Luke's BA Thesis on Galatians 3:1-14!
Updated: Jan 1, 2021
The argument of Galatians 3:1-14 and whether Paul demonstrates Protestant or Catholic teaching on salvation
THEO 490: Senior Seminar
Dr. Thomas Adam Van Wart
The thrust of this paper will be a detailed analysis of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:1-14, which has to do with whether the Gentiles become sons of Abraham and receive the Spirit of God through the law or through faith. Specifically, though, this paper will answer the question regarding whether he is condemning the Catholic teaching on faith, works, and justification within Gal. 3. I believe he does not condemn it. Many Protestants think Paul does condemn the Catholic teaching on justification because he attacks justification by “works of the law,” which sounds like the Catholic teaching. For the Protestant founders, Martin Luther and John Calvin, will insist constantly in their Scripture commentaries that Paul is attacking a doctrine of justification which fuses human works into the picture of justification. This can be called the “Old Perspective on Paul” (OPP), since a growing number of scholars follow a new interpretation of Paul, as we shall see. Those within the OPP will say that Paul is putting forward an argument for sola fide, that is, justification by faith alone.
Typically, they will emphasize verses 10-11, which says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live (Gal. 3:10-11).’” Catholicism’s insistence on good works and sacraments are seen as being under Paul’s umbrella of “law” (Gal. 3:11, 13) or “works of the law” (Gal. 3:2, 5, 10), and Paul states that those who rely on such works are under a curse. So, any member of the Catholic Church who believes in salvation by faith and works is under a curse. This is a huge claim to make if they are interpreting Scripture correctly. This paper will look into those “works of the law” to see if they really are referring to the same kind of works as Catholicism does.
Scholars of the “New Perspective on Paul” (NPP) will say an emphatic “no” to that understanding of works of the law, saying that these works are mainly the Jewish ceremonies of the Mosaic Law. They see Paul as being particularly focused on the problem of Galatian Christians becoming Jews, that is, “Judaizing,” and following Moses and the Mosaic Covenant – not them falling into a Catholic soteriology. The Galatians would be abandoning the Christian Gospel, which follows the Messiah and the New Covenant. Galatians, according to them, is about the Mosaic Covenant vs. the “New” and fulfilled Covenant (Matt. 5:17), which, we shall see, includes good works. I believe this New Perspective on Paul is correct, that Paul is not critiquing Catholic teachings in Galatians, but rather, Christians who were leaving the New Covenant, and going to the Mosaic Covenant; I also believe that Paul falls into the Catholic camp on salvation because he emphasizes the utter necessity of works later on in Galatians. Paul teaches that Christians go to heaven not merely because of faith alone, but also because they obeyed Christ. God the Father demands obedience from His children, and if His children reject Him in a serious way, their inheritance (Heaven) is forfeited.
What are “works of the Law”?
So those “works of the Law” are the old boundary markers which characterized the Mosaic Covenant, declaring who is in and who is out of God’s family. Paul declares that there are new boundary markers, meaning the old has passed away. Works of the Law are not only that, though. They are also the moral laws of the Mosaic Covenant. Obedience to those moral laws under the Mosaic Covenant also are problematic for Paul, because the Holy Spirit had not been given in that Covenant to empower Christians to obey. Under the New Covenant, however, the Spirit is given, which allows Christians to keep the law, as God had promised through the prophet Ezekiel (Ez. 36:27). Faith in the Messiah flows out into the Spirit’s gift of love (Gal. 5:6,22), and that love is the fulfillment of the whole Law (Gal. 5:14). Paul tells the Galatians to obey the Spirit (Gal. 5:25), which implies obedience to the moral laws of the Old Covenant. So the outward “works” of the Law, like circumcision, have passed away in Christ (Gal. 5:1), but the inner “works” of the Law, like the 10 Commandments, are still valid (Matt. 19:17). Jesus Himself had said He did not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it (Mt. 5:17). He intensified the moral works of the Mosaic Law for Christians, such as bringing the commandment to “not commit adultery” to mean “not lust for another.” Neither circumcision nor the ten Commandments will put one into the New Covenant; but rather, faith and the new circumcision of Christ (which is baptism: Col. 2:11-12) bring one into that Covenant, and the love of the Spirit (ex. 10 Commandments) must be obeyed to keep one in that Covenant. If this paradigm shift occurs, then it lays the groundwork for the Protestant to see the necessity for baptism and good works, which will be discussed at the end.
To explain this thoroughly, I will provide each verse of Gal. 3:1-14, then comment on what the passage says. Based on the research I have done for this paper, I believe the scholars of the “New Perspective” are correct in their interpretation of what Paul means. That Galatians 3 is about Christians leaving the New Covenant for the Mosaic Covenant, that is, works of the Law, and not about condemning the Catholic teaching. Christians were getting fooled by the Agitators who taught that one gets into the group of “saved” individuals, destined for Heaven, only by works of the Law (Acts 15:1). Works of the Law, according to the New Perspective, are primarily those actions by the Jewish community which differentiated them from other peoples and cultures, such as circumcision (Gal. 5:2) and feast days (Gal. 4:10). They are secondarily obedience to the moral laws (10 Commandments).
For if the Galatians receive circumcision from the Agitators, they would be “bound to keep the whole law” (Galatians 5:3) and, “Christ will be of no advantage to [them]” (Galatians 5:2). The Galatians will end up in the “old” system of salvation, rather than the new. So “works of the law” does not mean Catholic sacraments or good works, but the whole law system and identity of the Jewish Law. It was living like a Jew. Now, that “code” defined their relationship with God, and Paul says that it is rather faith which defines that. They were forsaking Jesus for Moses, as John 1:17 says, “For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” The Galatians received the Spirit through faith, so the works of the Law are not needed. Paul then goes more in-depth into what that faith entails, saying that the sacrament of baptism and good works are necessary for salvation. The climax of his argument in chapter 3 states that the Galatians are baptized, so they are “in” Christ. Good works out of love need to flow out from that faith in Galatians 5. Living under “works of the Law” is pitted against living under the Messiah.
