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.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 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”—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 own inimitable style, he begins to weave Old Testament Scripture into his defense of justification by faith. First he quotes from Deuteronomy 27:26 using the Greek Septuagint translation: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all the things written in the book of the law, to do them.” And 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.” And it is clear to him that even the Old Testament Scriptures teach that “the righteous shall live by faith.” Here he quotes from Habakkuk 2:4. In Paul’s understanding of the Old Testament, even the great saints of the past achieved righteousness before God through faith in Him. The passage from Habakkuk that he quotes could better be translated: “The one who is righteous by faith will live.” In other words, our righteousness is achieved by faith in the word of God and, as a result of our faith, we live. It is NOT our living that produces righteousness. That was the false message of those who were troubling the Galatians and distorting the gospel of Jesus Christ (Galatians 1:7).
Once again, Paul appeals to the Old Testament Scriptures, this time quoting from Leviticus 18:5: “The one who does them shall live by them” (Galatians 3:12 ESV). Here Paul addresses the problem with law-keeping. If you’re going to use the law as your basis for justification before God, you will have to spend your entire life keeping them. It will be a never-ending task of trying to live up to and keep every single command given by God. There will be no room for mistakes. You can’t afford to have an off-day. 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 maintaining a right relationship with God, you will have your work cut out for you. And that work will never achieve its desired goal.
Paul brings out an important point. The law is not of faith. Keeping the law has little to do with faith in God. It is all about faith in self. It is based on self-reliance and depends upon self-sufficiency. God has given the rules, now it is up to man to live up to them. And in order to make the task more attainable, man, in his law-keeping, begins to justify or rationalize his law-breaking. Sin becomes subjective. Man develops loop holes and work-arounds to somehow make his sin seem less sinful. He begins to compare his sins with those of others. He attempts to find others whose sins are more egregious than his own. It becomes a case of righteousness by comparison. Somehow we convince ourselves that God will grade on the curve and excuse those sins we’ve committed. He will simply reward us for having tried hard. But Paul would have us remember that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23 ESV). Our sin demands a payment. Our rebellion against a holy God brings us under His wrath and condemnation and, in His justice, He must punish our sin.
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 in our place. The punishment for man’s 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 is 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 refers to this passage 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 illustrated the curse of God He took on in order 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. 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 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.