In both writing and preaching, scholars and pastors alike turn to this passage to support a badly misguided assumption that Paul viewed God's law as a curse. But how could he view it as a curse since he stated in Romans 7:12 Romans 7:12Why the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good.
American King James Version×that God's law was holy?
Paul indeed speaks of “the curse of the law” (Galatians 3:13 Galatians 3:13Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree:
American King James Version×), meaning a curse decreed by the law. But he does not refer to the law itself as a curse.
What Paul actually says is this: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree'” (verse 13, NRSV).
A few verses earlier he writes: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law'” (verse 10, NRSV).
First, notice that the curse applies to “everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law”! No curse is pronounced on those who obey “all the things” the law requires.
Of course, only Jesus Christ has ever obeyed everything in the law, without transgressing any of it. All the rest of us have sinned.
What, then, is “the curse of the law”? And in what way has Christ become a curse for us? What was Paul really saying?
This is easily explained from the law itself. Galatians 3:10 Galatians 3:10For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continues not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.
American King James Version×merely paraphrases an Old Testament passage: “Cursed is he who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them” (Deuteronomy 27:26 Deuteronomy 27:26Cursed be he that confirms not all the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen.
American King James Version×, NASB). The curse is not the law—it is clearly the penalty imposed for not keeping the law.
Galatians 3:13 Galatians 3:13Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree:
American King James Version×also is a condensed quote of an Old Testament passage that explains exactly who is cursed and why: “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God's curse. You must not desecrate the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance” (Deuteronomy 21:22-23 Deuteronomy 21:22-23 22 And if a man have committed a sin worthy of death, and he be to be put to death, and you hang him on a tree: 23 His body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall in any wise bury him that day; (for he that is hanged is accursed of God;) that your land be not defiled, which the LORD your God gives you for an inheritance.
American King James Version×, NIV).
Those “guilty of a capital offense”—deserving the penalty of death—were hung on a tree after being executed to serve as a public example. They were displayed before all as convicted sinners, cursed for their sins.
All human beings are guilty of sin. Therefore, we all deserve to be displayed as convicted and “cursed” sinners.
Jesus Christ, by being crucified and in effect hung on a tree as a condemned criminal, “bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24 1 Peter 2:24Who his own self bore our sins in his own body on the tree, that we, being dead to sins, should live to righteousness: by whose stripes you were healed.
American King James Version×).
He bore the full curse—the full public disgrace and penalty of death —that we all deserve. This was what Paul meant in Galatians 3:13 Galatians 3:13Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangs on a tree:
American King James Version×when he wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (NRSV).