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This question is inspired from two other questions on this site.

Galatians 4:1-7 is closely related to Galatians 3:21-29, where Paul claimed that in Christ Jesus, both Jews and Gentiles are Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise. Galatians 4:5 reads, "to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship". If "those" include Gentiles, how can we conceive that Gentiles were under the law before Jesus Christ came to redeem humanity?

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  • The same answers apply. There should be no difference in answers here. All are condemned to die in sin and there can be no sin where there is no law. Paull addresses this in Rom 1 & 2.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 26 at 19:34
  • The Gentiles who lived in Judea and Samaria, under the jurisdiction of the Apostle Peter, were under the Mosaic Law. With the advent of the Council of Jerusalem: Gentile Christians would not need to undergo circumcision, but they would have to abstain from eating blood, the flesh of suffocated animals, things sacrificed to idols and from practicing illicit sexual relations.
    – Betho's
    Commented Jan 28 at 14:21
  • @Betho's - James' speech at the Jerusalem Council seemed to be a compromise between Paul's division and the traditional Jewish Christians, with the aim of uniting them. However, modern churches do not seem to teach the same, or as least I have never heard of it. You are welcome to elaborate your thinking into an answer. Thank you! Commented Jan 28 at 18:02
  • I don't feel comfortable making an answer because: For the letter to the Galatians (chapter 2), there are two hypotheses about the date and place of writing: between 54-57, in Ephesus, or 56-57, in Macedonia. The Council of Jerusalem is generally dated to c. 48–50 AD. So why the "fear" towards those who are circumcised? If the matter had already been resolved at the Council.
    – Betho's
    Commented Jan 29 at 2:17
  • @Betho's - Good to know about these two hypotheses. Thank you! Commented Jan 29 at 4:24

4 Answers 4

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Paul discusses this very question in Rom 1 & 2.

Rom 1:18-20 - The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness. For what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood from His workmanship, so that men are without excuse.

Paul then describes some of the gross wickedness of the ungodly in the next several verse and then concludes chapter 1 with:

Rom 1:31, 32 - They are senseless, faithless, heartless, merciless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things are worthy of death, they not only continue to do these things, but also approve of those who practice them.

Paul then develops this argument further in chapter 2 with this:

Rom 2:12-16 - All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but it is the doers of the law who will be declared righteous.

Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. So they show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts either accusing or defending them 16on the day when God will judge men’s secrets through Christ Jesus, as proclaimed by my gospel.

That is, Paul's concern here is not about keeping the ceremonial law but the universal moral law. The advantage of the ancient Jews is that they had the written moral law; but that does not excuse those without the written moral law, as Paul points out. Indeed, well before Sinai, people still kept the moral law and were held responsible for keeping it. See appendix below.

Thus, Gentiles are not under the ceremonial law but under the moral law of Christ.

APPENDIX - Ten Commandments before Sinai

The following (far from exhaustive) list shows that people knew of the ten commandments well before the formal giving at Mt Sinai. Indeed, we have the very general comment –

  • Gen 26:5, because Abraham listened to My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My laws.

Commandment #1 – Worship only YHWH:

  • Gen 22:5, 24:26, 48, 52 all describe worship of the true God of heaven, YHWH.
  • Gen 35:1-4 – Jacob instructs his whole household to eliminate all foreign gods

Commandment #2 – Idolatry prohibited

  • Gen 31:32-35 – Jacob clearly understood that idolatry was forbidden.
  • Gen 35:1-4 – Jacob instructs his whole household to eliminate all foreign gods

Commandment #3 –Cursing and taking the name of the LORD in vain prohibited

  • Job 1:5 – When these celebrations ended—sometimes after several days—Job would purify his children. He would get up early in the morning and offer a burnt offering for each of them. For Job said to himself, “Perhaps my children have sinned and have cursed God in their hearts.” This was Job’s regular practice.

