During a graduate seminar yesterday, one of the students highlighted the language of confinement and imprisonment in Galatians 3:23-24. Before faith appeared (presumably a reference to Jesus, Pistos , Revelation 19:11), “we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith later to be revealed.” “Kept in custody” translates phroureo , used literally in 2 Corinthians 11:32 to refer to King Aretas’s watch over Damascus. “Shut up” translates sugkleio , “to enclose,” used of nets enclosing fish in Luke 5:6. Sugkleio contains the word for “keys” ( kleis ), and thus again hints at imprisonment. The law is the jailkeeper for the purpose of leading to Christ; when faith comes, “we are no longer under a tutor,” the pedagogy of the law (vv. 24-25).

Now the payoff: Paul describes this “no longer under a tutor” as justification: “the law has become our pedagogue to Christ, that we might be justified ( dikaioo ) by faith” (v. 24), that is, by the faith that “came” (v. 25). The law doesn’t justify; the law confines, locks up, keeps in custody. That’s a good thing at the time, but it’s not permanent. God doesn’t lock us up and throw away the key. He sends Faith to “justify.”

And that means that justification is here a release from imprisonment. It is a new verdict - a declaration that those who have been confined under law but believe in Jesus are innocent, righteous. But Paul’s accent isn’t on the verdict. Justification isn’t here a part of ordo salutis but of historia salutis , and justification here is a liberation from the custody of the law, accomplished by Jesus, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who are under the law. One is tempted to say that justification here is a “deliverdict.”

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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