Who Takes Your Curse?
Divine accomplishment or human achievement–faith or works, God’s way or your way of salvation
Cursed by the Law or blessed by faith–Galatians 3:10-14
“The righteous man shall live by faith.” This was the verse, the phrase, the truth that lit the fire of the Reformation. This was the passage that returned the true Gospel to believers worldwide. This was the saying that revolutionized a German monk named Martin Luther. He was a man who tried to earn his salvation. He zealously, conscientiously, aggressively attempted to accumulate enough merit–gain enough holiness, do enough works, live enough devotion to actually gain salvation through his own efforts.
Martin fasted and prayed until he was reduced to a mere skeleton. He flagellated himself with whips until he was a mass of cuts and sores. Mr. Luther continued to do penance and go on pilgrimages–anything to become saved. Then the great process of awakening began. Martin read, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” But at first he didn’t know what it meant. Later he suffered a dark period of illness and depression, during which he imagined he was under the wrath of God. Lying on a bed and fearing he would soon die, Luther found himself repeating the words over and over again—”The righteous man shall live by faith.”
Not long after he recovered, Luther traveled to Rome, where he visited the church of St. John Lateran. The pope had promised an indulgence forgiving the sins of any pilgrim who climbed the staircase. This staircase allegedly was to have come from the judgment hall of Pontius Pilate. Believing these steps were stained with the blood of Christ, pilgrims crawled on their knees up the stairs, pausing frequently to pray and to kiss each so-called holy step.
As he was making his way up this staircase, Martin Luther prayed to the Virgin Mary with each and every step. But at some point, at some moment, on these stairs, the light of the Gospel dawned in his heart, and Martin Luther was awakened by God. The Word of God cut through all his ritual prayers and thundered in his heart. He understood, “The righteous man shall live by faith”—by faith, not works, not penance, not stairs.
Martin Luther rose from his knees, brushed off the dust of that place, stepped boldly back down those stairs and marched out of the Church of Rome forever. Soon he posted a thesis and begin the protestant Reformation–all because of today’s truth, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” Martin Luther rightly understood that the works of the Law cannot justify anyone–only faith can.
This is the message Paul continues to pound home in Galatians–not works, but faith. Not the Law, but faith! Not circumcision, Sabbath-keeping, observing laws, maintaining a specific diet, or keeping feast days or fast days–but faith! No more, no less, but faith. Your efforts can’t save you–only God’s efforts on your behalf. Your religious righteousness can’t forgive you–only God’s reckoned righteousness. Your works will not give you salvation, but Christ’s work on your behalf can.
The good news–God can save you through His Son, by grace through faith. Do you need it? Yes. Why? Because of the bad news. The Law brings death–faith brings life. The Law condemns, faith converts. The Law is cursed, faith is the cure. In fact, if you try to earn your salvation, not only will you be as miserable as Luther was, you are and will be cursed by God.
Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 3:10 to 14. “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.’ 11Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ 12However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’ 13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— 14in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.’ “
You, me and every single person who has ever lived on planet Earth since Eden is in real trouble. God pronounces a serious judgment against every person who’s ever lived. You see it in verse 10, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” Cursed is “everyone”—in the Greek this means whole or all. Plainly, all laws written in God’s Law–you are required do them all, literally be doing them all.
God’s standard is perfection–no slip-ups allowed, not one single sin. God requires nothing less than total obedience to the entire law. God’s perfect law is for everyone–for Jew, Gentile, pagan, heathen, no matter those who have heard of Christ and those who have not heard of Christ. Every single human is obligated to obey their creator perfectly–to obey His Law. In fact, not only must we keep God’s Law, but everyone must keep God’s Law continually. God requires ongoing obedience to His revealed will. Doing so is the only way to live, since it reflects God’s character. It’s how you were designed to live–the best way. But people don’t–your friends don’t, your family doesn’t, and you don’t.
What is even more demanding is the Law must be kept in its entirety. You can’t fail even once. James 2:10 shouts, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it.” Get this–the punishment for failing to keep God’s perfect standard is God’s righteous curse. Every lawbreaker is subject to divine condemnation. As the Westminster Catechism states, “What does every sin deserve? Answer: Every sin deserves God’s wrath and curse, both in this life and the life to come.”
The doctrine of depravity is taught everywhere in Scripture. First Kings 8:46, “For there is no man who does not sin.” Isaiah 53:6, “All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way.” Romans 3:10, “There is none righteous, not even one.” Romans 3:23, “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We are condemned because of our sin and totally depraved are now unable to respond for help.