This conclusion is reached through the unique insights of top Pauline scholars: N.T. Wright, J. Louis Martyn, and Douglas J. Moo. Similar to an academic article, the topic is focused to justification, yet, similar to a small commentary, I will be focusing on each verse in the beginning of Galatians 3. Context of this epistle will be needed to help understand Galatians 3, for vital details, such as Galatians 2:16’s reference to works of the law, need to be consulted. Some overview of the Catholic teaching would be in order though before discussing the text.
Catholic soteriology is the teachings of the Church on salvation. The Church teaches principally about justification and salvation during the Council of Trent in the mid-1500’s.
"By which words, a description of the Justification of the impious is indicated,-as being a translation, from that state wherein man is born a child of the first Adam, to the state of grace, and of the adoption of the sons of God, through the second Adam, Jesus Christ, our Saviour. And this translation, since the promulgation of the Gospel, cannot be effected, without the laver of regeneration, or the desire thereof, as it is written; unless a man be born again of water and the Holy Ghost, he cannot enter into the Kingdom of God."
Man is born in sin, as David says, “Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me (Ps. 51:5).” When he has faith (Jn. 3:16), repents (Ac. 5:31), and receives baptism (Jn. 3:5), the atonement of Christ is applied to the man and he is “transferred” from a child of Adam to a child of God through Christ. That is called “justification.” From that state of “salvation” or state of “grace,” he must continue living a life of faith “working in love” (Gal. 5:6), so that it is like he has been given a pure robe that he must keep until death, that he may “bear it before the judgment-seat of our Lord Jesus Christ, and may have life everlasting.” His works of love are what maintain his pure robe, because if he stops doing good and does evil, Heaven will be forfeited. The robe will be thrown off. Some might say that Catholicism teaches we can “earn” our salvation. Rather, it teaches that we are “justified freely, because…none of those things which precede justification-whether faith or works-merit the grace itself of justification.” Anything done as a son of Adam – a non-Christian – does nothing regarding us receiving justification. Justification is a free gift, man simply believes the message of the Gospel, decides to change his life, and receives baptism.
Introduction to Galatians: Destination
It is difficult to speak about the argument of Galatians 3, and for that matter the whole controversy over faith and works, without some background information to the epistle. But I will not go too in-depth here, for this paper is presupposing some knowledge, such as what Christianity is, who Paul is, etc. Galatia is a general region in Asia Minor, modern day Turkey, east of the Aegean Sea, and north-west of Jerusalem. The exact people Paul is speaking about is somewhat of a mystery, for “Galatia” could be either the north, closer to the Black Sea, or the south, closer to the Mediterranean Sea.
Introduction to Galatians: Characters
Paul: A Jew from the Pharisee party that had an encounter with Christ and became the most well-known Christian missionary. He converted the people of Galatia (“They went through the region of…Galatia,” Ac. 16:6), who probably had never even heard of Judaism, and told them that the Jewish Messiah had died for them so they could enter God’s family. After converting them, he moved on to new communities to convert, but then later heard about the Galatians becoming influenced by the agitators and “fall[ing] from grace” (Gal. 5:4).
The Galatians: Pagan (Gentile) people who worshipped many false gods (Gal. 4:8-9), yet were told about Jesus Christ by Paul (Gal. 3:1), and became Christians, “in Christ” (Gal. 3:27). They then convert to the heresy which the agitators spew, which is entering the New Covenant, then entering the Old Covenant again through circumcision.
The Agitators: A group of Jewish-Christian missionaries originating in Jerusalem who went to Galatia to get them circumcised and to start following the Mosaic Law (Gal. 6:12). They probably quoted from the Old Testament Scriptures to make those points, of which Paul refutes in Galatians 3 by giving the proper understanding of them (ex. Genesis 17:10-14, where God says that circumcision is the sign of the everlasting covenant between God and Abraham. Paul says that that sign of the Covenant was a temporary sign, which was to be fulfilled and replaced by baptism (Col. 2:11-12)). Paul analyzes in-depth what the Old Testament Scriptures really said, and answers the question: do Christians get into the family of God by works of the law (circumcision and other works) - as the Agitators said, or by faith (as Paul said)? The authority of Paul is on the line.
Introduction to Galatians: Chapters 1-2
To help lay the groundwork for what has happened already in the epistle, it seems appropriate to briefly summarize. Starting with chapter one, Paul speaks about his amazement that the Galatians have already left the Gospel that he preached to them. He states that there is no other Gospel, and that if another “Gospel” is preached, “let him be accursed (Gal. 1:8-9).” But where did Paul’s Gospel come from? He says that it came from a “revelation of Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:12).” Paul has to emphasize that probably because the Agitators said his Gospel was false and came from himself. Paul shows that his Gospel is a source worthy of belief. Then Paul goes into the story of his conversion and how God “set me apart” to deliver the Gospel to the Gentiles (Gal. 1:15). He needs to emphasize that to show that he is not a false apostle as the Agitators made him out to be.
Chapter two is about how Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem to let the apostles hear the Gospel they preached. Paul says they added nothing to it. In fact, “James and Cephas and John” gave them, “the right hand of fellowship” (Gal. 2:9). The apostles could tell that Paul and Barnabas were called to go to the uncircumcised Gentiles to preach the Gospel. This signifies that Paul’s Gospel is not different from the other apostles. For the Agitators may have claimed that what they preached to the Galatians was the same as the apostles in Jerusalem, and that Paul and Barnabas were outsiders. Then, while Paul and Barnabas were in Jerusalem, some “false brethren” tried to get Paul and Barnabas “into bondage,” that is, under the yoke of the Mosaic Law. Even all those years ago, Paul and Barnabas resisted them (Gal. 2:4-5), for they were not in accord with the Gospel.
