Faith or Law?
Text: Galatians 3:10-14
Date: 27 May 2018
A couple of weeks ago we looked at Galatians 3:6-9 and gave some thought to faith in general and the faith of Abraham in particular. We learned that God counted Abraham as righteous and in a good standing before Him simply because of his faith; Abraham “believed God”. We know from Genesis 12, 15 & 17 that all of this happened before God gave Abraham and the people the Covenant which laid down the Law to be observed by believers; a Law that included circumcision as being the outward sign of someone being a follower of God, in other words, Jewish.
We now come to a rather difficult passage in 3:10-14 where we read those difficult words “curse” and “cursed”; words that appear five times in this short passage. Over the next few minutes I want us to explore what those words mean and how Paul interprets them for the Galatians. Let me remind you that the basic argument was that the “men from James”, the Judaisers, wanted Gentile Christians to become Jews before they could become Christians; they didn’t accept that the cross of Christ and coming to faith in Jesus Christ was enough for salvation; more was needed.
In the verses that we have looked at so far Paul has been setting out his arguments and beliefs in order to refute those claims made by the Judaisers and point out that for anyone to be regarded as righteous they simply needed to place their faith in Jesus Christ; nothing more was needed.
I do acknowledge that these verses may not be that easy to understand and I suspect that some of Paul’s comments may worry some people; especially the thought of our being cursed. However, over the coming minutes I want to attempt to allay those fears.
The Law and the law
Before we think about the problem of the curse and being cursed I want to consider the difference between the Law (with a capital ‘L’) and the law (with a lower case ‘l’). Believe me, there is an important difference.
Given Paul’s opening words in 3:10, “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse”, it is easy to be worried and wonder what on earth Paul is saying. It can be quite confusing especially when we are led to believe that reading and following scripture is meant to be a blessing for believers. After all, the Psalmist said in Psalm 119:1, “Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the Lord.” Similarly we read in Psalm 1:1-2, “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the seat of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.”
This is where we need to understand that the word “law” with a small “l” means the Word of God, the Bible, or Scripture. There can surely be no greater blessing that to read God’s Word on a regular basis. Remember that Paul told Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 that, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” There is no mention of a curse there!
Paul goes on to say in 3:10 that, “as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’” In that verse Paul is basically quoting Deuteronomy 27:26 which says: “Cursed is anyone who does not uphold the words of this law by carrying them out”. In his use of that verse Paul refers to the “Book of the Law” and uses the word “Law” with a capital “L”. In that context it seems that Paul is referring to God’s Law which is contained in the first five books of the Bible which are known collectively as the Pentateuch.
Faith or Law?
The argument between Paul and the Judaisers centred on how someone could be regarded by God as being righteous in His eyes. Paul believed that as we lack any merit of our own, we are only able to approach God by relying on His grace alone. Paul believed that there was absolutely nothing that we could do to earn righteousness and salvation and that it was all down to God and His grace and mercy. The Judaisers on the other hand believed that they could approach God and become righteous based solely on their own merits and simply by obeying the Law to the full. They firmly believed that they could earn righteousness just by doing good works and obeying the Law to the letter. They believed that they could actually “do everything” that the Law commanded. Needless to say they failed in that objective since no one has ever been able to “do everything” contained in the Law.
Paul’s objective in these verses was to show just how wrong they were and that by following the Law in the way that they believed, they were cursed.
The Curse and The Cursed
OK, let’s give some thought now as to who is cursed and why; and how that curse may be avoided.
The Judaisers believed that by following the Law they would be counted as righteous and receive their salvation; all they had to do was follow that Law. Notice though that Paul talks of those who don’t “do everything” that is written in the Book of the Law. In order to satisfy God and be counted as righteous they had to follow every single part of the Law, they couldn’t leave anything out. For example, they couldn’t choose to only follow five of the Ten Commandments nor could they pick and choose which of the food laws to adhere to. If they wanted to be justified then, whether they liked it or not, they had to observe every single aspect of the Law. Given the huge amount that is contained in the Law, that is an impossible task that no one could ever be able to achieve. That means that just as Paul says, “all those who rely on the works of the law are under a curse” (3:10). In saying that Paul is making it clear that no one relying on obeying the Law can ever be justified.
Paul says in 3:12 that “the law is not based on faith”. He then adds that, “The person who does these things will live by them”. He was referring to Leviticus 18:5 which forms part of the Law and which says, “Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the Lord.” Now it’s just possible that the Judaisers believed that they could live by the Law. However, Paul’s comment contradicts that view since he believed that law and faith could neither co-exist nor complement one another; it was an either or situation meaning that anyone wanting to abide by the law had to live it in full. Many at the time seemed to have the attitude that provided they tried hard to keep strictly to the Law then any faith that they did have would cover the shortfall in their Law keeping performance. If only! God doesn’t work like that and He made clear that His Law had to be kept in full not just in part.
