And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. (Galatians 3:17, KJV)


“Had the Law not been given, all would have been wrecked upon wickedness, and there would have been no Jews to listen to Christ; but now being given, it has effected two things; it has schooled its followers in a certain degree of virtue, and has pressed on them the knowledge of their own sins. And this especially made them more zealous to seek the Son…” – John Chrysostom, Homilies on Galatians 3

Who are the True sons of Abraham? This question will occupy us for the next two days of commentary. First, we see Paul setting in contradiction the law and the faith….

Or does he?

It is important when speaking of the law of God in Scripture that we make a distinction between three things:

  1. The substance of the law,
  2. the reason it is given, and
  3. how it is understood by the non-elect

The Substance of the Law

In this instance we are speaking of the moral law. The moral law is expressed in the 10 commandments revealed to Moses. We have to recognize that the law’s substance must be distinguished from the other aspects I mentioned above. In Paul’s letters, he frequently discusses the law apart from its dispensation to the Jews (see Romans 2:14-15). He will speak of our sanctification in terms of the law written upon our hearts to provoke us to good works (Hebrews 10:14-24). However, we also know from Galatians 3 that the law is a schoolmaster to lead us to Christ (v.24).

Therefore, we must conclude that the moral law has a distinct substance apart from its use. It follows logically: if a tool has multiple purposes, the tool is not the purpose and the purpose is not the tool. If I am holding a drill, I could use this to fasten two pieces of wood together. Alternatively, I could use it to drill a hole through a piece of wood to run wire through it. I determine the purpose of the drill, the drill itself does not. We can say this is similar to the law. The law is utilized by God for different purposes; as such, we can reasonably say (as said above) that the law has its own distinct substance apart from its use.

The Reason the Law is Given

Here, we make the classic distinction of the three-fold use of the law. One can find discussions of this in multiple places in the writings of the Reformers. It is succinctly explained in the Westminster Larger Catechism as follows:

Q. 95. Of what use is the moral law to all men?

A. The moral law is of use to all men, to inform them of the holy nature and the will of God,[404] and of their duty, binding them to walk accordingly;[405] to convince them of their disability to keep it, and of the sinful pollution of their nature, hearts, and lives:[406] to humble them in the sense of their sin and misery,[407] and thereby help them to a clearer sight of the need they have of Christ,[408] and of the perfection of his obedience.[409]

Q. 96. What particular use is there of the moral law to unregenerate men?

A. The moral law is of use to unregenerate men, to awaken their consciences to flee from wrath to come,[410] and to drive them to Christ;[411] or, upon their continuance in the estate and way of sin, to leave them inexcusable,[412] and under the curse thereof.[413]

Therefore, we see three uses: the law instructs us in holiness, shows us our need for Christ, and to restrain evil. More on this can be found here.

We can also speak of the law being given as a covenant of works. The law was written on Adam’s heart in the garden and demanded of him perfect obedience. Whenever the law is given, this is the case. It was given again at Sinai, written on tablets of stone, as an administration of the covenant of works and a rule for holiness for those in the covenant of grace. One need not look farther than Psalm 119 for how the regenerate understand the law as pointing to their need for grace (v.116-117 ) and as a rule of life (v.17-24). For those unregenerate men, as the Catechism teaches above, the law as a covenant of works leaves them under a curse (Gal 3:10).

How the Non-Elect View the Law of God

For those who are not regenerate and of the elect of God, the law is used to justify themselves. Not having regenerate hearts, they do not look at the law and see their need for Christ. Now as we turn to Galatians 3, we clearly see the problem that Paul is addressing. He begins this discussion back in Galatians 2: “For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God (v.18, NKJV)”. Here Paul is saying that returning to the law as a covenant of works is going back to how the unregenerate man abuses the law. He treats the law as a covenant of works; a covenant of works demands perfect obedience and the unregenerate either strive for perfection through hyper-religiosity or live under the weight of impending judgment knowing that they cannot fulfill it yet never reaching out in faith to Christ. Wilhelmus a Brakel comments on this point:

The unconverted are under the law as a consisting of the demands of the covenant of works, and are thus under the curse. Believers, however, are under the covenant of grace in which they are freely justified by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus. (The Christian’s Reasonable Service, Vol.3, p.63)

The problem in the Galatian church were men who were returning to the ceremonies and observances of the Mosaic covenant and attempting to keep them for justification. However, to do this puts men under the curse of the covenant (death) if they are unable to keep the law (Galatians 3:10). They take the law and seek to establish their own justification.

