Understanding the Contrast of “Law” and “Promise” in Galatians 3

Understanding the Contrast of “Law” and “Promise” in Galatians 3

The majority of times the Apostle Paul uses the word “law” (νόμος) in Galatians, he is referring to the Mosaic (old) covenant. He contrasts the “law” (i.e., Mosaic covenant) with “promise” (ἐpαγγελία), which refers to the Abrahamic covenant (i.e., “the gospel beforehand/in promise,” Gal. 3:8).

Paul's contrast of “law” and “gospel” is central to his argument in Galatians. Paul contends that the confusion of these two covenants— Mosaic and Abrahamic— reside at the heart of the Galatian heresy (i.e., a different, distorted gospel that leads to being accursed rather than justified, Gal. 1:6-10; Gal. 2:16).

Regrettably, this law/gospel contrast between two different types of covenants is not often clearly seen and understood. So, to help the reader have a better understanding of Paul’s argument in Galatians 3, I have provided some simple explanatory notes to help read Paul’s argument in order to have a better understanding of the vital contrast he is making between a covenant of law (i.e., Mosaic covenant) and a covenant of promise (i.e., Abrahamic covenant).

Our justification and inheritance (i.e., being counted as Abraham's offspring/descendant) are either based on our obedience to the law or by someone’s else’s obedience. However, these benefits cannot be attained by a confusion of these two contrasting covenants. For, confusing the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants results in salvation being "in by grace, kept/completed by works"--golawspel, Gal. 3:3). Michael Horton writes,

So we have two principles or “laws” at work, which. . . Paul actually calls “covenants”: a covenant of law, which promises blessing upon perfect obedience and curses for any transgression, and a covenant of promise, which promises blessing as a gift resulting from the personal performance of another. Both covenants have the same goal, promise the same blessings, and threaten the same curses. However, according to one, the blessing is attained by us personally, and in the other, it is bestowed as an inheritance (Introducing Covenant Theology, 36).


3:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?

3:2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law (Mosaic covenant), or by hearing (the gospel) with faith?

3:3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

3:4 Did you suffer so many things in vain — if indeed it was in vain?

3:5 So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law (Mosaic covenant), or by hearing (the gospel) with faith?

3:6 Even so Abraham “BELIEVED GOD, AND IT WAS RECKONED TO HIM AS RIGHTEOUSNESS” (Abrahamic covenant, Genesis 15:6).

3:7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.

3:8 The Scripture (i.e., Genesis), foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “ALL THE NATIONS WILL BE BLESSED IN YOU” (Abrahamic covenant, Genesis 12:3).

3:9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer.

3:10 For as many as are of the works of the Law (Mosaic covenant) are under a curse (cf. Deuteronomy 27); for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO DOES NOT ABIDE BY ALL THINGS WRITTEN IN THE BOOK OF THE LAW, TO PERFORM THEM” (Deuteronomy 27:26).

3:11 Now that no one is justified by the Law (Mosaic covenant) before God is evident; for, “THE RIGHTEOUS MAN SHALL LIVE BY FAITH” (Habakkuk 2:4).

3:12 However, the Law (Mosaic covenant) is not of faith; on the contrary, “HE WHO PRACTICES THEM SHALL LIVE BY THEM” (Mosaic covenant, Leviticus 18:5).

3:13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us — for it is written, “CURSED IS EVERYONE WHO HANGS ON A TREE” (Mosaic covenant, Deuteronomy 21:23)

3:14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

3:15 Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it.

3:16 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.

3:17 What I am saying is this: the Law (Mosaic covenant), which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant (Abrahamic covenant) previously ratified by God (Genesis 15), so as to nullify the promise (Genesis 12:3)

3:18 For if the inheritance is based on law (Mosaic covenant), it is no longer based on a promise (Abrahamic covenant); but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise (Abrahamic covenant).

3:19 Why the Law (Mosaic covenant) then? It (Mosaic covenant) 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.

3:20 Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. 

3:21 Is the Law (Mosaic covenant) then contrary to the promises (Abrahamic covenant) of God? May it never be! For if a law (Mosaic covenant) had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law (Mosaic covenant).

3:22 But the Scripture (Mosaic covenant) has shut up everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe (Abrahamic covenant).

3:23 But before faith came (i.e., the new covenant era after the completed work of Christ), we were kept in custody under the law (Mosaic covenant; old covenant era, which lasted 1500 years), being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed (i.e., the coming of Christ in fulfillment; the new covenant era).

3:24 Therefore the Law (Mosaic covenant) has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, so that we may be justified by faith (like Abraham in the Abrahamic covenant; cf. Genesis 15:6/Gal. 3:6).

3:25 But now that faith has come (faith in Christ who has come; the new covenant era), we are no longer under a tutor (Mosaic covenant/old covenant era).

3:26 For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.

3:27 For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

3:29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s descendants, heirs according to promise (Abrahamic covenant).