Cursed on Our Behalf

“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 3:13–14

Redemptive history — the story of God’s work in time to save His people — is on Paul’s mind as he analyzes faith, works, and the Mosaic law (Gal. 3). One essential redemptive-historical concept is the covenant of works in Eden. Adam would have merited righteousness and eternal life for mankind had he obeyed our Creator (Rom. 5:12–21). Yet with the fall came the Almighty’s curse (Gen. 3:16–19) and the inability to obey God unto righteousness (Ps. 143:1–2).

Our Creator would have to set aside His standards — an impossibility — to waive His demand for righteousness. So, in the covenant of grace, God provides for the covenant of works to be kept and for us to be found righteous through faith (Gen. 15:1–6). To form this faith, God gave a law to the Israelites that serves both the covenant of grace and the covenant of works. The Mosaic law’s teaching that life comes through unwavering obedience to it (Lev. 18:5; Gal. 3:10–12) serves the covenant of works in that we are reminded of its demands. Being reminded of its demands, however, shows us the divine curse on the failure to keep it, and thus it serves grace. Deuteronomy 27:26 promises a curse for Israel’s failing to keep covenant, the greatest curse being exile from the very presence of the Almighty (28:15–68). In exile, Israel was to realize her inability to obey and look to God alone to be saved. The Gentiles also would see their own fallenness in this; if God’s chosen could not obey, how could they?

God sent His Son to lift the curse and bring His people back from exile. Though Jesus was utterly faithful to the Law (1 Peter 2:22–23), He must have suffered for transgression because only those regarded as wicked could suffer the curse of being hung on a tree, as in His crucifixion (Deut. 21:23; Gal. 3:13). Therefore, if He did not die for His own sins, Christ died for the sins of others. On the cross the Father imputed the sins of His people to Jesus, that is, the Father placed our sins on His Son, condemning sin in His flesh. But He also counts Jesus’ record of perfect obedience to all who believe (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ’s perfect righteousness, His flawless keeping of the covenant of works, is the grounds for our justification and is imputed to us by faith alone.

Coram Deo

Martin Luther’s commentary on Galatians gives this pastoral advice: “So if sin vex you, and death terrify you, think that it is (as indeed it is) but an imagination and a false illusion of the devil. For there is now no sin, no curse, no death, no devil, to hurt us anymore, for Christ has vanquished and abolished all these things.” If you believe yet fear the wrath of God, remember that Jesus has borne it on your behalf. Let us praise Him for His grace this day.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 16
Mark 10:45
1 Peter 2:21–25
Revelation 1:4–7

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