STUDIES IN GALATIANS No. 14
May 16, 1999
The argument of chapter 3 has been that the gospel from the beginning has been the promise of righteousness before God through faith in Christ. It has never been a message about justification coming in any part through the works of the law, or our obedience to the law. The law, in fact, is a servant of the gospel of promise — not was but is a servant of the gospel, shutting men up to no other possible solution to their sin and guilt before God but the righteousness that God gives as a free gift through faith in Christ.
These last four verses are a summary conclusion that personalizes the lesson with reference to the situation of the Gentile Christians themselves. Before Paul spoke in general terms (“those who believe”, v. 22) or he spoke in the first person (“we” and “us” in vv. 23-25). But now he moves to “you” in vv. 26-29.
He connects the threads of his argument so far to their own personal situation. These Gentiles are the true sons of God and true seed of Abraham, but they are not because they observe the requirements of the law that the judaizers were demanding of them, but because they have faith in Christ and were baptized into Christ. The judaizers were demanding that Gentiles become Jews in order to become Christians. But the logic of the gospel was precisely that faith in Christ makes Jew and Gentile one already, because Christ makes all who believe the children of God.
v.27 We’ll return to this verse later, but for the moment let me point out a small detail that is of some importance to the question of the mode of baptism. You know there are Christians who argue that baptism is not rightly administered, even is not administered at all, unless it is by immersion, the person being baptized being submerged under the water. And one of the arguments that is made on behalf of this position is Paul’s statements that when we are united with Christ in baptism, we are united with him in his death and resurrection. He says this both in Romans 6 and Colossians 2. In fact, he says in both places that we were “buried with him in baptism.” They argue that, therefore, baptism should look like a burial and a resurrection, which, they suggest immersion does. Buried under the water, rising out of the water.
There are a number of problems with this argument. One crucial one is that it makes the water of baptism a symbol of the ground, of dirt, when it is perfectly obvious that it is the symbol of cleansing, of washing. It is very hard to believe that water should be the symbol of both dirt and washing in the same sacrament. Another problem is that Christ was not buried in the ground, but entombed. A baptism made to symbolize our union with him in his burial would not look like an immersion, because they did not lay his body in a hole in the ground.
But, another problem is that Paul does not say that in our union with Christ we were only united in his burial and resurrection. He says, in Romans 6, for example, that we were not only buried with Christ but also crucified with him. But going under water doesn’t look like a crucifixion. And here in Galatians 3:27 we read that those who were baptized into Christ “have clothed themselves with Christ.” Here our union with Christ in baptism is likened to the putting on of a garment. But baptism in any mode does not look like putting on a garment. Paul undoubtedly says that baptism effects our union with Christ in his saving work. What he doesn’t ever say is that any of this has anything to do with how baptism is to be administered.In baptism we have put on Christ, been crucified with Christ, been buried with Christ, and been risen with Christ. Through our union with Christ in his saving work, his having done it for us as our substitute, we have died to sin and been born again to everlasting life. But none of this bears directly on the mode of baptism. It has very much to do with the substance of baptism, but not with the manner in which it is performed. Rather, baptism signifies the cleansing from sin that we receive through our union with Jesus Christ in his crucifixion, death, burial, and resurrection. It is the cleansing that is signified in the rite, the ceremony of baptism, the result of Christ’s work, not the work itself in its different parts.
It is a small point. We certainly regard baptism by immersion as true baptism, even if we think that baptism by pouring or sprinkling is more in keeping with the language and practice of the Bible.
