The Right Way to Think About the Law (Galatians 3:7-14)


This is part of a commentary series through the Book of Galatians. It began with Galatians 3:1-6. This series will progress until the book is finished, then circle back and cover ch. 1-2.

Here, we begin the most difficult portion of Paul’s letter—the relationship of the Mosaic Law to saving faith. Before we begin, I’ll restate some principles from the first article that will help you understand the position this commentary takes. Here they are:

  1. The Mosaic Law is not a vehicle for salvation, and it was never intended to be one.
  2. The Law was given to teach God’s people (a) how to worship Him rightly, which includes instructions about forgiveness of sins (moral cleanness) and ritual uncleanness, (b) to have a written moral code that is fairly comprehensive, but not exhaustive, and (c) to live as brothers and sisters in a particular society for a particular time.
  3. The Law is a tool for holy living, a guardian to keep people in a holy “holding pattern” while the plane circled the airport, waiting for Jesus’ first advent so it could “land.”
  4. Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel.

Now, to the Scriptures!

Children of Abraham (Galatians 3:7-9)

Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. 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.”

Galatians 3:7-8

Who is a child of Abraham? Well, it certainly isn’t about biology. About genetics. About who your parents are. John the Baptist understood that (Mt 3:7-10). No, it isn’t about race or ethnicity—it’s about common faith in Jesus. If you have Abraham’s faith, then you’re one of his children. Easy. Simple.

In fact, Scripture foresaw that the “child of God” concept wasn’t really an ethnic thing at all. God announced the Gospel to Abraham in advance when He announced that “all nations will be blessed through you,” (cf. Gen. 12:3; 18:18; 22:18).

This is extraordinary. The false teachers skulking around the area are Judaizers—folks who push the rules-based legalism we noted, before. The apogee of their “faith” is to be as Jewish as possible which, in their warped understanding, means to follow the rules and traditions of the elders very strictly (cf. Phil 3:4-6). Thus, you violate the Sabbath if you put spices into a pot, but all is well if you add spices to food served on a dish![1]

Not so, says Paul. Your pedigree before God has nothing to do with this. It only has to do with whether your relationship with God is based on faith and trust in God’s promise, and love—just like Abraham’s.

So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Galatians 3:9

Paul is making a conclusion based on what he’s just said. It could be translated as something like, “this means, then, that those who rely on faith are blessed with Abraham.” If you want to be one of Abraham’s children, then follow his lead and rely on faith!

Choose Your Path! Galatians 3:10-14

Now, we get down to the hard part. Remember that question about which I said you must have an opinion? Let’s ask ourselves again:

  • Did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation?

The answer is no. Never.

This means that, however difficult Paul may be to follow from here on out, he cannot be agreeing with the false teachers that the Mosaic Law was a vehicle for salvation. Never. It isn’t an option. God doesn’t change the terms of salvation. It’s always been by faith.

So, remember this question and the right answer, because here we go …

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.”

Galatians 3:10, quoting Deuteronomy 27:26

If the Mosaic Law was never about salvation, then Paul is not seriously suggesting the Mosaic Law means this. He can’t be. Rather, his point relies on you understanding everything he just wrote, in vv. 7-9.

  • Salvation is by faith—always has been.
  • Abraham had faith and was counted righteous.
  • That’s how you become one of Abraham’s children—faith in the promise.

The “for” at the beginning of the sentence is explanatory. It’s translated a bit stiffly, as if Paul is a Victorian gentleman—and he ain’t one. It could be rendered as something like, “so, this is what I’m saying—everyone who relies on the works of the law …”

He means, “look, if you wanna go that route and try to earn your salvation, then have at it—here’s a quote from Moses that you can chew on!” He accurately quotes the text of Deuteronomy 27:26, but must be deliberately subverting the meaning. Moses didn’t preach salvation by works. When he asked the people to swear that promise in Deuteronomy 27:26 (along with a bunch of others), he presupposed that everyone understood that love was the driving force behind relationship with God (Deut 6:4-5; 10:12-16). I’m saying Paul misapplied Deuteronomy 27:26 the same way the Judaizers were doing. Paul is saying, “if you want to go that way, have fun trying to accomplish this …”

So, the “curse” Paul mentions isn’t the Mosaic Law as it really was. Instead, the “curse” is the impossible burden of trying to adopt the Judaizer’s perverted understanding of the Mosaic Law. Some Christians imagine Old Covenant life as an oppressive burden, a millstone dragging the believers to a watery grave … until Christ came! How absurd. They believe this because they take Paul literally in vv. 10-12—they believe he’s describing the Mosaic Law as it really was. They’re wrong.