Clearly though it was impossible to keep all the decrees and laws, something which really leads to the thought that the Law was a curse and a burden rather than a blessing. Whilst that verse in Leviticus may contain some hope for the Judaisers, the opposite can be said for a verse that I read earlier in Jeremiah 11:3 where God makes it quite clear that, “Cursed is the one who does not obey the terms of this covenant”. The Covenant being referred to is that that was made on Mount Sinai which we can read about in Exodus 19-24. It was read regularly to remind the people of their obligations to adhere to that Covenant if they wished to be God’s people. As happened all too frequently, the people failed to adhere to the Covenant and these particular words from Jeremiah come soon after the people had turned away from God and towards idols. In Jeremiah 11:1-5 the prophet is actually calling the people to repentance, something which seems to have been a regular event over the centuries!
We need to note and remember that both Jeremiah in Jeremiah 11:3 and Paul in Galatians 3:10 are referring to the same thing; the Covenant and the Book of the Law being essentially the same agreement between God and His people. The Covenant that both Jeremiah and Paul are speaking of is what we generally refer to today as the Old Covenant, something which has been superseded by the New Covenant, that which was given through Jesus Christ. The people in Jeremiah’s day failed to keep the Covenant and obey God which is why we see Jeremiah making it very clear what was going to happen to them. He quotes God’s word again when he says in Jeremiah 11:8, “But they did not listen or pay attention; instead, they followed the stubbornness of their evil hearts. So I brought on them all the curses of the covenant I had commanded them to follow but that they did not keep.” The curses that Jeremiah speaks of are the same curses that Paul is warning the Galatians against.
The important thing here is that the curse applies to all those who failed to “do everything” that was written in the “Book of the Law”, that is, the Covenant; the ‘Old’ Covenant!
The Judaisers were relying on obeying and fulfilling the Law as a means to become righteous and receive their salvation. However, Paul has been trying to make it very clear that they were wrong when he says in 3:11 that “no one who relies on the law is justified before God”. The reason for that is simple and as stated in Habakkuk 3:4, Romans 1:17 and various other places: “the righteous will live by faith”.
That faith that Paul is talking about is belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. It is a belief that brings about our repentance of sin and acceptance that Christ died on the cross of Calvary to pay for all the sins we have committed.
Christians often talk about redemption and being redeemed. We generally view that as meaning that Jesus paid the price for our sins so that we don’t have to. However, there is another aspect to it which Paul refers to in 3:13 when he says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”. I somehow doubt that anyone here today has kept the “Book of the Law” to the nth degree and as a result and under “normal” circumstances would be regarded as cursed. By dying on the cross Jesus became the curse for us meaning that we are no longer subject to that curse. As the song Man of Sorrows says, “Hallelujah, what a Saviour”! Scripture tells us that anyone who is hung on a tree is cursed. We read in Deuteronomy 21:23 that whenever anyone is hung on a tree, “you must not leave the body on the pole overnight. Be sure to bury it that same day, because anyone who is hung on a pole is under God's curse.” The NIV here refers to a “pole” whilst earlier versions referred to a “tree”. This can also be read as referring to a cross which was used for executions by the Romans; which means that, by being executed on a cross Jesus became cursed. Not only did He carry the burden of our sins on the cross but He also took the prospect of our being cursed to the cross as well. Paul adds in 3:14 that, “He [that is Christ] redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles though Jesus Christ”. He then adds that vitally important point, “so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit”. Faith in Christ defeats the curse that is associated with failing to obey the Book of the Law.
The thought of our being cursed by God is a difficult one to comprehend and deal with. The Judaisers believed that they could receive righteousness by obeying the Law even though that had never been done and their ancestors had constantly failed in that objective. They sincerely believed that obeying the Law would bring them salvation and they wanted the Galatians to follow in that belief. They firmly believed that faith in Jesus simply wasn’t enough and that the Galatians also needed to obey the Law in full including being circumcised. Interestingly of course, whilst they may have been circumcised themselves, it seems highly unlikely that any of them ever kept the Law in its entirety.
Paul’s position was the opposite since he believed that Jesus Christ had done all that was needed for our salvation by dying on the cross of Calvary. None of us has ever kept the Law which in essence means that we are cursed by God. However, by coming to faith in Jesus as Lord and Saviour we are not only forgiven for our sins but the curse that we would expect to be under has also been dealt with. Christ carried both our sins and our curse onto the cross when He hung there and died. As Paul says in 3:13 “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law”.
The secret to all this, if it is a secret, is that we need to come to faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour. That is how we are regarded by God as being righteous; that is how we are forgiven for our sins; and that is how we are redeemed from being cursed by God.