The Law Does Not Annul the Promise

To give a human example, brethren: no one annuls even a man's will, or adds to it, once it has been ratified. Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings," referring to many; but, referring to one, "And to your offspring," which is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

Theology and Practice

Whether or not you have the patience to look with me for half an hour at Galatians 3:15–18 depends in large measure on the way you live your life. This text has nothing in it that is immediately practical. It has to do with the theological content of the Abrahamic covenant and the historical and theological relationship between that covenant and the law of Moses, which came 430 years later. If you live your life on the basis of spiritual pep pills that give an immediate emotional charge and specific practical guidance, then you will have a hard time with the next 30 minutes. But if you live your life on the basis of an ever-deepening understanding of the ways of God in Scripture, you will relish Paul's theology in these verses and seek to enlarge and (if necessary) correct the theological foundation of your life.

I said that the text is not immediately practical. There are profound implications for practice here, as we will see; but to see and experience them requires a process of thought. The implications for what we should be and do, do not lie on the surface. But I hope and pray that at Bethlehem we are not so immature and impatient that we think texts like these are useless. I hope we can see that when texts like these take root in our understanding, we become like sturdy trees planted by streams of water, whose leaves do not wither, who do not get blown over by false teaching, and who keep on bearing fruit when the shallow plants have all dried up.

Don't Live by Works of Law but by Faith in Christ

To see what Paul is about here in Galatians 3:15–18, we need to go back and follow his line of thought up to this point in chapter 3. First, in 3:1–5 Paul makes clear that you must putt with the same principles you use to drive. If you received the Spirit of God through faith in Christ at the beginning not through works of law, then the only way to go on empowered by the Spirit is by faith not by works of law. Some of the church members in Galatia had been bewitched into thinking that you start the Christian life by faith, but you complete yourself by works. The Spirit is sort of a booster rocket to get you going, but then your own engines kick in and the flesh completes what the Spirit began. Paul says, No! That nullifies grace and dishonors Christ. Not only justification but also sanctification is by faith, not of works, lest anyone should boast.

Second, in 3:6–9 Paul supports this view further with the example of Abraham and the teaching that the only way to be a child of Abraham is through the faith Abraham had. The blessing of Abraham comes not to those who show their merit through works of law but to those who trust the promises of God as Abraham did.

Third, in 3:10–14 Paul makes the same point in a different way. He says that if you do engage in works of law, you are under a curse (3:10). Anyone who takes the gracious railroad track of the law on which the locomotive of the Spirit is pulling us to glory in the Pullman car of faith, and lifts that track up on end, and turns it into a ladder on which to climb to heaven by works—the person who does that with God's law is under the law's own curse (2:18). For such a misused law (legalism) is not based on faith, but the law of Moses taught faith and condemned the pride of works. Yet, even though we are all under a curse for the sin of pride, Christ came precisely to redeem people like us from the curse of the law (3:13). He became a curse for us. And the result, in verse 14, is that instead of a curse we now inherit the blessing of Abraham; that is, we receive the Spirit when we trust Christ.

In other words, in all three paragraphs so far in chapter 3 the point has been: you can't become a complete, sanctified Christian, you can't become a child of Abraham, you can't enjoy the promise of the Spirit, if you are living by "works of law" instead of by faith in the Son of God (2:20). The effort to keep the law as a means of obliging God or man to bless you is a transgression of the law itself (2:18), and it brings a person under the law's curse (3:10). So the Judaizers are wrong to teach the Galatian Christians to supplement their faith with works of the law, and Paul is bending all his efforts in this book to cure Christians of such deadly legalism.

The Judaizer's Objection and Paul's Response

Now in 3:15–18 I think Paul deals with a possible objection the Judaizers may have with his position. I think they may have said something like this: "Well, Paul, we don't agree with you about Abraham; we think it was his works that showed him worthy of the promised blessing. But let's grant you your point that Abraham was justified by faith. Maybe that's the way God wanted to start Israel's history. But there is no way you can escape the fact that 430 years after Abraham, God thought it necessary to add the law through Moses at Mt. Sinai. And if the law, with its 600+ commandments, does not teach that our inheritance comes on the basis of works, what does it teach? When we tell Galatian believers who have begun with faith to exert their own efforts now to complete their sanctification through works of law, we are doing just what God did. He gave our people a promise through Abraham which, you say, was received by faith, and then he added the law to make clear what our part in the process is. So the course of redemptive history shows that our inheritance does come from works of the law. Why else would God have added a law 430 years later, if not to make crystal clear that we must go beyond your view of Abraham and exert our own effort and in this way earn our right to the inheritance."

I think 3:15–18 is Paul's counter-argument to this kind of thinking. Notice that verse 19 begins, "Why then the law?" This confirms that in verses 15–18 Paul is demolishing one explanation of why the law was given, namely, the one suggested by the Judaizers. Then, in verses 19ff., he will explain why he thinks the law was added (see next week's message). But in 3:15–18 the point is negative. No, you are quite wrong; the law was not added to teach a different way for Israel to gain the inheritance. The law (as 3:21 says) is not at all against the promises. Let's see how Paul makes this point.

