Justification by Faith Alone Galatians 3:1-24
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, Germany, igniting the spark of the Protestant Reformation. A few years earlier, Luther had lectured on the book of Romans. There he had discovered “The just shall live by faith” (Rom. 1:17), and his life and theology changed forever. Luther established justification by faith alone as one of the principal tenets of the Reformation and vehemently defended the position even when threatened with death.
More than fourteen hundred years earlier, the apostle Paul had made the same determination. His epistle to the churches of Galatia reveals his passion for keeping the gospel pure. Someone had influenced the Galatian believers to mix law with grace. Beginning at chapter 3, Paul faced the Galatians squarely, seeking to reestablish them in the foundational doctrine of justification by faith alone.
The Principle of Faith
Paul began with a peppering of six questions (3:1–5). First he asked, “who hath bewitched you . . . ?” The Galatians had so quickly left the gospel’s truth concerning Christ that Paul sarcastically assumed someone must have put a spell on them.
Paul’s most penetrating question came next. He compelled the Galatians to settle the issue concerning the source and means of their regeneration. “Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (3:2). Paul focuses here on the principle of law, which requires doing, and the principle of faith, which requires hearing. The Galatians had to decide whether they had received the Holy Spirit because of their good deeds or because they simply had believed what they had heard about Christ.
Paul’s next two questions combined incredulity with simple logic. “Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (3:3). Using a modern-day analogy, it was as though the Galatians had begun a wheelbarrow race called the Christian life. The Holy Spirit had lifted them into the wheelbarrow and was pushing them along when, part way through, someone persuaded them to dismiss the Holy Spirit and attempt to complete the race through their own efforts (cf. Gal. 5:7). Did this make sense? It did not to Paul.
The fifth question required the Galatians to examine the validity of faith in light of their experience. “Have ye suffered so many things in vain [for nothing]?—if it be yet in vain” (3:4). Those who tried to impress others with outward observances avoided persecution (Gal. 6:12). But the Galatians had experienced persecution. Did that not indicate their earlier expression of faith was concordant with the message of the cross?
Paul’s final question explored the basis for God’s continuing, spiritual benevolence:
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? (3:5).
Was God responding to the Galatians’ deeds or to their faith?
Citing Genesis 15:6, Paul substantiated that Abraham was not made inherently righteous. He had righteousness accounted, or imputed, to him as a direct result of his faith in God’s promise, not as a result of his good deeds (3:6–9). Therefore, anyone who approaches God on the basis of faith is a son of Abraham—that is, of the same nature as Abraham. This truth applies to Gentiles as well as Jews. When God promised Abraham that in him “all the nations [Gentiles] of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 18:18), He foretold how He would justify (declare righteous) the Gentiles the same way He justified Abraham—by faith. Therefore, true believers, regardless of lineage, receive with Abraham an unceasing spiritual blessing and an ongoing spiritual heritage.
In contrast, the Law bestows a curse (3:10). Deuteronomy 27:26 demands that an individual exhibit continual, complete, and flawless obedience to the Law of Moses or be cursed. Accordingly, an imperfect man seeking to earn a blessing through an abundance of good deeds will find himself cursed instead.
The Law renders no blessing because no one can keep it. Nor does it justify (3:11). It may impress the neighbors, but it does nothing to impress God. God’s principle for enabling the righteous to live is faith (Hab. 2:4). The Law’s principle is works (3:12; Lev. 18:5). The Law is based on what a person does, not on what a person believes. Consequently, it is powerless to give life or justify a sinner since no one is capable of perfect obedience.
The only exception was Jesus Christ. Jesus never fell under the curse of the Law because He kept it fully and lived a sinless life. Yet, by His substitutionary death, He became a curse on our behalf (Dt. 21:22–23), thus purchasing our release from the curse of the Law (3:13). This remarkable transaction opened the wellspring of Abrahamic blessing to all believing Gentiles by virtue of their position in Christ (3:14). Also, they could now receive the promised Holy Spirit “through faith.” In Greek, the definite article before the word faith indicates the specific body of truth pertaining to Jesus Christ (see Gal. 1:23). Answering his own chief question (3:2) then, Paul confirmed we indeed receive the Holy Spirit simply by believing the gospel—no more, no less.
The Purpose of the Law
Some of the Galatians may have become puzzled. If God had ordained the principle of faith, then what was the purpose of the Law?
