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April 18, 1999

Galatians 3:1-8

Text Comment

v.1       The message that they have now succumbed to is so at odds with the gloriously liberating message of the gospel that it appeared as if someone had bewitched them, hypnotized them. How else would they have willingly exchanged the priceless for the common?

            In his preaching in Galatia, as elsewhere, Paul had resolved to “know nothing but Christ and him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). His gospel, his preaching was “the word of the cross” (1 Corinthians 1:18). He is as much as saying here that the gospel of Christ dying for our sins so completely eliminates any thought of justification by our works of obedience that any tendency to do so is tantamount to a betrayal of Christ crucified and a repudiation of salvation by his life and death for us. [This argument here, I must say, I judge fatal to every effort to square Roman Catholic ideas about justification with Paul’s teaching. Paul would not speak this way if justification was the product of faith plus works.]

v.2       This is Paul’s forceful and effective use of argument. If they concede his point, if they answer “by believing”, and given their experience they could do no other, they concede his argument and must give up the judaizers’ viewpoint.

            Paul takes it for granted that they had received the Spirit. His presence and power had been manifested among them during Paul’s ministry. [It is worth noting in passing that Paul certainly does not speak as if the receiving of the Spirit were a second thing than the beginning of new life in Christ and as if it happened at some other time than justification. These are the blessings of the gospel and they are all received by the one and the same act of faith.

            The Spirit, Paul says elsewhere is the pledge and the seal of final salvation. He comes by faith. Does it not follow that salvation from beginning to end comes by faith?

v.3       We said at 2:15-16 that Paul there gave the first explicit definition of the issue — whether justification was by works or by faith (there being no other option; certainly no middle ground in which justification is by faith and works — any works at all and justification may be said to be by works). Here we have a more precise definition of what Paul sees to be the exact nature of the judaizers’ error: whatever they might still say about faith and the cross, they now think that their own effort alone makes possible the fulfillment, consummation, completion of salvation (the NIV’s “by human effort” is literally “by the flesh” — human nature in its unregenerate, unrenewed weakness; the powers and the abilities that belong to life before and without the Spirit, but which realm of life still exists in the Christian heart and life, in which realm a believer can find himself living to the betrayal of Christ and to the loss of the powers of his new life (5:13, 16)).

            An interesting comparison is supplied in Philippians 1:6 where the same two verbs (for beginning and for completion) are used. But there the completion is reached by the same means as the beginning, the principle of both is the same: “he who began a good work in you shall bring it to completion to the day of Jesus Christ.”

v.4       We don’t have specific information about the suffering the Galatians endured for their faith in Christ. But Paul’s point is simple enough. If you could be justified by works of the law, especially by observance of Jewish ceremonies, why suffer the inevitable reproach of the Jews for embracing a message they thought wicked and the Gentiles thought foolish. That message of salvation through Christ’s death offended everyone in the world of that day. Jews thought it blasphemous and irreverent and Gentiles thought it ridiculous. Why did they suffer for such a message if they are, in effect, repudiating it now.

            The final “if it really was…” suggests Paul has hope that the situation has not gone too far, that these people can be recovered to their senses.

v.5       Another form of the same argument as in v. 2. It is not clear whether Paul means that miraculous deeds are still being performed in Galatia or whether the reference is simply to the miracles that had occurred when Paul and Barnabas first brought the gospel to them. It is very likely, however, that the judaizers’ message had not been accompanied by miracles (that it had not received that remarkable divine attestation) and so Paul’s ad hominem point is even more powerful.

            The contrast he uses here (literally, “from works of the law or from the hearing of faith”) is very important. Paul is setting law over against faith but in the context of what one is looking toward for justification before God. It is in that sense and only that sense in which law is opposed to faith.

v.6       Now the biblical argument begins. Paul begins with a quotation of Genesis 15:6. In all likelihood the judaizers made a great deal of Abraham and their relationship to him and that may well account for Paul beginning there and demonstrating that the biblical data prove the reverse of their point. Abraham was, of course, an obedient man, and the Scripture draws attention to that obedience and the importance of it (e.g. Genesis 26:5: the covenant comes to Isaac, “because Abraham obeyed me”). Abraham is in all respects the quintessential Christian — he believed God and was for his faith a child of God and righteous before God, but his faith produced an obedient life. But, it was that order, justifying faith producing a life of obedience, not the other way round.

