The Expositor's Bible

Epistle to the Galatians

Rev. Prof. G. G. Findlay, B.A.

The Doctrinal Polemic
Chapter 3:1 - 5:12

Chapter 12


"Even as Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness. Know therefore that they which be of faith, the same are sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God justifieth the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all the nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with the faithful Abraham. For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one which continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law, to do them. Now that no man is justified in the law in the sight of God, is evident: for, The righteous shall live by faith; and the law is not of faith; but, He that doeth them shall live in them. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that upon the Gentiles might come the blessing of Abraham in Christ Jesus; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith."—Ga 3:6-14

FAITH then, we have learnt, not works of law, was the condition on which the Galatians received the Spirit of Christ. By this gate they entered the Church of God, and had come into possession of the spiritual blessings common to all Christian believers, and of those extraordinary gifts of grace which marked the Apostolic days.

In this mode of salvation, the Apostle goes on to show, there was after all nothing new. The righteousness of faith is more ancient than legalism. It is as old as Abraham. His religion rested on this ground. "The promise of the Spirit," held by him in trust for the world, was given to his faith. "You received the Spirit, God works in you His marvellous powers, by the hearing of faith—even as Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him for righteousness." In the hoary patriarchal days as now, in the time of promise as of fulfilment, faith is the root of religion; grace invites, righteousness waits upon the hearing of faith. So Paul declares in vv. 6-9, and re-affirms with emphasis in ver. 14. The intervening sentences set forth by contrast the curse that hangs over the man who seeks salvation by way of law and personal merit.

Thus the two standing types of religion, the two ways by which men seek salvation, are put in contrast with each other—faith with its blessing, law with its curse. The former is the path on which the Galatians had entered, under the guidance of Paul; the latter, that to which the Judaic teachers were leading them. So far the two principles stand only in antagonism. The antinomy will be resolved in the latter part of the chapter.

But why does Paul make so much of the faith of Abraham? Not only because it furnished him with a telling illustration, or because the words of Ge 15:6 supplied a decisive proof-text for his doctrine: he could not well have chosen any other ground. Abraham’s case was the in-stantia probans in this debate. "We are Abraham’s seed":81 this was the proud consciousness that swelled every Jewish breast. "Abraham’s bosom" was the Israelite’s heaven: even in Hades his guilty sons could claim pity from "Father Abraham". (Lu 16:19-31) In the use of this title were concentrated all the theocratic pride and national bigotry of the Jewish race. To the example of Abraham the Judaistic teacher would not fail to appeal. He would tell the Galatians how the patriarch was called, like themselves, out of the heathen world to the knowledge of the true God; how he was separated from his Gentile kindred, and received the mark of circumcision to be worn thenceforth by all who followed in his steps, and who sought the fulfilment of the promise granted to Abraham and his seed.

The Apostle holds, as strongly as any Judaist, that the promise belongs to the children of Abraham. But what makes a son of Abraham? "Birth, true Jewish blood, of course," replied the Judaist. The Gentile, in his view, could only come into a share of the heritage by receiving circumcision, the mark of legal adoption and incorporation. Paul answers this question by raising another. What was it that brought Abraham his blessing? To what did he owe his righteousness? It was faith: so Scripture declares—"Abraham believed God." Righteousness, covenant, promise, blessing—all turned upon this. And the true sons of Abraham are those who are like him: "Know then that the men of faith, these are Abraham’s sons." This declaration is a blow, launched with studied effect full in the face of Jewish privilege. Only a Pharisee, only a Rabbi, knew how to wound in this fashion. Like the words of Stephen’s defence, such sentences as these stung Judaic pride to the quick. No wonder that his fellow-countrymen, in their fierce fanaticism of race, pursued Paul with burning hate and set a mark upon his life.

But the identity of Abraham’s blessing with that enjoyed by Gentile Christians is not left to rest on mere inference and analogy of principle. Another quotation clinches the argument: "In thee," God promised to the patriarch, "shall be blessed"—not the natural seed, not the circumcised alone—but "all the nations (Gentiles)"!82 And "the Scripture" said this, "foreseeing" what is now taking place, namely, "that God justifieth the Gentiles by faith." So that in giving this promise to Abraham it gave him, his "gospel before the time (προευηγγελίσατο)." Good news indeed it was to the noble patriarch, that all the nations—of whom as a wide traveller he knew so much, and over whose condition he doubtless grieved — were finally to be blessed with the light of faith and the knowledge of the true God; and thus blessed through himself. In this prospect he "rejoiced to see Christ’s day"; nay, the Saviour tells us, like Moses and Elijah, "he saw it and was glad." Up to this point in Abraham’s history, as Paul’s readers would observe, there was no mention of circumcision or legal requirement (ver. 17; Romans 4:9-13). It was on purely evangelical principles, by a declaration of God’s grace listened to in thankful faith, that he had received the promise which linked him to the universal Church and entitled every true believer to call him father. "So that the men of faith are blessed, along with faithful Abraham."