As I mentioned, Paul adopts the Judaizer’s arguments to show how bankrupt they are. Read Psalm 119 and see if the writer is being crushed by the law! “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law,” (Ps 119:18). He isn’t! He loves God and loves His word (including the Mosaic Law). The Law is only a millstone if you think it’s a vehicle for salvation. But, it ain’t one, so it ain’t a millstone.

I’m comfortable suggesting this, because Paul then sweeps this silly idea of “earning my salvation by merit” aside.

Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.”

Galatians 3:11, quoting Habakkuk 2:4

The law can’t make you righteous. Paul quotes Habakkuk 2:4, which indeed says that “the righteous will live by faith.” So, when he quotes Moses from Deuteronomy 27:26, he can’t really be saying Moses meant it that way. Paul just adopts the arguments from the Judaizers, or from similar sources floating about in the 1st century interwebs, and suggests they have fun trying to do the impossible. He now continues in that vein:

The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.”

Galatians 3:12, quoting Leviticus 18:5

This accurate quote from Leviticus is ripe for misunderstanding. Again, he rightly quotes the text but suggests the wrong meaning. When Paul says “the law is not based on faith,” he assumes the perverted form of their argument. The “law” he mentions here is the wrong understanding of the Mosaic law, not that law as it really is. “You wanna have eternal life?” he asks. “Then, make sure you do everything in the law—just like it says. Have at it, boys and girls!”

Remember our magic question—did God intend the Mosaic Law to be a way of salvation? He did not. So, whatever Paul is saying, he cannot be suggesting the Mosaic Law has anything to do with salvation. This magic question is the key to understanding Paul’s argument. Some Christians fail to ask it, and so their explanations of this passage make little sense.

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 pole.”

Galatians 3:13, quoting Deuteronomy 21:23

I think we’re making a mistake if we think “curse of the law” is the Mosaic Law. The Law isn’t a curse. It isn’t a bad thing. It isn’t a burden, because it has nothing to do with salvation. The Mosaic Law is simply a vehicle for holy living, while God’s people remained in a holding pattern waiting for Christ. We’ve always obeyed from the heart because He’s already rescued us—not the other way around. “Give me understanding, so that I may keep your laws and obey it with all my heart … I reach out for your commands, which I love, that I may meditate on your decrees,” (Ps 119:34, 48). The man who wrote this didn’t think he was “under a curse.”

So, to return to our verse (Gal 3:13), from what “curse” did Christ redeem us, then?

I think it’s the curse of the capital punishment waiting for every one of us, because (in our natural state) we’ve rejected God. That’s what Deuteronomy 21:23 is about—a person guilty of a capital offense is to be hanged on a pole. We’ve each committed the “capital offense” of rejecting God, so we’re under that death sentence, but Christ has come to free us from that. After all, we can’t free ourselves—we can’t be good enough (cf. Gal 2:21).

So, rather than try and dig our way (i.e. “earning” salvation by merit) out of a situation from which there is no escape, we should rely on Jesus. He became a curse for us. He suffered for our capital crimes by being hanged on a pole. The word “redeem” has lost its original force, in English. It means something like “buying back from slavery.” We can’t bribe our way out of our mess, so Jesus gave Himself to buy us out of Satan’s clutches.

So, Paul isn’t making a negative assessment of the Mosaic Law at all. The “curse” here isn’t even about the Mosaic Law. But, if we think Paul is talking about that, then I ask this—are we really to suppose that God “cursed” His people from Sinai to Pentecost with a system whose design was to crush their souls? Is that the “average Christian life” vibe you get from Psalm 119? Is that what a circumcision of the heart is all about (cf. Deut 10:16)? Was the average Israelite like poor Pilgrim, struggling with that loathsome burden on his back?

