Third Disputation on Galatians, Part II

by Christian Chemnitz
translated by Robby Read


This selection is the remainder of Christian Chemnitz’ Third Disputation on Galatians, translated by Robert Read.

XXI. A third argument follows, again taken from the authority of Scripture, namely from the prophet Habakkuk 2:4, where this statement is made clearly: “The righteous will live by faith,” and therefore the prophet wholly ascribes the righteousness of a man to faith. He speaks about life not of the body but of the soul, not of a natural but of a supernatural life, that is, a life of grace and righteousness, by which the righteous man, insofar as he is righteous, will live. “The law,” however, since it “is not of faith and therefore does not say “The righteous will live by faith,” but says: “The person who does these things will live by them” (Leviticus 18:5), that is, it requires our works and our perfect obedience; therefore righteousness before God cannot be obtained from the law, but the law would be able to oppose us in the discernment of righteousness since no one would be able to exhibit perfect obedience to the law and therefore could not accomplish the things which the law enjoins.

XXII. A fourth argument is taken from the redemption of Christ, which includes good things by its own right, both negative and positive. The Apostle turns his attention to the good things of each kind and enumerates them distinctly as if anticipating his opponent’s objections. For the Apostle had intimated that all men, since they are not able to perfectly keep the law on account of the sin clinging to them, are under the curse of the law: Who would have been able to investigate how we should be freed from this curse and become participants in the promise of blessing? Paul responds, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written (Deut. 21:23), ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’ In order that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, we also receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” And about this matter Chrysostom1 appropriately says, “Therefore the cross bore a curse, faith brought in righteousness, and righteousness attracted the grace of the Spirit.” And Jerome says: “Finally, he,” (Christ), “was made a curse; made, I say, not born, in order that the blessings which had been promised to Abraham might by their very author be conveyed to the Gentiles and the promise of the Spirit be fulfilled in us through the faith of him [Christ].” This sort of argument is produced here. Through Christ we have been freed from the curse of that which was not able to confer righteousness and blessing, from the curse of the law, etc. It is a plain matter, so that it does not seem to require further proof.

XXIII. Moreover, the singular emphasis contained in the text should be noted: First, when Paul does not say simply that we have been freed from the law, but from *the curse of *the law through Christ. Therefore we have not been freed from obedience to the law in order that we should thereafter have license to sin—by no means! but this is our freedom: that the curse of the law is not able to further harm us; that we have been freed from the sentence of the law, from the wrath of God, and from the penalties which the law imposes upon the disobedient, in order that there no longer be condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, Romans 8:1ff. Therefore we have not been called into freedom in order to give an opportunity to the flesh, Galatians 5:13. Second, when Christ is said literally to have become for us a curse in the abstract sense, by which without doubt the Apostle wishes to signify that Christ indeed was innocent by his own right and did not ever know or commit a sin, but he carried over sins not his own and a curse not his own into himself. Third, that Paul also names the instrument by which the benefits acquired through the redemption of Christ are to be taken hold of, namely faith. For by faith alone do we apply these benefits to ourselves. For those who do not believe are not able to become participants of the blessings of Abraham and of the Holy Spirit. According to that well-known passage, “Whoever does not believe will be condemned” [Mark 16:16]. And: “The wrath of God remains on whoever does not believe in the Son” [John 3:36].2 Therefore blessing, righteousness, and eternal salvation are from faith in Christ, the Son of God and our redeemer.

XXIV. Finally, a fifth argument rests upon the weight of the words of the promise. For Paul returns to the promise made to Abraham, and he intimates that this promise takes an account of a last will, and he establishes this by a similar example taken from human things, for he says: “I speak according to man,” that is, I use a commonplace example fetched from the use of humans in order that you may better understand what I wish you to. Therefore he argues from the lesser to the greater: If a promise belonging to the will of a human, duly confirmed, is kept and not rescinded nor is anything added3 to it, a promise belonging to the will of God himself concerning the blessed seed is much more to be kept by taking possession of it by faith and not to be rescinded nor is anything to be added to it.

