Galatians 3:23-28: A New Era In Christ

By Jill Hicks

Galatians has often been called the magna carta of Christian liberty, for in this epistle Paul proclaims a new era in Christ—one in which the law has been superseded by faith as the means to justification before God. While Galatians as a whole is an ardent case for freedom in Christ, Galatians 3:23-28 is the key passage in which the transition from law to faith is expressed. It is thus the lens through which one must understand Paul’s convictions concerning the implications of Christ’s coming into the world; the coming of Christ initiates a new era in which followers of Yahweh live in newfound freedom and unity. In Galatians 3:23-28, Paul instructs the Galatian Christians, explaining how Christ’s coming has begun a new era and emphasizing the paramount importance of living in the freedom and oneness that Christ brings. This passage has informed Christian understanding of the law, faith, baptism and social relationships even through contemporary times, in part because of the effectiveness of Paul’s message through the use of metaphors. This scripture passage is very relevant to Christians today, for it addresses three issues of contemporary resonance: the role of the Mosaic law in the lives of Christians, baptism, and equality in Christ.

23Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. 25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.[1]

Because a passage of scripture derives its primary meaning from its immediate context, it is necessary to consider the structure and themes of Galatians as a whole in order to properly understand this key passage. Read in the greater context of Galatians, this passage may be viewed as the transition to a new epoch in Christ. The epistle begins with Paul’s ardent challenge to his opponents (1:6-9)[2] and a defense of his own apostolic authority, as well as the uniqueness and authority of the gospel he preaches (1:10-2:21). Paul then presents his argument against his misguided opponents who rely upon legalistic practices for salvation rather than upon faith, chastising them for turning to the law rather than following the model of Abraham, who lived by faith (3:1-22).

Therefore, the central location of this passage in the letter mirrors textually the spiritual transition which it describes.[3] Gerald Borchert has said that it “spells out in dynamic fashion the transition to the new era of Christ and its implications for Christians in living as the authentic heirs of Abraham.”[4] The segments that follow these verses further expound upon the transformed understanding in the new epoch, which includes defining sonship and daughterhood with God (4:1-7)[5], delineating the differences between sonship and slavery (4:8-31), and describing the responsibilities of newfound Christian freedom and life in the Spirit (5:1-6:10). Thus, each segment of the epistle that follows 3:23-28 instructs Christians in the lifestyle that should be lived as a result of the coming of the new era in Christ. In order to further understand Galatians 3:23-28, a careful verse-by-verse analysis is necessary.

23Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed.

In this verse, Paul employs a metaphor for the law in order to contrast its bondage with the redemption brought by Christ. Whereas in verse 22, the author describes sin as the jailer, here he represents the law as an instrument that imprisons and guards.[6] The identity of the subject “we,” those who had been prisoners, may be recognized by examining the distinction between the use of “law” in this verse and “the law” in the following verse. The use of the anarthrous rather than the articular suggests that Paul means the “general principle of law” which affects both Jews and Gentiles rather than the law of the Hebrews revealed to Moses on Mt.Sinai.[7] Thus, Paul reveals an understanding that all humans were prisoners of law before Christ, for neither Jews nor Gentiles had the ability to save themselves, and therefore that both groups were held accountable to God.

However, this legal bondage was only in effect “before faith came,” which means “before the salvation given in Christ was revealed as the object of faith.”[8] The meaning of “faith” in this context must be examined, as there are two common New Testament uses of the word faith: faith as the subjective state of the individual Christian and the faith, which is “the object of faith, the Gospel, and sometimes…the embodiment of faith, the Church”[9] Paul here uses the articular form in verse 23 to signify that the coming of faith is the coming of Christ.

24Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.

