In verses 1-5 of Chapter 3 Paul argued for the truth of the gospel based on the experience of the Galatians when he originally preached to them; i.e., they believed and received the Spirit before anyone told them they had to keep the Law to be saved. Beginning in verse 6 Paul makes the case that justification by faith is not new. Abraham himself was justified through his belief – not his works. And the Law itself was never meant to justify – only to show people they could not earn justification. Paul bases his arguments wholly on Scripture. If the false teachers have claimed that the Law and the prophets back their theology, Paul responds that everything in Scripture points to the gospel he preaches – and the greatest patriarch of all was saved by faith.
The Gospel According to Abraham (6-9)
Paul continues the thought of verse 5 – that the Spirit came to the Galatians through faith and not by works – with the example of Abraham. It is at first unclear why Paul cites Abraham as an example to a group of Gentile believers, but it becomes clearer in verse 8 when he describes the promise God gave to him of all nations someday being blessed through him. Abraham is the father of not only Israel, but of the gospel message to the Gentiles.
Paul goes back to Abraham because he represents the beginning. If the false teachers cite the Law of Moses and the tradition of Judaism in their teaching, Paul goes all the way back to the beginning – to the patriarch of the country.
Paul says that even Abraham was justified through his faith. He quotes Genesis 15:6 – Abraham believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. God told Abraham (actually Abram at the time of the event) that his descendants would be like the stars of the sky. At the time God said this, Abram was old and had no son and his wife was past childbearing age. Yet in spite of all evidence to the contrary he believed God’s promise. He believed solely on the basis of God’s faithfulness. He did not act, he did not obey, he did not DO anything – he believed.
God reckoned that belief to him as righteousness. This does not mean God made him righteous. It means righteousness was credited to his account. He was justified – declared righteous. God justified him when he believed. God declared him righteous the same way He declared the Galatians righteous. And for both Abraham and the Galatians it was what they received – not what they did – that resulted in justification.
As an aside, it is interesting to consider that Moses wrote Genesis. That means the father of the Law – the one the Judaizers likely reference more than any other – is the very one who wrote that Abraham was justified by belief rather than obedience to the Law.
Something else to remember is that the event described in Genesis 15:6 took place hundreds of years before God gave the Law to Moses (3:17). So Abraham was justified more than four centuries before the Law existed. Not only that, but he also believed roughly 14 years before he was circumcised (Gen 17:24). That means Abraham was effectively a Gentile when he was justified – just like the Galatians (and just like us).
[And it shows that Abraham’s circumcision was not a means of salvation but a symbol of it. This is much like baptism today. Baptism does not save – note that Paul says nothing about baptism when he rehearses the Galatians’ salvation experience in 3:1-5. Salvation comes through hearing with faith. The Spirit comes when we trust in the finished work of Christ. Baptism – like circumcision – is a sign that we have believed, not a component of that belief.]
Paul now logically proceeds to his next point. If Abraham’s belief resulted in justification, then all who believe and are justified like him are his sons. Apparently the false teachers are telling the Galatians they will be sons of Abraham if they are circumcised and obey the law. Paul makes sure to tell them they are sons of Abraham if they have faith as he did. The real descendants of Abraham are those who are of faith – not the ones who physically descend from him and are circumcised. Yes, it is important to become a son of Abraham – but this happens by faith, not by circumcision and the Law.
Verses 8 and 9 show that justification is the blessing the sons of Abraham inherit. The Scripture (note that Paul makes it a living thing) foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith (the definition of the gospel) and so told Abraham (preached the gospel to him) that all nations would be blessed through him. The blessing is justification through faith in Christ. The nations would have righteousness reckoned to them just as their father Abraham (the believer) did. [Note that Paul quotes Genesis 12:3 in this verse. Genesis 12 is the account of God calling Abram out of his homeland of Ur to go to the land of Canaan. This shows that Abram actually believed and trusted God twice – once when he was called out of Ur and once when God told him his descendants would become a great nation.]
This means two things. First, the sons of Abraham are those who believe by faith and include ALL nations and ALL people. It is not limited to the Jews and the gospel does not require that anyone convert to Judaism. Second, all people throughout history have been saved by faith – even those born and dead before Christ’s birth and death. Christ’s death was sufficient for ALL sin and ALL people of EVERY age. All sin from Eden to the end of the world was defeated at the cross. And salvation has always been received through faith – not earned through works. When Paul says Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles through faith he means that God always acted based on His plan of redemption. Since He knew Christ would die and His death would be sufficient, He could forgive and justify throughout all of history.
Curse of the Law vs. Life through Faith (10-14)
Paul now explains that the Law cannot save and was never meant to. He says in verse 10 that any who are under the Law are under the curse of the Law. To back his case he quotes Deuteronomy 27:26 where Moses told the people of Israel that anyone who did not abide by ALL THINGS written in the book of the Law was cursed. This shows how ridiculous it is that the false teachers claim obedience to the Law is mandatory for salvation. The Law must be obeyed in its entirety (James 2:10) – ANY violation results in a curse.
To further prove his point Paul lays out the two methods of justification – faith and works. In verse 11 he discusses faith and quotes Habakkuk 2:4 – the righteous man shall live by faith (OR – “he who through faith is righteous shall live”). He uses this verse to illustrate that God never intended anyone to be justified by works of the Law. Paul’s use of this verse may appear to be a little out of context (although it seems that NT writers often exegete texts differently than we do), but his intent seems to be to illustrate his point rather than prove it (as he has already done with the example of Abraham). The bottom line is that Habakkuk’s words reflect the reality of Abraham – the one who is justified by faith (like Abraham the believer) shall find life.
