Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 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. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. – Galatians 3:23-29 ESV
Captive. Imprisoned. Under the authority of another. Incapable of setting yourself free and unable to escape from the wrath of God and His just condemnation. That was the former state of those to whom Paul wrote. At one time they had been unbelievers and enemies of God. Long before Jesus came and died, all mankind had been held captive by sin. God had provided the law through Moses to the people of Israel in order to make known to them His requirements for living in obedience to His righteous will. But as Paul has already made abundantly clear, the law was not intended to provide a means of justification for the Jews. It simply made known to them God’s revealed will and exposed their complete inability to live up to it. In his letter to the Romans, Paul wrote, “For all who have sinned without the law will also perish without the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law” (Romans 2:12 ESV). The law judges, but it cannot justify.The problem is not with the law, but with the sin natures of those attempting to keep the law.
The Gentiles were held captive by sin even though they did not have the law of God. But the Jews, even though they had been given the law of God, found themselves in the same sad state. Paul explained why: “For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified” (Romans 2:13 ESV). Simply having knowledge of the law was not enough. It had to be obeyed – perfectly and completely. And the Jews had failed. All men were under God’s condemnation for their rebellion against Him. But through the law, He had given the Jews a description of what they would have to do in order to live justly and righteously before Him. The reality was, they couldn’t pull it off, and God knew they couldn’t. He had a better, more perfect means of justification prepared. He would one day send His Son to take on human flesh, live a sinless life, and yet die a sinner’s death as a sacrifice and substitute for men. His death would satisfy God’s need as a holy, righteous judge to pronounce judgment and allow Him to pour out His wrath as a punishment on mankind’s sin.
Paul uses the statement, “Now before faith came…” He is referring to the coming of Christ and, more specifically, His death, burial and resurrection. Jesus provided a means by which men could be made right with God, but it was only available through faith in Him. Paul says, “the law was our guardian until Christ came.” The law functioned as a kind of tutor or teacher, educating the Jews as to God’s expectations for holy and acceptable living. It was intended to show them what God demanded of them and provide them with boundaries for life until “the coming of faith would be revealed.” But once Jesus came and accomplished His God-given task of dying on behalf of sinful men, the law took a backseat. Justification with God became a reality, not a pipe dream. Through faith in Jesus Christ as their sin substitute, men and women could be made right with God.
Five times in these verses Paul uses the word, “faith.” The entire redemptive plan of God, including man’s salvation, justification and sanctification, is according to faith, not works. It is by faith that we move from enemies to sons and daughters of God. It is by faith that our sins are transferred to Christ and we receive His righteousness. It is by faith that we inherit the riches of eternal life. It is by faith that our sins are forgiven. It is by faith that we receive the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit. It is by faith that we become heirs of the promises of God.
In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote, “For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:13 ESV). Here in his letter to the Galatians, Paul says something very similar: “For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (Galatians 3:27 ESV). We have received the Spirit of God and through His empowering presence we are now capable of “putting on” Christ. In other words, we now have the capacity to become like Him, to take on His character. And as Paul emphasizes, this applies to Jews, Gentiles, slaves, free men, males, females, and every other individual who places their faith in Jesus Christ. They become Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. In other words, not according to the law. We don’t have to try and earn our right standing before God. It is provided for us by faith in the work of Christ.
Faith has come. Jesus has accomplished the will of His Father and provided a means by which men can be saved. And now that faith has come, we are to live by faith. There is no going back to religious rule-keeping. Those who have been made righteous by God through faith in Christ are to live by faith. Now that faith has come, faith is to be our sole means of living. As Paul stated earlier in this same letter, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 ESV). We are saved by faith. We are to live by faith. We are to do all by faith. We are to be a people of faith. “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:9 ESV).
And yet, as people of faith, we can find ourselves living by sight rather than by faith. We can easily fall back into the trap of thinking our right standing before God is somehow up to us. While we can easily accept the concept of salvation by faith, we find it hard to understand that even our sanctification is a byproduct of faith. This doesn’t mean we play no role. It simply says that even any works of righteousness we do in this life are totally dependent upon our ongoing faith in Christ and His Spirit’s work within us. Which is why Paul said the life he lived after coming to faith in Christ, he lived by faith in Christ. Now that faith has come, faith is all we need.