Paul employs another metaphor to describe the law, though this metaphor has a more positive connotation than something that imprisons. He says that the law was our paidagogos until Christ came. This word, from which the English word pedagogue is derived, refers to a practice of placing one’s child in the care of a trusted slave for the purposes of moral instruction, protection, education, and sometimes discipline. In Paul’s time this was a common custom implemented by both Greeks and Romans, as well as some wealthy Jews. Young boys, and sometimes girls, were put in the care of a pedagogue immediately after their mothers, wet nurses, and nannies had finished basic caretaker duties, which typically occurred when the child was seven years old. Children remained under a pedagogue until late adolescence. The pedagogue had many roles, including that of shepherd and guardian, for his first task was “preventive and protective.”[10] Moral instruction and guidance were also expected of the pedagogue, as well as educational instruction in grammar and diction. Though the pedagogues also performed the role of disciplinarian, the close time spent with their charge “also gained a certain friendship and respect from those for whom they cared,” and sometimes the compulsory separation at adolescence was traumatic.[11]

This metaphor of the law as pedagogue has a basis in the Old Testament. A. T. Hanson suggests that Paul uses the imagery of a pedagogue to refer to the law in 3:24 because the apostle had Numbers 11:11-12 in mind.[12] This is the passage in which Moses renounces all responsibility for the transgressions of the Israelites who previously had complained against God and had longed for their lives in Egypt despite God’s merciful provision of manna. Moses says to God, “Did I conceive all this people? Did I give birth to them, that you should say to me, ‘Carry them in your bosom, as a nurse carries a sucking child, to the land that you promised an oath to their ancestors?’” (Num. 11:12). In the targumic tradition, the nurse is rendered as a guardian. Though Moses repudiates this function, God treats Moses as though he were responsible, for God allows him to share the responsibility with the Israelite elders. Paul uses Moses as a synonym for the law in his writings (Rom. 5:14; 10:5, 19; 2 Cor. 3:15), comparing Moses’ responsibility to the responsibility of the law as a guardian.

Whether Paul’s metaphor of the pedagogue was inspired by Numbers 11:11-12 or not, in Galatians, Paul uses this metaphor to highlight two aspects of the law: its role as guardian and its temporality. In these verses, he emphasizes “the confining and restrictive rather than either the corrective or protective functions of a pedagogue.”[13] Also, just as the pedagogue had a temporary role, the law also has a temporary function – one that has been superseded with the coming of Christ. Jerome describes the function of the pedagogue as a custodian who “is given to infants to rein in an age full of passion and to restrain hearts prone to vice until tender infancy is refined by growth.”[14] He also notes that the one who is instructed does not seek the inheritance of the custodian, for the pedagogue has fulfilled his function upon the charge’s maturation. Thus, Christians do not seek the inheritance of the law, but are free from it and are “justified by faith.” By using this seemingly simplistic imagery, Paul conveys that the law is neither contradictory to Christ nor irrelevant, but was “indispensable” in the development of the Judeo-Christian narrative just as a pedagogue is indispensable in a child’s natural development.[15] Paul thus treads a middle position between those who required Gentiles to follow Jewish law before converting to Christianity and those who rejected the law altogether as being completely unnecessary to their newfound faith.

25But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian,  

The coming of Christ makes justification by faith the only way to receive salvation.[16] Paul’s judaizing opponents in Galatia were demanding that Christians adhere to the Mosaic law, especially circumcision, but in this verse, Paul explicitly counters their position, implying that “to live under the supervision of the Mosaic law is to live as if Christ has not come.”[17] Thus, the faith principle and the law cannot coexist as competitive means of salvation, for the law historically had a preparatory function that culminated in Christ’s coming.

When considering contemporary as well as ancient debates, these first three verses shed light on the proper relationship of contemporary Christians to the law. Paul clearly believes that Christians are no longer held accountable to the Mosaic law as a means of salvation, for his comparing it to a jailer and pedagogue emphasizes its restrictive and temporary nature. The purpose of Paul’s epistle to the Galatians was to refute the Judaizers, who insisted that in order to be a Christian, one must be circumcised and therefore follow Mosaic law. Thus, just as the Galatian Christians to whom Paul wrote were not bound by the law, so contemporary believers also experience freedom in Christ, though such freedom is accompanied by responsibility. Instead of striving to fulfill strict regulations, the believer is justified by faith and must live in the Spirit, whose presence Paul says is manifested by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22). Christ supersedes the law, so that it “now holds no sway for those who are in Christ.”[18]

However, R. A. Cole suggests that by using the pedagogue imagery, Paul implies that just as charges respected their custodians, so should Christians respect the law “because of its place in the history of salvation and because of the abiding witness that it gives to the character of God.”[19] But Paul clearly believes that the coming of Christ has abolished all aspects of the law that do not pertain to a covenant of grace.[20]

26for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.

