Galatians and the Law – What is the Law in Galatians?

The book of Galatians has become a real stumbling block for many Christians when it comes to understanding which law Paul is referring to in his letter to the Galatians. Many have wrongly interpreted passages in Galatians as meaning an end to the Ten Commandments or just the fourth Commandment the Sabbath. What Paul is explaining in his letter, is that the Galatians had wandered from the truth that he had first taught them in favour of listening to some judaizing teachers from Jerusalem who insisted that they should still be observing all the rites of the Jewish religion such as circumcision and the ceremonial law with all its feast days etc. These teachers taught that Paul was inferior to the other Apostles where they had come from and insisted that the Law of Moses was still binding and was necessary for justification. This is where most of the confusion originates. Several Bible commentaries on Galatians are also given from some of the late, great theologians as these are not so easily refuted by those who teach against the instructions of Jesus that we are not only to obey the Ten Commandments but teach them also. See also misunderstandings on Jesus fulfilling the law in Matthew chapter 5.

As you will soon see, the question of which law is being referred to in Galatians is not really relevant to the issue of whether the Ten Commandments are still binding in regards to being justified by faith and not by the works of the law. However, the law spoken of all through Galatians is the Law of Moses which is also called the “Book of the Law”, the “Mosaic Law” and “Book of the Covenant.” In chapter 2 Paul had to instruct the Galatians again that they are not saved by keeping the “Law of Moses” and in chapter 3 he exhorts that they are placing themselves back under the curse of the law (Mosaic Law) by trying to observe everything that was written in the “Book of the Law.” In chapter 4, Paul asks them, why do you desire again to be in bondage by observing days, months and years, (feast days, monthly new moon festivals, yearly ceremonial sabbaths) which were all part of the ceremonial law or what was written in the “Book of the Law.” In chapter 5 Paul says that they are being “entangled with a yoke of bondage” by observing circumcision. These were all rites of the Jewish religion that were written in the “Book of the Law” and all ended at the cross. The “Book of the Law” is also called the “ordinances” and Paul found himself also having to write to the Colossians instructing them on the same issue in that these days, months and yearly festivals had ended and were bondage, that is, they were contrary to them and against them. (Note: Some links have popup tool tips) Please see Albert Barnes and Adam Clarke Commentaries.

Colossians 2:14-16Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; … 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink [offerings], or in respect of an holyday [feast day], or of the [monthly] new moon, or of the [yearly] Sabbath days:” Parentheses are added.

What was written in the Book of the Law was “against us, which was contrary to us” and why Paul calls this law “bondage.” The Ten Commandments on the other hand is the “perfect law of liberty” and liberty of course means freedom, which is the opposite of bondage. Since the Bible does not contradict itself, this also identifies what law is being spoken of. If Paul is calling it bondage, he is speaking of what is written in the “Book of the Law.”

James 1:25But whoso looketh into the perfect law of liberty, and continueth therein, he being not a forgetful hearer, but a doer of the work, this man shall be blessed in his deed.

For clarity and confirmation on which law James is referring to.

James 2:10-12For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all. 11 For he that said, Do not commit adultery, said also, Do not kill. Now if you commit no adultery, yet if you kill, you are become a transgressor of the law. 12 So speak you, and so do, as they that shall be judged by the law of liberty.

The Curse and the Book of the Law

Galatians 3:13 informs us that Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law, that is, everything that was written in the Book of the Law. So was this the Ten Commandment law? The key to this question is found in Galatians 3:10 that has the clear phrase “the Book of the Law.” The following verses demonstrate that the “Book of the Law” is definitely not the Ten Commandments. Here are just two of many that could be quoted.

Joshua 23:6Be you therefore very courageous to keep and to do all that is written in the book of the law of Moses, that you turn not aside there from to the right hand or to the left;

Deuteronomy 31:24-26And it came to pass, when Moses had made an end of writing the words of this law in a book, until they were finished, 25 That Moses commanded the Levites, which bare the ark of the covenant of the LORD, saying, 26 Take this book of the law, and put it in the SIDE of the ark of the covenant of the LORD your God, that it may be there for a witness against you.

This now obsolete part of the law and the Old Covenant was written by the hand of Moses in a book and stored in the SIDE of the Ark of the Covenant and so was also called the “Book of the Covenant.” Exodus 24:7And he took the book of the covenant, and read in the audience of the people: and they said, All that the LORD has said will we do, and be obedient.