Then, in verses 11-21, Paul speaks about his confrontation with Peter. Peter had sinned in his actions when he followed the Mosaic Law for a brief moment. He had refused to eat with Gentiles when he was in Antioch. For one of the purity laws of the Mosaic Law was that Jews could not eat with non-Jews. Such an action by Peter, due to his status as leader of the flock, implied to Christians that they had to obey the Law to reach heaven. Paul emphatically rebuked that action, stating that man reaches heaven by the universal action of faith, and not by following the “works of the Law” (Gal. 2:16). To connect the dots, “works of the Law” in the immediate context refers to Peter’s obedience to the Jewish purity laws. For both Jews and Gentiles can be justified by faith, which automatically dismantles any separation between them. Peter had taken on a new identity when he followed the Jewish law, an identity as part of the Mosaic Covenant. That created a separation between him (who is now in the camp of the Jews) and the New Covenant (which was the fulfillment of Judaism). He was, by this action, implying to the Gentiles that they needed to become Jews to be a part of the family of God. That is exactly what the Agitators were doing, and Paul uses this episode as a springboard to talk about justification by faith. After saying he confronted Peter, however, Paul says, “We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners” (Gal. 2:15). “Gentiles sinners” means, “Lesser breeds” or “those outside the Law.” He is talking about ethnic identity. That is dividing up the Christian Church when it should not be, where all are “justified by faith in Christ” (Gal. 2:16). The boundary marker is faith. Justification is not found by “living like a Jew” and separating oneself from “Gentile sinners” as Peter did, for they are not the true family of God. It is by faith.
Paul expands upon this episode with Peter, pulling out all the implications from it. He states why he has been associating himself with these “Gentile sinners” - which is against the Law. The reason is because the Mosaic Covenant has brought forth the New Covenant. For if, Paul says, he were to “build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor” (Gal 2:18). He cannot divide himself from Gentiles. N.T. Wright sums up well what Paul is saying, “If, having pulled down the wall of partition between myself and the Gentiles, having discovered that it is abolished through the Messiah, I then build it up again by separating myself from the Gentiles, all I accomplish is to erect a sign (the Torah itself!) which says ‘you have transgressed.’” This new identity is brought out in the next verses, “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me; and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).” The family of God is based on faith in the Messiah, who established this new family when He gave up His life on a cross. Paul had “died to the Law” (Gal. 2:19), he left the Mosaic Covenant for its fulfillment, the Messiah’s New Covenant kingdom of God. He died to the old identity found in the Law by being crucified with Christ, and rose with Christ into a new identity. That happened when Paul, as a Jew, believed in Christ and was “baptized into him.” So, Paul says to Peter, if you leave the Jew and Gentile family of the Messiah, and stay on the side of the Jews by putting up a wall, the Law will still tell you that you have transgressed. Peter is condemned by the Law since he does not keep it perfectly. Paul knows what he is doing, he will not “nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose” (Gal. 2:21).
Membership in the family of God (justification) is no longer based on Law, Jesus established a new identity through His death. It “reconstitutes the people of God, in a way which means that they come out from under the rule of Torah and into the new world which God himself is making.” Justification is the “status” of family membership, according to Wright, and not “a moral quality” as Protestants claim. Although there definitely is a lawcourt usage for “righteousness” which was given to someone who “the court has found in their favor” it has given way “to the clear sense of ‘membership of God’s people” within Galatians 2. Galatians 2:16’s point, then, is that Jews under the Torah are not in the family of God, rather, God has redefined it according to the Messiah. This sets the stage for chapter three.
Moo points out that this chapter is set apart from the previous way Paul has been speaking, for he contrasts “O foolish Galatians,” with “that earlier address to ‘brothers and sisters.’” Paul, “issues his rebuke in the form of five rhetorical questions” which is within each of the first five verses of chapter three. This rebuke which Paul starts off is really the second rebuke from what he gave in 1:6-10. In verses 1-6, “the key motif is the experience[s] of the Galatians,” and how they received those experiences. Was it by works of the law or by faith they received the Spirit? The Galatians had fallen under the false guidance of the Agitators (false teachers) who said the works of the law were necessary for salvation and the Spirit. Paul wants to flip flop the Galatians’ thinking, so that they no longer believe those lies. The focus is not on how they began as much as “how they are to continue.” Repent and start living the truth of the Gospel, he says, which is that it is by faith that one lives – not Torah (Rom. 3:31).
Why this focus on the Spirit though? The reason it is so central is because the prophets said that the New Covenant, the restoration from the Mosaic Law’s curse of exile, would occur with the overflowing of God’s own Spirit. This is seen in places like Ezekiel 36:24-28; 37:12-14, and Joel 2:28-32. St. Peter himself made this point on Pentecost that, when the Spirit fell upon the Apostles, it indicated the beginning of the New Covenant. He pointed to Isaiah 44:3, which says, “I will pour my Spirit upon your descendants, and my blessing on your offspring.” This was occurring with the Galatians, and there is controversy over how and when the Spirit came upon them. It was a “blessing of the renewed covenant” and “an indication that the covenant has been renewed.”
Galatians 3:1 starts off, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?”
Paul starts off chapter three with shock and awe, with a very “sharp” tone of voice. He had personally known the Galatians, personally spoke about the Gospel of Christ to them, and personally fathered them in that Gospel (Gal. 4:19). Shock overwhelms him when he hears that they have departed from that Gospel. He cannot contain himself, exclaiming, “O foolish Galatians!” They had fallen for a trap, laid by “virtual magicians,” who must have cast a spell over them in order for them to receive the painful circumcision. Now, is that a rhetorical spell, meaning the teachings of the Agitators is like that of a magician, or is it that a real person involved with witchcraft cast a spell over them? Moo argues that “The truth probably lies between these views.” It was not a “sorcerer,” but rather a demonic influence which they had recourse too. However, it is not just a demonic influence.
