Galatians – Part 4 (Chapter 3, verses 6 to 18)

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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents The Peoples Bible – Galatians by Armin J. Panning, published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 1997

Abraham’s case

However, Paul’s argument didn’t rest only on the Galatians’ own experience, in which they received gracious blessings by faith without working for any of them. He directs them to another example where it was clearly established that God’s greatest blessings were received by faith, the case of the patriarch Abraham.

Galatians Chapter 3, verses 6-9
Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Commentary

Abraham was properly revered as the father of the Jewish nation. When God chose Abraham and his family to be the bearers of the promise and the family from whom the Savior would be born, God was designating them as his chosen nation.

Kinship with Abraham was understandably a source of pride for loyal Jews. Unfortunately, it also became a source of misplaced confidence. When Jesus called his Jewish hearers to repentance and tried to show them their need for a Savior, they objected, “We are Abraham’s children.” That connection with Abraham was their “ticket to heaven.” When the Judaizers urged the Galatians to accept and observe the Mosaic Law, they touted the advantages of aligning themselves with the chosen people and in this way becoming “children of Abraham.”

In response, Paul takes up the case of Abraham. He declares that even Abraham did not enter into a right relationship with God by what he did. Rather, “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

Abraham did not put his confidence in anything he himself did, but trusted in God. He put his
confidence in what God had promised. The object of Abraham’s trust and confidence was nothing other than God’s promised Savior and Messiah. Jesus bears clear testimony to Abraham’s faith when he tells his Jewish opponents, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).

Note that the Bible doesn’t say Abraham changed his pattern of living so as to become righteous enough for God to accept him on this basis. Rather, Abraham believed in Christ, the promised Savior, and that faith “was credited to him as righteousness.” God looked at Abraham as if he were righteous. God credited him with a righteousness that was not the patriarch’s own. God “justified” him by crediting, or imputing, to him the righteousness of Christ. And all this came to Abraham “by faith.” By faith Abraham received everything God had promised him.

But someone may say: “That’s all well and good for Abraham. But what about others? What about the Galatians? What about us?” Paul answers these questions by extending the case of Abraham to make it a general rule when he declares, “Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.”

Entering into that blissful relationship of being accepted by God, being declared justified, is not something that depends upon birth or blood but is open to all who believe and trust in God’s promised Savior. Because justification is by faith, it can include the Galatian believers and us and all believers in between.

In fact, from the very beginning—even when God was calling Abraham—he had in mind to save people by faith in Christ. Hence Paul can say, “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’”

To be sure, when he called Abraham, God made some great and precious promises to him. He promised to give Abraham a special land and make him into a great nation. These were not universal promises, though. Not everyone is born a Jew, nor are all privileged to live in the Promised Land of Palestine.

But God also said to Abraham, “All nations will be blessed through you.” How can that be? Because the heart of God’s promise to Abraham centered on the Savior, who would be born from his line. For that reason Paul can say that in the promise of a Savior made to Abraham, God “announced the gospel in advance.” God foresaw that the Gentiles also would be accepting the promised Savior by faith—and would be justified by that faith. Hence Paul can make this generalization: “So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

Abraham was blessed by faith in Christ, just as everyone else who trusts in Christ is blessed by faith. It is the gospel that saves, not the law with its demands of obedience and performance. In fact, not only does the law not save, but it puts people under its curse. Paul brings that thought into sharp focus in his next section.

The difference between law and gospel

Chapter 3, verses 10-14
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.” Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.” 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.” 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.

Commentary

The Judaizers were bothering the Galatians by insisting that they keep the Mosaic Law with its Old Testament rites and ceremonies. They do not seem to have denied that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah, the promised Savior. What they questioned was Paul’s teaching that faith in Christ alone could save people.

They insisted that something more was necessary: becoming proselytes to Judaism—accepting the precepts of the Mosaic Law, such as observing the dietary laws, keeping the Sabbath, accepting the rite of circumcision—in short, doing something to be sure of God’s favor.

Paul counters by warning that their course of action is dangerous—yes, even fatal—for the law itself makes a most dreadful threat to those who keep it imperfectly. The apostle quotes Deuteronomy 27:26: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Note that there are three ironclad demands in the Deuteronomy passage. The law demands continuous, flawless performance.

Let’s examine these three—in reverse order. Performance: By definition, a law tells us what we are to do. It demands performance. Flawless: Nonperformance leads to punishment. But not just any kind of performance is acceptable. It has to be perfect and complete. Note the Deuteronomy passage’s demand for performance of “everything written in the Book of the Law.” God declares, “Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2). Catching that point, James says in his epistle, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it” (2:10). Continuous: James 2:10 also illustrates this third element. We dare not keep all the law only some of the time. No, as Paul points out through the Deuteronomy quotation, we must continue to do everything written in God’s law.

That threefold demand makes sinners of us all and puts us under the law’s curse. The Judaizers’ way doesn’t work. But, fortunately, Scripture doesn’t hold us to the Judaizers’ plan of salvation. It points us to something quite different. Paul continues: “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by his faith.’ The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does these things will live by them.’”

God’s plan of salvation is not based on human performance but on faith. We have just been directed to the example of Abraham. He believed, and that faith was credited to him as righteousness. Now Paul adds the testimony of the prophet Habakkuk who, speaking by inspiration, said, “The righteous will live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Faith is what God looks for—and the law with its demands for performance has nothing to do with faith.

Take an illustration from everyday life. I may be totally convinced of the value of a 55-mile an hour speed limit on our highways. It conserves fuel; it reduces the number of accidents; it saves lives. I may agree with that law. I may have complete “faith” in its value. But I can’t say I have always obeyed it perfectly, and I’ll still be ticketed if I drive 70 miles an hour. Faith and performance stand worlds apart.

