Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
It’s common today for people to set goals. One of the more common goals is the goal to lose a certain amount of weight. So you say you’re going to lose 15 pounds, and then there are certain rules, a law we could even say, that you must live by to attain your goal: Eat these foods, don’t eat those, exercise, get enough sleep, and so on. But while you’re doing all that, you never really know you’re going to hit your goal, do you? You must keep the law, and maybe you think you can break it, but if you do, how do you know if you’ll still make your goal? The Bible teaches that every human was created with an ultimate goal over all of our smaller goals: eternal life. You were created to live forever with God for His glory. But how can you attain the goal? The churches of Galatia, to whom the letter to the Galatians is written, had been told by Paul, the author of the letter, that the way to that goal was through faith in Christ. But then some false teachers had come to them and said the way was actually by keeping the law God gave to Moses, kinda like the weight-loss law I spoke of. But in this passage, Paul assures us that if you are trusting in Christ, you are already an heir of the promise of eternal life apart from the law. Nonetheless, he can’t deny that God’s law exists. How, then, can we know we are heirs of eternal life apart from it? Paul gives us three reasons in this passage: The law doesn’t annul the promise, the law is meant to drive you to the promise, and you have put on the one to whom the promise was made.
The law doesn’t annul the promise
Our passage today begins with an illustration, what Paul calls a “human example” in verse 15. He says even when humans make covenants, the covenant is considered binding once it’s ratified; you can’t just then go annul it or add to it. I have a contractor working on my house currently. Before he started working on it, he wrote up a description of the work, assigned a price to each thing he was doing, and then gave me a total, along with a payment schedule. Once we both sign it and I make that initial payment, he can’t then just say, “You know what, never mind. I’ve decided I don’t feel like doing the work after all.” And I can’t say, “You know what, I know I said I’d give you a certain amount of money for that work, but now if you want all that money, you’re also going to have to complete a few more projects that weren’t in the contract.” We expect better from one another, and our laws demand better of one another.
How much more, then, when God makes a covenant, should we expect that he will neither annul nor add to it? And God did make a covenant with Abraham. Remember, Abraham is very important to the whole argument between Paul and the false teachers infecting the churches of Galatia, because Abraham was the father of the Jewish people, and the first one to whom circumcision was given. In the covenant God made with Abraham, God said this in Genesis 17:7-8: “And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and I will be their God.” Notice a few things about this covenant: First, which Paul points out here, the promise made in it is made to a singular offspring, who Paul identifies as Christ. We’ll come back to that. Notice also that God promised to be the God of Abraham and his offspring, and to give them land as an everlasting possession. The idea of eternal life wasn’t clear before Jesus rose from the dead, but the shadow of it, the hint of it, before Christ came, was long life with God in the land. The ultimate promise God made to Abraham then, the only way both Abraham and his offspring could have the land as an everlasting possession, was for God to grant Abraham and his offspring eternal life in an eternal land, which later prophecies call a new heaven and a new earth, where God would be God to Abraham and his offspring forever.
So if we expect that neither me nor my contractor can annul or add to our covenant, then how much more can we trust that God will not either annul or add to his covenant with Abraham. But there is an important difference between my covenant with my contractor and God’s covenant with Abraham. God’s covenant with Abraham was a promise. Biblically, my covenant with my contractor is more like a law: I say to him that if you do these things for me, then I will reward you with money. The contractor isn’t legally entitled to my money until he finishes the work. The covenant with Abraham, though, was a promise, and so Abraham was legally entitled to the inheritance, to eternal life itself in the new heavens and new earth with God, the moment he believed it. It’s more like someone holding out the deed to a piece of land to you, and saying, “I promise to give you this land.” When does the land legally become yours? The moment you open your hand and accept the deed.
