Your Lord Keeps Every Promise (Galatians 3:15-18)


Your Lord Keeps Every Promise

Galatians 3:15-18

“I promise”–few words bring more hope, or . . . more disappointment, than those. You promise your children a summer trip to Hawaii, and they celebrate for weeks over how you are the greatest parents on the planet. Then, you update them on the necessary cancellation of the island adventure and you instantly become Mr. and Mrs. Hitler. You know how all of you can go from delight to disappointment to despair in a matter of seconds, over how you handle those two powerful words, “I promise.”

The reason, “I promise,” a very small sentence, is loaded with emotion is simply this–we live in a world of broken promises. From cancelled dates to divorce, from failed payments to bankruptcies–each of you have experienced the pain of broken promises. As Chuck Swindoll says, “Even though the whole fabric of our society rests on people keeping their word, more and more we see the threads of that fabric wearing thin as broken promises lead to broken relationships; broken lives; and broken hopes.”

Sadly, a person’s word is only as good as the person’s character and capacity. Only a person with both the integrity and the ability to fulfill a promise can be completely trusted. But if a person is weak in integrity or lacks ability, a promise may be, and often is, broken. That means leaders, parents, relatives, friends, employers, teachers, coaches–even brothers and sisters in Christ will, at some point, break their promise.

To experience both perfect character and unwavering capacity, you and I need to turn from faulty and frail humans to a faultless, faithful and formidable God. Only God can, and only God will keep all His promises to His people. Nothing, not even our disobedience, can invalidate His unconditional promises. Nothing, not even thousands of years, will erode His guarantees. Nothing, not even other promises, will nullify His pledges and vows. God keeps His word. God’s promises cannot be broken, any more than God’s character can be changed. Paul says it this way, speaking of salvation promises–2 Corinthians 1:20a, “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him… they are yes.”

So now in Galatians 3:15 to 18, the apostle Paul explains the impact of God’s timeless trustworthiness on our salvation and His powerful promises in our Christian lives. In doing so, Paul gives another reason why the Galatians and you here, at FBC today must reject the false salvation of human achievement by keeping the rules of the Law, and embrace only the true salvation of divine accomplishment by believing in Christ.

Open your Bibles to Galatians 3:15 to 18, take your outline and let’s read the passage together. “Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. 16Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ. 17What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.”

In this chapter thus far, verses 1 to 14, Paul proves from the Old Testament Scripture that Abraham was justified by faith and not by Law–and that every single believer, whether Jew or Gentile, is likewise saved only by faith, made effective by Christ taking sin’s curse upon Himself through His death and resurrection.

Now in verses 15 to 18, the apostle Paul writes in anticipation of a probable argument from the Judaizers. These men are Paul’s adversaries–they are false teachers, the men who believe in salvation by human achievement, salvation by Law and by circumcision. These Judaizers will raise an argument against what Paul has just proved from the Old Testament. What will Judaizers argu? How will these false teachers attack the Gospel of grace?

This is what the false teachers are saying that verses 15 to 18 will answer–ready? Certainly God granted that Abraham and his pre-Sinai descendants were saved by faith–but isn’t it obvious? When God later delivered His marvelous law to Moses, the basis of salvation changed. A new covenant was made and a new means of salvation was then established. After Moses, the criteria of salvation became Law in the place of faith, or at least the Law became a necessary supplement to faith.

The false teachers would assert this–the covenant with Moses annulled and unseated the covenant with Abraham. They’d say Abraham’s salvation by faith was just a temporary measure God provided until God gave Moses the more perfect and complete covenant of the Law. “Come on, Paul–you were a Pharisee, you get this,” the Judaizers would insist. “Abraham and the others who lived before the Law were saved by faith only because they did not have the Law. Why else did God give the Mosaic covenant of the Law?”

I believe that is the anticipated, imaginary argument Paul answers in today’s passage. The heart of Paul’s answer is to show that the covenant with Abraham, the promise that God made to Abraham, was an unconditional covenant, a guaranteed promise, relying solely on God’s faithfulness. Whereas the covenant with Moses was a conditional covenant relying on man’s faithfulness. God does not break His promises.

