*For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”-- so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. *
This passage has been at the center of the debate over penal substitution versus incarnational redemption. Protestants suggest that Christ takes the curse of God’s wrath upon Himself and thus frees Christian believers from that curse. It is my contention that this is a complete misunderstanding of what the Apostle Paul is saying in the Letter to the Galatians. We must take St Paul’s words here in the context of his whole theology. So, let’s look at this verse by verse.
(Galatians 3:10) For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
What are works of the law? They are works done with the purpose of obligating God on a legal basis to provide salvation. He explains:
(Romans 4:4) *Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due. *
The problem, according to St Paul, is that you just can’t win according to this system. Since you can never fulfill every letter of the Law, you will fail on the Last Day if you attempt to work within the system of law.
(Galatians 3:11) Now it is evident that no one is made righteous before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
(Galatians 3:12) But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
Though “justified” is an accurate translation of the Greek dikao, it has acquired so much baggage in Christian history post-Reformation that it is best to translate it as “made righteous”, because the root of dikao is dikaosyne, which means “righteous.” Dikao does **not mean **“declared righteous.” It means made righteous. You can even see this plainly in the passage itself. St Paul is quoting the prophet Habakkuk, who identifies how a person should live. For St Paul, faith is not a mere belief in a person, it is a way of life. Specifically, the way of faith is faithfully trying to please God by the power of the Holy Spirit. Thus:
(Romans 8:13) For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Instead of trying to legally obligate God to save you, one sincerely tries to please God by the power of the Spirit, trusting that because you are in Christ, God will not judge you according to strict law, but according to grace. Not as a judge judges a criminal, but as a father judges his son. Continuing:
(Galatians 3:13) Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”–
This is an absolutely critical passage. What does it mean? The problem for Paul in this Letter is that God had always intended to bless the whole world through Israel, but because Israel had gone after other gods, it kept incurring the Deuteronomic curses, and God can’t bless the whole world through a people who has cursed itself. Let’s take a look at the text of the curse itself:
(Deuteronomy 11:28) and the curse, if you do not obey the commandments of the Lord your God, but turn aside from the way that I am commanding you today, to go after other gods that you have not known.
I have bolded that which I think most people have missed, but which I think is absolutely essential to St Paul’s system of thinking. Today, most Christians have simply assumed that God forbade Israel to pursue gods that simply didn’t exist. I disagree. These gods certainly existed. The Hebrew Bible teaches that there were certain angelic rulers (called elohim) that had been appointed by YHWH to govern the nations of the Earth. See:
(Deuteronomy 32:8-9) When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of God. But the Lord’s portion is his people, Jacob his allotted heritage.
As you can see, God appointed the elohim over the nations, but personally took Israel as His own people.As understood by the Book of Sirach:
(Sirach 17:17) He appointed a ruler for every nation, but Israel is the Lord’s own portion.
As we read the Scriptures, we catch a glimpse into the heavenly conflict that is raging through the days of the Old Covenant:
(Daniel 10:12-13) *Then he said to me, "Fear not, Daniel, for from the first day that you set your heart to understand and humbled yourself before your God, your words have been heard, and I have come because of your words. The prince of the kingdom of Persia withstood me twenty-one days, but Michael, one of the chief princes, came to help me, for I was left there with the kings of Persia, *
(Daniel 10:20) *Then he said, "Do you know why I have come to you? But now I will return to fight against the prince of Persia; and when I go out, behold, the prince of Greece will come. *