Once this faith is established, believers are liberated to claim their inheritance. The word “for” signifies that this verse offers the reason that Christians are no longer under the custody of the law: all are children of God through faith. Paul changes from speaking in first person plural to second person plural, addressing the Galatians directly to emphasize their subjective experience.[21] The Galatian Christians are not slaves to the law but are children of God, with all the privileges and responsibilities that sonship and daughterhood.[22]

It is uncertain whether the two prepositional phrases at the end of the verse should be taken together to form one unit or should be separated to independently modify the phrase “you are all children of God.” The former reading implies that Christians are children of God through faith in Christ. The latter suggests that Christians are “faith-children of God in the corporate while that is the Body of Christ.”[23] Ronald Fung suggests that the phrases should be read independently on the basis of the grammatical awkwardness of two modal clauses (which is paralleled in Romans 3:25), and the evidence that the idea of “faith in Christ” is conveyed by the objective genitive elsewhere in the epistle (2:16, 20; 3:22).[24] Thus, Paul conveys that faith, made possible by Christ, is the means to sonship and daughterhood.

The phrase “children of God” is one of Paul’s many collective designations for identity which are scattered throughout Galatians. There are a multitude of other such references in the epistle which speak to the question, “Who are we?” (1:4, 11; 2:16, 17; 3:26, 29; 4:6, 28; 5:18, 24; 6:10, 15, 16). Paul’s emphasis on the identity of his addressees supplies answers to the question of what makes humans beings distinctive from the rest of creation, as he “seeks to communicate with his audience in their capacity as obviously or demonstrably belonging to collectivities linked by some significant characteristic, above all their status in relation to God”[25] Thus, “children of God” describes essentially the identity of humans in relation to God. In the context of the following two verses about oneness in Christ (3:27, 28), Paul here emphasizes the collective identity as one in which individual differences have been “submerged in their oneness,” a unity found in relationship with God.[26]

27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.

Once believers are united with Christ by faith, they then partake in an outward representation of their newfound identity. The “you all” in verse 26 is here further explained by the phrase “as many of you as were baptized,” which refers to the whole church. Baptized believers are incorporated into Christ, who is “the Head of the new humanity.”[27] Paul demonstrates that baptism is the indication that all varieties of people may share in God’s grace, a statement more fully explained in the following verse (3:28). The statement that believers are baptized “into Christ” signifies the intimate relationship established by baptism between Christ and believers, for “the baptized person is added to Christ as His own, reckoned to His account, shares in His benefits.”[28]

Paul employs the metaphor of clothing oneself with Christ to further emphasize the intimate nature of the relationship between Christ and the baptized believer. A parallel modern idiom might be that one is “standing in Christ’s shoes,” for Christians share intimately in the life of Christ.[29] This metaphor characterizes baptism as evidence of inner spiritual transformation in the life of a believer, for there are several other biblical references that use the image of changing clothes to represent an inward change (Isa. 61:10; Zech. 3:3-5).[30] This kind of imagery is widespread in Hebrew tradition, for the Old Testament contains myriad references to one’s being clothed in righteousness, salvation, strength, and glory (2 Chron. 6:41; Job 29:14; Ps. 132:9, 16, 18; Prov. 31:25; Isa. 51:9; 52:1; 61:10; Zech. 3:3-5).[31] Also, in Judges 6:34, the Spirit of the Lord “clothes Himself” with Gideon.[32]