No! Paul’s not even talking about the Mosaic Law. He’s just suggesting another way, a better way, the true way—“because if we become righteous through the Law, then Christ died for no purpose,” (Gal 2:21, CEB). You can (1) go the Judaizer’s route and try to earn your way into the kingdom, or (2) you can rejoice and trust that Christ has already redeemed us from our death sentence for rebellion (“the curse of the law”).

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.

Galatians 3:14

Why did Christ buy us back from slavery? So that Christ could be the channel for the blessings to Abraham to flow to the rest of the world. We receive the promise of the Holy Spirit by faith. Always have. Always will.

1 Shabbat 3:5, in Mishnah.


Some flavors of pop dispensationalism have done incalculable damage by confusing Christians about the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the Gospel

I’m following but confused. Thanks

I don’t agree that Paul is rightly quoting those texts but suggesting the wrong meaning. The correct meaning is exactly what he and passage is saying. You are cursed if you don’t continue to do EVERYTHING written in the Book of the Law. That is true and it is why no one can be saved by keeping the Law. Only Jesus fully kept the entire Law (Matt 5:17) and that is why we need his righteousness applied to our accounts. That doesn’t mean the Law is a curse, but it does mean you have to exercise saving faith like Abraham did in order to be justified and saved. When you do that, you can love God’s Law and it won’t be a curse to you.

I agree that the Law cannot make you righteous. This is true for two reasons: (1) we all break God’s law and (2) we are all guilty as sinners in Adam. We are sinners by nature and by choice. The Law shows us our nature (sinner) because we don’t and can’t keep the Law.

I just preached Galatians 3:15-18 on Sunday about how the law does not supersede or nullify the promises of the abrahamic covenant. It is interesting to me that after Paul has spent chapter 2 and chapter 3 up to this point basically telling his readers the reasons why the law is dangerous to them spiritually, he then pivots in verses 3:19-25 and tells them why the law is important and needful. I think Paul understood that some would take his discussion about the law and begin to wonder why God even gave us the law to begin with:

Law! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing!

So, Paul now has to explain the purpose of the law. The law is good and needful for the person before their conversion. But, after their conversion, the law is no longer needed.

You wrote:

I don’t agree that Paul is rightly quoting those texts but suggesting the wrong meaning. The correct meaning is exactly what he and passage is saying. You are cursed if you don’t continue to do EVERYTHING written in the Book of the Law.

If you believe Paul was accurately communicating the meaning of those OT citations (rather than assuming his enemies’ version of the argument, as I suggest), then you are left with Paul teaching that the Mosaic Law was a vehicle for salvation. This is flatly wrong. This is why I suggested one keep this question in mind while interpreting Galatians 3-4: “was the Mosaic Law ever intended as a vehicle for salvation?” The answer is no. Therefore, interpretive schemes which see the Mosaic Law as a works-based system in Galatians (a la some flavors of dispensationalism, to greater or lessor extent) are surely wrong on that score. Their framework for understanding Galatians is all wrong.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

[TylerR] If you believe Paul was accurately communicating the meaning of those OT citations (rather than assuming his enemies’ version of the argument, as I suggest), then you are left with Paul teaching that the Mosaic Law was a vehicle for salvation.

No, I don’t think so. In some ways this is sort of like the warning passages in Hebrews. If you fall away, you can’t be restored. That doesn’t mean a saved person can fall way. In fact, my position is that the warning is one way in which God keeps true believers from falling away. The truth remains, if you fall away, you can’t be restored. Same sort of thing in Gal 3:10. Just because Paul is saying you are cursed if you don’t keep the entire law, doesn’t mean he thinks any one CAN keep the entire law and be saved that way. It just seems self-evident that what Paul is quoting from is completely true — if you don’t keep the entire Law you are under a curse. How is that not true?

Paul is addressing two different ways, to different schemes of salvation. That’s the context in which he brings up the Mosaic Law. There is no world in which he presents the Mosaic Law as a vehicle for salvation with a straight face. To think this is to assume the Judaizers had truth to their arguments. This is the fundamental interpretive divide between me and dispensationalism on this issue. Both Alva McClain and Myron Houghton’s books on this subject are examples of this error in print form.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

This is stated and quoted several times in Scripture — Lev 18:5; Eze 20:11; Rom 10:5; Gal 3:12. I don’t see how any of these are significantly different to what Jesus said in Luke 10:27-28:

And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” 28 And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.” (ESV)

That doesn’t mean that Moses, or Paul, or Christ are setting the Law up as a vehicle for salvation, because we all know that is impossible. If I go to the Sun, I will burn up. That is true, but it doesn’t mean that going to the Sun is possible. Same with “you will live” is true, but it doesn’t mean keeping all the Law is possible.