John MacArthur says, “To Abraham, God said, ‘I will.’ Through Moses He said, ‘Thou shalt.’ ” The promise set forth a religion dependent on God. The Law set forth a religion dependent on man. The promise centers on God’s plan, God’s grace, God’s initiative, God’s sovereignty, God’s blessings. The Law centers on man’s duty, man’s work, man’s responsibility, man’s behavior, man’s obedience. The promise, being grounded in grace, requires only sincere faith. The Law, being grounded in works, demands perfect obedience. The key is, God’s promise of salvation by grace through faith can never be nullified.

In contrasting the covenants of promise and the covenants of Law, this week Paul first shows the superiority of the promise today in 15 to 18, and then next week, the inferiority of the Law in verses 19 to 22. Promises are a big deal in everyday life. Behind every untrusting girl is a dad and or a boy who lied, cheated, and broke his promise to her. Christians can get hurt too, when other believers let them down, fail, break a promise, or don’t do what they say.

Yet Paul begins by answering the assumed argument in verses 15 and 16, points 1 and 2 with a reminder that as people, we do trust people to keep their legal promises. And since we do, then we should also trust God to keep His promises–especially His promises made to us, through to Abraham to Christ to us. Track with me on point 1, verse 15 . . .

#1  If you already TRUST the promises made with PEOPLE (law contracts)  Verse 15

Paul is underlining what the Law can’t do–so Paul uses an example from everyday life in verse 15, “Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it.” You would agree, many human contracts are binding, difficult, even impossible to void.

ESV makes it clear in Galatians 3:15, “To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.” And the NIV, Galatians 3:15, “Brothers … let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case.”

Now feel the emphasis here–the Greek word Paul uses for “covenant” is often used for a legal will or a binding agreement. That’s the example here, since once a family will is duly and legally made, it is binding, no matter what changes or conditions may occur. If a woman leaves her poor daughter more money than her rich daughter, that legal document is still binding–even if the rich daughter loses all her wealth and becomes poor the day after her mother dies. The will holds, despite new conditions–the will is set and the promises certain, even if a great amount of time has passed.

So it is with God’s covenant. God’s binding will to us in Abraham can’t be changed. So practically, what does this mean? Stay with me. If the law of Moses was intended to be the means for salvation (keep the Law to get saved), then the promise to Abraham would not have been a real promise. God made a promise–salvation came to Abraham and his descendants by faith. If the Law of Moses is now the means of salvation, then God’s previous promise is a lie, broken–it’s not a promise.

But the promise made to Abraham–the promise that he was reckoned righteous by his faith. That true salvation came to Abraham, not by his actions but, through his beliefs–not from his obedience to Law, but by dependence on God through faith. That promise was sealed by a covenant–a binding, spiritually legal agreement. That means Paul is taking us back once more to Genesis 15—turn there.

When Abram asks God in Genesis 15:8, “Sovereign Lord, how can I know that I will gain possession of it?” How do I know I will gain this promised blessing? How does God respond? God tells Abram to get a cow, a goat, a ram, a dove and a pigeon. And Abram knows what to do with them—verse 10, he cut them in two and arranged the halves opposite each other. This seems strange to us–but in Abram’s day, this was how a covenant was signed. Get this–each covenant-maker would pass between the halves of the animals, in order to ratify the promise, seal the deal, guarantying the promise will be kept.

It is a very graphic way for those entering into a covenant to say this—”If I break this agreement, may I be cut in half and made dead. If I violate this promise, I deserve to die in just the same manner as these animals.” But what is astonishing in this covenant between God and Abram is that Abram never walks between the halves–verse 12, “Abram fell into a deep sleep.”

God intentionally caused this sleep to occur, so God alone would make the promise. The one who is always faithful to keep all His promises guarantees the promise to those like Abram and all his spiritual children, who are known for their faithlessness and promise breaking. The only party that passes between the dead animals is God symbolically through a smoking firepot with a blazing torch. God alone ratified the promise. God alone certified the promise. God alone made this covenant. Abram was supposed to walk through it with the Lord, but God determined that this covenant would be dependent solely on Himself.

The promise by God to Abram is a covenantal promise. A covenant, always involves two or more specific parties, but the terms can be stipulated and fulfilled by only one party. And this covenant relies in no way on Abram, but only on God. God would die before He broke His promise to bless Abram and His descendants to deliver on many things–most importantly, a salvation which comes only by faith. Get this–the promise of salvation by grace through faith given to Abraham and his descendants was guaranteed by God Himself. God alone made the covenant.

