Commentators agree on two things regarding this passage: it is crucial to Paul’s argument, and it is very difficult! Part of the difficulty of this passage is that Paul has a tendency to speak in very concise, densely-structured phrases, and we are left wondering how to fill in the gaps.
To a large extent, how this section is interpreted depends on what presuppositions we bring to the text. Since the time of Martin Luther, this passage has been interpreted in very individualistic terms to mean that no one can keep the Law perfectly, and therefore justification is by faith. However, I don’t think that is Paul’s point in this passage. Let me be clear - the Bible plainly teaches that we are saved by grace and through faith, not as a result of works (Ephesians 2:8-9). There is no amount of merit any sinner can accumulate to earn God’s favor.
But that is not what Galatians 3:10-14 is about, in my opinion. The typical Lutheran approach to the passage fails in two ways. First, the Mosaic covenant was not a system based on perfect lawkeeping. The Jews very well understood that God’s election was a matter of grace (Deut. 7:6-9). Further, the Law contained provisions for dealing with human imperfection in the form of the sacrificial system. Israelites were not required to be sinlessly perfect. They could make offerings for sins and be forgiven, as Leviticus 1-6 repeatedly states.
Second, and more subtly, the Lutheran approach is misguided because it sees Paul’s discussion in Galatians 3:10-14 primarily in terms of the individual’s standing before God, when in fact Paul is primarily addressing Israel’s standing as a nation before God. This is difficult for us to grasp because as Westerners we intuitively think in terms of the individual. But God’s covenant was with a nation, and while individuals could join it or be cut off from it, the proper way to think of God’s covenant is first in collective or national terms. Here’s a simple example. “Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Exodus 20:12). Is this a promise to each and every individual that if he honors his parents he will live a long life? Isn’t it much better to read this as a statement about the nation retaining possession of the land if as a nation it reflects honor toward parental authority?
It is true, of course, that the nation’s welfare would be determined by the conduct of the individuals in it. But God dealt with Israel as a nation, and it is Israel’s status as a nation as the covenant people of God that is the backdrop of the controversy in Galatians. I think we will be better served by reading Galatians 3:10-14 in the same light.
Now let’s take a look at the text.
10 For all who rely on works of the law
Paul used the phrase “works of the law” in 2:16 in his comments regarding the episode with Cephas at Antioch. I take the phrase simply to refer to those who were insisting that Gentiles must take up the yoke of the Law. Some commentators restrict its meaning to the works of the Law which served as boundary markers (circumcision, food laws, dietary code), but I don’t think that’s necessary. It would certainly be true that based on the evidence in Galatians, those were the specific “works of the law” the Judaizers tended to focus on.
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.”
Paul’s language about a “curse” is one of the key clues that establishes the context here as a discussion of Israel’s justification a nation rather than the individual’s justification. The specific passage Paul quotes is Deuteronomy 27:26, which in the Hebrew text says, “Cursed by anyone who does not confirm the word of this law by doing them.” It concludes the reading of the curses on Mount Ebal in 27:9-26, and serves as a hinge to the description of the curses in 28:15-68. This is a key point. The language of “curse” in this context of Deuteronomy refers to the penalties God would impose on the nation if it failed to keep the covenant. It is not strictly about any one individual’s standing. Any Israelite who committed presumptuous sin would be cut off from the people for sure. But the language of the curse in this part of Deuteronomy has national overtones. And of course, this is exactly what happened to Israel. It did indeed fail to keep the covenant, and God imposed the very penalties outlined in the curses of Deuteronomy 28.
This is why those Jews who sought to define covenant membership by the Law of Moses were wrong. On the basis of the Law of Moses, Israel stands condemned, under the curse. And if the Law placed Israel under the curse, how could it possibly help the Gentiles? As Peter asked at the Jerusalem conference, “Why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10). Those who rely on works of the Law of Moses only succeed in placing themselves under its curse.