The next part of the text indicates the Galatian’s free will: they were being foolish because they had seen the crucifixion of Christ. That is, Paul had “publicly portrayed [Christ] as crucified” to the Galatians, indicating that Paul must have spoke, “so vividly and so impressively [about the crucifixion] that his hearers imagined the matter to have happened right before their eyes.” That crucifixion should stand as a lighthouse to them, indicating that they should follow the Messiah and not works of the Law.
Galatians 3:2, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit[a] by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?”
Keeping in mind Peter, works of the Law meant living like a Jew, what “divide Jew from Gentile.” Those “works” were not the “moral ‘good works’ which the Reformation tradition loves to hate.” That is the basis of why Protestants think Paul is condemning Catholic teachings, they see “works of the Law” and good works as equal. Not so says N.T. Wright, works of the Law means going into the Mosaic Covenant, which is without the Spirit and the Messiah. To analyze this verse, however, many ask why Paul mentions the Spirit and the point of His reception such a big deal? Martyn believes it is because the Agitators from Jerusalem were arguing that it was the Law which showed the power of the Spirit. When the Galatians obeyed the Mosaic Law, so they claimed, the Galatians would experience the Spirit of God through tongues, prophecy, miracles, etc.
However, Paul knows that the Galatians experienced the Spirit when they believed in the message of the Gospel. The Galatians knew that too, for they had “the inner witness of that Spirit to their new spiritual identity (Gal. 4:6; Rom. 8:14-17)” and the miracles which occurred (v. 5). It was not the law but faith which caused this, indicating the same point Paul made in 2:16. What does Paul assume that the reception of the Spirit means, though? For him, it is that the “bestowal of the Spirit is a mark of the new age of salvation, predicted in the prophets.” So Paul is asking, rhetorically, “Do you get into the group of the ‘saved’ by works of the Law, or by faith?” That last part of the verse, “hearing with faith,” has caused some debate in the scholarly world. For does it mean the faith of the person, or “the message about Christ’s faithfulness”? Moo takes the opinion that it means “faith in Christ” putting the stress on the believer, rather than “faith of Christ,” which puts the stress on Christ. This makes sense, for v. 6 connects the Galatians’ “faith” and Abraham’s faith. It would not make sense for v. 6 to mean the Galatians’ “faith of Christ.” Paul stresses “hearing” with faith to bring out the point of the Galatian’s initial experience of the Gospel when Paul was present with them and they initially received the Spirit.
Galatians 3:3, “Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?”
Paul is portraying a line, where one end is the Spirit which leads to salvation, and the other end is the flesh, which does not lead to salvation (Gal. 5:4). The beginning of Christian life is the reception of the Spirit, and that life is completed with the Spirit. It is like the path of the Spirit is one railroad, and the path of the flesh is a wrong turn to the side. Paul desires them to stay on the path of the Spirit in the New Covenant. Now, “the flesh,” is probably a reference to circumcision, where Paul is sarcastically saying, “removing foreskin does not lead to salvation.” Even the Agitators thought of the “flesh” as the literal flesh of the foreskin, which is seen when Paul states they, “desire to have you [Galatians] circumcised that they may glory in your flesh (Gal. 6:13).” Following “the flesh” is not consistent with the path of the New Covenant. The “sacraments” of the Old Law have passed away.
Taking such a path sends one into the Mosaic Covenant. For Paul exclaims, “I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law (Gal. 5:3).” The reason for believing circumcision is what Paul calls “the flesh” is because of the recent connection between “Spirit” and “faith” against works of the Law in v. 2, so v. 3 is probably continuing that line of thought where Spirit is pitted against circumcision (works of the Law). Works of the law entail more than just circumcision though, so “the flesh” might “refer especially to Jewish ethnicity.”
Galatians 3:4, “Did you experience so many things in vain?—if it really is in vain.”
Paul brings the Galatians to recall once more the great gift of the experience which they tasted when Paul was with them. To leave the Spirit by going into the works of the Law would be to “make their [past] experiencing [of] all the Spirit’s works to be ‘in vain.’” They have been bewitched into thinking that there is a link between experiencing the Spirit of the New Covenant and the Law. Such a false idea has gripped their minds to the point that Paul wonders out loud if they will continue to do so, as heresies frequently do. Martyn puts it well, “The Galatians are genuinely in danger (cf. 4:11, 20; 5:4; 6:8)…Paul can scarcely bring himself to consider the possibility of miscarriage.”
Another possibility is that “experiencing so many things” refers to suffering, for every time that verb is used in the New Testament (42x) it has to do with suffering. This would make sense since Paul and Barnabas experienced much suffering when they were ministering to the Galatians (Ac. 13:50; 14:5, 19) and that Paul says the Galatians are suffering persecution in 4:29.
Galatians 3:5, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?”
This verse sounds very similar to v. 2, but there are some subtle changes, “Whereas in v 2 Paul asked about a past event, the genesis of the Galatians churches, he now inquires about the fabric of their present life, using present participles to refer to the continuous action of God.” The reason for that is probably because the Galatians would have responded to v. 2 with something like, “God is supplying us with the Spirit right now, and we now see that it is because of the Law.” So Paul is saying, “The presence of the Spirit, as it always has, is still coming from your faith.” The Galatians got into the “age of salvation” promised by God not by works of the Law, but through faith in the Messiah. Basically, being “in and under” the Law does not mark one out as being in the Covenant anymore, instead, being “in and under” the Messiah, does. But, if the Galatians still have the Spirit, why would Paul be so concerned about them? Are they still in the New Covenant? For he says they have fallen from “grace” later on in Galatians (5:4), which seems to indicate they do not have the Spirit anymore and have gone over to the Mosaic Covenant. I personally would argue that it is the few Galatians who have not fallen into the heresy of the Agitators that still have the Spirit. For some teachers are still good, preaching the Pauline Gospel (Gal. 6:6). So the Spirit is still being manifested in the community, but only by those Galatians who have not gone over to the Mosaic Covenant. Galatia was a mixed community, some had followed the Agitators and fell from grace, while others had not and still followed Paul and the Messiah.
