Salvation comes to us as a free gift from God, not as a result of our works. Paul’s labor in the book of Galatians is to prove this theological point, and in so doing, to drive out all false teachers who seek to enslave via the law where Christ frees by his grace. Paul continues this argument in chapters 3 and 4, using the Old Testament as proof of the New Testament reality. The Bible is one, grand story of God’s grace from beginning to end. And what we see in the past can help us see the truth in the present.
15 To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified. 16 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,” who is Christ. 17 This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. 18 For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
19 Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. 20 Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
21 Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. 22 But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
In 1970, Chicago released a song called, “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?” It’s a song about the rat race of life, everyone hurrying as if there’s not enough time to do what really matters. In the middle of his letter, Paul asks the same question. The Galatians are hurrying to obey the law, but they’ve forgotten that the law is not the binding agent in their lives. Christ is. They’ve forgotten that the promise came before the law—430 years before, to be precise. Why then are they living as if the law came before the promise? Why are they being held captive to something the promise preceded and superseded in freedom? Does anybody in Galatia really know what time it is?
Every Christian must understand the times in which they are living. Christ came, fulfilled the law, and rose to grant new, abundant life. But the hope of the resurrection is still out in the future. We live in the in-between time—the already but not yet. We are post-law people in a pre-resurrection state. We live in the age of grace, the time of freedom. For freedom, Christ set us free (Galatians 5:1).
Failing to recognize the time will inevitably lead to a failure to live as full-bodied Christians. That’s the problem facing the Galatians, and the problem facing many still today. When we bring the law to bear upon our justification, we undo the work of Christ on the cross and minimize the glory of God’s grace. We misunderstand how God communicates to us—from the past to the present and into the future. The truth is, the promise prevails over the law since the promise came sooner. God has always communicated to his people first by promise, then by law. The promise is preeminent. When we forget that, or let the law eclipse it, we reduce the blessing pouring into our lives, shielding the glory of Christ’s work. Let’s take off the glasses of the law and look full in the face of the fulfilled promise in Jesus Christ.
The false teachers in Galatia loved to appeal to Moses. But Paul reminds them that there was something before the law of Moses—the promise to Abraham. God related to each man differently. To Abraham, he gave a promise. To Moses, he gave the law. John Stott shows us the difference.
What is the difference between them? In the promise to Abraham God said, “I will…I will…I will…” But in the law of Moses God said, “Thou shalt…thou shalt not…” The promise sets forth a religion of God—God’s plan, God’s grace, God’s initiative. But the law sets forth a religion of man—man’s duty, man’s works, man’s responsibility. The promise (standing for the grace of God) had only to be believed. But the law (standing for the works of men) had to be obeyed. God’s dealings with Abraham were in the category of “promise,” “grace,” and “faith.” But God’s dealings with Moses were in the category of “law,” “commandments,” and “works.”
The conclusion to which Paul is leading is that the Christian religion is the religion of Abraham and no Moses, of promise and not law; and that Christians are enjoying today the promise which God made to Abraham centuries ago.
Immediately, this passage raises several questions. How is it that the same God related to Abraham one way and Moses another? What does Paul mean by using the singular “offspring” rather than the plural “offsprings?” Paul doesn’t seem to answer his question, “Why then the law?”, does he? What does he mean that Scripture imprisoned everything under sin?
Paul begins by pointing to man-made covenants. When one makes a promise from person to person, he does not change it after ratification. He’s referring to a will, similar to a person’s last will and testament. Once someone has passed, no one else can come in and alter the will. What the deceased set forth beforehand comes to pass as surely as the dawn breaks in the morning. It is unalterable. No matter the circumstances, another cannot write you out of your ancestor’s will.
If human covenants work in this manner, how much more must God’s covenants? That’s Paul’s point: God’s promises hold steady. They are unalterable. No one can write you out of his will. No one can erase your name and replace it with someone else’s. No one can deny you your inheritance. No one can remove your assurance. The false teachers were trying to hit delete on the Galatian’s salvation unless they came under the Mosaic law. But no matter how hard they tried, God’s preserving grace (including the writing of this letter) hid the Backspace from view, substituting Enter instead: Covenant ratified! Listen no more to those who would shake your confidence in God. Not even God’s law can undo the promise he made, so why would anyone say it could?
