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Saturday, April 30, 2016

Paul and the Law: Covenantal and Absolute Justice, Part 5a: Christ a Curse for Us (Gal. 3)

4. Christ a Curse for Us

The final major way we will examine that the Law illustrated the need for Christ to come and achieve eschatological righteousness and life for His people is that the Law anticipated, in its ceremonial system of offerings and sacrifices, the need for a human being to come and bear, as a substitute sacrifice on behalf of God’s people, covenant cursing that threatens people for both covenantal and absolute injustice. In other words, we will look at a couple of passages that show how Christ’s cross-work fulfills the role of removing, from all who will trust in Him, liability to divine judgment in both its Mosaic and eschatological thrusts.

Let us return for a moment to an earlier section of Galatians 3. This passage will emphasize the atonement of Christ in terms of God’s saving provision in light of Mosaic cursing. However, as we will see, it will hint at its absolute/eschatological import as well. Paul is continuing his contrast of faith with “works of the Law” as instruments of justification and reception of the Abrahamic inheritance/the Spirit:

"For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the Law, to perform them.’ Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’—in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise through faith" (Gal. 3:10-14).

Here Paul begins by asserting that the “works-of-the-Law-ones” (I take this as referring to the Jews as a whole, characterized by unbelief, and anyone else who would rely on the Law for justification) are under a curse, because, according to Deut. 27:26, commitment to Torah requires total commitment, and by implication, those whom Paul has in mind here have not met that requirement. Many Reformed commentators have taken this citation of Deut. 27:26 here by Paul as a simplistic statement to the effect that anyone who would seek justification in terms of the Law would be obligated to sinless perfection because that’s what Deuteronomy says the Law—the Mosaic Law, as a whole—requires, and therefore such a person should abandon that path and seek justification by faith alone in Christ.

While there’s a measure of truth in such an assertion, it doesn’t quite make sense of the text, and it is not Paul’s point here. The Mosaic Law did not, in fact, require sinless perfection of the covenant people (unless we include the idea of the atonement granted through the sacrificial system). Deuteronomy 27:26, in the context of everything else the Law says, does not require actual sinless perfection but a measure of real religious loyalty and filial fidelity to God—covenant faithfulness, evidence of heart-circumcision. The trouble is that Israel did not (corporately) attain to even this standard of “total commitment” to the Law of God, but fell into religious formalism and eventually gross idolatry, resulting ultimately in exile. That is, they fell under the Mosaic curse of God.

Paul then appeals to Habakkuk 2:4 as a proof-text of justification by faith, just as he does in Romans 1:16-17 as a backdrop to the discussion of justification in Romans 3-5. It may seem a random, out-of-place proof-text at first glance, but is in fact highly appropriate. In the context of Habakkuk, living by faith is given prophetically as the way of salvation from the coming judgment through the Babylonians. Therefore it continues to cast Paul’s discussion of justification in eschatological terms (since the prophets consistently promise eschatological salvation in terms of a “new exodus” return from exile), just as vv. 6-9 do, and it makes clearer that the “curse” of v. 10 is nothing less than Israel’s exile (even if divine cursing ultimately involves more than that, too).

Paul continues, “But,” or “However,” (de; “And” is possible, but I prefer the adversative), “the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them’” (v. 12). The phrase, “the Law is not of faith” has been subject to the widest imaginable variety of interpretations, including many which would be more properly labeled “abuses.” To be fair, the meaning is not immediately evident upon first reading. But if we stick to just a couple of sound interpretive principles, we need not become aimlessly adrift in a sea of speculation. Above all, let us take into careful consideration the immediate and slightly wider grammatical and linguistic context of the phrase.

First, whatever the phrase means, it must contrast directly with the second half of the verse that quotes (or at least alludes strongly to) Leviticus 18:5 (note the introductory phrase, “on the contrary”). The Law being “of faith” is set directly opposite the principle of, “The man who practices [these laws] shall live by them.”

Second, we must explicitly note once again the heavily eschatological thrust of this whole chapter, and realize that “live” here probably entails, at least, “to inherit eschatological life in the Spirit/receive the Abrahamic inheritance.” Moreover, “faith” here must not be supposed to be an utterly inoperative principle in the Mosaic economy, but must be understood as uniquely redemptive-historically bound up with the eschatological intervention of God in Christ, as the sole instrument by which men may appropriate such salvation. Note, supporting this idea, the interesting way Paul uses “faith” in a quasi-synecdochical way later on in vv. 23, 25 to refer to the coming of Christ Himself and the new covenant, overstating matters as if faith were utterly inoperative in previous eras.

Third, let us remember everything we said in the previous section about the relatively bilateral character of the Mosaic arrangement in the contour of redemptive history, and assume that the second half of the verse (Gal. 3:12b), stating the principle of Lev. 18:5, basically encapsulates those principles in a succinct way. If Israel is faithful to the Law, she will live by that faithfulness to the Law (i.e. experience significant blessing in the promised land).