XXV. He reproaches the false apostles by this argument as forgers who dishonor the testament founded by God himself and confirmed through the death of Christ and who add something to it. Just as Ambrose4 also comments on this passage, saying, “The Apostle by his own argument designates them as responsible for a falsified testament who, while believing in Christ, also hold some hope concerning the law so that salvation is not only the things promised in Christ but also in the law. Therefore he proves that the promise of blessing was made in Christ alone.” Thus he [Ambrose] says. Therefore the Apostle immediately demonstrates the substance or foundation of the testament which God made with Abraham when he says, “The promises were spoken to Abraham, and to his seed: It does not say, ‘and to seeds,’ as if about many people, but concerning one person, as it were, ‘and to your seed,’ who is Christ.” And we understand that these words strove against a certain difficulty among the authors, especially those latter words: “It does not say ‘in seeds,’ as if about many people, but concerning one person, as it were.”

XXVI. For the Jews, and indeed even Jerome himself (just as he before others  [translates] with the word “seed”, Flacius5 writes in the Key6), prove Paul right, as if the argument has been made sophistically from the word “seed”, since the Hebrew word זֶ֫רַע, by which mode of expression the promise was given and written to Abraham, may only be singular in number. And, as Beza7 also writes, the Jews cry out that Paul impertinently applies the word of one seed, since it is a collective noun.

XXVII. Truly, let it be absent that in this matter of such consequence we accuse the very venerable Apostle and consequently the Holy Spirit himself of either any sophistry or ineptitude. We therefore speak briefly and respond with Flacius:8 Firstly, it is not settled as a certain thing that the word “seed” was not in use in the plural in the Hebrew language, for not only those words, senses, or phrases which are now extant in the Hebrew Old Testament but also others besides were possible in that language, on the contrary, they also without doubt existed. Secondly, although collective nouns are ordinarily placed in the singular number for the plural, they nevertheless often also indicate one certain individual thing. From this also the noun “seed,” although it is collective, nevertheless is able to designate any one tribe or even any one person. For the Jews themselves do not even dare to say that he who left only one son [Abraham] died without a seed; indeed, we also have explicit passages [which provide examples of this usage]: Genesis 4:23, where by the noun “seed” one son of Adam, namely, Seth, is meant, and Genesis 21:13, where Ishmael alone is indicated by it. For this reason, as Flacius9 gathers in Loci Communes, Paul, knowing by the apostolic Spirit for what reason that word is used in the promises given to Abraham, urges with the best authority his meaning rather than the meaning of the term itself and rightly establishes that the blessing promised to Abraham is founded on that sole and unique blessed seed, Christ. For no one is able to lay another foundation except the one which has been laid, that is, Jesus Christ, I Corinthians 3:21.

XXVIII. Moreover, let it be noted that when the promises are said to have been spoken to Abraham and to his seed, Christ, and that by reason of various subjects which are listed here, it is also to be understood in various ways. Therefore the promises were spoken to Abraham (and to all who are of the faith of Abraham) as the subject for whom blessing was to be acquired through Christ; they were spoken to Christ, moreover, as to the blessed seed himself, or as to the subject which had to acquire blessing for them.

XXIX. Finally, Paul calls the promises about the blessed seed διαθήκη, “a testament,” “a covenant,” for God by the promise given composed an eternal covenant of grace promising to Abraham, and with faithful Abraham all who believe, blessing, that is, remission of sins, righteousness, and eternal life in Christ Jesus. The author, therefore, or maker of this testament is God himself, who bequeaths to believers an inheritance of salvation and eternal life by the promise given. Moreover, just as in a testament an heir is set up free of charge only by goodwill, so God gives the promise concerning the blessed seed free of charge by his mercy and love alone and sets up believers as heirs of eternal life in that [promise] without any merits of their own.