The Old Covenant also included the Ten Commandment Covenant. Exodus 34:28And he was there with the LORD forty days and forty nights; he did neither eat bread, nor drink water. And he wrote upon the tables [stone] the words of the covenant, the ten commandments.” The Ten Commandment Covenant was stored on the INSIDE of the Ark under the mercy seat. Deuteronomy 10:5And I turned myself and came down from the mount, and put the tables IN the ark which I had made; and there they be, as the LORD commanded me.

Now that Jesus has become our sacrificial lamb and ended the worldly sacrificial sanctuary system, the New Covenant now only has the Ten Commandment Covenant which God now writes in our hearts. Hebrews 9:1Then verily the first covenant had also ordinances of divine service, and a worldly sanctuary.Hebrews 8:10For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people:

Now note one of the main verses in contention. It is speaking of the “Book of the Law,” not the Ten Commandments. The issue is still the same in that we are not justified by the works of either law, which you will soon see does not make the Ten Commandments null and void through faith as Paul explains in Romans 3. Regardless of this, it is clear that the law being spoken of in the following passage is the Law of Moses which can be seen from the phrase the “Book of the Law” in verse 10.

Galatians 3:9-11So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. 10 For as many as are of the works of the law [Law of Moses] are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law [Law of Moses] in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.” Parentheses are added.

After Moses read from the “Book of the Law” to the Israelites in the final chapters of Deuteronomy, he explained that if they obeyed everything written in the Book of the Law that they would receive God's blessing, but if they disobeyed they would receive God's curses (punishment). The following verse in Joshua is a much clearer verse then could be quoted from Deuteronomy and sheds some light here without having to go into a lot more detail.

Joshua 8:34And afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessings and cursings, according to all that is written in the book of the law.

What Law was added because of Transgressions?

In Genesis 26:5 we are told that “...Abraham obeyed my voice, and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws.” These commandments, statutes and laws cannot be the Mosaic Law, because this law was not given until 430 years later.

Galatians 3:17And 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.” The context of this verse reveals that Paul is still referring to the Mosaic Law rather than the Ten Commandments as one would expect. One verse later is further confirmation that this later law was the Law of Moses.

Galatians 3:19, “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions till the seed should come to whom the promise was made...” Note that we are given two very significant bits of information as to why this law was added and how long it would remain in effect.

1) Why was it given? Galatians 3:19 states that it was “added because of transgressions.” Since “where no law is, there is no transgression.” (Romans 4:15), one cannot be guilty of transgressing a law which does not exist. So one law obviously already had to exist and this law had been “transgressed,” which made it necessary to add another law 430 years after the covenant God made with Abraham. Since Genesis 26:5 says “Abraham obeyed ... my laws”, we know that this earlier law, which Abraham observed was the Ten Commandments. Moses had not even been born yet, so it could never have been his law! The Ten Commandments had been transgressed making it necessary to add the ceremonial law. This makes perfect sense when you think about. If a law forbidding murder is broken, then another law would have to be enacted to prescribe the penalty for breaking that first law. Remember in Galatians 3:10, Paul refers to the curses “which are written in the book of the law.” This law written in a book was the Mosaic Law as seen earlier.

2) How long did this “added” law remain in effect? Galatians 3:19 says, “Till the seed should come.” There cannot be any controversy over the identity of that seed. It is Jesus Christ. Do we have any evidence that the law which was blotted out and nailed to the cross was in fact the Law of Moses? This law was designated as the “handwriting of ordinances.Colossians 2:14. Nowhere in the entire Bible are the Ten Commandments identified as ordinances. This term is applied to local legal codes which are very narrow and limited, such as “town ordinances” which extend to the city limits. In comparison, the Ten Commandments are more like the constitution of the United States.

Under the Schoolmaster

Moving towards the end of Galatians chapter three, we find another misunderstood passage. The Commandments that say “Thou shalt not kill” or “Thou shalt not worship idols” did not bring us to Christ. Nor did any of the Ten Commandments. However, the ordinances that are written in the “Book of the Law” such as Passover did bring us to Christ and was a schoolmaster. Passover taught Israel that one day the true Lamb of God would come and take away the sins of the world and then Passover would be gone, nailed to the cross, and no longer their schoolmaster and this and the other feasts with their different meanings would also no longer be their schoolmaster. See table below for an example. See also Adam Clarke's Commentary on the Bible for Romans 10:4 and was Christ an end to the law for more on this verse.