To explain, Paul used the analogy of a common covenant (3:15). The word covenant had a twofold usage: (1) a binding, legal contract that no one could arbitrarily annul or modify; and (2) a last will and testament. Paul drew on both meanings here to prove his point.
In the Abrahamic Covenant, God Himself made a contract with Abraham and his seed (Gen. 17:7–8). Because seed in the contract is singular, Paul attributed the word to a particular person. Although the word can be used collectively to refer to a plurality of Abrahamic descendants (2 Cor. 11:22), Paul used it to refer to the ultimate descendant of Abraham—the Messiah (3:16), as in Genesis 3:15.
Paul stated his premise: The Law of Moses did not nullify the unconditional promises God made to Abraham and to the Messiah (3:17). These were his reasons:
Once ratified, a contract cannot be changed. Chronologically, the Abrahamic Covenant was ratified prior to the giving of the Law. Therefore, the Law could not change it.
God Himself ratified the covenant (Gen. 15:17–18).
A last will and testament bequeaths an inheritance through a promise, not through the meritorious efforts of the beneficiary (3:18). God freely gave Abraham an inheritance through the promise contained in the Abrahamic Covenant. Since the verb gave is in the perfect tense, the inheritance was promised at a point in time, and the results continue to the present. Hence the Law’s arrival did not alter the basis for bestowing the inheritance.
The Law did not invalidate the Abrahamic Covenant; that was not its purpose. The Law’s purpose was to expose man’s transgressions in light of the character of God (3:19).
The Law was an inferior contract. It was conditional, mediatorial, and temporary. Conversely, the Abrahamic Covenant was unconditional, made directly and solely by God while Abraham slept (Gen. 15:9–21), and its promises were eternally fulfilled in the Messiah (3:19–20).
Does this mean the Law opposes God’s promises? “God forbid” cried Paul (3:21). The Law merely has a different function. It was never meant to impart life, or God would have arranged for righteousness to be earned. The Scripture merely did its duty. “But the scripture hath concluded [enclosed, as a fish in a net, i.e., Luke 5:6] all under sin” (3:22). The only way out of that condition is to receive the promise of the Holy Spirit through faith in Christ (3:14, 22).
In the past, the Law watched over us, guarded and immured us until the faith—the good news of the Messiah—was inevitably and historically revealed (3:23; 4:4). Such was the Law’s role. It was our “schoolmaster” (3:24). A schoolmaster was a trusted slave appointed to escort a young, immature boy to and from school and to control the boy’s behavior until he was mature enough to control it himself. Like a schoolmaster, the Law was temporarily appointed to watch over us, pointing out the error of our ways until the arrival of the Messiah.
However, what the Law could not do for us Christ can now do— justify us (declare us righteous) by faith alone.
The Pitfall of Syncretism
On October 31, 1999, representatives from the Lutheran World Federation, representing 58 million Lutherans worldwide, together with representatives from the Roman Catholic Church, signed a Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification1 in Augsburg, Germany. Thirty years in the making, the intent of this twelve-page document is to articulate “a consensus on basic truths of the doctrine of justification” between subscribing Lutheran churches and the Vatican. Although it briefly refers to “justification by faith alone,”2 the document asserts that “faith has salvific power only on condition of keeping the commandments.”3 Elsewhere it claims salvation is granted and preserved through “Baptism” and other “Sacraments.”4
As this document demonstrates, five hundred years after Martin Luther and two thousand years after the apostle Paul, the doctrine of justification by faith alone is still under attack. As always, our sin nature assails the notion that we are powerless to earn righteousness. It whispers in our ears that faith alone is not enough; something must be added.
In their search for justification, many people unwittingly fall into this trap and add to what God has completed in Christ. The same can be said of some true Christians regarding their quest for sanctification. However, those additions negate the very sufficiency of Christ and the promise of the Scriptures. Were Jesus’ substitutionary death and resurrection adequate? Are we really complete in Him? Is faith alone in Christ alone all that is necessary?
If we answer no to any of these questions, we need to return to Galatians 3:1 and begin again with the words, “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you . . . ?” There, we will be reminded:
Jesus Christ is all we need,
Trusting Him is all to do.
Faith in Abram’s holy Seed
“Righteous,” declares God,