Galatians 3: Can I Keep the Law If I Want To?

How God fulfills his promise to Abraham, according to Paul, through Jesus Christ.  He is the “offspring” which the original covenant promised.  By faith in Christ one becomes an heir of Abraham, as witnessed by the activity of the Holy Spirit.  Why would someone submit to the Law at this point since it is neither necessary nor beneficial?

My guess is that people want to submit to Law out of an honest desire to serve God correctly.  What are the responsibilities of those who are now in Christ?  This is an important question, and at least one answer to that question is to point to the already-existing body of commands found in the Torah.

Since the whole Law is not what the Galatians were doing, but rather the boundary markers, it is at least possible that the attraction was to define boundaries so that one could know who was “in” and who was “out.”  Again, the boundary markers of Judaism worked well to define a separate people, so perhaps they wanted to adopt these boundary markers in order to demonstrate that they are “in Christ.”

Marking boundaries is very important to humans.  Recall that when Jesus said that the second greatest commandment was to love one’s neighbor, he was asked exactly who was a neighbor.  We want to know the limits – think of a child who is offered a cookie.  The first question is usually “how many”? (a couple equals two, a few means three?) Take a kid to a store and they want to know “how much can I spend?”

But boundaries exclude as much as they include.  Maybe people are attracted to legalism not for making themselves appear like insiders, but so that they can exclude people they do not like.  Since you do not behave quite the way I define Christian behavior, you are “out” and I do not have to treat you like a brother in Christ anymore.  Or worse:  you are excluded for using the wrong Bible translation, or listening to the wrong type of music, or (gasp!) having a tattoo!  Defining spirituality by external appearances is always foolish.

One of the real problems with Paul’s view of “freedom in Christ” is that we do not like to be free.  We want the boundaries and rules, so we create more intense rules and regulations in order to separate ourselves out as spiritual. There is something comforting in a list of rules; I know my place if I am keeping up with the instruction manual.  But that is not what we are called to, we are children of God, not scouts trying to earn another merit badge.

Paul would likely have a few choice words for modern Galatians!

5 thoughts on “Galatians 3: Can I Keep the Law If I Want To?

  1. So are we supposed to obey God’s law or are we only allowed to? We know that if our motivation for keeping the Torah is wrong, then it is the same as sin to keep it; but for those who wish to keep it because of their love for the God of the Bible, or because they believe that it pleases Him, is it then right for them to keep it? In that light, if they are convicted that they are to keep Torah so that they may please God by lovingly obeying what He has set out as a standard of righteousness but they do not keep it, would it to them be sin if they did not keep it?
    Of course, we know that the Scriptures teach us that all sinners are equally worthy of damnation, so if a person seeks to honor the Commandments biblically then it will cause inclusion instead of exclusion because of the humility brought about by the new realization of our depravity. Correct?

    Thanks for the post, Professor Long!

  2. Hi Nate….good question. I think the issue I am getting at (in Galatians) is that Paul seems to say that keeping Torah is not something the Gentile Christian ought to be doing at all. One cannot be made right with God by keeping the Torah, one cannot stay right with God by keeping Torah, so (Paul would say), what’s the point? In fact, to anticipate what he will say in ch 4, it is actually dangerous to keep Torah because one must keep it all – which is impossible.

    Now he will eventually get to “keep the law of Christ,” which more or less is the same as the “moral law” sometimes described by Christians theologians. For Paul, these “moral” commands are the responsibility of the children of God. Since you are a child of God, you ought to act that way. You are free in Christ to be God’s dearly loved child, so your privilege so to act in a way that pleases the father.

  3. Is the standard then that we are to follow what our conscious convicts us is right or wrong? If, then, our conscious leads us (assuming that the Holy Spirit is guiding the conscious of those who are saved) to keep Torah, are they then to keep it?
    In regards to Chs. 4-5, could a person interpret “circumcision” as the party which believed that Gentiles must keep the Law in order to be saved? Would it not then be accurate to understand Paul as saying that, if you believe that keeping the Law is necessary for salvation then you have to keep all of the Law?
    And last question, if we are to not keep Torah, if it is now sin, then are what does it mean when we do keep it? Like, what if we don’t lie? Is it sin to tell the truth?
    I’m trying to understand the theology and system for knowledge. Please don’t think I am just arguing lol

    • I think that Paul’s answer in Galatians is that we are to walk by the Spirit, not by Flesh (Gal 5:16). As children, we are to live a life which pleases the father. The end of Gal 3 describes the law as a guardian, until the child has grown to maturity. For Paul, this present age is the age of the Holy Spirit, we are free to serve God and be led by the Spirit, and it is foolish to go back under the previous guardian (the Law). You are right, Paul says that if you keep one part of the Law (circumcision, food laws) you must keep it all. And since righteousness cannot come from the Law, a person who tries to keep the law can never be righteous. Since Christ was faithful to the whole law, those who are “in Christ” can be declared righteous.

      As for “keeping Torah” as sin….I think that the example is a good one. Any of the Ten commandments might do, since they are foundational for relationship with God. Living “in Christ” means we speak the truth in love. I think the “sin in keeping Torah” might come from thinking that you are right with God if you manage to keep all ten commandments, or all 613 of the laws. Jesus’ point in the Sermon on the Mount is that there is more to keeping the ten commandments than the physical “not lying” or “not murdering.”

  4. I have heard it argued that Paul’s writing is contrary to the Old Testament. I’ve also heard it argued that it is not contrary, just misunderstood. Regardless of the explanation of Paul’s letter, Yehovah (Jehovah) is quite clear through Moses, “See that you do all I command you; do not add to it or take away from it” (Deut. 12:32; cf. Deut. 4:2). And Yeshua (Jesus) confirmed this: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matt. 5:8). So either Paul was contrary to God and His Son or he was misunderstood.

    I tend to believe he was misunderstood, and that law and works are those added by religious tradition, not those given to Moses to be obeyed out of love for God and others.

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