Galatians 03(15–29)


We’ve been seeing how Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia to contend for the one true gospel which he received directly from the Lord when the Lord appeared to him on the road to Damascus and appointed him to be an apostle. The one true gospel is the good news that sinners are justified — pardoned and accepted by God — through faith in Christ the Saviour. Whoever trusts in him and his death for sinners is justified before God and receives the promised Holy Spirit and becomes a member of God’s people.

And Paul needed to write to the Galatians to contend for these things, because there were false teachers in Galatia who were confusing the believers with another gospel, which was really no gospel at all. The false teachers were saying that sinners are justified by works of the law, or by keeping the law, and not by faith alone. And so, Paul was writing to persuade them not to be taken in by this false gospel, but to hold on to the one true gospel which he had preached to them.

And last week we saw how Paul used two kinds of argument with them. The first was based on their own personal experience and how they received the Spirit and became Christians by believing, and not by observing the law. The second was based on the Old Testament Scriptures which make clear that Abraham was counted righteous in God’s sight whenever he believed. In other words, he was justified by faith and not by works of the law. And so, there has only ever been one way to be saved from the coming judgment; and that one way is by faith in Jesus Christ, the only Saviour of the world. Instead of relying on the law, and on our ability to keep it, we’re to rely on Christ and on his death on the cross.

In today’s passage, Paul continues to contend for the one true gospel. And he does so in today’s passage by contrasting God’s promises which we’re to believe; and God’s law which we’re to do. And he makes the point that God’s promises take precedence over God’s law. Believing takes precedence over doing. And so, what counts most of all is faith in Christ, who is the promised Saviour of the world.

I’ve mentioned before that people often say to me that they’re not sure whether they’re good enough for God. And you see, our default setting is to think that our relationship to God, our standing with God, depends on us and what we do. Are we good enough for him? Have we done enough to please him? What do I need to do for him to earn the right to eternal life in God’s presence? Our default setting is to rely on ourselves; and we think we must climb up to God and we must climb up to heaven by our good deeds. But our default setting is wrong, because we can never make ourselves good enough for God, because all of us are sinners who sin against God continually.

Instead we’re to rely on Christ: we’re to trust in him and on what he has done for sinners, because that’s the only way to be saved. The only way to be saved from the coming day of judgment and the wrath of God is by trusting in the Saviour, who died to take the blame for sinners. So, if you’re still relying on yourself and your own good deeds, I say to you that the only way to be saved is through faith in Christ alone. Go to God in prayer and ask him to pardon you for the sake of Christ who died for sinners.

And so, let’s turn now to today’s passage where Paul teaches us once again that faith in Christ is our only hope. I’m going to divide this passage into four main parts and there are various images or ideas I want us to keep in mind to help us understand each part.

Verses 15 to 18

The first part is verses 15 to 18. Now the image or the idea you need to keep in mind is the image of a contract. Many of you will have a contract for a mobile phone. You go into the shop, or you apply online, and you agree to pay Vodafone or O2 a certain amount of money every month. In return, they promise to provide you with so much talk-time and so many text messages and so much mobile data. The contract is agreed and signed. And so, every month they take your money and every month you expect to get what was agreed. And the contract can’t be changed. It’s binding. You have to pay the money. They have to give you your talk-time. It can’t be changed. They can’t reduce the number of minutes of talk-time you receive. They can’t reduce the number of texts you can send. The contract is binding.

Paul refers to that kind of thing in verse 15 where he says he’s going to use an everyday example to help them understand that God’s promises take precedence over his law. In verse 15 he says you can’t set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established. A covenant is similar to a contract. So once a covenant has been established, once a contract has been established, it can’t be set aside or disregarded; and it can’t be changed.

God made a covenant with Abraham. And according to the book of Genesis, in this covenant with Abraham, God promised to give to Abraham and his offspring a land to live in. God was referring to the land of Canaan. So, that was God’s promise to Abraham: I promise to give you and your offspring a land to live in.

And in this land — in the Promised Land — they would enjoy the presence of God, because God was going to dwell in their midst in the temple in Jerusalem.

Now, we’ll skip over verse 16 for now, because that verse is a kind of aside. So, let’s turn our attention to verse 17 where Paul reminds his readers that God introduced the law 430 years after he established his covenant with Abraham. So, 430 years after he made his promise to Abraham, God gave his law to Moses. 430 years was the time the Israelites were slaves in Egypt. And at the end of that 430 years, God set them free from their slavery and he led them to Mount Sinai, where he gave the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law to Moses.

