After explaining salvation from Abraham to Moses to Christ, Paul now further examines the purpose of the Law – an analysis he started in verse 19 – and contrasts what it is to be under it compared to being in Christ. The Law is a prison and a disciplinarian and is not intended as a final home for God’s people. The point of the Law is to lead us to Christ. To stay under the Law now that Christ has come is to stay in prison after freedom is available. To be in Christ is to be sons of God free from the Law, united with others who are in Christ. Why would anyone choose to be in custody under the Law when they can be in Christ?
Verse 23 further explains verses 19 and 22. In 19 Paul said the Law was added until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made. This means the Law was effective only until Christ came. In 22 he said the Law shut up all men under sin – making men aware of what sin is and how hopeless any effort to escape it is. Now in 23 he joins the messages together to say the Law kept all who were under it in custody until faith was revealed (the NASB is a little confusing in saying shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed – “to the faith” really means “until the faith”). The Law set the standard for approaching God but did not enable anyone to approach Him. Thus it was a jailer who defined the terms of freedom but gave no ability to gain it. But when faith was revealed – when Christ came – the way of freedom was provided to those in custody.
Verse 24 summarizes the outcome of Christ’s coming. In hindsight we can see that the Law‘s purpose was to lead us to Christ that we may be justified by faith. The jailer made us aware of our sentence and the terms of freedom. But like a strict disciplinarian [The Greek word translated tutor or guardian or in charge is “paidagogos” (pedagogue). A paidagogos is a guardian – typically a slave – who is responsible for overseeing the son of a wealthy family into his adult years – roughly from the age of 7 to 17. He oversees the boy’s education – though he is not a formal teacher – and makes sure the boy conducts himself well and according to his station. The paidagogos is typically very strict and often harsh. Paul uses this same word in I Corinthians 4:15 and contrasts it with a father – one disciplines and the other loves. In 4:21 he asks if he should come to the Corinthians with a rod – like a paidagogos – or in love like a father], it hounded us and drove us and made sure we ended up where we were supposed to go. It set the terms of freedom so high that it forced us to look elsewhere for justification. It also foreshadowed redemption in its ceremony and sacrifices (Heb 10:1). The Law was ultimately a weapon of grace leading us to the Savior.
Note that verses 22 and 24 both end the same way – the Law led us to justification by faith. The Law itself could not justify but its purpose was to lead us to the faith that could. It always comes back to faith. NO ONE has ever been saved through works.
This then leads to some confusion when comparing verse 23 to Paul’s earlier example of Abraham. If Abraham was justified through faith over four centuries before the Law, what does it mean that the Law kept Israel in custody until faith came? Said another way, how could people be in custody waiting for faith over four centuries AFTER Abraham was justified through it? Does Paul contradict himself by saying faith was not available until the time of Christ right after saying that through it Abraham was saved? Or did things change when the Law was given and then go back to the old way when Christ came?
Below are several views on this problem:
By “faith” Paul means new covenant faith in Christ. Thus he is saying, “before Christ came and along with Him new covenant faith in Him.” Since Paul is using Abraham as an example of justification by faith, he cannot mean that there was no saving faith before Christ came but only that there was no new covenant faith resting on the knowledge of Christ’s finished work. – ESV Study Bible
Trust in God has always been the characteristic attitude of the saved, but it was not possible to have faith in Jesus before Jesus appeared on the earth. Paul is not saying that there was no way of salvation in Old Testament times (people could and did trust God through all those centuries), but simply that the way salvation was brought about was not known in those times. – Leon Morris
By “this faith” he means “the Christian faith,” that faith he has just spoken of in verse 22 – faith in Jesus Christ as Savior. This faith is like the faith exercised by Abraham. But it is different in that it relates to the explicit revelation of Christ in time and to the distinct Christian doctrines concerning Him. Faith waited for this complete revelation. – James Montgomery Boice
What does he mean: “Faith has come”? I don’t think he can mean that no one in Israel had saving faith before Christ came. Abraham did (Gal 3:6). And Psalm 32 portrays a man whom the Lord reckons righteous by faith apart from works (Rom 4:6-8). Hebrews 11 gives a believers’ hall of fame from the time of the law. So Paul does not mean that no one had faith before Christ came, or that justification was by works before Christ came. There were believers who were justified by faith all along, 7,000, Paul says, in the time of Elijah (Rom 11:4).
I think what Paul means when he says that “faith has come,” is that by God’s grace a period in redemptive history has come in which great numbers of people, especially Gentiles, are responding to God’s Word in faith. “Faith has come” means that a great movement has begun whose members are marked by this above all else—they trust like little children in the mercy of God. – John Piper
So what Paul seems to say is that before faith came men were justified by faith but their faith was not explicitly in a Messiah they did not know. They instead had faith that God would fulfill what He promised. Abraham had faith that God would bless all nations through his seed (3:6-8). Moses had faith that God would save His chosen people (Heb 11:24-29). David had faith that God could justly forgive him (Ps 51). The people of God who lived before Christ all had faith in God’s salvation but did not fully understand nor live to see the basis of that salvation.
All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth (Heb 11:13).
As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful search and inquiry, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven – things into which angels long to look (I Pet 1:10-12).
Thus Christ’s coming did not usher in a new way of salvation as much as a new era of faith – faith in Christ explicitly rather than faith in God’s salvation generally. And Christ ended the custody of the Law because in Him is the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation from eternity past. Apart from Christ the Law is simply a jailer that leaves no hope for freedom. With Christ, the Law fulfills its intended purpose – a vehicle that leads to justification through faith. And because of Christ the Holy Spirit now enables people to keep God’s commands. Thus the custodial portion of the Law’s purpose has ended – we are no longer shut up because salvation is complete.
