Grace Confirmed By the Old Testament
Review the contrast between Paul’s and the Judaizers’ messages. Why were the Judaizers so effective in misleading the Galatian Christians? Part of the answer is that it appeared that the Old Testament agreed with them rather than with Paul:
The Old Testament places a huge emphasis on God’s Law. 4 of the first 5 books of the Old Testament focus on the Law, and most of the rest of the Old Testament focuses on how God either blessed Israel because of their obedience to the Law, or judged them because of their disobedience. Why would God emphasize this so much if obeying God’s Law wasn’t crucial for our salvation?
The Law actually says “Do this and live” (Lev.18:5)—which at least implies that we can earn God’s acceptance by obeying his Law.
So Paul must demonstrate from the Old Testament that God always accepted people by grace through faith alone and not by works. And he must explain why God gave the Law if he didn’t intend for it to be the means by which we earn his acceptance. This is exactly what he does in 3:6-24. This is a very complicated passage—filled with Old Testament quotations and allusions to Old Testament principles that are unfamiliar to most of us. We don’t have the time to examine it in detail—but we can get the main points of Paul’s argument. He answers two critical questions...
“How did people get God’s acceptance in the Old Testament period?” (3:6-14)
Read 3:6-14 (NLT). Do you see what I mean by “complicated?” Yet the main points are pretty easy to understand.
God always accepted people by faith rather than by works. Paul proves this in two ways:
God accepted Abraham on this basis. Abraham was the father of the Jewish nation. If God accepted Abraham by faith, certainly this is exemplary of how he accepts others. And the Old Testament is crystal clear on this issue.
God had promised (Gen.12:1-3) Abraham that he would bring a great nation from his descendents. Yet Abraham was 75 years old and his wife Sarah was 65 (post-menopause) and barren. Read Gen.15:1-5—God reiterates his promise. Read Gen. 15:6a—Abraham simply places his faith in God’s promise. He does no works whatever. Read Gen.15:6b—God “counted him as righteous because of his faith.” (PROMISE >> FAITH (ALONE) >> ACCEPTED)
What is implied by Abraham’s example is expressly stated by God through the prophet Habakkuk (3:11; Hab.2:4)—everyone gets right standing with God by faith.
God never accepted anyone by works. Yes, the Law taught “Do this (i.e., keep the Law) and you will live” (3:12; Lev.18:5). But this turns out to be only a theoretical possibility—not something than anyone could achieve. Why? Because, the Law itself stated that God required perfect obedience to all of his laws, and that any disobedience brought one under God’s condemnation/curse (3:10,11a; Deut.27:26). Because of this perfect standard, the only thing the Law gives anyone is God’s curse!
This is why Jesus came—to rescue us from the curse of the Law by taking this curse on himself (3:13). Yes, the Law expressly stated that capital criminals (stoned and then hung from a tree) were under God’s condemnation (Deut.21:23). Yes, the fact that Jesus was “hung from a tree” proved that he was under God’s condemnation. But he was condemned by God not for his own sins, but because he voluntarily took our condemnation on himself. In doing so, he fulfilled both the Old Testament sacrificial system (in which God provides a blameless substitute whose death pays for our sins) and the prophecy of Isa.53 (read Isa.53:4b,5a,6b).
So Paul’s message was consistent with, not contradictory to, the Old Testament! People in the Old Testament were never able to earn God’s acceptance by obeying his Law. Instead, people in the Old Testament got God’s acceptance in the exact same way they do now—by simply trusting in God’s promise. The only difference is that they put their trust in God’s promise before he fulfilled it through Jesus’ death (aided by pictures and prophecies), while we put our trust in God’s promise after he fulfilled it in history.
“Why did God give the Law?” (3:15-24)
This raises an obvious question, doesn’t it? If God didn’t give the Law to be the means by which people earned his acceptance, why did he give it? Paul answers this question in two ways:
Read 3:15-18. There is some complicated language here (3:16 is an inspired rabbit-trail!), but the main point is clear.
In Roman law, once someone named his heirs in his will and solemnized it, it could not be changed under any condition. They could enter into other legal arrangements with their heirs fro different purposes—but those arrangements could not change their inheritance. In the same way, Paul says, God gave his promise to accept people by faith (Gen.15:6) long before he gave the Law. Therefore, whatever his purpose is for the Law, it cannot be to change the basis upon which he accepts people—because God’s promises are unalterable.
This is very ironic. The Judaizers were saying that Paul’s message can’t be true because it would mean that God changed his mind about how to accept people. Actually, Paul says, it is the Judaizers’ message that amounts to God changing his mind!
