The Book of Galatians: Chapter 3 (verses 15–29)
October 10, 2023
by Peter Amsterdam
The Book of Galatians: Chapter 3 (verses 15–29)
In the first part of Galatians 3, the apostle Paul made the point that the Galatian believers did not need to be circumcised in order to be part of the people of God, the family of Abraham. What was needed to receive the blessing of Abraham was to have the faith of Abraham. Those who believe like Abraham are his sons and daughters and have received the Abrahamic blessing. Those who try to be righteous by works of the law fail to do what the law requires, since justification is by faith rather than works.1 The only way to receive the blessing of Abraham (the promise of the Spirit) is to trust that Christ laid down His life for believers and by His death redeemed believers from the curse of the law.2 Paul continues with verse 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.3
Paul’s language here is gentler, as he doesn’t call the Galatian believers “foolish” as he did in Galatians 3:1, but rather addresses them as “brothers.” He makes the point that human beings consider covenants to be unbreakable. Once they are finalized, no one can add to them or annul them. They are considered binding, and once they have been agreed upon, they cannot be changed.
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.4
The covenant with Abraham contained promises that God would bring to pass. The use of the word “promises” points to God’s work rather than what is attained by human endeavors. The promises to Abraham included land and blessing, which were given to his “offspring.” While the promises were given to Abraham’s descendants, they were also a blessing for the whole world. In connecting Jesus with the promises of Abraham, Paul makes the point that the age of fulfillment has arrived. The promises made to Abraham became a reality in Christ.
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.5
Paul goes on to point out that the Mosaic law, which was initiated 430 years after the covenant of Abraham, could not invalidate the promises of the Abrahamic covenant. The Abrahamic covenant takes precedence, and the law cannot override it. If believers lived under the Mosaic law, then the promises given to Abraham would be nullified. Instead, human obedience would be fundamental to receiving the promise, which would mean that circumcision would be required. However, because the law came after the promise and is inferior to the promise, circumcision and keeping the law are not necessary to belong to Abraham’s family.
For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.6
The difference between the Mosaic covenant and the Abrahamic covenant is that the Mosaic covenant focused on obedience to the law in order to receive the inheritance, whereas it is given through a promise of God in the Abrahamic covenant. The promise of an inheritance does not depend on observing the Mosaic law or being circumcised. The promise is a gift of God’s grace and is given freely through Jesus. Those who are part of the family of Abraham don’t enter his family by following the law. Rather they are Abraham’s children when they are united to Christ, the offspring of Abraham. As such, they receive the promise as a gift.
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.7
Commentators have a wide range of explanations for this verse, most of which are difficult to follow. The clearest commentary pointed out that “by showing that the law could not curb sin, God revealed that the only answer to the power of sin was the coming of the Messiah.”8
The end of the law came at the coming of the promised “offspring” (Christ), and through Him, the fulfillment of the promise was secured. What Paul says in this passage is surprising, for the general view of Judaism was that the law would last forever. The intermediary referred to here is most likely Moses, as he was the one who transmitted the law to Israel.
Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.9
Paul compares the oneness of God with a mediator (like Moses) who stands between two parties (God and the people). The covenant made with Abraham is superior because it was given by God, as compared to the mediation between two parties. Paul sees the covenant with Abraham as superior, since God made the covenant directly with him.
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.10
In the previous verses, Paul had made the point that the law is subordinate to the promise since the law was given 430 years after the covenant with Abraham. Also, the promise and the law operated on different principles. Under the law, the promise was secured through obedience; whereas under the promise, the inheritance is obtained as a gift of God’s grace. The law was given because of mankind’s transgressions, and revealed how people should live, but it didn’t give the power to help them to live in a way that pleases God. If humans had been able to keep all that the law required, then righteousness would have come through the law.
Paul clarifies that the law does not grant life or righteousness, while the promise does. Righteousness (right standing with God) is by means of the promise. What the law does reveal is that the only way to gain righteousness is through Jesus’ death on the cross and grace. As Martin Luther said, one of the main purposes of the law was to convict people of sin so that they would be driven to Christ.
The Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.11
Scripture has put everything under the power of sin, and therefore the promise of the inheritance is only for those who trust in Christ. Paul wrote something similar to the Romans. For God has consigned all to disobedience, that he may have mercy on all.12 What Paul says here confirms the previous verse; the law and the promise work together in God’s purposes. The law drives people to the promise, so that they are righteous by faith in Jesus.
Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.13
Here Paul refers to the entire period of salvation history until Christ’s coming as before faith came. He doesn’t mean that faith didn’t exist until Christ came, as he clearly stated that Abraham was justified by faith (3:6–9). Everyone who was right with God throughout history was justified by faith. Here, the coming of faith refers to the beginning of a new era, and God fulfilling His promises through Christ.
