CAN YOU EXPLAIN GALATIANS 3:17?
by Shawn Brasseaux
The Holy Spirit through the Apostle Paul penned in Galatians 3:17: “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.” Since this verse has several commas setting off phrases, it can be challenging to pair thoughts in a meaningful way. However, if we examine the verse in light of the context, it really is not difficult as originally assumed.
We will begin at verse 16: “ Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.  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.  For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.  Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator.  Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one.”
The “covenant” at the opening of verse 17 is none other than the Abrahamic Covenant (see verse 16). Genesis 12:1-3 stresses what the LORD will do on Abraham’s behalf (grace) as opposed to what Abraham would do for the LORD (law): “ Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father’s house, unto a land that I will shew thee:  And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing:  And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.” God confirmed this agreement “in Christ” because it would depend on God’s performance. (Of particular interest here is the omission or removal of the words “in Christ” from the modern English versions, translated from a Greek text separate and distinct from the Greek Textus Receptus underlying the King James New Testament.)
Some 430 years after the Abrahamic Covenant, at Mount Sinai, Israel insisted on being under a performance-based acceptance system. This is the Mosaic Law, also known as the Old Covenant. Now, they would work in religion to become God’s people and receive His blessings if they obeyed Him. Of course, if they disobeyed Him, they would receive curses. This arrangement was certainly not like the contract the LORD made with Abraham over four centuries earlier!
Exodus chapter 19 records the exchange: “ In the third month, when the children of Israel were gone forth out of the land of Egypt, the same day came they into the wilderness of Sinai.  For they were departed from Rephidim, and were come to the desert of Sinai, and had pitched in the wilderness; and there Israel camped before the mount.  And Moses went up unto God, and the LORD called unto him out of the mountain, saying, Thus shalt thou say to the house of Jacob, and tell the children of Israel;  Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles’ wings, and brought you unto myself.” (Do you see God’s performance in verse 4—His rescuing Israel from Egyptian bondage?)
“ Now therefore, if ye will obey my voice indeed, and keep my covenant, then ye shall be a peculiar treasure unto me above all people: for all the earth is mine:  And ye shall be unto me a kingdom of priests, and an holy nation. These are the words which thou shalt speak unto the children of Israel.  And Moses came and called for the elders of the people, and laid before their faces all these words which the LORD commanded him.  And all the people answered together, and said, All that the LORD hath spoken we will do. And Moses returned the words of the people unto the LORD.” (Do you see Israel’s performance mentioned in verses 5 and 8?)
Even though God made a second covenant with Israel (the Mosaic Law), Galatians 3:17 says it did not cancel (“disannul”) His preexisting covenant with Abraham. Israel would ultimately become God’s people because of His faithfulness as opposed to theirs. The LORD God made a promise to Israel’s patriarch Abraham, and He could never take it back. See Galatians 3:18: “For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.” However, Israel in her sinful flesh had to be taught this. Our sinful nature, in an attempt to “measure up to” or replace God’s righteousness, always wants to work! God had to prove to Israel it would have to be grace (His efforts), or nothing. Israel could never bring about the Abrahamic Covenant blessings in her own strength.
Let us turn to Romans chapter 4 for extra details: “ For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith.  For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect:  Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression.  Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed; not to that only which is of the law, but to that also which is of the faith of Abraham; who is the father of us all,  (As it is written, I have made thee a father of many nations,) before him whom he believed, even God, who quickeneth the dead, and calleth those things which be not as though they were.”
Simply put, God promised Abraham “righteousness.” “Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Galatians 3:6). Once Abraham was justified, or had a right standing before God, he would be qualified to be “the heir of the world” (Romans 4:13). Righteousness was given to him by faith, not works, for (remember!) God was working on Abraham’s behalf as opposed to Abraham working on God’s behalf. The only thing grace accepts is faith!
Getting back to our original question, the Apostle Paul’s argument in Galatians chapter 3 is to simply show the Galatian saints the Law system is not advantageous to them any more than it was to Abraham or Israel. The Law was a temporary system, an arrangement God instituted so Israel could see she could not perform to get His blessings. It merely pointed out sin (Galatians 3:19), so it could not help the sinner become a saint or be justified in God’s sight (Romans 3:19-20). Israel had to learn God’s blessings would come solely from His faithfulness rather than her faithfulness. Likewise, in chapters 3 and 4 of Galatians, these members of the Church the Body of Christ had to realize Grace and not Law was God’s preferred method of dealing with them. Galatians 4:21: “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?” If necessary, read the entire Book of Galatians—and then read Romans chapters 1-8. Since the Galatians did not learn the basics of grace as found in Romans, they had to be retaught in Galatians! Even today, most professing believers in Christ struggle to understand such fundamental matters. This is because denominations and most churches constantly stress Law and ignore Grace. They do not rightly divide the word of truth, handling the Bible dispensationally (2 Timothy 2:15). Consequently, religious tradition has done more to harm than help souls.
Return to Galatians chapter 3 one last time: “ Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ.  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.  For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise.”
With a completed Bible in hand, we understand the ultimate “seed” of Abraham God promised him in Genesis 13:14-17 and Genesis 17:1-8 was Jesus Christ (cf. Galatians 3:16). It is Abraham’s nation that is “in Christ” (born again) who will be the heirs of the world, for it is Jesus Christ Himself who will inherit the world’s governments. (Lacking the prepositional phrase “in Christ” in Galatians 3:17, the modern English versions eliminate this connection.) As Hebrews chapter 1 tells us: “ God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets,  Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds;….”
All believing children of Abraham—all Jews with a circumcision in the flesh and in the heart (Romans 2:28-29)—will be heirs of that Abrahamic Covenant. Concerning the Old Covenant or the Mosaic Law, the New Covenant will replace it at Christ’s Second Coming, and through Jesus’ shed blood it will take care of Israel’s sins committed under the Old Covenant (Acts 3:19-21; Romans 11:25-27; Hebrews 8:1-13; Hebrews 9:1-28; Hebrews 10:1-39). It is through the New Covenant—God’s grace—that Israel receives the blessings of the Abrahamic Covenant. Having come full circle, we can now close this study!