Then why did God give the Law? 1 Read 3:19-24. There are some more inspired rabbit-trails here, but again the main point is clear. God gave the Law, not to be the means by which we earn God’s acceptance, but to convince us of our need for faith in Christ by exposing our sin and guilt.
Our biggest problem is not our sin/guilt—God has provided the solution for this through Jesus. It is our deep-seated inclination to deny that we need God’s solution. This is like what doctors call “denial.” A patient is seriously ill, but the doctor has treatment to cure the patient. The problem is that the patient is in denial. So before the patient will submit to treatment, the doctor must first persuade him that he needs it. How can the doctor do this? By showing him evidence of his illness, by showing him cases of what happened to people who refused treatment, etc.
In the same way, God uses the Law to break through our denial of our radical guilt so we will receive his treatment of forgiveness through Jesus. Paul explains how the Law serves this purpose (for Israel historically, and for us individually) in three ways:
The Law “shows people their sins” (3:19). The Law provides an objective description of God’s perfect righteousness and how we violate it. The Law is like a X-Ray or blood tests. They don’t cure us—they reveal the problem requires Christ’s cure.
The Law “places us under guard as prisoners” (3:22,23). The Law not only indicts us of sin and guilt—it also keeps us in custody as convicted criminals who await God’s judgment.
The Law “is our guardian” (3:24). This is a poor translation. A “guardian” (paidagogos) was a “child-conductor”—a harsh disciplinarian, like a super-strict nanny, who went everywhere with minor children and punished them every time they disobeyed. The Law is like a super-babysitter who is always catching us and issuing new declarations of our guilt.
Understood this way, the law is extremely important. It can’t cure us, but it can break through our denial and convince that we’re sick and need the doctor’s cure. It can’t save us, but it can break through our self-righteousness and convince us that we need God’s salvation.
What happens when you put your faith in Christ?
Once the Law has brought you to faith in Christ, then what? Then you become a new person! Paul describes three profound changes that occur the moment you receive Christ.
Read 3:25-27. Faith in Christ gives you right standing before God. No longer are you under the Law to remind you of your guilt—now you are a full-fledged child of God who is completely righteous in God’s sight. In Roman society, when a son became an adult, he laid aside his child-conductor and wore a new toga that signified his new standing. Likewise, when you receive Christ, you lay aside the Law as your guardian and “wear” Christ’s righteousness before God. This gives you confidence in your relationship with God (Eph.3:12)—because your acceptance doesn’t depend on your righteousness, but on Christ’s righteousness.
Read 3:28. Faith in Christ not only makes you a child of God—it also makes you an equal member of God’s family. In a world in which people were defined by their race, socio-economic status, and gender, this was (and still is) a revolutionary statement. Jewish rabbis prayed, “I thank you God that you have not made me a Gentile, a slave or a woman.” Apart from Christ, people take their identities from race, socio-economic status, and gender—either feeling (falsely) superior or inferior to others on this basis. But Paul says that, while these distinctions are real, they do not matter to God. Are you from a privileged background? You are still a sinner saved only by God’s grace. Have you been oppressed? You now have great dignity as God’s child. This gives us a basis for real community—the opportunity to build life-changing spiritual friendships based on our common relationship with Christ.
Read 3:29. Faith in Christ also provides you with a significant role in history. To be a child of Abraham and an heir to God’s promise means that you have become part of God’s centuries-long unfolding plan to rescue a broken humanity. Your life now has a high and honored purpose (to help others come to Christ and mature in him), and you have a unique role to play in that purpose. No longer do you need to wander around aimlessly, or try to deceive yourself into thinking that making more money (or buying a nicer car or going on a better vacation or getting another degree, etc.) is worth living for. You can live for God and for his purpose—and this will give your life true meaning and significance!
I can say that putting my faith in Christ has brought all three of these changes into my life. I have acceptance by God, which gives me deep-seated security. I have real equality and unity with my brothers and sisters in Christ, which gives me real community. And I have a unique role in God’s plan, which fills my life with genuine significance. God says, “He who trusts in me will not be disappointed.” I have experienced the fulfillment of that promise. And you can too...
1 Actually, there are several answers to this question. God gave the Law to express his moral character and his moral will for our lives. He gave it to provide pictures of Christ’s future atoning death. He gave it to provide the conditions under which Israel could live in the land of Canaan. He gave it to provide the Israelites with a civil government. Here, Paul explains the purpose of God’s Law specifically with regard to how we get his acceptance.