You may have noticed at this point that I have shifted the discussion to ceremonies and observances, not the moral law. This is true; because in the context of the Galatian church, the issue with the Judaizers was the ceremonial law which explicitly pointed to Christ. It is true that the moral law is abused by the unregenerate in the ways I have described but the problem addressed in Galatians church could just as easily be described as an abuse of the ceremonial law. Why is this? A Brakel again:

However, it was the task of the ceremonies, as belonging to the gospel, to lead to Christ; they led the sinner to faith in Christ. Thus the ceremonial law was a guide, a teacher, and a director of God’s children, leading them to Christ who would come “that we might be justified by faith.” That was the sweet manner in which believers were led at that time. “But after that faith is come”, that is, when Christ (to whom the ceremonies pointed) has been revealed in the flesh, “we are no longer under a schoolmaster,” that is, a tender guide unto Christ. For the ceremonies are then no longer necessary, since we have the matter itself. (p.63)

The Seed and the Covenant

This bring us to the two covenants described in Galatians 4. Some (1689 Federalists) see this as Paul revealing that there were actually two covenants active during the time of Abraham, a national seed (Hagar) and a spiritual seed (Sarah) and that God’s promise (of the promised Seed – Christ, Galatians 3:16) was always to the spiritual seed, not the national seed of the national of Israel under the Mosaic covenant. Thus, there is greater discontinuity between the OT covenants and the New covenant than what would be admitted by Westminster.

If we look closer at these verses, however, I do not think they allow this interpretation. A key word in this passage of scripture is in v.24:

“which things are an allegory” (KJV)
“which things are symbolic” (KJV)

The word translated as allegory or symbolic is “allegoroumena”. It means to say one thing and mean another. To  better understand this term, it is helpful to look to an example from antiquity of what allegory meant. Homer was charged with having a lack of respect for the Greek gods because all his epics were all allegories of human behavior, and he would portray the Gods irreverently to make a point about the behavior of men. Not because he actually had an irreverent attitude about the Gods. He was using them to make a point. He said one thing and meant another.

Paul says two covenants to mean the pastoral situation in Galatia. Not that there were actually two covenants active in Isaac and Ishmael. He says one thing and means another.

Bondwoman covenant: Hagar, Sinai, Jerusalem in bondage, types pointing to Christ
Freewoman covenant: Sarah, Jerusalem above, free, Christ

We see that Paul is not suggesting that there were two covenants, one that is the OT covenant, a national covenant, and a Spiritual covenant of Abraham revealed at the coming of Christ. What Paul is proving is that there are those in Galatia who are returning to the law of a covenant that was given at Sinai and was meant to point to Christ. They are returning to bondage, to ceremonies that were not meant to justify but to point to the one who is our justification (Gal 4:3-5). The ceremonies always pointed to the Jerusalem above, to Christ, to the freewoman.

Calvin confirms this in his discussion on this verse:

By the children of Sinai, it will afterwards be explained, are meant hypocrites, who are at length expelled from the Church of God, and deprived of the inheritance. What, then, is the gendering to bondage, which forms the subject of the present dispute? It denotes those who make a wicked abuse of the law, by finding in it nothing but what tends to slavery. Not so the pious fathers, who lived under the Old Testament; for their slavish birth by the law did not hinder them from having Jerusalem for their mother in spirit. But those who adhere to the bare law, and do not acknowledge it to be “a schoolmaster to bring them to Christ,” (Galatians 3:24,) but rather make it a hinderance to prevent their coming to him, are the Ishmaelites born to slavery.

It will again be objected, why does the apostle say that such persons are born of God’s covenant, and are considered to belong to the Church? I answer, strictly speaking, they are not God’s children, but are degenerate and spurious, and are disclaimed by God, whom they falsely call their Father. They receive this name in the Church, not because they are members of it in reality, but because for a time they presume to occupy that place, and impose on men by the disguise which they wear.

Therefore, Paul speaks of two covenants to continue his discussion in chapter 3 above. He spoke of the law bringing us to Christ: All are condemned under the law and are driven to Christ for justification. To turn back to the ceremonies that were intended to drive us to Christ – and to seek our own righteousness through them – is to return to bondage. The law is not of faith (3:12); yet the reason Paul has to address this problem in the first place is because men abuse the law and make it about their own self-justification.


Thus, we may conclude from this that Paul has a unified stream of thought throughout Galatians 3 and 4 that points to the pastoral problem he was addressing in Galatia and continues to instruct us today. Those who seek the law put themselves in bondage under a curse. Those who seek Christ in the law find the promise and are set free. These are two covenants, one of the bondwoman, and one of the freewoman and these two covenants are an allegory. We may thus continue to conclude that there is one covenant of grace, as this text is not addressing the substance of the covenant of grace or revealing a previously unseen “two covenants” in Abraham but rather an allegorical explanation of the Galatian error. Given his discussion of the law as we said above, we must not return to that which pointed to faith as a way to seek our own righteousness. We must look to the Son, the law showing us more clearly our need for Him

I am a Reformed Presbyterian. I offer all content as my own personal reflections. I am not a licensed minister.