Back to Galatians 3–so what is Paul teaching in verse 16? Just like a family will or a legal document cannot be set aside or have conditions added to it, so much the greater, God’s covenant cannot be set aside or add conditions. And this covenant was ratified by God and only God Himself, guaranteeing the promises to Abraham and his descendants of the land and a future. And most importantly of salvation by faith, of getting right with God through belief cannot be altered or set aside in any way–it is binding.

The promise of Genesis 15:6 in the NIV, “Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness” is still in play. And God Himself will do all the work and accomplish this promise through one particular descendent of Abraham. So if you can trust a family will, you must trust God’s promise.

#2  Then TRUST in God’s Promises (to Abraham) because of Christ  Verse 16

What does all this have to do with the Galatians, or with us? Paul answers this question by identifying the party to the covenant. Verse 16, “Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, ‘And to seeds,’ as referring to many, but rather to one, ‘And to your seed,’ that is, Christ.” Paul argues from the lesser human promise of verse 15, to the greater divine promise of verse 16. And Paul highlights the truth that the covenant of promise was superior to the covenant of Law, because it centers on Christ.

You gotta love Paul–he is a careful student of the Old Testament. Here in Galatians, Paul emphasizes the word offspring or “seed”, focusing on the truth that it occurs in the singular. The Bible says offspring, not offsprings–seed, not seeds. The focus of Paul in verse 16 is not to make an argument from Old Testament grammar, but to highlight the true meaning of the Bible–what did Moses mean? Under the supernatural guidance of the Holy Spirit, who inspired the writing of both Genesis and Galatians, Paul exegetes the quoted Genesis passage accurately.

The term seed is singular in Genesis 22:18. It was therefore not referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed.” Both the Greek term sperma (seed) and the corresponding Hebrew term zera are like the English seed, in that they can either be singular or plural. But directed by the Holy Spirit, Paul informs us that God intended this word to be in the singular, referring directly to God the Son, Jesus Christ.

“But,” you say, “you got any support for that, Chris?” Yes, I do! Paul says it plainly, but also in an earlier promise in Genesis 3:15, a clearly singular use of “seed” also refers to Christ. God said to the serpent in the Garden of Eden, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; He [singular, referring to “her seed”] shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.”

John MacArthur reminds us, “The one and only heir of every promise of God is Christ. Every promise given in the covenant with Abraham was fulfilled in Christ and only in Christ. Therefore the only way a person can participate in the promised blessings to Abraham is to be a fellow heir with Christ through faith in Him.” Whether before or after Christ came to Earth, salvation has always been provided only through the perfect offering of Christ on the cross. Believers who lived before the cross and never knew anything about Jesus were forgiven and made right with God by faith in anticipation of Christ’s sacrifice. And believers who live after the cross are saved in looking back at the cross and what Christ did in dying for sin.

When Christ shed His blood, it covered sins on both sides of the cross. The Old Covenant goes to the cross–the New Covenant comes from it. On the one hand, faith pointed forward, and on the other hand, faith points back. There has never been, nor can there ever be a salvation apart from the finished work of Christ. The covenant with Abraham was fulfilled in the covenant of Christ, which means the covenant of Law cannot, could not, and did not replace or modify the promise of grace given to Abraham, which pointed to Christ.

Paul is teaching the Galatian churches to correct the errant teaching of some seemingly sincere Jewish followers of Christ, who were wrongly instructing them that the Law from Moses overruled, altered and replaced the promises made to Abraham–promises of salvation by faith, of blessing the nations with the message that leads to faith. Paul is proving them wrong, and teaching them that God’s promises cannot and will not be altered, replaced or overruled.

And Paul is teaching you and I today how God’s covenant with Abraham affects you personally. Paul already explained earlier in the chapter, you do not have to be biologically related to Abraham to claim his inheritance–all you need is faith in Christ. The true sons of Abraham are not identified biologically, but Christologically. The covenant promise was really for Christ–and when we belong to Christ, that promise belongs to us.

And don’t you love it, you Bible scholars–by resting his case on the ending of a noun, the apostle is modeling for you, teaching you and pressing you to depend on and live by the authority of the Bible. How could Paul make such a precise point from the Hebrew text of the Old Testament unless he believed the Bible is God’s written Word? Even though Paul did not use these precise words, Paul obviously believed that the Bible is infallible and inerrant from beginning to end. God’s promises in His Word, the Bible, are the only dependable promises.

