Galatians 3:10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law."
Here Paul begins his second scriptural proof. In Galatians 3:6-9, Paul uses scripture – the very law of Moses – to turn traditional notions about Abraham upside down, and show that it was Abraham’s faith in God, and his relationship with God that was the key, and not his obedience to a set of rules. In turn, the concept of being a descendant of Abraham, or to conform our behavior to be like the descendants of Abraham in order to be acceptable to God is also “out the window.” In verse 10, Paul moves on to the concept of a “curse.” The Jews in Paul’s audience would have understood this well – Both Genesis 12:3 and Deuteronomy 28 contain the contrast between those who oppose Abraham, or break God’s covenant with Moses (and are therefore cursed) and those who keep the covenant (and are therefore blessed). James 2:10, and the context there, explains this even better. If a person keeps the entire law, and stumbles in one small point, he is guilty of breaking all of it. Paul comes to the same conclusion here – those who “rely on observing the law” – those who insist that matters such as circumcision, or even generally obeying cultural norms must be observed in order to be saved, are under a CURSE. In other words, it is truly impossible to please God on our own merit.
Interestingly, Jewish tradition has always held that obedience to the law is always imperfect, human beings are bound to make mistakes. God therefore (according to Jewish tradition, at least) does not require perfect obedience as a condition for salvation. Thus, grace always was a component of the Jewish system. Yet, one of the concepts the Pharisees created in the centuries just before Christ came was the “oral tradition,” a set of rules and regulations interpreting the law of Moses. The law on its own was impossible to obey --this was obvious -- but these oral interpretations supposedly made it easier to obey. For example, Jewish tradition, at least as put forth by the temple priests and Sadducees of Jesus time, held that one could not travel on the Sabbath – he had to stay at home, or within a reasonable distance from his home, because of the provisions in Leviticus 23:3 about keeping the Sabbath “where you live,” and keeping it “within your gates” in Deuteronomy 5:4. The Pharisees wanted to keep the Spirit of the law, but decided if you could more broadly define “where you live,” you could keep the law with less effort. So, some rabbis came up with the concept of tying a string or chord around the boarder of the Village, thus making the entire town an enclosure, and saying that defined “where you live.” (This sort of tricky, nit-picky interpretation actually served to complicate things even more, and was often used to the advantage of the leaders of the community at the expense of the poor, minorities, and outcasts – the sort of thing Jesus criticized the Pharisees about). So, while Jewish tradition recognized that human obedience was imperfect, the mindset was to be as perfect as possible within the context of human effort. Then, even if you failed, you could say “Hey, I was close!” But this fails to take into account the issue of the “curse” Paul speaks of here – falling short, even if you’re close, is still falling short!! The Old Testament scriptures that Paul is quoting from are very clear -- to fall short means to be CURSED! (Remember – “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law”).
This is a misconception carried by many modern Christians. Our efforts to please God cannot come from following rules, even after we accept the concept of salvation by grace. Paul will expound on this concept more in Chapter 5 – where the transformed life in Christ is a faith-walk in righteous obedience, not in lock step with rules that cannot be obeyed in the flesh no matter how hard you try.