The Inferiority of the Law to the New Covenant in Galatians

Jason Dulle

The Occasion and Purpose · The Heresy · The Law Cannot Justify--2:16 · The Law is not of Faith--3:10-13 · Purpose of the Law is to Increase Sin, not Give Eternal Life--3:19-22 · The Nature of the Law as Set Forth in Deuteronomy · Law Was Only Temporary--3:23-25 · Conclusion

Probably the earliest of all NT canonized writings, written in about A.D. 49-50, the epistle to the Galatians is very important to our understanding of the larger doctrinal problems facing the early church. The epistle to the Galatians concerns a doctrinal heresy which seems to have been pervasive throughout first-century Christendom. Paul addressed the issue extensively in some of his other epistles, and briefly mentions it in many others. This heresy was none other than the reinstitution of the Law of Moses for the Christian believer as a means of justification in addition to Christ.

This paper seeks to discover Paul's theology of the Law as found disclosed in this epistle to the Galatian churches. It will identify the heresy of the resurrection of the Law and set forth Pauline reasoning for identifying this Law-keeping approach toward God as error, dangerous, and anti-Christian. This will be done in the larger context of explaining the occasion, purpose, and theme of the epistle. Although it is desirable to stay exclusively within the epistle to accomplish my goals, when necessary I will examine other parts of the Bible (especially the OT teaching concerning the Law) in order to understand the reasoning behind Paul's arguments.

The Occasion and Purpose

The Galatian churches were established on Paul's first missionary journey in about A.D. 48-49. The account of their establishment is found in Acts 13-14. It wasn't much longer after Paul left the province of Galatia that he penned this epistle (1:6), probably from Antioch where it is said he abode for a "long time with the disciples" (Acts 14:28).

Apparently a group of believers had infiltrated Galatia after Paul left the area, bringing with them a gospel which taught justification by the Law of Moses. They were probably Jewish Christians as is evidenced by their doctrine of circumcision and the Law. The account in Acts only gives evidence of unbelieving Jews who completely opposed the gospel, not of believing Jews who were bringing another gospel different than Paul's (1:6-9). The Jews who were troubling the Galatian churches were probably traveling "ministers" rather than local Jews. James commented that there were thousands of Jews who believed and were zealous for the Law (Acts 21:20; See also 15:5). Even Paul mentions Jews who came from Jerusalem to Antioch who were Judaizers (2:12-13). These believers taught that one must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses to be saved (Acts 15:1, 5). It was probably these Judaizers who came behind Paul and taught a contrary gospel.

There was definitely a group of these Jews (1:7; 4:17), but probably one strong leader was at the forefront (1:8-9; 5:10). These Jesus-confessing believers seem to have attacked Paul's apostleship and doctrine as is evidenced by Paul's defense of both in his first two chapters. Apparently they claimed Paul was not an apostle and that his doctrine was taught to him by man and therefore was incorrect, while they were truly apostles (or at least their leader was) and received their doctrine from God. Paul defended his apostleship claiming that the resurrected Lord Himself had called him to this office (1:1). He also communicated how that the pillars, James, Peter, and John gave him the right hand of fellowship and approved his ministry to the Gentiles (2:6-10). Showing his equality with them, Paul says, "But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsover they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me" (2:6). One final example to demonstrate to the Galatians that he had equal authority with the other apostles was Paul's rebuke of Peter for not walking according to the gospel (2:11-15).

Paul defended his doctrine by explaining that he received it through divine revelation from Jesus Christ Himself (1:11-12). To back up his claim he tells how it was three years after his conversion before he ever saw another apostle, and fourteen years before he ever compared his teachings with those of the apostles at Jerusalem (1:15-2:2). They added nothing to his doctrine (2:6), but rather propagated it indirectly by commending him to preach to the Gentiles (2:9).

The Heresy

The traveling Judaizers emphasized circumcision and the keeping of the Law. They were probably selective in what parts of the Law they taught as binding as is evidenced by Paul's pleading tone to the Galatians when he said that "every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law" (5:3). Had they been taught that the whole Law was binding it would not seem necessary for Paul to warn the Galatians of this. Whatever the Judaizers did emphasize, at the least it included the keeping of Sabbaths, new moons, festivals, jubilees, and circumcision (4:10; 5:12). The Galatians had been convinced of their teachings against Paul and converted to this new "faith" (1:6). Paul says they actually desired to be under the Law, and believed that it was a system whereby they could be justified before God (4:21; 5:4).