#3  For God does not CHANGE or FORGET His promises  Verse 17

Verse 17, “What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.” Paul knows some Judaizers view the Law of Moses, introduced 430 years later, after God’s promise of salvation by faith to Abraham as the trump card. They would say, “You get it, don’t you? The Law changes everything!” They’d say, “Now, to receive the blessing of Abraham, you will have to obey the Law of Moses.”

But Paul proves this is a false conclusion in verse 17, “the Law, … does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.” The Law of Moses cannot turn God’s promise to Abraham of salvation through faith alone, into something other than what it is–a promise from God Himself that stands upon a covenant. And this covenant is an unbreakable, unilateral commitment by God only. How can the addition of the Law change the very nature of God’s promise to Abraham, that salvation is gained by grace alone? The promise was Abraham’s faith reckoned him completely righteous by faith. Abraham and his descendants can be forgiven by God and stand in God’s presence forever, only by faith, never by Law.

The Law and the promise operate in totally different ways. A different commentator, John Stott explains–“The promise sets forth a religion of God—God’s plan, God’s grace, God’s initiative. But the law sets forth a religion of man—man’s duty, man’s works, man’s responsibility. The promise (standing for the grace of God) had only to be believed. But the law (standing for the works of men) had to be obeyed.”

And you know, when Paul affirms that the promise had to be believed, he doesn’t mean a belief that is a mere assent of the truth, but a firm grasp–a trusting reliance, a surrender to God in all He has promised in Christ through the cross and resurrection. The false teachers were teaching that the Law over-ruled the promise of grace. But Paul teaches, the covenant of salvation promise is superior to the covenant of Law because of chronology. Verse 17, “The Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God.”

Because the covenant with Abraham was permanent and unbreakable, no amount of time could nullify the promise. The four hundred and thirty years refers to the time elapsed between God’s last statement of the Abrahamic covenant and His giving of the Law to Moses. This is how it worked–the Lord repeated the promise to Abraham’s son Isaac in Genesis 26:24, then to his grandson Jacob in Genesis 28:15. The Law came 645 years after Abraham–but 215 years later, God repeated the Abrahamic covenant to Jacob, exactly four hundred and thirty years prior to the Mosaic covenant of Law at Sinai.

And don’t misunderstand–even the covenant with Abraham did not establish the principle of salvation by faith, but only verified and exemplified it. From the time of Adam’s fall, faith has been the only means of man’s becoming right with God. Verse 17 reminds, us the Law does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God. The tense of the Greek verb ratified means completely solid in the past, with continual ongoing, remaining results to this day. It points to the lasting authority of the ratification of the covenant. Do you get it? The mere passage of time has no effect on the promise at all–much less nullify it.

This is a powerful argument. If the Law of Moses was intended as a way of salvation, then it means God changed His mind. It would mean God had decided we didn’t need a Savior, and God would give out His blessing on the basis of performance, not promise. If the Law had the function as a path to salvation, verse 17, it would not add to the promise–it would do away with the promise of salvation by grace altogether. Which is how Paul concludes in verse 18 . . .

#4  And True Promises are GIVEN not earned  Verse 18

Verse 18, “For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.” I know you get it–the concepts of promise and law are mutually exclusive. If I give you something because I promised, it is not because of your performance. If I give you something because of what you’ve done, it is not because of my promise. Paul is adamant–either something comes by grace or by works. Either it comes because of the giver’s promise or the receiver’s performance. It is either one or the other, not both and not combined.

And the covenant of promise is superior to the covenant of Law, because it is more complete. Verse 18, “God has granted it” is a verb choice, pointing to a permanent completion. The inheritance given to you is based on an enduring, can’t-be-broken God promise. Paul’s point in verse 18 is an inheritance based on Law depends on man’s performance, but the one granted permanently to Abraham by means of a promise depends on God’s power. The principles behind the two types of inheritance are incompatible–one is by God’s Law and man’s works. But the other is by God’s grace and man’s faith.

Not only that, but the abilities to fulfill the covenants are amazingly different–no man or no woman can succeed in perfectly keeping the Law. Yet our God cannot fail in perfectly keeping His promise. Because the covenant of promise is complete and solid, the covenant of Law can in no way improve or change it. Paul calls it in verse 18, an inheritance (MAC says) “By definition, an inheritance is not earned but simply received, and to work for that which is already guaranteed is foolish and unnecessary. Trying to earn the inheritance God promises through faith in His Son is worse than foolish. To add works of the law to faith in God’s promise is to verse 17 ‘nullify the grace of God’ and cause Christ to have ‘died needlessly’ ” (Galatians 2:21).