That’s how God’s covenant with Abraham worked. This is what Paul means, then, in verse 17: The law, which came 430 years afterward, cannot annul that covenant previously ratified. Verse 18: For if the inheritance came by the law, it no longer comes by a promise, but God gave it by a promise. See the contrast? If God, when he gives the law to Moses 430 years after this covenant with Abraham says, “You must be circumcised and only eat certain foods and love me with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself in order to inherit eternal life,” then God would have been adding to the covenant previously ratified with Abraham, making it null and void. It would have been like the landowner who promised the deed taking back the deed and saying, “Now you can only get this if you do what I command.” Even humans can’t do that! How much less, then, will God.
The moment you believe in Christ, the offspring of Abraham, you become an heir of the promise. Then, as you begin following Christ, you start to learn more about God’s law, what God requires of you, and it turns out it’s more than you even thought when you first believed! Here’s the thing to remember as you encounter those features of God’s law that are new to you: None of them can annul or add to the promise. The deed to eternal life is yours the moment you believe. Here’s how the promise sounds now that Christ has come: “Whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16). That’s God promise, and it cannot be added to or annulled. So after you believe, you learn quickly that you need to get baptized, join a church, and start taking the Lord’s Supper with that church. But none of those things are necessary to eternal life; if they were, they would be additions to the promise, and therefore they would annul the promise! So don’t panic when you come across features of God’s law that are new to you. Your deed to eternal life is secure the moment you believe, just as Abraham’s was. Why then, was the law added 430 years later? That’s the next question Paul addresses, and his answer is that the law drives you to trust the promise.
The law drives you to trust the promise
So in verse 19 Paul asks that question: Why then the law? He says it was added because of transgressions. Humans were sinful since Adam and Eve sinned, but the sin can only be identified when there are laws that the sinners violate. Romans 4:15 explicitly says that where there is no law, there is no transgression. It doesn’t say that where there is no law, there is no sin, but where there is no law, there is no transgression. Romans 5:13 is perhaps even clearer: “for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law.” Sin is in the world, but it’s not counted until there is a law to transgress. So the law was given not so we’d obey it and receive the inheritance through it; it was given to show us that we don’t obey, and therefore cannot receive the inheritance through our efforts to obey.
Paul raises another question in verse 21: Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? In other words, is it, in fact, an addition to the covenant with Abraham, adding a condition to the inheritance of eternal life? No! Because, he says, it was not a law that could give life. Instead, verse 22: It imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. In other words, it so convicted everyone as sinners, that it pointed us to a different way to inherit the promise of eternal life: Through faith in Jesus Christ, the offspring of Abraham to whom the promise was originally made.
And it did this very well. Remember we said the covenant with Abraham was more like the landowner who promises to give land to another, and the land becomes legally yours the moment you believe the one making the promise by opening your hand and receiving the deed. The covenant with Moses, though, the one God made 430 years after the covenant with Abraham, was more like the covenant with my contractor. In it God promised them the same land he’d promised to Abraham, but their possession of it was conditional on their obedience to God’s law. And, in fact, they broke God’s law, and guess what? They were removed from the land. They were disinherited. What was that meant to teach them? What was it meant to teach us? It was meant to teach us that if we try to obtain the inheritance of eternal life by our obedience, we never will.
It simply was not a law that could give life. Think about it: If you’re already a sinner, how can any law make you righteous? No amount of good deeds change the fact that you’ve already done evil deeds! The law included sacrifices for sin, but how on any ultimate standard of justice could the blood of bulls and goats take away sin? They couldn’t. Not only can the law not provide an efficacious atonement for your past sins, it also can’t change you to ensure that you obey it in the future! There’s a reason we disobeyed in the first place: We’re sinners! And just hearing, “You shall not murder” cannot change that. What it can do is expose it. Now your murder can be counted against you, because the law has clearly identified it as sinful. And not only that, but the law makes a claim on your thoughts and desires as well as your actions, and exposes not only those who commit murder, but the murderous desires in all our hearts. In fact, sin even uses the law to increase our sinful desires, so that when you hear “do not murder” sin produces in you more murderous desires. This is easiest to observe in kids: You tell them not to look at page 21 of a magazine, and what do they immediately want to do? Look at page 21. The law imprisons everything under sin. It exposes our sin, counts our sins, and even strengthens our sin; yet it provides no salvation from our sins.