What the Bible says about human nature is confirmed by human history, which is a wretched tale of war and woe. The sinfulness of humanity is confirmed by your rude neighbors, by the lies of your co-workers, and the self-centeredness of people on the road and at the store. It is confirmed by the petty disagreements within your family. But the doctrine of total depravity writes its most compelling proof on our own hearts.
Your own guilty conscience ought to be enough to convince you you’re unworthy of God. Do you ever stretch the truth? Do you ever steal? Do you ever speak an unkind word? Have you ever had a lustful thought? If so, then God’s Law condemns you as an accursed liar, thief, pervert and murderer. So, if it is true that verse 10 everyone, without exception, is condemned by the curse of the Law, then why would anyone ever try to base salvation on keeping the Law? Which is Paul’s point in verses 10 to 14. Everyone who depends on the Law is under a curse, because the Law curses everyone who breaks it, and everyone does.
Ironically, by advocating obedience to the Law, the Judaizers were not escaping God’s curse, but actually embracing God’s curse. Regardless, these Judaizers strongly advocated the necessity of keeping the Mosaic Law in order to be saved. But that’s foolish. Abraham was not only declared righteous about fourteen years before he was circumcised, but Abraham was saved more than 500 years before God revealed His Law to Moses on Sinai. Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and countless other Hebrew believers all lived and died long before the written Law was given by God.
Just as the Judaizers and their Galatian victims should have known, that justification is by faith and not circumcision–they also should have known that it’s not by the Law as well. Therefore, after showing what faith can do in verses 6 to 9, Paul now shows what works cannot do in verses 10 to 14. And in this entire section, verses 6 to 14, you see Paul basing his argument solidly on Old Testament Scripture.
Verses 6 to 7 of Galatians 3 quotes Genesis 15:6, verses 8 to 9 quote Genesis 12:3. Verse 10 quotes Deuteronomy 27:26. Verse 11 quotes Habakkuk 2:4. Verse 12 quotes Leviticus 18:5. Verses 13 to 14 quotes Deuteronomy 21:23. All this, proves to the Judaizers, using their own Scripture, that salvation is by faith not works. So based on God’s Word, salvation is by faith alone, and not ceremony, diet, circumcision, good deeds or devotion. You can’t earn your salvation, so Paul says . . .
#1 Stop all attempts to EARN your salvation, by keeping the Law Verses 10 to 11a
If the Law cannot bless us, then how can we receive God’s blessing/God’s salvation? This is the question Paul’s been wrestling with throughout this letter. How do I stand in right relationship with God? How can God accept me? What must I do to gain his favor? How can I be justified?
There are two possibilities. Either I am justified by works of the Law, or I am justified by faith in Jesus Christ. Another way of saying it, I am justified by human achievement or am justified by divine accomplishment? I am justified by my doing or I am justified by believing what God has done.
This not only explains why a Catholic, Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist can’t be saved, but also exposes so-called Christians who are trusting in emotion, experience or theology for salvation instead of faith in the person and work of Christ alone. Paul is super-pointed in verses 10 to 11.
First Don’t try keeping the Law for salvation–the Law CURSES Verse 10a
Verse 10, “For as many as are of the works of the Law are under a curse.” Get this–a curse is a divine judgment that brings the sentence of condemnation. The idea Paul is communicating here is simple–all who rely on works of the Law for salvation are under a curse. You are condemned because you can’t do it–no one can be saved by living the Law. You’re not justified by works, you’re justified by faith.
Those who “rely on works of the law” are people who want to be accepted on the basis of their own merits. They expect God to justify them because they do the right things, say the right things, go to the right church, have a Christian family, believe right doctrine. But that approach is a legalistic perversion of the Law. Anyone who tries to be justified by working the Law is attempting the impossible, since God did not give us the Law to make us good.
Part of the Law’s purpose is to show us how bad we really are. It is completely hopeless/totally impossible to try to get right with God by keeping the Law. The Law is a matter of performance, but an impossible one. Even if justification could come by the Law, we could never be justified, because we cannot keep all the Law. So the problem with the Law is not the Law–the problem with the Law is our sin. Since we cannot keep the Law, the Law cannot bless us. All it can do is curse us, showing us our sin and placing us under the condemnation of God’s wrath. So Paul adds . . .
