On the Contrast between the Promise and the Law
Written by R. Fowler White |
Wednesday, February 15, 2023
The Law itself, rightly read, clarifies who Abraham’s heirs are and also prescribes the rejection of their persecutors, particularly false teachers. The Law, then, was never put in place to dispense the eschatological blessings of Abraham, and so it has never been the way to obtain them. As it was at that time, so it is now (4:29-31).
As a complement to the three recent posts on the Hebrew Roots Movement (here, here, and here), consider the following synopsis of Paul’s argument in Gal 3:1–5:1, where he expounds the contrast between the Promise and the Law, between the Abrahamic covenant and the Sinai covenant. Put differently, in those chapters, the Apostle makes an inter-covenantal argument in which he contrasts Christ and the Law.
We might begin by asking, Why would Paul stress the Promise/Law contrast to the Galatian churches? I maintain that he does so because Paul’s opponents at Galatia (2:4) were teaching a heretical view of how to obtain justification and all the other eschatological blessings of Abraham. Specifically, contrary to the false brothers’ position, the Apostle insists that the Law is not the way to obtain those blessings, whether as an alternative to Christ (i.e., law-keeping without Christ) or as a supplement to Christ (i.e., law-keeping plus Christ). Christ is the only way, Christ alone is enough, to secure those blessings. To see how Paul’s argument unfolds, we will break it down section by section.
The “Follies” at Galatia (Galatians 3:1-9)
The issue that Paul’s opponents had created in the Galatian churches can be reconstructed from several places in the letter. We’ll take as an example 3:1-9. There, Paul expresses his astonishment at the foolish Galatians. He lays bare their foolishness by highlighting the contrast between the way they had begun their Christian lives (3:3b) and the way they were now finishing their Christian lives (3:3c). They were at least seriously considering a way other than the one with which they had started (cf. you who want [or desire] to be under the Law, 4:21). The Galatians had begun their new lives under God’s promised blessing: it was by hearing with faith that He had provided them the Spirit and had worked miracles among them (3:2, 3, 5)! Misled by Paul’s opponents, however, the Galatians were, apparently, submitting to doing the works of the Law (3:3) and, as he will add later, to circumcision (5:2-3). The result of these choices was that they are now finishing under God’s threatened curse (3:10; 5:4; cf. Rom 2:25)! Evidently, the false brothers were luring the Galatians, if they had not already duped them, with a false gospel, a gospel different from that of the Apostle (1:6). So, Paul is required to refute that false gospel, and he does so by arguing both for and from the true gospel of Christ. To rebut the “follies” at Galatia, he takes the Galatians through the history of the Promise and the Law. From that history, he reminds them of several pertinent facts.
Redemptive History Lesson #1: Before the Law Came In (Galatians 3:6–9)
First, as summarized in 3:6-9, Paul shows the Galatians that, even before the Law came in, the way to obtain the eschatological blessings of Abraham—including justification (3:6, 8)—had not been by doing the works of the Law, but by hearing with faith. In fact, the way the Galatians were now seeking those blessings was contrary to the way in which God had credited righteousness to Abraham himself (3:6). Clearly, before the Law had been enacted, it had been by faith that God had justified Abraham. In addition, the way the Galatians were now seeking those blessings was also contrary to the way in which God had previously determined to credit those blessings to all among the nations who would be Abraham’s true heirs (3:7-9). Therefore, even before the Law came in, doing the works of the Law had not been the way to get the eschatological blessings that Abraham received.