“Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. 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. 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. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.”
Paul’s purpose in Galatians 3 is to show us that salvation, in its entirety, is the inheritance of free grace, the result of God’s absolute and unconditional promise through the blood of Christ. He is showing us that no part of the inheritance can be obtained by the works of the flesh, by obedience to the law. Paul, writing by divine inspiration, uses argument after argument to demonstrate the fact that this is not some new doctrine, but that it is the doctrine of Holy Scripture, constantly taught throughout the Old Testament. In this passage he shows us that the blessing of Abraham, the blessing of salvation by the blood of Christ and the operation of God’s omnipotent grace is an eternal, covenant blessing.
Paul has already shown us that the promise God made
to Abraham was the promise of the gospel. That promise is an eternal, covenant
promise. Here the apostle shows us the steadfastness of that covenant and the
certainty of the promises of grace and salvation in the covenant, using earthly
things as illustrations of heavenly things. ― “Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed,
no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto” (v. 15). Because the promise was
given to Abraham 430 years before the law was given on
It is a matter of common knowledge that once a covenant has been ratified, it cannot be changed. Its terms cannot be altered. Paul’s point is this: ― Because the promises of grace and salvation were made before the law was given, the law cannot alter or in any way nullify those promises. Therefore, justification, salvation, sanctification, and eternal life cannot come by the law. All the blessings of the gospel come by God’s free, unalterable promise, through the merits and efficacy of Christ’s redemptive accomplishments to all who, like Abraham, believe the gospel.
If a man’s covenant cannot be overturned by something that happens after the covenant is ratified, you can be sure God’s covenant cannot be. ― “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” (v. 16). The promises of the gospel were given long before the law and cannot be annulled or modified by the law that came later. The word translated “covenant” in verse 15 refers to what we would call “last will and testament.” There is no doubt that Paul uses the word in that sense here to illustrate his point. Yet, he is using it to refer to something far greater than a man’s last will and testament. He is using it to refer to God’s everlasting, immutable, unalterable covenant of grace, and the promises of it made with his Son as our Surety before the world began.
Paul stresses the fact that the promise God made to Abraham was totally wrapped up in one person, Abraham’s “Seed,” the Lord Jesus Christ. The promise was, from the beginning, based upon the work that Christ accomplished from eternity as the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world, and would accomplish in time as our Surety, Redeemer, and Covenant Head. Therefore, as it has been from the beginning of time, so it is now. Grace, salvation, forgiveness, and eternal life flow to believing sinners freely through the sacrifice of Christ.
which God confirmed to Abraham in Christ by the gospel that was preached to him
cannot be nullified by the law given at
“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” (v. 18). The inheritance Paul speaks of is an eternal inheritance, everlasting life and happiness in heaven. This is the gift of God in, by, and through Christ. It is not gained by obedience to the law, but by the gift of grace. This inheritance of grace includes all the blessings of grace and glory (Eph. 1:3; 1 Cor. -31). Paul is distinctly asserting that this inheritance includes justification and sanctification in Christ, the distinct blessings of grace promised in the covenant to Abraham and his spiritual Seed, that is to all God’s elect, both Jews and Gentiles, in Christ, Abraham’s Seed.
These bounties of grace do not belong to those who seek them by the deeds of the law. They are not the heirs of the promise (Rom. ). These promises are obtained by faith alone, without works (Rom. ). And there can never be a mixture of faith and works, of grace and law, of mercy and merit. If salvation comes by promise, it cannot come by law. If it comes by law, it cannot come by promise. Salvation is the free gift of God by grace in Christ, without the works of the law. As John Gill states it, “God gave it, freely, without any consideration of the works of the law, to Abraham by promise; wherefore justification is not by works, but by the free grace of God, through faith in the righteousness of Christ; and in this way men become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
The fact that Paul speaks of the space between God’s promise to Abraham as being 430 years sometimes causes confusion. There were considerably more than 430 years between the time God’s covenant promises were given to Abraham (Gen. 12) and the giving of the law on Sinai (Ex. 20). Actually more than 600 years elapsed between the two events.
Did Paul make a
mistake? Is there an error found in the Bible? Of course not! I am certain that
Paul understated the space of time on purpose, taking the 430 years from Exodus
12:40-41, which refers to the time of
That which Paul obviously has in mind, when he speaks of God’s covenant with Abraham and the blessings of it, is the everlasting covenant of grace, so often spoken of in the Book of God (Jer. 31; Ps. 89; Heb. 8; Heb. 12; Eph. 1; 2 Tim. 1). John Gill tells us that, “The covenant of grace is a compact, or agreement made from all eternity among the divine Persons, concerning the salvation of the elect.”