A Human Analogy

He begins in verse 15 with an analogy. "To give a human example, brethren: no one annuls a man's will, or adds to it once it has been ratified." Of course, to us that sounds incorrect because we can change our wills and add codicils. But there were Roman and Greek and Jewish laws under which this statement would have been precisely accurate. What's important is that there were (and are) kinds of testaments or dispositions of property or inheritance arrangements or oaths which cannot be cancelled or changed by addition. Paul sets this up as an illustration of how the Mosaic law must not be interpreted as an annulment or alteration of the terms of the Abrahamic covenant.

Verse 17 gives the application of the analogy: "This is what I mean: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward [i.e., after the promise to Abraham], does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void." Paul agrees with the Judaizers that it was God who spoke the promise to Abraham and it was the same God who gave the law to his descendants. He agrees that in both the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants blessing is offered to Israel under certain conditions (Genesis 12:1–3; Exodus 20:24; Deuteronomy 7:12, 13; 30:16–20). But Paul will not allow the Judaizers to put in his mouth the assertion that the way God offered blessing to Israel through Abraham and the way God offered blessing to Israel through Moses were contrary ways. If, in the law, God were telling men to earn their way to blessing by works, then the covenant with Abraham would be annulled. If God were adding stipulations so that people could supplement their faith with their own effort, then the promise to Abraham is void. For God's dealings with Abraham showed that divine blessing is freely given only to those who have faith (3:7, 9), not to those who try to earn it through works of law. Had he taught something contrary to this, his integrity would be jeopardized.

The Relation of Abrahamic and Mosaic Covenants

What then is the law? The law is fundamentally a restatement of the Abrahamic covenant applied to a new state in redemptive history. It is not a nullification or a basic alteration. In both covenants the only way to attain blessing from God is to trust him for his grace. And in both covenants final blessing depends on a life of faith, not just a single act of faith. Or to put it another way: in both covenants the promise of God's blessing comes by grace through faith and is not earned. But in both covenants the faith which saves taps into God's power in such a way that obedience results. And this obedience is such a necessary extension of saving faith that in both covenants obedience to God is a condition of final salvation. Not legalistic "works of law," but Spirit-empowered "obedience of faith."

Let me try to show you that obedience to God is a condition for inheriting salvation both in the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants. In Genesis 22:16–18 God says to Abraham after his obedience in offering Isaac, "Because you have done this, . . . I will indeed bless you and multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven . . . By your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves, because you have obeyed my voice." And in Genesis 26:4, 5, God says to Isaac, "I will multiply your descendants as the stars of heaven . . . and by your descendants shall all the nations of the earth bless themselves: because Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws." And in Genesis 18:19 God says, "I have chosen [Abraham], that he may charge his children . . . to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice, so that the Lord may bring to Abraham what he has promised him." So it seems clear that the covenant with Abraham was not unconditional as many have said. God's ultimate blessing does depend on obedience, but not on works of law—works that aim to earn God's blessing. The obedience on which salvation depends is simply the way a person acts in which he is really trusting in the promises of God. Such obedience is simply a life lived by faith in God's power and love.

So when the law is given 430 years later, it is wrong to think that any fundamental changes were made in the stipulations of God's covenant relationship with Israel. Of course, an elaborate sacrificial system was created that wasn't there before. But basically the commands of the law were simply a general outlining of what the life of faith would look like in the theocracy. It would be terribly wrong to say that the Mosaic law was opposed in its teaching to the Abrahamic covenant, and was a kind of parenthesis between Abraham and Christ during which God taught men to try to earn their salvation by works. Moses himself saw the law as simply a restatement of the conditions of the Abrahamic covenant. He says in Deuteronomy 7:12, 13, "Because you hearken to these ordinances, and keep and do them, the Lord your God will keep with you the covenant and the steadfast love which he swore to your fathers to keep; he will love you, bless you, and multiply you." (Cf. 30:16–20; 8:18, 4:31.) For Moses the covenant made at Mount Sinai was a reaffirmation and spelling out of the covenant made with Abraham. Faith (Exodus 14:31; Numbers 14:11; 20:21; Deuteronomy 1:32) as evidenced in its fruit was the requirement of both covenants. So Paul seems fully warranted in saying that the law, which came 430 years later, did not nullify or basically alter the covenant ratified with Abraham. They are in perfect harmony.

Christ the Singular Offspring

Now two verses are left to understand: 16 and 18. I have left them for last because I think verse 16 is the key for understanding verse 18. So let's look at verse 16 first. It is a puzzling verse. "Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, 'And to offsprings,' referring to many; but, referring to one, 'And to your offspring,' which is Christ." The main point of this verse is that Jesus Christ is the seed, or the descendant of Abraham. Four things qualify Christ to be called the offspring (seed) of Abraham.

1) He is a Jew in the strict physical sense and can trace his parentage back to Abraham.

2) He lived the life of faith which, according to 3:7, qualifies some, but not all, Jews to be sons of Abraham.

3) Christ's death and resurrection as the Son of God atoned for sin and purchased all the blessings promised to Abraham's descendants.