XXX. And Paul bears down upon this gracious donation in this place and in like manner brings in an argument through reduction against the false apostles that if (from their way of thinking) inheritance is from the law, it is no longer from the promise. But God gave it to Abraham through a promise. Therefore the doctrine stands firm and remains sound concerning justification that without doubt a man is not made righteous by works of the law, but by faith alone, by which he apprehends the divine promises and applies them to himself. And the Apostle has thus far established and vindicated this doctrine by enough solid arguments.

XXXI. Therefore let us now make progress to the third part of this chapter, where we must consider for what reason the Apostle goes against the objections of his adversaries.

XXXII. Since, therefore, they [Paul’s adversaries] are able to respond and urge against the last argument, which we have now seen, toward a solemn preaching of the law which would not have been necessary if men were able to be made righteous through faith alone in the divine promises,10 he immediately responds on account of anticipation by denying the consequence and by showing that the argument must rather be inverted when he says: “Moreover, I say this: The law, which came about 430 years later, did not make the testament vain with the result that God abrogate the promise before he made good upon it by Christ.” For divine covenants and promises always are and remain certain and firm, and they cannot be abolished through the law, for otherwise God would be a liar, which is an impious thing to say.

XXXIII. And by this every doubt is removed, and in order that the Apostle may have an opportunity of putting forth and declaring true doctrine about the law and its use and office and abrogation more clearly, he presents it to himself as if he too shapes a question about the use of the law, saying: “What, then, is the law?” For if righteousness and salvation is able to be obtained from faith in the promises, will the law be of no use and thus will have been brought about in vain? He responds: “It was added because of transgressions,”that is to say, although righteousness and the inheritance of eternal life are not able to be obtained, nevertheless the law has another purpose and use: for it was put in place because of transgressions, that is, to expose them, restrain them by the threat of penalties, and guard against them. And by this declaration of his Paul concisely describes the use of the law in all its breadth.

XXXIV. Now he speaks far from the abrogation of the law when he puts under the same verse: “Until the seed to whom the promise was made was coming.” And this is not to be understood in this way: as if in any way abolition of the law has come about—by no means. But these words are to be understood either about the delivery of the promised seed and the coming of the Messiah in the flesh, in which case they deal with the purpose of the Jewish State and with the abrogation of the laws, both the ceremonial and judicial, which are able to be used freely without a supposition of necessity and righteousness because they do not deal with good and evil. Or the words of Paul are to be understood about the spiritual coming of Christ into the hearts of believers and thus deal with the abrogation of the moral law itself, that is, insofar as the curse, accusation, rigorous demand, and terror of it, for Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law as we have observed above from verse 13. The circumstances of the law’s publishing are added to these things, which, by the way, are being enumerated and touched upon.

XXXV. When the Apostle says that the law was delivered by angels into the hand of a mediator, he also treats concerning that mediator farther on, saying: “A mediator, however, is not of one party, but God is one.” And concerning the meaning of these words, a difficulty arises for interpreters. To us, in order that we may speak briefly, the meaning seems to be the simplest and most coherent with the previous words which Piscator supplies and many others with him: Paul certainly wishes to show that the law is a token of discord, as Piscator11 says in his Analysis of this passage, between God and men, and therefore terror rather than peace of conscience arises from the law. For, as the author cited in *Schools *puts it, the fact that in the delivering of the law Moses had to be a mediator is a sign that there was discord between God and you (men), and this discord was not able to come into being from a source other than the fact that you are transgressors of the law. And [he says] soon [afterwards]: God always agrees with himself and is like himself, and therefore today not less than in time past he is angry with transgressors of the law.