The will Paul describes is the same kind Jesus describes in the parable of the prodigal son. When the younger son asks for his inheritance, the father gives it to him because it was already set aside for him, and he could do nothing to alter that will. The younger brother then goes out and squanders it all, ending up in a pig sty, wondering what it would be like to be a servant in his father’s house. So, he rises and heads home, crafting his apology. But when he arrives, the father runs to him and embraces him, places a ring on his finger, and throws a party. He welcomes him home. No matter how far the Galatians have strayed from the gospel, and no matter how far we have strayed, all we must do is make our way back to the Father’s house, and we can gain the true inheritance back. We may squander our mercy every day, but God’s mercies are new every morning. Use up all the grace you can. There is always more. The promise never runs dry for those who really want God.
But to whom was the promise made? Genesis shows us it was to Abraham. What was the promise? It was the land of Canaan and a lineage of blessing to the world. But, of course, as Paul points out, it was made ultimately to one offspring, not to many. The promises were made through Abraham to Jesus, Abraham’s greatest descendant. It is the promises of God to himself in which we find our greatest hope, for who can undo the promises God makes to his Son?
Paul’s point is precisely this. God cannot change his promise, even in the giving of the law. The Law came 430 years after the promise to Abraham, and what has come along that far down the timeline cannot replace what has come before it. The false teachers would have the Galatian’s believe that God changed the rules, that he was expecting obedience before granting righteousness. No one earns their inheritance. Inheritance is given. “God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” The false teachers were changing the Bible’s chronology, altering the path to God, but God’s promise of righteousness came first. You can re-interpret history, but you can’t change it.
The false teachers’ instruction on the law and grace is shocking to Paul, and contrary to the Bible, but it is commonplace among us even now. Many read the Old Testament and see not the promise to Abraham but the law of Moses, propped up throughout the thirty-nine books as the standard we must reach if God is to love us. But to look at the Bible through that lens is to miss the point of the law altogether. The law was not given to provide a platform from which to boast in our righteousness but to give us cause the fall to our knees in repentance. If we see only the law in the Old Testament and use that as a means by which we set ourselves apart to God, we will miss the gospel entirely. The law was a pointer to our failure, not a ladder to our inheritance. The proper response is to fall on our knees, not rise on wings of self-righteousness.
Why then the law? We needed to understand sin. “It was added because of transgressions.” Paul explains this in more detail in Romans. “Through the law comes knowledge of sin” (Romans 3:20). “Where there is no law there is no transgression” (Romans 4:15). “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin” (Romans 7:7). Romans 5:20 says, “The law was added so that the trespass might increase.” Timothy George comments on this.
In Romans the word for “added” means literally “came in by a side road.” The main road is the covenant of promise—inviolate, irrevocable. The law has the character of something additional, a side road intended to carry extra traffic and excess baggage and, if we may anticipate Paul’s argument, designed not to lead to a separate destination but to point its travelers back to the main road.
In his grace, God gave the law to show us how far we’ve fallen. But what God gave as a view into the fallen heart, we tend to construct into a ladder to God. We seek to prove ourselves holy when God intends to prove us needy. Therefore, how we understand the law determines how we understand grace, and ultimately, how we understand the gospel. What is good about news of salvation if you believe you can attain it on your own?
Under the strict watch of the law, our failure is highlighted, which prepares us for grace. Martin Luther said, “The principal point of the law is to make men not better but worse; that is to say, it shows their sin, that by the knowledge thereof they may be humbled, terrified, bruised and broken, and by this means may be driven to seek grace, and so to come to that blessed Seed.
23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 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. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.
John Stott says, “Everybody is either held captive by the law because he is still awaiting the fulfillment of the promise or delivered from the law because he has inherited the promise. More simply, everybody is living either in the Old Testament or in the New, and derives his religion either from Moses or from Jesus…he is either ‘under law’ or ‘in Christ’.”
The false teachers of Galatia were living in the Old Testament. They had heard the gospel message and rejected it as unbiblical. They could not stomach the thought of God justifying sinners apart from their obedience to the law. So, instead of opening their hearts to God’s free gift and accepting his grace, they set themselves apart from him, clinging to their misunderstanding of the law of Moses. But the problem, as it is with every heretic, is they thought they were being faithful to God. However, any theology that minimizes the need for Christ’s death is not only bad theology, it is dangerous theology—anti-biblical.
Paul, on the other hand, lived in the New Testament, a land flowing with milk and honey. His journey there is as important as his citizenship now. Paul did not land in the New Testament without first traveling through the Old Testament. He did not inherit salvation without first finding condemnation in the law. He walked through the valley of the shadow of eternal death and found Jesus’ hand reaching out for him. When he grabbed hold, Jesus transferred him to a new land.