Think about this, friends–for a promise to bring a result, it needs only to be believed. But for a Law to bring a result, it has to be obeyed. For example, if I say, “My Uncle Jack wants to meet you and give you $10 million dollars.” The only way you can fail to receive the $10 million is to fail to believe the claim. If you just laugh and go home rather than go to see Uncle Jack, you will not get the money.

But if I say to you, “My Uncle Jack is willing to leave you his inheritance of $10 million, but you have to go live with him and take care of him in his old age,” then you must fulfill the requirement and condition if you are to get the money. A gift-promise needs only to be believed to be received, but a law-wage must be obeyed to be received.

If a wealthy benefactor promises to give me a house on the Big Island, there is nothing I can do to fulfill the promise. The only thing I can do is to trust him to keep his promise or not trust him. I may decide it is wise to secure my own housing, just in case my would-be benefactor fails to make good on his promise. But I cannot fulfill his promise to me on his behalf. So it is with the promises of God’s covenant–only God can fulfill them. Therefore, when He promises us salvation by grace, it follows that we cannot earn it for ourselves.

This brings us back to the point Paul has been trying to make to all of us who are recovering Pharisees–God deals with us according to His promise, and not according to our performance. We are justified by grace, through faith, in Christ alone—no works.

TAKE HOME

A  Stop trying to EARN God’s favor

Paul wants the Galatian Christians and you to stop trying to earn God’s favor. Stop trying to earn God’s acceptance of you. Every sin–past, present and future is already punished. Every wrong is paid for. All of God’s wrath has already been poured out on Christ, instead of you. Jesus said salvation is finished. You’ve been chosen, called, are being sanctified and will be glorified.

Right now, God commands us to live according to His Word for His glory and our good, but not to gain acceptance from Him. Live under the reality of your forgiveness, and God washing you whiter than snow. Live under the truth that Christ did all the work, and you responded by faith in Him. His love, His grace, and His mercy toward you every day is based upon His promise, not your performance–and the Lord keeps every promise.

B  Allow your new status in Christ to break down BARRIERS

The Jews and Gentiles were getting along, until the false teachers came and called attention to their differences. In Christ, barriers disappear. Every believer was equally condemned before Christ and every believer is now equally redeemed in Christ. In Christ, we are family. In Christ, we are one with each other. Inside the Church, we labor to be one heart one mind in doctrine and direction. Outside the Church, we labor to love all those who are truly in Christ.

Every genuine Christian–Jew, Gentile, slave, free, male or female are all one in Christ. We are sons and daughters of the King. We are closer than family—so act like it. You don’t have to be friends with everyone. You don’t have to prefer everyone. But you must not allow barriers from anyone in God’s family in this local church. Are you separated, divided, aloof or distant from any genuine believer? Then take steps to mend relationships or manifest love or ask forgiveness.

Jesus says to you in Matthew 5:23, “If you are presenting your offering at the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your offering there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and present your offering.” Is there anyone you need to talk to?

C  Start living each day by God’s PROMISES

God always keeps His Word, but we don’t often remember what he says. Every day, you and I need to live by Christ’s promises. Proverbs 3:5 and 6, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. 6In all your ways acknowledge Him, and He will make your paths straight.” First Peter 5:7, “Casting all your anxiety on Him, because He cares for you.” Romans 8:28, “We know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.”

John 14:27, “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” Philippians 4:19, “My God will supply all your needs according to His riches in glory in Christ Jesus.” There are hundreds of promises–they are all certain, all God-guaranteed. Ask about them, seek them out, find them, memorize them–then rehearse them, speak them out loud, rely on them, and live by them in order to survive and to thrive.

D  Cry out to Christ to open your HEART for salvation

Salvation in Christ does not rest on a law that we inevitably break–it rests on a promise that God cannot break. God has promised forgiveness of sins through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He has promised eternal life to everyone who comes to Christ in faith. God will not, and cannot go back on His promise. His covenant is an irrevocable will and testament. It stands firm forever. Cry out to Christ to open your heart, give you faith, forgive your sins, and transform your life now and forever. Let’s pray.

About Chris Mueller

Chris is the teaching pastor at Faith Bible Church - Murrieta.

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