For all those who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the book of the law and do them.” 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”. 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.
Before we begin to analyze Galatians 3:10-14, let’s first consider the logical outcome of the assertion that Christ suffered the punishment for our sins. In Ezekiel 18, God responds to His people’s belief that the sons of sinful men would be punished for their fathers’ sins. He says this in verse 4: “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die”. He continues, beginning in verse 20: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous
shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.” Through these words, God strongly condemns as illegal the idea that one person could ever be punished for the sins of another. Are we to believe that though such unrighteous punishment was illegal under His law, He (who magnifies His word even above His own name, according to Psa 138:2) punished His perfect son for an unfathomable degree of sins which He did not commit? If that were the case, it would mean that God had broken His own law and therefore had sinned. Since we know that this cannot be true, we can rightfully conclude that whatever Galatians 3:10-14 is teaching, it is not that Christ took the punishment for our sins. What then are these verses teaching?
Throughout scripture, the only persons hanged on trees were those who had forfeited their ability to atone for their sins by their refusal to obey God’s laws. This included not only those in pagan nations, but also those formerly in the covenant community. Anyone refusing to follow God’s precepts or prescriptions – i.e., the apostate, were considered the “cursed”, those eligible for hanging. Perhaps the best example of this is Judas, who hangs himself on a tree after betraying Christ and is called “The Son of Perdition” in Scripture (the Greek word ἀπωλείας, translated “perdition” literally means “curse”). Other examples include the multiple pagan kings who were killed by Joshua at God’s command (Jos 8:29, Jos 10:26). In contrast, hanging is never prescribed where atonement is possible. In cases where the sin is capital in nature and requires death, the prescription is limited to stoning. Take for example the Israelite Achan: though he stole from Jericho after God explicitly prohibited His people from doing such a thing, he nonetheless was eligible for forgiveness from God. Hence the reason he is told to “give glory to God” before receiving his punishment. Achan was a condemned man, but not a cursed one: God was still willing to forgive him once justice had been served (Jos 7:19-26). For those in covenant with God, atonement for sin is possible through faithful obedience to serve justice as the law requires (Pro 16:6). This is a privilege unique to the people of God, one that was inaccessible to those who placed themselves under the curse through their disobedience and rebellion.
This understanding of the function of hanging sheds light on what Paul is communicating in Galatians 3:10-14. The Jews to whom he wrote understood that according to the law, a curse would abide on anyone who declared themselves apostate by their refusal to obey God’s precepts (Deu 27:26, Jer 11:3-4). In essence, they would deserve to be hanged. Yet this is the very thing Paul is encouraging the Galatians to do. Paul calls for the cancellation of the Old Covenant clean laws of circumcision (Gen 17:10-14, Lev 12:3), sacrifice (e.g. Lev 1:1-4), ceremonial separation (e.g. Lev 11:39, Lev 12:1-5, Lev 13:43-56), and observance of seasons and holidays (Gal 4:10) in favor of their new covenant faith-based applications. How then are we to make sense of this? How can such new applications replace the old without invoking the curse upon all who are guilty? The answer, according to Paul, is found in how Christ died. In being hanged on a tree He fulfilled this technicality of the law. He became the “curse” promised to those who disregarded any portion of God’s prescribed Old Covenant applications. In doing so, Jesus ensured that the application of Old Covenant clean laws could be changed without legal violation. God ordained Christ’s death down to the specific mechanism of execution in order to fulfill His law (a law concerned with every “jot and tittle”, Mat 5:18). Theoretically, Christ could have been executed in any number of ways: He could have been stoned, stabbed, drowned, shot with arrows, etc. But if He had died in any other way, His death would not have addressed this small (but essential) portion of the law: the curse levied against those who failed to obey the Old Covenant clean laws in accordance with their original applications. We may not think much of the specific manner of Christ’s death, but Paul shows us that how He died is extremely important, as it allowed for new applications to legally be given to the Old Covenant laws.
Given this understanding of Paul’s message in Galatians 3:10-14, we can see that penal substitution is not a part of the picture he is painting. Rather, he is illustrating an additional significant aspect of the crucifixion, an aspect integral to the Christian faith. Without the fulfillment of this technicality, no applications to God’s law could be changed. To do so would invoke violence upon oneself, to place oneself irrevocably in the path of God’s covenant curse.