Justified by Faith Alone Galatians 3:1–14
Dr. William Culbertson, former President of Moody Bible Institute, often concluded his prayers with the words, “Lord, I pray that we will finish well.” He realized that many people begin their Christian walk well but do not finish well. They are driven off course by false doctrine, legalistic teaching, or worldly entanglements that take them far afield from their original commitment.
Problems like these plagued the Galatian church. Although many Galatians had trusted Christ for their salvation, they had fallen prey to the Judaizers, who added Law-keeping as a prerequisite for salvation. Such beliefs could not be tolerated, for to supplement the work of Christ with the works of the Law was to replace it. In chapters 3 and 4 of his epistle to the Galatians, Paul argued that justification and sanctification come through faith in Christ alone, apart from any legalistic requirements.1
Principle of Faith Without the Law
Strongly condemning these believers for their departure from the faith, the apostle called them “foolish Galatians” (v. 1). The word foolish means thoughtless, unreflective, or lacking in spiritual discernment. The Galatians were being irrational and exhibiting a lack of spiritual discernment by embracing a doctrinal position that made Christ’s death of no effect (cp. 2:21).
By asking six rhetorical questions, the apostle tried to awaken the Galatians to their spiritual condition. First, he showed surprise at their falling away: “Who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth …?” (v. 1). The word bewitched has the idea of casting an evil eye on someone through a mysterious spell. Paul was amazed that the Galatians had allowed the Judaizers to draw them away with demonic teaching, when “before [their] eyes Jesus Christ hath been openly set forth [as on a public placard], crucified among [them]” (v. 1). Their eyes had beheld the truth in Christ, but now they were being blinded to that truth, as if mesmerized by the Judaizers’ legalistic teachings. The apostle was bewildered and dumbfounded that the Galatians had allowed this to occur.
Second, he asked how they had received the Holy Spirit: “Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (v. 2). It was clear that they had received the Holy Spirit by the hearing of faith, for it was through the Holy Spirit that they had been convicted of sin (Jn. 16:8), regenerated (Jn. 3:6–8), baptized into the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13), indwelt (Jn. 14:17), sealed (Eph. 1:13), and filled (Eph. 5:18) the moment they put their faith in Christ. No works were involved.
Third, the apostle again reminded them of their stupidity by asking, “Are ye so foolish” (v. 3), or spiritually dull, to believe you can be saved by grace through faith and then be sanctified by keeping the Law? Obviously they were!
Fourth, he questioned their sanctification: “Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (v. 3). They believed that spiritual maturity could be acquired by Law-keeping. Again, such thinking lacked spiritual discernment.
Fifth, Paul asked about their personal suffering for the sake of the gospel: “Have ye suffered so many things in vain?” (v. 4). The apostle may have been referring to suffering at the hands of unbelieving Jews (cp. Acts 14:19, 22). By forsaking the principle of grace for Law-keeping, the Galatian believers were admitting that their former position was erroneous. Thus, all their suffering was for naught: “if it be yet in vain” (v. 4). But Paul was not willing to concede that they had been won over to the Judaizers’ position.
The apostle’s sixth question dealt with his supernatural ministry: “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?” (v. 5). Paul’s ministry was confirmed by a number of miracles in Galatia (Acts 14:3, 8–11). This miracle-working power came from God the Father by means of the Holy Spirit and was received through faith, rather than through any human effort or keeping of the Jewish Law.
By asking these very pointed questions, the apostle hoped to steer the Galatians back on track in their beliefs as he proved that the gospel had been confirmed among them by grace through faith, rather than through the works of the Law.
There are many 20th-century Judaizers who foster a works-righteousness religious system among undiscerning believers, who are taken in by their crafty tactics, believing that their salvation and sanctification are not complete unless they follow certain legalistic requirements. Christians must be vigilant and guard against deceivers. The Bible calls those who follow such teachings “foolish”!
Progenitor of Faith Before the Law
Judaizers prided themselves on two facts. First, they were children of God through Abraham, circumcised and therefore partakers of the covenant blessings (see Gen. 12; 15; 17). Second, they kept the law of Moses. But Paul used these teachings to destroy their position. By quoting six Old Testament passages, the apostle proved that Abraham was the progenitor of grace through faith before the Law was ever given.
Paul first quoted Genesis 15:6, which showed that Abraham’s acceptance before God was purely by faith: “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (v. 6). Abraham’s belief in God was a commitment of faith and was imputed to him for righteousness (acceptability before God), apart from any meritorious work (see Rom. 4:1–11).
Linking Abraham’s past with the present, Paul applied this fact to those who would follow in the faith of the patriarch: “Know ye, therefore, that they who are of faith, the same are the sons of Abraham” (v. 7). They should have perceived that the true sons of Abraham were not those who were circumcised, but those who exercised faith unto salvation like that of Abraham. The phrase sons of Abraham does not mean, as some teach, that Gentiles become spiritual Jews. It refers to Abraham’s spiritual heritage as the father of faith, rather than to his physical lineage.
God’s original plan anticipated the need for Gentiles to be justified through faith, just like Abraham. Paul therefore quoted a second Old Testament passage, Genesis 12:3. “And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed” (v. 8; cp. Jn. 8:56). This truth was revealed to Abraham before his circumcision, destroying the Judaizers’ position that Gentiles had to be circumcised to be saved.
