3:15-18–Paul Explains the Justification of Abraham


(Gal. 3:15-18)

“Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man’s covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannuleth, or added thereto.”

        The tone of indignant reproach with which the chapter opened has gradually subsided, so that here Paul appeals to the Galatian believers as “brethren.” 

         “I speak after the manner of men”
         Literally:  “I speak according to man.”

         Paul is saying that he is drawing an illustration from what actually occurs among men. The illustration is, that when a contract or agreement is made by men involving obligations and promises, no one can add to it or take from it. It will remain as it was originally made. It is the same with God.  He made a solemn promise (a contract, as it were) to Abraham. That promise was applied to Abraham’s posterity. The blessing was connected with that promise, and it was in the nature of a compact (a contract) with Abraham. But if so, then this could not be effected by the Law which was four hundred years after, and the Law must have been given to secure some different object from that designed by the promise made to Abraham, (v. 19).  But the promise made to Abraham was designed to secure the “inheritance,” or the favor of God; and if so, then the same thing could not be secured by the observance of the Law, since there could not be two ways so different from each other of obtaining the same thing.
         God cannot have two ways of justifying and saving men; and if He had already revealed a mode to Abraham, and that mode was by faith, then it could not be by the observance of the Law which was given so many years afterward. The main design of the argument and the illustration here, and following is to show that the promise made to Abraham was by no means made void by the giving of the Law. The Law had another design, which did not interfere with the promise made to Abraham. That stood on its own merits, separate of the demands and the design of the Law.

           “though it be but a man's covenant”
           Literally:  “a covenant having been ratified even {among} mankind”

         It is a compact or agreement between man and man. Even in such a case no one can add to it or take from it. The argument here is, that such a covenant or agreement must be much less important than a promise made by God. But even that could not be annulled. How much less, therefore, could a covenant made by God be treated as if it were vain. The word covenant here means a compact or agreement between man and man, and even in such a case no one can add to it or take from it. The argument here is, that such a covenant or agreement must be much less important than a promise made by God. But even that sort of agreement could not be annulled.
        How much less, therefore, could a covenant made by God be treated as if it were vain. The word covenant here means “testament;” i.e., a will,” as Tindal renders it. Its proper classical signification is will or testament.  Here it is used in the proper sense of the word covenant, as a mutual agreement between man and man. The idea is that where such a covenant exists, where the faith of a man is solemnly pledged in this manner, no change can be made in the agreement. It is ratified, and firm, and final.

         “if it be confirmed, no man disannuleth, or addeth thereto”
         Literally:  “Having been ratified {among}mankind, no one sets aside or adds to{it}.”

         IT BE CONFIRMED: 
         Literally:  “Having been ratified.” 

When once it hath been ratified by a seal, or otherwise. If even men are constrained by their sense of justice to abide by this rule, much more may the All Righteous One be expected to do so. 

         Literally:  “No one sets aside”

         Not even the author himself, much less any second party. Much less would the righteous God do such a thing.  The Law is here, by personification, regarded as a second person; distinct from, and subsequent to, the promise of God. The promise is everlasting, and more peculiarly belongs to God. The Law is regarded as something extraneous, afterwards introduced, exceptional and temporary (vv. 17-19, 21-24). 
         The covenant stands under the protection of the civil law, and nothing can be legally erased from it or added to it. It must stand as agreed to.  No one can change it.  No new conditions can be added, nor can there be any reductions made to its terms. It binds the parties to a faithful fulfillment of all its conditions. This is well understood among men; and Paul says that the same thing must take place in regarding God.

           Literally:  “Or adds to {it}.”  

No one may add new conditions making the covenant “of none effect” (v. 17). So legal Judaism could make no alteration in the fundamental relation between God and man, which had already been established by the promises to Abraham.   No one could add to it as a new condition the observance of the law; for in such a case the fulfillment of the promise would be attaching a condition impossible for any man to keep. The “covenant” here is one of pure and free grace, a promise afterwards brought into effect, or activated, by the Gospel.

“Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made.  He saith not, and to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.”

         “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made”
         Literally:  “But the promises were spoken to Abraham and his seed”

         Paul is inserting a parenthetical verse here. The covenant of promise was not “made,” (literally, in the Greek “spoken,”) to Abraham alone, but “to Abraham and his seed”; and especially to the latter; and this means Christ (and that which is inseparable from Him, His body, the Church). 
         God called Abraham and promised to make him a blessing to the world;  and the way that God made Abraham a blessing to the world was through Jesus Christ, who was a descendant of Abraham’s. The promise here referred to was that which is recorded in Gen. 22:17-18: “In blessing I will bless thee, and in multi-plying I will multiply thy seed as the stars of heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea-shore; and in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.”

         Note that “promises” is in the plural because the same promise was often repeated (Gen. 12:3, 7; 15:5, 18; 17:7; 22:8), and because it involved many things; earthly blessings to the literal children of Abraham in Canaan, and spiritual and heavenly blessings to his spiritual children; but both, the literal and spiritual, are promised to Christ, “the Seed.” In the spiritual seed there is no distinction of Jew or Greek; but to the literal seed, the promises still in part remain to be fulfilled (Rom. 11:26).

The Law contemplates the Jews and Gentiles as distinct seeds. God makes a covenant, but it is one of promise; whereas the Law is a covenant of works. Whereas the Law brings in a mediator, a third party (vv. 19-20), God makes His covenant of promise with the one seed, Christ (Gen. 17:7), and embraces others only as they are identified with, and represented by, Christ.

         “He saith not, ‘And to seeds, as of many’”
         Literally:  “It does not say, ‘And to seeds, as of many.’” 

         As if the promise were made to several kinds of seed. It was not one particular kind of posterity which was intended: but as of one—which is Christ; i.e. to the spiritual Head, and all believers in Him, who are children of Abraham, because they are believers, (v. 7). But why does Paul say, not of seeds, as of many?  To this it is answered, that Abraham possessed in his family two seeds, one natural:  the members of his own household; and the other spiritual: those who were like himself because of their faith. The promises were not of a temporal nature; had they been so, they would have belonged to His natural seed; but they did not, therefore they must have belonged to the spiritual posterity.

         And as we know that promises of justification, etc., could not properly be made to Christ in Himself, therefore, we must conclude His members are meant here, and the word Christ is put here for Christians. It is from Christ that the grace flows which constitutes Christians. Christians are those who believe after the example of Abraham; they therefore are the spiritual seed. Christ, working in and by these, makes them the light and salt of the world; and through them, under and by Christ, are all the nations of the earth blessed.

         “but as One, and to thy Seed, which is Christ”
         Literally:   “but as of one, ‘and to Your Seed,’ which is Christ”

The word “seed” refers specifically to Christ (see Gen. 22:18).  Christ is the One who brought salvation to the world.  He said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day; and he saw it, and was glad” (John 8:56).

         BUT AS ONE:
         Literally:  “But as upon One.”  And to your seed; He makes the promise, as speaking of one, to one seed of Abraham.

         Paul's interpretation; he plans evidently to be understood as affirming, that in the use of the singular number “seed” instead of the plural seeds, there is a fair ground of argument to demonstrate that the promise related to Christ, or the Messiah, and to Him primarily, if not exclusively.

“And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the Law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect.”

         “this I say”
         Literally:   “And I say this.” 

To put in our vernacular, Paul is saying, “Now I mean this; this is what I mean, by what I was saying.”  I mean to draw this inference…Paul now returns to his main point. What I mean by the foregoing example of human covenants is this: When a document has been sealed, no subsequent addition can affect it. The Law was subsequent to the promise; therefore the Law cannot affect it.          

         “the covenant that was confirmed before of God.”
         Literally:  “A covenant, having been ratified therefore by God.” 

It was ratified by eternal God himself, in His promise to Abraham. It was confirmed before the giving of the Law. The confirmation was the solemn promise which God made to Abraham, and this confirmation was done before the giving of the Law; in fact, it was 430 years before the Law was given.

