The Curse of the Law

Galatians 3
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

The message of today’s passage, and thus the message of today’s sermon, is that Jesus was cursed to save cursed people. And in order to understand what that means, we need to make sure we understand the meaning and context of this word: “cursed.” It’s not a word we use often in our day. And when we do use it, it’s virtually never in the way that Paul uses it here.

When we use the word cursed, we may mean one of a few things. We may use it to refer to certain words, profanity, “curse words.” Or we may use the word to speak of someone’s misfortune. Maybe we’d call someone cursed if bad things kept happening to them. My dad’s favorite sports team, the Cubs, gained a reputation for being cursed because for the longest time they couldn’t win the World Series. A third modern use of the word is commonly used in fairy tales, fantasy stories, to speak of a magical curse, or magic spell. In the Disney movie Beauty and the Beast, the character known as the Beast is actually a prince put under a curse, along with all those working in his castle. A magic spell transforms them from their human selves into forms less human. The prince becomes the Beast, the workers in the house become tea cups, wardrobes, candlesticks, and more. But none of these three uses are the same kind of curse that Paul speaks of in Galatians 3.

The word is used in Scripture to express varying degrees of cursedness. On the milder end of the spectrum, in some cases cursed appears to simply speak of misfortune. This is kind of similar to the way we sometimes use it. But on the more serious, and weighty end, being cursed speaks of being subject to divine harm as punishment for wickedness. It is this more weighty, more severe use of the word cursed that Paul uses in Galatians 3. He uses “cursed” to speak of someone who is subject to divine harm as punishment for sin. There can surely be no more severe way that a person can be cursed, than that they have the holy, almighty God actively pour out His fierce wrath against them. It is a terrifying thing.

We get a glimpse into the terror of being cursed by God, being subject to the wrath of God, in Ezekiel chapter 7. In Ezekiel 7 God is declaring His judgment against Israel for their continued wickedness. Starting in verse 8 He says:

Ezekiel 7
8 Now I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you, and judge you according to your ways, and I will punish you for all your abominations. 9 And my eye will not spare, nor will I have pity. I will punish you according to your ways, while your abominations are in your midst. Then you will know that I am the Lord, who strikes.

This is not a man saying these words, a man with limited power – this is the almighty God. It is a devastating thing to stand cursed before this God. But this is the type of cursing we read of in Galatians 3. And this is the type of cursing that I’m speaking of when I say that Jesus, the Son of God, was cursed to save cursed people.

There are a couple different tests given in our passage to determine whether someone is cursed. Whether someone is subject to divine judgment for their wickedness. The first test has to do with following the Law. Starting in the middle of verse 10, Paul writes:

Galatians 3
10b for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”

Has anyone here been able to abide by all things written in the Book of the Law? No. None of us have. Nobody here has, and nobody in the world has. And that’s no secret. It’s obvious really. Just follow anyone around for a little while, see what they do, what they say, and before long they’ll make it clear that they haven’t been able to abide by the whole Law. Even if they’ve trained themselves really well, to not sin outwardly in discernible ways, there’s still all kinds of sin going on in their hearts.

The heart matters. That’s why Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, had to keep refuting the Jews’ understanding of obedience to the Law. Over and over He starts out with, “You have heard that it was said,” blank – whether it’s, “You shall not murder,” or, “You shall not commit adultery,” or so on – and then He continues, “But I say to you” and what He says to them highlights the importance of the heart. Jesus taught that outward performance is not enough to obey the Law, the heart must obey as well!

All have sinned, all fall short, all have rebelled against God and disobeyed His Law. Whether outwardly, or in our hearts. I don’t think it’s too bold of me to say that all of us are guilty of both. And it’s for this reason that Paul can say what he does in verses 11-12.

Galatians 3
11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”

In other words, it’s evident that no one is justified by the law because the only way to live by the law is to do the law – to obey the law. And all of us have failed there. We continue to fail there. I’m not saying that everyone is as bad as they possibly can be. But that’s not the standard. The standard is not, “Don’t be as bad as you could be.” Or, “Don’t be as bad as some other people. As long as you find someone you seem better off than, then you’re good.” No, the standard is perfect obedience. And none of us can even pretend to claim that. All of us, when judged by our works, we bear a curse.

There’s a second group of people that are cursed, according to this passage. It’s very similar to the first group, but with a bit of a different focus. Back at the start of verse 10, we read:

Galatians 3
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse

“All who rely on works of the law.” Some translations say, “as many as are of the works of the law.” John Calvin comments, “They are declared to be of the works of the law who place their trust for salvation in those works” So all who rely on works of the law, trust in works of the law. Again, this is largely the same as what we just covered, but consider the nuance. There’s something subtly different about knowing you’re cursed because you haven’t perfectly kept the law, and knowing you’re cursed because you rely on works of the law.

I think we would all quickly, and perhaps casually even, confess that we’re guilty of the first thing. We get that we’ve disobeyed the Law. We get that we haven’t perfectly kept all of God’s instruction. Speaking for myself here, at times it’s almost that I too easily, too casually accept that truth. Like, “Yeah, sure I haven’t kept the whole Law, but…” But no one has. Like, it’s not that big a deal, because no one has kept the whole law. Can anybody relate to this sinful way of thinking? We quickly accept that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and then use that truth as an excuse for our sin.

