Once For All Set Free Galatians 3:15–29
Earlier in Galatians chapter 3, Paul demonstrated that Abraham was justified by faith centuries before the Law was given. In like manner, all who follow in the faith of Abraham—Jew or Gentile—are declared justified without the Law. In verses 9 to 14 of this chapter, the apostle skillfully quoted six Old Testament passages to confirm his position.
The Judaizers could have conceded that Abraham was justified by faith alone. But they also might counter Paul’s argument with three of their own. First, God gave the Mosaic Law to Israel and, in so doing, changed the means by which salvation is acquired. Second, if salvation is acquired without the Law, why was it given? Third, if the Law had been set aside, as Paul claimed, it was not valid for him to quote Old Testament passages to prove that the Judaizers’ teaching was in error.1
Anticipating such objections, Paul proceeded to prove that justification by grace through faith, promised in the Abrahamic Covenant, was permanent and took priority over the Mosaic Law.
Promised Freedom from the Law
The word brethren (v. 15) indicates that Paul had become more conciliatory in his tone to the Galatians. In an attitude of love, he tried to show these misguided people the correctness of his position. The apostle’s statement, “I speak after the manner of men” (v. 15), did not mean that his forthcoming argument was less inspired or less authoritative. Simply put, he used “an example from everyday life” (NIV) to make his point.
First, Paul stated that covenants confirmed on a human level are not changeable: “Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man annulleth or addeth to it” (v. 15). In other words, a covenant ratified by two people on a human level, if it is to remain in effect, cannot be altered in any way by a third party without the permission of the two original parties. In like manner, neither can God’s covenant with Abraham be altered. This covenant was even more binding than a human agreement because Abraham was in a deep sleep and played no role in it (Gen. 15:12).
Second, arguing from a historical perspective, the apostle showed that promises made to Abraham found their ultimate culmination in “his seed … which is Christ” (v. 16). It should be noted that Paul made mention of “seed,” not “seeds” (v. 16), indicating that God made the covenant promise with Abraham through Christ. Therefore, the Mosaic Law cannot alter this covenant.
Third, the Law could not cancel the covenant of promise made centuries before the giving of the Mosaic Law, for “the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot annul, that it should make the promise of no effect” (v. 17). Paul’s reference to 430 years, rather than 400 years (Gen. 15:13), takes into account the time that elapsed between the Abrahamic Covenant’s being confirmed through Jacob and the giving of the Mosaic Covenant at Mount Sinai (cp. Gen. 46:2–4 with Ex. 19:1–2). Therefore, the Law, given hundreds of years later, had no impact on the covenant God made with Abraham.
Fourth, promise and Law cannot be combined: “For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise; but God gave it to Abraham by promise” (v. 18). Promise and Law are two opposing principles. Adding any form of the Law to the promise would make it void; therefore, justification by faith comes by promise, not by Law. God “gave” (v. 18) it that way. The word gave (charizomai) comes from the same Greek root as the word grace (charis), denoting that the promised inheritance (justification by faith) was given as a free act of God’s love long before the Law was given. The word appears in the perfect tense, indicating that God gave the inheritance to Abraham in the past, but the inheritance has a present and permanent application for all who believe. Moreover, an inheritance is never earned but is always freely given. Hence, the Judaizers’ teaching that the Law must be kept to obtain the inheritance was in error.
Dr. Wuest provides a perceptive note concerning the Judaizers’ position: “The doctrine of the Judaizers at first glance appeared only to add some harmless new conditions to the covenant of grace. But the character of these new conditions virtually annulled it. Work added to faith would annul the entire covenant (of promise) since any dependence upon works means that it is necessary to abandon faith.”2
Primary Focus of the Law
Paul continued his argument by asking the logical, rhetorical question, “Wherefore, then, serveth the law?” (v. 19). That is, Why was the Law added? First, “It was added because of transgressions” (v. 19). The word added has the idea of being placed alongside the covenant of promise, meaning that the Law was supplementary and subordinate to it and in no way added conditions for salvation.3 The Law’s purpose was to reveal sin as a transgression. Instead of providing righteousness for the sinner, the Law magnified sin’s guilt and made men aware that they could not be saved by keeping the Law. Thus, the Law could not in any way change the permanent provisions of the covenant.