This covenant of grace is an eternal covenant. Before there was a star in the sky, before the sun was fixed in its place, before there was an angel in heaven to sing the praises of the triune God, before there was a man on earth made in the image and likeness of God, the everlasting Father determined to have a people for himself, like his only-begotten Son. As he loved his Son, so he loved his people before the world was (John -24). It was a covenant of pure grace and free mercy, made for God’s elect in Christ our Surety (Heb. ).
These are the words of that covenant as they are given in Scripture. ― “Mercy shall be built up forever: thy faithfulness shalt thou establish in the heavens. I have made a covenant with my chosen, I have sworn unto my servant. Thy seed will I establish forever, and build thy throne to all generations. My mercy will I keep for him forevermore, and my covenant shall stand fast with him” (Psa. 89:2-4, 28). The Psalmist declared, “The mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting” (103:17).
This covenant of grace, and redemption, and life, was made between the sacred Persons of the blessed Trinity before the world began. Man had nothing to do with it. The foundation of the covenant is the love of God and his sovereign pleasure. The covenant was entirely free. The grace of God is its only cause. This everlasting covenant is the basis of all of God’s decrees and works. It is “his own purpose” according to which he brings all things to pass (Rom. -30). He made the angels to be the servants of those whom he had appointed heirs of salvation. He made the earth as the abode of his elect. He created a race of men to call his people from among them. He ordained the fall of that race in order to show the fullness of his love in redeeming his people from the ruins of the fall. He gave the law to show us the terror we deserved. He gave his Son into the hands of the law to magnify the law and make it honorable, to satisfy its holy justice, and to display his great love for us in redeeming us. He ordained every step of our lives so that each of his elect might show forth most brilliantly the riches of his grace and glory forever. He sent his Spirit to fetch us to himself.
What does all this mean to believing sinners, to poor, weak, worthless sinners who look to Christ alone for salvation and eternal life? It means, “All things are yours, for ye are Christ’s, and Christ is God’s.” It means, “all things work together for good” to you. It means that “no evil shall happen” to you. It means that you “shall never perish.” God’s covenant encompasses all things for us. I remind you, too, that this is an immutable covenant. It is “ordered in all things and sure.” God will never break his covenant. Of our God it is written, he is a God “keeping covenant” (Neh. ). His faithfulness, which he will never allow to fail, is engaged in the covenant. “My kindness shall not depart from thee, neither shall the covenant of my peace be removed, saith the Lord that hath mercy on thee” (Isa. 54:10). “My covenant will I not break, nor alter the thing that is gone out of my lips” (Psa. 89:34). This covenant is never to give way to another. It was hidden in ages past, under the law, in types and shadows; but it stands forever. “God hath sent redemption to his people: He hath commanded his covenant forever: holy and reverend is his name” (Psa. 111:9).
It is just this point for which Paul is arguing in Galatians 3:15-20. In Hebrews he calls it “the everlasting covenant”. The law, as a covenant of works, has waxed old and vanished away. It has been replaced by the full revelation of the covenant of grace, which will continue until the end of the world when Christ shall give up his mediatorial kingdom unto the Father and God shall be all in all (1 Cor. 15:24).
In verses 19-20 Paul shows us that the law was given, not as a system by which sinners should seek to be saved, not as a rule of conduct by which believer’s are to measure their spiritual might and superiority over others, but it was added as a temporary thing to restrain wickedness by the threat of punishment, until Christ came and brought in the fulness of God’s covenant promise. ― “Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.”
The law was given long after
the promise of eternal life was made (Tit. 1:2). It was given to reveal and
expose the sin and guilt of men, to constantly remind and make men conscious of
their sin. The law was given at Sinai to show sinners their need of a Substitute
and to reveal Christ, the Messiah, the Redeemer, in types and pictures until he
came (Heb. 10:1-9). Even as God gave his law on
As Moses was mediator between God and Israel on Sinai, the Lord Jesus Christ, our God-man Savior, is the Mediator between God and men (1 Tim. 2:5; Heb. 8:6; 9:15; 12:24; Acts 4:12). A mediator has to do with more than one party. There can be no mediator if only one person is involved. Yet, God is only one person; he is the one offended, standing off at a distance, giving the law in the hands of a mediator, revealing their alienation. Therefore, justification cannot be expected through the law. Someone must step in, take up our cause, and satisfy the law for us, or we must perish. That Someone is the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, our Mediator and Surety. He took up our cause from eternity, assumed total responsibility for our souls before the world began, and has sworn to his Father that he will bring his own elect safe to glory at last in the perfection of his righteousness and holiness (John 10:16; Heb. 2:13), according to the terms of the covenant (Eph. 1:3-6), presenting us before the presence of his glory holy and without blame before the holy Lord God.