Galatians 3:23But before faith [Jesus] came, we were kept under the law [Mosaic Law], shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. 24 Wherefore the law [Mosaic Law] was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after that faith [Jesus] is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” Parentheses are added.

Passover Feast of Unleavened Bread
  1st Day 2nd Day 3rd Day
Date 14th day of 1st month (Nisan) 15th day of 1st month (Nisan) 16th day of 1st month (Nisan)
Historical The Angel of God did ‘Passover’ houses covered with the blood of a lamb God delivers the Hebrews from Egyptian bondage Hebrews delivered as first fruits from Egyptian slavery from the tomb of the red sea into the promised land
Passover lamb slain in the 9th hour to atone for the sins of the people (Leviticus 23:4-5) Unleaven Bread is broken, buried and redeemed during the feast. Leaven represents sin. (Leviticus 23:6-8) The Omer (First Fruits) The first fruits of the harvest are presented to the Lord (Exodus 23:19)
Jesus crucified as our Passover Lamb to atone for the sins of the people. Died in the 9th hour (Matthew 27:46) Jesus our Passover Lamb rests in the tomb on the Passover sabbath (John 1:29) Resurrection of Jesus who is the first fruits
(1 Corinthians 15:20-23)

Days, Months and Years that were bondage

Note that the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments of God that defines what sin is and the Commandments of God are never spoken of flippantly such as referring to the fourth Commandment as a day. It is always called “the Sabbath” or “Sabbath day” but it is never referred to superficially as just a day. Some have concluded that since the Sabbath of the Lord is a day and Galatians 4:9-10 uses the word “day” and Paul speaks of bondage here, then the fourth Commandment must be bondage and done away with. To begin with, as we have already covered, the Ten Commandments are the perfect law of liberty, where the Law of Moses is what was bondage. Paul is not just referencing days, but also months and years and he is referring to something that includes all these things. These were all part of what was written in the Book of the Law. There were various ceremonial feast Days, Monthly new moon festivals and Yearly ceremonial sabbaths that all ended at the cross. Not so with the Ten Commandments which are to last as long as Heaven and Earth. Compare this passage with Colossians 2:14-16 that Paul also wrote. See also Albert Barnes and People's New Testament Commentaries.

Galatians 4:9-10But now, after that you have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn you again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto you desire again to be in bondage? 10 You observe days, and months, and times, and years.

Colossians 2:14-16Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; … 16 Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink [offerings], or in respect of an holy day [Holy days], or of the new moon [months], or of the Sabbath days: [years eg; Passover, Day of Atonement and five others, which are all yearly sabbaths]” Parentheses are added.

The bond woman and the free woman

Some have again confused which covenants are being referred to in Galatians chapter 4. As we have already seen, there were two parts to the Old Covenant made at Sinai. One was the “Book of the Covenant” comprising the “Law of Moses” or the “Book of the law” etc, which was stored on the outside of the Ark of the Covenant, and the other was the Ten Commandment Covenant (Exodus 34:28; Deuteronomy 4:13) that was stored on the inside of the Ark of the Covenant. As Paul points out many times, the “Book of the law” was bondage but the Ten Commandments are the perfect law of liberty (freedom). James 1:25; 2:10-12. Thus the Covenant that Paul refers to as bondage here is the Jewish “Book of the Covenant” that had the ceremonial days, months and years just described above. Paul is continuing to demonstrate that this law was bondage by now using this allegory. The Mosaic Law and especially all the sacrifices that went with it was very much bondage but the Gospel (Good News) gives freedom from all the sacrificial laws and circumcision etc. The Galatians had been turned away from the Gospel that Paul had first given them and had been turned back to all the Mosaic institutions by Jews from the Jerusalem council.

Note the first two verses of the passage below. Paul is still on the subject of bondage which the Mosaic Law was, and this is the law that Paul is still referring to. Again the context and the issue remains the same all through Galatians.

Galatians 4:21-26Tell me, you that desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? 22 For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. 23 But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. 24 Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. 25 For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. 26 But Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.