Commandment #4 – Sabbath worship

  • Gen 2:1-3 – Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. And by the seventh day God had finished the work He had been doing; so on that day He rested from all His work. Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on that day He rested from all the work of creation that He had accomplished.
  • Ex 5:5 - And Pharaoh said, “Behold, the people of the land are now many, and you make them rest [שָׁבַת shabath] from their burdens!”
  • Ex 16 also records the incident with manna and that collecting manna on the seventh-day Sabbath was forbidden

Commandment #5 – Respect for parents, elders and authority

  • Gen 28:6, 7 tells of the story of Jacob following his mother’s advice. Respect for parents is built into the very fabric of the patriarchal stories in Genesis.

Commandment #6 – Sanctity of Human life

  • Gen 4:8-12, 15 records Cain’s punishment for the sin of murder
  • Gen 4:23, 24 – Lamech realizes that he has murdered someone and will suffer consequences
  • Gen 9:5, 6 records that murder was prohibited under the ancient Noahide covenant

Commandment #7 – Adultery prohibited

  • Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-17, 26:6-11 all record “adultery narratives” in which the patriarch is (correctly) chided for almost tricking a pagan king into committing adultery
  • Gen 19 records the appalling events involving attempted pack-rape of the two angels
  • Gen 39:7-9 – Joseph calls Potiphar’s wife proposal “a great evil and sin against God”.
  • Gen 49:4 – Reuben is scalded for his sin of incest
  • Gen 34 – the story of Dinah records a heinous incident involving her defilement (plus murder and lying)

Commandment #8 – Stealing prohibited and respect for property

  • Gen 30:33 – Laban and Jacob discuss the problem of stealing of wages and property
  • Gen 31:32-35 – Laban is angry about the sin of stealing the household gods
  • Gen 44:9 – Joseph’s brother accused of stealing his divination cup.

Commandment #9 – Lying prohibited; insistence of honesty and integrity

  • Gen 4 – the story of Cain being punished, among other things for not being honest with Abel and God in his statements
  • Gen 12:10-20, 20:1-17, 26:6-11 all record “adultery narratives” in which the patriarch is (correctly) chided for lying to a pagan king about their marital status
  • In the story of Jacob, he is pejoratively called Jacob = “deceiver”, Gen 27:36.
  • Gen 37:31-33 – Jacob rebuked for lying and deception

Commandment #10 – Coveting prohibited

  • Gen 3:6 – the woman is tricked by the serpent using the sin of covetousness
  • Job 31:9, 10 – Job says he is innocent of coveting his neighbor’s wife.
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    Excellent. Thank you!
    – Gina
    Commented Jan 26 at 20:22
  • Do you mean "the law" in Galatians 4:5 is not the Mosaic law but the Ten Commandments ? Commented Jan 26 at 21:55
  • @VincentWong - technically, the moral law (10 commandments at al) is part of the Mosaic law. But the law in Gal 4:5 is definitely not the ceremonial law.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 27 at 4:47
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    @Dottard - Thank you for your comment. I see that the 10 commandments are God's constitution, while the Mosaic law is a human law. The Mosaic law is affiliated with the 10 commandments. Moreover, I don't observe the Bible has explicit differentiation of 'moral law' and 'ceremonial law'. I am skeptical that the division of the Mosaic law into two parts and say one of which remains and the other is forfeited is a biblical teaching. I'm afraid this is a human interpretation rather than an explicit teaching in the scripture. Commented Jan 27 at 19:34
  • @VincentWong - it is easy to see the difference - in the Israelite covenant of Ex 19-23, there is no ceremonial law, only the 10 commandments. In the Levitical covenant (Ex 32:28, 29, Lev 1-9, 16, 21-27 , Num 3, 4, 8, 18, 25:10-13, Deut 33:8-11, Neh 13:29, Mal 2:4-8) we have the distinct ceremonial law as per Leviticus and Numbers.
    – Dottard
    Commented Jan 27 at 20:57
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The Law Because the Bible often uses the lower case "l" when referring to Law, it is hard to discern whether it was mentioning the general moral law(s) of the universe, or the specific Mosaic Law of the Israelites.

