10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. – Galatians 3:10-14 ESV
In Paul’s inimitable style, he begins to weave Old Testament Scripture into his defense of justification by faith. First, he quotes from the book of Deuteronomy using the Greek Septuagint translation.
Cursed is every man that continues not in all the words of this law to do them: and all the people shall say, So be it. – Deuteronomy 27:26 GST
He concludes that those who attempt to keep the law to achieve justification before God are cursed because they are incapable of keeping ALL of the law perfectly and completely. So for Paul, “it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law” because it is impossible to do. It is clear to Paul that even Old Testament passages such as Habakkuk 2:4 teach that “the righteous shall live by faith.” This was not a new teaching or doctrine but had been in place from the very beginning.
In Paul’s understanding of the Old Testament, even the great saints of the past achieved righteousness before God by placing their faith in the promises of God, not by earning His favor through good deeds. The passage from Habakkuk that Paul quotes could be better translated as: “The one who is righteous by faith will live.” In other words, a righteous standing before God is achieved by faith in God, and that faith produces life rather than death. It is NOT self-produced deeds of righteousness that produce a right standing before God; that was the false message of those who were distorting the gospel of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:7) and leading the Galatians astray.
Once again, Paul appeals to the Old Testament Scriptures, this time quoting from the book of Leviticus.
You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord. – Leviticus 18:5 ESV).
Here Paul addresses the problem with law-keeping. Anyone who chooses to use the law as their basis for justification before God will spend their entire life under the relentless burden of perfect obedience. It will require constant vigilance and a never-ending commitment to keep every single command given by God. There will be no room for mistakes and no days off. Every single sin will count against you. In fact, the apostle James puts the gravity of this point in fairly disturbing terms:
For the person who keeps all of the laws except one is as guilty as a person who has broken all of God’s laws. – James 2:10 NLT
So if you want to make law-keeping your preferred method of restoring your relationship with God, you will have your work cut out for you. And that work will never achieve its desired goal.
Paul brings out another important point. The law is not of faith. Keeping the law has little to do with faith in God because it is all about faith in self. It is based on self-reliance and depends upon self-sufficiency. In this system, God gives the rules and it is up to man to live up to them, and God will not be satisfied with partial obedience.
“You must keep all My statutes and all My ordinances and follow them. I am the LORD.” – Leviticus 19:37 BSB
The Israelites were not free to cherry-pick which laws they wanted to obey. They couldn’t ignore or overlook particular ordinances that they found to be too difficult or distasteful to obey. But in their attempt to keep the law, the Israelites began to justify and rationalize their law-breaking. They developed workarounds and loopholes that allowed them to sin without fear of repercussions. They made certain sins subjective and up for debate. In a sense, they tried to make sin seem less sinful. This led to comparison, with one sinner comparing himself to another in an attempt to justify himself. In a world filled with sinners, it’s easy to find someone whose sins are worse than your own. This leads to competitive righteousness, with each individual judging himself by another. But God doesn’t grade on the curve or compare one man’s righteousness with another’s. The law is His standard of righteousness. He is not looking for the one who can attain the highest moral score or outrank his neighbor in righteousness. He is demanding sinless perfection.
God repeatedly told the people of Israel that holiness was the standard by which they would be judged.
“For I am the Lord your God. Consecrate yourselves therefore, and be holy, for I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:44 ESV
“Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them, You shall be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy.” – Leviticus 19:2 ESV
“Consecrate yourselves, therefore, and be holy, for I am the LORD your God.” – Leviticus 20:7 ESV
There was no reward for those who tried hard. There was no gold star for effort. As Paul makes clear in his letter to the church in Rome, “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). Sin is nothing less than rebellion against a holy and righteous God, and that rebellion places the sinner under His wrath and condemnation and, in His justice, He must mete out the proper punishment.
This is where Paul brings in the good news. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13 ESV). In other words, Jesus took our place on the cross and suffered the judgment we deserved. The punishment for our sins fell on Him. The prophet Isaiah predicted the death of Jesus and the impact it would have on mankind:
Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed. – Isaiah 53:5-6 ESV
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV).
It’s interesting to note that the Mosaic law had a requirement regarding the death of a law-breaker. “And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23 ESV).
Paul has this passage in mind when he says, referring to Christ’s death on the cross, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” (Galatians 3:13 ESV). Even the method by which Jesus died vividly illustrated the curse He suffered so that men might be made right with God. He endured what we deserved and did for us what we could never have done for ourselves. His death gave us access to life while our death would have led to eternal separation from God.
We are made right with God through faith and faith alone. Law-keepers don’t live by faith, they attempt to live by keeping the law. Their hope is in themselves and their ongoing efforts to live up to God’s holy standard, rather than in the finished work of Jesus Christ. Faith requires dependence upon God. We must accept His means of salvation rather than attempting to rely on our own. We must recognize our incapacity to live holy lives and place our trust in His Son’s death on the cross in our place. He was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities. And by His wounds, we are healed.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.