A New Paradigm for Understanding Galatians

“Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses”(Acts 13:38-9 ESV).

Problematic Approaches

Many commentators, including Adventists, believe that the problem Paul tackles in Galatians is legalism, believers who felt they could earn their salvation by strict obedience; a “Jesus +” model of salvation, as some have put it. This paradigm is highly problematic. First, legalism has less to do with legal precepts and more with a mental attitude. What I mean is that it does not depend on how many laws you follow or how strictly but rather on an attitude of self-sufficiency.

Second, a simple comparison with how Jesus related to Pharisees, the chief legalists, is revealing. He called them “hypocrites” (Mt 23:13) for teaching one thing and doing another; accused them of putting “heavy burdens” (Mt 23:4) on people through their traditions; noted that through their traditions they nullified God’s law (Mk 7:9); and even stated that they had a mistaken view of God’s law placing more emphasis on the minor aspects and less on the major, when they should keep both in proper perspective (Mt 23:23); but He never accused them of keeping the law too zealously!

Third, Paul himself kept the law faithfully. He references the 10 Commandments repeatedly (Rom 7:8-13; 13:9; 1 Cor 7:19; Eph 6:2), and even the Book of the Law as a guide for normative behavior (e.g. Rom 1:27; 7:2; 1 Cor 5:1; 2 Cor 6:14; 2 Cor 13:1).

Finally, you never tell overzealous lawkeepers, “The one who does them shall live by them (Gal 3:12)! Those who view legalism as the problem of Galatia will get a skewed picture of the epistle.

An Alternative Paradigm

A better paradigm to understand Galatians has roots in Adventist theology but somehow seems to faded from view.

The biggest theological danger Jewish Christians faced was to lapse back into the system of sacrifices and the temple cultus. This is the main issue that Hebrews tackles. Since that epistle is not addressed to a specific locale but to Hebrew people in general, suggests that the problem was widespread. The believer’s relation to the temple may form a background to such well known passages as the temple tax incident (Mt 17:24-27); the renting of the veil of the temple at the crucifixion (Mt 27:51); the difficult passage of Col 2:16-17 (see my separate study on that text); and many more.

The regulations about the sanctuary and the sacrificial system were contained in the Pentateuch, the Torah or Law. It is important to keep in mind that when Paul refers to Law he refers to the Pentateuch as a complete package that contained both moral injunctions AND the sacrificial system. Occasionally he hones in on one or another aspect and context determines what he does when, but Law generally refers to the whole package.

The Law had a problem. The moral injunctions declared humans sinners; but the sacrificial system, put in place to deal with the problem of sin, could not cleanse sin. It was incapable of performing the task it was set in place to perform. Hebrews therefore declares, “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins”(Heb 10:4). And, “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant… since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant”(Heb 9:15). As such, the OT sacrifices only functioned as a shadow to point forward to Jesus, the true sacrifice for sin.

Paul was fully aware of this reality and declared as much: “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man [Jesus] forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses”(Acts 13:38-9). The problem of the Pentateuchal system therefore, the problem of the “Law”, was that it declared a person a sinner but offered no real solution to the problem of sin.

This is precisely the point Paul tackles in Galatians. Take for example the parable of the slave woman (Hagar) and the free woman (Sarah) which he says represent respectively the Sinai Covenant and the New Covenant, which he discusses in Gal 4:20-31. The former leads to slavery, the later to freedom. Why does Sinai lead to slavery? Because it declares a person a sinner but can offer no real solution. Why does the New Covenant lead to freedom? Because the blood of Christ cleanses sin! Hallelujah!

The Law of Galatians 3:19-25

With these thoughts lets us look at a passage for this week, Gal 3:19-25. I will argue that while Paul speaks generally of the inadequacy of the Law (Pentateuch) to save because it does not cleanse sin, that here he becomes more specific and hones in on the law of sacrifices. To demonstrate this, we will look at some elements of the language he uses.

The Law was added. In Gal 3:19 Paul says that the Law was added “because of transgressions,” and this addition happened 430 years after Abraham (3:17), i.e. at Sinai. Why does he say “added?” It is worth noting that when God gave the covenant at Sinai (Ex 19:1-24:18) He did not give initially any regulations about sacrifices for sin. That is not to say that such regulations were not known before. All the patriarchs offered sacrifices from the beginning. But as Israel was making a new beginning as a nation after centuries of slavery in Egypt, God initially only gave them legal requirements, the 10 Commandments and the Book of the Law. Three times Israel responded, “All that the Lord has spoken, we will do” (Ex 19:8; 24:3,7). Apparently, the people of Israel were confident they could live a life of full obedience, so God allowed that they try it out. The result? Within 40 days the incident of the golden calf happened and the covenant was broken. Israel deserved to die (Ex 32:10,27,33,34-35; 33:5) but God graciously presented them with the system of sacrifices, as a means of dealing with the problem of human sinfulness. So, in that sense, the law of sacrifices was “added” because of transgressions.

