Saturday, May 30, 2015



Galatians 3:11-14

I am convinced, along with a growing number of Christian theologians and pastors that the most unhelpful thing you can say to the average person living in the U.S. is “God loves you.” D.A. Carson, in his little book, “The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God” says this, “…the love of God in our culture has been purged of anything the culture finds uncomfortable. The love of God has been sanitized, democratized and above all sentimentalized… In (past) generations when everyone believed in the justice of God, people sometimes found it difficult to believe in the love of God. The preaching of the love of God came as wonderful good news. Nowadays if you tell people that God loves them, they are unlikely to be surprised. Of course God loves me; he’s like that, isn’t he? Besides why shouldn’t he love me? I’m kind of cute, or at least as nice as the next person. I’m okay, you’re okay, and God loves you and me.”

John Stott says in his book, “The Cross of Christ,” “The kind of God who appeals to most people today would be easygoing in his tolerance of our offences. He would be gentle, kind, accommodating, and would have no violent reactions. Unhappily, even in the church we seem to have lost the vision of the majesty of God. There is much shallowness and levity among us. Prophets and psalmists would probably say of us that ‘there is no fear of God before their eyes.’ In public worship our habit is to slouch or squat; we do not kneel nowadays, let alone prostrate ourselves in humility before God. It is more characteristic of us to clap our hands with joy than to blush with shame or tears. We saunter up to God to claim his patronage and friendship; it does not occur to us that he might send us away… It must even be said that our evangelical emphasis on the atonement is dangerous if we come to it too quickly. We learn to appreciate the access to God, which Christ has won for us only after we have first seen God’s inaccessibility to sinners. We can cry ‘Hallelujah’ with authenticity only after we have first cried ‘Woe is me, for I am lost.’ In Dale’s words, ‘it is partly because sin does not provoke our own wrath, that we do not believe that sin provokes the wrath of God.’… (And as Emil Brunner says,) ‘only he who knows the greatness of wrath will be mastered by the greatness of mercy.’”

In our passage today the apostle Paul is dealing with this difficulty: humans cannot fathom the mercy of God because they do not and cannot comprehend how offensive they are to God. There is probably not a clearer or more powerful statement of the love of God shown in Christ than in v. 13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” However, the power of that assertion is completely lost upon those who do not view themselves as being under God’s curse. If you believe that God loves you just as you are or that you have the ability to make yourself lovable, then the news that Christ became a curse for you is not good news. It is incomprehensible news. It is offensive news. It is irrelevant news. The presupposition of this passage is that every human being in their natural state is not loved by God but cursed by God. It is only those who know they are cursed who will trust in Christ. Paul’s point is that everyone outside of Christ is under God’s curse while all those who are in Christ are under his blessing.

Only by faith in Christ can God’s curse be turned into God’s blessing because…

I. The law condemns everyone who does not obey it perfectly (v. 10) 
Verse 10 begins with a “for” which the NIV does not include, unfortunately. Thus v. 10 is a reason for why v. 9 is true. Verse 9 says that all those who have faith in Christ are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. Why is it that the blessing is given to those who trust Christ? Paul answers here because everyone who is seeking to be made right with God by obeying the law is under God’s curse. Here again he sets in contrast faith in Christ with obeying the law. The reason that the blessing is given to those who have faith and not to those who obey the law is because all who obey the law are under God’s curse. In the second half of the verse he gives the reason that is true but first we need to consider what it means to be under God’s curse. To be under God’s curse is the exact opposite of being under his blessing. Everyone is either the object of God’s blessing or of his cursing. You cannot be both cursed by God and blessed by God. So, what does it mean that God curses a person?

