Updated: Jan 3, 2021
By Luke Lancaster
If you are like me, you have had a conversation or two about salvation by faith alone with a Protestant friend. Oftentimes, the friend will turn to Galatians 3:10 to make their point that Paul argues for a works-free model of salvation. He will say that Paul is putting forward his doctrine of sola fide - justification by faith alone - in Galatians 3.
The verse 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’" (Gal. 3:10).
Catholicism’s insistence on good works and sacraments are seen as being under Paul’s condemnation of obeying the “law” (Gal. 3:11, 13) or “works of the law” (Gal. 3:2, 5, 10). 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.
However, Paul is truly arguing that Gentiles do not have to live like Jews in order to be saved. The context was not Gentiles doing "Catholic stuff," like good works or sacraments to maintain their salvation! See, the Jews had the law who was like a "custodian" over a child, governing how the Israelites were to eat, dress, etc. (Gal. 3:24). Once the Jews grew up, though, the custodian did not have authority over them anymore (Gal. 4:1-2).
Background to Galatians 3:10
Paul writes to Galatia because he knows the people there. He was the one who initially preached to them according to Acts 13 and 18. Once he left to evangelize other areas of the world, however, Anti-Paul missionaries (false teachers) came into the community and told the Gentile Christians of Galatia to receive circumcision and obey the whole Mosaic Law. They introduced to the Gentiles a new checklist to be saved, which Paul knew was not apart of the New Covenant.
Problem is, the Galatians do not have Paul still with them, so the Galatians really are not certain about what to do. So they listen to these teachers and are probably going to be circumcised soon. This drives Paul to write a letter to them, forcefully telling the Galatians that they should not be circumcised.
Faith defines our relationship with God, Paul argues, and he points to Abraham to make that point. Abraham did not have the Law, for that came 430 years after him (Gal. 4). Abraham had faith. He was called “righteous” by God in Genesis 15:6 after professing faith in God. God had told Abraham that, even in his old age, 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.
This moment with Abraham is central to Paul's argument against the Anti-Paul agitators. For Genesis 15 is where God makes a Covenant with Abraham, promising him many descendants. This will happen in the future, and Paul is saying that the Gentiles will become children of Abraham. The Galatians, as children of Abraham, were to be justified or put into a good relationship with God in the same way Abraham was: by faith.
With the context in mind, let's tackle the main verse we have all been waiting for. Galatians 3:10 says, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed be every-one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them.'”
Paul’s opponents are not proto-Catholics, as we have seen. Instead, we are looking at a first-century issue, where Paul is trying to answer his adversaries with strong, Scriptural evidence. Paul is trying to think, though: "what argument can I use that would be something that they could not deny?" The answer is simple: the exile. Israel was in a state of exile from their land. How? Because instead of living in independence, they lived under the rule of the Romans. Paul quotes from Deuteronomy 27:26, which, in its context of chapters 27-30, are about blessings and curses. Deuteronomy 27-8 is also one of the great sections of the Jewish Scriptures on covenant.
It says in Deut. 27:26 that if Israel breaks their Mosaic Covenant, then they would be cursed with exile. But this is not just individuals who disobey God, but rather what happens when the nation as “a whole, fails to keep the Torah as a whole” (See N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant). The nation as a whole failed to keep the Torah, and so were under the curse of exile from their land and a loss of independence (Deut. 27:26).
Israel did disobey God as a nation, and many nations thereafter took over Israel. The Romans were the current nation controlling Jerusalem during the 1st century, so Israel was still in exile, living under Herod and Pilate. However, Deuteronomy 30 states that, after the curse, there would be a period of covenant renewal, and Isaiah and Ezekiel promised an overflowing restoration after the exile. The people would be brought together again, and the Spirit would come upon Israel. That independence and prosperity promised to Israel had not occurred yet, though.
Works of the law, then, means living under the Torah, and those living under the Torah were under a curse. Jews in the 1st century were under a curse still - for they lived in exile. So, works of the Law appeared to not be leading anyone into the worldwide family – promised long ago to Abraham – which was to be characterized by faith. In fact, it looked like those promises were void.
Paul moves on in his Scriptural evidence, and it was a common rabbinical principle to read the Law through the prophets, so he quotes one. Quoting Habakkuk 2:4 (in Gal. 3:11), it states that God’s righteous people are characterized by faith, which, Paul is saying, does not mention Law. Instead of being “under bondage” to the Law as a legal code separating the Jews from the Gentiles, the prophet Habakkuk just says “faith”!
Paul then provides a possible argument the Anti-Paul missionaries would have used to the Galatians: Leviticus 18:5. It says that the Jews would have “life” (meaning they'd live an old, long life in the land of Israel) if they obeyed every part of the Law. However, the Law never gave life to Israel! It only gave the curse of exile, for the Jews immediately broke the Law. Paul says, "the very commandment which promised life proved to be death to me" (Rom. 7:10). It was always by faith, as seen with Abraham and Habakkuk. As Paul says, "if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law" (Gal. 3:21). Obeying the Law is pointless.
Up to this point, we know that Israel broke the Covenant, went under a curse, was exiled, and awaited the Spirit who was promised to those who have faith in God. How does that curse get dealt with, though? Cause without that, then the Abrahamic blessing God promised to flow out to all the nations would not occur. Paul has the answer. In Deuteronomy 21, it says that a man will be cursed by God if he is hung on a tree. Paul quotes from there (Deut. 21:27) because 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, and 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…” (N.T. Wright, Climax of the Covenant). Exile and restoration were lived out in his body when he died and resurrected. Christ represented the people of Israel and brought the curse and exile to a climax.
Dr. 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)” (Climax of the Covenant). This is the true context and meaning of Galatians 3. It is not about Catholicism.
Since the Galatians do not need Moses, but rather faith in the Messiah, does that mean that works have no place in salvation? No. Paul explains what that faith entails, going into various moral teachings in Gal. 5 and 6. He says in Gal. 5:6 that faith is “working through love.” Christians are those who are “in” the Messiah and live by faith, which necessitates that they “serve one another through love” (Gal. 5:13). The whole law, which has been done away with, is summed up and fulfilled in the New Covenant “love” (Gal. 5:14) which has been poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5). That “love” is the presence of the Holy Spirit, who is love itself (1 John 4:16), and Paul says Christians must “live” by Him (Gal. 5:16). They must avoid works of the “flesh,” that is, sins like “idolatry” or “envy” (Gal. 5:20-21).
The "works of the law" are not referring to Catholic teaching on faith and works, but about the Jewish Mosaic Law system. Such a system was within a curse, and if you entered the system by circumcision, you would become cursed.