Cursed on the Tree

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’” (v. 13).

- Galatians 3:10–14

God’s delivery of Jesus into Gentile hands demonstrates that our Lord bore His Father’s curse on sinners (Lev. 26; Deut. 28). Yet the very method of Christ’s death — crucifixion — also shows the divine curse on sin. Under the Mosaic law, Deuteronomy 21:22–23 tells us, God cursed the lawbreaker who was hung on a tree.

This passage, as well as several others, is the background for Galatians 3:10–14 and the Heidelberg Catechism’s teaching in question and answer 39. As the catechism states, the death of Jesus by crucifixion on the tree convinces us that He bore the curse of God we deserved. But how does this crucifixion fit together with the demands of the Law and what the Lord revealed to the people of Israel?

First, God demanded perfect obedience from His creatures when He made humanity (Gen. 2:15–17). According to this covenant of works with Adam and his descendants, life is contingent upon keeping the Lord’s commands flawlessly.

Second, Adam broke this covenant of works, and all those in him have done the same (Gen. 3; Rom. 5:12–21). Everyone born into this world without the supernatural intervention of God is barred from true life and cursed with death (Rom. 6:23).

Third, though we have broken the covenant of works, the Lord has instituted the covenant of grace (Gen. 3:14–15), pledging to curse the Serpent and his seed (impenitent sinners) with eternal death. But He has also promised eternal life to the seed of the woman (Christ and His people). The Serpent harms only the heel of the woman’s seed, but the Serpent suffers a crushed head — final death.

Fourth, the Lord does not change (Mal. 3:6). Therefore, His demands never change. Everyone who has broken the covenant of works must receive His wrath — eternal death. The Mosaic law reminds us of this. Life comes to those who keep the commandments perfectly (Lev. 18:5; Gal. 3:12), but death is on all who fail (Deut. 27:26; Gal. 3:10). So, the Mosaic law has one foot in the covenant of works, as it were.

Fifth, the Mosaic law has one foot in the covenant of grace, giving us hope that a substitute can bear the curse that the Law and the covenant of works have pronounced on us (Lev. 16). When Christ hung on the tree in the crucifixion, the curse on God’s people was transferred to Jesus. Now we have life eternal.

Coram Deo

God did not violate the covenant of works through the covenant of grace. Instead, the covenant of grace provides a way for the demands of the covenant of works to be met and for us to receive the life that flows from such obedience. Christ has done the work needed to reckon us as those who have kept the covenant of works, and we have eternal life if we trust Him alone. We must, therefore, serve Him gladly and with thanksgiving.

Passages for Further Study

Numbers 23:19
2 Chronicles 29:20–36
Hebrews 13:8
James 1:17

Permissions: You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that you do not alter the wording in any way, you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, and you do not make more than 500 physical copies. For web posting, a link to this document on our website is preferred (where applicable). If no such link exists, simply link to www.ligonier.org.

Please include the following statement on any distributed copy: From Ligonier Ministries, the teaching fellowship of R.C. Sproul. All rights reserved. Website: www.ligonier.org | Phone: 1-800-435-4343