… A Salvation-Historical Interpretation
I’ve been asked to explain what Paul meant when he said that “the law is not of faith” (Gal 3:12). To do that I need to offer an explanation for Gal 3:11:
“But it is clear that by the law no one is justified before God, because the righteous will live by faith.”
The law in question in Gal 3:11 is not law in general but specifically the law of Moses.
When Paul says by the law no one is justified before God, I do not take this as being a temporally universal statement. The timeframe of the present tense of the verb translated as is justified must be determined from the context in which it is found; and in this particular context the timeframe of the verbal action is delimited by Paul’s eschatological understanding of Hab 2:4, which is quoted at the end of the verse.Paul’s use of Hab 2:4 in Gal 3:11 is the same as in Rom 1:17. I have argued previously (see “Paul’s Use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Romans 1:17: The Righteous Will Live by Faith”) that Paul understood Hab 2:4 as being a prophecy of the new covenant, which would be a time when righteousness would be defined in terms of a positive response to the eschatological revelation of the gospel instead of by means of a positive response to the Mosaic revelation (which is how righteousness was defined under the Mosaic covenant).
In other words, Paul is saying in Gal 3:11 that it is clear from Hab 2:4, which prophesied that covenant righteousness in the eschatological age would be defined in terms of faith, that in the new covenant age no one is able to be justified by a covenantal commitment or adherence to the law of Moses. In other words, Hab 2:4 effectively prophesied that a doctrine of justification by faith would apply in the new covenant age (on analogy with how righteousness was defined for Gentile Abraham).
This then leads us to Gal 3:12: “But the law is not of faith, but the one who has done these things will live by them.”
Both clauses of this verse contrast with the content of Hab 2:4. Paul wants to contrast the eschatological faith spoken of in Hab 2:4 with the holistic faith response (i.e., the works of the law) required under the Mosaic covenant.Now we need to say at this point that there is evidence that the law of Moses did require faith (see my previous post “The Paradox of Faith and Law: Is the Law of Faith or Not?”), but we also need to say that the faith that applied with respect to Mosaic torah was a Mosaic type of faith.
The faith that Paul has in mind in Gal 3:12 is the faith that is defined in Hab 2:4, i.e., an eschatological type of faith.
By saying that the law is not of faith, Paul is saying that the positive response to God’s revelation that was required under the Mosaic covenant was the response of saying amen to the whole of Mosaic torah, and this contrasts with the new covenant response of saying amen to eschatological, Messianic revelation, which is the gospel.
As noted above, saying amen to the law of Moses is faith (in terms of how the ancient Hebrews thought of it); but being a holistic idea, this faith was characteristically talked about using the language of obedience. Paul’s quotation of Lev 18:5 shows this. Leviticus 18:5, properly understood, is simply saying that a commitment to obeying Mosaic torah was the way of blessing and eternal life for Israel according to the stipulations of the Mosaic covenant. The typical orthodox (Old Testament) Hebrew way of thinking was that Israel’s covenant obligation was that of obedience to the law, which was an obedience that could be performed if the law was written on the heart. This Mosaic way of thinking is encapsulated in Lev 18:5. Paul is quoting Lev 18:5 in a perfectly valid Jewish manner. Both he and his Jewish opponents accepted that covenantal obedience to torah was the way of righteousness and life under the Mosaic covenant (see also Rom 10:5).
So, by saying that the law is not of faith Paul is really trying to distinguish the required response to old covenant revelation from the required response to new covenant revelation. Old covenant revelation was the law of Moses; new covenant revelation is the gospel. The law of Moses is not the gospel. The law of Moses testifies to the gospel (Rom 3:21); but the gospel per se, and faith in this gospel, could only be proclaimed once the Messiah had been revealed to Israel (hence Paul’s reasoning in Gal 3:23-25). The gospel as the revelation of the righteousness of God is apart from the law (Rom 3:21). The law and the gospel are two interrelated, mutually consistent, but distinct revelations. Strictly speaking, the gospel could not be proclaimed until the Son of God had been revealed (Heb 1:1-2), and the Messianic victory won.In other words,
Paul’s point in Gal 3:12 is that the law of Moses and its required response of obedience is not the eschatological revelation that requires faith, about which Habakkuk prophesied. The law of Moses required obedience (a Mosaic type faith). It did not require an eschatological (Abrahamic) type faith. In effect, in Gal 3:12 Paul proves from the Hebrew Scriptures that his Jewish opponents’ teaching that the Mosaic covenant and its stipulations were still normative for salvation (even after the resurrection of Christ) is out of step with the teaching of the Old Testament prophets, who foresaw, upon the coming of Christ, a new covenant based on a new revelation, which necessarily requires a new definition of what constitutes faith or covenant obedience.
The law of Moses prophesied about the Messiah, but it did not proclaim Jesus of Nazareth as the Christ, for in the Mosaic age Jesus of Nazareth had not yet been born or revealed to Israel. The law of Moses is not eschatological revelation. The law of Moses is not the (eschatological) gospel. In this sense, therefore, the law is not of faith.
Steven Coxhead has served as a visiting lecturer in Hebrew and the Old Testament at the Sydney Missionary and Bible College since 2002. He also teaches Johannine Theology and the Old Testament at the Wesley Institute in Sydney. In addition he has worked as a part-time lecturer at the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney from 2002–2010, teaching the Old Testament, Romans, John’s Gospel, Biblical Hebrew, and New Testament Greek. He has had experience teaching Old Testament, New Testament, and Systematic Theology in South-East Asia.