4) Only by belonging to him now can any Jew or Gentile become a true child of Abraham and heir of the promises. Galatians 3:29 says: "If you are Christ's, then you are Abraham's offspring, heirs according to the promise." So if we become descendants of Abraham and heirs of the promise only by belonging to Christ, then it is easy to see why Paul thought of Christ as the final or decisive offspring to whom all the promises were made and who indeed secured the fulfillment of all the promises for our sake. So the point of verse 16 is that the promise of the inheritance made to Abraham and his offspring is fulfilled only in Christ, by his death and resurrection. This point is crucial for understanding verse 18.

But before we look at verse 18, a word is needed about how Paul is justified in saying that the Old Testament word "offspring," because it is singular (not plural), can be seen as fulfilled in Christ. This seems strange to us because we know that offspring is a collective word and does refer to more than one individual. How can Paul base anything on its singularity? Isn't it like saying that because you refer to the Twins' baseball team instead of teams, there can only be one person on the team (since it's singular)?

Two observations go a long way to helping us see how Paul was thinking. 1) He knew "offspring" (or seed) in its singular form referred to many people. He uses the singular to refer to many in Romans 4:18 and 9:7. So this is not a naïve mistake. It is a conscious procedure. 2) In Genesis 21:12 the word "offspring" (seed) is used to refer not to all the children of Abraham but to the one who is promised, Isaac (not Ishmael): "In Isaac shall your seed be called." Paul quotes this in Romans 9:7 and then says, "This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of promise are reckoned as seed (or offspring)."

In other words, when Genesis 21:12 calls Isaac the "offspring" (seed), not Ishmael, simply because he is a child of promise, Paul detects a divine purpose of election which would culminate in the Messiah. And this is not a reading into the Old Testament text anything foreign to its meaning. Paul is saying that when you understand the word "offspring" (or seed) in its Old Testament context (Genesis 21:12), and you see that it represents a unified and limited offspring, not all the descendants of Abraham, and then you learn from other Scripture that there is a Messiah coming who will be the offspring of Abraham and fulfill the promises, then it is fitting to say that God's promise to the limited, unified offspring of Abraham must refer in a unique and special way to the Christ. And from Paul's perspective of later revelation it was all the more certain that the promise made to Abraham and to his offspring was only fulfilled in Christ who died (as 3:14 says) that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles. So the main point of verse 16, as I said above, is that the promised inheritance (the Holy Spirit, salvation) comes only by Jesus Christ. He is the promise without which no one can attain the inheritance.

The Inheritance and the Promise of Christ

Now we can see, finally, the meaning of verse 18. There are no verbs in the first half of verse 18, and I doubt that the present tense verbs supplied by the RSV (and others) are best. I would translate: "For if the inheritance had been by law, it would no longer have been by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise." I think verse 16 was written to help us know what promise is being spoken of here in verse 18, namely, the promise of Christ. So verse 18 means, "If the inheritance (i.e., salvation) had been achieved by means of the law (i.e., merely keeping Moses' commandments), then the way of salvation would not be by the promised Christ. Christ would not be needed, had the inheritance already been attained. But God gave the inheritance (salvation) to Abraham by a promise, namely, the Christ (as verse 16 makes plain).

The closest parallel to 3:18 seems to be 2:21, "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification were through the law, then Christ died to no purpose." This is almost the same as saying: if the inheritance had been based on law-keeping, then it would not have been based on the promised Christ, and his coming and death would have been in vain.

To sum up in conclusion, the Judaizers seem to be saying: "All right, Paul, let's assume that God began his dealings with Israel by making a promise and calling for faith. But you can't deny that 430 years later he thought it needful to lay down the law for Israel. And the most natural thing to assume is that even if one does begin with faith in a promise, one ought then to be completed and perfected by engaging his will and effort to keep the law and show himself worthy of the promised inheritance. So you see, Paul, we are simply taking your converts and applying to their individual lives what God did in redemptive history: begin with faith in a promise, but then go on to add your work to God's in keeping the law in order to become worthy of the blessing. Having begun by the Spirit, you must be completed by the flesh."

Paul's response in Galatians 3:15–18 is this: There are among men (v. 15) and between God and man unalterable pacts. God made one with Abraham and his offspring. The pact was that the inheritance of salvation would come, not to all Abraham's descendants, but to the seed, which is ultimately the Christ, and all who are in him. No Christ, no inheritance! Given the nature of God and his pact, no later stipulation could annul it or void the promise of this pact.

Therefore (v. 17), in the law (given 430 years later) God is not putting the inheritance on a new basis. He is not saying: "Once I taught you to trust me; now I teach you to work for me; once I taught you to rely on grace, now I teach you to earn merit; once I taught you to magnify me through childlikeness, now I teach you to magnify yourselves through legalism." NO! God does not contradict his covenant in this way. He does not commend contrary ways of salvation. If God had set the inheritance on a new basis and taught people to earn their salvation, he would have opposed the promise and nullified grace and promoted pride and cancelled the stumbling block of the cross. The law is holy and just and good; it does not teach us to engage in the Galatian heresy, legalism; it teaches the obedience which comes from faith and applies the Abrahamic covenant to a new stage of redemptive history.