11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law,
Peter’s comment in Acts 15:10 illustrates the point that Paul says is evident. Israel is not going to find justification through the Law. Those from a Lutheran reading may object and say that Paul’s language is individual, “no one,” but this ignores the context of the Deuteronomy citation in the previous verse, as well as the next OT scripture Paul quotes -
for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
This quotation is from Habakkuk 2:4, and is part of God’s answer to Habakkuk’s complaint about God standing idly by and watching the wicked swallow up the righteous. In context, the issue is God’s use of the wicked Chaldeans to punish Israel. And God’s response is to wait, to realize that though His answer may seem slow in coming “it will surely come” (Hab. 2:3), and that “the righteous shall live by his faith.” In the aftermath of Israel’s failure to keep the covenant, and the imposition of God’s curse through the exile to Babylon, the prophet outlines another path to life for the nation - faith. This faith finds its ultimate expression in faith in Jesus Christ through the gospel, which is how Paul uses the Hab. 2:4 passage in Romans 1:16-17. Israel’s options are to cling to the Law, which results in the curse, or to embrace its Messiah through faith and find life, following the model of Abraham (see Gal. 3:6-9).
12 But the law is not of faith,
Or to put it another way, “seeking justification by the Law is not seeking justification by faith in Christ.” The coming of Jesus and His death and resurrection have made these two avenues mutually exclusive. This is how Galatians 2 ended: “if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (2:21).
rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
This is another crucial OT citation in Paul’s argument. The source is Leviticus 18:5. And at first glance, it sounds like the individualistic reading of the Lutheran approach. However, the broader context of Leviticus 18 has to do with Israel vs. the nations. It is how the chapter begins (don’t do the things the Egyptians and Canaanites did - 18:3), and it is how the chapter concludes (if you do what they did, the land will vomit you out like it did them - 18:24-28). Again, if an individual practiced these things, they would be “cut off from among their people” (18:29), but the overall flow of the passage has to do with Israel’s covenant status as God’s people.
You can see this same sort of language - individual in its grammar but collective in its meaning - in Ezekiel 20. Several times in that chapter the Lord says He gave Israel His statutes “by which, if a person does them, he shall live” (20:11, 13, 21). But in spite of this individual grammar, the clear thrust of the chapter is regarding Israel’s status as a nation (“But the house of Israel rebelled against me”, 20:13, and throughout the chapter).
Reading the language of Leviticus 18:5 in this sort of collective and covenant centered way is precisely how Paul uses the same passage in Romans 10:5-10. There, he contrasts Lev. 18:5 with “the righteousness based on faith” (Rom. 10:5-6), and then turns to another key covenant passage. That passage is Deuteronomy 30, in which the Lord says that after Israel fails to keep the covenant and faces the curses, He will restore the people by giving them a new heart, and by making His law accessible, “in your mouth and in your heart” (Deut. 30:14). Paul says that Christ is the fulfillment of this promise, and that by believing in the heart that Christ rose from the dead and confessing with the mouth that He is Lord, Israel can be saved (Rom. 10:9-10). And not just Israel - “there is no distinction between Jew and Greek” (Rom. 10:12).
So again, there are two options: embrace the Law and face the curse; or take the way of faith in Jesus and receive life.
But how did Jesus free Israel from the curse? Paul explains how in v. 13:
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us
Christ took Israel’s curse on Himself. This is how Christ set His people free from the curse of the Law, by bearing it for them. And it is obvious that He took the curse, because He died the death of the accursed:
—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—
This is the last of Paul’s OT quotations in this section. It comes from Deuteronomy 21:23, and by the time of the NT, the language of “hanged on a tree” was used with reference to crucifixion. Jesus’ very public and disgraceful death was designed to show that He was bearing a curse. What Paul explains here in Gal. 3:13 is that it was the curse of Israel, exhausting the wrath of God against Israel so that the nation could be redeemed.
And the redemption of Israel was crucial, because through it God’s promises to bless the nations of the earth could be fulfilled. That’s how this dense section concludes:
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.
God’s plan to bless the nations through Abraham became bottlenecked with Israel’s failure and God’s curse. But now that the Messiah has come to remove that curse, God’s plan to bless the nations can find its fulfillment. In this sense, Paul’s argument here follows the same trajectory as does the argument of James in Acts 15:13-18 - the tabernacle of David has been rebuilt so that the nations may seek the Lord.