Galatians 3:10, “10 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.”
The dire situation in Galatia forces Paul to make concise statements about justification, faith, and the works of the Law in order that he might correct his readers sooner rather than later. Consequently, we cannot gain a full understanding of these topics from Galatians alone. But Paul explains these matters in more detail elsewhere, and his writings assume all of the Bible’s teaching on God’s work in history. This data is needed to unpack Galatians 3:10–14.
We begin at creation. In Eden, God established with Adam and a relationship usually referred to as the covenant of works; it is also called the covenant of creation or covenant of life. In this covenant, life “was promised to Adam, and in him to his posterity, upon condition of perfect and perpetual obedience” to the Creator’s law (WCF, 7.2). Since God promised death to Adam should he eat the forbidden fruit (Gen. 2:16–17), by good and necessary consequence we deduce that life was pledged to Adam should he abstain. Adam’s works of obedience in the garden could have earned him righteousness and, thus, eternal blessing.
But Adam sinned and plunged creation into darkness. His act had consequences for all people, for he represented all mankind. We sinned when Adam sinned, making us guilty before the Father and corrupt in our nature (Rom. 5:12–21). The fall brought a curse on all of Adam’s sons and daughters (Gen. 3:16–19), but God graciously chose that some would not bear the curse forever, pledging to redeem a people and to conquer sin, death, and Satan (vv. 14–15).
We did not escape the mandate to obey God perfectly when we broke the covenant of works. His requirements, the expression of His steadfast character (Mal. 3:6), do not change, and only those righteous before Him will live forever. Yet we are in Adam and dead unto righteousness (Eph. 2:1). We knowingly approve of evil (Rom. 1:28–32) and cannot fulfill the divine law seen in creation.
Even those who have the special revelation of God’s will in the law of Moses are unable to keep it (Deut. 31:14–29). Any sinner who tries to obey the Mosaic law fails and feels again the sting of the divine curse. This is why all who rely on the works of the Law are under its condemnation (Gal. 3:10).
Martin Luther comments on Galatians 2:17 that God’s law “requires perfect obedience unto God, and condemns all those who do not accomplish the same,” and on Galatians 3:10 he says that to follow God’s commandments is not to do them “in outward show only, but in spirit, that is, truly and perfectly.” All of us should be daily recognizing our inability to please God in and of ourselves, repenting of our sin, and looking to Jesus alone for our righteousness.