March 4, 2018
Or, Why the Blessing of Justification Never Comes by Works of the Law
There is something that draws human beings to rules. There is something divine about it, and something damning about it. The part that’s divine is that we are made in the image of a holy God. He is not just righteous, He is perfect. That’s who He is, so He created us bent to be straight. His first recorded words to Adam and Eve were a commission and a prohibition because His righteous character will express itself necessarily in definable ways. As creatures created to mirror Him we innately want to identify and prioritize standards.
The part that is damning is when our bent is bent, and in particular when we want to go beyond receiving His rules to determining the rules. We are built to run according to certain laws, so we are laws-loving machines, but then sin causes us to tweak the laws, or the purpose of the laws, to our own benefit. This sort of law-altering is, ironically, breaking the actual law of God, and it also causes us to overestimate what the law can do. This approach persuades us to give the law creative power when actually the law only has reflective power. It can show what righteousness is like, but it is powerless to produce righteousness.
Because we are sinners we are both benefited by the God’s law and threatened by it. Because we are sinners the law can help us but only by pointing away from itself to the Savior. Those who treat the law as a savior find that it’s actually a curse.
In order to be righteous we need God’s blessing. Justification, as in being declared righteous in the sight of God, only occurs by God’s promise, not by our productivity. We receive His work by faith, we cannot work to make Him receive us. The two approaches are contradictory schemes, as John Calvin referred to them, and the contrast between them rumbles back and forth in Galatians 3.
The churches in Galatia had been “deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel” (1:6). But Paul was eager “that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (2:5), that the death of Christ and the grace of God not be nullified (2:21).
In Galatians 3 Paul presents these contradictory schemes of justification, one of which does not actually enable justification, and shows that the schemes are not similar elements such as unleaded or leaded gas, but are opposed to each other, like fire and water.
The Galatians had experienced salvation and witnessed miracles and endured suffering, and they knew that none of that happened because of their works. As Paul gave his own testimony of God’s direct and immediate grace at the start of the letter, now he reminds them of their testimony.
They were foolish for attributing power to the law, and Paul implies that they were bewitched, as in, dark forces must have cast a spell and gained control over their thinking. They had heard the message about Christ so vividly that it was as if they had seen Him publicly portrayed as crucified, but now were acting enchanted by something else.
They had also received the Spirit. Let me ask you only this, as if he said, “there’s only one thing you need to tell me. You had one job, to remember your faith.” How did it happen, by works of the law or by hearing with faith? To ask was to answer; it was as basic as asking how did you get full, by fasting or by eating? And really, having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? That’s not how it happens.
Their suffering, and their witnessing of miracles among you didn’t come about because by works of the law. That’s never how it’s happened, actually. Righteousness, both in conversion and in consecration, comes by hearing with faith. Need proof? Such a pattern goes all the way back to God’s call of Abraham in Genesis 15. Paul introduces Abraham into his argument as the archetype of those justified by faith alone. Abraham heard God’s promise, and Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. The Galatians’ own testimony corroborated that faith and law are contradictory schemes.
Abraham is at the headwaters of the argument because he is at the headwaters of blessing by faith.
All those who believe are sons of Abraham. The false teachers in Galatia were trying to convince people that only sons of Abraham were blessed, and that the only way to become one of the sons of Abraham was to fulfill the law, moral and ceremonial. But while the Jews came from Abraham, from the beginning God intended to bless more than the Jews through Abraham.
Verse 8 is the key verse in the entire chapter as far as I’m concerned. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” Multiple things are important here.
Paul referenced Genesis 15:6 in verse 6, in verse 8 he goes back to God’s initial call to Abram in Genesis 12, and quotes from verse 3. From the initial call when Abram was a pagan in Ur, God’s promise was bigger than one nation, it was to “all the nations,” plural. That means that God’s promise was not to eliminate nations, to erase their distinctions as nations, and make one “super nation” of Christians. And nothing about this promise limits God from choosing a particular nation to bless in more ways. If I promised to give all the families here $100 in the future, that wouldn’t prohibit me from making additional promises to one of the families if I so chose.
The blessing that will be to all the nations is defined in the verse. The promise is about justification by faith. This applies to Jews who had God’s law, and even more so to Gentiles who didn’t. Did they now have to keep all of God’s law in order to be accepted by God? They did not.
[W]e have no evidence that the agitators were disputing the fact that Gentiles could be included in Abraham’s family. The issue, rather, was the means by which they could be included. (Moo)
There are two ways to be a son of Abraham: by flesh and by faith. Paul doesn’t say that being a descendent of Abraham by flesh doesn’t matter, he says its not enough to be justified. Keep in mind that the discussion about offspring in verse 16 is only about the flesh, because Jesus as the seed didn’t have faith. Paul is not flattening all of the promises, he is focusing on the promise of justification and comparing contradictory schemes. Justification has always been about God’s promise, and promises are received by faith. So then, those who are of faith are #blessed along with Abraham.
There are four more OT quotes in this paragraph.
