Many have been confused by Paul’s use of the phrase “the curse of the law” in Galatians 3:13. What did he mean?
Some mistakenly believe that the 10 Commandments are the curse and that one is in danger of coming under that curse if he or she obeys God’s laws.
Instead of being harmful, obedience to God’s holy law yields many benefits. As explained in related articles on Paul’s teaching on the law, the 10 Commandments are guidelines for an abundantly happy life. Our Heavenly Father has given these instructions to us—His children—because He loves us and wants what is best for us. God’s commandments are analogous to guidelines that wise parents in human families give to their children. Keeping God’s law can only bring benefits.
On the other hand, disobeying God’s instructions brings consequences no one wants! As a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience, they were barred from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:17, 22-24). Due to repeated disobedience and rejection of God’s laws, the nations of Israel and Judah were conquered by enemy nations and carried captive out of the Promised Land.
Naturally, we want the benefits our Father would like to give us and not the punishments that come from disobedience. The ultimate consequence of disobeying God’s law could not be more serious. “Disobeying the law” is just another way of saying, “sin” (see 1 John 3:4). The eventual consequence of rejecting God’s law is death forever—a death from which there is no resurrection (Romans 6:23).
Since Paul said that God’s law is holy, just and good (Romans 7:12), what did he mean by “the curse of the law”? To accurately understand any verse of the Bible, we must read it in its immediate context as well as the context of the rest of the Bible. That is the only way we can be “rightly dividing the word of truth,” as Paul admonished the evangelist Timothy to do (2 Timothy 2:15).
Let’s begin by reading the passage in question. “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them.’ But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith.’ Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.’ Christ has 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’), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:10-14).
Now let’s go through this passage point by point.
It begins, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse.” Here Paul is referring to those who wrongfully taught that one could earn his or her salvation through keeping God’s law. Some mistakenly thought that humans could live in perfect obedience to every instruction from God. The truth is that no human being has ever obeyed God’s law perfectly on his or her own power. All humans have sinned (Romans 3:23) except Jesus Christ, who resisted sin through the power of God. This reality, however, does not mean we do not need to repent of breaking God’s laws or strive to live in accordance with them. The truth is that God does expect us, with the help of His Holy Spirit, to obey His instructions and follow Christ’s example. Our desire to obey God is shown by repentance of our sins, faith in Christ and baptism, which are the steps God tells us to take to receive the priceless gift of salvation (Acts 2:38; 8:37).
Emphasizing the point that obedience is still God’s expectation, Paul twice quotes directly from the Old Testament. The first is from Deuteronomy 27:26, taken from an incident in Israel’s history that is well worth knowing. The essence of what transpired is summarized in verses 9-10 of that chapter: “Then Moses and the priests, the Levites, spoke to all Israel, saying, ‘Take heed and listen, O Israel: This day you have become the people of the LORD your God. Therefore you shall obey the voice of the LORD your God, and observe His commandments and His statutes which I command you today.’”
God had rescued the Israelites from Egyptian slavery, and now the second generation was on the verge of entering the Promised Land. God’s ringing advice was essentially: “Keep the commandments!”
Acting out the importance of this, Moses ordered the tribes of Israel (after they entered Canaan) to divide into two units. One half of Israel was to climb Mount Ebal; and the other half, Mount Gerazim. These two mountains are roughly in the middle of the land of Canaan. The people on one mountaintop were to shout a series of declarations, all of which related to “curses” for not obeying God’s law. The people on the other mountaintop were to shout back, “Amen!” at the conclusion of every declaration. The words Paul quoted were the final shouted words. What a dramatic way to emphasize the importance of keeping God’s law!
The second quote from the Old Testament that emphasizes obedience to God’s law is more of a paraphrase than a direct quote. It comes from Deuteronomy 21:23. In that context, God commanded that someone who broke the law and received the death penalty should be hung on a tree. That doesn’t mean death by hanging, for the ancient Israelites executed people by stoning (The NKJV Study Bible note on Deuteronomy 21:23). But after death, the body was hung on a tree in a public place for one day as a demonstration that sin brings death.
In Galatians 3:13, Paul refers to Christ in conjunction with “cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree,” because Christ’s body was publicly displayed, hung on a stake of wood. Rather than some new doctrine or a change in everything the Bible teaches about obedience to God’s commands, Paul was drawing on the symbolism of Christ’s public crucifixion to emphasize that His death paid the penalty for the sins of humanity. Christ’s death “redeemed us from the curse of the law,” which is the death penalty!
The phrase “the curse of the law” refers to the death penalty that each of us earns for breaking God’s law. It is not a disparagement of God’s holy, just and good laws or a change in God’s expectations of His people. This passage simply refers to the mistaken idea that people can earn their salvation without God’s grace, and it upholds keeping God's 10 Commandments.
Christ’s death—in which He suffered the curse of hanging on a tree—makes it possible for us to be forgiven of our sins. If we repent of sinning, commit to a life of obedience to God’s law and allow God’s Spirit to work through us, we can receive God’s grace.
Christ’s death did not pave the way for Christians to go on breaking the law! Such an interpretation is contradictory to God’s Word. Instead, Christ’s death means we can be forgiven for breaking the commandments so that we can commit to obeying the commandments. It made it possible for God to write His laws on our hearts and to give us the power of the Holy Spirit to help us walk as Christ walked in total obedience to God’s holy law (Hebrews 8:10; 1 John 2:6). Of course, we still need God’s grace and forgiveness because obedience to God’s law does not make up for our prior disobedience.
For further study on the difference between law and grace, read the articles in the section: “Law and Grace: What Does the Bible Really Say?”