We can begin by thinking about when we place others under our curse. When do we curse others? We declare others to be cursed or invoke a curse against someone when they have offended us, when they have in some way unjustly, in our view, disrespected us or harmed us. We have many different kinds of expletives to pronounce our curses upon others. In addition, some people resort to occult practices like voodoo or magical incantations to invoke curses upon others. Whatever words we may use the intent is always the same. We are declaring that another person deserves to suffer, to be punished for the injustice they have brought to us or those we love. If you will listen to our curses we usually declare that those who offend us deserve to experience eternal suffering for what they have done. I’m not saying it is right for us to curse others. In fact, the Bible is quite clear that it is a sin to curse others (Job 31:29-30, James 3:7-12). Only God has the right to pronounce a curse upon humans because only God is perfectly just and never curses anyone out of petty peevishness. God’s curse is the just condemnation that lawbreakers deserve for their unjust behaviors. He alone is the righteous judge and knows both the motives and the acts of every human being.

“Cursed” is the OT word that summarizes God’s settled anger against the wicked, those who disobey his laws. In Genesis 2 Adam is told that if he eats from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that he would surely die. Then in Genesis 3, after Adam and Eve disobey by eating the fruit, God pronounces his curse, his judicial sentence, upon the serpent, the woman and the man as the just retribution towards them for their sin, their despising him and his word. The curse of God is ultimately expressed in their being shut out of the Garden of Eden. They are shut out of the blessing of God and thus become subject to death. The curse of God is his justice against the disobedient that ultimately is expressed in that eternal punishment in hell, in the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth, where the wicked will be shut out from his presence forever.

Paul says that everyone who is obeying the law in order to gain God’s favor is subject to God’s eternal curse. The reason he says this is true is because of what Moses says in Deut. 27:26. “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything that is written in the book of the law.” Why is it that obeying the law automatically puts you under God’s curse? It is because the law requires not partial obedience but complete and continuous obedience. Any failure to obey the law immediately subjects you to God’s curse. Every act of disobedience calls forth God’s just fury against you. Therefore everyone who is seeking to be made right before God by obeying the law is under God’s curse because no one is perfectly keeping God’s law.

Paul emphasizes the universality of God’s curse because there is no one who is perfectly keeping God’s law. All men, both Jew and Gentile are obligated to keep God’s law because there is one God and one law to which all humans must render obedience. If those who are trying to keep the law, the Jews, are under God’s curse because of their failure to keep all of it all the time, then how much more are the Gentiles, who make no attempt to keep God’s law under God’s curse? All human beings are under God’s curse due to our failure to obey God and so those who are seeking to gain God’s blessing by keeping the law merely expose themselves to God’s curse because they do not keep all the law all the time. God doesn’t grade on a curve. He isn’t going to bless those who obeyed 75% of his law. He is like the police officer who gives a ticket for speeding in spite of the fact that you inform him that you obey the speed limit most of the time or because you meant to obey it but accidentally went too fast because you were talking on the cell phone. Neither the police nor God is impressed with good intentions. He does not respond to people who admire his law but who do not keep it. He is determined to punish forever everyone who does not do everything that is written in the book of the law all the time.

How I want you and I to be terrified by that prospect. How I want us to feel our hopeless and helpless condition, in ourselves. There is no action we can take, no decision we can make, no prayer that we can pray, no act of courage or love that we can perform that can get us out from under God’s curse. Over the years I have had opportunity to know young men who have committed criminal acts and been caught, tried, found guilty and sentenced. Many of them, even though they are out of prison and have not committed additional crimes yet cannot escape the curse of their previous crimes. They are on probation or have fines to pay associated with their previous criminal acts. Their present law keeping does not get them out of the curse of their previous law breaking. Our condition as humans is even worse than these young men because we are not under God’s curse for only a few crimes we have committed in the past but we are daily breaking additional laws and thereby incurring more of God’s just condemnation against us. If you are going to seek to escape God’s curse by keeping the law you will only place yourself more under his curse because every claim you make to have obeyed the law is contradicted by innumerable infractions against the law.

