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." Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law; for "He who through faith is righteous shall live"; but the law does not rest on faith, for "He who does them shall live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree"—that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
When Paul says in verse 10 that "all who rely on works of the law are under a curse," it reminds us of 1:7, 8, where he says, "There are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed." Evidently, Paul believed that there was a teaching among the churches of Galatia which was so destructive to people and so dishonoring to God that it merited a divine curse. It was a teaching propagated not by secular humanists from Athens but by God-fearing Jewish "Christian" church members from Jerusalem. The reason the book of Galatians has such a radical, life-changing message is that it pronounces a curse from God not on atheistic or agnostic outsiders but on professing Christians who try to serve God in a way that diminishes his grace and cultivates their own pride.
The Danger of False Assurances
Galatians is God's reminder to Bethlehem that we are in constant danger of false assurances. Satan is continuously at work tempting us to think and feel that because we use God-talk, and come to church, and pray at meal times, and avoid gross sins, we are, therefore, under God's blessing. But the book of Galatians concerns a group of people (called Judaizers) who do all those things and are under God's curse.
None of us should sit easily under the scrutiny of this book. Divine blessing and divine curse are the issue. And the continental divide between the two is not between church people and non-church people, nor is it between those who call Jesus "Lord" and those who don't. It is between those, on the one hand, who have been crucified with Christ and now in poverty live in continuing reliance on the living Christ, and those, on the other hand, who have never really died to self-reliance and whose religious activity, though "moral" and intense, is all an exercise in self-reformation. The one group glories only in the cross of Christ by which they died to all but God. But the other group extols the powers and potentials of the self and diminishes the grace of God (2:21) and the cross of Christ (5:11). The one group of church members enjoys the blessing of God promised to Abraham and his descendants; the other group of church members is under a divine curse.
Therefore, the way to listen to this message from Galatians 3:10–14 is in a spirit of sober self-examination. 2 Corinthians 13:5 says, "Examine yourselves to see whether you are (standing) in faith. Test yourselves. For you should know yourselves—that Christ Jesus is in you, unless indeed you fail to meet the test." Whenever the Word of God is faithfully preached, you are given a standard by which to test yourselves. It may affirm the reality of Christ's work in your life and send you rejoicing with new power. Or it may prick your conscience and send you to prayer and repentance. But God forbid that you should pigeonhole a message from Galatians as applicable only to unbelievers or only to your degree of blessing in heaven. It is written for the church and the issue is the continental divide between divine blessing and divine curse.
Galatians 3:10–14 makes three high-level statements which ought to be just as momentous to you as if you heard over the loudspeaker that Russia had just launched 80 nuclear warheads toward this country. The first statement is verse 10: "Those who rely on works of the law are under a curse." The second is verse 13: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law." The third, in verse 14, gives the purpose and result of the second: "that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." Let's try to understand these one at a time and apply them to ourselves.
"Works of the Law"
First, "Those who rely on works of the law are under a curse." The opposite of curse is blessing. This is clear from verses 13 and 14 where it says that Christ became a curse for us that we might have the blessing of Abraham. And since the blessing (according to verse 14) is the Holy Spirit, the curse must be at least the absence of the Holy Spirit. So when verse 10 says that "those who rely on works of the law are under a curse," it means that they are without the Holy Spirit (as 3:5 says). And that means that they are cut off from God and that his wrath abides on them. So you can see how crucial it is to avoid being one who relies on works of the law. What does that mean?
There is no Greek word for legalism. When Paul wanted to refer to the legalistic misuse of Moses' teaching, he either had to use the term "law" and trust that the context would clarify the meaning, "misuse of law"; or he had to use a phrase like "works of law" which for him always had a negative, legalistic meaning. We know from the context of 2:18 that Paul distinguished what Moses really taught from what the Judaizers did with his teachings.
There is a difference between law as God intended it and law as legalism. You recall how Peter, who had been eating with Gentiles (in 2:12), withdrew under pressure from the Judaizers. He had been free from the dietary laws but then began again to follow them and to imply that for Gentiles to be fully Christian, they had to do this, too. Paul saw this as out of sync with the gospel (2:14), and also as contrary to the law itself. He said in 2:18, "If I build again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor." That is, if we have ceased to depend on "works of law" to show our worth to God, but then start to use the law like that again, then we show ourselves to be transgressors. Of what? Of the law! The law itself condemns the use of its own commands as a way of proving our worth to God and trying to earn his blessing. Paul uses the term "works of law" to refer to this legalistic misuse of law.