Circumcision was not peculiar to the Mosaic Covenant. It was first introduced to Abraham in his covenant with God. It seems that the Judaizers were stressing circumcision because of its connection with the promises made to Abraham. Notice Paul's frequent mentions of Abraham (3:6, 7, 8, 9, 14, 16, 18; 4:22). It is very likely that the Judaizers believed they would not partake of the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant without being circumcised (3:14, 16). Paul countered this theology by demonstrating that all those who have faith in Jesus Christ are the children of Abraham and thus heirs of the promise (3:29).

Paul's argument is that Abraham's belief in God was accounted to him for righteousness (3:6). All who believe in the same manner as did Abraham are likewise the children of Abraham (3:8). Even the Gentiles can be Abraham's children, although not of his physical descent, as is evidenced by God's word to him that "in thee shall all nations be blessed" (3:9). Abraham's blessing is able to be given to non-Jews through Jesus Christ, who was the "seed" to whom the promises were made (3:14, 16). All who are in Christ through faith are one in Him (3:27-28). Since He is the seed to whom God made the promises, those who have put on Christ do receive the promises made to Abraham. It is through faith, not circumcision, that we are Abraham's seed and heirs according to the promise (3:27-29; 5:6).

In addition to circumcision the Judaizers pressed for obedience to the Law of Moses (3:2; 4:9, 21; 5:3, 18; 6:13). The Law was not being kept as some cultural identity issue, but as a means of justification before God (2:16; 3:11; 5:4). Paul counters this teaching throughout the epistle.

Now that a brief overview of the occasion and purpose of the epistle to the Galatians has been set forth, we will turn to four primary passages wherein Paul deals with the inferiority of the Law to the New Covenant.

The Law Cannot Justify--2:16

Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

The Law cannot justify an individual before God. Observance to its mandates and rituals does not give one meritous favor before God or a right standing with Him. The righteousness the Law had to offer was an external righteousness contingent upon one's obedience to its 614 commands, not the righteousness conferred upon an individual by God (See Philippians 3:6, 9). It is a person (Jesus Christ) and not a law (Mosaic) that justifies sinful men before a holy God. Paul makes the point that Christ had to die because the Law could not grant righteousness. Only Christ could grant righteousness. To seek justification in any place other than in Christ would be to frustrate the grace of God (2:21).

The Law was a covenant given to Israel to provide them with temporal blessings in the land of Israel such as wealth, victory over their enemies, retention of the land, and long life. Failure to keep the covenant would result in just the opposite. "The significant themes found in the 'second law' include 'life,' 'righteousness' and 'law/covenant.' An examination of the use of the first two of these topics reveals that they have to do not with eternal life or moral righteousness, but with temporal life in the promised land and external righteousness related to obedience to the commandments of the law/covenant."1 It was never intended as a means for justification (See Romans 9:30-33).

The Law is not of Faith--3:10-13

For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. 12 And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. 13 Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree.

The Law was essentially a works system that resulted in either blessings or cursings (Deuteronomy 28-30). It was based on what one did, not on what one believed. If one would do all that was written in the Law they would be blessed with long life in the land, health, and wealth. If they failed to do all that was written in the Law they would not be blessed with long life in the land, health, or wealth, but would be cursed by God. They had to meet all 614 requirements of the Law to be "eligible" for its benefits. No man could keep all the Law's demands perfectly and so was cursed.

The focus of the Law is diametrically opposed to the focus of the New Covenant. The focus of the Law is on works (what one does), while the focus of the New Covenant is on faith/believing. The righteousness of the Law was received by doing, but the righteousness of the

New Covenant is received by believing. Paul quoted Moses when he said, "The man that doeth them shall live in them" to illustrate that the Law was a do-system, and that one was bound to live in this system. Christ, however, has redeemed us from this curse of trying to perfectly keep the Law without success by becoming a curse for us. As a result we can be and are under a believe-system.

Paul makes it plain that the Law is not a faith covenant, but the New Covenant is. Since we must approach God by faith to be justified, apart from works, the Old Covenant must by necessity be done away with.

Purpose of the Law is to Increase Sin, not Give Eternal Life--3:19-22

Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. 20 Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. 21 Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. 22 But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.