Because of. In Gal 3:19, the Greek for the “because of” in the phrase, “the law was added because of transgressions” is charin. It comes from the noun charis, “grace.” The same word sometime functions as the accusative of charis or as a preposition, “because of.” In the latter case, however, it nearly always conveys a sense of advantage (e.g. Lk 7:47; Eph 3:1,14; Tit 1:5,11) , and as such is better translated “for the sake of” rather than “because of.” Was any law added “for the sake of” transgressions? The text might better be translated, “the law was added as grace for transgressions” in which case the sacrifices are in view as well as their function.

Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions. The original text did not have punctuation marks. Later manuscripts consistently place the question mark after the word “law.” In this case, the question Paul asks is, “Why then the law?”

Conversely, the question mark could be placed after “transgressions,” in which case 3:19 would be translated: “Why then the law concerning transgressions? It was added by/as grace.”

The word charin and the variant possibilities of punctuating Gal 3:19a all suggest that the specific law that Paul has in mind here is the law of sacrifices.

The Guardian/Schoolmaster. Paul then proceeds to describe this specific law as a paidagōgos, “a guardian,” “schoolmaster,” or “tutor.” The word paidagōgos is gentle. It describes a person who looked after children, teaching them the realities of life. Their chief task was to educate. The most famous example of a paidagōgos was the philosopher Aristotle, tutor of Alexander the Great. Alexander later said that he owed his biological life (zein) to his father, but the quality or moral aspects of his life (euzein) to his tutor. Rich Romans would spend large amounts of money to buy/hire the best Greek teachers to give the most complete possible education to their children.

This is precisely what the law of sacrifices did. The sinner could find some comfort in the sacrifices; though they did not forgive sin, they pointed forward to the One who would.


The paradigm whereby Paul is battling legalism in Galatians is hollow. Rather, the problem Paul was facing was Jews who were falling back into the life they once had, focused on the Jerusalem temple and its sacrificial system, on the basis that it was ingrained in the Law, the Pentateuch. Paul declares that this arrangement will not save them because the Law does not have an adequate mechanism for sin; and those who want to be saved through it, can only do so if their obedience is perfect (something no human has achieved except Jesus). In Gal 3:18-25 he hones his attention on a specific aspect of the Pentateuch, the sacrifices, stating that they were added to deal with the problem of sin, temporarily, until Jesus would come, the true answer to the problem of sin.

This commentary was originally published to Spectrum on November 8, 2011.

Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8155

Rather the problem was Jews falling back into the life they once had…

What a total misreading of the life situation and intended audience in Galatians. It is clear from the text of the letter that Gentile believers in the Messiah are being pressured to be circumcised and take up a Torah observant life in order to be considered part of the covenant community of YHWH, i.e., made righteous/ saved from this present evil age.

The idea that Paul is addressing Jews falling back into the temple/ sacrificial system is quite a conjecture, and misses the mark as much as the traditional Adventist reading into the text of modern legalism. It skews the interpretive grid equally.




The continued muddying in Adventist circles, including in this quarterly, of what Paul was saying, and the introductions of" new paradigms" such as in the above article, are for one reason only. It’s to save the binding obligation of Sabbath observance. All of Adventism and its reason for being rests upon this, including its eschatology, it’s extra biblical prophetic figure, and its status as the remnant church of bible prophecy.

Unfortunately, all this is at odds with the message of Galatians, and adds a form of law to faith in Christ, thus making the addendum of law the ultimate arbiter of salvation and badge of belonging… just what the false teachers that Paul was encountering did in their own way.


Adventists have taken one statement of Ellen White’s (about the schoolmaster being both moral and ceremonial laws) and run off with it, taking it far beyond the point she was trying to make. It is clear from the context in Galatians and in chapter 3 specifically that 'the law" in Galatians refers to the ceremonial law and that this is the issue in Galatia that Paul was trying to address. By making the moral or the whole law the subject every time Paul says “the law” we keep digging holes for ourselves trying to interpret certain statements.

Which law was “added” 430 years after Abraham? Added because of transgressions? (What was transgressed? A law, which one?) So a law was added because another law was being broken. Which one was added? And it was the schoolmaster which led to Christ. It showed through the sanctuary service and the rituals the way to salvation, how sin must be dealt with etc. It showed the remedy for sin.

It’s really not that hard.

It’s interesting that in a study of Galatians that the emphasis is on retaining the moral law which in Adventist theology is the 10 commandments. Paul is constantly urging the only possible alternative and that is living by the Spirit. Adventist theology seems to prefer living by law rather than living by the Spirit. And I suspect that the reason for this is that without the law there is no seventh day Sabbath.

In all this discussion on Galatians and law I have never been aware of any serious reference to 2 Corinthians 3. Paul leaves us in no doubt that the contrast he makes is between the old covenant based on the 10 commandments and the Holy Spirit of the new covenant. This is the same issue in Galatians. In Romans 7 Paul also talks about serving in newness of the Spirit not in oldness of the letter.

The letter, the 10 commandments written on tablets of stone kill. It is a ministry of death. It is a ministry of condemnation which came with glory but the glory is gone because the ministry of the Spirit has glory that far outshines the ministry of the letters written on tables of stone.

