A Response to Steve Lehrer’s
"The Active Obedience of Christ in NCT (Part II)"
by Greg Welty
In his "The Active Obedience of Christ in NCT (Part II)," Steve Lehrer argues that Paul is exclusively addressing Jews in Galatians 3:10-14. Thus, when Paul says that "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the (Mosaic) law" (3:13), he means to say that only Jews (and not Gentiles) were under the curse of the Mosaic law.
Lehrer says that "We believe that the verses under consideration are addressed only to Jewish Christians. We realize that this is a minority opinion. But we believe that our argument from Scripture is decisive." So what is Lehrer’s Scriptural argument that Paul is exclusively addressing Jews in Ga 3:10-14? And is it decisive?
First, Lehrer says that "in verses 2:15-17 Paul begins addressing Jews." As a matter of fact, Paul is simply continuing his account of his conversation with Peter, the conversation he began in v. 14, and continues until v. 21 (this is where the NIV ends the quotation). That is, Paul is informing his predominantly Gentile readership of the conversation he had with Peter. To be sure, in these verses Paul is addressing Peter’s Jewish background ("we who are Jews by birth"), pressing upon Peter the knowledge which Peter as a Jew should have appreciated. Nevertheless, Paul is recording this conversation for the benefit of a church in a predominantly Gentile region. Paul is writing to Gentiles about a conversation he had with a Jew. He is not writing to Jews exclusively.
Second, Lehrer says that "Paul continues in 3:6-9 to advance his argument," and that Paul does so "with no clues that the addressees change." Yes, but since Lehrer has misidentified the ‘addressees’ in Gal 2:15-17 as Jews, it is no wonder that Lehrer thinks that the addressees continue to be Jews exclusively. As we have seen above, Lehrer has collapsed the distinction between Paul’s conversation with Peter, and Paul’s recounting of that conversation to the Galatians. Apparently, when Paul "advances his argument" and says in 3:1 "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?", Lehrer thinks that the Galatians were exclusively Jews, which is a very odd hypothesis about a church in a predominantly Gentile region, founded by the one who was the apostle to the Gentiles (1:16; 2:2; 2:7,8,9). For only if the ‘us’ of Ga 3:13 is addressed exclusively to Jews can Lehrer argue that Gentiles are not under the curse of the Mosaic law. It is no wonder that Lehrer concedes that his view "is a minority opinion"!
Third, Lehrer says that Paul’s argument in Ga 3:6-9 "runs as follows: Why would you ‘who are Jews by birth’ rely on the law to be justified before God? Doing this not only brings the curse of the Mosaic Covenant down on you, but to go back to the Mosaic Covenant is to shut off God’s work in fulfilling the Abrahamic Covenant and bringing the gospel to the Gentiles." Again, Lehrer confuses Paul’s language about himself and Peter (‘we who are Jews by birth’) with his writing to the Galatians. In addition, there is not the slightest chance that Ga 3:6-9 teaches that those who "rely on the law to be justified before God" and who "go back to the Mosaic Covenant," by that very act "shut off God’s work in fulfilling the Abrahamic Covenant and bringing the gospel to the Gentiles." If anyone actually reads the text of Ga 3:6-9, he will see that it cannot even remotely be said to teach this. Where is this in the text? Indeed, the whole idea is very odd. A legalistic Jew, in the era of the New Covenant, can by his legalism prevent the fulfillment of the Abrahamic Covenant? How can that be, when Lehrer himself later argues that it is the death of Christ which objectively removed the ‘barrier to the Abrahamic Promise of salvation to the Gentiles being fulfilled’? Lehrer goes so far as to claim that "If Jewish believers decide to go backwards, they deny the Gentiles the possibility of salvation, which is the fulfillment of the prior promise to Abraham." One wonders how backsliding Jews can undo the work of Christ and "deny the Gentiles the possibility of salvation"!