XXXVI. But another doubt seems to arise from what was said. For, because the Apostle had said that the office of the law is to reveal and point out sin, someone might be able to gather from this that the law is opposed to the promises of God. Paul therefore confounds and overthrows this doubt through denial of the supposition as much as through inversion [of the argument], saying: “Let it be absent,” the law by no means contends with the promises. But if the law were making man righteous, in that case rather it would contend with the promises of God, for it would thus make the promises useless or vain. But since this supposition is not assented to with respect to the law, namely, that it is able to make righteous or make alive, the contradiction has been endured by this very fact. Yea, rather, the law strengthens the promises, as the Apostle seems to intimate in the next verse, 22. For the law, and all of Scripture, convicts all men of sin, and therefore by declaring that all men are sinners, it bears witness that no one is able to be justified before God by works of the law, but that one must flee to Christ and by faith take hold of the promises about free justification through Christ.

XXXVII. After he had thus far dealt with the law in general, he moreover had dealt with the moral law especially: the Apostle now comes to the law in particular to what extent it was proper to the Jewish State, and he advises that its duration and use was not perpetual but that the Jews were held captive and shut in under it as under a prison lest they be alienated either by idolatry or by other wicked things and let go of the doctrine of the blessed seed to come, and thus that law was a guide to Christ, leading the Jews into that faith which was about to be lifted up before the faith had come. In this place, moreover, lest anyone think that Paul deprives the fathers in the Old Testament of faith and knowledge of Christ by these words, “before the faith came,” which he also soon calls “about to be revealed,” it must be explained what he means by “faith” in this passage. Therefore by “faith” justifying faith itself is not able to be understood to what extent it is in man being justified and saved, for in this way the faith of us and the fathers is one, but Paul in this passage uses “faith” to mean a fuller revelation of doctrine concerning justifying faith which before was being concealed under darkness as if of shadows of the law. The fathers had true faith in Christ, and by this faith they were saved, but this faith was not yet plainly revealed through the coming of the promised Messiah.

XXXVIII. And since all who believe in Christ Jesus and put on Christ through the sacrament of baptism because faith is already arriving in their time of grace and of the gospel have become sons of God, for this reason also freedom from the law of the Jewish State is declared and confirmed. And this very useful doctrine about the effect of faith is put forth, namely that through faith we are made sons of God and that through the sacrament of baptism we put on Christ. And to draw out this doctrine more broadly, as would be equal, the narrowness of the pages does not permit but rather warns us as we give the signal for retiring.

XXXIX. Therefore from this fact, that adoption occurs through faith, the Apostle further infers in verse 28 that there is no consideration of persons with God, but that all believers are one in Christ Jesus, and thus that all [believers] are the spiritual seed of Abraham and consequently heirs according to the promise! And let these things be sufficient as if they have been said in few words concerning the third chapter to the Galatians.

Soli Deo Gloria

  1. John Chrysostom (c. 349-407) was an influential Early Church Father and prolific author. Chemnitz’s reference is to one of his homilies on Galatians. 

  2. Chemnitz only quotes the portion of John 3:36 relevant to his point. 

  3. That is, no additional conditions must be fulfilled for the promise to be carried out. 

  4. Aurelius Ambrosius (c. 340-397), known in English as Ambrose, was bishop of Milan and wrote several theological treatises. A commentary on Paul’s epistles which was long attributed to him is now called Ambrosiaster (“pseudo-Ambrose”). 

  5. Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520-1575) was a Lutheran reformer noted for his participation in editing the Magdeburg Centuries

  6. The full title of the work referenced is the Key of Holy Scripture or Concerning the Speech of the Sacred Letters

  7. Theodore Beza (1519-1605) was a French theologian in the Calvinist tradition. He succeeded John Calvin as spiritual leader at Geneva. He produced an edition of the Greek New Testament accompanied by the Vulgate as well as his own Latin translation as early as 1556. 

  8. See note 5. 

  9. See note 5. 

  10. This conditional sentence is contrafactual since Chemnitz is writing from the perspective of Paul’s adversaries. 

  11. Johannes Piscator (1546-1625) was a German Reformed theologian and Bible translator. From 1595 to 1609 he prepared a series of Latin commentaries on the New Testament. 

The second part of Christian Chemnitz' Third Disputation on Galatians.

 Apr 17, 2020