1. What then, we ask, was the nature of Abraham’s blessing? In its essence, it was righteousness. The "blessing" of vv. 9 and 14 is synonymous with the "justification" of vv. 6 and 8, embracing with it all its fruits and consequences. No higher benediction could come to any man than that God should "count him righteous."

Paul and the Legalists agreed in designating righteousness before God man’s chief good. But they and he intended different things by it. Nay, Paul’s conception of righteousness, it is said, differed radically from that of the Old Testament, and even of his companion writers in the New Testament. Confessedly, his doctrine presents this idea under a peculiar aspect. But there is a spiritual identity, a common basis of truth, in all the Biblical teaching on this vital subject. Abraham’s righteousness was the state of a man who trustfully accepts God’s word of grace, and is thereby set right with God, and put in the way of being and doing right thenceforward. In virtue of his faith, God regarded and dealt with Abraham as a righteous man: Righteousness of character springs out of righteousness of standing. God makes a man righteous by counting him so! This is the Divine paradox of Justification by Faith. When the Hebrew author says, "God counted it to him for righteousness," he does not mean in lieu of righteousness, as though faith were a substitute for a righteousness not forthcoming and now rendered superfluous; but so as to amount to righteousness, with a view to righteousness. This "reckoning" is the sovereign act of the Creator, who gives what He demands, "who maketh alive the dead," and calleth the things that are not as though they Ro 4:17-22. He sees the fruit in the germ.

There is nothing arbitrary, or merely forensic in this imputation. Faith is, for such a being as man, the spring of all righteousness before God, the one act of the soul which is primarily and supremely right. What is more just than that the creature should trust his Creator, the child his Father? Here is the root of all right understanding and right relations between men and God—that which gives God, so to speak, a moral hold upon us. And by this trust of the heart, yielding itself in the "obedience of faith" to its Lord and Redeemer, it comes into communion with all those energies and purposes in Him which make for righteousness. Hence from first to last, alike in the earlier and later stages of revelation, man’s righteousness is "not his own"; it is "the righteousness that is of God, based upon faith." (Php 3:9) Faith unites us to the source of righteousness, from which unbelief severs us. So that Paul’s teaching leads us to the fountainhead, while other Biblical teachers for the most part guide us along the course of the same Divine righteousness for man. His doctrine is required by theirs; their doctrine is implied, and indeed more than once expressly stated, in his.83

The Old Testament deals with the materials of character, with the qualities and behaviour constituting a righteous man, more than with the cause or process that makes him righteous. All the more significant therefore are such pronouncements as that of Ge 15:6, and the saying of Hab 2:4, Paul’s other leading quotation on this subject. This second reference, taken from the times of Israel’s declension, a thousand years and more after Abraham, gives proof of the vitality of the righteousness of faith. The haughty, sensual Chaldean is master of the earth. Kingdom after kingdom he has trampled down. Judah lies at his mercy, anti has no mercy to expect. But the prophet looks beyond the storm and ruin of the time. "Art Thou not from everlasting, my God, my Holy One? We shall not die".84 The faith of Abraham lives in his breast. The people in whom that faith is cannot die. While empires fall, and races are swept away in the flood of conquest, "The just shall live by his faith." If faith is seen here at a different point from that given before, it is still the same faith of Abraham, the grasp of the soul upon the Divine word — there first evoked, here steadfastly maintained, there and here the one ground of righteousness, and therefore of life, for man or for people, Habakkuk and the "remnant" of his day were "blessed with faithful Abraham"; how blessed, his splendid prophecy shows. Righteousness is of faith; life of righteousness: this is the doctrine of Paul, witnessed to by law and prophets.