Fourth, Lehrer emphasises the pronoun ‘us’ and ‘we’ throughout Ga 3:13-14, and sets it in contrast with ‘the Gentiles’ in v. 14: "Christ redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit" (v. 14). But this contrast between people groups is not necessary at all in order for the passage to make sense. "Angry Muslims bombed us so that Americans might receive a curse." "Christ redeemed us in order that blessing might come to the Gentiles." In each case, only one people-group (not two) is the recipient of the actions described (Americans, Gentiles). There is no need to set ‘us’/‘we’ against ‘Gentiles’ in order for the passage to make perfect sense. Lehrer thinks otherwise, because he thinks Christ’s "overall purpose of taking on the curse of the law was to move it out of the way because it was a barrier to the Abrahamic Promise of salvation to the Gentiles being fulfilled." But one searches the Galatians passage in vain for this talk of the law as a ‘barrier’ that somehow prevents ‘fulfilment’ of the promises. On the contrary, Paul says that the law was a tutor that leads us to Christ!
Another way to see how Lehrer’s specific contrast doesn’t make sense, is to note how it splits up the hina purpose clauses of v. 14. Paul says that "Christ redeemed us" with a double purpose in mind: "in order that [hina] the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus," and "so that [hina] by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit." Since according to Ga 3:8-9 the Abrahamic blessing is justification itself, on Lehrer’s view Christ redeemed Jews in order to justify Gentiles, so that Jews might receive the Spirit. But why do Jews specifically need to be redeemed, in order for Gentiles to be justified? Does it not make much more sense to think that Gentiles need to be redeemed in order for Gentiles to be justified? And why do Gentiles specifically need to be justified, in order for Jews to receive the Spirit? The fact of the matter is that the same people are redeemed, justified, and indwelt by the Spirit; this is Paul’s consistent teaching throughout his letters. By importing a contrast between Jews and Gentiles in Ga 3:13-14, Lehrer turns the passage into a big puzzle.
Fifth, Lehrer says Paul’s argument in Ga 3:10-14 ‘echoes’ his argument in Eph 2:11-19. But they are two completely different arguments. In Ga 3, the argument is that the law is a tutor that reveals our sin and leads us to Christ. In Eph 2, the argument is that the law is a barrier that divides Jews and Gentiles. If anything, the function of the law in Ga 3 as that which reveals our sin and need of Christ only supports the relevance of that law to Gentiles. Paul argues in Ga 3:21 that the law is not ‘opposed to the promises of God’. The law is not a source of righteousness that competes with what can be obtained from the promise. And how do we know this? Because "the Scripture declares that the whole world [ta panta] is a prisoner of sin" (Ga 3:22).
Sixth, Lehrer cites Ga 3:22, "But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin," and comments: "The Mosaic Law placed all who were under it under the power of sin." Lehrer is right to correlate the condemning power of the law with those who were under the law. But (as we just saw above) Paul’s statement is that the whole world is a prisoner of that sin which the law reveals. Lehrer reads into v. 22 an exclusively Jewish context, despite the fact that Paul is talking about all men.
Seventh, Lehrer emphasises the pronouns ‘we’ and ‘us’ throughout Ga 3:23-25, in an attempt to make Paul’s readers exclusively Jewish. But this overlooks the very next verse: "26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise." Paul’s readers were Jew, Greek, slave, free, male, female. They were not exclusively Jewish.
Eighth, Lehrer tries to make a parallel between Gal 4:4-5 and Gal 3:13-14. To be sure, both passages talk about Christ’s work of redemption. But to import a distinction between Jews and Gentiles into Gal 3:13-14 generates the implausibilities noted in the fourth point above. Alleged ‘parallels’ do not illuminate a passage if they turn it into a big puzzle.
Ninth, and finally, Lehrer overlooks the specific evidence for the Gentile readership of Galatians, found in 4:8-11. Would Paul tell Jews that they formerly ‘did not know God,’ that they ‘were slaves to those who by nature are not gods,’ that the Mosaic law was composed of ‘weak and miserable principles’? Surely he is addressing Gentiles who have escaped from pagan religion. As The Expositor’s Bible Commentary puts it, "That highly undesirable former state was also one of ignorance of the true God in which the pagans worshiped those who were not gods. The reference is clearly to the idols of paganism, which, in typically Jewish idiom, Paul terms ‘no gods.’ This ignorance was actually one cause of their bondage to paganism." And why would Paul warn Jews not to allow themselves to be circumcised (5:2-3), if Jews by definition would already be circumcised?
Clearly, the Galatians are former pagans. Just as clearly, Christ redeemed these Gentiles from the curse of the Mosaic law, by becoming a curse for them (Ga 3:13).
Last Revised: 8 May 2002