Mosaic Law Having said this, it should be noted that verse 19 of the previous chapter 3, stated the words, "What then was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed...had come." So Paul does designate a beginning of the Mosaic Law after a long history of gentile nations.

So the contents of chapter 4 must be interpreted in that light. Paul is emmeshed in Judaism (raised under Rabbi Gamaliel), and so when he says "we" he could mean "we Jews", and at other times mean "we humans" (all of humanity, Jew and Gentile).

To clarify our interpretation of Galatians, we do best to skip on back to Romans which said,

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law....Indeed, the Gentiles who do not have the law, do by nature the things required by the law, for they are a law for themselves, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their conscience bearing them witness... (Romans 2:12-15).

John's Gospel may speak to this "natural law" of the Gentiles outside the Mosaic Law:

This was the true light that gives light to every man who comes into the world. (John 1:9)

Every person in the world knows there exists, right and wrong, good and evil, love and hate. And knows which should be the rule for conduct. And when they do not do the right, their conscience condemns them...until they over-ride it (sear their conscience). Moses's Law, however is more detailed in revealing which conduct is sinful and which is not.

So either way, all people, Jew and Gentile are in need of a Savior (the Seed of Promise), and Paul could use the "we" word accurately. We all have sinned (in or out from under the Law of Moses)...and we all can become sons of God, redeemed from under the law (whether the law be of conscience, or the law be of Moses.) The natural, universal moral law is just as binding to the Gentiles, as the Mosaic Law is to the Jews. And the Promise of redemption from either one is just as sure because, as the previous verses stated:

There is neither Jew nor Greek, male or female...all are potentially heirs to the Promise. (3:28)

It is in reference to the Jews when Paul said "the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ. But he showed the need for all of us to go to Christ because "the whole world is a prisoner of sin." (3:22).

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  • your argument is well constructed Commented Jan 30 at 2:35
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Answer

The Gentiles are “under Law”.

“But before the coming of faith, we (the Galatian Gentiles) were guarded under Law, having been locked up” (Gal 3:23).

Explanation

“For sin was in the world until Law” (Rom 5:13).

This is a riddle. Scripture says sin was in the world until the Law was given publicly in writing.

But what is sin?

Sin is defined by Law.

“Everyone who sins breaks God's law, because sin is a breaking of the law” (1 John 3:4; CEV, GNB).

Paul agrees with John (all the Apostles agreed on all things; they were “of one mind” – Acts 15:25):

“But I did not know sin except through Law; for also I did not know lust except the Law said, "You shall not lust." (Rom 7:7).

So Apostles John and Paul tell us the same thing: sin is the transgression of God’s spiritual Law summarized in the Ten Commandments (You shall not lust is the 10th commandment).

So, now, the riddle is solved finally.

Sin, which is a breaking of the Law, was in the world from the beginning. But if the Law, which defined sin, was not in the world, how can sin be in the world?

Thus, it becomes clear that the Law and sin were very much active in the world though men didn’t realize it.

The crux of the riddle is this: before choosing Israel to be His nation, God dealt “individually” with the Patriarchs. He gave His spiritual Law to them directly. That is why God testifies that:

“Abraham obeyed My voice and kept My charge, My commandments, My statutes, and My Laws” (Gen 26:5).

Another example is Patriarch Joseph. When his master Potiphar’s wife approached him, Joseph refused saying that he could not “sin against God” (Gen 39:9).

(Without realizing, Potiphar’s wife “lusted” after Joseph thus breaking the Law. But she didn’t know it).

It is significant that Joseph didn’t say ‘sin against Potiphar’, but sin against God.

