Chapter 23 – Galatians Atonement Passages

Author: Kevin George

This book is a work in progress. Posts on this blog are to enable readers to examine the manuscript and make commentary. These blog posts are NOT the final version!

Galatians 2:20 “…And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” ESV

The phrase “gave himself for me” has the same Greek word “hyper” as Romans 5:8 above. It simply means “…gave himself because of me.”

Galatians 3:6Just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” ESV

The particular phrase in verse 6, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” is what must be examined, as well as the context and argument being made by Paul. The specific phrase in question is, “counted to him as righteousness”, which is the Greek phrase “elogisthē autō eis dikaiosynēn”. The word “elogisthē” is not an accounting term as we have been told; it has nothing to do with counting. It is about reasoning. This exact Greek word is used in 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned [elogizomēn] like a child.” The root meaning of the word is “logizomai”, which has to do with logic, reasoning, and thinking. The next two Greek words, “autō eis” literally mean “self” and “into”. The last Greek word, “dikaiosynēn” means “right” or “rightness”, and its use can be seen in many passages, such as, “of practicing your righteousness [dikaiosynēn]” (Mat. 6:1), “and works righteousness [dikaiosynēn] acceptable” (Acts 10:35), “demonstrates the righteousness [dikaiosynēn] of God” (Rom. 3:5) and numerous others.

Furthermore, the word “faith”, “episteusen” in Galatians 3:6 is in the active tense, and the word “elogisthē” is in the passive tense, indicating that Abraham’s faith affected his reasoning, and was not some nebulous intellectual assent or affirmation. Nor did the faith act on God to cause God to reason Abraham righteous, it was Abraham himself who was affected by his faith, which is further born out in the greater context (see below).

Based on this word examination we can see that the phrase “elogisthē autō eis dikaiosynēn” should have been, or at least could have been, translated as, “reasoned him into righteousness.” It was Abraham’s faith in a righteous God which affected his reasoning and led him to think right, just as a pagan’s faith in an unrighteous deity will lead him to think wrong. There is no “word magic” to this phrase, it is just plain common sense! 

Now, notice what happens to the entire context when we correct this phrase, and also change the word “justify” to be better translated as “set right”:

“Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it reasoned him into righteousness”? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would set right the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. For all who rely on works of the law [as a means of self-righteousness] are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is set right before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” Galatians 3:5-11 ESV (modified)

Paul is proving here that faith provides the only legitimate basis for doing right, or setting one right, and not faithless loyalty to law. Paul’s argument is that genuine righteousness “is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise does not come from men, but from God” (Romans 2:28). Paul is not at all saying that faith causes God to count us as being righteous, even if we are not being righteous. Paul is saying that genuine faith in a God of righteousness moves us to do right, it sets us right, it causes us to reason right, just as it did for Abraham, who is the faith-father of us all.

Galatians 3:13-14 “Christ redeemed [released/freed] us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” ESV

Being cursed for hanging on a tree is based on Deuteronomy 21:22-23. In this case, a body was hung on a tree after execution for the purpose of public display. Hanging a body on a tree was not in itself a form of punishment since the body at that time was a corpse. This hanging is not a penalty or a punishment, it was a public display of an already dead body. Do not conflate a dead body becoming a curse and being put to death. They are 2 different things! Paul is not saying that the death of Jesus is the curse, that would be a reading comprehension mistake.

When Paul writes, “Christ redeemed [released/freed] us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us…” he is saying that Christ freed us from the law, effectively cancelling the law because those who truly follow Christ and live according to his spirit do not need the law. Christ became the picture or illustration of a curse for our sake, demonstrating, in the most shocking way, the vast evil of sin due to humans grossly violating the law when they put to death the most innocent of all men. Due to him becoming the picture of a curse, the true curse of sin which is revealed by the law is vividly portrayed and we who are affected thereby choose to live as Christ lived, according to a superior righteousness which is defined by God, not by a written moral code.

The result of this curse is stated by Paul when he says, “so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” This means that there is no need for Gentiles to embrace the Mosaic law (which Gentiles had to do if they wanted to become Jewish) because there is a higher righteousness demonstrated by the faith and spirit of Christ. The curse, the burden, of having to adopt Mosaic law has been removed! It has been replaced by faithfully embracing Christ and living according to his teachings.

When Paul writes that Christ became “a curse for us”, the word “for” is the Greek “hyper”, meaning “on behalf of” or, “for our sakes”. It is not substitutionary and does not mean “in exchange for us”! The entire context of the passage, indeed the entire book of Galatians, is Paul’s argument that those who follow Christ (both Jews and Gentiles) no longer need the Mosaic law, which has effectively become a cursed way of living in comparison to the liberty we have in Christ (presuming we are actually abiding in him and his teachings).

Regrettably, those who teach Penal Substitution latch on to this passage and rip it out of context, disregard the author’s intent and grammar, and use it to teach that God literally cursed Jesus! The claim is that the law and our sin were placed on Jesus thereby provoking God to curse His own Son. Not only is this claim possibly blaspheming, it also assumes Jesus was a vile sinful sacrifice, in which case he would not have even qualified for being an offering, as offerings to God were supposed to be clean, the best of the flock, not the sick, lame, mangy rejects of unworthy condition. “When you offer blind animals in sacrifice, is that not evil? And when you offer those that are lame or sick, is that not evil? Present that to your governor; will he accept you or show you favor? says the LORD of hosts” Malachi 1:8 ESV.

Galatians 3:13-14, are a single paragraph that is part of a greater argument that Paul is making against those who claim that followers of Christ must adhere to all the Mosaic laws and regulations like the Jews had been taught, which often included multiple layers of legal traditions beyond what was actually written. In order for the Mosaic law to be set aside and to become free of it, a higher, superior, law or covenant had to be put in place that was better (see Chapter 26 of this book, regarding Hebrews).

In verses 17-26 Paul explains that the law of Moses was an addition to the promise given to Abraham and the law only served as a tutor, a means to establish boundaries, until the ultimate promise, Jesus Christ, would come (Deuteronomy 18:15-18). Now Jesus defines what is right and wrong, and by having faith and loyalty (not mere mental assent) to his teaching and his example we are being righteous (1 Jn. 3:7). Those who follow Christ have no need of the Mosaic law because they have a greater, living source of defining what is right and wrong. Instead of following the sometimes abstract Mosaic laws we follow the Son of God who lives out all the righteousness of God.

An example of this is Cornelius, a God-fearing Gentile who was considered righteous (Acts 10:22) before even hearing of Christ! Notice Peter’s “PSA-incorrect” statement: “Opening his mouth, Peter said: “I most certainly understand now that God is not one to show partiality, but in every nation the man who fears Him and does what is right is welcome to Him.” Acts 10:34-35 NASB

Only after this statement does Peter actually tell Cornelius about Jesus. “…This is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives [Gr. lambanó, Eng. lay hold of] forgiveness [Gr. aphesin, Eng. release] of sins” (10:42-43).

Peter does not tell Cornelius to repent (similar to Luke 5:32). He was already living a godly, righteous life; he just needed to know and believe in the promised Messiah who had come.