Into what a life of blessing the righteousness of faith introduced "faithful Abraham," these Galatian students of the Old Testament very well knew.85 is he designated "the friend of God." The Arabs still call him el khalil, the friend. His image has impressed itself with singular force on the Oriental mind. He is the noblest figure of the Old Testament, surpassing Isaac in force, Jacob in purity, and both in dignity of character. The man to whom God said, "Fear not, Abraham: I am thy shield and thy exceeding great reward"; and gain, "I am God Almighty; walk before me, and be thou perfect": on how lofty a platform of spiritual eminence was he set! The scene of Ge 18, throws into striking relief the greatness of Abraham, the greatness of our human nature in him; when the Lord says, "Shall I hide from Abraham the thing that I do?" and allows him to make his bold intercession for the guilty cities of the Plain. Even the trial to which the patriarch was subjected in the sacrifice of Isaac, was a singular honour, done to one whose faith was "counted worthy to endure" this unexampled strain. His religion exhibits a heroic strength and firmness, but at the same time a large-hearted, genial humanity, an elevation and serenity of mind, to which the temper of those who boasted themselves his children was utterly opposed. Father of the Jewish race, Abraham was no Jew. He stands before us in the morning light of revelation a simple, noble, archaic type of man, true "father of many nations." And his faith was the secret of the greatness which has commanded for him the reverence of four thousand years. His trust in God made him worthy to receive so immense a trust for the future of mankind.

With Abraham’s faith, the Gentiles inherit his blessing. They were not simply blessed in him, through his faith which received and handed down the blessing—but blessed with him. Their righteousness rests on the same principle as his. Religion reverts to its earlier, purer type. Just as in the Epistle to the Hebrews Melchizedek’s priesthood is adduced as belonging to a more Christlike order, antecedent to and underlying the Aaronic; so we find here, beneath the cumbrous structure of legalism, the evidence of a primitive religious life, cast in a larger mould, with a happier style of experience, a piety broader, freer, at once more spiritual and more human. Reading the story of Abraham, we witness the bright dawn of faith, its spring-time of promise and of hope. These morning hours passed away; and the sacred history shuts us in to the hard school of Mosaism, with its isolation, its mechanical routine and ritual drapery, its yoke of legal exaction ever growing more burdensome. Of all this the Church of Christ was to know nothing. It was called to enter into the labours of the legal centuries, without the need of sharing their burdens. In the "Father of the faithful" and the "Friend of God" Gentile believers were to see their exemplar, to find the warrant for that sufficiency and freedom of faith of which the natural children of Abraham unjustly strove to rob them.

2. But if the Galatians are resolved to be under the Law, they must understand what this means. The legal state, Paul declares, instead of the blessing of Abraham, brings with it a curse: "As many as are of law-works, are under a curse."

This the Apostle, in other words, had told Peter at Antioch. He maintained that whoever sets up the law as a ground of salvation, "makes himself a transgressor"; (Ga 2:18) he brings upon himself the misery of having violated law. This is no doubtful contingency. The law in explicit terms pronounces its curse against every man who, binding himself to keep it, yet breaks it in any particular.

The Scripture which Paul quotes to this effect, forms the conclusion of the commination uttered by the people of Israel, according to the directions of Moses, from Mount Ebal, on their entrance into Canaan: "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things written in the book of the law to do them."86 How terribly had that imprecation been fulfilled! They had in truth pledged themselves to the impossible. The Law had not been kept—could not be kept on merely legal principles, by man or nation. The confessions of the Old Testament, already cited in Ga 2:16, were proof of this. That no one had "continued in all things written in the law to do them," goes without saying. If Gentile Christians adopt the law of Moses, they must be prepared to render an obedience complete and unfaltering in every detail (Ga 5:3) -or have this curse hanging perpetually above their heads. They will bring on themselves the very condemnation which was lying so heavily upon the conscience of Israel after the flesh.

This sequence of law and transgression belonged to Paul’s deepest convictions. "The law," he says, "worketh out wrath". (Ro 4:14,15) This is an axiom of Paulinism. Human nature being what it is, law means transgression; and the law being what it is, transgression means Divine anger and the curse (see p. 849). The law is just; the penalty is necessary. The conscience of the ancient people of God compelled them to pronounce the imprecation dictated by Moses. The same thing occurs every day, and under the most varied moral conditions. Every man who knows what is right, and will not do it, execrates himself. The consciousness of transgression is a clinging, inward curse, a witness of ill-desert, foreboding punishment. The law of conscience, like that of Ebal and Gerizim, admits of no exceptions, no intermission. In the majesty of its unbending sternness it can only be satisfied by our continuing in all things that it prescribes. Every instance of failure, attended with whatever excuse or condonation, leaves upon us its mark of self-reproach. And this inward condemnation, this consciousness of guilt latent in the human breast, is not self-condemnation alone, not a merely subjective state; but it proceeds from God’s present judgment on the man. It is the shadow of His just displeasure.