So it must be for all of us. We must journey through the law to find grace. That’s why Paul says before faith came, we were held captive under the law. The law was our guardian until Christ came, helping us see our need. But when the need has been met fully in Christ, we no longer need to go back under the law again. We can reside in the land of the living, leaving the valley of dry bones to rot in the sun.
In this new land of the New Testament, there is no separation between us. We are united to Christ and therefore to one another. There is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither slave nor free; there is no male and female. There is one people of God, indistinguishable from one another because we share in Christ’s righteousness. In the land of the false teachers, a caste system remains, with levels of justification. But in Christ’s kingdom, there is Jesus, our head, and us, his body.
I want to focus on one important topic. Remember Galatians 2:11-14, when Paul opposed Peter to his face. Why did Paul oppose him? When certain Jews came from Jerusalem, Peter withdrew from eating with the Gentiles to eat with the Jews. Peter, who knew the gospel, stepped outside the gospel with his racism. Paul rightly saw this as an anti-gospel move and called Peter out on it. Peter’s racism wasn’t a private problem, it was a public heresy. He spurned the unity Christ created between the Gentiles and Jews in his gospel. He didn’t realize what he was doing, but Paul did. Paul understood Christ demolished racism at the cross by saving all men the same way. There is no Jew nor Greek, black nor white, superior nor inferior. We are all one.
Our country needs this message. Our racist history bleeds into our present. We may all live on the same street, but the ghost of white supremacy haunts the alleys, so we build our walls and bar our windows. But Christ destroys those barriers with his gospel. That’s why in our day, with so much racial tension, we see racism as a gospel issue. We cannot proclaim Christ as Lord on Sunday, propping up our white skin up as preeminent on Monday. We must not erase the colors, but rather see all colors as equal inheritors of the blessing of Christ. We are one—now and forever.
Unfortunately, racism is still an issue in the church. We don’t like to think that’s true, but if Peter fell into it, and we who live in a country with such profound racism find ourselves unable to fall into it, we aren’t being wise as serpents nor innocent as doves. We’re being wolves in the midst of sheep, persecuting our minority brothers and sisters with a false appearance of unity when Jesus calls us to the real thing. We must not only admit our racial bias inside, we must take active steps of reconciliation as we follow Jesus into the hard things of our world. It’s true, this shouldn’t even be an issue, and I wish it weren’t. One day it won’t be. But here, today, we must face the truth of the racist inside us all because the gospel is at stake. What we say we believe can be undone with what we do with what we believe. For example, consider the picture below.
We may wonder how this picture can exist. Can’t they see the obvious problem? Of course they can’t. If they could, the banner would not hang or their hoods would fall. But they hung the banner, believing the truth of it, while donning the hood and posed for the camera. The problem of their racism is obvious to us and oblivious to them. If Paul had a camera, he may have taken a similar picture of Peter and his Jewish friends in Antioch.
Galatians 3:28 is clear. Paul does not diminish the racial tension. He defeats the racial tension with Christ’s cross. He looks it full in the face and brings the gospel to bear on it. We need nothing less today. We are all one in Christ Jesus. But we can understate Paul’s point far too easily. He’s not calling us to racial diversity in our churches. He’s calling us to racial reconciliation in our churches.
Racial reconciliation is not less than racial diversity—you can’t reconcile unless you’re in the same room—but it is far more than racial diversity. Racial reconciliation is a positive movement of love toward Christians of another race, just as Paul’s move toward the Gentiles was one of love and the Gentiles’ move toward Paul and all other Jews was one of love. We will face opposition as soon as we do this. The enemy hates racial reconciliation, but Jesus died for it. So whatever the cost, we must endure, resting in the Spirit’s power to help and direct. When we move together positively toward Jesus, we find that he moves us together positively toward one another. In his grace, Christ will separate us from the world, but he will unite us to our brothers and sisters in him, regardless of skin color.
We may be an accidental racist, or we may be a proud one. Whatever the case, the gospel calls us to lay our personal preferences and wicked sins at the foot of Christ’s bloody cross. When we’re ready to do that, moment by moment, over the course of our life, we will find that Jesus not only cleanses us from all sin, he brings us into fellowship with one another. The beauty of the gospel shines when people of all races live together in unity before Christ. After all, it’s our future. Why not live it out today and show the world what God’s grace can really do?
“I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” And all the angels were standing around the throne and around the elders and the four living creatures, and they fell on their faces before the throne and worshiped God, saying, “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen.” (Revelation 7:9-12)