There are a number of Old Testament passages that figure prominently in the New Testament. In Galatians 3:10–14, several of them are quoted by the apostle, and he uses these Old Testament passages as proof texts for the doctrine that sinners are justified through faith alone. Those who trust in Jesus Christ to save them from their sins understand that it was Jesus’ suffering upon the cross that turned aside God’s wrath and anger. But this was not yet clear in the Old Testament when these passages first appeared.
The first passage cited by Paul in this section is from Deuteronomy. In Deuteronomy 27:26, Moses writes, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” This passage makes it plain that God is not going to grade the final exam for eternal life on a curve. In order to avoid God’s curse, God demands that we obey His law perfectly. Those who fail to do so come under the wrath of God. That this is what Moses meant becomes clear in Matthew’s gospel, where a rich young man claimed to have obeyed all the commandments. When Jesus exposed him as a law-breaker and therefore subject to the curse, the young man went away with great sorrow. Witnessing this exchange, Jesus’ disciples asked Him, “Who then can be saved?” (19:25). Jesus reminded them that people do not obey God’s law; they cannot save themselves — it is impossible. But all things are possible for God (19:26).
Another passage cited by Paul is Leviticus 18:5. In Deuteronomy 27, Moses warned of the curse coming upon all those who don’t obey the commandments. Here, he speaks of a reward promised to those who do: “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” In these two passages, we see one of the basic themes of God’s covenant relationship with His people, the so-called blessing-curse principle. God promises to bless those who perfectly obey Him by giving them life. Yet God also threatens any act of disobedience with the covenant curse. Anyone who has ever truly considered his own sinfulness can certainly relate to the disciples’ question: “Who can be saved?”
A resolution is found in an obscure passage in Deuteronomy 21. Anyone who has committed a crime and who is put to death on a tree comes under God’s curse. According to verse 23, “his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God.” While this passage is dealing with the burial of criminals, from the perspective of New Testament hindsight it becomes the key to understanding how God could put to death His sinless Messiah, who perfectly obeyed the commandments of God and who earned eternal life through that obedience.
In his epistle to the Galatians, Paul is refuting the errors of the Judaizers, who were arguing that while the death of Jesus was necessary for God to save sinners, Jesus’ death was not sufficient to save sinners. According to the Judaizers, those who came to believe that Jesus is the Messiah must also undergo circumcision, keep the dietary laws, and observe the Jewish feasts in order to be justified. The Judaizers contended that Gentiles must not only embrace Israel’s Messiah through faith, they must also live as Jews.
Paul answers this error by reminding the Galatians of the blessing-curse principle and how, in the death of Jesus, God’s curse is taken away. Eternal life comes to the people of God through faith, not works. In Galatians 3:10, Paul cites Deuteronomy 27:26 to warn those who think that Christ’s death is not sufficient to save sinners: “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.’” God’s justice requires perfect obedience. Sin but one time, and we come under God’s curse.
Paul concludes, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (v. 11), citing from yet another Old Testament writer — the prophet Habakkuk (2:4). To further bolster his contention, Paul cites from Leviticus 18:5: “But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them’” (v. 12). Here Paul echoes the question of the disciples. Sinners cannot save themselves. They do not obey God’s law, they fail to live, and they come under God’s curse.
The good news of the gospel is that someone else bore God’s curse for us in our place. As Paul points out in Galatians 3:13–14, “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’— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Little did the Romans know that when they put Jesus to death upon a cross, He came under God’s curse, so that those of us who deserve God’s judgment instead receive eternal life through Jesus’ own obedience. And all of this becomes ours through faith.