Galatians 3:6, “Thus Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”
Paul answers his own question from v. 5 by implying that they received the Spirit through faith, and that Abraham also received the Spirit through faith. Here, reception of the Spirit is equated with righteousness, for Abraham “believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).” When God considered Abraham righteous, it was first God announcing good news, faith following after it, then a reckoning of righteousness. The same happened with the Galatians, where they first heard Paul preach, faith followed after it, then a reception of the Spirit. Remember, the Agitators were very concerned with Abraham, for he was the one who was given the covenant of circumcision. So Paul fights fire with fire by showing that Abraham was righteous when he had faith in Genesis 15:6, which is two chapters before Abraham gets circumcised (Genesis 17)!
The context of Genesis 15:6 is that God told Abraham, even in his old age, that he would have a son with his elderly wife Sarah, and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars. Abraham believed God that such a miracle would take place, and God considered him righteous. N.T. Wright makes a deeper connection though. He notices that Paul’s discussion about Abraham is not just an “example” regarding justification, rather, it is central to his point about the “single-plan-of-God-through-Israel-for-the-world.” Genesis 15 is where God makes a Covenant with Abraham, and God is saying He will gather the whole world like the stars of the sky into His family. Gentiles will become children of Abraham. That is how the whole world will be “saved” and made like God. God’s promise to Abraham is key throughout Galatians 3,
"Galatians 3:9: those of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. Galatians 3:14: so that the blessing of Abraham might (after all!) come upon the Gentiles. Galatians 3:18: the inheritance was given to Abraham by promise. Galatians 3:22: no explicit mention of Abraham, but the same point: the promise belongs to believers. Then, finally, Galatians 3:29: if you are the Messiah’s, you are Abraham’s seed, heirs in accordance with the promise…every section depends on the sense of a historical sequence in which Abraham comes first, the law comes next and the Messiah-and/or ‘faith’-comes to complete the sequence."
Abraham was not used by Paul simply by accident. It was because God’s salvation starts with him and the promise given to him.
After discussing the Spirit, Paul moves on to an extended argument about Abraham. The reason being that the Spirit is tied in with the promises given to Abraham. So what is happening with the Galatians was promised by God to Abraham almost two-thousand years before it happened.
Galatians 3:7, “So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham.”
So Paul has moved from how the Spirit is received, to being a son of Abraham. For the Agitators were convinced that in order to be a son of Abraham, a man would have to imitate Abraham and be circumcised. Paul is “drawing out the meaning of Gen 15:6.” For Genesis 15:5 was about Abraham’s descendants being as numerous as the stars, and the people in Paul’s day wanted to be among those descendants. Yet Paul simply follows the text straight through, where Abraham’s next action was belief, and that is what every true descendant of Abraham needs to be characterized by – faith in God. Although the text of Genesis 15:6 does not mention that faith is how one become a descendant, Paul concludes it to be so based on the context. Martyn notes that the Agitators were deriving their identity from circumcision (Gal. 2:12, and 3:10). Instead, Paul argues that, based on the experience of the Galatians and the experience of Abraham, faith is the necessary identity.
Galatians 3:8, “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’”
Here, Paul says that even the Old Testament speaks of his Gospel, that it foresaw what would happen two thousand years later with Paul’s day. Promise to fulfillment. He quotes Genesis 12:3 which says that, through Abraham, all the Gentiles will be blessed. The Galatians were a part of that prophecy, for they were Gentiles who were receiving the Spirit (which is a blessing). Notice the word choices by Paul: he equates “justify” with “blessed,” and, therefore, those terms with “reckoned” and “receiving the Spirit.” All four mean the same thing for Paul. Notice, though, that this quotation to Genesis from Paul does not mention faith. It simply says that through Abraham would all nations be blessed. How does that prove Paul’s point that Gentiles are justified by faith, then? Martyn says that this argument works because Paul, “has already defined Abraham’s children as those who derive their identity from faith, not from Law observance.” Wright shows that one of the main problems of the Law is that it gets in the way of God’s promise to bless the Gentiles. It gets in the way by “choking the promise within the failure of Israel (Galatians 3:10-14), then by threatening to divide the promised single family into two (Galatians 3:15-18), then finally by locking everything up in the prison house of sin (Galatians 3:21-22).”
Paul argues with the Agitators on that point, “to whom do the promises [of Abraham] belong? Who are the children of Abraham?”
Galatians 3:9, “So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith.”
Paul summarizes his argument by taking the words from Genesis 15:16, the faith of Abraham, and 12:3, the blessing through Abraham, to combine them into one concise statement. Notice how Paul does not mention Abraham demonstrating faithfulness when he circumcised himself. All that matters to Paul is that Abraham had faith in Genesis 15:6, and that he was reckoned as righteous because of it. Martyn is convinced that the Agitators used Genesis 12:3 when persuading the Galatians, and that Paul is using that verse to turn their arguments on their head. The reason is that, the Agitators would have said “Those who faithfully observe the Law are blessed with faithfully observant Abraham.” Those who stick with works of the Law receive the curse instead of the blessing. Paul then transitions into a problem, for what happens to those promises to Abraham when the Torah came and is still present?