Now the question is: how did Joseph know that adultery is a sin against God? So it shows clearly that he knew the Ten Commandments!

An Analogy

I believe it is God who is behind the great advancement in science and technology in the last two centuries (of course, through trial and error method) just as He prophesied through Daniel in 12:4. Let us take the case of the Law of Gravity discovered by Sir Isaac Newton. He is the first one to announce it to the public in writing. Now that does not mean that the Law of Gravity came into existence precisely at that time.

Law of Gravity was there in the world long before Newton. But people didn’t know or realize it. People who didn’t obey it broke their bones. Their lack of knowledge about the Law of Gravity does not absolve them from the consequences of breaking that Law.

Conclusion 1

God’s Law was active in the world. People didn’t realize it. It was publicly announced and made in writing by Moses later.

This means, sin was in the world with consequences. All sinned and were “under sin” and hence “under (the custody of) Law” (Gal 3:23; Rom 6:14).

When we combine Gal 3:23 and Rom 6:14 logically, we see that the Gentiles were "under sin" and hence under the custody of ("guarded under") Law before Jesus Christ came to redeem humanity.

In fact, Jesus had to come because men were under the custody of/ guarded under Law. Scripture is very clear but our 'a priori' interpretations confuse us.

Which Law in Galatians 4:5

The Scripture is very clear: the Ten Commandments are NOT Moses’ law. They are God’s Law, given directly to the children of Israel in great thunder and lightning (Exo 20:18). They were NOT written by Moses. In fact, the only thing that is written by God’s hand in the entire Scripture is the Ten Commandments:

“And when He finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, He gave to Moses the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written by the finger of God” (Exo 31:18).

“and Jehovah gave to me the two tablets of stone written with the finger of God, and on them was written according to all the Words which Jehovah spoke with you in the mountain, out of the midst of the fire” (Deut 9:10).

What is the most significant point to note here is that strangely Moses added, immediately after the Ten Commandments, these words:

And He added no more” (Deut 5:22)!

The Ten Commandments that came directly from the great God was perfect!

No wonder, James says:

“But the one looking into the perfect Law of liberty” (James 1:25).

James meant the Ten Commandments by the perfect Law (James 2:11).

David agrees:

“The Law of Jehovah is perfect” (Psalms 19:7).

James calls them the “royal Law” (James 2:8) and a “Law of freedom” (verse 12). Paul calls them “Law of righteousness (dikaiosunei)” (Rom 9:31). He says the Law is “spiritual” (Rom 7:14), “holy”, “righteous” (dikaios), and “good” (verse 12). He also says “that the righteous (dikaioma) demand of the Law” must be “fulfilled in” those who walk according to Spirit and not according to flesh (Rom 8:4).

Sin is a spiritual issue because sin is defined by the spiritual Law of Ten Commandments (Rom 7:7).

So, Scripture says when one is “locked up under sin”, one is “under the (spiritual) Law shut up” (Gal 3:22-23; DRB).

One can be “under Law” only when “sin will have lordship over” one (Rom 6:14).

Thus it becomes clear: a sinner is under the custody of Law; he is locked up under Law; he is under arrest; he is held in remand; he is held a prisoner by the Spiritual Law; he is in jail (figuratively).

Conclusion 2

“Under Law” does not mean under the obligation to keep the spiritual Law.

“Under Law” means to be locked up or held under the custody or arrest of the spiritual Law.

So, when Galatians 4:5 says “to redeem those under the Law”, the Law, here, means the “royal”, “holy”, “righteous”, “good”, “perfect” and “spiritual” laws summarized in the Ten Commandments.

And the Galatian Gentiles were locked up under the spiritual Law.