And so, Paul says in verse 23 that before faith in Christ was revealed, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. Think about Israel’s condition under the law: There was a time they were in the land, but they never knew if they would stay in the land. God’s curse on their disobedience, God’s statement that if they sinned against Him, He’d remove them from the land, always hung over their heads, and at the same time, they were still sinners! Imagine you’re my contractor. You’re only legally entitled to my money when you finish the work on my house. Now imagine that the standard is perfection: No window can be even slightly crooked, cracked, or dinged (they’re working on my windows). Now also imagine that inside, you really hate your job. Wouldn’t you feel like you were imprisoned? And if I kept coming to you and saying, “You must finish this work perfectly to get paid,” what would it do? It would make you think, “Man, I really hate this job.” It would expose your hatred of the job, and your hatred of the job would grow stronger. That was Israel’s situation under the Mosaic covenant: They were only legally entitled to the land as an everlasting possession if they perfectly obeyed, but inside, they were still sinful: They hated God, and so hated their job as His servants. And the more the law came, the more the law was understood, the more it exposed them as such and the more their hatred of God grew. The law imprisoned them under sin.
And this is still the experience of any who try to attain eternal life by the law. They’re radically insecure: The law requires perfection, they haven’t hit it, and there are still desires in them that are contrary to it. So when they look ahead to the future, they don’t have any assurance of eternal life. They can’t. It’s why religion doesn’t work. Because even if you swap out the law of Moses for keeping the 5 pillars (as in Islam) or following the 8-fold path (as in Buddhism), you can’t get away from the true God: His justice requires a perfect obedience, you haven’t offered it, and by nature, you don’t want to.
The law was meant to expose our sin, not save us. And by exposing our sin, it was meant to drive us to look for another way of salvation, the promise of eternal life made to Abraham and his offspring, Jesus Christ. So, verse 24 says, the law was our guardian until Christ came. The word “guardian” there was a term in the ancient world for a caretaker of a child. The caretaker would guard the child with the hope of ultimately leading them to maturity. The law, then, was meant to lead us to trust in Christ. It is designed to drive you to the promise. Have you let the law do its job in your life? Here’s how the law works: It exposes a gap between what God requires and how you live. That gap is meant to drive you to trust Christ to fill the gap. But there are two primary ways we short-circuit the law’s proper work in our lives. One, perhaps the most obvious and the one that is the focus in Galatians is we simply try harder to obey it. So the Galatians hear you must be circumcised, and they say, “Ok; we’ll get circumcised.” See how you don’t need faith in Jesus in that scenario? And man, so many people assume that’s what Christianity basically is. They hear, “You know, it’s not enough to just say you believe. You have to really be serious about it,” and they say, “Ok; I’ll get serious about my faith. I’ll stop drinking and start reading the Bible.” They hear you should care for the poor and they say, “Ok; I’m going to start volunteering once a month.” They hear you shouldn’t look at pornography and they say, “Ok; I promise to stop.” And all the while they’re still functionally trusting in their own obedience to attain the inheritance, and so live like prisoners of sin. There’s hiding and pretending instead of joy and peace; there’s typically pride over those who they perceive to be less obedient, and disdain for those who seem more obedient.
