The Curse of the Law

tim keller

In Galatians 3:10, Paul tries to explain to the Galatian church the long-lasting of effects of trying to live “under the law”. What is the outcome of trying to earn God’s love, as opposed to having it given to you in Christ? Paul says, “for all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”. Now, what does Paul mean by this?

Tim Keller, in his Galatians commentary “Galatians for You”, explains:

The result of living by the law is that we are “under a curse” (v. 10). This “curse” has two aspects. Theologically, anyone who says: I can be saved by obeying the law must then be prepared to really look at what the law commands. To love God wholly, we would have to obey the law wholly. To be blessed by God instead of cursed by Him, we would have to look at the law and satisfy its every demand. And that cannot be done. Objectively, attempting salvation-by-law-observance means we are cursed.

This means that, psychologically, everyone who is seeking to save themselves by their performance will experience a curse subjectively. At the very least, attempting to be saved by works will lead to profound anxiety and insecurity, because you can never be sure that you are living up to your standards sufficiently, whatever they may be. This makes you over-sensitive to criticism, envious and intimidated by others who outshine you. It makes you nervous and timid (because you are unsure of where you stand) or else swaggering and boastful (because you are trying to convince yourself of where you stand). Either way, you live with a sense of curse and condemnation.

Galatians 1:3-5: The What and Why of Our Salvation


Galatians 1:3-5 contains one of the most succinct, clearest, declarations of the gospel in the New Testament. These three verses contain not only the what of the gospel (what God did to save us), but the why (why would God choose to have mercy on us?).

Paul says in verses 3-5:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Notice here that Paul focuses on what God did to save us, and why he did it. So first, what did God do to save us? Paul says God saved us by giving Christ as a sacrifice for us. Jesus “gave himself for our sins”, is what Paul said. Second, Paul tells us why God saved us. God saved us because he mercifully willed to save us, and all to his glory.

What Paul is trying to highlight here is that our salvation is both from God and for God. All of salvation is from him, and consequently not from us.

God willed to save us, not because of foreseen merit, but simply because he chose to do so! And he saved us through Christ — we weren’t saved because of anything that we did (or didn’t do). We were saved because of Jesus’ death and resurrection. He is the basis of our salvation.

And because of this, it is all for God’s glory! Do you see the beauty in what God did to save us, and why he did it?

Timothy Keller gives some great insights on this passage. He says,

What Jesus did: How did Jesus rescue us? He “gave himself for our sins” (v. 4a). He made a sacrifice which was substitutionary in nature. The word “for” means “on behalf of” or “in place of”. Substitution is why the gospel is so revolutionary. Christ’s death was not just a general sacrifice, but a substitutional one. He did not merely buy us a “second chance”, giving us another opportunity to get life right and stay with God. He did all we need to do, but cannot do. If Jesus’ death really paid for our sins on our behalf, we can never fall back into condemnation. Why? Because God would then be getting two payments for the same sin, which is unjust! Jesus did all we should have done, in our place, so when he becomes our Savior, we are absolutely free from penalty or condemnation…

Why God did it: This was all done out of grace — not because of anything we have done, but “according to the will of the Father” (v. 4d). We did not ask for rescue, but God in his grace planned what we didn’t realize we needed, and Christ by his grace (v. 6) came to achieve the rescue we could never have achieved for ourselves.

There is no indication of any other motivation or cause for Christ’s mission except the will of God. There is nothing in us which merits it. Salvation is sheer grace.

That is why the only one who gets “glory for ever” is God alone (v. 5). If we contributed to our rescue… if we had rescued ourselves… or if God had seen something deserving of rescue, or useful for his plan, in us… or even if we had simply called out for rescue based on our own reasoning and understanding… then we could pat ourselves on the back for the part we played in saving ourselves.

But the biblical gospel — Paul’s gospel — is clear that salvation, from first to last, is God’s doing. It is his calling; his plan; his action; his work. And so it is he who deserves all the glory, for all time.

This is the humbling truth that lies at the heart of Christianity. We love to be our own saviors. Our hearts love to manufacture glory for themselves. So we find messages of self-salvation extremely attractive, whether they are religious (Keep these rules and you earn eternal blessing) or secular (Grab hold of these things and you’ll experience blessing now). The gospel comes and urns them all upside down. It says: You are in such a hopeless position that you need a rescue that has nothing to do with you at all. And then it says: God in Jesus provides a rescue which gives you far more than any false salvation your heart may love to chase.

Paul reminds that in the gospel we are both brought lower and raised higher than we can imagine. And the glory for that, rightly, all goes to “our God and Father… for ever and ever. Amen…(source)