So the "works of law" in 3:10 does not refer to obedience which comes from faith, but to self-reliant efforts at obedience which are the very opposite of faith. That's why "works of law" are contrasted with faith in verse 5: "Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?" "Works of law" are not the "good works" that a Christian does in reliance on the power of the Holy Spirit. They are the self-reliant effort to demonstrate virtue to man and God. Therefore, the phrase "works of law" is synonymous with legalism. And as we saw from 2:18, the Mosaic law itself condemns legalism.
You recall the picture of the railroad track raised into a ladder to heaven? God gave the law to show us the route to heaven along which the engine of the Spirit would pull us if we were coupled to him by faith. But the Judaizers, and many religious people today who know nothing of living union with Christ, took the railroad track of the law and raised it up on end and turned it into a ladder on which they would climb up to heaven by their own moral initiative. Wherever that happens, you have legalism or, as Paul says, you have "works of the law."
Faith Versus "Works of the Law"
Now I hope we can see what verse 10 is getting at. In verses 1–5 the Judaizers had told the Christian Galatians that it is OK to start the Christian life by faith, but then later you have to do some of the work yourself. You began by faith in the power of the Spirit. Now you have to complete yourself by works in the power of the flesh. Paul's answer is that it can't be done. The God who goes on supplying the Spirit and working miracles in the believers does so only by faith, not by works of law. Verse 10 confirms this with these stark words: If you start with faith and then shift over to "works of law," you are going to be under a curse.
Notice carefully. The curse in verse 10 is not because you fail to do the works of the law. It is because you do them. The advice of the Judaizers to supplement faith with "works of law" has exactly the opposite effect from the one intended—it brings a curse, not a blessing. It was when Peter started keeping the dietary laws that Paul said he was out of sync with the gospel and transgressing the law. It was when the Judaizers wanted to keep the command to circumcise Titus in 2:3 that Paul said the truth of the gospel was about to be compromised. The problem with the Judaizers is not their failure to follow the detailed statutes of the law; the problem was that they missed the larger lesson of the law, namely, that without a new heart (Deuteronomy 30:6, 7) and without the enablement of God (Deuteronomy 4:30, 31; 5:29; 29:4) and without faith (Exodus 14:31; Numbers 14:11; 20:21; Deuteronomy 1:32), all efforts to obey the law would simply be legalistic strivings of the flesh.
"Works of the Law" and the Curse of the Law
Now if you are tracking with me so far, you may be able to hang on through verse 12. I'm going to suggest an interpretation of these verses which is not common, and will require some effort to follow. If there were any way I could make this simpler, believe me, I would. The usual interpretation of verses 10–12 says that Paul contrasts the Mosaic law with faith and argues that since no one keeps the Mosaic law perfectly, all are under a curse. My understanding is that Paul contrasts faith not with the Mosaic law itself, but with legalism, and that the Mosaic law itself pronounces a curse precisely on that legalism. I think the word "law" in verses 11 and 12 refers not to the teaching of Moses but to the distortion of the law into legalism by the Judaizers. Let me just paraphrase it for your consideration and then move on to the second high-level statement.
(10) "All who cease to live wholly by faith and apply themselves to keeping the law in their own strength in order to earn God's fullest favor are under the curse of the law. For in Deuteronomy 27:26 it says people are cursed who try to keep the law but neglect those parts which teach the evils of self-reliance and legalism. (They don't do all the things written in the law; they neglect the weightier matters like faith—as Jesus said.) (11) It is patently clear that justification can never be achieved by legalism ("law" in the distorted sense), for Habakkuk 2:4 makes clear that faith, which is the opposite of the pride of legalism, is what makes a person righteous before God. (12) But legalism (not Mosaic law) is not rooted in faith; on the contrary, it has roots in the Judaizer's slogan from Leviticus 18:5, 'He who does them shall live by them,' by which they mean (contrary to God's intention): 'If you expect to gain life, you must add the effort of your own flesh to the faith with which you began.'"
If you take these verses in the usual way, and make verse 12 teach that the Mosaic law was not based on faith, then there seem to be major contradictions in Paul's teaching. For in Romans 3:31 he said that the law is established, not overthrown, by faith. And in Romans 9:32 he said that the law itself was intended to be followed by faith not works. So it seems to me that we honor the near and distant contexts best by taking law in Galatians 3:11 and 12 to mean legalism, not the law as Moses taught it.
