Galatians 3:5 and following offers an insightful contrast between the life of faith and the role of law. The Apostle Paul points out that the ancient father of nations, Abraham, embodies the life of faith, having been declared righteous not because of any works on his part, but because he “believed God” (Galatians 3:6; Genesis 15:6). This is significant in the following ways:
First, as the father of the nations, Abraham influences not only the Jewish people, but the Gentile people as well. For Paul, whose letter to the Galatians is a letter to Gentiles, this is a powerful note, for it invites the Gentile Christians to recognize that they too have a special place in God’s economy, being the descendants of one of Earth’s “spiritual elite”—a hero whose righteousness was not based upon law but upon faith. If that was so for Abraham who is the father of the Gentiles, then the Gentiles could also potentially be declared righteous by faith.
Secondly, Abraham’s righteousness came exclusively at God’s doing, not by any effort on Abraham’s part. Genesis 15 paints a remarkable portrait of the great patriarch receiving from God a promise of life and legacy. Indeed, God ratified this promise in a very one-sided way, walking between the animal sacrifices that Abraham had lain out. Historically, two parties seeking to ratify a covenant would walk through such sacrifices. In this case, however, only God walked through. God made the promise to Abraham, and Abraham added nothing to it. His only volitional response to the entire process was that he believed God. It was his faith that allowed him access to God’s mercy and grace.
Thirdly, the Apostle Paul tells us that it was Christ’s death that secured for Abraham the promise that God offered. “In Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come ot the Gentiles” (Galatians 3:14). Abraham believed that God would keep his covenant. Abraham trusted God to act on Abraham’s behalf. Abraham understood that God would pay the price for the covenant. Abraham just did not know how this would exactly come about. When Jesus Christ was crucified, millenia later, this guarantee of righteousness was solidified.
Lastly, the Apostle Paul reminds us that Abraham was declared righteous over four centuries before the Old Testament Law was even presented. Even if Abraham thought he should earn his way to God, the law did not yet exist. It would have been impossible for Abraham to secure his righteous standing through works of law. Indeed, the law was completely and totally irrelevant to Abraham’s relationship with God.
Which begs an important question, which Paul seeks to answer beginning in Galatians 3:19: Why then the law?
Broadly speaking, the law has three purposes. To begin with, it provided the Hebrew people with an ethical and moral worldview that they desperately needed after centuries of subhuman conditions as slaves in Egypt. It fasttracked for them an understanding of God’s holiness, and how that holiness could define their moral existence should they so choose. Having lived centuries in the idol-infested land of Egypt, the law given to Moses provided for the Israelites a point of reference on how to live productive, structured, and generally holy lives.
More importantly, however, the law was designed to expose the reality of sin. After all, no one could keep the law in its entirety. It was impossible. Following the rules completely was not even feasible; indeed, only Christ himself could do that. The Hebrew man or woman’s attempt to keep the law only heightened his or her awareness of how hard it was and how often he or she fell short. This failure to keep the law revealed something about the nature of sin and shame. As such, this failure stirred within the soul a longing for some intervention.
Thus, still more importantly, the law was designed to point to the remedy for the failure, which is the person of Jesus Christ. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). Jesus is the answer to the law’s work of exposing sin. The law “was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made” (Galatians 3:19), and that offspring is Jesus Christ.
Paul tells us in Galatians 3:24-25 that the law was a “guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” In so many ways the law worked as a personal trainer or harsh coach, always pointing out our weaknesses and failures, showing ways we must improve and pushing us really hard toward something greater. But then this guardian hands us over to Jesus Christ, who completely accepts us with all our failures and foibles because of his own work at the cross. With him we have rest. With him we are declared righteous. With him we are free.
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“Write This Down” is a summary of select teaching moments offered by Pastor Matthew. The preceding summary is from the message “Those Who Are of Faith,” part of the sermon series “Galatians: No Other Gospel,” presented on the weekend of May 27, 2012, at Bethel Church.