Second Don’t try keeping the Law for salvation==the Law requires PERFECTION Verse 10b
Verse 10b, “For it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.’ ” Paul makes his point by quoting Moses in Deuteronomy 27:26. The emphasis of this challenge is the expectation of the Law to abide by all things. To earn your salvation by the Law, means you must keep all the Law and all things in the Law, without exception. But the problem with doing that is, it puts you under the curse of condemnation, because no one has kept all the law except Christ.
Paul is clear—perfection, or all things in the Law. And you must do/perform all of them. Paul even confessed his inability to keep the Law as a devout Pharisee. He testified that Romans 7:10, “This commandment which was to result in life, proved to result in death for me.” Even as a believer Paul said in Romans 7:25, “I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin.” If anyone proudly insists on living by the Law (trying to earn their salvation) it will curse them (condemn them to Hell)–it will not save them, because they cannot do it.
Third Don’t try keeping the Law for salvation–the Law can’t JUSTIFY a sinner Verse 11a
Verse 11, “Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident.” It’s obvious faith and works operate according to different principles. They are two entirely different ways to live–by believing or by doing. If we live by faith, we trust God (believe God) to justify us through Jesus Christ. When Paul preached in Acts 13:38 to 39, he stated clearly, “By him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses.”
On the other hand, if we live by works, we count on our own contribution, our own efforts, our own good deeds, to make us fully acceptable to God. But we cannot have it both ways. Believing and doing are mutually exclusive–either we trust God to justify us through faith or we try to justify ourselves by works. Faith and works are like a man who has one foot on the dock and one foot in his boat. As the boat starts to pull away from the dock, he will have to make a choice, or else end up in the water.
As Calvin explained, they are two contrary ways to live–“The law justifies him who fulfills all its commands, whereas faith justifies those who are destitute of the merit of works and rely on Christ alone. To be justified by our own merit and by the grace of another are irreconcilable.” And no one can be justified by the Law. So . . .
#2 Only depend on FAITH alone for your salvation Verses 11b to 12
Paul illustrates these two opposites–faith or works, now, from the Old Testament. In verse 11 he quotes from the prophet Habakkuk–for, “The righteous man shall live by faith.” You should hear the entire verse. Habakkuk 2:4, “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.” This was also a very important verse to Paul, since it drives the theme of the book of Romans.
In the original context, Habakkuk’s words condemned the pride of the Babylonians who conquered Jerusalem. The prophet accused them of proud self-confidence. They were “not right in relation to God: instead of trusting in Him, they were aloof from God in a spirit of self-sufficiency, trusting only themselves.” But this is not how God wants His people to live. He wants them to live by faith.
Those who live by faith are the justified ones, the ones who’ve been declared righteous by God. Now that they are saved by faith, they must live by faith, as Abraham did. Instead of trusting in themselves, they must trust God. If you are saved by faith, and its saving faith, you will live by that same faith. Faith must characterize your relationship with the Lord from beginning to end.
The passage from Deuteronomy in verse 10 proves justification cannot be by the Law, and the passage from Habakkuk here in verse 11, proves it must be by faith. The ways of Law and faith are mutually exclusive. To live by Law is to live by self-effort and leads inevitably to failure, condemnation, and death. To live by faith is to respond to God’s grace and leads to justification and eternal life. Salvation can never be by human achievement–salvation is only by divine accomplishment.
First Avoid depending on the LAW, because the Law is not of FAITH Verse 11b
Verse 12 begins with this phrase, “However, the Law is not of faith.” The Law, written in Exodus 20 through Leviticus, operates on a different basis from faith. The only blessings the Law has to offer are for those who keep it. And the Law could save us if we could keep every Law perfectly. The trouble is, no one can. And Paul reminds us in verse 12, the Law is not of faith–it’s not dependent believing. The principle of the Law is living by doing–and the principle of faith is living by dependent believing.
This like the two old friends catching up after not seeing each other for twenty years. During the meal, they began to talk about spiritual things. The friend who came from out of town said he had not sinned for twenty years. This shocked the local friend who couldn’t reply. While he was trying to think of a reply, the waitress arrived with their food, and in her carelessness, she dumped the entire meal on the so-called sinless friend’s lap. He reacted by cursing and berating the waitress, to which his friend, with a smile said, “Well, I guess your sinless streak is over!” If we could keep the Law, we could be justified by the Law–but we can’t, so we won’t.
Second Avoid depending on the LAW, because the Law requires perfect OBEDIENCE Verse 12
Verse 12, “However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’ ” There are two ways to be justified. One is by works of the Law–but this is doomed to fail, because no one can continue to do everything written in the Law, not even a man who says he hasn’t sinned in twenty years.
