March 17, 2005

Galatians V: Faith, not Law, justifies

The first recorded controversy in the early Church was over the question of justification. There were certain professing Christians of Jewish descent who were agitating the churches, claiming that to be right with God, it was necessary to keep the Jewish Law as well. Specifically, they were saying that circumcison was a prerequisite for salvation.

This contradicted the true Gospel as preached by the apostle Paul, who taught that one entered a right relationship with God through faith alone, not by keeping the Law. To support his argument, Paul cites examples from his own experience. First, he recounts how he brought his protégé Titus to Jerusalem to show how the Holy Spirit was moving amongst the Gentiles. Then he explains how he confronted Peter to his face about his withdrawing table fellowship from Gentile Christians in Antioch. To return to the Jewish pattern of things, he told Peter, was to rebuild what Christ had destroyed and say that his death on the cross was unnecessary.

Now, Paul has finished reasoning from his own personal experience, and he starts to address the Galatians personally.

O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain. He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.

Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:1-14)

Paul calls the Galatians "foolish." It's almost as though he is dumfounded as to why they have been led astray. Has someone put a spell on them? He can't think of a better reason why they would depart from the true Gospel and start following the Judaizers.

This is especially true considering that "Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you" (Gal. 3:1). Paul preached "Christ and him crucified" to the Galatians - effectively, it is as though Jesus had been placarded in front of them on a billboard. And still they had been led away from the truth.

Therefore, Paul begins a systematic refutation of the Judaizers. He approaches the issue from three perspectives: experience, Old Testament history, and the Law.

Paul's argument from experience

Paul poses a series of questions to the Galatians about their own spiritual experiences.

First, he asks: Was it by faith or by Law that you received the Holy Spirit? Obviously this is a rhetorical question. The Galatians would have to answer, "By faith."

So, second, Paul asks them: If the new birth started with faith, are you so foolish that you think you need the Law to finish the job? Does your faith only go so far?

Third, he asks: Are the things you are suffering all for nothing? What he is referring to isn't evident. After all, we're only reading one side of the conversation here. Perhaps he is thinking of persecution at the hands of the non-Christian Jews living in Galatia. Maybe the same kind of violence that Paul often experienced, from Jew and pagan alike, when he preached the Gospel in an unbelieving city (cf. 2 Cor. 11:21-29).

Last, he asks them: When God works in your midst, giving you the spirit and working miracles, is it because of your faith? Or is it because of your obedience to the Law? Maybe Paul has in mind the conversion of Cornelius and his household (Acts 10). The Holy Spirit came upon them while Peter was still preaching. They hadn't even had a chance to do anything yet.

Paul is again setting up an antithesis between Gospel and Law. As I said last week, what the Gospel is, the Law is not. We are justified by faith in Christ, but no one is justified by the Law. If the Law could make us right with God, then Christ died for nothing.

Paul's series of rhetorical questions forces the Galatians to admit that they received God's blessings by faith alone. By believing the Judaizers, they are making claims that run counter to their own experience.

Paul's argument from Old Testament history

Paul isn't finished yet. Next, he argues out of the Old Testament Scriptures: specifically, from the life of Abraham. Now that he has refuted the Galatians themselves, he turns his attention to answering the claims the Judaizers are troubling them with.

The rabbinic Judaism of that day viewed Abraham as a hero of the faith. He was righteous, obedient - even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his only son - and therefore, for his obedience, God credited Abraham with righteousness. But Paul says that this understanding of Abraham's faith is exactly backward. And to prove it, he appeals to an earlier event in Abraham's life:

After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.

And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir. And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. (Gen. 15:1-6)

What exactly has Abraham done in this story? Nothing. He has simply heard God promise that he will provide a son and heir, who will produce many descendants. Effectively Abraham is credited for righteousness because he had ears, and he took God at his word.

A better commentary on Genesis 15 and Galatians 3 can be found in Paul's letter to the Romans:

Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. (Rom. 4:9-12)

Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. That covenant sign isn't even introduced until Genesis 17. Therefore, the "children of Abraham" are not the ones clamouring for circumcision; rather, they are the ones who, like Abraham, believe the Gospel by faith.

The faith of Abraham was a foreshadowing of the Gospel going to the Gentiles. His blessing extends to "all nations" - not to the Jews only, and not to the circumcised only. Timothy George puts it graphically: "Descent by blood or physical procreation does not create sons of Abraham in the sight of God any more than the alteration of one's private parts does."1

Paul sums up his argument: "So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham" (Gal. 3:9). Having spiked one of the Judaizers' guns, then, he turns to another weapon in their arsenal: Moses.

The curse of the Law

Everyone who fails to do the works of the Law is under a curse: "Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them" (Deut. 27:26). Note that the Scripture does not say, "do most of the Law" or "lead a pretty good life" - but those who seek to justify themselves by Law are bound to the entire Law, and that perfectly. As James says, if we fail on one point of hte Law, we fail on all of them (Jas. 2:10). But no mere human being has ever accomplished this, nor could one. Therefore, all are cursed (cf. Rom. 2:17-24; 1:18-23). And so Paul can dismiss the alternative of Law-keeping, as he says: "no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident" (Gal. 3:11). Why? Because "[t]he just shall live by faith." This passage is quoted three times in the New Testament: in Romans, where Paul shows how one is made right with God; in Hebrews, where it precedes the great "Faith Hall of Fame"; and here.

We can live by faith because Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law. He accomplished this by "being made a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13). Paul demonstrates this with another curse from the Law: "he that is hanged is accursed of God" (Deut. 21:23). Under the Law, when a transgressor was put to death, his body was sometimes hung up on a tree. It wasn't so much that he was cursed because of this; rather, the fact that he was put on display in this fashion was a sign of God's curse upon him because he was a transgressor.

Christ was the only man who ever kept the Law perfectly. Nonetheless, for our sake, he hung on a tree, thus "being made a curse for us." We are free of the curse ourselves because Christ's righteousness is imputed to our account when we believe in him by faith.

Thus we are blessed with Abraham when we have faith. The alternative is to be cursed for attempting to keep the Law by our own strength. This is a frightening alternative, to be sure.


Do we walk by faith? Abraham certainly did. Read Hebrews 11. He obeyed God and set out for the land of promise, even though he did not even know where he was going (v. 8). He believed God's promise that he would have a son and many, many descendants, even though he and his wife were well beyond childbearing age and "as good as dead" (vv. 11-12). He was even willing to kill his only son, whom he knew was the fulfillment of God's promise, believing fully that if he did, God would raise Isaac back from the dead just so he could keep his word (vv. 17-19).

Do we even have a fraction of this faith? Granted, we aren't asked to sacrifice our children or believe we can have them in our eighties. But think of some of the smaller things.

Consider the current economic downturn, particularly in the hi-tech sector. There's no guarantee that our jobs will be there for very long. Do we trust God's promise to supply our needs, even if we are not working?

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the single most significant event of my generation to date. It was to us what the Kennedy assassination was to our parents. Even now, three and a half years later, practically a day doesn't go by where 9/11 gets a mention in the media. It set a new standard for human wickedness, proving there are men so depraved that they have cast off all restraint and have no compunction against murdering thousands for a cause. Do we cower in fear because we think world events have spiraled out of control? Or do we have faith that despite all present appearances, God is still in control? "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. " (Rom. 8:28). Can we agree with Paul that we can know this, or do we just sort of hope for the best?

This is what it means to have the faith of Abraham: to take God at his word.


1 Timothy George, Galatians, The New American Commentary, vol. 30 (Nashville: Broadman, 1994) 223-24.


- Posted by Scott McClare @ 1:00 PM · Permalink