I haven’t thought through this completely, but one thing that gives me pause about the Law not being a vehicle for salvation, is that it seems in some sense it must be. If Jesus does not completely obey the Law, what righteousness that satisfies God would be available to us? It is Jesus keeping EVERYTHING about the Law that is a method of salvation for us, so that we can receive his righteousness by faith.

We’re facing a hermeneutical divide, here, similar to the arguments about faith v. works. I simply do not believe the Bible ever endorses viewing the Mosaic Law as a vehicle for salvation. It’s not why it was given, it’s not how it was meant to function, and if we assume it was meant to function this way then we’re on the Judaizer’s side. This is why I provided some presuppositions at the beginning so folks know from where I’m coming, on this.

I believe any interpretive scheme which takes those statements in the manner the Judaizers would (e.g. do this to gain salvation) are missing the entire thrust of Scripture and will never understand Galatians or Romans 4. I challenge anyone to read Psalm 119 and demonstrate whether that author felt he was burdened with the “curse of the law”—whether he felt the Mosaic Law was an oppressive taskmaster. He did not.

I believe the best way to understand Galatians 3-4 is to see Paul as taking the other side of the argument for effect—quoting and interpreting those OT passages wrongly as the Judaizers were doing, to present the bankruptcy of that approach. The Habakkuk 2:4 quotation shows Paul surely did not believe the law was given to be a vehicle for salvation.

I try to explain that here, and will continue to do so in subsequent articles. But, there’s no way around it–Paul’s argument is dense and sometimes hard to follow. We can get lost.

My burden here is that normal people from dispensationalist churches often have no idea what to do with the law. Or, if they think they know what to do with it, they present an interpretation that I believe is frankly schizophrenic and nonsensical = (1) nobody was saved by the law, (2) but the law said “do this and live,” (3) and so they were under a curse, (4) but salvation has always been by grace, (5) but they had to do this and live, (6) but that doesn’t mean salvation was by works, but now (7) Jesus has come, so it’s all good. (BTW—this is a populist representation. I know your favorite dispensationalist scholar would have a more nuanced approach. But, he ain’t in the pews).

As a pastor I have seen people, over and over, confused by Galatians because of this wrong teaching. I say enough. I still love my friends who take a dispensationalist slant on Galatians. I just believe that approach effectively shuts the Old Testament away.

Basically, this is the old “continuity v. discontinuity” argument. I doubt we’ll solve it here, but I hope my approach makes sense to someone who reads these articles.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

You have two choices:

  1. You can believe Jesus was advocating a works-salvation, because you assume the Mosaic Law taught that approach to a relationship with God, or
  2. You can understand Jesus saying that (a) if you choose to love God with everything you have, (b) then demonstrate this love is real by loving your covenant brothers and sisters, then (c) you’ll live—because you’ll have shown you’re a believer. The man’s problem is that he didn’t want to love his neighbors—he wanted to legalistically stake out the parameters of that requirement, to do the bare minimum. Thus, we have the parable.

I cannot see how anybody could believe Jesus was advocating a works-based system in Lk 10:27-28—no matter how hard they attempt to nuance it. Bottom line—salvation works the same throughout God’s story. This was Paul’s burden in Galatians 3. This means the Judaizers were not correct, and there is no world in which they could ever be correct. People who assume the Mosaic Law was ever about salvation, or was ever intended to be used as an instrument of salvation, are as wrong as they could possibly be—they’ve adopted the Judaizer’s position.

In Galatians, Paul is not arguing against the Mosaic Law as it actually was. He was arguing against the perverted form of the Mosaic Law that the Judaizers (and culture) had been propogating for some time.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

I think Jesus is simply stating God’s standard of righteousness-perfect and complete obedience- not as a method of salvation but as a means to show the man’s need for a savior and a righteousness not his own.
I’m guessing you don’t agree, though…

I believe my two articles (and those to come) accurately follow the flow of Paul’s argument from Galatians. I understand dispensationalists will disagree. I wish them well.

