to live by one is to deny the other. Paul is clear on this point and he quotes Leviticus 18:5 as support. It was Christ who redeemed us from the curse of the Law (v. 13) in order that we might receive the blessing of the promise (Jer. 31:31-33) on the basis of faith alone. Faith is the divinely appointed means of obtaining righteousness, and the Law that came about four hundred years later did not, indeed could not change that (vv. 16-18), for the eternal covenant of promise had already been ratified (v. 15).
Here Paul addressed the purpose of the Law. He began with the question: “Why the Law then?” In other words, given what has already been said—that the promise (of salvation) was by faith, and the Law is not of faith—he now addresses what must certainly be the question remaining in the minds of his hearers: If the promise was to be received by faith, why did God subsequently give the Law 430 years later? His answer is straightforward: The Law was added because of transgressions until Christ, the promised seed, should come. In other words, Paul said that the Law was a stopgap measure, never intended to be permanent. It was, as it were, a bandage until the wound could be cured. He quickly addressed an additional question sure to arise in the minds of his readers: If faith and law are incompatible principles, is the Law somehow contrary to the promises of God? Paul’s answer is “No,” the Law does not contradict the promise by faith simply because the Law was never an alternative to faith. That is to say, the Law was never intended as a means of obtaining righteousness; its only purpose was to shed enough light in the darkness of sin to point the way to the only true solution to the problem. That solution is Christ (vv. 23-24). The Law pointed the way to Christ through the power of condemnation, foreclosing all options save one—faith in Christ alone. Some insist that those who teach grace through faith alone as the means of obtaining the promise of salvation are opposed to the Law, but that is untrue. The Law, when properly understood, was never an alternative to faith; it is rather an inducement to faith. But once faith appears, the Law serves no further purpose; indeed its continued application would be injurious to faith. Those who teach grace through faith alone as the means of obtaining the promises simply understand the proper relationship between the Law and faith. (One could make the case that the real antinomians are those who distort the purpose of the Law by attempting to make it into something that it is not, thus perverting the true intent of the Law.)
Paul reminded the Galatians that before they came to know God, or rather came to be known by him, indicating God’s sovereignty in their salvation, they were slaves of a religion consisting of rules and regulations. These things, Paul said, are “weak” and “worthless,” mere “elemental” (elementary) things. Paul expressed his concern that perhaps his ministry had been in vain, for (by implication) Paul’s ministry, and by extension all of his apostolic letters were tuned to a completely different frequency, indeed a different form of religion. This is serious talk, and it underscores Paul’s firm belief that faith and Law are completely incompatible when the Law is viewed as a means of obtaining righteousness.
Paul now draws upon familiar source material from the Old Testament. He is not interpreting that material, merely using it as an analogy to illustrate his point. Legalists among the Galatians advocated a blending of faith and law, but Paul warns that faith cannot co-exist with law. The very presence of law is injurious to faith, for it tells us to draw close to God through self-regulation, and to measure our progress by the same. Paul’s point is that just as Isaac and Ishmael could not co-exist together, without Ishmael’s presence being detrimental to Isaac, neither can faith and law co-exist. Any attempt to combine the two will ultimately end in the destruction of faith, for faith is by definition trusting someone else to do what one acknowledges he cannot do for himself. Just as God commanded that the bondwoman and her son were to be cast out, so now Paul applies the same to the Law; there is simply no place for legalism in the life of faith because legalism is destructive to faith.
The Law represents slavery, and Paul urged the Galatian believers, having been freed from that yoke, not to return to it. His warning in verses 2-4 is poignant. He tells them that if they return to the Law, Christ will be of no benefit to them. He says in verse 4, “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (in terms of their doctrine). These were people who having made a profession of faith in Christ were seeking to be perfected in the flesh (according to the Law, cf. 3:3), and in so doing were manifesting the shallowness of their faith. Paul had in mind that if those in the Galatian churches who were involved did not heed his warning, they might ultimately prove not to be true believers. This is consistent with other New Testament teaching regarding personal apostasy (1 Tim. 4:1-3; 2 Pt 2:1-21; 1 Jn. 2:19; Heb. 3:1-14; 6:4-12; 10:26-31; 12:14-29).
It is faith, not the Law, and certainly not faith plus Law that leads to righteousness (v. 5). The Law, symbolized by circumcision, means nothing to those who are in Christ (v. 6). Before the legalists entered the picture the Galatians were running well, but the legalists proved to be a stumbling block to their faith (v. 7). Paul asserts that this legalism did not come from God (v. 8), and he was concerned that the entire church could become corrupted by this false teaching (v. 9). Nevertheless, he expressed his confidence in the Galatians, that they would adopt the correct understanding of this issue, that salvation—all of it from start to finish—is of faith (vv. 10-12). That isn’t to say that faith doesn’t result in works; true faith always results in works, but not works of the Law under threat of penalty, but rather obedience from a transformed and grateful heart flooded with joy at pleasing God.
Does freedom from the Law mean freedom to sin? Certainly not! It means freedom to live apart from condemnation. It means freedom to please God out of a heart of love, joy, and gratitude. The Law is completely fulfilled by love, and that is Christ’s command to his Church (Jn. 13:34)—what more do we need? We are saved by grace through faith, and commanded and empowered by the Holy Spirit to love one another. What advantage does the Law offer?
Given what Paul has said, the question that naturally arises is this: Does the Law have relevance in the present era (the age of grace)? The Law is of two parts; there is in the Law that part wherein the perfection and holiness of God is seen (the moral code) and which the Law merely illuminates, though dimly in comparison to Christ; and there is that part which prescribed the obligations of the Jewish nation with respect to the covenant made with them. The knowledge of God and the holiness he requires will always result in condemnation to those who fall short of God’s perfect standard of holiness. However, the covenantal aspect of the Law, that is, its operative principle of external working through regulations, penalties, ceremonies, etc., has been replaced by the inner working of the Holy Spirit in accordance with the new covenant. Sin is still sin. But the operative principle has changed; “the law” (the moral compass) is now written within, and transgressions are not the domain of civil or ceremonial/sacrificial law; they are matters of relationship, matters of the heart (Jer. 31:31-33). What the Law could not do working from without, the implanted law, the Law of the Spirit, accomplishes from within; thus is the demise of the principle of legalism, and there can be no return to it; it was replaced because it was useless for anything but light, and a greater light has arrived. What this means is that the proper pursuit of righteousness is forevermore removed from the realm of laws, and centered in the only place from which personal righteousness can originate—from within the redeemed and sanctified heart wherein the Spirit of God dwells and performs his work. Those who wish to return to the Law in order to bring about righteousness fail to understand the true nature of the task before us; it is not the mere regulation of behavior, it is the transformation of soul and spirit by the power of the gospel, a task that can only be accomplished through faith.
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Copyright 2005, 2017 Sam A. Smith