Here we are said to have “put on Christ” when we were baptized. In Romans 13:14 Paul tells his readers to “clothe themselves with Christ”, similar words but in the imperative. There believers are exhorted to do what here they have already done. But that is a common kind of NT oscillation between the indicative (“what is”) and the imperative (“what should be done”). Paul is saying to the Romans, “be what you are!” “Practice the new life God has given you.” “Possess your possessions” and the like.
v.28 This verse has suddenly taken on great prominence in evangelical Bible study because feminists have made it the crux interpretum of their argument that gender distinctions are no longer significant and that NT texts that seem to restrict the eldership to men cannot be taken to mean that because then they would run afoul of this text which says that men and women are the same, period! (A more honest, but more dangerous position was taken some years ago at the very beginning of the so-called “evangelical feminist” movement by Fuller Seminary professor Paul Jewett, who argued in his book Man as Male and Female that, while Paul saw the implications of the gospel clearly in such a text as Galatians 3:28, at other points he failed to escape the errors of his time and spiritual culture, as, for example, in 1 Timothy 2, where he continues to argue that men and women have different callings and that women are not to be given positions of authority in the church. We should follow Paul here in Galatians but recognize and avoid his blunder in 1 Timothy 2. Even Time magazine noted the astonishing case of an evangelical seminary professor disagreeing with the Apostle Paul.) Later evangelical feminists drew back from charging Paul with an error and attempted instead to prove that Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2, etc. should be understood differently, an abysmally unpersuasive effort, but enough to satisfy them because they wanted so badly to be convinced.
But, the fact of the matter is that Paul is not talking about all possible distinctions in 3:28. He is talking about justification and how men and women become righteous before God. The distinctions men make between people, the judgments they make, the pride they take over against other men, these are all null and void before a gospel that first lays all men under sin and guilt and then offers salvation to all on precisely the same terms — perfect righteousness that God promises to give to all who trust in Jesus Christ.
A number of evangelical feminists were later blindsided by a similar use of this text by the so-called evangelical gay rights advocates. They argued precisely that if Galatians 3:28 meant that such statements as Paul makes in 1 Corinthians 11 or 1 Timothy 2 about the different roles of men and women did not apply to us, then, by rigorous necessity the statements condemning homosexual practice in the NT didn’t apply either. Many of the first generation of evangelical feminists accepted the force of that argument and simply moved on to assimilate their Christianity into another cultural movement of late 20th century America. Other folks in that camp struggled hard to argue that while they could use Galatians 3:28 that way, the gay rights people couldn’t. My opinion is that the gay rights folk won that battle hands down. If Galatians 3:28 means that the Bible no longer recognizes any meaningful and morally significant distinctions between men and women — a preposterous understanding of the verse — then the verse clearly allows for pro-homosexual views as surely as it does feminist views. But the verse cannot be made to speak to such questions except by wrenching it out of its context altogether.
Who has ever argued that there are different ways for men and women to find justification before God? That is what Paul is talking about; it is all he is talking about. He himself knows that there remains a distinction between Jews and Gentiles, it is an important distinction and he deals with its implications for the future in Romans 11. But he is not talking about other aspects of Jewishness and Gentile-“ness.” He is talking about justification. And on that point, Jews and Gentiles, like men and women, stand on precisely the same footing. Indeed, slaves and free, men and women, are added to Jew and Gentile only to add emphasis to the point. It is the difference between Jew and Gentile that is at issue here.
Indeed, it is not unlikely that Paul’s choice of terms here is dictated precisely by his desire to counter the judaizer’s viewpoint. There are a number of Jewish formulas in which the same three-fold distinction is made, as, for example, in a Jewish morning prayer in which the male Jew thanks God that he was not made a Gentile, a slave, or a woman. The reason for this thanksgiving was not necessarily disparagement of Gentiles and women, but that both of them were disqualified from certain religious privileges that were open to free Jewish males. [Bruce, ad loc.] These distinctions have nothing to do with one’s status “in Christ.” That is Paul’s point.
By the way, how like the Bible to speak in this one place so categorically about there being no distinctions between the sexes and then so categorically elsewhere about the important distinctions that remain. That is always the Bible’s way. It is what we would have expected!
v.29 The very thing the judaizers would not admit. Without conformity to certain Jewish practices, without, that is, becoming observant Jews, one could not be a descendant of Abraham or one of his heirs. [It is important to remember, however, that while the controversy had to do with the demands of the judaizers that Gentile converts become Jews as well as Christians, Paul’s argument for justification by faith and not by works is put in general, universal terms. Any works of any kind, not just these Jewish works, are being excluded as a ground of our peace and righteousness with God.]