Read the following from this late famous theologian Adam Clarke on Galatians 4:21 for further confirmation on what Law Paul is referring to in verse 21 above.

See “The People's New Testament (1891) by B. W. Johnson” to give clarity on the remainder of this passage using this Commentary that is brief and to the point. This is a large tooltip so you may have to position the page before hovering over this tooltip.

Having now adequately covered the relevant passages on Galatians chapters 2, 3 and 4, it really only leaves the issue of chapter five and circumcision. I don't believe it is necessary cover this chapter as I am sure everyone is aware that this was a yoke of bondage and once again was part of the Mosaic Law. Circumcision is now that of the heart as Paul informs us in Romans 2:28-29. The first commentary on the following page by Albert Barnes who is a much respected late but great theologian is recommended reading as it fully clarifies and confirms what we have just discussed on all of the above points and should leave no doubt that the entire context of this book is that the Galatians had returned to the Mosaic Law due to false judaizing teachers.

The Question of justification by faith now answered

So as you can see, the book of Galatians can be a difficult book to understand and so many have thought that Paul was speaking of the Ten Commandments rather than the Mosaic Law. Regardless of this, the main issue that Paul is emphasizing and trying to make clear is that we are “justified by faith” and not by the works of any law whether it be the everlasting Moral law or the Mosaic Law that ended at the cross. Even in Old Testament times when a sacrifice was brought to the temple Priest, it was still done in faith knowing that it pointed forward to the redeeming sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

In the first part of chapter 4, Paul points out that observance of the ceremonial Holy days with their sacrifices was bondage and had ended. Not only had the Galatians returned to this now obsolete law, but they were also trying to observe it just to be saved rather than keeping it by faith, and hence were trying to be justified by works of the law; the ceremonial law in this case. Since we are not justified by the works of the law, the question that remains is; does this bring an end to the Ten Commandments? The following two verses demonstrate this issue which is justification by faith and not by works of the law.

Galatians 2:16Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

Galatians 3:9-11So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. 10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. 11 But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith.

In Galatians the law being referred to as we have now seen is the Mosaic Law and in Romans chapter three, Paul is referring to the Ten Commandment law, however, as already stated the issue remains the same. In Romans chapter 3, Paul gives total clarity to this question as to if being justified by faith and not by works of the law removes our obligation to obey the Ten Commandment law and the answer is a definite NO! Firstly, note what Matthew Henry's Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible has to say on the book of Galatians.

Below is the prominent part of Romans 3 in regards to justification by faith and not by the works of the law. Note especially the answer to our very important question in verse 31 as to does justification by faith bring an end to the law making it null and void.

Romans 3:19-31Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. … 27 Where is boasting then? It is excluded. By what law? Of works? No: but by the law of faith. 28 Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law. 29 Is he the God of the Jews only? Is he not also of the Gentiles? Yes, of the Gentiles also: 30 Seeing it is one God, which shall justify the circumcision by faith, and uncircumcision through faith. 31 Do we then make void the law through faith? God forbid: yes, we establish the law.

Just for extra clarity on this pivotal question from the easier to understand New King James Version.

Romans 3:31 NKJVDo we then make void the law through faith? Certainly not! On the contrary, we establish the law.

We are indeed justified by faith and not by the works of the law and thankfully Paul makes sure there is no misunderstanding by finishing this chapter and clarifying that the Ten Commandments are NOT made null and void by faith and that we do still uphold the law. You cannot uphold and obey a law that is gone! And just for even further clarity; who is it that are justified before God? It is those who do obey the Ten Commandments of God.

Romans 2:13For NOT the hearers of the law are just before God, but the DOERS of the law shall be justified.

Galatians and the Law Conclusion

In conclusion, the Ceremonial law or Mosaic Law was bondage and ended at the cross. See Colossians 2:14-17. The Ten Commandments on the other hand are not made void through faith and are eternal. So we find this letter of Paul's is greatly misunderstood but there can be no doubt that the Ten Commandments are still binding. If they were not, then we would have major contradictions with the words of Jesus in Matthew chapter 5 as well as many other writings of Paul and John just to begin with. All scripture must line up, and if it does not, we know we are in error somewhere. For those interested, more detail can be found on the following page by some more of the late but best theologians that Pastors still use today. Page 2 - Galatians Commentary.