Commentary on Galatians 3:23-29
Contrary to popular Protestant belief, the law is not the enemy of grace. It is a gift from God, intended to guide God’s people toward an abundant life, toward a life where everyone thrives. So, what is the problem in Galatians? The law is not the good news.
In Galatians, Paul is livid—livid that the believers have so easily turned away from the gospel (1:6-9). Paul’s vitriol in this letter—seemingly aimed at the law—is not targeted at the law itself, but at his opponents who have placed the observance of the law as central to the marks of faith. At the heart of their preaching is a faith that requires obedience to the law. It seems that these opponents have linked the work of the Spirit and the promises of Abraham to law observance—at the very least to circumcision and food practices. To read Galatians is to hear one side of an argument. To read Galatians 3:23-29 is to overhear a small piece of that heated exchange.
To gain a fuller appreciation for Paul’s view of the law, it is necessary to look backwards in the letter. The opposing teachers seem to have linked the law with receiving the promises of Abraham. Paul reminds the believers that God has given the inheritance to Abraham by promise and thus, by grace, not by Abraham’s ability to follow the law (3:17-18). The law has an important function. It points out transgressions (3:19). The law is not opposed to God’s promises (3:21). Rather, the law is a guide toward the kind of abundant life that God wants for God’s creation, but the law cannot guarantee that life. Hence, verse 21, if a law could be made that would guarantee life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.
The law is like the servant in the household who is responsible for the heir (3:24). This is a critical role, somewhere between a nanny and a custodian. This person must protect the heir at all costs, see to the heir’s education and training, and accompany the heir always. In a world where one’s household is one’s security, identity, and legacy, it is impossible to overstate the importance of such a task. The law has a function—to direct people toward abundant life where everyone thrives. In Romans 7:12, Paul will even say that the law is holy, just, and good. The good and holy law, though, cannot guarantee that world. The assurance of life is what God has done in Christ—that is, to raise Jesus from the dead.
By placing their future in their ability to follow the law, the Galatians have become misguided. Following the law does not make them heirs of Abraham. In Christ they are already children of God. Just as Abraham has placed his trust in God, the Galatians have and should continue to place their trust in God, not in their ability to follow God’s good, holy, and just law. Why? Because they are incapable of withstanding sin’s power.
In this “present evil age” (1:4) the power of sin is so great that it has corrupted all. The law can point toward goodness, justice, and peace, but it cannot create a peaceable, loving, and just people. The law is not in the business of transformation.
God has done through the cross and resurrection, what neither the Galatians nor we could do for ourselves. The Galatians have been baptized into Christ and, therefore, belong to Christ. By virtue of being in Christ, they are heirs of the promises to Abraham—promises which included descendants and land. In Romans 4:13, Paul will say, “The promise to Abraham and his descendants, that they should inherit the world, did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.”
In Christ, something extraordinary has happened, there is neither Jew nor Greek. The opposing teachers have encouraged the Galatians to take on the very practices of law observance that would publicly identify them with the Jewish people. They may have argued that circumcision was necessary to become children of Abraham and part of the “Israel of God” (6:16). Paul, however, has reframed the discussion by reminding the Galatians that their hope has never been in any act that they have accomplished or their public identity. It has always been in Christ—specifically in what God has done through Christ.
In Christ, the distinctions of being a Jew or a Gentile are reframed. They can be one in Christ—as circumcised or as uncircumcised. The pairs of opposites in Galatians 3:28 demonstrate what is likely an early baptismal liturgy (see also 1 Corinthians 12:12-13). There is unity in the midst of their diversity. These relationships that once contained power dynamics and strife are now relationships of mutual blessing. It is not that Gentiles must become Jews or females must become males (as texts like the Gospel of Thomas will later teach!). Rather, Paul’s vision of the church is that all nations—in their God-given distinctiveness—will praise God with one voice (Romans 15:7-13). The one pair of opposites that we can see the earliest church working to dismantle is the slave/master pairing. Unfortunately, as the Parousia gets delayed the church gets further and further removed from living into that radical call.
This baptismal formula, though, calls the church to exhibit a glimpse of God’s new creation right now. Through the power of God’s Spirit at work to transform the lives of believers, that glorious baptismal call is possible. In Christ, the Galatians experience the work of the Spirit, molding them into new creation, into people who exhibit love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (5:22-23).
In this week’s passage, we see the limits of the law and the magnitude of God’s grace—a grace that extends to all. Two thousand years removed from the debate over Gentile inclusion, we can forget how radical this baptismal liturgy would be. It is a reminder that God is at work among all nations. Praise be to God.