With these considerations in mind, let us attempt to construct a plausible paraphrase and expansion of Gal. 3:12a that makes more explicit Paul’s intention: “The Law is not of faith,” or in other words, “Faith that appropriates eschatological life [in Christ] is not [now] expressed as obedience to the Mosaic Law.” To do the same thing to the second half of the verse which refers to Lev. 18:5, taking into account the wider context of the Leviticus text: “On the contrary, ‘he who does them shall live by them,’” or in other words, “A man may inherit a long life in the promised land of Canaan [a type of eschatological life] if he maintains a measure of religious loyalty and filial fideity to God.”

So we have in view, so far, the problem of curse and exile, the eschatological purview of the salvation Paul is discussing, and the subjective/ordo salutis solution of faith as over against the Law/works of the Law. Then in v. 13 Paul introduces the objective/historia salutis basis of his doctrine of justification and eschatological inheritance by faith, namely, the cross-work of Christ. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’” (Gal. 3:13).

In this text we find the central theological thrust of this section of the essay, namely, that the Law anticipated and pointed forward to the atonement of Christ as a sacrifice that deals with sin and its punishment in both Mosaic and eschatological aspects. First let us notice that Paul says that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (my emphasis). It is the curse of the Mosaic Law, the curse of exile mentioned previously in v.10, as we saw, which Paul here says that the cross of Christ addresses and remedies. Christ Himself, whose death represents for Luke in his gospel the new “exodus” for His people (cf. Lk. 9:31), undergoes exile on the cross: thrust out of the light of God’s favor and countenance, abandoned, and left naked and ashamed, ravaged by the Gentile Roman dogs, just like Judah was by the Babylonians. And this not for His own sins, for He was innocent, but as a substitute sacrifice on behalf of His beloved people, Israel (cf. Is. 53).

But not on behalf of Israel alone. Notice, also, Paul’s inclusive use of “us”: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us” (v. 13, my emphasis). Paul’s audience, the church at Galatia (likely the southern Galatia), was manifestly composed of Jews and many Gentiles (else the controversy addressed in the letter would never have even arisen). Therefore it is certain that Paul conceives of Christ’s substitutionary work as benefitting Gentile believers no less than Jewish believers, and in terms of release from the curse of the Law. This is possible for at least two reasons.

First, remember from the first section of this essay how the Law functions to indict all human sin, Gentiles included, by way of indicting the sin of Israel. Hence, when the substitute came to redeem representative Israel, the world, too, as a whole was redeemed from its liability to the Deuteronomic curses that summed up divine judgment promised for breaking the Mosaic covenant.

Second, and as we will speak of more in looking at another passage, the Mosaic Law itself included the provision of animal sacrifices which were intended to atone not for Israel’s high-handed rebellion, but for all the “unintentional sins” of individual faithful Israelites; and this consideration deepens our understanding of the idea of the “curse of the Law.” Paul has in mind, yes, the curse of exile, in terms of redemptive history, but let us remember that the original penalty for sin in the garden was death (Gen. 2:17): personal, physical, and ultimately eschatological death for the unredeemed (Rev. 2:11; 20:14).

In the final analysis, the Mosaic curse of Israel’s exile was only a redemptive-historical illustration typological and proleptic of the final destiny of the unredeemed. All sin renders men liable to eschatological divine judgment, even after all the temporal misery and provisional historical judgments they may incur. And this is simply assumed within the framework of the sacrificial system, as bulls and goats were sacrificed continually, year after year, in recognition of the absolute need for atonement even for the covenantally faithful remnant within Israel. Nor is this fundamental principle of divine justice lost on the prophets: “The person who sins will die” (Ez. 18:20a).

So Paul continues in Galatians, with the purpose clause, “in order that [hina] in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that [hina] we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14). Here it is explicit; Christ died, accursed on Calvary in place of the accursed “works-of-Law-ones” (exiled Israel), in order that 1) the Gentiles would be included in Abrahamic blessing (by faith, apart from the Law), and 2) “we” (Jew and Gentile) would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (this makes explicit the content of Abrahamic blessing, and highlights the instrumental role of faith again).

We see from Galatians 3:10-14, then, that the Law anticipated—and Christ fulfilled—the need for atonement by means of a curse-bearing substitute who would take away both the curse of exile due to Israel’s covenantal injustice, as well as eschatological judgment threatening Gentiles for sin in general and sins atoned for only sacramentally in the Mosaic sacrificial system for faithful Jews (absolute injustice). To state it more succinctly, Christ’s work “undid exile” and “undid hell” for all who would believe in Him. In God’s design and providence, the Mosaic Law anticipated both realities, in different ways.

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