Proverbs 3:33 says, “The Lord’s curse is on the house of the wicked...” Psalm 5:5 says, “The Lord hates all who do wrong.” In Ephesians 2:3 Paul says that everyone who is outside of Christ is an object of God’s wrath, not of his love. Listen, if you think that God loves you because of who you are or what you have done, you are completely mistaken and deceived. If you are approaching God apart from Christ or on the basis of your own goodness, he hates you. For all humans in their natural state God is as angry with you as you are with the driver that cut you off in traffic and whom you cursed. You are under his curse and you will remain cursed forever, suffering the just condemnation of an eternal hell. However, there is a way out, but it is not based upon you and your work as Paul continues to make plain.
Only by faith in Christ can God’s curse be turned into God’s blessing because… 
  • The law condemns everyone who does not do it perfectly 
  • And because… 
II. Either you are working for God or he is working for you (vv. 11-12) 
In vv. 11-12 Paul sets two OT verses in contrast to one another. He is seeking to show with these two verses why what he has said in vv. 9 & 10 is true. God’s blessing rests on those who like Abraham trust him and his promises but his curse rests upon those who are seeking to obey the law. In v. 11 he says it is absolutely as clear as day that no one is being justified before God by means of the law because in Habakkuk 2:4 God says, “The righteous will live by faith.” How does that statement in Habakkuk prove that no one is being declared not guilty but perfectly righteous by means of obeying the law?

First, let me help you to see the logic of the statement by giving you an expanded translation of the quote from the prophet Habakkuk. “The man who is declared righteous in God’s sight by his faith in God’s promise, he is the one who will live forever.” In this verse the blessing of God is described as having life. Only the righteous will inherit God’s blessing. Only the righteous will be given life. So this verse from Habakkuk says the same thing that Genesis 15:6 says, the only righteous people are those who are declared righteous by their faith in God’s promise. You are not made righteous by keeping the law but by trusting in God’s promise, just as the prophet Habakkuk says. What is very interesting is the context of this verse in Habakkuk. At the beginning of this short book the prophet complains to God that Israel is full of wickedness and injustice and God is doing nothing about it. God is permitting injustice to flourish and wicked people to get away with their wickedness. God answers his prophet and tells him that he is doing something about it. He tells him that he is sending the Babylonians to come to Jerusalem to wipe it out because of all the evil the people of Israel have done. When Habakkuk hears God’s answer he protests. He informs God that the Babylonians are idol-worshipping pagans who are worse than the Israelites. How in the world can he use such evil people to punish Israel? Literally he says, “Why are you silent while the wicked (the Babylonians) swallow up those more righteous than themselves (the Israelites)?”

God’s answer to his question is simply this. God is not going to let anyone get away with anything. Wicked people, whether Jew or Gentile will be punished for their wickedness. In short, he says that everyone who does not do everything written in the book of the law is under his curse. He is judging all the nations and every human who does wrong. It is in the midst of his declaring his universal judgment on universal human sin that he says, “the righteous will live by faith.” Do you see what he is saying? “The only people who will escape this universal destruction, the only ones who will live through this judgment are those who are declared righteous through their faith in my promise.” Those who depend upon God to make them righteous will live, will not be destroyed in the universal cataclysm that is coming on all sinners, Jew and Gentile alike.

Next, in v. 12, Paul says that the law is not of faith. If people are made righteous by faith in his promise and thus they live and the law is not of faith, then the law cannot make you righteous. He then quotes a verse from Leviticus 19 to show how the law is not of faith. “The one who does these things will live by them.” The law promises life to the one who obeys the law. Therefore, the law is all about human effort. It is about humans doing something for God, not humans receiving something from God. The law promises life to those who do what the law says, not to those who trust the promise of God. The reason that law keeping is offensive to God is because when you keep the law as the ground of acceptance with God you are treating God as if he needs something from you. You are the strong one, not God. It is your strength that saves you, not God’s strength. Law-keeping places you in a relationship of superiority to God. There is something that God wants and I have the ability to give him what he wants. Therefore, law-keeping exalts human beings, not God.

