Galatians 3:10-14 and Penal Substitution

*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. *

We see that there is hostility between faithful Michael and the angelic rulers over the nations of the Earth. Look what they are doing:

(1 Kings 22:19-22) And Micaiah said, "Therefore hear the word of the Lord: I saw the Lord sitting on his throne, and all the host of heaven standing beside him on his right hand and on his left; and the Lord said, ‘Who will entice Ahab, that he may go up and fall at Ramoth-gilead?’ And one said one thing, and another said another. Then a spirit came forward and stood before the Lord, saying, ‘I will entice him.’ And the Lord said to him, ‘By what means?’ And he said, ‘I will go out, and will be a lying spirit in the mouth of all his prophets.’ And he said, ‘You are to entice him, and you shall succeed; go out and do so.’

The dark ones consider those in sin to be their rightful property and go out and deceive them. Remember what is written:

(Romans 6:23) * For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.*

(Hebrews 2:14) *Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, *
Thus the Apostle writes:

(Ephesians 6:12) For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.

Why did I just go through all of that? Because there is a complex theology behind the word “curse.” St Paul is not saying what he says in Galatians in a vacuum. He says it against the backdrop of the entire gospel message.

The key, then, in the Deuteronomic curse, is that if you break even one minute part of the Law, you subject yourself to the dark forces of evil, whose desire it is to destroy man.

So, Israel has broken the Law, they have subjected themselves to these powers, and given this, they cannot bless the world as God had planned in Genesis 12:3. The solution is this: Christ Himself was cursed with Israel. As Malina and Pilch put it:

Redemption means restoring the honor and status of one’s group. As an act of redemption, Jesus’ crucifixion restores the honor of those accursed by the law since the crucified Jesus was raised by the God of Israel. He was raised “for us,” thus restoring Israel’s honor.”

In short, Christ participates in the curse that Israel incurred, but breaks it through His divine resurrection. The powers and authorities overstepped their bounds- they killed the one who had not subjected Himself to them. Thus, their whole system was exposed as a fraud. The Apostle therefore proclaims:

(Colossians 2:13-15) And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.

This is the gospel message! Man had subjected himself to darkness by choosing darkness instead of light. They claimed any person who committed even one violation of the law. Because Christ had lived perfectly, the dark powers had no authority over Him. By claiming Him, they exposed themselves as a fraud, and Christ spurned their authority by taking His life back. And this is the key: when we are united to Christ, they lose authority over us, too. They can’t say that we have subjected ourselves to them. Therefore, we are no longer under the strict system of law, but under grace.

Let us summarize, then, the message of Galatians 3:10-13. God wanted to bless the whole world through Israel, but Israel had subjected itself to the powers and authorities by sin. Because of this, they could not bless the world. Christ became the perfect Israelite, and disarmed the powers and authorities by taking back His life. They had no authority over Him. Thus, true Israel, which is Christ, is the vehicle by which God blesses the world. The world receives the blessing by becoming one with Christ, so that with Christ they are no longer subjected to the authorities, and are no longer under law, but under grace.

Thus, St Paul says, the message of Galatians 3:10-13 is NOT, “Christ took the wrath of the Father so the Father isn’t angry at the elect anymore.” Rather, it is:

(Galatians 3:14) so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

The whole point of this argument was to show that God through the Messiah fulfilled Genesis 12:3 and had granted Gentiles access to the family of God through their union with the Messiah. To subject oneself again to the system of law meant that one was again subject to the powers and authorities from which the Messiah had set you free.

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