In verses 26 and 27, the discussion of baptism is another issue mentioned by Paul in this passage that has particular contemporary implications, for it is a defining ritual by which one enters the body of believers as a child of God. The juxtaposition of Paul’s remark concerning baptism (3:27) with that of faith (3:26) implies that the two are integrally related. Today there exist varying beliefs regarding the role of baptism in salvation. However, Paul’s notion of baptism was probably not one of a mystical experience by which salvation is obtained, for his mention of faith fifteen times versus one mention of baptism reinforces the author’s argument for justification solely by faith. It is through faith that oneness in Christ is achieved, but “the visible sign of this oneness is not faith but baptism; the oneness with Christ that is symbolized in baptism is the basis for the oneness in Christ.”[33] Thus, Christians should understand baptism as the physical symbol of one’s justifying faith in Christ that is performed as a public profession of one’s salvation.

28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free,there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

In this revolutionary verse, Paul describes new horizontal relationships between believers as an implication of the new vertical relationship between God and believers that he has just explained.[34] The grace of God does not discriminate on the basis of race, descent, or gender, for now all “are one in Christ Jesus.” Paul particularly notes the oneness of Jews and Greeks, slaves and those who are free, and males and females. The author uses these distinctions, probably based on pre-Pauline baptismal liturgy, in order to remind the readers of the importance of baptism and that the inner spiritual change represented by baptism is the vehicle by which oneness in Christ is achieved.[1]

By refuting these specific categories of division, Paul nullifies a discriminatory threefold formula found in many Jewish traditions, such as the benediction in which a free Jewish male “thanks God that he was not made a Gentile, slave or a woman.”[2] There is also evidence of analogous distinctions in the Greek culture, such as Diogenes Laertius’ Vitae Philosophorum, in which a character expresses gratitude for being made a human being rather than a beast, a man rather than a woman, and a Greek rather than a barbarian.[3]

Paul uses the conjunction “and” in the phrase “there is no longer male and female,” rather than using “or” in parallel to the previous two phrases. Such a change in grammatical structure may reference and thus invert Genesis 1:27, which says “male and female he created them.” If this is the case, Paul is thus eradicating the traditional creation order of Genesis—he might not have meant “there is no longer male and female” as far as men and women are relationally disposed to one another, but “there is no longer male and female” in terms of disparity in relation to God.[4] The primary emphasis in verse 28 is the oneness that Christ brings to all believers, whether Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female.

The theology of equality in Christ retains considerable contemporary relevance. In a Christian context, all barriers of race, economy, and gender are obsolete, for all have equal access to God’s grace. This equality should result in new social relationships as well, for “equality in Christ is the starting point for all truly biblical social ethics.”[5] Today, the affirmation of the full humanity of all races, all classes, and both genders is crucial in order to be faithful to the truth of the gospel of Christ. All believers are one in Christ Jesus.

In Galatians 3:23-28, at the heart of his fervent appeal to the Galatians, Paul explains that the law had been a jailer which imprisoned humans until the coming of faith, which is the coming of Christ, the object of this faith. Paul furthers describes the law as a custodian or disciplinarian, emphasizing that the value of the law was only temporary, for it has been superseded by the coming of Christ, which makes it possible for all believers to be justified by faith in Him. Faith in Christ also enables believers to acquire sonship and daughterhood with God; and baptism, or putting on Christ, is the symbol of such an intimate relationship. This new relationship is available to all people, regardless of race, class, or gender, for Christ brings all believers into unified oneness.      


[1] The Access Bible, New Revised Standard Version, eds. Gail R. O’day and David Peterson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), NT 284.

