Galatians 3:15-25 Exploring the Passage

Below are some preliminary questions to assist in the study of this passage. For a comprehensive study of the passage, download the Study Guide (PDF download).
Note: For more information on the O.T. covenant ratified at Mt. Sinai and its relationship to Galatians 3:15-25, see the accompanying Appendix (PDF Download) entitled, “The Apostle Paul’s Reference to the Mt. Sinai Covenant of Exodus 24.”

1. What point is Paul making in verse 15 (printed below?)

Brothers, I am speaking in terms of human contracts: even though it is only a covenant made by man, when it has been ratified, no one can ignore it or add conditions to it. (Galatians 3:15)

In verse 15 the apostle reminds the Galatians of the binding character of a covenant. Once a covenant has been ratified it becomes legally binding; it cannot be annulled. Nor can it be altered by the addition of new terms that would conflict with the basic structure of the original covenant. Now if this holds true with regard to a man-made covenant, how much more is this true with regard to God’s covenant (note Numbers 23:19). The point of Galatians 3:15 is this: God’s covenant was established with Abraham; as such, it is a binding covenant that must be fulfilled and cannot be annulled or altered.

2. According to the apostle Paul, with whom did God make His covenant? See verse 16 (printed below).

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. He does not say, “And to your offsprings,” as referring to many, but as referring to one, “And to your offspring,” which is Christ. (Galatians 3:16)

In verse 16 the apostle Paul points out that God made this covenant with Abraham and Christ. The promises were spoken to Abraham and his offspring (or, seed). Paul is alluding to Genesis 13:14-15 and teaching that even before the Lord made a formal covenant with Abraham He had already made His promise to Abraham and his offspring (Abraham’s one singular offspring)—the covenant recorded in Genesis 15 was merely a formalizing of God’s sure promises for Abraham’s sake. Paul emphasizes the fact that the offspring referred to is not plural (“offsprings,”) but singular (“offspring”)—one singular descendant of Abraham. (Note Genesis 22:16-18, a passage in which the Lord distinguishes a singular offspring of Abraham: “Your offspring shall take possession of the city of his enemies.”) The point Paul is emphasizing is the fact that God’s covenant of promise was established with Abraham and Abraham’s one great Descendant—and that one great Descendant is Jesus, the Christ (the Messiah). The point of Galatians 3:16 is this: since the covenant was made with Abraham and his one great Descendant, Jesus Christ the Messiah, it was not possible for the covenant to be fulfilled prior to the coming of Christ into the world—and it certainly could not be nullified.

3. What does Paul teach in verse 17 (printed below?)

Now this is what I mean: A covenant that was previously ratified by God cannot be canceled by the law which came four hundred and thirty years later, so as to nullify the promise (Galatians 3:17)

In verse 17 Paul concludes that the Law given at Mt. Sinai cannot nullify the original covenant of promise. The Law was given 430 years after the covenant of promise was ratified; but it was given centuries before Christ came into the world. Therefore, the Law given at Mt. Sinai could not possibly replace the covenant that had been previously ratified but was not yet fulfilled.

4. According to verse 18 (printed below), is there a connection between the law as a way of salvation and the covenant of promise God made with Abraham? Or is there a radical difference between them?

…if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise. But God has granted it to Abraham by promise. (Galatians 3:18)

Verse 18 points out the radical difference between the law as a possible way of salvation and the way of salvation by means of the covenant of promise. Salvation by the law requires trust in one’s self and one’s own personal ability to fulfill the perfect requirements of the moral law of God. Salvation by the covenant of promise requires trust in the Lord that He will provide the means of salvation—He will provide the necessary works to fulfill the covenant and grant salvation to all who trust in Him. Thus the law cannot be viewed as a later edition to the original covenant of promise, because the law introduces such new and different conditions for salvation that it would amount to nothing less than an annulment of the original covenant and the establishment of a completely new and different covenant.

5. If the law is not a part of God’s covenant of promise (which is the only way of salvation), what is the purpose of the law? What role(s) does the law play? See verses 19-25 (printed below).

What then is the purpose of the law? It was added because of the transgressions—until the offspring had come to whom the promise had been made—being instituted through angels by the hand of a mediator. (20) Now a mediator is not a representative of one party, but God is one. (21) Is the law then in opposition to the promises of God? God forbid! for if a law had been given that was able to give life, then certainly righteousness would have been by the law. (22) But the Scripture has confined all things under the dominion of sin, so that what was promised, being received by faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. (23) But before the one in whom we place our faith came, we were held prisoner by the law, confined for the faith that was destined to be revealed. (24) So then, the law became our guardian for Christ, so that we might be justified by faith. (25) But now that the one in whom we place our faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian. (Galatians 3:19-25)

According to verses 19-20, the law was given to illustrate the way of salvation: “the law…was added because of the transgressions.” The (sacrificial) law was instituted by God to deal with the transgressions of the people. It revealed that God’s justice demands that sin be punished and it revealed that God Himself provides the atoning sacrifice for sinners. According to verses 21-22, the (moral) law was given to show our need for salvation. Verse 21 presents a hypothetical situation: if a law had been given that was able to impart life, then righteousness would have come by the law. If God had given a law that would not only declare to man what is right, but would also have caused us to do what is right, then righteousness and acceptance with God would have come by that law. Verse 22 presents the actual state of affairs: the Scripture “has confined all things under the dominion of sin.” The law of God proclaims the righteous demands of our holy God, exposes all men to be sinners, and renders us all liable to the righteous judgment of God (note Romans 7:7-8). So it is that the moral law shows us our need for salvation and points us away from ourselves to Christ as the only One who can meet our need and provide for our salvation. According to verses 23-25, the (ceremonial) law was given to stimulate the desire for salvation: “the law became our guardian for Christ.” In Greek society a guardian was a slave who was put in charge of his master’s son during the years of the child’s adolescence. Throughout antiquity such guardians were known for their sour disposition and severity—the child longed for the day when he would come of age and be released from the custody of his guardian. The ceremonial law with all of its regulations served the function of being a spiritual “guardian” in order to guard the people for Christ (so that they would not drift into paganism), at the same time create in their hearts the desire for the salvation Christ would bring.