In this article, an analysis of the relationship between the Law and the Cross is given, by means of a brief exposition of Galatians 3:10-14. The impossibility of salvation through the works of the Law is explained, and the hope of a gratuitous justification proclaimed. Finally, the necessity of founding the Gospel on the Law is stressed, and motivation is provided for Christians to study them together.

Outline of Contents

  1. The Law the Divine Mirror
  2. Salvation Promised, not Given, in the Law
  3. Our Justification Through Christ’s Condemnation
  4. The Law is the Foundation of Christ’s Sacrifice

“And if a man has committed a crime punishable by death and he is put to death, and you hang him on a tree, his body shall not remain all night on the tree, but you shall bury him the same day, for a hanged man is cursed by God. You shall not defile your land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance.
Deuteronomy 21:22-23

The New Testament authors apply these verses to the cross, and they do so almost erratically. Paul says, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ (Galatians 3:13); Peter ‘The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree’ (Acts 5:30) and ‘He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2:24). I don’t think this is euphemism, nor do I think it to be a fine point of doctrine. We must always remember that the writers of Scripture ‘spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit,’ the same Spirit speaks through Moses and the Apostles. So when we find the Apostles insisting on a strange application of the Law to Moses, we should listen closely, and seek to discern its significance. Let us now invoke this Spirit as we try to unravel the meaning of His words, ‘pure words, like silver refined in a furnace on the ground, purified seven times.’

Our Father, how Your splendour covers the heavens, the earth is full of Your praise. Your brightness is like the light and rays flash from Your hands even while You veil Your power. If the mountains see You and tremble, the deep gives forth its voice, and the sun and moon are stilled, what becomes of us, even the dust of the earth? We hear and our bodies tremble, our lips quiver at the sound, rottenness enters into our bones, and our legs tremble beneath us. So most excellent, most precious, and most needful in our eyes is the Mediator, our High Priest, our Prophet, and our King. In His worthy name we seek Your blessing, knowing that if You have given Him to us, then all things also will soon be given to us. We seek indeed the Eternal Spirit: come now, O Dove from on high, and show to us the way of eternal happiness. Send out Your light and Your truth, let them lead us to Your holy hill and dwelling. Amen.

The Law the Divine Mirror

The Law, that is, the curse of the Law, is represented symbolically by the tree. Christ was not crucified on a mere Roman cross, no, He was condemned and suffered under the full demands of God’s holy Law.
Let us see how Paul describes this:

For all who rely on works of the law 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.”
Galatians 3:10

Why does the Law bring a curse? Not because it is flawed, but because it exposes our flaws. Men remain at peace, their consciences only causing them mild annoyance, when comparing themselves to one another. This is the bliss of ignorance, where a man may judge his virtue by looking over his shoulder. And what does he see, but another more wicked than he? When have the godless lacked examples of men less godly then they? If FDR is permitted to calm his conscience by considering Hitler, let Hitler rejoice! for even as he descends into the pit he sees many who are far more vile than he ever was. Perhaps only the Devil and his worst angels will be damned. But at Mount Sinai comes the awful word:

You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy. (from Leviticus 19:2)

In the Law of Moses we hear, to our dismay, that the Deity, in His immaculate, essential, eternal holiness has demanded of us absolute moral purity, and He has made Himself the measure. Hence, the Apostle teaches us, ‘Cursed be everyone’ who fails to obey the whole Law. It is the witness of Scripture, from its first word to the last, that God is not like fallen men. What hope can there be, if we must be as holy as He to be justified? John Calvin comments insightfully on the Law:

As in a mirror we discover any stains upon our face, so in the Law we behold, first, our impotence; then, in consequence of it, our iniquity; and, finally, the curse, as the consequence of both.

This tragic reality was well understood by the Psalmist who declared that

Truly no man can ransom another,
or give to God the price of his life,
for the ransom of their life is costly
and can never suffice,
that he should live on for ever
and never see the pit.
Man in his pomp will not remain;
he is like the beasts that perish.
Psalm 49:7-9,12

Then so far from being our salvation, the Law makes certain our condemnation. The conscience which once flirted and only stung occasionally, now becomes a burning blade in our hearts and we fall undone, like the prophet Isaiah before the throne of God.