So the first point of the passage is this: "good," moral, religious people, who have not been crucified with Christ and do not have his Spirit empowering them with humility and joy and love by faith, often come into the church, espouse the doctrines, and undertake to work for God in the power of the flesh, and are, therefore, under a curse from the law itself.
Christ the Curse-Bearer
The second high-level statement is verse 13, "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law." Paul knew that he stood under a curse for all the years he had devoted to legalistic law-keeping. He said in Philippians 3:6 that from a legal standpoint he had been blameless. He excelled all his contemporaries in zeal for the law (Galatians 1:14). But he did not know the first thing about the obedience that comes from faith in reliance on the Holy Spirit (he did not know APTAT in his heart). And so he was under a curse with the rest of his kinsmen, who were striving to "establish their own righteousness" (Romans 10:3).
And what hope is there when you have tried to bribe God with your pitiful virtues? When you have insulted the all-sufficient Creator by exalting yourself to barter with him: your morality in exchange for his mercy? No hope at all, unless God, in his remarkable love, is willing to transfer your sentence of death to another. The heart of the gospel is that Christ, who knew no sin, was made to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus was not guilty of one moment of legalism. He trusted his Father perfectly and lived in the power of the Spirit. He fulfilled the law perfectly because he knew that at the root the law taught faith which worked through love.
So when he experienced the curse of the law on the cross it was not his own but ours.
Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4–6)
The good news for people who have come under the curse of God for the sin of moral self-reliance (and that is all of us at one time or another) is that "God was in Christ reconciling us to himself." There is a way out if we look away from ourselves to Christ and hope in him while we live.
The Purchase of the Promise
The final high-level statement is in verse 14, which says that God's aim in providing Christ as a saving substitute was that "in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." Paul sees the blessing of Abraham summed up in the Holy Spirit, and (as v. 5 says) the Spirit is received through faith. When you quit holding on to your desires for self-exaltation and look away for righteousness and strength to the grace of God, then you experience the power of the Holy Spirit.
And the connection between verses 13 and 14 teaches us that the substitutionary death of Jesus purchased for us the right to receive this incomparable gift of the Spirit, and shows us that the only way to receive it is by looking away from ourselves to Christ crucified.
So what is Paul doing in chapter 3? He is pleading and arguing with the Galatian Christians not to be bewitched by the Judaizers who want them to supplement a life of faith with the effort of the flesh.
Did you receive the Spirit by works of law or by hearing with faith? . . . Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? . . . Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of law, or by hearing with faith? . . . It is people of faith, not works, who are the children of Abraham and who inherit his blessing. People who take up works of the law are under a curse. The law itself pronounces it. The substitutionary death of Christ is our only and all-sufficient hope of escaping God's wrath. And because of it, God is willing to grace us with his very Spirit when we repent and turn away from self-confidence and put all our confidence in him, that is, when we are crucified to the old way of legal effort and live, instead, by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us.
The Way of Blessing or the Way of the Curse
So I close by putting before you the way of blessing (v. 14) and the way of the curse (v. 10). What sets you under the one or under the other is not so much what you do as the spirit in which you do it. Circumcision may be a "work of law" or an act of love which flows from faith. Subjecting yourself to certain dietary restrictions may be a "work of law" or a free act of love which comes from faith. Sunday School teaching, preaching, anti-abortion sit-ins, nuclear freeze demonstrations, metro-foodshare involvement, your own job—all these may be "works of law" which we do in our strength, to move God's favor our way, or they may be done in humble reliance on the strength which God freely supplies that in everything he may get the glory. The decision of curse or blessing hangs on how you obey and who gets the credit.
When I was preparing last week for the Dick Pomerantz interview, the major battle that I was fighting was not the struggle to use as much of my effort as possible to study up on what he might ask me. The major battle was the fight of faith. Did I really believe that when Jesus died, all my curse was lifted so that I could say with Scripture, "What can man do to me" (Hebrews 13:6; Romans 8:31–34)? Did I really believe that the death of Jesus is the pledge of God to withhold no good thing from those who trust him (Psalm 84:11; Romans 8:32)? Did I really believe all things would work together for my good (Romans 8:28)? Did I really trust the counsel of Christ when he said, "Do not be anxious beforehand what you are to say; but say whatever is given you in that hour, for it is not you who speak, but the Holy Spirit" (Mark 13:11)? This is the struggle of everyday Christian life, and it is your most important work every day: how to keep your day's activities from becoming works of law, and how to live by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you to redeem you from the curse of legalism.