A Commentary by John Stott
*All who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be every one who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, and do them’*. This is yet another Old Testament quotation (Dt. 27:26), for the apostle is at pains to show, as he was later to say to King Agrippa, that he was teaching ‘nothing but what the prophets and Moses said…’ (Acts 26:22). In this verse from Deuteronomy a solemn curse is pronounced on every one who fails to keep all the commandments of the law. It is true that the word ‘all’ seems to have been imported into Deuteronomy 27:26 from the following verse (28:1), but it does not change the sense.
To our modern and sensitive ears these words sound crude and even harsh. We like to think of a God who blesses rather than of a God who curses. Some people have tried to escape the dilemma by pointing out that Paul writes not of the curse of God, but of ‘the curse of the law’ (verse 13). It is very doubtful, however, if the biblical authors would have recognized this distinction. The law can never be isolated from God, for the law is God’s law, the expression of His moral nature and will. What the law says, God says; what the law blesses, God blesses; and what the law curses, God curses.
Indeed, there is no need to be embarrassed by these outspoken words. They express what the Scripture everywhere tells us about God in relation to sin, namely that no man can sin with impunity, for God is not a sentimental old Father Christmas, but the righteous judge of men. Disobedience always brings us under the curse of God, and exposes us to the awful penalties of His judgment, to ‘curse’ meaning not to ‘denounce’ but actually to ‘reject’. So if the blessing of God brings justification and life, the curse of God brings condemnation and death.
This is the position of every human being who has ever lived, except Jesus Christ. Paul assumes the universality of sin here; he argues it in the early chapters of the Epistle to the Romans. It includes righteous and respectable people, who think that they are excluded. Dr. Alan Cole comments that it was the *am haaretz*, the common people without the law, whom the Jews regarded as being under the God’s curse. But the apostle here shocks the Judaizers by asserting that the people who are under the curse are not just the ignorant, lawless Gentiles, as they imagine, but the Jews themselves as well. As he writes in Romans: ‘there is no distinction (i.e. between Jew and Gentile); since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Rom. 3:22, 23).
We know this in our own experience. John defines sin as ‘lawlessness’ (1 Jn.3:4), a disregard for the laws of God. And all of us are lawless, for we have neither loved God with all our being, nor our neighbour as ourselves. Further, having broken the laws of God, we have brought ourselves under the curse of the law, which is the curse of God. This is true of all men, not only the irreligious and the immoral, but Jews descended from Abraham, who were circumcised and in the covenant of God, yes and (to apply it to ourselves today) even baptized churchmen too. ‘Cursed are all who do not persevere in doing everything that is written in the Book of the Law’ (verse 10,NEB).
So this is why no man can be justified before God by works of the law. It is quite true , as an axiom, that ‘he who does them shall live by them’ (verse 12). But nobody has ever done them; therefore nobody can live by them. Because everybody has failed to keep the law (except Jesus), Paul has to write that ‘all who rely on works of the law are under a curse’ (verse 10). The dreadful function of the law is to condemn, not to justify. We may strive and struggle to keep the law, and to do good works in the community or the church, but none of these things can deliver us from the curse of the law which rests upon the lawbreaker.
So this first supposed road to God leads to a dead end. There is neither justification nor life that way, but only darkness and death. We cannot help concluding as Paul does: *Now it is evident that no man is justified before God by the law* (verse 11a).