            Now there is a theological problem here. One can read Genesis 15:6 and also Paul in Romans 4:1-5, where he cites the same text again, and wonder if Paul means that it is the faith that becomes our righteousness, that it is our faith that is actually reckoned to us as our righteousness, as if faith were the only work that God requires of us for justification (the Arminian position). But the rest of Galatians and Romans makes clear that that is not Paul’s meaning. He quotes Romans 15:6 to make one simple point — that the Bible says it is faith and not works that leads to Abraham’s righteousness or justification (the same word group). He doesn’t use the text to establish anything more than that.

v.7       Lit. “those of or from faith” (cf. v. 10 where it literally reads “those who are of the works of the law”). Those whose life is characterized by faith, whose hope of righteousness with God is based on faith as opposed to works, performance, the assertion of oneself as a keeper of commandments.

v.8       A most important way of speaking. “The Scripture foresaw…” Well, it was actually God who told Abraham that all nations would be blessed in him. But it is the same thing whether one says the Scripture said something or God said something. Our doctrine of Holy Scripture in a nutshell. This is a phenomenon that happens elsewhere — the personalizing of Holy Scripture as the voice of God himself — e.g. Romans 9:15,17. What the Bible says, God says! That is what we mean by saying that the Bible is the Word of God.

In his argument of vv. 6-9 Paul asserts several things:

First, he says that from the beginning faith, not works, has been the means of entrance into the family of God.

Almost certainly the judaizers had told the Galatian Christians how important it was to be “sons of Abraham” and, so, that circumcision was necessary precisely because only in that way could one become truly a son of Abraham. Did not the Bible say as much in Genesis 17:10-13: “this shall be the sign of my covenant with you…every male among you shall be circumcised.” Now, of course, the issue is being a son or daughter of God, not of Abraham. But, in the context, it amounts to the same thing, as Abraham is the representative, the quintessential son of God, and we will be children of God if we are his children, that is, if we are like him in the way in which he related to God.

But, it is not circumcision that makes a person a son of Abraham. Many were circumcised who were not true descendants of Abraham. Not all Israel are Israel as he will argue in Romans 9. It is faith that makes someone a true descendant of Abraham, the father of the faithful.

Remember, the Lord had similar points to make in his ministry. The problem with his contemporaries was precisely that they took assurance of salvation from the fact that they were descendants of Abraham.

            “Abraham is our father,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” Jesus answered, “then you would do the things Abraham did. As it is you are determined to kill me, a man that has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do such things. You are doing the things your own father does. … You belong to your father the devil, and you want to carry out your father’s desire.” [John 8:39-44]

Before him, John the Baptist had made the same point.

            “You brood of vipers” [he said to the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to him] “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’  I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham.” [Matthew 3:7-9]

Now this is not a stretch, by any means. The OT gives its own witness a thousand times over that mere physical relatedness to Abraham and the practice of circumcision was not guarantee of a spiritual relation to God. The prophets were constantly attacking the widespread assumption that it was. Israel perished in the wilderness precisely for lack of faith. The ten northern tribes were destroyed for lack of true faith in God; the two southern tribes were sent into exile for the same reason, circumcision notwithstanding.

It was by faith that Abraham was reckoned righteous before God and it was by faith than anyone since has been reckoned a true descendant of Abraham.

Second, Paul says that the gospel he preached is nothing other than the ancient message the Bible has always taught and that was proclaimed by God himself to Abraham.

It is a striking thing to hear Paul call the message that God gave to Abraham “the gospel” but that is what he calls it. And then tells us exactly what the “good news” amounts to, viz. that God justifies sinners by faith. Paul does the same thing in Romans 10:16 (“But not all Israelites accepted the gospel” — and he explains precisely how they did not accept it: they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own.) And it is even more striking to hear the author of the Letter to the Hebrews speak of the gospel having been preached to Israel in Egypt and the wilderness but of her failure to believe it, her failure to mix it with faith.

Third, that Gospel long ago envisioned the ingrafting of the Gentiles, also through the means of faith.

