A Catholic question about Galatians 3

The email began:

Maybe you could help me out here. I am a Catholic trying to better understand the Protestant position on justification. One part of Scripture that has been really interesting me is the second half of Galatians 3 (3:15-29) because I think that is where the real issue rests.

I think 3:21 hits on the point the best —

“Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.”

(I see basically the same thing taught in Gal 2:21 —

“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly.”

In Galatians 3:21, Paul says “if” the Law was intended to give life then salvation would have come by the Law, meaning that the Law never was intended to save.  From what I have heard from Protestants, man is not justified by the Law because nobody can keep the Law perfectly.  Yet I’m wondering how that fits with Gal 3:21?  If the Law was never intended to save, then keeping it perfectly still wouldn’t save.


Thanks for taking the time to write.  I don’t know how much you know about my approach to Scripture, but I am convinced that in order to understand any verse we must understand the surrounding context. The primary question that Paul was dealing with in the third chapter of Galatians is whether the inclusion of Gentiles into the covenant of salvation through faith in Christ’s finished work undermined the historic promises God had made to national Israel — the physical descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. More specifically, since Christ did away with the requirements of the law of Moses for everyone who believes, then what was the point of the law in the first place? And, tied to that question: did the introduction and removal of the law effect the other promises made to the descendants of Abraham?

Gal 3:16-25 — Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ.What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one.Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed.  Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith.But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.

This passage, in context, helps us answer your questions. You questioned whether or not the law was ever intended to save. Paul tells us it was added “because of transgressions.” In other words, the law made sin more obviously sinful (see also: Romans 3:20, 5:20).  Neither did the law abrogate the promises God made Israel nor did it invalidate the Abrahamic Covenant.  Its purpose was to act as a tutor (the KJV says “schoolmaster”), or custodian, to lead God’s people to Christ.  Now that faith in Christ has come, there is no longer any need for the tutor.  Together that tells us that the law was never intended to save.

Specifically then, verse 21 does not say that perfect obedience to the law would lead to salvation, it says that if a law had ever been given to mankind that actually was able to impart life to sinners, then indeed someone may have received eternal life in exchange for the righteousness they had obtained through keeping the law.  But, the problem was not merely man’s incapability, it was the inability of the law itself to offer such life to people who were born into Adam’s sinful estate.  The purpose of the law was always to “shut everyone under sin so that the promise of faith in  Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”  It was always God’s intention to glorify His Son.  And the law served that explicit purpose.

Now we can get at the root of your real question.  The reason Protestants say that real righteousness was offered via the law, provided a man perfectly kept it, was that Christ did indeed stand faultless before the law and no one could accuse Him of sin.  So, if we say universally that no one can ever keep the law and therefore no one can ever achieve perfect obedience, then we eliminate what Christ accomplished on our behalf.  As our substitute, He did what no sinful man could do.  He established His own righteousness through perfect obedience to God and the law.  While we agree that no man — no sinful human — can be justified by the works of the law, we need to careful not to undermine what Christ did accomplish through His perfect work.


Also, I have been told that since we cannot keep the Law perfectly that Jesus had to keep it perfectly for us (something I cannot find in the Bible), but does not the same issue remain?


Well, let’s take that question in parts.  First, did Christ keep the Law perfectly?  He said,

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill.” (Mat. 5:17)

All Christians agree that Christ was the spotless, sinless Lamb of God.  Yet, according the apostle Paul —

So also we, while we were children, were held in bondage under the elemental things of the world. But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” (Gal. 4:3-6)

So, Jesus was “born under the Law,” yet is regarded by all Scripture as perfect and sinless.  Since the purpose of the law is to expose sin and hold all men guilty, Christ must have perfectly kept the dictates of the law in order to be guiltless and sinless.  As He Himself said,

“And He who sent Me is with Me; He has not left Me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to Him.” (John 8:29)

And Paul’s stated reason why Jesus was born “under the Law” was in order to redeem those who were under the Law. I don’t know how to follow Paul’s logic — that Jesus was born under the law to save those who were under the law, resulting in their adoption as sons — without seeing a form of substitution.  Jesus did something on the behalf of others that resulted in the law, which would have condemned them, being removed, the guilt expunged, and eternal life resulting.  And, according to Paul, what He did was a direct result of the fact that He was “born under the law.”  So, Christ’s relationship to the law had a positive result for those who were under its condemnation.  That’s substitution.

Thanks for taking the time to write.  I always enjoy theological exchanges.  I hope that I’ve understood you aright and have answered appropriately.

Yours for His sake,

Jim Mc.


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