This section may be the most difficult of all of Paul’s writings. He quotes from Deuteronomy, Habakkuk, Leviticus, then once again to Deuteronomy, all the while making deep points that require knowledge of the contexts of these books. This is to extend his treatment of Abraham and God’s promises to him. For if God made a promise to Abraham that the whole world would become his descendants, why did the law come about?
Galatians 3:10, "For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.’"
Within this text, Paul is quoting from Deuteronomy 27:26. This is a text that the Agitators probably used to cause terror in the Galatian’s minds, saying that if they do not follow the Mosaic Law and get circumcised, then they would be cursed by God. This is quite an interesting verse, for “Paul interprets Deut 27:26 in a way that is the precise opposite of its literal meaning.” To understand this verse, some interpreters say that Paul has made a mistake. However, that does not make much sense since Paul is one of the most erudite exegetes of Scripture. Martyn points out the work of E.P. Sanders to show how smart Paul is, “by citing Gen 15:6 in Gal 3:6 and Hab 2:4 in Gal 3:11, Paul brings into one catena the only two texts in the whole of the OT that explicitly link to one another the terms ‘rectification’ and ‘faith.’” So if Paul did not make a mistake, then another solution must be found.
Most interpreters say that Paul emphasizes the word, “all,” in the quote from Deuteronomy, meaning that if someone does not obey “all” of the Law, to the most minute aspect, they fall under a curse. Law observance is impossible, then, according to Paul, and even the Agitators themselves are under the curse. There are numerous issues with such an interpretation, though. Martyn says,
“Repeatedly, he speaks of an antinomy consisting of Christ’s faith versus our observance of the Law, not of Christ’s faith versus our incomplete observance (2:16; 3:2; 3:5). When he strikes the note of impotence, he refers not to human inability to keep the whole of the Law, but rather to the Law’s inability to bring about rectification and life (3:21; cf. Rom 8:3). Moreover, Paul speaks in Phil 3:4-6 about fulfilling the entire Law, certain that, as a Pharisee, he was completely observance, being as a result blameless.”
So there is not a mention of incomplete observance of the Law anywhere in Paul, just of observing the Law in general. Wright says that, if this interpretation was true, then how would Paul know that Jews did not keep the whole law perfectly? Would not repentance or the sacrificial system bring a Jew back into the covenant? Why would the curse always be looking over their heads? For “no Jew who failed to keep Torah, and knew that he or she was failing to keep Torah, needed to languish for long under the awful threat of either exclusion from the covenant people or, for that matter, eternal damnation.” This interpretation, therefore, does not do.
A final interpretation is one that N.T. Wright offers. He says that Deuteronomy 27-30 are about blessings and curses, with Deuteronomy 27-8 being one of the great sections of the Jewish Scriptures on covenant. That they are mainly about “what happens when the nation as a whole fails to keep the Torah as a whole.” The nation as a whole failed to keep the Torah, and so were under the curse (Deut. 27:26). However, Israel knew it would fail to keep the covenant. For Deuteronomy 28:15-29:29 states that this covenant made in Moab will be broken, and that Israel will suffer the curses. The worst curse was that Israel would be in exile if they did not keep the Torah. That happened with the Babylonian captivity in 586 A.D. However, that exile was not just a one-time event. Paul, “understands the long period since the geographical exile as the continuation of the period of the ‘curse.’” Multiple people took over Israel, and the Romans were currently controlling Jerusalem during the time period when Paul was writing - so Israel was still in exile. Their over lordship was the way that the exile continued. The independence and prosperity foretold by the prophets had not occurred yet, so the 1st century Jews of Qumran thought. Isaiah or Ezekiel promised an overflowing restoration after the exile, and it is “inconceivable” that a Jewish man would consider them fulfilled while living in the 1st century under Herod and Pilate. So works of the Law appeared to not be leading anyone into the worldwide family promised to Abraham that would be characterized by faith. In fact, it looked like those promises were void. That was not the end of the story, however. For Deuteronomy 30 gives out hope that, after the curse, there will be a period of covenant renewal. The people will be brought together again after the exile, a circumcision of the heart will occur, and the word will be near them on their hearts and lips.
Another way of reading the text is that Paul, before becoming Christian, used Deuteronomy 27:26 against Christianity. Wright says, “A crucified Messiah is cursed by God, therefore is not Messiah.” The Law was wrong to curse Him though, for Jesus Resurrected and proved it wrong – convincing Paul that Jesus was the Messiah. That is the end of the Law, the whole Old Covenant done away with.
Galatians 3:11, “Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for “He who through faith is righteous shall live”
Israel was under a curse, and since the whole nation still broke the Law, no one would be justified by it. Works of the Law do not justify because God’s people are defined by faith according to the Jewish prophet Habakkuk. Faith is without any division. Works of the Law create divisions, so they do not justify. They also do not justify because “what the law does is to reveal sin.” For Romans 3:20 speaks about “works of the law” not justifying anybody because “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” We are in the group of “Gentile sinners” for we sin as well.
Habakkuk is a prophet who is complaining to God about Israel deserving judgement. God answers that He is stirring up Babylon to overtake them. Habakkuk asks why a sinful nation like Babylon is being sent? How will Israel still worship God if they are in exile in Babylon and not near the Temple? God says that the nation of Israel will be characterized by faith. Thus, Paul quotes this passage from Habakkuk to connect it with Abraham in Genesis 15, for faith is what God’s people are defined by. The worldwide family envisioned by the promise to Abraham is broken up by Torah observance, so only Israel would be in the Covenant. He basically is saying, “no-one is reckoned within the covenant community on the basis of Torah.” God’s covenant community is being redefined through the “means of divine judgment” just as Deut. 27-30 says will occur. Life is the blessing, death is the curse, and many of God’s people will die during the judgment through the hands of Babylon.
Galatians 3:12, “but the law does not rest on faith, for ‘He who does them shall live by them.’”