Returning to the sinner’s hope for salvation, God says, “The righteous will live by faith.” That can’t include the law because, as Paul indicates, “The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does these things will live by them.’”

We can’t be saved by our doing Our disobedience, our nonperformance, leaves the law no choice but to condemn us and put us under its curse. But, thank God, there is an escape from its just punishment. “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.’” Here again Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy, which establishes that Christ in his crucifixion did indeed become a curse, for “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deuteronomy 21:23). But the grand truth that Paul here wishes to emphasize is why Jesus became a curse. He did it for us, to redeem us from the curse of the law.

To redeem means to “buy back,” to pay the price necessary to set a slave free. Christ paid what we owed. He took our place. He did what we could not do. He settled our account with the law. By his perfect life and innocent death on the cross Christ made a historical reality of what Abraham and “all nations” had received only by promise. As Paul puts it, “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus.”

And how does this priceless blessing come to the Galatians, to us, and to all believers? Paul continues, “So that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” The law demands performance, and that we cannot supply. Consequently, that way leads to a curse. The only alternative is to despair of our own works and turn in faith to Christ’s merits. Therein lies peace, security, and salvation.

The promise given already to Abraham

Paul has indicated that there is a vast difference between law and gospel. The law requires and makes demands. It takes; it looks for obedience. The gospel, on the other hand, gives; it bestows gifts on those who have no claim to them or reason to expect them.

But there is yet another difference that’s useful for Paul’s readers to keep in mind: the matter of timing. God’s gospel promise actually was given before the Mosaic ceremonies.

Good teacher that he is, Paul helps his readers see the significance of that difference in timing by giving us an example to illustrate the point. He compares the difference in timing to what happens in the matter of administering a person’s last will and testament, or “covenant,” as it’s called in the NIV translation.

Galatians Chapter 3, verses 15-18
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. 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. 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. 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.

Commentary
Paul invites us to think of how a will works, particularly in two aspects. First, a will by definition is a formal document in which the maker expresses his final wishes and desires. He states how he wants to distribute things of value to his heirs. A will is essentially a promise to given property or goods.

A second thing to note is the binding nature of a properly made will, or covenant. The maker of the will can change things as much as he wants, but if it has been duly established and the maker of the will dies, then others can’t arbitrarily change the stipulations of the will to suit their own fancies. These two features of a will, or covenant, have significance in the important doctrinal matter that Paul wishes to illustrate.

First, God’s covenant with Abraham was a promise. Paul writes: “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.”

The apostle points out that the heart and core of God’s covenant with Abraham was the promise of a Savior. To be sure, there was the promise that Abraham would become a great nation and a special land would be given to him, but that was not a universal promise to all people. That was spoken specifically to the Israelites living in the Promised Land of Canaan.

But Abraham was also told, “Through your offspring [literally, “seed”] all nations on earth will be blessed” (Genesis 22:18; see also 26:4; 28:14). The fulfillment of that promise rested not on his many descendants (“seeds”) but on one “seed,” Christ.

Having established that the promise to Abraham was essentially a messianic promise, Paul comes to the second of his two points of comparison with a will, or covenant. The covenant with Abraham was duly established through God’s repeated promise of a Savior for Abraham and all the nations of the earth. And like a human will, or covenant, God’s covenant with Abraham cannot be changed.

We recall that after Abraham died, the patriarchal family moved to Egypt and stayed there for roughly the next four centuries. Here they grew to be a great nation, as promised, but they also fell into bondage to the Egyptians until they were freed by God under Moses’ leadership. After they were delivered, they journeyed to Mount Sinai, where God gave them the law code generally referred to as the Mosaic Law. It was the ceremonies and rituals of this law that the Judaizers were urging the Galatians to keep, as an addition to the simple trust in the gospel promise Paul had proclaimed.

Paul points out that the Judaizers were misapplying the Mosaic Law and acting like dishonest heirs who tamper with the conditions of a will, in their case God’s original covenant with Abraham. Paul counters, “The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.” Paul’s point is this: We don’t ride roughshod over a human will. How much less ought the Judaizers be allowed to overturn God’s covenant with Abraham with a document that didn’t come into being until 430 years later.

Along these same lines, Paul raises another objection to the Judaizers’ way of doing things, namely, that they were changing the whole nature of how God dealt with his people under the Abrahamic covenant.

We’ve noted that a will is a person’s formal promise to give property or goods to his heirs. It’s a gift to them, not something they still need to earn or buy. Paul rightly asserts, “If the inheritance depends on the law [doing some required thing], then it no longer depends on a promise [receiving it freely as a gift].”

If the executor of a will told an heir, “You’ve been named as the recipient of your uncle’s farm, but you’ll have to pay a thousand dollars an acre to get it or work ten years for it,” the heir would cry foul, and rightly so. Paul makes it clear that the same holds true in the spiritual realm. He says, “God in his grace gave it [the inheritance of salvation] to Abraham through a promise.” Paul was right in preaching to the Galatians a message of salvation purely by grace, a free gift from God, because that’s how God gave it to Abraham. The Judaizers messed it up by suggesting that in addition to believing in Christ, certain ceremonies had to be kept and some rituals needed to be
observed if one was to be sure of salvation. It’s a common mistake, one still made by Christian religious leaders who advocate faith in Christ but then require works of penance, urge the performance of certain tasks, or look for monetary contributions at a prescribed level or for any other required “law-work.” Relying on our performance nullifies God’s grace. Law and gospel don’t mix.

The End

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