Paul anticipated the readers question pertaining to the Law's purpose so answered that is "was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made" (v. 19). The Greek phrase translated "because of transgressions" is parabasewn carin. Frank Thielman points out, "The statement is so broad that it could be taken to mean that the law came to place limits on sin, to reveal sin, to punish sin or even, if read in the light of a similar but more specific comment in Romans 5:20, to increase sin."2 James Boice also comments, "The phrase can mean either that the law was given to restrain transgressions...or that the law was given to make the transgressions known, even in one sense to encourage them or to provoke them to a new intensity."3 Boice then gave his opinion on the meaning declaring that "the latter is the only real possibility" considering "Paul's choice of the word 'transgressions' (parabasis) rather than 'sin' (hamartia) in this context and of his discussion of the purpose of the law elsewhere."4 Elsewhere Paul said there is no transgression where there is no law (Romans 4:15), so this phrase can not mean that the Law was added to stop transgressions, because there would be no transgressions without the Law. For a transgression is the breaking of a certain commandment. Without a commandment there can be no transgression.5 So without the Law, the Israelites had no transgression. In light of all this, it seems best to interpret this phrase to mean that the Law was added to increase transgressions.

Since the Law had nothing to do with the promises given to Abraham, Paul asked his readers a rhetorical question, "Is the law then against the promises of God?" (v. 21). Paul affirmed that this was not the case. The Law was not against the promises given to Abraham; rather it had no relation to the promise made to Abraham. The Law could not give eternal life, but the promises made to Abraham, namely justification by faith (Romans 4:1-5, 16-25; Galatians 3:5-9, 14), could (v. 21). Paul argues that if righteousness and eternal life could come from the Law God would grant these to us by the Law, but since this was not the case, God has introduced a New Covenant (2:21; 3:31).

The Scripture declares that all are "shut in" under sin (meaning of the Greek sunekeleisen, translated "concluded"). It implies that they are confined in on all sides. The NIV translates it to mean "prisoner of sin." The Scripture has imprisoned everyone under sin to the intent that none will try to justify themselves on the basis of any law, but will believe in God who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5; Galatians 3:22). The Law could never save the Israelites, or give them the promises that were in the Abrahamic Covenant. They were completely separate covenants for two different purposes. What the Law could do, however, was lead the Israelites to salvation through showing them their utter sinfulness and need of a Savior. Once they understood that their hearts and works were unrighteous, they would cry out to God for His mercy and salvation.

The Nature of the Law as Set Forth in Deuteronomy

In the Law of Moses, there is never a mention of eternal life. The life that is mentioned numerous times in Deuteronomy never refers to eternal life, but rather the length or quality of life in the land of Israel (Deuteronomy 4:40; 6:2; 11:8-9; 28:64-66; 30:15-16, 19-20; 32:46-47)

"Life" is equated with "good" and "blessing," and "death" is equated with "evil" and "cursing" (Deuteronomy 30:15, 19). The good/blessing and evil/cursing has to do with the temporal benefits or lack thereof based upon obedience to, or lack of obedience to the covenant (Deuteronomy 28-30). If the Israelites' were disobedient to the covenant, their lives would hang in doubt, and they would have no assurance of life (28:64-66).

The concept of righteousness as found in Deuteronomy is not a righteousness as the New Testament speaks of, a righteousness received from God on the basis of faith in God and in His Son Jesus Christ. Rather it "has to do with conformity to an ethical or moral standard."6 The Hebrew root word, tsadaq, in its original concept meant "to be straight," as in an ethical norm.7 The righteousness that Deuteronomy speaks of is purely contingent upon personal behavior. It is gained by what one does, not where one places his faith. One could have no faith in God, but obey the Law and be considered righteous in light of its requirements.8 The righteousness is earned by works apart from faith, the exact opposite of the New Testament concept of how righteousness is received (Romans 4:1-5).

Paul expressed the type of righteousness the Law offered when he said to the Philippians:

"Though I might also have confidence in the flesh. If any other man thinketh that he hath whereof he might trust in the flesh, I more: Circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of touching the law a Pharisee; concerning zeal, persecuting the church; touching the righteousness which is in the law, blameless. But what things were gain to me, those I counted loss for Christ. Yea doubtless, and I count all things but loss...that I may win Christ, And be found in him, not having mine own righteousness, which is of the law, but that which is through the faith of Christ, the righteousness which is of God by faith." (Philippians 3:4-9).

There was a righteousness in the Law. The Law offered its own kind of righteousness. Paul claimed that he had been blameless in this Law, and therefore was righteous. He could have confidence in his flesh (himself) because his performance made him righteous. Paul had no salvific righteousness, however, and that's why he turned to Jesus Christ for salvation. If he could have been justified, receiving God's righteousness, by the works of the Law, then surely Paul would have already had salvation. Instead, Paul only had his own righteousness which was from the Law, being based upon his obedience to the temporal covenant regardless of his faith in God. It is evident from verse nine that the righteousness of the Law is completely different from the righteousness offered by Jesus Christ. One is based upon one's own works (self-righteousness) and is non-salvific while the other is based upon faith in Christ's work (God's righteousness) and is salvific in nature.