Paul brought his argument to an inescapable affirmation: “So, then, they who are of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham” (v. 9). Thus, it is not physical lineage to the Jewish people or their religion that ties Gentiles into the spiritual blessings of Abraham, but faith alone (see Rom. 2:28–29).
People Not Free Under the Law
The Judaizers believed that those who kept the Law would receive blessing and approval from God. But the apostle marshaled a direct attack against that position by showing that the Law brought the opposite results: a curse and condemnation. Quoting from a third Old Testament passage, Deuteronomy 27:26, the apostle said, “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, Cursed is everyone that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them” (v. 10; cp. Jas. 2:10). Failure to keep one small point of the Law meant failure in all areas and brought condemnation. The conclusion “is evident,” said Paul: “No man is justified by the law in the sight of God” (v. 11).
The apostle confirmed his position by citing a fourth Old Testament passage, Habakkuk 2:4, which linked faith with justification: “For the just shall live by faith” (v. 11; cp. Rom. 1:17). The word just refers to a person who has been justified by God, meaning that God declares and treats as righteous the person who puts his faith in the redemptive work of Christ and lays no charge against him (Rom. 8:1, 31–34).
The writer to the Hebrews quoted Habakkuk 2:4 to show that a person who has been justified will live by faith (Heb. 10:38). In this context, many professing believers were considering a return to Judaism because of persecution. The writer to the Hebrews tried to fortify them for future trials by reminding them that they had originally exercised faith in Jesus as their Messiah. He encouraged them not to cast away their confidence in the Lord, for He would richly reward them if they remained true to the faith. In like manner, Paul admonished the Galatian believers to remain true to the faith.
There were others who maintained that since “the law is holy … and just, and good” (Rom. 7:12), it could in some way work together with the faith principle in the Christian’s life. By citing a fifth Old Testament passage, Leviticus 18:5, the apostle repudiated this idea by showing that faith and Law are mutually exclusive concepts and cannot be mingled together: “And the law is not of faith, but, The man that doeth them shall live in them” (v. 12). In other words, “The Law said, Do and live! but grace says, Believe and live!”2
Price of Freedom From the Law
The only hope of being redeemed from the Law’s curse is through the Savior’s redemptive work. Quoting from a sixth Old Testament passage, Deuteronomy 21:23, the apostle said, “Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us; for it is written, Cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree” (v. 13). Under the Law, a condemned criminal was stoned to death and then tied to a pole for all to see that God’s justice had been carried out according to the requirements of the Law. This is a vivid picture of the ransom paid through Christ’s substitutionary death on the cross. The sinless Christ was made sin for mankind (2 Cor. 5:21; cp. 1 Pet. 3:18) when God the Father laid the curse on Him (Isa. 53:6, 10), which He willingly bore (Gal. 1:4; 2:20).3 He was not personally cursed, but was “made” or “became” a curse in place of the sinner.
Jesus was hung on a tree (the cross) to show the world that the Law’s curse had fallen on Him. “Thus, having violated the Law in one part—through no fault of His own—He became technically guilty of all of it and bore the punishment of God’s wrath for every violation of the Law by every man.”*4 The preposition for (huper, v. 13) means over or in the place of (i.e., Christ comes over or between us and the curse, showing the substitutionary character of His death).
The price for man’s salvation was paid by Jesus, who has “redeemed us” (v. 13) from the Law’s curse. The word redeem means to buy out of slavery by paying the ransom price. Christ’s death satisfied the legal demands of the Law, making it possible for man to be freed from its curse. By receiving Jesus as Savior, both Jew and Gentile are freed from the Law’s curse and declared righteous before God (Rom. 3:21–22).
Paul concluded this portion of his argument by giving two purposes for Christ’s becoming a curse for us. The first was “That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ” (v. 14). The blessing of Abraham was justification by faith (vv. 8–9). When Christ took the curse upon Himself, the blessing of salvation flowed to all men, especially the Gentiles, who, like Abraham, could be justified by faith. Thus, the middle wall of partition (the Law), which kept Jews and Gentiles separated, was done away with in Christ (see Eph. 2:14–18), making it possible for both groups to receive the same spiritual blessing.
The second purpose was “that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (v. 14). The Spirit had been promised by the Lord before His death (Jn. 14:16–17) and after His resurrection (Lk. 24:49; Acts 1:4). The Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence was evidence that an individual had become a believer by grace through faith in Jesus Christ and gave him access to spiritual blessings from God, such as those possessed by Abraham. Thus, salvation and sanctification can be acquired only by grace through faith, not through the works of the Law.
Dr. Warren Wiersbe provided a succinct summation of Paul’s argument when he wrote, “For the Christian to abandon faith and grace for Law and works is to lose everything exciting that the Christian can experience in his daily fellowship with the Lord. The Law cannot justify the sinner … neither … give him righteousness. The Law cannot give the gift of the Spirit, nor … guarantee that spiritual inheritance that belongs to God’s children. The Law cannot give life, and … liberty … Why, then, go back into the Law?”5
Let us take to heart Dr. Culbertson’s prayer and “finish well.”
- Donald K. Campbell, The Bible Knowledge Commentary, Galatians (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), Vol. 2, 596.
- Warren W. Wiersbe, The Bible Exposition Commentary, Galatians (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1989), Vol. 1, 699.
- C. Fred Dickason, Jr., From Bondage to Freedom: Studies in Galatians (Chicago, IL: Moody Bible Institute, 1963), part 1, 26.
- James Montgomery Boice, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), Vol. 10, 460.
- Wiersbe, op. cit., 700.