This too is not a stretch. There is a great deal, from Genesis 12:1-3 onward that indicates that God always intended to save the nations. We saw that theme repeatedly in our recent studies in Micah and you find it throughout the prophets and, especially, in the messianic prophesies. “I will pour out my spirit on all flesh…”; “…he will sprinkle many nations…”; “I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles…” [Isaiah 42:6]; “anyone who trusts in him will not be put to shame” [Isaiah 28:16]; “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved” [Joel 2:32]; “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news” [Isaiah 52:7]; etc.

Luther adds illustrations such as that of Job who was a righteous man but not an Israelite, and Naaman, who was healed not because he obeyed the Mosaic law and was circumcised, but because he believed the promise that God made to him through Elisha, even if he believed it weakly, and the Ninevites in the days of Jonah, who were delivered from God’s wrath because they believed and repented, though they never became Israelites or were circumcised. And then he points out that the Lord had himself confirmed this very point in the case of Cornelius and Peter. And Peter had understood the Lord’s point precisely at the time: the Gentiles were being received into the church on the strength of their faith and no requirement was being made that they be circumcised or that they observe other Jewish ceremonies.

So far the argument and it is, on its face, unanswerable.

I want this evening to discuss briefly one of the implications of these verses and this argument, an implication that is drawn in many other ways and places is the Bible, viz. that from the beginning of the gospel’s history of the world until now vast numbers of people have imagined themselves to be saved because of their association with the people of God, because of their membership in the church as it exists in the world, who, in fact, are not, were not saved at all.

This reality of false assurance was one of the two great facts of Israel’s history in the OT (the other being that there was within her true life in God that carried the gospel forward from generation to generation). Unbelief in the church accounted for the wilderness and the melancholy ministry of Moses, what Paul himself calls in 2 Corinthians 3 “the ministry of death”; unbelief in the church accounted for the period of the Judges, the northern kingdom’s dismal history leading to her destruction, the exile of the southern kingdom, the ministry of the OT prophets from Elijah to Malachi. Unbelief in the church (I use “church” intentionally; it is the standard LXX translation for the Hebrew words for congregation or assembly — the standard terms used to describe Israel as the people of God — and is so used in the NT also; e.g. “the church in the wilderness” in Acts 7:38) is the great fact that explains the nature and character of Christ’s own ministry, life, and death. He was a prophet to an unbelieving church. He was a Savior sent to a church that had no interest in him or his salvation.

And, here, already in the middle of the apostolic period, judaizers in Galatia were recreating the very same situation that had existed beforehand over and over again: people who were confident of their salvation but were resting their hopes on precisely the wrong foundation. Remember, this is not a theoretical issue: “let him be eternally condemned!” (1:7)

And what Paul strains against in Galatia would occur on a vast scale later in Christendom (the medieval church; Roman Catholicism — whose great error, perhaps its greatest error is that it does not take the problem of false assurance seriously –; English Christianity in the early 18th century; and today everywhere. How many of the billion and a half Christians in the world do you think are true and living followers of Christ, with living faith in him as their Savior from sin and death, whose faith is being proved genuine by the reverence and obedience of their lives? In Elijah’s day, the several millions in Israel included only 7,000 true believers. The proportion was probably not much better in the several centuries before the Reformation. And in many segments of the church today, it is possible the proportion of true life in the church is no more than then if as much.

It is the reality of this false assurance on a grand scale — a false assurance that is so widespread, so impossible to eradicate from the life of the church precisely because it is the product of the potent tendencies of our own sinful hearts and as well as the temptations of the world and the Devil — that lies beneath the so emphatic and solemn warnings of the Bible to build our assurance of salvation on solid ground and to refuse to accept as an argument for our own salvation what does not really distinguish true from false faith (sincerity; assertion of orthodoxy; membership in the Christian church; the acceptance by others as a Christian, etc.).

And the grounds of true assurance is a major theme in the Bible and the NT precisely because it is a matter so widely misunderstood and which misunderstanding has such fatal consequences. It is a major theme in Jesus, Paul, Hebrews, and Peter and John writes both his gospel and his first letter on this theme precisely.

In a way it is ironic that Paul’s assertion of free grace and justification by faith and not by works should raise the question of true and false assurance and should force us to take pains to make our calling and election sure. But, as Luther put it, it is precisely because of our unwillingness to embrace the gospel as a message of free grace that keeps us looking in all the wrong places for our salvation and creates this powerful urge to think ourselves Christians for every other reason but that we have a living faith in Jesus Christ who gave himself for us — a living faith, a faith that embraces him with all our hearts, souls, strength, and mind.