So that’s one way we short-circuit the law’s proper work: When we see the gap between what the law requires and how we are living, we simply try to live differently. Perhaps we enlist Jesus’ help, but we’re still trying to close the gap. We could call that the Nike approach: God requires something in his law? Just do it. The other primary way we short-circuit the law’s proper work is by lowering the standard of God’s law, so that we can convince ourselves we’re already keeping it. So you hear you shall not murder and you say, “Well; I haven’t killed anyone. Check,” while leaving the anger in your heart unconfessed, unrepented of, and unchanged. You hear you shall not commit adultery and say, “Well; I haven’t had sexual intercourse with someone else’s spouse. Check,” while leaving all the ways you desire sex with people with whom you cannot have it unconfessed, unrepented of, and unchanged. We could easily do that with all 10 commandments, but I trust you get the idea. The non-religious way of doing that is by simply denying altogether that there is really a law that constrains you. You tell yourself nobody else has the right to tell you how to live, or that because of how you’ve suffered or been oppressed, you can’t be expected to obey God’s law. But it doesn’t work. You remain imprisoned. Even if you just define your own standards, you fail to live up to them! Even if you tell yourself the only thing you must do is feel good about yourself, you have days you don’t, and the gap between your sense of what you ought to be and what you actually are returns. And just like the Nike method, this leads to hiding, pretending, pride, and disdain for others, rather than joy, peace, humility, and love for others.
Don’t short-circuit the law’s work. God gave it to expose and even increase the gap between who you ought to be and who you are. It’s not there to simply convince you that you aren’t perfect. It’s there to convince you that you are a prisoner, a prisoner of sin. It’s there to define sin, so that you will see just how guilty of it you are. It’s there to pile up the list of charges against you. It’s there to show you: You can’t do this, and in fact, you hate this, though you ought to do it! It’s there to drive you to despair of your own efforts, and drive you to another. Let it do its work. If you’re here today, and you’ve not yet trusted Christ for salvation, confess that you are a prisoner to sin, and receive and rest upon him, the offspring of Abraham. And to you who have, you are no longer a prisoner, but the law doesn’t suddenly gain the power to give you life once you believe. Don’t switch to the Nike mentality after believing. When you see God’s law more clearly, don’t start by just doing it, or by trying to convince yourself that you already do it. Let it expose the ways you still fall short. Let it expose the sinful desires the remain in you. And exercise faith upon Christ again, before you start working to put to death that sinful desire in you.
Though you absolutely cannot attain eternal life by the law, to you who believe in Christ, you are now an heir of eternal life, because you have put on the one to whom the promise was made.
You have put on the one to whom the promise was made
So in verse 25, there is a transition: Now that faith has come, you are no longer under a guardian! Remember the context: Why don’t the Galatians need to be circumcised in obedience to the law of Moses? Because the law of Moses was designed to drive us to the promise, but now that the one to whom the promise was made has come, the law of Moses has done its job! The guardian has led you to maturity. For, look at this in verse 26: In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. Here for the first time in Galatians we encounter the concept of adoption, that Christians are sons of God through faith in Christ. We’ll unpack it a lot more next week, but for now let me just tell you that the concept of inheritance is central to it. When we think of adoption today, we typically think of a family taking in a child that is currently in foster care, a child whose biological parents are either unable or unwilling to take care of them. In the ancient world, though, it often didn’t work that way. Rather, it was a way of assigning inheritance. So Caesar Augustus, the first emperor of the Roman Empire, was adopted as an adult by Julius Caesar, and therefore, upon Julius Caesar’s death, he inherited Julius Caesar’s name, estate, and the loyalty of his armies. So do you see what this is saying? It’s saying that in Christ Jesus you all are heirs of eternal life through faith! God is now your God forever through faith, just as He promised to be God to Abraham and to his offspring.
Why? Because Christ is the ultimate heir of the promises! Remember the promise was made to Abraham and his offspring, and the offspring is Christ! Remember verse 19: Christ is the offspring to whom the promise was made! And if you believe in him, you are “in him” as verse 26 puts it. Or, to use the language of verse 27: As many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. This is what baptism signifies. Like a member of the Eagles necessarily puts on the jersey at some point, thus marking them visibly as a member of the team, so those who are in Christ Jesus by faith are baptized, thus marking them visibly as those who are in Christ Jesus by faith. Notice, in passing, two assumptions Paul makes about baptism: One is that if you are in Christ Jesus by faith, you’ve been baptized. If you profess faith in Christ but haven’t been baptized since that profession of faith, you should get baptized. We have a box on the Connect Card you can check to start learning more about it. And the other assumption is that those who have been baptized are in fact in Christ Jesus, which is why in this church, we only baptize those who make a credible profession of faith in Christ Jesus, rather than also baptizing infants who cannot profess faith.