Relying on the law to earn our justification with God means that we are not reading the law, at least not carefully or correctly. The law tells us the terms and conditions and conclusion: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” This is why all who rely on works of the law are under a curse. Deuteronomy 27:36, part of the law, requires that all of the law be kept perfectly, and it does not offer any encouragement. The law lifts up a man’s righteousness like a steamroller lifts up asphalt: it doesn’t. Actually, it crushes and lays it low.
Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law. Instead, as the prophet Habakkuk wrote, “The righteous shall live by faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). Again, the two schemes are contradictory. The law declares us unrighteous, it does not enable us to live as righteous. Why do we imagine that it has so much power?
The law itself says that one must choose between living by faith, as Habbakuk said, or living by rules, as Leviticus 18:5 states, ”The one who does them shall live by them.”
This is why we needed someone to take our punishment. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us–for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” Again from the law, in Deuteronomy 21:23, we need a deliverer from the condemnation of the law. We can’t expect to squeeze justification from the law any more than we can expect to squeeze a glass out of an orange.
That is why in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles. The blessing is justification, the blessing is release from the demands of the law for sake of our acceptance with God, the blessing is receiving the promised Holy Spirit and it all happens through faith.
The timing of the giving of the law also demonstrates the primary place of faith.
God promised Abraham an inheritance, but when did God make that promise? He did so before He gave the law. Paul gives an example, even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.
This part in verse 16 about not many offsprings, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ, means that the promise was going to be fulfilled through Christ, who came later.
In fact, the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. This accounts for the time between God’s call of Abraham and delivering of the Jews out of Egypt (as given in Exodus 12:40). But the agreement was already made, and when God walked between the animals alone in Genesis 15 He signified that He alone was responsible to fulfill His word of promise.
It’s one or the other. If the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise. The two schemes are contradictory. The blessing was coming because God gave it to Abraham by a promise.
If it can’t justify us, what good then is the law? Why did God even give it?It was added because of transgressions. The point will be made a few more times before the chapter is finished, the law points out sin and points out our need for a savior. An alarm clock can’t make you get out of bed, but it is a warning to sleepers/sluggards.
The law was given by angels, it was established as coming from God through angels, and Moses, too. The promise, however, was direct. An intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.
While the schemes of justification by faith and justification by works of the law are contradictory, that doesn’t make the law itself contradictory to promise. The law couldn’t generate righteousness, But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. The law says, “That’s sin. That’s sin. That’s sin.” The law says our hearts are full of sin. The law says we are guilty. The law negates righteousness, it does not validate. A mirror shows your bed head, but it can’t comb your cowlick. The law makes us more thankful for the promise.
Again, before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming of faith would be revealed. This makes the law a help, but certainly not an end.
So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. The word for guardian is paidagōgós, “a slave employed by wealthy Greeks or Romans to have responsibility for one of the children of the family” (Boice). “The law was the grammar of theology,” and faith is the only way to the rhetoric of righteousness.
These final verses must be cut straight, not cut out of context. The entire chapter is about two contradictory schemes of receiving the blessing of justification. We are concerned about how men are justified, about how men receive the Spirit, about how about how blessing comes to all the nations. The how of salvation does not flatten every other identifying mark of those who are saved. Faith does not flatten identity, faith applies across distinctions.
For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Clearly, it does not mean that differences of nationality, status, and sex cease to exist. A Jew remains a Jew; a Gentile, a Gentile. One does not lose his identity by becoming a Christian. Paul simply means that having become one with God as his sons, Christians now belong to each other in such a way that distinctions that formerly divided them lose significance. (Boice)
Again, this is about how to be accepted by God. It doesn’t matter what national passport you carry, or what your social standing is, or even your gender. All are saved the same way: faith. The promise of justification has always been about faith, and faith alone, not about works or about tribe, language, economic status, or sex.
I am emphasizing this because Galatians 3 is not an argument for multiculturalism, social equality, or feminism or homosexuality. Galatians 3:28 does not provide grounds for open borders or class warfare or women’s liberation. It is also not about eschatology but about evangelism. It is about the blessing that comes to Jews and Gentiles because it is a blessing that was promised before there were Jews and Gentiles. We can study other passages to see the unique roles and responsibilities of men and women. We can study other passages to see God’s unique promises of blessing to the Jews, as well as His sovereign plan to use the blessing to Gentiles to cause Jews who are offspring of Abraham “by flesh” to become offspring of Abraham “by faith.”
The blessing of Abraham to all the nations is 1) justification and 2) receiving the Spirit. Both of these happen only by faith, not by our rule keeping. The fact that God gave the law points out our disobedience, our curse, and our need for a Savior.
How to begin and how to continue, as verse 3 states, is by faith. Living by faith is only in vain if we stop living by faith. Of course we should obey God’s law, but we cannot expect to earn our righteous standing by it. Fruit doesn’t ever make the tree healthy. Fruit doesn’t add growing “adequacy” to the tree. So let us not subject trees to following the rules, let us pray for living trees. The field manual tells us what to look for, it has never made anything grow. Only the promise of grace, received by faith, make us sons of God.