What Paul here proves from Scripture, bitter experience had taught him. As the law unfolded itself to his youthful conscience, he approved it as "holy and just and good." He was pledged and resolved to observe it in every point. He must despise himself if he acted otherwise. He strove to be — in the sight of men indeed he was — "touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless." If ever a man carried out to the letter the legal requirements, and fulfilled the moralist’s ideal, it was Saul of Tarsus. Yet his failure was complete, desperate! While men accounted him a paragon of virtue, he loathed himself; he knew that before God his righteousness was worthless. The "law of sin in his members" defied "the law of his reason," and made its power the more sensible the more it was repressed. The curse thundered by the six tribes from Ebal resounded in his ears. And there was no escape. The grasp of the law was relentless, because it was just, like the grasp of death. Against all that was holiest in it the evil in himself stood up in stark, immitigable opposition. "O wretched man that I am," groans the proud Pharisee, "who shall deliver me!" From this curse Christ had redeemed him. And he would not, if he could help it, have the Galatians expose themselves to it again. On legal principles, there is no safety but in absolute, flawless obedience, such as no man ever has rendered, or ever will. Let them trust the experience of centuries of Jewish bondage.

Verses 11, 12 support the assertion that the Law issues in condemnation, by a further, negative proof. The argument is a syllogism, both whose premises are drawn from the Old Testament. It may be formally stated thus. Major preraise (evangelical maxim): "The just man lives of faith."87 (ver. 11). Minor: The man of law does not live of faith (for he lives by doing: legal maxim, ver. 12).88 Ergo: The man of law is not just before God (ver. 11). While therefore the Scripture by its afore-cited commination closes the door of life against righteousness of works, that door is opened to the men of faith. The two principles are logical contradictories. To grant righteousness to faith is to deny it to legal works. This assumption furnishes our minor premise in ver. 12. The legal axiom is, "He that doeth them shall live in them": that is to say, The law gives life for doing not therefore for believing; we get no sort of legal credit for that. The two ways have different starting-points, as they lead to opposite goals. From faith one marches, through God’s righteousness, to blessing; from. works, through self-righteousness, to the curse.

The two paths now lie before us—the Pauline and the legal method of salvation, the Abrahamic and the Mosaic scheme of religion. According to the latter, one begins by keeping so many rules—ethical, ceremonial, or what not; and after doing this, one expects to be counted righteous by God. According to the former, the man begins by an act of self-surrendering trust in God’s word of grace, and God already reckons him just on that account, without his pretending to anything in the way of merit for himself. In short, the Legalist tries to make God believe in him: Abraham and Paul are content to believe in God. They do not set themselves over against God, with a righteousness of their own which He is bound to recognise; they commit themselves to God, that He may work out His righteousness in them. Along this path lies blessing—peace of heart, fellowship with God, moral strength, life in its fulness, depth, and permanence. From this source Paul derives all that was noblest in the Church of the Old. Covenant. And he puts the calm, grand image of Father Abraham before us for our pattern, in contrast with the narrow, painful, bitter spirit of Jewish legalism, inwardly self-condemned.

3. But how pass from this curse to that blessing? How escape from the nemesis of the broken law into the freedom, of Abraham’s faith? To this question ver. 13 makes answer: "Christ bought us out of the curse of the law, having become a curse for us." Christ’s redemption changes the curse into a blessing.

We entered this Epistle under the shadow of the cross. It has been all along the centre of the writer’s thought. He has found in it the solution of the terrible problem forced upon him by the law. Law had led him to Christ’s cross; laid him in Christ’s grave; and there left him, to rise with Christ a new, free man, living henceforth to God. (Ga 2:19-21) So we understand the purpose and the issue of the death of Jesus Christ; now we must look more narrowly at the fact itself.

"Christ became a curse!" Verily the Apostle was not "seeking to please or persuade men." This expression throws the scandal of the cross into the strongest relief. Far from veiling it or apologising for it, Paul accentuates this offence. His experience taught him that Jewish pride must be compelled to reckon with it. No, he would not have "the offence of the cross abolished". (Ga 5:11)

And did not Christ become a curse? Could the fact be denied by any Jew? His death was that of the most abandoned criminals. By the combined verdict of Jew and Gentile, of civil and religious authority, endorsed by the voice of the populace, He was pronounced a malefactor and blasphemer. But this was not all. The hatred and injustice of men are hard to bear; yet many a sensitive man has borne them in a worthy cause without shrinking. It was a darker dread, an infliction far more crushing, that compelled the cry, "My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me!" Against the maledictions of men Jesus might surely at the worst have counted on the Father’s good pleasure. But even that failed Him. There fell upon His soul the death of death, the very curse of sin — abandoned by God! Men "did esteem Him" — and for the moment He esteemed Himself—"smitten of God." Hehung there abhorred of men, forsaken of His God; earth all hate, heaven all blackness to His view. Are the Apostle’s words too strong? Delivering up His Son to pass through this baptism, God did in truth make Him a curse for us. By His "determinate counsel" the Almighty set Jesus Christ in the place of condemned sinners, and allowed the curse of this wicked world to claim Him for its victim.

