Promise and Law
Galatians 3:15-22
Brothers, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man cancels, or adds thereto.…

From this point the apostle has a softened tone toward the Galatians. He deals with them now more in the way of instruction and counsel than of correction and rebuke.


1. Human analogy. "Brethren, I speak after the manner of men: Though it be but a man's covenant, yet when it hath been confirmed, no one maketh it void, or addeth thereto." When the apostle professes to speak after the manner of men, he is not thinking of himself as having to come down from the spiritual standpoint, but of God as greater than man, and of his having to use a certain freedom in arguing as he does from a man's covenant to God's covenant. We are not to understand "covenant" in the sense of" testament." It is an engagement under which one comes to another with or without engagement on the part of that other. To be thoroughly valid a covenant must be confirmed. Testimony must be given that an engagement has been really and fully entered into. The signing of a legal document is a common mode of confirmation. We read frequently in old times of confirmation by oath. When a covenant has been confirmed, no one maketh it void or addeth thereto. Meyer says, "no third party;" but the language is applicable even to the person who comes under engagement. He is not free to set his engagement aside or to modify it by additions. It is different from the case of a testator while he is still living. In signing a will he has come under no engagement to any one, and is free to cancel it or to add a codicil. But when an engagement has been entered into it can neither be set aside nor modified by additions, but stands to be carried out to the letter.

2. Two points to be taken into account in applying the analogy.

(1) The covenant with Abraham was of the nature of a promise. "Now to Abraham were the promises spoken." This brings down the general idea of covenant to a special kind. Promise is not a contracting for benefit and with conditions. In its purest form, as employed by the apostle, it is an engagement to bestow blessing, without conditions attached. It is here used in the plural number, not because distinct blessings were promised, but because the same blessing was repeatedly promised, with variety of form and circumstance.

(2) The covenant of promise was made, not only with Abraham, but included Christ. "And to his seed. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many: but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ." With resemblance in form to the rabbinical style of argument, this cannot be said to have anything of rabbinical feebleness. The point is, that the idea of plurality might have been brought out in the form given to the promise. It might have been said, "And to thy descendants," thus excluding reference to one in particular. Instead of that it was said, "And to thy seed," which is applicable, though not necessarily limited in application, to one. The apostle, having pointed this out, declares (does not argue) that there was an intended application to Christ. As he was the Seed of the woman, so also was he the Seed of Abraham. The, bearing of the declaration is, that, Christ having been included in the promise, it had to be made good to him as well as to Abraham.

3. Application of the analogy.

(1) Position. "Now this I say: A covenant confirmed beforehand by God, the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years after, doth not disannul, so as to make the promise of none effect." So far as God was concerned, the promise had full validity as soon as it was announced (Genesis 13:15). So far as Abraham was concerned, it was confirmed by the fire passing between the pieces of the sacrifice (Genesis 15:17), and by oath (Genesis 22:18), and also by repetition (Genesis 17:8). It was also confirmed to the other patriarchs (Genesis 26:4; Genesis 28:4). That being the case, it could not be set aside by the Law, which was four hundred and thirty years later. If it had been a covenant with conditions, then it might have been inferred that, the conditions not having been complied with, the Law had been introduced. Thus the Law would virtually have displaced the covenant. But the apostle's position is that the covenant, being of the nature of promise, there could be no displacing of it by the Law. "So as to make the promise of none effect" comes in as qualifying the assertion. Whatever covenant the Law might have displaced, it could never displace a covenant of pure promise.

(2) Argument by which it is supported. "For if the inheritance is of the Law, it is no more of promise: but God hath granted it to Abraham by promise." The blessing is described as the inheritance, which had a reference beyond the land of Canaan to the heavenly Canaan, and even to the whole earth, which is now to be regarded as the earthly Canaan. If the inheritance was associated with the Law, then it must never have been promised. For promise, according to the apostle's understanding of it, is engagement to bless without conditions. But the inheritance never could be associated with the Law. For it was authenticated that God free]y- promised it to Abraham. By this promise, then, to speak after the manner of men, God was bound. He was not in the position of a testator who could cancel or add fresh clauses. Nor was he in the position of one who had made a covenant with conditions which had not been complied with. But having given an unconditional promise, he could not under any circumstances withdraw it.


1. It was additional to the promise. "It was added because of transgressions." It was never intended to stand alone. It was simply intended to be an adjunct to the promise already given and still continuing in force. "It was added because of transgressions." There is not yet brought into view the purpose which the Law served with reference to transgressions, checking them, making them clear. It is simply indicated that the introduction of the Law was necessitated by the disposition to transgress. There is the same teaching here as by our Lord with regard to the law of divorce. It was not, he said, so from the beginning; but was necessitated by the hardness of men's hearts. So, with regard to the Law and its rigour, it was not so from the beginning. God began with promise; and it was only when it was not sufficiently responded to that the Law was introduced, not as a substitute, but as an addition to the promise.