The law is a ministry of death. The Holy Spirit’s ministry is a ministry of life, a ministry of righteousness. The first few verses of Romans 8 also make this contrast.

It’s this ministry of the Holy Spirit that gave Paul boldness and hope. All this was centred on the Spirit and the Lord is the Spirit. Jesus Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit in our hearts is our only hope. The glory of the gospel based on Christ’s death and resurrection is where our hope lies. Return to the law and the veil remains that blocks out the glory of the ministry of the Spirit under the new covenant.

Righteousness comes apart from law under the new covenant. Our righteousness is Christ’s righteousness which outshines the righteousness of the law as the sun outshines the light of a candle. Christ in us, the hope of glory is the way Paul put it. The law is but a shadow. Christ is the reality. In Him we have everything that the law could not provide. Yes, even entry into God’s rest, rest for our souls.


An alternative paradigm.

Attitude has a mental developmental progression beginning from childhood and into adulthood. As children, our behaviors are govern by our desire to get rewards and avoid punishment. Next in the progression stage is having unquestioned obedience to stay out of trouble. Next stage as we march into adulthood is our attitude of self interest, “What is in it for me?” As we enter adolescence, our behavior begins to be governed so as others will think highly of us. As we leave our family nest and enter early adulthood, our task is to keep the system from falling apart and maintain self-respect as a good citizen. The last stage is of principled conscience where we strive to show the greatest respect for the rights and dignity of every individual and support a system that protects human rights. For the majority of us, these stages develop in a predictable manner although it is not a guaranty. For some of us, we get delayed or fixated at particular stages.

I would propose “that the problem Paul tackles in Galatians” in not legalism but the mental immaturity and developmental delays, the focus of which should be to enhance mental development to the highest level of mental maturity.

With this schema, one can gauge how mature are we in our spiritual journey. Do we obey God to get rewards? Obey God to stay out of trouble? Obey God to enhance our personal standing within our peer group? Or do we obey God by showing respect for the rights and dignity of every child of God wherever they may be in their spiritual journey?


Jesus said, "There are ONLY 2 requests by God. 1.Love God with all heart, soul, mind, body [total being]. 2. Love one’s neighbor with the same intensity that one loves one self.'
THIS is RELATIONSHIP. A loving relationship with God. A loving relationship with ALL Humans of the World.
THIS is NOT just the following of a list of 10 Rules and Regulations.
It is HOW to have an enjoyable and satisfying life.
THIS is the Kingdom of Heaven exploding on Earth as it is in heaven. As Jesus said, The Kingdom is near. And then said, The Kingdom IS here.
And through Relationship we bring the Kingdom to our neighbor, to ALL Humans of the World.
I read Paul SECONDING what Jesus preached.

EDIT 8/13-- The article has been relegated to the back page now, but will conclude with this.
"The generation that wandered in the wilderness had closed their hearts and covered their eyes – seeing only the difficulties. They DID NOT SEE the majesty of the enterprise – and so did not enter God’s “resting place”. The Psalm asks us to join this pilgrimage with the faith that despite obstacles, we will greet the One who has fashioned heaven and earth. – from Jewish book common prayer Ps 95.

It is a warning for us SDAs in 21st Century about missing God’s Rest.



Nice to see someone mentioning Kohlberg’s stages of morality.

I will use this analogy to help in understanding this very controversial doctrine of under law, purpose of law, grace and Holy Spirit.

I am going to assume that many, if not most, posters here know of parents telling their children to say…“please”…“thank you”…“sorry”.

Remember how they would first tell them to say it because they were young and naive?
Later on the parents would say…"What should you say?"
Some children, being immature, would not remember. So the parents would repeat the words for them.
As time went on, they would say, “What do you say?” and the children would say on their own the words, but only in a parrot, mechanical, non sincere manner. Sometimes the children would have to be prompted, using a coercive approach, to say the words. The children would say it , not meaning it and actually upset at having to do it. As the children became adolescent, some would say it in a shallow manner, or as a civil duty and some would not say the words because of pride. Those who grew older and had a mature heart/character would say the words sincerely.

How can grace or the Holy Spirit get children/people to say the words if they never were taught in the first place?

If the Holy Spirit can do this all on its own, what need is there for reading the bible, going to Sabbath school or listening to sermons?

Think of what motivates anyone to confess and repent before and after justification.

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rayRay Smith

You guys are using the real “paradigm for understanding Galatians”! That Paul means what he says. When he says "the law’, he doesn’t mean the moral portion (whatever that means) to the exclusion of the ceremonial portion (whatever that means) or vice versa.

When he says “the law”, he means exactly what the custodians of the law had meant for centuries: the first of the three sections of the Hebrew Scriptures (The Law, The Prophets, and The Writings} and ALL of the commandments it contain. It’s all or nothing:
For I testify again to every man who is circumcised, that he is debtor to do the whole law. (Gal 5:30)
(Not just the decalog.)

What an incompetent communicator Paul would have been if he had used “the law” the way the familiar “new paradigm” does. I think that the generally illiterate Galatians’ response would been, “Huh?”