The false teachers may have argued that since the law came after the covenant with Abraham, then the law takes precedence. They may have thought that what comes second is more important than what came first. However, remember the everyday illustration: once an agreement has been reached, once a contract has been signed, once a covenant has been established, it cannot be set aside or added to. Once it’s been agreed, it’s binding. And so, the introduction of the law 430 years after the establishment of God’s covenant cannot affect or change God’s promise to Abraham. The law could not do away with the promise. The promise still stands.

So, the promise came first and it’s binding. The law came second and it’s subordinate to the promise. That’s Paul’s point in verse 17. In verse 18, he refers to an inheritance.

In one sense, he’s referring to how the Israelites inherited the Promised Land. And how did they inherit it? How did they receive it? They received it, not by keeping the law, but because of God’s promise. God had promised it to them. In fact, if you read through the books of Exodus and Leviticus and Numbers and Deuteronomy, you’ll see again and again and again, how sinful the Israelites were and how they so often rebelled against the Lord and his law. They did nothing to earn or merit the Promised Land, and only received it because God promised to give it to them as a gift. They received it, not by keeping the law, but because of God’s promise.

You might be wondering what has this got to do with us and our salvation? What’s the land of Canaan got to do with us today? When we were studying the book of Genesis on Sunday evenings a few years ago, I made the point repeatedly that when God promised to give Abraham and his offspring a land to live in, he had in mind, not just life in the Promised Land of Canaan, but he had in mind eternal life in the Promised Land to come. God’s promise to Abraham included life in the new heavens and earth, where all of God’s people will dwell with the Lord forever and forever. In other words, when God promised Abraham life in the Promised Land, he was promising him salvation and eternal life. Eternal life is an inheritance; and we receive it, not by keeping the law, but by believing God’s promise of salvation, which he made known to Abraham.

Verses 19 to 22

Let’s turn now to verses 19 to 22 where Paul asks in verse 19:

What is the purpose of the law?

And he asks in verse 21:

Is the law opposed to the promises?

So, what’s the law for? And does it oppose or contradict the promises?

The image or idea to keep in mind now is the idea of the torch. A torch helps us to see things which are hidden by darkness. When we can’t see the road in front of us, when we can’t see into a dark room, when it’s too dark to see, get a torch and switch it on and what was once hidden from view becomes visible.

Paul doesn’t say the law is like a torch, but he does say in verse 19 that the law was added ‘because of transgressions’. And what he means is that the law of the Lord lights up and reveals our sinfulness. The law of the Lord makes clear that we’re lawbreakers. The law of the Lord exposes our guilt and makes clear to us that we have transgressed and broken and disobeyed God’s law.

God gave his law to the Israelites at Mount Sinai. And his law told them they were to love the Lord with all their heart and soul and mind and strength. The law also told them they were to love their neighbour as themselves. The law commanded all kinds of other things. But whenever they compared themselves to what the law said, they saw that they were guilty sinners, who deserved nothing from God but condemnation.

So, the purpose of the law was to make clear to the Israelites that they were sinners who deserved to be condemned. Now, the false teachers in Galatia taught that keeping the law was the way to receive eternal life. But — Paul says in verse 21 — the law does not impart life. It does not lead to life. And it doesn’t lead to life, because all the law can do is condemn us. Or, as Paul goes on to say in verse 22, the law contained in the Scriptures declares that the whole world is a prisoner to sin. Like a torch, it exposes our sinfulness and guilt.

However, that’s not the full story. Go back to verse 19 where Paul says the law was added because of transgressions ‘until the Seed … had come’. When he mentions ‘the Seed’, he’s referring to the Lord Jesus. And so, he’s saying the law was put in place by God to teach the Israelites that there were sinners; and therefore it was put in place to prepare them for the coming of Christ, who was coming into the world to save sinners.

It was always God’s plan to send his Son into the world to die in the place of sinners and to save all who trust in him. This was always God’s plan. And in order to prepare the way for Christ’s coming, God gave the Israelites his law, so that they would know and acknowledge their guilt and their need of the Saviour.

The end of verse 19 and the whole of verse 20 are difficult to interpret. However, it’s possible that Paul is making clear the superiority of the promise over the law by making the point that the law came to Israel, not directly, but through intermediaries. The Jews believed God gave the law to his people through the angels. God also gave it to the people through Moses. However, by saying at the end of verse 20 that ‘God is one’, Paul might be making the point that God alone appeared to Abraham; and God alone made his promise to Abraham. So, the law was received indirectly, whereas the promise was received directly from God. Therefore, there’s another indication that the promise is superior and takes precedence over the law.

In any case, the law was given to reveal to the Israelites that they were sinners who needed a Saviour. And so, it was given to prepare them for the coming of the Saviour who saves all those who trust in him.