Paul quotes from Lev. 18:5, which says that the Jews need to live by the Torah. This is probably Paul giving the Scripture verse which his opponents would have been quoting, but which he denies, for it is an Old Covenant command that brought a curse, since the Law could not be kept. The nation failed when trying to obey it. Even St. Peter said, "neither our fathers nor we have been able to" obey the Law (Acts 15:10).
Of note is the fact that from the context of Leviticus 18, we see the threat of exile. Lev. 18:24-28 speaks about the punishment for not obeying the law is exile. Go on a little bit further, and in Lev. 20:22-25, 26:14-43, the same curse from Deuteronomy is given if the Torah is not obeyed. So, life will not be found in obeying the Torah, for the people are under a curse. Being “in” the covenant is not based on Torah-observance. Faith is the real Covenant badge, as already seen from the case of Abraham, who did not obey the Law.
However, Leviticus 18:5 is quoted three times in Ezekiel 20:11, 13, 21. So, Paul might be quoting Leviticus, but through the lens of Ezekiel. Ezekiel is saying in this context, “I gave them statutes that were not good and ordinances by which they could not have life” (Ez. 20:25). What in the world does that mean?
I think it means that the Law was good, but then became bad. Consider this: after the Levites taught that keeping the law, such as the ten commandments, gave life, Israel then went into the wilderness for forty years. During that time, the people had to offer their cow to the high priest Aaron before they could eat it. After the rebellion, however, Deuteronomy was written, and the people were given a bad law. Deuteronomy means “second law,” and it is this that Ezekiel the prophet declares to be the statutes which were “not good” and which you “could not have life” by. Deuteronomy states that the people could eat meat anywhere, meaning that it was a profane animal slaughter. This is an example of the laws which were “not good.”
Consider an analogy: a boy is told to love his sister, but he bothers her. So a law is given: don't touch your sister. Then the boy transitions to making faces at her and coming too close to her. A new law is given: don't make faces. These laws did not make the boy love his sister more. The law is bad and would not give life, but a curse. Paul uses the text to show how the Law is opposed to faith. Abraham had only faith to be declared “righteous,” he did not have to obey the Law to be right with God. God has all along said that faith is what truly gives life.
Galatians 3:13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree’-”
It is established that the promise given to Abraham needs to come upon the Jews and Gentiles, since the descendants were to be as many as the stars in the sky (Genesis 15). How does the curse get taken care of, though, and the Covenant restoration - coupled with the blessing of the nations with Abraham come about? First off, Deuteronomy says Israel will be cursed by God if they do not obey the Law (Deut. 27), but Paul points out in this verse from Galatians that Deuteronomy also says that a man will be cursed by God if he is hung on a tree (Deut. 21). Jesus, a faithful Israelite, living under the cursed people, was cursed by God when he was hung on the tree of a cross, even though He was innocent. He embodied the curse, he made a path “through the curse and out the other side, into the time of renewal when the Gentiles would at last come into Abraham’s family, while Jews could have the possibility of covenant renewal, of receiving the promised Spirit through faith…”
Paul quotes from Deut. 21:23, which in its context has to do with a man who commits a heinous crime, who is subsequently supposed to be executed by Israel, then is cursed by being hung on a tree. Look at the parallel to Christ: He committed no crime, yet was executed, and took upon Himself the curse with Him. The curse died with Him, and the promise to Abraham for the Gentiles emerged at the Resurrection. Exile and restoration were lived out with the Messiah’s death and Resurrection. He brought the exile to its climax. The Romans crucified Christ, who was the representative of Israel and as Messiah. He freed His people from the curse which appeared would go on forever - stifling the blessing of Abraham reaching the Gentiles. Embracing the Torah means joining the nation of Israel, which is still under that curse if not free by the blood of the Messiah – the redeeming representative of Israel - through faith. This means that the Agitators were Jews without the Messiah, so they were still under that curse and in the “works of the Law.” Just as Paul writes in Romans about the Torah pointing out sin, which is dealt with by the Messiah, so Paul writes in Galatians about the Torah being the vehicle of curse, which is dealt with by the Messiah. Wright says that the, “Torah draws sin/curse on to Israel” so that the Messiah may break His people free.
Also of note is the sudden use of the first person in this verse and the next verse. Does that refer to Jewish Christians, every Christian, or just that Paul is confused? Wright is convinced that he is referring to Jewish Christians, for that is the overall flow of the passage. It could not mean every Christian, for the curses were for the Jews. But those curses did affect the Gentiles, for them receiving the promise took longer due to the disobedience of the Jews. But the Gentiles were not the ones receiving the curses directly and thus delivered from them.
Also of note is if Paul is speaking about the atonement of Christ, which N.T. Wright disagrees on. Wright says that it is not an “isolated explanation of the cross” nor is it principally a justification by faith prooftext. It just continues the whole theme of covenant exile and restoration, judgment and renewal. The curse had reached its height and was dealt with in Christ, who subsequently broke through to the other side of blessing.
Galatians 3:14, “that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
The Spirit is emphasized as it was in the beginning of the chapter. The promised Spirit by the prophets was supposed to come and indicate the renewal of the Covenant: the exile was over. So Abraham’s blessing comes upon the whole world, his descendants are as many as the stars in the sky, Jews and Gentiles unite. As Paul did in 3:13, he refers to himself and his fellow Jews within Israel with the plural “we.” For it is not just the Gentiles which receive the Spirit, “we Christian Jews” receive the Spirit just like them!
