God called Abraham out of Mesopotamia and promised to give his descendants the land of Canaan. After Abraham was in the land of Canaan,
The word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision: “Do not be afraid, Abram. I am your shield, your very great reward.” But Abram said, “O Sovereign Lord, what can you give me since I remain childless and the one who will inherit my estate is Eliezer of Damascus?… You have given me no children; so a servant in my household will be my heir.”
Then the word of the Lord came to him: “This man will not be your heir, but a son coming from your own body will be your heir.” He took him outside and said, “Look up at the heavens and count the stars—if indeed you can count them…. So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:1-5)
This was a phenomenal promise. But even more remarkable is what we read in verse 6: “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.” This is a landmark statement of justification by faith, of being accepted by God simply because we believe him. Abraham was counted righteous on the basis of faith.
The apostle Paul develops that thought further in Romans 4 and Galatians 3. Christians inherit the promises of Abraham on the basis of faith—and laws that were later given to Moses cannot take away those promises. This principle is taught in Galatians 3:17. This is an especially important passage.
Faith, not law
In Galatians, Paul was arguing against a legalistic heresy. In Galatians 3:2 he asks, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” They had received the Holy Spirit by faith, not by the law.
He asks something similar in verse 5: “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” The answer is that the Holy Spirit—and salvation—comes by faith, not by law.
“Consider Abraham,” Paul says in verses 6-7. “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.” Paul is quoting Genesis 15. Through faith, we are children of Abraham. We inherit the promises that God gave to him.
Notice verse 9: “So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Faith brings blessings. But if we rely on our obedience, we will be condemned. We will fall short. But Christ saved us from that. He died for us. Notice verse 14: “He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”
Then, in verses 15-16, Paul uses a practical example to tell the Christians in Galatia that the law of Moses cannot do away with the promises given to Abraham. “Brothers, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed.”
That “seed” is Jesus Christ, but Jesus is not the only one who inherits the promises of Abraham. The point that Paul is making is that Christians also inherit these promises. Through Christ, we are Abraham’s children, and we inherit the promises through him.
A temporary law
Now we come to verse 17: “What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise.”
The law given at Mt. Sinai cannot set aside the Abrahamic covenant, God’s promise to Abraham based on Abraham’s willingness to believe in and trust in God. That’s the point that Paul is making. Christians have a relationship with God based on faith, not on law.
Paul’s point here is that the law of Moses—the old covenant—was temporary. It was added only until Christ came. That’s what we see in verse 19: “What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come.” Christ is the Seed, and the Law was added only until Christ came. Our relationship with God is not based on the Law, but on the promise given to Abraham.
Let’s read verses 24-26: “The law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law. You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” We are not under the old covenant laws.
Let’s drop down to verse 29: “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” The point is that Christians are given the Holy Spirit on the basis of faith. We are justified by faith, or declared right with God by faith. We are saved on the basis of faith, not on law-keeping, and certainly not on the basis of old covenant laws. Through Jesus Christ, we have a right relationship with God.
In other words, our relationship with God is based on a promise, just as Abraham’s was. Laws that were added at Sinai cannot change the promise given to Abraham, and those laws cannot change the promise given to all who are Abraham’s children by faith. The laws of Moses became obsolete when Christ died, and we are in the new covenant.
Even circumcision, which was given to Abraham as a sign of his covenant, cannot change the original promise based on faith. In Romans 4, Paul points out that Abraham was declared righteous, and therefore acceptable to God, while he was uncircumcised. It was at least 14 years later that circumcision was commanded. Physical circumcision is not required for Christians today. Circumcision is now a matter of the heart (Romans 2:29).
The law cannot save
The law cannot give us salvation. All it can do is condemn us, since we all are lawbreakers. God knew in advance that no one could keep the law. The law points us to Christ. The law cannot give us salvation, but it can help us see our need for salvation, and it helps us see that righteousness must be a gift, not something we earn.
Suppose that Judgment Day comes and the Judge asks us why he should let us into his domain. How would we answer? Would we say that we have kept particular laws? I hope not, because the Judge could easily point out laws that we haven’t kept, sins that we never knew we committed and never repented of. We can’t say that we were good enough. No—all we can do is plead for mercy. Christ died to redeem us from all sins. He died and rose again to rescue us from the penalty of the law. That’s our only basis for salvation.
When we accept this, our faith leads us to obedience. The new covenant has quite a few commands of its own. Jesus makes many demands on our time and our hearts and our money. Jesus did away with many laws, but he also reaffirmed certain standards of behavior and taught that God’s way of life should transform us in our thoughts and not just superficially. We must look to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles to see the way that Christian faith is expected to work in our lives in the new covenant.
Christ died for us so that we might live for him. We are saved from the slavery of sin so that we might become slaves of righteousness (Romans 6). We are called to serve one another, not ourselves. Christ demands everything we have, and everything we are. We are told to obey—but we are saved by grace.
Justified by faith
We can see that in Romans 3. In one short section, Paul spells out the plan of salvation. Let’s see how it confirms what we have seen in Galatians: “No one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify” (verses 20-21).
Old Testament scriptures predicted salvation by grace through Jesus Christ, and it does not come through the laws of Moses. The basis of our relationship with God is through our Savior Jesus Christ. Paul continues in verses 22-24: “This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Because Jesus died for us, we can be declared righteous. God justifies people on the basis of what Jesus did—and therefore no one can brag about how well they keep the law. Paul continues in verse 28: People are “justified by faith apart from observing the law.”
Abraham’s faith led him to obey God (Genesis 26:4-5), and our faith in God also goes hand-in-hand with a willingness to do what God says. Paul is talking about real faith, the kind that includes allegiance to Christ, a wholehearted willingness to follow him. However, no matter how well we obey, we are not saved by those works—we are saved by Jesus Christ, and we receive that by faith, not by works.
In Romans 5:1-2, Paul writes: “Since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God.”
Through faith, we have a right relationship with God. We are his friends, not his enemies. That’s how we will be able to stand before him on the day of judgment. The promise has been given to us through Jesus Christ. Paul explains this further in Romans 8:1-4:
Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.
Christ. This is the covenant promise that God has made with us. He counts us as righteous because of his Son. The law cannot change us, but Christ can. The law condemns us to death, but Christ promises us life. The law cannot rescue us from the slavery of sin, but Christ does. Christ gives us freedom, but it isn’t freedom to please ourselves—it is freedom to serve him.
Faith causes us to be willing to follow our Lord and Savior in whatever he tells us to do. We see clear commands to love one another, to trust in Jesus Christ, to preach the gospel, to work for unity in the faith, to meet together as a church, to build one another up in the faith, to do good
works of service, to lead pure and moral lives, to live peaceably and to forgive those who wrong us.
These new covenant commands are demanding. They absorb all our time. All our days are dedicated to serving Jesus Christ. We need to be busy doing his work, and it’s not the broad and easy path. It’s a difficult task, a challenging task, a task that not everyone is willing to do.
Our faith cannot save us—God accepts us based not on the quality of our faith, but on the faith and faithfulness of his Son, Jesus Christ. Our faith will never measure up to what it “should” be—but we are saved not by how much faith we have, but simply by trusting that Christ has enough faith for all of us.
For an essay that addresses this topic in greater detail, go to archive.gci.org/articles/covenant-law-and-gods-faithfulness/.
Author: Joseph W. Tkach