The benefit of keeping the Law, then, was the quality of life in this present world. If they were obedient to the covenant, they would receive life/blessing as manifested by the temporal blessings of long-life, abundance of rain for crops, peace, wealth, and maintenance of the land of Israel. If they were disobedient to the covenant they would receive death/cursing as manifested by the temporal cursings of short-lived lives, lack of rain for crops, war and captivity, and loss of the promised land.

Law Was Only Temporary--3:23-25

But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. 24 Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.

The definite article thn appears before "faith," referring to a specific faith, i.e. the New Covenant. Paul points out that before the New Covenant, which is a covenant of faith, we were kept under the law. One of the first questions we must ask is regarding the identity of "we." Based upon Paul's use of personal pronouns throughout the epistle, it appears that at some times he is speaking only to the Gentiles, other times he speaks only to the Jews, and still at other times he is addressing the church as a whole. It appears here that when Paul says "we" he is speaking to the Jewish population of Galatia, including himself with them. This is important to the scope of who this verse applies to. If Paul meant that both Jew and Gentile were kept under the Law until faith came he would be contradicting the OT teaching that the Law was only for the nation of Israel. It seem, however, that he is only speaking to Jews in this context.

Before the New Covenant came the Jews were "kept under" the Law. The Greek word efrouroumeqa refers to being guarded in. The word translated "shut up" is the Greek sugkleiomenoi which is the same Greek word for "concluded" in verse twenty-two. Paul, then, is saying that the Law guarded the Jews in subjective manner, keeping them under guard until the time in which the faith covenant would be revealed.

He says the Law was a schoolmaster intended to bring Israel to Christ so that they could be justified by faith, seeing that the Law could not do so. This schoolmaster was not a teacher, but rather a slave who was responsible for accompanying his master's children to and from school to make sure they arrived at their destination safely. The need for a schoolmaster ended in two different senses for children. In one sense it ended when they arrived at their destination daily. In another sense it ended when they came to maturity and no longer needed someone to guide them to their destinations. Either sense would be fitting for Paul's argument that just as there came a time when children no longer need a schoolmaster, the Law had a time when it would cease to function also. It would no longer be needed when it had led Israel to their Messiah. Since He had come, and brought the faith covenant with Him, the Law was rendered inoperative. It was only a temporary covenant between the Abrahamic and the New, having no salvific relationship to either.


In the epistle to the Galatians Paul encountered the attacks upon his calling, authority, and doctrine. He managed to deal with the Judaistic heresies brought in by the false brethren by naming and refuting them. He proved through the OT and divine revelation that the Law has no relation to the Abrahamic Covenant, cannot justify anyone before God, is not of faith, causes transgressions, cannot give eternal life, and was only temporary. All these inferiorities of the Law to the New Covenant instituted by Jesus Christ make the Law null and void. Now the Galatians were to fully embrace Jesus Christ, having exclusive faith in Him apart from circumcision or the works of Law, and thereby receive eternal life.


1. Daniel Segraves, Systematic Theology II (Stockton, CA: n.p., 1998), 56. <back>
2. Frank Thielman, Paul and the Law: A Contextual Approach (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1994), 132. <back>
3. James Montgomery Boice in The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, gen. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1976), 464. <back>
4. Ibid. <back>
5. This does not mean, however, that the act would not be sin simply because there was no commandment. Sin and transgressions are two different things. A sin is against God Himself regardless of what revelation man might have of God's Law, but a transgression is a direct violation of the expressed Law of God. The Law never made anybody a sinner, for they were already sinners. It did, however, make them transgressors against God's Law, because they could not perfectly keep it as God had commanded them. With the coming of special revelation (the Law), the conscience has a standard external to itself, which gives men more knowledge of God's holiness, and more knowledge of ways to sin against God. Through the Law men are shown their inability to yield completely to God, and thereby become convinced of their need of a Savior. <back>
6. Segraves, 56. <back>
7. Ibid. <back>
8. For example, Deuteronomy 6:22 says, "And it shall be our righteousness, if we observe to do all these commandments before the Lord our God, as he hath commanded us." Another example of how a man could gain righteousness would be by returning a man's cloak that was being held as collateral for something borrowed, before sunset (24:10-13) Also see Deuteronomy 9:4-6. <back>

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