Second, the Law was to be temporary: “It was added … till the seed should come to whom the promise was made” (v. 19). After Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, the Law was abrogated, but the covenant of promise remained.
Third, God made the covenant of promise with Abraham directly. But the Mosaic Law “was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator” (v. 19). The Law came through a third party; God gave it to angels, who gave it to Moses, who in turn gave it to Israel. In other words, the Law had numerous parties who mediated it, whereas the covenant of promise had no mediator because “God [who] is one” (v. 20) confirmed it by Himself (cp. Gen. 15:12–17). Therefore, the covenant of promise is superior to the Mosaic Law.
This engendered another question in the minds of the Judaizers, which Paul had already anticipated: “Is the law, then, against [contrary to or in conflict with] the promises of God?” (v. 21). The apostle’s answer was swift and succinct:
“God forbid” (v. 21), or perish the thought. Law and promise are not in conflict; they have distinct functions and purposes.
The Law was never designed to provide salvation for man. But Paul said, “if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law” (v. 21). If this were the case, then the covenant of promise would no longer be in effect, God’s grace played no role in salvation, and Christ’s death was meaningless because it had no power to save anyone. Yet this was not the case because life came by the covenant of promise through Christ rather than through the Law. In fact, the opposite is true. Rather than giving life to man, the Law “concluded [shut up or confined] all under sin” (v. 22). The Law imprisoned all men under its curse and condemnation (cp. Rom. 3:9, 19–20, 23; 7:9–14). However, the Law had a greater purpose than to condemn men; it locked them up to “faith of [in] Jesus Christ” (v. 22) as the only means by which the promise of salvation might be granted to them (cp. Rom. 7:24–25).
Paul clearly indicated that Law and grace are not in conflict with each other; they simply have different functions. As one writer so aptly stated, “The Law is not the basis of God’s judgment of man. A sinner who rejects Christ, goes to the Lake of Fire for all eternity, not because he has broken God’s laws, for his sin is paid for. He goes to a lost eternity, because he rejects God’s grace in the Lord Jesus. The Law is a revelation of the sinner’s legal standing, and as such condemns him. It cannot therefore justify him, as the Judaizers claim.”4
Pedagogical Function of the Law
The apostle continued to counter the Judaizers by illustrating the true function of the Law. First, it functioned as a prison: “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed” (v. 23). The phrase before faith refers to the Christian faith. Before the Christian faith came, the Law held Israel together as a nation and, for most of her history, kept her from embracing the wicked religions of her neighbors. But when the Christian faith came, the Law was abrogated, and spiritual life and liberation were provided for all who put their faith in Jesus the Messiah. True, those under the Law who exercised faith in God, like father Abraham (Rom. 4:6–8), would be saved. But the Law played no part in their salvation.
Second, the Law functioned as a pedagogue, for “the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (v. 24). The word schoolmaster does not provide a proper concept of the Greek word paidagogos, which means a child custodian or disciplinarian. The pedagogue was a slave, not a teacher, who governed children, ages 6 to 16, for wealthy Greek and Roman households. The pedagogue’s function was to take the child to school, correct his moral behavior, protect him from harm, and prepare him for adulthood. In like manner, the Law functioned as a temporary custodian restricting sinful man under its provisions, so that only through “Christ” could he “be justified by faith.”
The conclusion of Paul’s argument is self-evident: “But after faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster” (v. 25); that is, the Law no longer has jurisdiction to govern people’s lives. They could no longer argue that circumcision, dietary laws, a distinctly Jewish ethical precept, or any other aspect of the Jewish life-style were prerequisites for salvation.5
Although most Christians would oppose legalism some churches and individuals, through misinterpretation of Scripture, impose legalistic requirements upon people for their salvation. In reality, they are recapitulating the Judaizers’ error. We must continually remember that man is justified by faith in Christ alone.