Now, in the providence of God, we came to v. 27 on the evening we had a baptism in our evening service. And it is an interesting remark that Paul makes and one that we would do well to ponder. In fact, it is well worth our considering the fact that we ourselves, given our evangelical convictions, probably would not have made the remark and may, when we look closer at it, wonder if Paul wouldn’t have been wiser not to make it!
I. We begin by pointing out that it is striking that in an argument against an over-reliance on ceremonies (viz. circumcision) Paul did not hesitate to place another ceremony front and center. We might very well have expected Paul to write, in v. 27, “for all of you who have believed in Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” That has been his whole point in the argument so far — it is faith not ceremonial works — and it is what he said in v. 26: “you are sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.”
But here in v. 27 he says, instead, “for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ.” We almost cringe for fear that Paul will be misunderstood and people will think that they get their justification through baptism. And, indeed, that is exactly what Roman Catholics make of Paul’s argument in Galatians. What Paul is arguing is that it is no longer Jewish ceremonies that are critical to justification but Christian ones, no longer circumcision, but baptism. Faith too, of course, but faith and baptism, faith in baptism. I listened to a videotaped debate between some Protestant evangelicals and some former Protestants now converted to Rome, and this was the Roman Catholic view of Galatians — it is an argument against Jewish ceremonies only. It is not an argument for justification by faith alone, but against the continued Christian use of circumcision.
Now, that I think, is an impossible view of justification and does not do justice to Paul’s argument, which is an argument against justification by obedience to the law — even in part –, an argument framed in absolute and entirely general terms, even if provoked by the judaizers’ insistence on the continued practice of Jewish ceremonies in Gentile Christianity. The judaizers’ viewpoint was not wrong because it advocated circumcision — Paul was willing for circumcision to be practiced — but because it advocated justification by works.
But, wouldn’t Paul’s argument have been cleaner and safer and less open to misunderstanding if he had just left baptism out of the picture altogether. Why bring another ceremony into the picture when dealing with people who have placed their faith in ceremonies? Indeed, the early Quakers rejected the sacraments precisely because they thought the use of them was incompatible with the pure inward faith and worship that Jesus had taught. That would solve the problem altogether. No one would mistake the meaning of circumcision or baptism, because there would be no observances of rites and ceremonies to confuse with a living faith.
Well, the Bible’s answer to that is that such a solution to the problem is not possible. Like it or not, the religion God teaches us is a sacramental religion. Its fundamental principles and application to human souls must be embodied in sacraments and, at least in part, must be effected by sacraments.
Now, we evangelicals have been taught sola fide so well that it is our instinct to rush on to say such things as these.
Sacraments can’t save you! So Paul makes a point of saying both here in regard to circumcision and in 1 Corinthians 10 in regard to baptism. And that is true enough. Indeed, it is one of the great messages of the preachers of the Bible itself, the prophets especially. It is one of the great dangers of religious life that the observance of outward forms can be mistaken for the living faith that alone brings peace with God. God’s people were always falling into this error in biblical times and have ever since.
Indeed, if the Roman Catholic church would simply take the problem of false assurance seriously, and preach seriously to her people that participation in the observances of the church is worse than useless without a living faith that demonstrates its integrity in life, its other theological errors would not be nearly so grave in their practical outworking and the chasm that separates evangelical Christianity from Roman Catholicism would not be nearly so deep and wide. But, not to put too fine a point on it, whether or not all its teachers and priests have thought this or not, it has given the impression to its people and the world that there was nothing wrong with legalistic and ritualistic Judaism except that its legalism and ritualism, its trust in the saving power of ceremonies, was Jewish and not NT in form. For, in truth, Roman Catholics have broadly taught and defended the very viewpoint that Paul is attacking and condemning here in Galatians except they have substituted baptism for circumcision.
