God always keeps His promises. That’s one major theme from Paul’s writing in Galatians 3. In this chapter he is arguing with opponents over the role and purpose of the law. He is cementing his argument that we are made children of God only through faith in Christ, not through obedience to the law. Ultimately his point is summarized this way: God made a promise grounded in faith and that promise can never be changed. To think that we are saved through the law is to misunderstand the law and the promises of God.
In verse 15 Paul shifts gears. He speaks of the Galatians as “brothers,” which is unique considering the general tone of this letter (which has been very harsh). His word choice is intentional for he is entering into discussions about the family of God. The Galatians are part of that family, but only if they have entered into it by the proper means. They believe that they are children of Abraham because they keep the law, but Paul has been demonstrating that the promise made to Abraham was not about the law, but about faith.
He gives a “human example,” pointing to the unalterable nature of a covenant. He argues that once a covenant has been ratified it can never be changed. This is a peculiar idea because, after all, contracts are altered all the time. Scholars have hotly debated exactly what legal idea Paul has in mind here, but the point is not the context, but rather the supremacy of God’s Covenant with Abraham. The law, Paul says, came “430 years afterward” (v. 17), that is it came after the promise made to Abraham. That law cannot annul or change the original promise which God made to Abraham, a promise rooted in faith. Paul reads the Old Testament as an unfolding story. Its historical sequence flows from Abraham, to Moses, and then to the Messiah/faith – as the completion of this sequence (see N.T. Wright, Justification, 123). The Jews, then, had not rightly read the story. Blake White explains:
Paul is reading the Bible as a story. He is showing that God’s plan has historical sequence: Abraham – Law – Messiah. The law came 430 years after the promise to Abraham. This is not what most Jewish people believed. For example, Sirach 44:19-20 says, “Abraham was the great father of a multitude of nations, and no one has been found like him in glory. He kept the law of the Most High, and entered into a covenant with him.” The Jewish people were not correctly reading the Bible as God has given it. They were not reading with a beginning, middle, and an ending point. It was to be in effect after the promise until the Messiah. This is very clear from this chapter. The promise was given before the law, and the addition of the law does not annul the promise. Paul is showing them how to read their Bible. (Galatians: A Theological Interpretation, 71).
The law does not change God’s original promise, it can’t. In fact it can’t be altered precisely because the promise is fulfilled in Christ, the one and only “offspring” of Abraham (v. 16). This point is important because is stresses that God’s promises to the Jews, were actually fulfilled in the primary child of Abraham, Jesus. The promises have come to be realized to Jesus and offered to all who are truly “in Him.”
If all of this is true, then what exactly is the role of the Law? That’s the question Paul turns to answer next. Here he asserts that the law is basically a babysitter keeping watch on us until the time of faith should arrive. The law was never intended to give life (v. 21), but rather to expose sin (v. 19; see also Rom. 5:20). In seeing our sin more clearly the goal of the law ultimately was to lead us to Christ “that we might be justified by faith” (v. 24). The law, then, has served its purpose and Christians are no longer subject to the law, since Christ has come.
One caveat is important to highlight at this point. We should consider Galatians 3 a sort of “theological shorthand” – to borrow Timothy George’s phrase. Paul does not give us an entire theology of the law here, but only a specific focus on the law’s relationship to salvation. He admits elsewhere the value of the law for godly living, and we should not conclude based on this chapter that the Old Testament is irrelevant to Christians. It isn’t. Yet, how we read and apply the law has most certainly changed under the New Covenant. To unpack all of that, however, would be more than I could do in this post.
Paul, then, draws the necessary conclusion: we are children of Abraham, and thus children of God, if we are in Christ. As Paul says it:
And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (v. 29)
As children of God we are sons and heirs. Most notably we are recipients of God’s Spirit (4:6-7), who adds confirmation to our adoption into the family of God. It is this status, then, which frees us from the need to fulfill the law’s demands and keep the Old Covenant (v. 8-11).
This is perhaps one of the weightiest sections in all of Galatians. It’s emphasis on our relationship to God through Christ is the crux of Paul’s argument. We are made children of God by faith in the finished work of Christ, and thus the Law no longer has sway over us. We are free in Christ to live as accepted, adopted, and Spirit-filled children. Trying to live by the law will only make you anxious. It will mean asking the law to save us, asking the law to do something it was never intended to do. That will surely lead to instability and frustration. In Christ, however, we are truly Children of God. Rest in Him and rest from your own striving to fulfill the law. God made a promise to Abraham to save by faith, and God always keeps His promises.