And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”
Isaiah 6:5

Salvation Promised, not Given, in the Law

Having despaired of all hope of meriting our justification, we continue with Paul’s argument.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
Galatians 3:11-12

God has promised, from the earliest of times, a coming salvation for mankind. Without this promise, surely Adam and Eve would’ve been damned immediately after their rebellion. Without this hope, why would God have preserved Noah and his family? And without this certain salvation, why would the Holy One have called Abraham, and sanctified a people to Himself? Jacob testifies of this hope, albeit briefly, when blessing his sons, saying

I wait for your salvation, O LORD.
Genesis 49:18

The Apostle’s insight into this salvation is that was always going to be completely gratuitous. This is what the Spirit revealed when He said ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’ Faith looks into heaven for mercy from the God who shows steadfast love. Faith pleads no virtue of its own, not even the humility it produces, as some have suggested to their own shame. The Mosaic Covenant says ‘Do and you shall live’ and Paul therefore concludes that it does not offer the salvation promised to the Patriarchs. Time fails us to unravel all the implications of this, so let us proceed, hoping to return to them on another day.

Our Justification Through Christ’s Condemnation

Christ redeemed 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.
Galatians 3:13-14

This is the Gospel. This is the whole Gospel. ‘For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.’ This is the doctrine now called Sola Fide, recovered in the Reformation, and in Luther’s immortal words, ‘The Article by which the Church stands or falls.’ And this is surely to be our only comfort in life and death (Heidelberg). Hallelujah, let the LORD be praised, for in the cross of Christ,

Steadfast love and faithfulness meet; righteousness and peace kiss each other.
Faithfulness springs up from the ground, and righteousness looks down from the sky.
Psalm 85:10-11

The Law is the Foundation of Christ’s Sacrifice

So here is my conclusion. Obscure the Law, obscure the Gospel. Jesus came to comfort the mourning and free the captives (Isaiah 61:1-4), he has nothing—i.e. nothing good—for men who tell him that they ‘have never been enslaved’ (John 8:33). Jerusalem is mourning until her God pardons her iniquity, but Babylon sits securely and says in her heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me’ (cf. Isaiah 40:1-2, 47:8-9). If we soften the demands of the Law, we dismantle the Gospel from its foundations—and we embitter Christ. He is sweet, but only while the taste of the Law remains sour in our memories. Show me a man who knows nothing of Moses, and I’ll show you a man who knows nothing of Jesus. How can grace be shown to a man if he does not stand condemned?

This is why so much of the Sermon on the Mount is focused on the Law, Christ being the antitype of Moses. This is why we who really know and love Christ cannot restrain our tears, of sorrow and of anger, when we hear of the wolves teaching the immature to focus on the God of ‘love’ shown in Jesus, not the ‘angry’ God of the Old Testament. These teachers reveal to us their malice or deplorable ignorance.

Christian, study the Law of Moses if you want to know the meaning of grace. If you won’t accept my testimony, listen to the disciple loved by Jesus:

The law was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.
John 1:17

The Spirit-inspired choice of the Apostles to call the cross a tree was no vain usage of terms, for no such thing exists in the Bible. It is a divine mnemonic, given to us so we may never forget the context of Christ’s sacrifice.

The Law will show you your sin. It will show you your destitution. It will crush your pride, and remind you of your nakedness. Then, even as the fig leaves you tried to use to cover your shame are burned away, even as you stand exposed to the just and unavoidable wrath of the holy God you have offended, ‘your eyes will behold the king in his beauty.’ You will see Christ your Saviour, clothed in your sin and condemned in your place, handing you his white garments. Then you will join with the all the saints, in their happy union with Christ.

The bride eyes not her garments,
but her dear Bridegroom’s face;
I will not gaze at glory
but on my King of grace;
Not at the crown He giveth,
but on His pierced hand;
The Lamb is all the glory
Of Immanuel’s land.

Further Reading

The prayer at the beginning draws strongly from Habakkuk 3, and a little from Psalm 43.
For more about the Law and the Gospel, see Calvin’s Institutes, II.7.