The death that befell Him was chosen as if for the purpose of declaring Him accursed. The Jewish people have thus stigmatised Him. They made the Roman magistrate and the heathen soldiery their instrument in gibbeting their Messiah. "Shall I crucify your King?" said Pilate. "Yes," they answered, "crucify Him!" Their rulers thought to lay on the hated Nazarene an everlasting curse. Was it not written, "A curse of God is every one that hangeth on a tree?"89 This saying attached in the Jewish mind a peculiar loathing to the person of the dead thus exposed. Once crucified, the name of Jesus would surely perish from the lips of men; no Jew would hereafter dare to profess faith in Him. His cause could never surmount this ignominy. In later times the bitterest epithet that Jewish scorn could fling against our Saviour (God forgive them!) was just this word of Deuteronomy, hattaluy— the hangd one.

This sentence of execration, with its shame freshly smarting, Paul has seized and twined into a crown of glory. "Hanged on a tree, crushed with reproach—accursed, you say, He was, my Lord, my Saviour! It is true. But the curse He bore was ours. His death, unmerited by Him, was our ransom-price, endured to buy us out of our curse of sin and death." This is the doctrine of the vicarious sacrifice. In speaking of "ransom" and "redemption," using the terms of the market, Christ and His Apostles are applying human language to things in their essence unutterable, things which we define in their effects rather than in themselves. "We know, we prophesy, in part." We know that we were condemned by God’s holy law; that Christ, Himself sinless, came under the law’s curse, and taking the place of sinners, "became sin for us"; and that His interposition has brought us out of condemnation into blessing and peace. How can we conceive the matter otherwise than as it is put in His own words: He "gave Himself a ransom—The Good Shepherd giveth His life for the sheep?" He suffers in our room and stead; He bears inflictions incurred by our sins, and due to ourselves; He does this at the Divine Will, and under the Divine Law: what is this but to "buy us out," to pay the price which frees us from the prison-house of death?

"Christ redeemed us, " says the Apostle, thinking questionless of himself and his Jewish kindred, on whom the law weighed so heavily. His redemption was offered "to the Jew first." But not to the Jew alone, nor as a Jew. The time of release had come for all men. "Abraham’s blessing," long withheld, was now to be imparted, as it had been promised, to "all the tribes of the earth." In the removal of the legal curse, God comes near to men as in the ancient days. His love is shed abroad; His spirit of sonship dwells in human hearts. In Christ Jesus crucified, risen, reigning—a new world comes into being, which restores and surpasses the promise of the old. 


[81] Matt. iii. 9; John viii. 33-59.

[82] Gen. xii. 3: the first promise to Abraham. In this text the Hebrew and the Greek (LXX) say, All the tribes (families) of the earth. The synonymous ἔθνη, with its special Jewish connotation, suited Paul's purpose better; and it is used in the repetition of the promise in Gen. xviii. 18.

[83] Rom. viii. 4; 1 Cor. vi. 9; Eph. v. 9; Tit. ii. 12-14; etc.

[84] Of faith qualifies live in the Hebrew of the prophet, and in the LXX, also in the quotation of Heb. x. 38. The presumption is that it does so in Rom. i. 17, and Gal. iii. 11. We can see no sufficient reason in these passages to the contrary.

[85] 2 Chron. xx. 7; Isai. xli. 8; comp. Jas. ii. 23.

[86] Deut. xxvii. 26Jos. viii. 32-35All things, given by the LXX in the former passage, is wanting in the Hebrew. But the phrase is true to the spirit of this text, and is read in the parallel Deut. xxviii. 15.

[87] Hab. ii. 4. For the construction, see note on p. 186.

[88] Lev. xviii. 5.

[89] The Hebrew of Deut. xxi. 23reads "a curse of God;" the LXX, "cursed by God" (κεκαταρηένος however, not ἐπικατάρατος as in Paul's phrase). The Apostle omits the two last words, not inadvertently, as Meyer supposes, for he must have had a painfully vivid remembrance of the wording of the original, but out of a reverence that made it impossible to speak of the Redeemer as "accursed by God."