“Is the law then opposed to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could make alive, then righteousness would indeed come through the law. But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” ~Galatians 3:21-22 (NRSV).
The Apostle Paul opens this second half of chapter 3 with a warm greeting, to his “brothers and sisters,” to maintain a bond with them. Love has until now spoken the language of discipline, correction, flat rebuke. His rebuke has been an impassioned, though instructionally constructed, rebuke.
The Promise to Abraham
Paul propounds the idea in verses 15-18, as he intimated earlier, that the promise given to Abraham preceded the giving of the Law by some four hundred and thirty years.
The argument that the apostle presents is a simple, yet powerful one. God has not replaced the promise given to Abraham as a covenant by the installation of the Law. Somehow, in the hype of the Mosaic Law there is lost the central meaning for the operation of the Law—that, Abraham “believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.” (Genesis 15:6)
The promise to Abraham appears to be one of the most, if not the most, powerful precursors to modern faith from an eternal setting—righteousness, eternally, through faith. This is the wisdom and law of God. Abraham is but an early and salient example. Once our eyes are opened to the promise given to Abraham we see the echo of the promise—righteousness through faith—resonating through the entire Bible. The Lord is faithful, to this end, over and over again.
The Purpose of the Law
This, here, is an important point: If we acknowledge that the meaning behind the Law is righteousness by faith, then we understand that the Law can complement the original covenant made with Abraham.
This is the Law’s purpose: to improve, and provide a structure for, obedience; not to replace the more basic relational covenant of righteousness by faith. Faith cannot be expunged through adherence to rules; faith comes first; it is foundational; the Law is pathetic and baseless without the meaning behind it.
But Paul doesn’t wish to denigrate the Law in this section. It is, in his view, still to be esteemed—the Law was, after all, God inspired. But the emphasis that the Judaisers placed on rigid obedience to the Law had swayed the Galatians away from the original meaning that forever underpins the Law.
The Revitalisation of Abraham’s Covenant
Perhaps the simplest point that Paul wishes to make is the death and resurrection of Jesus completes the promise uttered to Abraham. This promise preceded the Law, which “was our disciplinarian until Christ came,” (Galatians 3:24) so then we might finally be justified by faith—the reacquaintance and revitalisation of the covenant made with Abraham.
Jesus Christ is the seal of that covenant God made with Abraham... There is no longer any difference; no range, no levels, nobody superior or inferior, no racial or gender differences, limiting or extending our relationship with God. We are all one in Christ. We are all “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29b)
© 2011 S. J. Wickham.
General Reference: Leon Morris, Galatians: Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 107-17.