Skip to content

The Purpose of the Law in Galatians 3

What is the purpose of the law according to Galatians 3?

(This post is part of a series)

The immediate question in Galatians 3:17 is that of the status of the Sinai covenant. Paul’s opponents seem to have been arguing that the Gentiles could only be blessed if they joined the covenant people and submitted to the covenantal obligations. After all, this seemed to be the path to blessing for Ishmael, the slave-child (Gen 17:20–27). They seem to be reasoning that if God chose to enter into a covenant with his people at Sinai, then the obligations that constituted that covenant had to be kept by anyone who wished to receive the blessing. Paul, however, argues that insisting upon such covenantal obligations would, in fact, invalidate the earlier covenant with Abraham (which has been fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice) and so make the promise to Abraham void (Gal 3:17–18). Once the “seed” has displayed supreme loyalty and is sacrificed, God keeps his promise and the blessings flow to the nations. What, then, was the purpose of the legal obligations laid upon Israel at Sinai? The answer, “because of transgressions”, is, as we shall see, part of Paul’s integration of the law into the wider scheme of God’s salvation-historical plans (Gal 3:19–25).

We have seen that Paul mentions the existence of a mediator in order to highlight the disunity between God and Israel at the time of the giving of the law (Gal 3:20).

Nevertheless, the Sinai covenant was not useless. It “was added on account of the transgressions until such time as the seed to whom it was promised should come” (Gal 3:19). In the purposes of God, this disunity between the people and God had an ultimately positive effect—to imprison everything under sin so that it would be clear that justification would be by faith, not by works (Gal 3:22–25). The law’s purpose was not opposed to the promise (Gal 3:21). It formalised and focused the curse on humanity (3:10), it highlighted sin, it made the distance between God and his people obvious, and it pointed to the inevitability of faith (3:19–24). But that purpose was limited to Israel’s national life, and it has been achieved. Now that Christ, the seed, has come and has fulfilled the covenant (and taken the curse), the “many nations” are not required to be a party to these (temporary) covenantal obligations. They are simply required to be immersed into the “one” seed, Christ, to be found “in Christ” by faith (3:26–27). However, by becoming “in Christ” by faith, they actually become the one “seed”, and so heirs according to the promise (Gal 3:28–29). This is “the blessing of Abraham coming about in Christ Jesus for the sake of the nations.” (Gal 3:14). In fact, if the Galatians do place themselves under the law, they are in grave danger because they are identifying themselves with the one part of salvation history that was associated unequivocally with the curse (Gal 3:10).

The covenants with both Abraham and Israel, then, were instruments of international blessing. Abraham’s covenantal obedience foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice, and the covenant of law with Israel foreshadows the need for faith. The nations are blessed, not by entering Israel’s covenant with its obligations, but by trusting the seed who has fulfilled the covenant, and so becoming sons and heirs of God.


Full bibliography

The more immediate question in verse 17 is that of the status of the Sinai covenant. Paul’s opponents seem to have been arguing that the Gentiles could only be blessed if they joined the covenant people and submitted to the covenantal obligations.[1] After all, this seemed to be the path to blessing for Ishmael, the slave-child (Gen 17:20–27). They seem to be reasoning that if God chose to enter into a covenant with his people at Sinai, then the obligations that constituted that covenant had to be kept by anyone who wished to receive the blessing. Paul, however, argues that insisting upon such covenantal obligations would, in fact, invalidate the earlier covenant with Abraham (which has been fulfilled by Christ’s sacrifice) and so make the promise to Abraham void (Gal 3:17–18). Once the “seed” has displayed supreme loyalty and is sacrificed, God keeps his promise and the blessings flow to the nations. What, then, was the purpose of the legal obligations laid upon Israel at Sinai? The answer, “because of transgressions”, is, as we shall see, part of Paul’s integration of the law into the wider scheme of God’s salvation-historical plans (Gal 3:19–25).


[1] Perhaps the attitude that we saw in Jubilees (see above), was present among Paul’s opponents.

Published inCovenantGalatians

Publications by Lionel Windsor:

  • Lift Your Eyes: Reflections on Ephesians

Recent blog posts

  • Elf on the Shelf Balloon. Photo by Kim on Flickr https://www.flickr.com/photos/thegirlsny/8208193899God: Beyond us—and with us (Ephesians 3:20–21)
    God is nothing like the Elf on the Shelf. God’s power is far beyond us. Yet God’s power is at work in us. So God’s glory is our joyful goal.
  • EducationWhen education is not the answer (Romans 2:17–27)
    When education is not the answer (Romans 2:17–27). Amongst all the pragmatics & demands & struggles of ministry, you first need to know the why of ministry. You need deep and strong theology, and to apply that theology to your life & ministry.
  • Colosseum with skyThis is huge (Ephesians 3:18–19)
    God’s plans for his world, and his love for us in Christ, are vast and awe-inspiring. They change everything. That’s why need prayer to grasp them.
  • Inscription behind table in St Stephens Anglican Church NewtownWhere does God live? (Ephesians 3:16–17)
    Can God’s presence be with us? If so, how? In bread and wine? In a tangible experience of worship? In Ephesians, Paul speaks about how Christ dwells among us.
  • Photo by Greg Rakozy on UnsplashWho are you praying to? (Ephesians 3:14–15)
    Most people pray. But not everyone prays in the same way. Your view of God will have a profound effect on your prayer life. Who are you praying to?
  • Photo by Jilbert Ebrahimi on UnsplashWith Israel Folau (repost)
    Given the current controversy surrounding Israel Folau's social media post, a piece I wrote for the ABC News website has again become highly topical.
  • My afflictions, your glory (Ephesians 3:12–13)
    We can react to suffering by avoiding or escaping or denying or rationalising it. For Paul, the gospel of Christ leads to a profoundly different reaction.
  • Ceiling Pattern, Christ Church College Staircase, OxfordGod’s multidimensional wisdom (Ephesians 3:9–11)
    Do you think being a Christian is boring? If so, maybe your view of God is one-dimensional. But Paul sees God and his purposes in vivid multidimensional glory.
  • People and the Post, Postal History from the Smithsonian's National Postal MuseumThe meaning of ministry (Ephesians 3:7–8)
    Christian ministry is hard. So why be involved at all? Pragmatics and techniques alone can’t answer that question. We need to know the meaning of ministry.
  • Photo by Sai de Silva on UnsplashThe open secret (Ephesians 3:4–6)
    How can we know God’s will? Some try to see God’s will in the progress of history. But this is disastrous. God’s will is something we can’t work out by ourselves.

On this site

All content copyright Lionel Windsor