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and works in State government.

As I’ve only preached through Galatians 3:18, I’m not qualified yet to provide an opinion on this discussion. However, I will say two things related to how my commentaries have handled this issue:

  1. None of my commentaries are written by dispensationalists. In fact, at least one is written by a covenant guy. However, most of them support what Andy is saying. Paul presents to his readers one way of salvation: either perfect obedience to the law or faith alone in Jesus Christ. Paul then demonstrates that salvation has always been by faith alone in the promises of God because perfect obedience to the law is impossible.
  2. None of my commentaries reference Psalm 119 in how they interpret Paul’s use / understanding of the law.

[TylerR] I challenge anyone to read Psalm 119 and demonstrate whether that author felt he was burdened with the “curse of the law”—whether he felt the Mosaic Law was an oppressive taskmaster. He did not.

You should read Luther.

[Martin Luther] As therefore the opinion of righteousness is a great and an horrible monster, a rebellious, obstinate and stiff-necked beast: so, for the destroying and overthrowing thereof, God hath need of a mighty hammer; that is to say, the law: which then is in his proper use and office, when it accuseth and revealeth sin after this sort: Behold, thou hast transgressed all the commandments of God,—and so it striketh a terror in the conscience, so that it feeleth God to be offended and angry indeed, and itself to be guilty of eternal death. Here the heart feeleth the intolerable burden of the law, and is beaten down even to desperation, so that now, being oppressed with great anguish and terror, he desireth death, or else seeketh to destroy himself. Wherefore the law is that hammer, that fire, that mighty strong wind, and that terrible earthquake rending the mountains and breaking the rocks, that is to say, the proud and obstinate hypocrites.

The context of this quote is how the Israelites first responded to God’s giving of the law at Mount Sinai.

Obviously, there is a difference between one who first encounters God’s law in his sinfulness and one who now loves God’s law after being freed from the curse of the law by faith in the promises of God.

I’m not sure I’ve ever met a dispensationalist who believed the law could save. Well, I probably have, but I can’t remember one at the moment. My point is that I know more dispensationalists who would deny that than would affirm it.

If you believe Paul was accurately communicating the meaning of those OT citations (rather than assuming his enemies’ version of the argument, as I suggest), then you are left with Paul teaching that the Mosaic Law was a vehicle for salvation. This is flatly wrong.

I think there might be other options.

Paul is making a larger point about the curse, but the original curse he’s referring to, and the one that Moses referred to, was in the book of Deuteronomy itself.

Towards the end of the book of Deuteronomy (ch 27-29) Moses leads the people to reaffirm the covenant, and when they do, they embrace a set of blessings and a set of curses. The Mosaic covenant taught a lot of things, but what it promised to deliver was temporal… flourishing and peace and prosperity on Earth in the Land. (There is no promise in Deuteronomy of eternal life.) But that temporal promise was conditioned on faithfulness to the covenant, and the covenant also came with a set of curses that would be the result of unfaithfulness.

We know how that turned out.

So I think Paul’s point in those verses is that it’s in the nature of human beings to fail and bring curses on themselves. There is no way that we can be righteous enough to avoid that. It’s entirely possible to read his statements at face value without taking the position that salvation in a spiritual sense was available through the law. The salvation available through the law was salvation from poverty, salvation from defeat by the enemy, etc. But at the same time it was intended to reveal the truth of our sinfulness. The truth of our inability to behave even outwardly in a consistent enough way to avoid bringing curses on ourselves. Spiritual lessons are illustrated by the material realities of what the covenant offered and what and what it delivered.

It’s helpful to keep in mind also what finally killed the Mosaic covenant: Generations of widespread idolatry. In theory the participants in the covenant could have outwardly conformed to all of its requirements without having much faith at all, and still enjoyed all the material blessings of the covenant. But the way things actually unfolded reveals that we can’t even do that much.

This is also Jesus’ point, I believe.

(It’s true that parts of the law talk about loving God and trusting Him. I believe these portions are allusions to, and restatements of, the deeper foundation of Abrahamic faith—which the law was not intended to replace. This is why Paul describes it as being “added.” Gal 3:19)

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.