2. It was a temporary addition. "Till the seed should come to whom the promise hath been made." As it was an after institution, so it was never intended to last. It had not the permanence which belonged to the promise. It had reference to the coming of the Seed to whom the promise had been made. That was the great reason of its existence. There is not yet brought into view the purpose which the Law served with reference to the coming Seed. It is simply indicated that it was so related to Christ that, when he came to receive the promise, it was necessarily done away as an institution.

3. It was given mediately by God. "And it was ordained through angels." The connection of the angels with the giving of the Law was prominent in Jewish tradition. It is remarkable that there is no mention of them in the historical account in Exodus. They are thus introduced in Deuteronomy 33:2: "The Lord came from Sinai, and rose up from Seir unto them: he shined forth from Mount Paran, and he came with ten thousand of his saints: from his right hand went a fiery law for them." The ten thousand of his holy ones were doubtless angels. So in Psalm 68:17 it is said, "The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels; the Lord is among them as in Sinai, in the holy place." This fact was so recognized among the Jews that Stephen could tell them that they had received the Law by the disposition of angels. Their connection with it was not confined to accompanying the Lord, or ordering the miraculous accompaniment. But the language in Hebrews - "the word spoken by angels" - taken along with the language here, points to them as the instruments employed by God in delivering the Law. This circumstance is introduced by the apostle here, in keeping with the context, not to glorify the Law, but to show that God stood at a distance from men in the giving of the Law. It was something which was in a manner foreign to him. Therefore, in giving it he did not come immediately into contact with men, but interposed angels on his side.

4. It was mediately received by men. "By the hand of a mediator." This was Moses. "I stood between the Lord and you." In the giving of the Law great stress was laid on the fact that the people were not fit to draw near to God to receive it from him. Therefore a mediator was interposed on man's side. Added comment on double mediation. "Now a mediator is not a mediator of one; but God is one." It is said that there have been as many as four hundred and thirty different interpretations of these words. If that speaks to extraordinary labour bestowed on the interpretation of the words, it also speaks to extraordinary misdirection of labour. It can be said that new there is substantial unanimity of interpretation. The first statement does not refer to Moses nor to Christ, but to a mediator generally; and means that a mediator implies two parties, between whom the mediation takes place. The second statement, that God is one, has often been taken to mean that God is one of the two parties, the children of Israel being the other party, which is pointless for the purpose of the argument. It means that God is mediatorless in the promise. In the Law, God kept at a distance, interposing mediators on his side and interposing also a mediator on man's side. But in the promise God came immediately into contact with Abraham, employing no mediator, but speaking to him as to a friend.

III. THE LAW WAS NOT ANTAGONISTIC TO THE PROMISE. "IS the Law then against the promises of God? God forbid." In keeping with what has been said, God identifies himself with the promises, and not with the Law. They were not, however, antagonistic.

1. The Law did not supply the condition of the blessing. "For if there had been a Law given which could make alive, verily righteousness would have been of the Law." In the case supposed (righteousness being of the Law, and so making alive), the Law would have been antagonistic to the promise. There would have been an antagonistic mode of justification. The blessing would have been put on the ground of obedience to the Law. The apostle repudiates that supposition, without any disparagement of the Mosaic Law. It had a perfectness of its own. If there had been a Law fitted to give life, he strongly asserts that would have been the Mosaic Law. It was raised above all mere human law. It presented an admirable idea of righteousness. That it did not actually effect righteousness was simply because that was impossible.

2. The Scripture represented men as all shut up to the obtaining of the blessing simply by faith. "Howbeit the Scripture hath shut up all things under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe." Scripture is not the Law, but rather that which holds Law and promise in harmony. The office ascribed to Scripture is peculiar. It has placed, not only all men but all things (man's surroundings) under sin as gaoler. In this imprisonment there was not finality. On the contrary, it was with the view of magnifying the promise. Not by doing the Law, but by believing the promise, is the blessing attained. As the promise was made good to Jesus Christ, and was thus identified with him, faith in him, as obtaining the blessing for us, has become the simple and all-sufficient principle of the religious life. - R.F.

Parallel Verses
KJV: Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto.

WEB: Brothers, speaking of human terms, though it is only a man's covenant, yet when it has been confirmed, no one makes it void, or adds to it.

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