The word of the day is “promise.” Since the Reformation, many think in opposites: Law/Gospel; Faith/Works; grace/merit. In terms of today’s reading of Galatians 3:15-22, they juxtapose the promise given to Abraham with the directives given to Moses. But the problem is that then these believers pit one category against the other as if each canceled out the other.
But when Paul argues that righteousness is by faith, he states, “Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not!” (vs. 21). The Almighty is One with one will and purpose. And He did not establish one order of salvation only to contradict Himself with another. Today we learn that we need to put the categories that describe God’s work of salvation in the proper relationship.
The Promise Was Given Before the Law
Accordingly, Paul says that His promise to Abraham came before the law given to Moses (vs. 17). Moreover, it was a promise of divine favor, not the demands of divine regulation (vs. 1). So why did God impose the law? Was it to add a qualification that had to be met before one could receive the gift of the promise? This is what the requirement that the Gentiles be circumcised would do. Those who were not Jewish could receive the promise given to Abraham alright, but only if they kept the law of Moses like them.
But Paul argued that this meant that the law was the priority. In effect, it canceled the promise, making it a condition of earning salvation. But Paul reasoned that “if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law” (vs. 21).
The Relationship of the Promise to the Law
So what then is the relationship of the law to the promise? Paul offers two reasons for the law. First, “it was added because of transgressions” (v s. 19). Second, it ensured that salvation would be by faith and not by works (vs. 20).
But these two explanations are related as we see in Paul’s words, “Scripture confined all under sin” (vs. 22). The Greek word “confined” comes from the root “to shut up together,” that is, “to enclose” (Strong’s #4788). By the law, the Almighty hemmed in human sinfulness. The law was a restraint so that transgressions of God’s People would not get out of hand. In this sense, the bondage to the law served a divine purpose.
The Law Prepared for the Fulfillment of the Promise
What is more, the law not only restricted the sin of the people until the promise could be fulfilled, but it also exposed it. The law prepared the people for grace because no one was righteous according to the measure of the law. Therefore, their failure to keep the law’s righteous requirements prepared their hearts for the Gospel of salvation by faith in Christ—but only if they were willing to set aside their efforts to earn God’s favor.
Paul’s teaching on the relationship between faith and works in our reading rescues us from fruitless discussions that take one side to the exclusion of the other. The Orthodox Study Bible gives an insightful summary of the proper order of the categories, “Good works flow out of authentic faith. Works cannot earn us this great treasure—it is a pure gift—but those who receive this gift do Good. We are not saved by good works but for good works” (OSB fn. Eph. 2:8-10).