[2] It is apparent in the letter to the Galatians that Paul is reprimanding those who “want to pervert the gospel of Christ,” although the identity of these anStagonists is debated (1:7). It is not clear whether they are Jewish-Christian Judaizers, Gentile Christians, or perhaps both, but it is evident that Paul’s opponents “were advocates of a Jewish legalism” and challengers of Paul’s apostolic authority (Werner Georg Kummel, Introduction to the New Testament [Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1965], 194-5). They were demanding that the Galatian Christians practice circumcision (5:2-12; 6:12) and observe traditional Jewish celebrations (4:10), thus insisting on fulfillment of and obedience to Mosaic law. The fundamental issue was whether Gentiles must first become Jews before becoming Christians. Some scholars purport that Paul’s opponents had Gnostic ties, although this is not certain. (Pheme Perkins, Reading the New Testament [Mahweh, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1988], 166.)

[3] The structure of the passage itself demonstrates the transition. Boyd has noted that Galatians 3:26-28 is written in an argumentative structure and therefore must be read in that context. Verse 26 thus serves as the proposition: in Christ they are all children of God through faith. Verse 27, which maintains that those who have been baptized have put on Christ, is the grounds by which the statement in 26 may be made. Verse 28, which states that all are one in Christ, is the assertion of the argument, and verse 29 is the conclusion: those who belong to Christ are heirs of Abraham. (Ian T. Boyd, “Galatians 3:28C: Male and Female Related in Christ,” M.A. diss., Covenant Theological Seminary, 1995, 71-71).

[4] Gerald L. Borchert, “A Key to Pauline Thinking – Galatians 3:23-29: Faith and the New Humanity,” Review and Expositor 91, (1994): 145.

[5] Though the Greek text only uses the word for “son,” it may be assumed that because this word is often used inclusively to mean both sexes, it here refers to both men and women as children of God in the context of 3:28.

[6] The key idea of freedom from the law is highlighted structurally by frequent use of the word for law, nomos, which is found thirty-two times in the book of Galatians (2:16, 19, 21;3:2, 5, 10, 11, 12, 13, 17, 18, 19, 21, 23, 24; 4:4, 5, 21; 5:3, 4, 14, 18, 23; 6:2, 13). Although the author never distinguishes between written and oral torah nor explicitly defines what is meant by nomos, the primary meaning refers to the commandments that Moses received on Mt.Sinai. However, the word may also be used in a wider context to denote Israel’s entire religious tradition, for in other epistles Paul refers to passages in the psalms and prophets as the nomos (1 Cor. 14:21; Rom. 3:10-18). The word is used only once outside of the Israelite context to refer to “the law of Christ” (6:2).[6] In this specific segment, nomos occurs twice, in verses 23 and 24.

[7] Ronald Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998), 167.

[8] Herman N. Ridderbos, The Epistles of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 143.

[9] J. B. Lightfoot, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (London: Macmillan and Co., 1866), 155.

[10] Norman H. Young, “Paidagogos: The Social Setting of a Pauline Metaphor,” Novum Testamentum 29, (1987): 158.

[11] Ibid., 165.

[12] A. T. Hanson, “The Origin of Paul’s Use of ∏AI∆AΓΩΓOΣ for the Law,” Journal for the Study of the New Testament 34, (1988): 71-75.

[13] Ibid., 171.

[14] Mark J. Edwards, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 50.

[15] Cole, 108.

[16] Fung, 170.

[17] Hansen, 109.

[18] Esler, 202.

[19] Cole, 108.

[20] John Calvin, Commentaries on the Epistles of Paul to the Galatians and Ephesians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1948), 110.

[21] Fung, 170.

[22] Ridderbos, 146.

[23] Cole, 109.

[24] Fung, 171.

[25] Esler, 38.

[26] Cole, 37-38.

[27] Fung, 172.

[28] Ridderbos, 147-148.

[29] Kenneth Grayston, The Epistles to the Galatians and to the Philippians, (Great Britain: The Epworth Press, 1957), 48.

[30] Fung, 172.

[31] Walter G. Hansen, Galatians (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1994), 111-112.

[32] R. A. Cole, The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1965), 110.

[33] Fung, 174.

[34] Hansen, 112.


[1] Boyd, 18.

[2] Ibid., 22.

[3] Ibid., 61-62.

[4] Dennis Ronald MacDonald, There is No Male and Female (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 1-2.

[5] Hansen, 112.