Speaking of the commands in the Torah—or “Law” (νόμος; nomos)—Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5: “The one who does them shall live by them” (Galatians 3:12). The apostle’s restatement of Leviticus affirms that the Torah can undergird one’s life. Yet, just nine verses later, Paul seems to suggest that these commandments cannot confer life: “For if a Law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the Law” (3:21). Which is it? Does Paul contradict himself? Though it may appear so in English, Paul’s original Greek refers to two different kinds of “life”: the first is sustained life on earth, while the second is eternal life after resurrection.
Scripture is clear that Law observance leads to prolonged life. For instance, Moses tells the Israelites to observe God’s commandments “all the days of your life (חי; hai), so that your days will be long” (Deuteronomy 6:2). After Moses explains all of the Torah’s precepts, he declares, “Behold, I have set before you today life and good, death and evil. If you obey the commandments of the Lord your God… then you shall live (חיית; haiyita) and multiply…. Choose life (חי), so that you and your offspring may live” (Deut 30:15-16). According to the broader context of Paul’s citation from Leviticus—“the one who does them shall live by them” (Lev 18:5)—anyone who fails to follow the Torah’s prohibitions is “cut off from among their people” (Lev 18:29). Although a lack of observance leads to death, following the Law ensures the continuation of earthly life.
Yet, if Scriptures equates Law observance with a long and fruitful life, then why does Paul seem to deny that the Law “could give life”? The apparent tension lies in an imprecise English translation. Paul does not question whether the Law was able to “give life” (cf. CEB, ESV, KJV; NKJV); rather, the apostle states, “If a Law had been given that could make alive (ζωοποιέω; zoopoiéo), then righteousness would indeed be by the Law” (Gal 3:21; cf. ASV, NRSV; RSV). When Paul uses ζωοποιέω, he refers to being made alive in resurrection—receiving life from the dead. For instance, Paul proclaims, “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive (ζωοποιέω)” (1 Cor 15:22; cf. 15:36, 45). In Romans, he speaks of a God “who makes the dead alive (ζωοποιέω)” (Rom 4:17) and promises that “he who raised Christ from the dead will also make alive your mortal bodies” through resurrection (8:11). Paul agrees that the commandments support one’s current life; however, once you die, you’re no longer around to “do them” (Lev 18:5; Gal 3:12). In other words, one cannot achieve their own resurrection through Law observance; only God can “make alive” after death (Deut 32:39; 1 Sam 2:6; 2 Kgs 5:7). Thus, for Paul, eternal life comes not by the Law, but by “the righteousness of God through trust in Jesus Christ for all those who believe” (Rom 3:22).