Positionally Free from the Law
Because believers are no longer under the Law but under grace, Paul mentioned four privileges that they enjoy. The first is sonship: “For ye are all the sons of God by faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 26). The apostle’s switch from the first person “we” to the second person “ye” indicates a shift of attention from Israel to believers, both Jewish and Gentile. Believers are no longer under the supervision of a child custodian or the discipline of the Law but are adult sons “by faith in Christ Jesus.” For the Galatian believers to give up their superior position of adult sonship in Christ and put themselves under the Law would make no sense.
Second, believers have been baptized by the Spirit into the body of Christ: “For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (v. 27). Baptism of the Holy Spirit may be defined as the act of God whereby He places believers into union with Christ and His body, the Church, at the moment of salvation (cp. Rom. 6:3–4; 1 Cor. 12:13). The phrase put on Christ means to be clothed with Him. Dr. Campbell captured the thought well when he wrote, “In the Roman society when a youth came of age he was given a special toga which admitted him to the full rights of the family and state and indicated he was a grown-up son. So the Galatian believers had laid aside the old garments of the Law and had put on Christ’s robe of righteousness which grants full acceptance before God. Who would want to don again the old clothing” of the Law?6
Third, in Christ, believers have the same standing positionally, for “There is neither Jew nor Greek … bond nor free … male nor female; for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28). The Lord does not view one believer as superior to another with respect to nationally, status, sex, or social standing. Naturally, this does not do away with a person’s physical identity or position in society; but for Christians, these distinctions have no meaning to God because the Christian is “one” in the body of Christ.
Fourth, all believers, no matter what their distinctions, are spiritual seed of Abraham: “And if ye be Christ’s, then are ye Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise” (v. 29). There are four kinds of seed referred to in the Bible: (1) natural, nonspiritual seed (unsaved Jews); (2) natural, spiritual seed (saved Jews); (3) unnatural, nonspiritual seed (unsaved Gentiles); and (4) unnatural, spiritual seed (saved Gentiles). It should be noted that Scripture never teaches that Christians are “spiritual Jews” or “spiritual Israel,” as some teach.
In summary, although the Law was holy, just, and good, it did not abrogate the promise of God given in the Abrahamic Covenant, which was ultimately fulfilled in Christ. The Law functioned as a mirror to show men that they were unholy, guilty sinners who could not be saved by keeping the Law. It functioned as a disciplinarian to reveal the holiness of God and restrict Israel for her own good until Christ (the Son of promise) came to free all those who would become sons of God the Father (heirs of the promise) through faith in Him. It functioned as a prison, locking men up to faith in Christ as the only means of salvation. But now, all who put their faith in Christ for salvation have been set free from the Law.
Philip P. Bliss, the great gospel songwriter of the last century, caught the meaning of our freedom after meditating on Hebrews 10:10. He then penned the words to “Once for All.” The first stanza goes like this:
Free from the law, O happy condition!
Jesus hath bled, and there is remission;
Cursed by the law and bruised by the fall,
Grace hath redeemed us once for all.
Once for all, O sinner, receive it,
Once for all, O brother, believe it;
Cling to the cross, the burden will fall,
Christ hath redeemed us once for all!
Need we say more?
- Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Vol. 1, Galatians (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1989), 701
- Kenneth S. Wuest, Wuest’s Word Studies, Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1944), 100.
- C. Fred Dickason Jr., From Bondage to Freedom, Studies in Galatians, Part 1 (Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1963), 28.
- Wuest, op. cit., 107.
- Richard N. Longenecker, Word Biblical Commentary, Galatians (Dallas, TX: Word Books, 1990), 149.
- Donald K. Campbell, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Galatians (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, Vol. II, 1983), 600.