It is this that has led most people to the understanding that in Roman Catholicism, so long as you observe the ceremonies, you don’t have to be otherwise a religious person, or even a good person. And so one of the most popular and influential movies of all time ends with a mobster having his baby baptized in a Catholic church at the same moment as his henchmen are systematically murdering his rivals one by one. But, you know, there was no rash of sermons in Catholic churches after that movie came out reminding the parishioners that no mobster could be saved who did not forsake his crimes, because the true and living faith that alone brings a man or woman into union with Christ is a faith that permeates the whole of life and makes a man wholeheartedly willing to live for God. And not only was that true of mobsters, but of everyone else. That all the religious observances in the world would avail nothing without a true faith in Christ and love for him that produced a life of loyalty to Christ in word and in deed.
But, having said all that, we still have many statements in the Bible that put the sacraments in a place we are not accustomed to putting them ourselves. As I have said before, we would never mention baptism in an evangelistic peroration such as Peter did at the climax of his Pentecost sermon: “repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.”
II. Further, Paul includes baptism in his understanding of our union with Christ. What really matters is that we be united to Christ. It is “in Christ” — a most important formula for Paul — that our salvation comes. It means a great deal to say that someone is in Christ. We are united to him in his saving work. What he did he did for us and now has been applied to us — in Christ we were crucified, we died, we rose again. Our sins have been punished because we were in Christ when he was punished for them. But the phrase also refers to Christ’s living presence with us now by his Holy Spirit. It is not just that long ago Christ did something for us; but that right now he is doing something for us, working in us the consequences of what he did for us and working in our lives what is pleasing to him. It is a phrase with many affinities to the Lord’s speaking of our “abiding with him or in him” in the Gospel of John. It is our connection to Christ, our living, active connection to him, our walking with him, his presence in our hearts and his activity in our lives that makes us Christians and produces a Christian life in us.
That union with Christ comes to pass through faith, Paul says here, but it also comes to pass through baptism. The Bible isn’t jumpy about saying it both ways: by faith you are in Christ and by baptism you are in Christ, just as Paul does here in vv. 26-27. It assumes that both will be true in any particular case.
It is perfectly well aware of the fact that many baptized people go to hell. It is also aware of the fact that it is possible to be saved without circumcision or baptism (the thief on the cross), though it makes much less of that latter possibility than the former. But the Bible and Paul in particular regularly see the passage from death to life as being made at or by baptism.
We, of course, cannot see faith, cannot know when someone has truly believed or not. Baptism, on the contrary, is visible. It is a passage that we can mark, note. It places a person in the church, makes them subject to the obligations of Christian faith and life, and renders them susceptible to the ministries of the church which the soul requires to sustain itself in true and living faith in Christ.
One obvious and easily demonstrated defect in the Christian preaching and the spiritual culture in which I was raised was that we had such a debased view of the sacraments. We really had little place for them in our view of the Christian life. We would never have spoken as Peter and Paul speak in the Bible itself and never noticed that fact so invisible were the sacraments to us. We observed the Supper infrequently and though we practiced baptism, of course, we never thought about it afterward.
But that is not the way the Bible or the NT teaches us to think about our salvation and Christian life. It is always reminding us that we were baptized, always reminding us what that means and how much it means. Baptism can be debased, of course. But, then, so can faith. James writes his letter to people who believe but don’t believe, just as we might speak of people who are baptized but are not baptized. There is an outward kind of faith, an objective faith that accepts certain things to be true — may even believe them quite fiercely — but does not penetrate the heart so as to produce a life of goodness and love and active gratitude to God.
Anything can be corrupted and denatured and misused. That is no argument for casting such things aside or considering them of little worth. Rather, we are to take greater care to use rightly the things God has appointed for our life and salvation: to understand them rightly and to use them rightly and to esteem them properly, in accordance with our faith.
Not tonight the proper use of the sacrament of baptism, its meaning and its function in the life of faith. Tonight it is enough to say that we ought to love and esteem baptism, we ought to think very highly of it for the place God gives it in the Christian faith and life, the public point of transition from darkness to light, from death to life. And we ought to rejoice that we have witnessed a baptism, Katherine Cassis’, precisely because it means so much.
And we ought to rejoice that we have been baptized, as we rejoice that our names have been written in the Book of Life!