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  • Thank you for the answer. The focus is not about the relationship of sin and law. The question is whether the 'law' in Gal 4:5 refers to the 'Mosaic law' and whether the Gentiles were under it. Commented Jan 28 at 3:16
  • Could you explain what the Mosaic law means? Then I can update my answer. The term itself is not found in the Scripture. Commented Jan 28 at 13:44
  • I used to think that the term 'Mosaic law' referred to the code of conduct written by Moses in the Pentateuch (Joshua 8:31-35), which is abbreviated as 'the law'. However, I am not so sure anymore. Could you provide some insight? Commented Jan 28 at 17:43
  • I am sorry I am late to respond. There are some personal affairs I need to attend to. I have updated my answer. Since this topic is so complex, I am sure the full explanation may not have come in full. Please do not hesitate to question me. Commented Jan 29 at 17:07
  • You made a good argument and I appreciate the references you provide. I would suggest removing the example of Isaac Newton. While he made great discoveries, he also made mistakes. Asserting his work was inspired by God is challenging. Commented Jan 29 at 20:12
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No one is under Mosaic law today. We all live under God's grace in this current age (Ephesians 3:2). We would be judged by our law-keeping if we were under the law, but Jesus Christ was judged on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Ephesians 3:1-2

00For this cause I Paul, the prisoner of Jesus Christ for you Gentiles, 2 If ye have heard of the dispensation of the grace of God which is given me to you-ward:

Romans 6:14

For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.

1 Corinthians 10:23

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not.

We would also be required to keep the whole law if under the law:

Galatians 5:3

For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.

Galatians 4:21

Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?

Even Paul had to correct Peter on attempting to bring new Gentile believers under the law:

Galatians 2:11-16

11 But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. 12 For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. 13 And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. 14 But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? 15 We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

Colossians 2:8-15

8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. 9 For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. 10 And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power: 11 In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands, in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: 12 Buried with him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with him through the faith of the operation of God, who hath raised him from the dead. 13 And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; 14 Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross; 15 And having spoiled principalities and powers, he made a shew of them openly, triumphing over them in it.

Gentiles were never under God's covenant promises with Israel (old or new), which includes the old law and the new covenant to come:

Ephesians 2:11-12

11 Wherefore remember, that ye being in time past Gentiles in the flesh, who are called Uncircumcision by that which is called the Circumcision in the flesh made by hands; 12 That at that time ye were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers from the covenants of promise, having no hope, and without God in the world:

Hebrews 8:8

For finding fault with them, he saith, Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah:

2 Corinthians 11:3

But I fear, lest by any means, as the serpent beguiled Eve through his subtilty, so your minds should be corrupted from the simplicity that is in Christ."

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  • Thank you for your answer. My question emphasizes "were Gentiles under the law before Christ?" (check my last sentence in the body). Would you further elaborate it. Commented Jan 29 at 19:54
  • Hi Vincent! I edited my original post after re-reading the comment in the question. The verses I cited in the edit are Eph 2:11-12 and Heb 8:8. This essentially clarifies that Gentiles were not privy to the covenants that God made with Israel. When Israel rejected Christ, God then turned to Paul to be the apostle to the world for God's "dispensation of grace" (Eph 3:2, Rom 11:11). During this age, believers are gifted salvation upon having faith alone in Him. There is no 'law keeping' required due to what His grace means. The focus is now the completed work of Christ and His shed blood for us. Commented Jan 29 at 20:25
  • Your answer can be more persuasive should you explain how the citation supports your argument. You don't need a lot, just choose the most relevant and convincing citation for your point. Commented Jan 30 at 2:49
  • That is the purpose of Paul's thirteen epistles (Romans through Philemon). He constantly defends "his" gospel. It was given only to Paul and from Christ ascended. It was kept hidden in God since the world began, until revealed to and through Paul for us today. Romans 16:25 "Now to him that is of power to stablish you according to my gospel, and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery, which was kept secret since the world began," Commented Jan 30 at 3:05
  • If I had to tie what I've cited to my point, I would simply ask the question: Can someome find the message of salvation if only given Paul's epistles? If not, why? Commented Jan 30 at 3:14

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