         “in Christ”
         Literally:  “to Christ.”

With respect to the Messiah; a covenant relating to Him, and which promised that He should descend from Abraham. The word “in,” in the phrase “in Christ,” does not quite express the meaning of the Greek phrase, which really means rather unto Christ,” or unto the Messiah; i.e., the covenant had respect to Him.  The present unparalleled dispersion of the sacred writings, in all the regular languages of the universe, is a full proof that all the nations of the earth are likely to be blessed through them; but they have nothing but what they have received from and through Christ.

         “the Law”   |
The Law given by God to Moses on Mount Sinai. The definite article “the” is not actually in the Greek text but is implied by the context.

         “which was four hundred and thirty years after”
         Literally:  “Coming into being four hundred thirty years after.”

         The time referred to here was probably that time when Abraham was called, and when the promise was first made to him.  Assuming that as the time referred to, it is not difficult to make out the period of four hundred and thirty years. That promise was made when Abraham was seventy-five years old, Gen. 12:3,4. From that time to the birth of Isaac, when Abraham was a hundred years old, was twenty-five years, Gen. 21:5. Isaac was sixty when Jacob was born, Gen. 25:26. Jacob went into Egypt when he was one hundred and thirty years old, Gen. 47:9. And the Israelites sojourned there, according to the Septuagint, Exodus 12:40, two hundred and fifteen years, which completes the number.
         This was doubtless the common computation in the time of Paul; and as his argument did not depend at all on the exactness of the reckoning, he took the estimate which was in common use in his own day, without pausing or embarrassing himself by an inquiry whether it was strictly accurate or not.

“For if the inheritance be of Law, it is no more of promise:  but God gave it to Abraham by promise.”

         “if the inheritance be of the Law,”
         Literally:  “For if {is} of law the inheritance.”

That is, the inheritance promised to Abraham. The sum of the promise was, that “he should be the heir of the world” (see Rom. 4:13).  To that inheritance Paul refers here, and says that it was an essential part of it that it was to be in virtue of the promise made to him, and NOT by fulfilling the law.  Paul is referring to the spiritual blessings promised to Abraham and his seed. All the blessings to be inherited by Abraham's literal (Israel) and spiritual (believing Gentiles) children, according to the promise made to him and to his Seed, Christ, justification and glorification.

If it be by observing the Law of Moses; or if it come in any way by the fulfilling of Law. This is plainly seen; yet the Jews contended that the blessings of justification and salvation were to be in virtue of the observance of the law of Moses. But if so, argues Paul, then it could not be by the promise made to Abraham, since this promise was made to Abraham centuries before the Law even existed.

         “it is no more of promise”
         Literally:  “No more of promise.”

The promise concerning Christ was made centuries before the Mosaic Law was given, and that promise holds as good as though there had never been a Law ever given.  This now gives rise to the question, “Why was the Law given, of what value is it?”  Understand this, Paul is not playing down the Law.  Rather, he is trying to help the people understand the purpose of the Law.  He shows that this very perfection the Law reveals is the reason  it creates a hurdle for us that we cannot get over in order to be accepted by God.

         But God gave it to Abraham by promise.
         Literally:  “But God has given {it} to Abraham through promise.” 

Paul is emphasizing that this is a settled point. It is perfectly clear; and that is to be held as an indisputable fact, that the blessing was given to Abraham by a promise; and that promise was confirmed and ratified hundreds of years before the Law was given, and the giving of the Law could not affect the promise in any way. But that promise was that Abraham would be the ancestor of the Messiah, and that in him all the nations of the earth should be blessed. Of course, if they were to be blessed in this way, then it was not to be by the observance of the Law (since the Law was only for Israel), then the Law must have been given for a different purpose altogether than for justification. What that was, he goes on and explainss in the following verses.

The conclusion is, Therefore the inheritance is not of, or from the Law–“For if they which are of the Law {be} heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect” (Rom. 4:14).

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