Reading through Galatians this week, I paused over Paul’s familiar words:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because “the righteous will live by faith.” The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, it says, “The person who does these things will live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 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. (Gal 3.10-14)
Paul contrasts two claims which Scripture itself makes with respect to how the ‘life’ which God intends for us is achieved. On the one hand no one can rely upon the law for this life because (v. 11) “the righteous will live by faith” (or “the one who is righteous by faith will live”). Paul is quoting Hab. 2.4. This is the truth of the gospel reflected in the OT and exemplified in Abraham’s experience.
Paul then contrasts this with a different claim which, he argues, shows that “the law is not based on faith” (v. 12). Note the “on the contrary” which establishes the contrary nature ‘faith’ and ‘law’ as incompatible modes of relating to God and enjoying ‘life’. This reference comes from Lev 18:5, which Paul quotes: “the person who does these things [viz., observances of the law] shall live by them.” Paul understands this to be a false promise of life through the law, which is why he believes it shows “the law is not based on faith,” viz., it promises life to those who “do these things.” But as Paul demonstrates, Lev. 18.5 contradicts Hab. 2.4. The promise of life God made to Abraham is possessed and enjoyed by faith (Hab. 2.4), not by law (Lev. 18.5). The Mosaic law, Paul insists, is not “based on faith.”
What’s interesting here is Paul bringing together what he feels are contradictory Scriptural (i.e., biblical) claims about ‘law’ and ‘life’. It is Hebrew Scripture (Lev. 18.5) that promises life to those who keep the law, and it is also Hebrew Scripture (Abraham’s life and Hab 2.4) which elsewhere promises life to those who believe. Paul agrees with the latter against the former. He thus depends on Scripture (where it confirms the truth of the gospel) to disagree with Scripture (where it does not conform to the truth of the gospel). It will be disturbing news to some that any claim by Scripture can be false in this sense. But Paul’s argument here clearly proceeds on such grounds.
To clarify, I’m not attempting to define faith, life, law, or justification here. I’m merely observing the structure of Paul’s argument. In whatever sense he contemplates the law, Paul feels it is not “based on faith” because it promises life through faithful observance. And whatever Paul might understand faith to be (the believer’s faith or Jesus’ faithfulness), it is still the case that this is contrasted with law. All I’m pointing out here is that the structure of Paul’s argument includes Paul using Scripture’s truth (Hab. 2.4 and Abraham’s experience) to expose what he feels is some falsehood in Scripture (Lev. 18.5’s promise of life through the law).
This passage includes still another Scriptural claim we can be confident is false, namely, the claim that “whoever hangs on a tree is cursed [by God]” (v. 13 and Deut. 21.23). That is Israel’s false belief, but how can God demonstrate it to be false? He demonstrates it false by giving himself to it, by hanging on a tree without being cursed. But why believe Jesus was not cursed on the Cross? Because that is the meaning of the Cross in light of God’s raising him from the dead. The Cross is our verdict wrought upon Jesus. The resurrection is God’s contradicting verdict. Christ “becomes a curse” for us in the sense that he is treated by us in all the ways we identify with being cursed by God, not because we’re right in believing God to curse the innocent victims we hang on trees, but precisely because we’re wrong, and so that we can be proved wrong, to have ever thought so.