God makes this explicit in a very famous verse, Ephesians 2:8-9. Paul says, “It is by grace that you have been saved through faith and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works so that no one can boast.” The reason that God saves us by faith in his gracious promise and not by our keeping his law is so that he gets the credit for our salvation, not us. God doesn’t need us. We need him. God is out to show off his strength, not our strength. Therefore, he rejects law keeping as the means of salvation because it is all about human effort whereas those who are made righteous by faith in his promise do nothing but receive what God promises to give. There is a sense in which the law is based on faith. However, it is based upon faith in yourself, not faith in God and his promises. Those who rely on law keeping to be made right with God are relying upon, trusting in themselves. If you are made righteous by your obedience then you get the glory, not God. And, as God says in Isaiah 43, he will not give his glory to another. Thus justification, being declared not guilty but perfectly righteous, does not come by doing the law but by trusting the promise.
Only by faith in Christ can God’s curse be turned into God’s blessing because… 
  • The law condemns everyone who does not do it perfectly 
  • Either you are working for God or he is working for you 
  • And because… 
III. Christ became a curse to gain the blessing for all who believe (vv. 13-14) 
What Paul is doing in v. 13 is describing for us the object of our faith, Christ. He is answering the question, why is faith in Christ the grounds for our being made righteous and thus given life? There is, especially in our culture and within the broader evangelical church an effort to make our faith the cause of our being made righteous. In the broader culture you hear it all the time when people make comments like, “She has such great faith. She certainly is going to heaven. God must really like her because she has such great faith.” In the broader culture, faith is treated as if it is a human accomplishment, a work that we do that God then rewards. Every time the angel on “Touched by an Angel” or “god,” on “Joan of Arcadia” tells someone they must “have faith,” they are treating faith as a work, as a meritorious act. Faith is powerful because of what it is, not because of what it receives. Most of you are not aware of this but there is a growing group of evangelical scholars who are doing something very similar to this. They are trying to say that when Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness,” that he doesn’t mean that God declared Abraham righteous because of what Christ did but he declared Abraham righteous because of what Abraham did, he believed. Abraham’s faithfulness is the grounds for his being counted righteous. It is his faith that has merit, not the object of his faith, Christ.

The error here can be easily seen in a simple illustration. This summer a group of us are going to get on an airplane and fly around the world to Mongolia. Our getting on the plane is evidence that we believe the promise the airline makes to us that if we will sit on this airplane we will end up in Mongolia. We are trusting the plane, the pilots, the mechanics and the airline that runs the plane to do what they have promised us, take us to Mongolia. Does my faith take me to Mongolia? No, the pilot, the plane, the mechanics, etc. all these are taking me there. My faith merely receives what they provide. The airline does what it promises and thus by faith in the airline I arrive in Mongolia. Let’s say I tell you that in order to save money I’ve asked Warren Sveum to build an airplane from scratch in the next three months and then fly me to Mongolia. I know that Warren is very good at building wagon wheels and he knows a lot about computers. I know that he can drive a car and is a responsible person. Therefore, I am absolutely confident that he will be able to fly me to Mongolia on his homemade aircraft. If I go through with this plan and trust Warren’s airplane and his flying ability, will I arrive safely in Mongolia? No I will not. I have the same faith in Warren and his plane that I have in United Airlines, why will my faith not get me to Mongolia? The reason is that my faith is not in a trustworthy object. Faith does not do anything; it merely receives what another has promised to do. Warren cannot perform what he promises. Faith in Warren Sveum is a vain faith, just like faith in my ability to keep the law or trusting that I am valuable and worth saving or trusting that my prayers to dead saints or ancestors is a vain faith. Your faith is only as good as the object in which you place it.