Context after Gal. 3:1-14
The context after Galatians 3:14 supports this path of interpretation. Paul says that the covenant promise was to Abraham and his seed (offspring). It was not “seeds,” but only one, because it was Christ. Christ represented one family, with Jews and Gentiles together. This is in contrast to “offsprings,” which would be the case if Jews and Gentiles were at odds with each other as they were under the Law. So it is only one seed promised to Abraham, which makes sense to be Christ, but how can we know that Christ represents one family? We know this because, “‘Seed’…can regularly mean ‘family,’ and the point is that God promised Abraham one family, not two…” That one family is Christ, whose Body makes up one united family. “This is what I mean: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void (Gal. 3:17).” The single-plan-through-Israel-for-the-world started with Abraham and has to end with Abraham. Gentile-Christians do not need to enter the Mosaic Covenant by receiving cirumcision, but rather, need to become truly Jewish by entering the Abrahamic Covenant by having faith.. They do not need to separate themselves from other Gentiles by keeping Jewish practices that other Gentiles do not keep. The Gentiles are in the family of God. The promises to Abraham were not made void!
Baptism and Good Works
How does this all relate to the Protestant-Catholic dialogue on salvation? Protestants frequently interpret Galatians 3 to mean that one cannot join any works to faith in regards to salvation. Only faith matters, cause works of the Law justify no-one. Now, there are some Protestants who will accept the interpretation given above that explains works of the Law to be the outmoded works of the Mosaic Law, and not good works in general. They might say that the concept of demanding obedience to be saved as the Mosaic Law prescribed is similar to the Catholic concept of demanding obedience to be saved. Only the belief in Jesus matters. To them, I would point out how Paul expands on the notion of faith after Galatians 3:1-14.
After discussing the necessity of faith being the boundary marker for Covenant membership, Paul says that faith must go outward through baptism, and that good works must flow out. Galatians 3:26 says that, in Christ, one has become a child of God through faith, but then explains that when one was “baptized into Christ” that they “put on Christ” (Gal. 3:27). So when someone is in Christ, which means that they got there when they were baptized into Him. It was not just faith alone, rather, that faith included the notion of baptism. For living a life “in Christ” and “with Christ” starts with baptism, the envisaged “robe” of Christ is lived out after. Circumcision is not how one gets into the group of “saved” individuals, rather, it is the “circumcision of Christ” (Col. 2:11-12), what Paul calls baptism. He says, “and you were buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the working of God, who raised him from the dead” (Col. 2:12). Notice how the old man, weighed down by sin, dies (with Christ), is buried (with Christ), and then is raised (with Christ). Living a life of faith is supposed to be after baptism, and the merits of Christ’s death are applied at baptism. One is put “into” Christ when baptized. That is the climax of Paul’s argument at the end of Galatians 3, that life of faith, the giving of the Spirit, becoming a child of Abraham, receiving the blessing, it all starts with putting on Christ at baptism (3:27).
Now what needs to be addressed is if the faith spoken about in Galatians three is isolated from faithfulness. I would argue that “faith” spoken about in Galatians three is a summary version of the whole Christian life. Everything implied about Christianity is jam-packed into that one word. But after pitting faith against works of the Law, Paul joins faith to good works. Galatians 5:6 states, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love.” Faith is not alone, it is working. How does faith work? Through love. That is the basis of good works, love, which can be split into love of God, and love of neighbor. Galatians 5:14 says that love fulfils the whole Mosaic Law. This is literally the case, for Jesus summarizes His commands to the apostles with “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (Jn 13:34). Notice how, out of the Ten Commandments, the first three have to do with love of God, and the last seven have to do with love of neighbor. The moral laws of the Mosaic Covenant were deepened by Christ on the Sermon on the Mount, but that all can be summed up: love. That love is not optional. Paul goes on to show in Galatians 5:18 that, if you are “led by the Spirit,” then you “are not under the law.” The Mosaic Law was not the “age of salvation” promised by God through the prophets, which was to be characterized by the Spirit. That Spirit is the One who animates the child of God with charity.
In Galatians 5:19-21, Paul warns the Galatians that, if they commit certain deadly sins (“works of the flesh”), then they “shall not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal. 5:21). Sins like idolatry or drunkenness will disinherit the kingdom of God. That would indicate the utter necessity of obedience to God’s commands. Heaven will be forfeited if one commits a deadly sin. Instead of committing works of the flesh, a Christian needs to be characterized by works of the Spirit. Galatians 5:22 tells how this Spirit of love gives off fruits like patience or self-control. Paul is showing that one remains in the Covenant when one lives a life of good works.
We have seen that the 16th century context of Luther against the Catholics, faith vs good works, was being read into the text. Works of the Law are primarily the Old Covenant sacraments, where the Galatians were being tempted to join the Mosaic Covenant, and not good works. So Galatians 3 is actually all about Covenants. Paul takes us on a journey of covenantal theology, starting with Abraham, then moving on through the Mosaic Covenant of Deuteronomy and Leviticus, then the prophet Habakkuk, and finally to Jesus the Messiah. The Covenantal process of exile-restoration was occurring for the Jews, but with the more glorious news of the inclusion of the Gentiles. Israel stays in the Covenant when it has faith, its membership is renewed. The evidence for this restoration, this blessing of Abraham, was prophesied by the prophets of old who said that the New Covenant would be characterized by an abundance of the Spirit. So Paul argues that the Gentiles, in this case, the Galatians, were a part of that New Covenant which overflowed with the Spirit of God. That Spirit comes about through faith, for faith is the Covenantal marker of membership. Such a life of faith began in baptism, which was the moment when the early Church would make their confession of faith. That faith is not just a confidence in God’s promises, like Abraham in Genesis 15, but involves good works, as Abraham himself did when he obeyed God in attempting to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22.
Martyn, James Louis. Galatians. New York: Doubleday Books, 1997.
Moo, Douglas J. Galatians. Michigan: Baker Academic, 2013.
Schroeder, HJ. The canons and decrees of the Council of Trent. Tan Books, 1955.
The Holy Bible RSV - CE. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005
Wright, Nicholas Thomas. Justification: God's plan & Paul's vision. Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 2009.
Wright, Nicholas Thomas. The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.