Here are Christian people who saw miracles, for goodness sake, who took the gospel directly from the hand of the Apostle Paul. And now they have found it easy to slip away from a true gospel faith and life. How can that be, except we are still inveterate unbelievers and that we always struggle just to believe and live by faith!

Think of those, of whom Jesus spoke in the sermon on the mount, who cast out demons in Christ’s name, but who were unsaved for want of that living faith that produces a changed life.

This melancholy and so solemn part of the Bible’s teaching is not much heard in our day. But you can’t understand biblical Christianity without it. What is Galatians about except a protest that many who are representing themselves as Christians and teaching Christianity are not Christians themselves and do not understand the gospel — and are in danger of making many others like themselves. Indeed, we have already addressed the issue in our studies in the letter so far. You can’t avoid it; it is everywhere. It is what makes the Bible so solemn a book, even though it is mostly addressed to people who are already in the church! Almost the entirety of the Bible’s message is addressed to people who claim to be believers, and yet it is full of the reality of and warnings against unbelief. The world may not believe, but most of the time, most of the church does not believe either.

This is why I was so unimpressed and unmoved by Roman Catholic treatments of Galatians when I was preparing those morning sermons sometime back. They did not see, they did not reckon with the fact that it is the church’s natural instinct to produce false grounds of assurance, false reasons to think oneself a child of God; she has been doing this with great success for centuries — she has taken vast multitudes of her children by the hand and led them straight to hell; but they seemed utterly unaware of this fact, unconcerned about how easily justification by faith is corrupted into justification by works and destroys the soul and its hope of everlasting life. Paul is, after all, protesting something in Galatians!

Put it this way. If, as the Roman Catholics teach, justification comes both by faith and by works, and the Bible is to be believed about the vast number of people who think themselves saved who are not, who are in the church but not in the church, who have the outward rite of baptism but not the inward reality, then Roman Catholics ought to be the most anxious people in all of Christendom, never sure whether their works will be adequate to stand the test of the divine judgment. And it ought to deeply trouble a faithful Catholic that they are not so anxious as a rule. But there was little of that anxiety on display in the defenses of Catholic faith that I read.

But, then, I don’t say we ought to be anxious. The Bible doesn’t. It simply says that we must be sure that our confidence is well founded, based on the right things, especially Christ for us, Christ embraced by a living, working faith.

There are many applications of this fact of so widespread unbelief in the church, of course. Take care of your assurance of salvation; make sure it is founded upon the Bible’s three pillars — the true embrace of the gospel of Christ and of his promises; the fruit of a living faith in Christ which is an obedient life; and the inner witness of the Holy Spirit. Are there some in this room tonight who will awaken to discover that they were never the children of God though they had supposed themselves to be all their lives? Be sure that is not you — be sure you are not the foolish virgin who has the banquet door shut against her forever.

The last two messages ever preached by Thomas Boston — that man who got himself into serious trouble by his preaching of free grace and justification by faith alone — were on the subject of self-examination. They were preached from the manse window, he was too weak to go to the church and stand in his pulpit. The champions of free grace are always the ones most careful that faith be the true, living thing that avails with God and not its cheap and easy imitation.

And here is another application: we should have our eyes always open to, should expect indeed to see evidence on every hand of the church herself giving up the faith, wavering in her loyalty to the Word of God, permitting her people to content themselves with doctrines and practices that are not faithful to the gospel or the law of God. I notice this all the time today: Christians and Christian churches — always, of course, with protestations of sincerity and spiritual earnestness — giving up unpopular biblical teachings, with nary a thought of how easily and regularly the church has accommodated her message to the popular prejudices of her time or any sense of the danger of doing so — of how many souls have been lost in the church, because they were permitted to think themselves Christians when they were not. You do not want to be part of a church that does not regularly and seriously confront this reality and this danger — for the Bible is confronting it and warning us against it all the time!

But, still more, here is the greatest reason of all to appreciate what God has given you if you have real faith in Christ. It is not just that most of the world is not Christian; most of the church is not Christian either! And yet, here you are — an inveterate unbeliever, yet believing! Give thanks to God from the bottom of your heart for such a gift! So rare, upon which so much depends now and forever!