In v. 13 Paul shows us why Christ is the only one who will not disappointment our faith. He shows us why, when you trust in Christ you receive the blessing promised to Abraham, the Holy Spirit, as v. 14 says. When your faith is in Christ you will live, you will be justified, you will be blessed with Abraham, you will receive the promise of the Spirit because “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” The reason we know that Paul is showing us that Christ is the object of our faith is because of the two “us’s” in v. 13 and the “Gentiles” and the “we” in v. 14. This goes all the way back to 2:16 where the “us” is identified as all those who have faith in Christ, both Jew and Gentile. So now Paul, for the first time spells out what it is that Christ has done that makes him the only fit object of our faith. Christ became a curse for everyone who believes in him.

All of us are by nature under the curse of the law because none of us has obeyed all the law all the time. Christ takes us out from under God’s curse by his becoming a curse on our behalf. What does that mean? Paul tells us that we can be absolutely sure that Christ was under God’s curse because God says in Deut. 21 that everyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse. He tells us this because we know that Jesus never sinned. Jesus is the perfect Son of Man and the Son of God. He is the only person in the universe who does not deserve to be cursed by God because he always did what pleased his Father. He was tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. However, God says that everyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s just condemnation. Christ was hung on the tree, the cross and thus in this historical event we know that he is under God’s curse. How can the perfect Son of Man be under God’s curse when it is only those who do not do all the law all the time who are under God’s curse? Christ did all the law, all the time and so he should not be under God’s curse, so how was it he was hung on the cross? The obvious answer and I believe this is the light bulb that went on for Paul at his conversion on the Damascus road, is that Christ is being cursed not because of his own sins but because of the sins of all who trust in him. I think that the main reason Saul the Pharisee was so angry with Christians and so opposed to Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah is because he died on a cross and Paul knew that “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” Saul the Pharisee thought this way, “The Messiah, God’s anointed one, cannot be cursed by God and therefore, Jesus, who was hung on a tree, cannot be the Messiah.” However, when Christ was revealed to him as the Messiah he could not deny that God cursed the Messiah because Jesus hung on a tree. Therefore, the curse of God upon him must be due to his taking to himself our sins, not because of his sins. He became a curse on our behalf. He took our sins to himself in such a way that God had to curse him with the curse we deserve. 

Christ was wrapped up in our sins and thus became the object of God’s curse. Therefore, we are no longer under God’s curse because Christ has our sins and has experienced the curse that was due to us for our sins. When we believe the promise that Christ became sin for us then we receive the blessing of Abraham, the promise of the Holy Spirit. We depend upon what Christ has done, not upon what we have done. It is the only way to be free from the curse because Christ is the only perfect man who had no curse upon him and was thus able to take to himself our sins and thus become subject to the curse due us for our sins. God cannot say to the one who trusts in Christ, “damn you to hell,” because he placed your sins on Christ and damned him to hell for your sins. This is why Christ is everything to us because he became a curse for us. He bore God’s infinite displeasure with us by taking our sins to himself. Therefore, Christ is the only trustworthy object for your faith. If you trust in anyone or anything other than Christ to make you right with God, you remain under God’s curse. Only Christ has taken your sins to himself and thus become cursed by God by hanging on the cross. Therefore, only Christ can actually deliver you from God’s curse. He is able to do what he promises because he became a curse for everyone who trusts in him.

Just as much as I long for us to feel the horror of being under God’s curse, I long for us to feel the wonder of Christ becoming a curse for us. Every sin that you have ever committed or will ever commit deserves God’s curse. However, if you are trusting in Christ as the one who became a curse for you, then every sin you have committed or ever will commit has been placed upon Christ and he has born the curse you deserve for each one. When you sin as a Christian those sins are not counted to your shame but to Christ’s. He became a curse for you, if you are trusting in him, so that you can be blessed along with Abraham, so that you can receive the promise of the Holy Spirit.
Only by faith in Christ can God’s curse be turned into God’s blessing because… 
  • The law condemns everyone who does not do it perfectly 
  • Either you are working for God or he is working for you 
  • Christ became a curse to gain the blessing for all who believe 
© Copyright 2005 John Swanson.

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