Verses 23 to 25

Now we come to verses 23 to 25. And there are two images or ideas to keep in mind this time. The first is straightforward: it’s the image of a prison. The second is the image of a guardian. In the ancient world, parents might place a guardian over their children. The guardian — who may have been a slave — was responsible for supervising the children and for taking them to school and also for disciplining them if they misbehaved. The guardian had the authority to reprimand and punish unruly children.

So, those are the two images to keep in mind: a prison and a guardian. And Paul compares God’s law to a prison and to a guardian. He begins in verse 23 by saying:

Before this faith came….

And when he says ‘before this faith came’, he means before Christ came, because Christ is the object of our faith, the one we’re to trust for salvation. So, before Christ came into the world, we were held prisoners by the law. That’s in verse 23. And the law was put in charge; or more literally, the law was our guardian. That’s in verse 24.

So, before Christ came, the law imprisoned people. It imprisoned them as lawbreakers who deserved to be condemned by God. And the law provided no means of escape. It imprisoned people securely. And the law was like a guardian, because it was given authority to oversee our conduct and it made clear what penalties people deserved for not doing what God required.

So, the law imprisoned us; and the law rebuked and reprimanded us. But just as a prisoner longs to be freed from the prison, and just as children long to be free from their guardian’s oversight, so the purpose of the law was to get God’s people ready for the coming of Christ into the world, who would free them from their imprisonment to the law and save them from their guardian’s punishments. God gave his law to his people to prepare them for the coming of Christ the Saviour.

Verses 26 to 29

Now we come to the final verses today: verses 26 to 29. But before we study verses 26 to 29, let me first take you back to verse 16 where Paul said that God’s promise of eternal life in the new heavens and earth was made to Abraham and his seed. That’s ‘seed’ in the singular, and not ‘seeds’ in the plural. And since God said ‘seed’ in the singular, he must have been thinking of one person in particular. Well, according to Paul in verse 16, the one person he was thinking of was Christ. So, God’s promise of eternal life in the new heavens and earth was made to Abraham and to the Lord Jesus Christ.

However, God’s promise was not made to the Lord Jesus by himself. No, it was made to the Lord Jesus and to all who are ‘in Christ’ or all those who are united with him by faith. Look at verse 29:

If you belong to Christ [by faith], then you are Abraham’s offspring, and heirs according to the promise.

So, if you belong by faith to Christ, then you are included in Christ as Abraham’s offspring. And the promise God made to Christ of eternal life in the new heavens and earth is yours. So, eternal life in the new heavens and earth is received by faith and not by works of the law.

Furthermore, according to verse 26, through faith in Christ you become a son of God. So, the law treats us as prisoners who deserve to be condemned forever. But whenever we trust in Christ for salvation, we’re no longer prisoners. No, we become God’s children; and God becomes our Heavenly Father, who loves us and who cares for us.

And look at verse 27 where Paul says that all who were baptised into Christ have clothed themselves with him. He mentions baptism because, in biblical times, as soon as someone believed, he or she was baptised. So, Paul is saying that all who believed and were baptised have clothed themselves with Christ. That means, in terms of our justification, or in terms of our salvation, when God looks at us, he doesn’t see our sin and guilt, because it’s covered over with the perfect goodness and righteousness and obedience of Christ.

And finally, in terms of our justification, or in terms of our salvation, God treats us all the same and he doesn’t give preference to Jews or Greeks or to slaves or free or to men or women. No, so long as we trust in Christ, God treats us in the same way. The law treated everyone differently and there were special laws for Jews and Gentiles and slaves and free and men and women. But all of us can come to God through faith in Christ.


The false teachers were claiming that sinners are justified — pardoned and accepted — by works of the law or by doing what the law commands. But the law cannot impart or give anyone eternal life. The law exposes our guilt and shame and shows us that we’re sinners. The law imprisons us as guilty sinners who deserve to be condemned. The law is like a guardian which is always rebuking and reprimanding us for all shortcomings. The law cannot gives us life; and no one, no one will be justified by observing the law.

But God has promised eternal life in the new heavens and earth to all who trust in Jesus Christ, the only Saviour of the world. Christ laid down his life as the ransom to set sinners free from condemnation. He shed his blood to cleanse sinners from the guilt of their sin. He’s the only Saviour; and Jews and Gentiles, slave and free, men and women, everyone is able to come to God through faith in him.

And so, I say to you that you must believe in the Lord Jesus Christ. Go to God in prayer and ask him to pardon you and to accept you for the sake of Christ the Saviour. And ask him for his help to live your life for him.

And if you trust in Christ, you can rejoice in the knowledge that God is no longer the judge who is going to condemn you for failing to keep his law. He’s no longer your judge. Instead he’s your Heavenly Father, who loves you and who cares for you and who has promised great things for you in this life and in the life to come.