When we use the truth that all have sinned, as an excuse for our sin, we will not be humbled by our sin the way we should be humbled. We will not be crushed by the Law the way we should be crushed by the Law. And if we’re not properly crushed, humbled, broken by the Law, then we will still be prone to reliance on works of the law. We will still be prone to reliance on ourselves – “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse” Our failure to follow the Law is meant to devastate us. It’s meant to break us. Because only when we are broken will we look to Jesus to fix us – and stop trying to fix ourselves. Only when we are brought low will we look to Jesus to lift us up – and stop trying to lift ourselves up. Without having any brokenness over our sin, we will continue looking to ourselves to fix us. We will continue looking to ourselves to lift us up. We will rely on ourselves. Rely on the things we do, or the things we don’t do – and Paul says people who live like that are under a curse.

So people who don’t obey the whole law are under a curse. And people who rely on works of the law are under a curse.

Now, I want to pause here a second and say, that – if your heart is at all like my rebellious heart, then all this talk of people being cursed, and talk of God’s wrath, it may not be leading you where it should lead you. It may not lead you to humility. Instead, it may be leading your heart to be a little colder, more callous toward God in the way you think about Him, the way you feel about Him. But we can’t blame God for the curse that mankind stands under. He’s not the bad guy in this story. We may be prone to shy away from the fierce justice of God, because it may not seem as immediately appealing as some of God’s other attributes. But what we need to remember is that evil must be punished. God cannot be good if He leaves evil unpunished. Do you agree with that?

How would we feel about a judge, or a jury, if, rather than punishing evil, they instead let all evil doers go free, with no punishment? They let murderers, all rapists, all criminals walk free, with no punishment whatsoever. We all know that that would be wicked. We don’t want judges like that, jurys like that. In a similar way, we should not want God to just look the other way when it comes to sin. We should not want Him to pretend sin is no big deal, and let the guilty go free to continue in their sin. That would not be right, it would not be just! And Paul explains that in Romans chapter 3. Listen to this.

Romans 3
God put [Jesus] forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. 26 It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.

These verses address what was seemingly a dilemma. How can God pardon guilty sinners, yet still be just?

What these verses say is that before Jesus came, God had passed over former sins without yet giving those sins a truly just punishment. Think about people like Abraham, Rahab, David – they had followed God, they had been saved by God, but all of them were far from perfect, right? They had not kept the whole law. And if their sin had never truly been paid for, then God could not save them and be just. The saints of old, their good works did not earn them forgiveness of sins. Nothing they did could have ever been enough to atone for their sin. We might say, “What about the sacrificial system?” All those lambs, and goats, and so on. But the sacrificial system was not sufficient to ultimately atone for sin. It was temporary. It was a place-holder for the real sacrifice, the real atonement that only Jesus could bring. By what He did, Jesus proved that God is just, He proved that God is righteous. Because in Jesus sin was punished. The sin of Abraham, of David, and so on. Their sin had to be punished, or else God wasn’t just. And so Jesus bore that punishment. He bore the full punishment. The full wrath. Jesus did that.

God is not the bad guy in this story. He’s the hero. Jesus is the prince who lays down His life to slay the dragon and rescues his future bride. Jesus is the hero. Galatians 3, starting in verse 13, says:

Galatians 3
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

This is true for anyone and everyone who will believe it! Jesus was cursed to save cursed people. He was cursed to save people who fail to follow the Law, and He was cursed to save people who are prone to relying on themselves. Jesus took our curse, He took the wrath that was owed to us.

It was not easy. It was not a light thing to do. Lyndon described last week so many aspects of the suffering Christ endured on the cross, and in the days leading up to the cross. It was the worst suffering that could ever be suffered. But Jesus bore it. And because He did, He redeemed all those who would look to Him.

Being a Christian doesn’t require getting yourself all cleaned up first, as if any of us could do that on our own. It doesn’t mean having your life be all neat and clean and together. Being a Christian is about knowing and loving Jesus Christ. It’s not about your past. Not about yesterday. It’s about today being humble before the Lord and crying out for His help. It’s about seeing your need, as a sinner, and surrendering to Jesus. The song of the Christian is “Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.”

Every single person in this world belongs to one of two camps. Either we live under a curse, or we have had that curse removed by Jesus. No one is free from the curse apart from Him. No one is redeemed into the arms of God apart from Him.

For those here who have not surrendered to Jesus, who have not sought refuge in Him, this message is a call to seize that refuge. It’s a call to go to Jesus, and have Him remove the curse that condemns you. Tell Him you need Him. Turn to Him.

For those here who have already done that, the call for us is to walk in the freedom that we have. Are we walking in the joy of knowing Jesus, and being known by Him? Are we walking in the joy of loving Jesus, and being loved by Him? Or are we living as if we are still under a curse? Where is our identity found? Is it in Jesus?

Ask yourself: in your everyday living, how much of the way you think about yourself, how much of that is wrapped up in you rather than Christ? Wrapped up in being a husband, a wife, single, an employee? How much of our self-worth, identity, the way we think about ourselves, is tied up in roles like that, rather than in being a child of God, a brother or sister of Christ? How much of it’s tied up in things we do, rather than the things God has done for us in Christ? How much of the way we think of ourselves has to do with the sufferings we’re facing right now? We’re so focused on the suffering we’re facing, rather than focusing on the one who endured suffering gladly to win our freedom?

We can get life so backwards at times. Relying on all the wrong things, finding our worth and value and identity in all the wrong things. And that leads to all sorts of problems. It can lead to frustration, to stress, to fear, depression, and bitterness, and many other difficulties.

We were not freed to go back to being slaves again. It was for freedom that Christ set us free. So let’s remember, that before we are anything else, we are redeemed. We bore a curse that we couldn’t shake, couldn’t remove. But God so loved us, that He sent His Son. And that Son said, “I will bear the curse, I will bear the punishment, I will endure the suffering – so that you might have freedom. Because I love you.” That is the God we have, that is the Savior we have, and that is the hope we have. Jesus paid it all.

Galatians 3
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.