Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe. — Galatians 3:21-22
In our focus verses, Paul stressed to the Galatians that man is unable to obtain a right standing with God through his own efforts. If obedience to religious teaching could have brought an assurance of eternal life, then “righteousness should have been by the law.” However, deliverance from the bondage of sin can be obtained only through faith in Jesus Christ.
Nearly two thousand years after Paul penned the words of our key verses to the Galatians, Herbert Barrett joined the ranks of individuals who have proved them true. He testified, “Known as a moral man, I was considered a good example for others to follow. I never swore and never used tobacco. The only thing I ever stole was a watermelon, and even then my pride led me to try and thank the man for it rather than say I had done wrong! Those people who thought so highly of me had no idea of the sin in my heart. I was a miserable man who wanted to do right.
“Heaven and Hell were very real places to me. I hoped that someday I would make it to Heaven, but that hope was so far off it didn’t bring much happiness or peace to my heart. I hated sin, but though I belonged to four churches over a period of fourteen years, no one was able to tell me how to stop sinning. The only hope those preachers offered to me was to do my best, so I gritted my teeth, clenched my fists, and said I would live to please God — but I never could do it. Finally, I became so discouraged that I threw up my hands and said, ‘I give up. I’m not going to any more churches. There is no reality there.’
“Oh, how thankful I am that God knew my heart and that He did not give up on me. When I stopped trying to please God in my own strength, He sent the answer I longed for. Three precious women visited my wife and me in our home in Eugene, Oregon. The smile of Heaven was on their faces, and they told of things God had done for them. It sounded marvelous! I asked them, ‘How can I get such an experience?’ They said, ‘Just be honest. God will help you.’ That was quite a challenge to me, and I told them I would go to one of their meetings.
“I praise God for that day. God put a little faith in my heart, and when I knelt at the altar and began to pray, something happened; I heard from Heaven! Jesus met me there, and in the twinkling of an eye, He saved my soul. He changed my heart and gave me a love and a hope that is steadfast and sure. When I stood up from the altar, I was different. God’s glory flooded my soul. From that day until this, there has been no more struggle to serve God!”
Herbert Barrett found by experience the truth that Paul taught — that only faith in the provision made at Calvary by Jesus Christ can free us from the bondage of sin. The most earnest efforts to live righteously in our own strength will fail. The Word of God reveals our unrighteousness as sinners before God, but it is repentance and faith in Jesus’ death that sets us free!
In the first two chapters of this epistle, Paul had defended the authority of his message. In chapter 3, he addressed the spiritual error that was overtaking the Galatians: their growing belief that obedience to the Mosaic Law was necessary for justification.
In verses 1-5, Paul rebuked the Galatians, calling them “foolish.” The Greek word from which this is derived has a connotation of senselessness and indicates a failure to use one’s powers of perception rather than an implication of mental deficiency. Revealing his surprise and indignation at the Galatians’ blindness to spiritual reality by a series of sharp questions, the Apostle pointed to their own experience as proof that justification was by faith rather than by adherence to the “works of the law” (specifically, circumcision).
Paul went on with his rebuttal of a works-based relationship with God by using Abraham as an example (see verses 6-9). The Judaizers, who were Jews by birth, looked to Abraham as their spiritual ancestor, so Paul chose their patriarch to illustrate obtaining a right standing before God by faith, rather than by works. Paul asserted that Abraham’s experience shows that God accounts (reckons or considers) individuals as righteous because of faith in Him.
In verses 10-14, Paul described characteristics of the Law of Moses. The phrase “of the works of the law” (verse 10) refers to those who thought that fulfilling the commands of the Law made them righteous before God. Paul quoted from Deuteronomy 27:26 to show that the Law could not justify, but could only condemn. According to the Law, the only way to stand approved before God was to fulfill it in every detail; the one who did not do so was cursed. Paul went on to state that Christ “hath redeemed us from the curse of the law” (verse 13). Redeemed means “purchasing out of” or “buying back.” By His death, Jesus paid the price to liberate humanity from the curse of sin and the judgment of the Law.
Verses 15-29 deal with the purpose of the Law. First, Paul emphasized the unchanging nature of God’s covenant with Abraham (verses 15-18). The Law could not annul (make invalid) the covenant that God had made previously with Abraham. That covenant was unchanging (see Genesis 17:7), nor did it contain any provisionary “if.” Since the inheritance promised to Abraham was offered on the basis of God’s promise alone, it would continue to stand sure.
Paul went on by explaining that the Law was “added because of transgressions” (verse 19) — its purpose was to point out sin and show man the impossibility of pleasing God through obedience to the Law’s requirements alone. “Till the seed should come” is a reference to Christ, who was the promised descendant of Abraham. Jesus did not revoke the Law of Moses; He said that He came to fulfill the Law, not destroy it (see Matthew 5:17). While serving a purpose during its era, the Law was no longer the way of approaching God. Verses 24-25 liken the Law to a schoolmaster (tutor or custodian). The Apostle pointed out that once individuals come to Jesus Christ in faith, they no longer live under the directions of the schoolmaster, though they remember the instruction. The chapter concludes with the Apostle’s explanation of the believers’ position as sons of God through faith (verses 26-29).
III. Paul’s Gospel defined
A. The principle of faith established (3:1-14)
1. The experience of the Galatians (3:1-5)
2. The example of Abraham (3:6-9)
3. The explanation of the Law’s character (3:10-14)
B. The priority of the promise established
1. The permanence of the promise (3:15-18)
2. The purpose of the Law (3:19-22)
3. The position under the Law and in Christ elaborated
a. Position under the Law (3:23-24)
b. Position in Christ (3:25-29)
The Galatian believers were being led away from the truth of the Gospel that proclaims justification by faith in Christ, rather than by keeping the Law. In our day as well, it is important to understand that human effort will never bring righteousness.