The other way to be justified is by faith, which alone can make a sinner righteous before God. Martin Luther explained God’s true way of justifying sinners like this. God speaking, “If you wish to placate Me, do not offer Me your works and merits. But believe in Jesus Christ, My only Son, who was born, who suffered, who was crucified, and who died for your sins. Then I will accept you and pronounce you righteous.”
In verse 12, Paul is quoting another Old Testament text, using the Scripture against the Judaizers by showing them that salvation by works and salvation by believing cannot both be correct. “However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’ “ God’s written Law itself marks the danger of trying to live up to its standard, which is perfection. If you’re relying on works of the Law as your means of salvation, then you have to live by them–obey them perfectly.
#3 Count on CHRIST alone, who took your curse/PUNISHMENT Verse 13
Verse 13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’ ” This verse is a reminder of the penalty first mentioned in verse 10. The penalty or curse of the Law is the wrath of God. God’s Law pronounces a curse on everyone who fails to keep it, keep all of it, and perfectly. It’s a curse we are all under. Therefore, if you’re to be saved/blessed, the curse must be removed–and this is what Christ was doing on the cross, redeeming His people from the Law’s accursed penalty.
Redeemed is a word commonly used of buying a slave’s freedom. Christ justifies those who believe in Him by buying them back from their slavery to sin. The price He paid was the only one high enough to redeem all of mankind. FIrst Peter 1:19, with the “precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ.” Redemption describes the payment of a price.
Kids, it’s like the coupon on the top of a cereal box that can be redeemed for a prize. But the Greek word “redemption” puts you in the agora, the center marketplace of your city, where captured human beings went through the indignity of being sold like pieces of property to become the slave of another–to obey the wishes of another person for a price paid. Sometimes people sold themselves into slavery for a season. Sometimes a friend or relative would buy a slave back from captivity and set him free. When redeemed, the slave would be liberated through the payment of a ransom.
Ordinarily, a ransom price is paid by the highest bidder. With the redemption of God’s children, bound in slavery to sin, the price was the highest ransom of all. We have been redeemed by the very lifeblood of Jesus Christ. As Matthew 20:28b says, “The Son of Man came … to give his life as a ransom for many.” In order to pay this priceless ransom, Jesus had to endure God’s curse for sin.
Verse 13 says, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.” To grasp what that means, you must know the Old Testament Law for the execution of a criminal. Deuteronomy 21:22 and 23, “If a man has committed a sin worthy of death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, 23his corpse shall not hang all night on the tree, but you shall surely bury him on the same day (for he who is hanged is accursed of God), so that you do not defile your land which the Lord your God gives you as an inheritance.”
In ancient Judaism a criminal, usually executed by stoning, was then tied to a post, a type of tree, where his body would hang until sunset as a visible reminder of God’s rejection of Him and the consequences of crime. It was not that a person became cursed by being hanged on a tree, but he was hung on a tree because he was cursed. Jesus did not become a curse because He was crucified, but He was crucified because he was cursed in taking the sin of the world upon Himself.
The point of hanging a criminal in this way was to expose his capital crime to public shame. Hoisting his body onto a tree demonstrated he was under God’s curse. But he was not to be left on the tree overnight, for this would be an offense to God. That truth was extremely hard for most Jews to accept, because they could not imagine their Messiah being cursed by God or having to hang on a tree. But rather than conceal this fact, the apostles in the Early Church were actually in your face to draw attention to it. First Peter 2:24 in the ESV says, “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree.”
Verse 13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.” This is awesome! Jesus redeemed us, not by taking a curse, but by becoming a curse. Like 2 Corinthians 5:21, “He made Him who knew no sin, to be sin, on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Jesus was treated as if He were a sinner–He was treated as liable for all that a wicked person would be liable for. Legally speaking, He became sin.
Why is that so important? Because it shows what happens to you when you believe. If Jesus became a sinner for you, then you have become righteous in the same way. If Christ taking the curse means He was regarded by God as a sinner, then you receiving the blessing/salvation means that you are regarded by God as if you are perfectly righteous and flawless. Wow–look at you. Flawless! Salvation means much more than forgiveness and Heaven.
When you write on a chalkboard, you erase it–but there’s still chalk dust remnants. But not with Christ and true salvation. When your sin is punished on Christ and His righteousness covers you, you’re now a brand new chalkboard out of the Costco box–totally changed, a totally new board, completely righteous in God’s eyes, no remnants. You do not simply have your slate wiped clean–you’ve become perfect in God’s sight. And you stay perfect in God’s sight. And you do not begin by trusting in Christ’s curse on the tree for us, then later continue through human effort, as though you must now earn Christ’s ongoing blessing. No–you’ve been made righteous.