What is different in this new era in the history of redemption is a personal faith in Christ. In the Old Testament era, Abraham and all the OT saints believed in God’s promise; however, now the people of God put their faith in Jesus Christ.
When Paul wrote we were held captive under the law, he was referring to Israel’s salvation history, the time period when Israel lived under the Mosaic law. Also, to be under the law is to be under sin. The connection between being “under sin” and “under the law” is seen in Paul’s moving from one to the other in verses 3:22–23. Those who live “under the law” (the old era of redemptive history) are also under the dominion and power of sin, while those who live in the new age brought by Christ are “under grace.” Those who are in Christ have the Holy Spirit, and by the power of the Spirit they don’t live in the old age of death and sin and the law.
The second part of this verse says imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. Paul continues to emphasize the law’s temporary role in salvation history. Israel lived under the law until the coming of Christ. The phrase would be revealed shows that a new era has come, and believers are no longer in the evil age.14 A new age arrived with the coming of Christ.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.15
Paul has focused on the temporary role that the law played in the history of salvation. The law played an intermediary role in salvation history. It functioned as a guardian until Christ came. A guardian (or custodian in some translations) referred to someone who attends to children, keeping watch over them in their younger years. They teach the children good morals and manners and help them in their daily lives.
However, a guardian is only needed during childhood. In like manner, the law was intended to be in force for a limited time in salvation history. The Judaizers, who promoted circumcision, didn’t understand that the Mosaic law wasn’t meant to be permanent. In saying that the law was our guardian until Christ came, Paul shows the temporary role of the law. It functioned until the fullness of time came, and then was no longer needed.
Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.16
Paul now draws a conclusion. Since faith in Christ has come at this time in salvation history, the era of the law has come to an end. In this new era, those who were under a guardian are no longer under the law.
For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.17
The believers are no longer under a guardian, as the former age is over and now they are justified by faith. Calling them God’s sons is the same as saying that they have reached maturity and they have now received the promised inheritance. They are not God’s sons because they keep the law, but because they are in Christ.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.18
Paul states that believers are clothed with Christ since they were baptized. Elsewhere in his letters, he speaks of believers being “clothed” with the “new self.”19 Those who were baptized were plunged into Christ when they believed in Him, and they are now clothed in Him. Accordingly, they are God’s sons, since they belong to Christ and have a new identity. Belonging to Christ doesn’t depend on circumcision, as the old era has passed. Now it depends on whether one is united with Christ.
Paul doesn’t speak against circumcision in Galatians. He doesn’t say that baptism replaces circumcision as an initiation rite. Even if they are both initiation rites, they are not similar in every respect. There is both continuity and discontinuity between circumcision and baptism.
If Paul thought that baptism simply replaced circumcision, he would have said so in Galatians, as that would have settled the debate over circumcision in Galatians. Instead of focusing on baptism, Paul stressed that faith in Christ is what makes one a member of God’s people.
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.20
All believers are united in Christ no matter what their ethnicity, background, social standing, or gender. These are irrelevant in determining whether one is a child of Abraham. The first two, Jew and Greek, were relevant to the Galatian situation, as one became part of the Jewish people by receiving circumcision.
For the Judaizers, there was a circle around God’s people; they were bounded by the law and circumcision. Thus, in their view, the children of Abraham were essentially Jewish. However, Paul had a very different view. To him, the children of Abraham were those who believe in Jesus, who is the only true offspring of Abraham (Galatians 3:16). Those who are one with Christ by faith and who are clothed with Him through baptism are His children.
As such, there is a unity among those who are members of God’s people. The Jews are not superior to the Gentiles; those who are free are not more important than slaves; men are not worth more than women. Everyone who is united to Christ is an equal member of Abraham’s family.
And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.21
Here, Paul reminds the Galatians of the main point of this chapter. He poses the rhetorical question of who belongs to the family of Abraham, who are his true sons and daughters? Who are his true offspring? Earlier (v. 16) Paul said that the only true son of Abraham is Christ. Therefore, the only way to be a true offspring of Abraham is for one to belong to Christ, and the only way to belong to Christ is through faith.
Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
1 Galatians 3:10–12.
2 Galatians 3:13–14.
3 Galatians 3:15.
4 Galatians 3:16.
5 Galatians 3:17.
6 Galatians 3:18.
7 Galatians 3:19.
8 Thomas R. Schreiner, Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Galatians (Zondervan Academic, 2010), 240.
9 Galatians 3:20.
10 Galatians 3:21.
11 Galatians 3:22.
12 Romans 11:32.
13 Galatians 3:23.
14 Galatians 1:4.
15 Galatians 3:24.
16 Galatians 3:25.
17 Galatians 3:26.
18 Galatians 3:27.
19 Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10.
20 Galatians 3:28.
21 Galatians 3:29.