As many of you as have been baptized into Christ are, then, no longer in the position of my contractor. Rather, you are in the position of the man with the deed to the new heavens and new earth in his hands. Israel was imprisoned under sin. Even when they were in the land, they could not have lasting peace, because the work of obeying God’s law perfectly was still undone. The contractor can’t rest; he’s imprisoned until the work is done perfectly. But now the work has been done perfectly! Jesus did it! He was born under the Mosaic law, he obeyed it to perfection, and he received the curse we deserved for our disobedience. So he received the inheritance of eternal life when God raised him from the dead, and he now holds the deed to a new heavens and new earth, which he will establish when he returns. If you are in him, then, you also hold that deed. You get in under his name.
And the deed you’ve received is the promised Holy Spirit. In Ephesians 1:14 Paul calls the Holy Spirit “the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” and you received the Spirit the moment you believed. You are legally entitled to eternal life in a new heavens and new earth the moment you believe because faith unites you to Christ, who is the offspring of Abraham to whom the promises were made, and who satisfied the demands of God’s law in your place. He closed the gap the law exposed. He didn’t come to enable you to close the gap; He closed the gap for you! He didn’t come to simply enable you to obey God’s law; He came to obey God’s law for you! He didn’t come to simply enable you to avoid God’s curse; He came to bear God’s curse for you! So let the law do its work in you. Let it drive you to Him. And if you are his, verse 29, you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise, not according to the law.
It makes sense, then, that verse 28 would be true: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. The false teachers taught that there was Jew and Greek, and that if you wanted to get in on the inheritance, you had to essentially become Jewish: Get circumcised and obey the Jewish law. Paul says no! The inheritance always came by a promise, the Jewish law was there to drive you to the one to whom the promise was made, and if you are in him, you are an heir of the promise! Therefore, the only designation that ultimately matters when it comes to your standing before God, when it comes to your legal status as an heir of eternal life, is “in Christ.” In Christ, Gentiles don’t have to become Jews. And then, amazingly, Paul expands this out: There is also neither slave nor free, and neither male nor female! In pagan temples, the slaves were not allowed to worship with the nobility. But in Christ, the slave and the freeman are heirs together of eternal life. Under the Mosaic law, only men received the sign of circumcision. The false teachers were teaching a way of salvation that only men could take, because only men could get circumcised! But in Christ, there is also neither male nor female. The women don’t have to become men. They too can be in Christ by faith, and they too receive the sign of baptism.
Being in Christ doesn’t annihilate your ethnicity, your class, or your gender, but we learn here that it does relativize them. When it comes to your status before God, they are literally a non-factor. All who are in Christ are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. And so this is how we are to regard one another as members of Christ’s church. I don’t pretend not to see your ethnicity, your class, or your gender. I will love you better by seeing those things, and they give us more reasons to give God glory for bringing us together! I won’t deny them, but I also won’t let them make me feel either superior or inferior to you. I won’t let them make me feel like you need to become more like me, or I need to become more like you. Instead, let’s view one another most of all as “in Christ,” and let’s all help one another become like him, in ways that account for our ethnicity, class, and gender. Our world is obsessed with race, class, and gender today, but there is only one place where those who are different ethnically, those of different classes, and those of different genders are truly one: in Christ.
He is the offspring to whom God promised eternal life, and no law can add to or annul that promise. So don’t let the law make you panic. Let it expose your sinfulness and drive you to him. If you are in him, you are an heir of eternal life, whatever your sins, whatever your race, class, or gender, and you are one with all those who are also in him, whatever their sins, and whatever their race, class, or gender. God’s deed, the Holy Spirit, is in you, and He will keep you for an inheritance imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you now, which Jesus will bring with him when he returns. Then we will inherit a new land, and our God will be with us forever.