Back in verse 1, Paul called this foolish. Look at verse 13, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us.” The word “for” means on behalf of or in the place of, pointing to substitutionary atonement. Jesus was our substitute. He received the curse we earned (verse 13), so we might receive the blessing He earned (verse 14). Our sins and curse are given, or imputed, to Christ: And His righteousness, blessing and Spirit are imputed to us. You can’t keep the law to be perfect, but you were made perfect by faith in Christ. So Paul concludes with . . .
#4 Embrace Christ’s work alone to bring REGENERATION to all men through faith Verse 14
Christ’s work completes the promise to Abraham of regeneration to Gentiles through faith. He says in verse 14, “In order that in Christ Jesus, the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” The love of Christ is mind-blowing. Jesus was crucified to remove the curse. Since all true believers are no longer subject to the death penalty of the Law, you can receive the promise of the Gospel.
Now in verse 14, Paul summarizes everything he’s been teaching in this chapter. He reminds you of the blessing given to Abraham, which is a perfect standing with God. Abraham was saved by faith, and in Abraham all the peoples of the Earth would be blessed—meaning Gentiles can be born again. And Paul celebrates the promise of regeneration by the Spirit comes through faith, the same way Abraham was saved.
All these blessings could never come by the works of the Law, living nice, being kind. Verse 14 affirms, they come only “in Christ Jesus.” When you are in union with Christ, all of God’s blessings come to you. And you become in union with Christ through salvation by faith. All of God’s blessings come to you only through faith in the cross of Christ. Through the old cursed cross, the nations of the world can receive forgiveness for their sins. Through the old cursed cross, you are accepted by God’s justifying grace. Through the old cursed cross, you receive the promised Holy Spirit, His person, fruit and gifts.
All that external Law-keeping can do nothing. But faith can internally transform you by His Spirit. You receive all these blessings by faith in the crucified Christ, not works but faith. Faith deserves to have the last word. Why? Because faith is the last word in verse 14. What was a curse for Christ becomes salvation for you, by faith.
A Justification/salvation/regeneration is by FAITH
So what is justifying faith? Justifying faith involves self-renunciation. You put away all confidence in your own works and merit. You see yourself deserving punishment because of your sin, but you know the only way you can be rescued from just condemnation is for God to be merciful to you.
Justifying faith involves reliance upon the Lord. You no longer depend on yourself or anyone else. You don’t look within, you don’t wait for feelings, you’re not looking for an experience, you completely trust in who Christ is and what Christ did in taking your curse–your punishment. Justifying faith involves appropriation. You, as a sinner, gratefully receive the free gift of pardon Christ offers, seeking only to follow Him as you submit to His authority. Justifying faith does not have to be strong faith–it only has to be true faith. And true faith not only brings salvation to you, but glory to the One who saves.
B Justification by FAITH means salvation is a FREE GIFT
Don’t try to earn it or be nice enough, or think yourself saved, or look within, or merely believe sound doctrine, follow the pattern of family, or seek an experience. Adding to the Gospel of grace only destroys the true Gospel. Attempting to earn salvation in any degree robs God of His glory. It’s insulting to God. God is graciously holding out His hand and saying simply, “Take it–it’s a gift. You do nothing for it. You owe Me nothing in return.”
Since that is true, accept it. Accept the gift once and for all through an act of simple faith. Then continue to depend on the Lord by faith, as you stand firmly on the truth that your salvation from first to last–justification, sanctification, and glorification–is yours as a gift from His hand. Rely totally on the finished work of Jesus Christ. He suffered, died and rose for you.
C Justification is so much more than FORGIVENESS and Heaven
Through “the Spirit of promise”, all believers are given a river of grace–full, flowing, freshening, fruitening and free. You have a new nature. Behold all things become new–the indwelling Holy Spirit with His guidance, fruit, gifts, service, strength–all for you. Now by faith, God is your Father and your friend, Christ is your King and example. Every born again Christian is a brother or sister in an eternal, forever family. You are no longer cursed, you are now the most blessed people on the planet.
Don’t envy the lost, don’t covet the rich, don’t seek political power–you have more riches and more power than anyone on Earth has, all because of what Jesus did for you. Today, determine to live worthy of the Gospel of grace. Let’s pray.