Now Paul explains what it means to be in Christ rather than in custody under the Law. We are no longer under the authority of the paidagogos – the overseer’s job is done. Why? Because we are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. We no longer need a custodian because we have assumed our full inheritance as sons (Paul will develop this point more fully in 4:1-7). And we are sons of God through faith. Our standing before God is through faith in Christ and not by works under the Law. And only those who are in Christ are sons of the Father. Our sonship is not deserved, not earned – it is received through faith.
As sons of God we are so identified with Christ that Paul says we are clothed with Christ. We show this when we are baptized into Christ. Our baptism is symbolic of our status – it shows what we are (note that after vehemently rejecting circumcision as mandatory for salvation Paul does not in this verse turn around and replace it with baptism – he simply states what baptism represents). When we are baptized we show we are in Christ (it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God – 2:20). And if we are in Christ we clothe ourselves with Him. The metaphor signifies not that which is merely external but habitual association and identification with Christ – Leon Morris. To be clothed with Christ means others see Him when they look at us.
There is more. We not only are in Christ individually, we are in Christ collectively. If you are in Christ and I am in Christ then together we are one in Christ Jesus. Regardless of race (Jew nor Greek), social status (slave nor free man), or sex (male nor female), we are one because of our standing before God in Christ. Do not miss that these are HUGE distinctions in the Hebrew, Greek and Roman cultures. Jews do not typically even talk to Gentiles. Greeks reject outsiders as uncultured, Romans look down on any nationalities they conquer. Slaves are everywhere throughout the Roman Empire and have no rights at all in any sphere of society. And women are largely uneducated and have no influence and no authority. A common prayer among men is to thank God that they are not uncivilized, an unbeliever, a slave, or a woman. For Paul to erase all divisions within Christianity is revolutionary. And yet he boldly says we are united because we share our identity in Christ. When it is all of Christ any distinctions cease to exist.
Consider: Verse 28 means we belong. Regardless of money or race or social status or sex, we belong. We have a family who loves us and cares for us. We are not alone. Not only does our heavenly Father provide our salvation and promise never to leave us or forsake us, and not only does He count us as sons and give us all the privileges of sonship – He provides others who are one with us and who count us as belonging WITH them. We are not alone – we are loved and cared for – and our differences or inferiorities or accomplishments or fears do not matter. We are bound together as members of the same family and are all redeemed sinners who stand with nothing to justify us other than Christ crucified. We are all crucified with Christ – and that is the great equalizer and unifier. It is no longer we who live but Christ lives in us – and in that we are all the same.
Think about the difference between Christianity and other groups that bring people together. Typically human associations are based on what people are or what they have done. We belong to groups based on race or social status or accomplishment or relation. But Christianity is based on what was done for us. Our shared bond is that none of us deserves to be in the club. And since none of us deserves to be here, none of us is superior to any other. Our differences may separate us in certain areas of life, but in Christ we are one and differences do not exist.
Paul brings his argument full circle in verse 29. If we belong to Christ (because He redeemed us), then we are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. He repeats what he said at the beginning of this section in verse 7 – those who are justified through faith as Abraham was are the ones who are truly his descendants. And if we are his descendants then we are heirs to the promise God made to him that all nations would be blessed through his seed – Christ. Our inheritance is based on promise, not the Law. We are justified through faith, not works. The promise to Abraham was fulfilled entirely in Christ – nothing else is required.
The Jewish false teachers are Abraham’s physical descendants but the Galatian believers are Abraham’s spiritual descendants. There is no reason for the Galatians to feel inferior to the Jews. And there is no reason to abide by the Law in order to join Abraham’s people. The Galatians are Abraham’s people. The false teachers are in the custody of the Law of Moses, the Galatians are heirs of Abraham and free in Christ. Why choose custody over freedom? Why act as foolish Galatians who are bewitched (3:1)?
Read back through verses 25-29. Note the words Paul uses to describe our status as redeemed people. We are sons of God. We are in Christ. We are baptized into Christ. We clothe ourselves with Christ. We are one with others who are in Christ. We belong to Christ. And according to 2:20 we are crucified with Christ. These are both privileges and expectations. We should rejoice in our status but we should also be sobered that Paul states these as givens for the child of God. EVERYTHING about us is of Christ. Paul goes out of his way to describe our lives as centered on Christ from every conceivable angle. We are in Him. We belong to Him. We are clothed with Him. We are sons like Him. We are one with others who are in Him. This is what we are and who we are. We do not ADD Christ to our life – He IS our life.
And if He IS our life it has practical implications. The life that is Christ should not habitually derail because of feelings, circumstances or temptations. The life that is Christ should not repeatedly lose heart because of unmet expectations. If we continually fall to temptation and discouragement we must rehearse what Paul tells us in this text. How can we live defeated lives when we are sons of God who are IN Christ? How can I love sin when I have been crucified with Christ? How can I act like the world or covet its rewards when I am clothed with Christ? How can I fail to love others with whom I am one in Christ? How can I feel alone when I belong to Christ?
I am crucified with Christ.
I no longer live because my life is lived by Christ.
I am a son of God through faith in Christ.
I am clothed with Christ.
I am one with others in Christ.
I belong to Christ.
In Christ I am a son of God. In Christ I am united to all the redeemed people of God, past, present and future. In Christ I discover my identity. In Christ I find my feet. In Christ I come home. – John Stott