In verse 12 he lays out justification by works and says it is the opposite of faith. He again quotes Scripture – Leviticus 18:5 – He who practices them (the works of the Law) shall live by them. Justification by practice rather than belief. The key idea of this text is life – and Paul seems to mean eternal life. The one who bases his salvation in the Law will find life in the Law if he practices the works of the Law. The problem is that no one practices them. If life can only come through the Law then all are doomed because no one can keep the Law.
So taken together, verses 6-12 explain the means of justification and the road to life. Abraham and his spiritual descendants are justified (righteousness reckoned to them) by faith and those who are justified by faith find life (as defined in John 17:3).
In 13 he returns to the idea of the curse of the Law he referenced in verse 10. All who are under the Law are under its curse – that any violation of the law results in death. Lest anyone think that God simply removed the curse from His children Paul reminds his readers that the curse was not removed at all. It was placed on someone else. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse FOR US. Christ absorbed the penalty for violating the Law – he BECAME the curse in our place. What was supposed to happen to us – because we all violate the Law – happened to Him.
Paul again quotes Scripture to make his point. Deuteronomy 21:23 – Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree. This verse likely refers to people who were executed – typically by stoning – for violating the Law whose corpses were then hung on a tree as a symbol of their having incurred the judgment of God. The curse was not because they were hung on a tree – the tree was a symbol of their curse. The symbolism of the verse applies directly to what Christ did. He was hung on a tree – a cross – because He too incurred the curse of the Law. The difference, however, is that He was cursed not for Himself but for others – FOR US.
Verse 14 completes Paul’s thought on Christ’s work and adds a qualifier. Christ died so the blessing of Abraham – justification – might come to the Gentiles. Note, however, that the blessing is not for everyone. It is for those in Christ Jesus (note the present tense). Justification is for those who are united with Him – who are crucified with Him (2:20). And those who are in Christ Jesus are in Him by faith – they receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. Thus we receive Abraham’s blessing and the attendant Spirit through uniting with Christ through faith.
[What is faith? Faith is laying hold of Jesus Christ personally. There is no merit in it. It is not another ‘work’. Its value is not in itself, but entirely in its object, Jesus Christ. As Luther put it, “faith apprehendeth nothing else but that precious jewel Christ Jesus.” Christ is the Bread of life; faith feeds upon Him. Christ was lifted up on the cross; faith gazes at Him there. – John Stott
This does not mean that faith is to be regarded as a virtue, meriting justification. Rather it is no more than the means by which sinners receive God’s gracious gift. It is God who justifies the Gentiles, not faith. But He justifies them in the same way that Abraham was justified, i.e., by faith; faith is the means God uses to bring about justification. – Leon Morris]
So the promise of God to Abraham – that all nations would be blessed in him – was accomplished because Christ became a curse for us by hanging on a tree. And when we believe God as Abraham did – when we trust God completely for our salvation – we are declared righteous (justified) and receive the Spirit. And those who are justified by faith receive eternal life.
Three blessings, then, accrue to the believer – justification, the presence of the Spirit, and eternal life. We are legally declared righteous such that we can come into God’s presence as if we never violated the Law. Beyond that we have His Spirit to enable us to obey Him and become more and more like Him while we live our lives in the flesh (it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me – 2:20). And as if that is not enough, we have the promise of eternal life.
Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thy own dear presence to cheer and to guide;
Strength for today and bright hope for tomorrow, Blessings all mine with ten thousand beside!
Paul comes full circle in the first 14 verses of Chapter 3. He begins in verse 1 by chiding the Galatians for their wrong beliefs in light of their knowledge of Christ crucified. He ends in verses 13 and 14 by explaining that the Gentiles can only be justified because of Christ crucified. It is Christ’s death which is integral to the gospel. It is Christ’s death the Galatians are making worthless by their belief in the Law. And it is Christ’s death that enables all believers – Jew and Gentile – to come to God.
The challenge of this passage is straightforward. We must renounce the proud folly of supposing that we can establish our own righteousness or make ourselves acceptable to God. Instead we must come humbly to the cross, where Christ bore our curse, and cast ourselves entirely upon His mercy. And then, by God’s sheer grace, because we are in Christ Jesus by faith, we shall receive justification, eternal life and the indwelling Spirit. The ‘blessing of Abraham’ will be ours. – John Stott
Thoughts and Applications
In this portion of Galatians Paul defends his message entirely through the Scriptures. He cites six different texts to back up his arguments for justification through faith. We likewise must remember that no truth has value or relevance apart from God’s revealed will in His word. We must know the word and base our beliefs entirely upon it.
For the believer who accepts that salvation comes through faith and not by works, these verses can seem somewhat tedious. We already agree with Paul’s premise so his arguments can seem repetitive and difficult to apply to our lives. What we must realize, however, is that the value of these verses comes from their rehearsal of the bedrock principles of the gospel and their causing us to celebrate the basis of our beliefs. We can never hear and review the gospel enough:
- Man is a sinner and hopelessly separated from God – as shown by the Law.
- Because man sins he deserves death – the curse of the Law.
- Christ came to earth and lived as a man and did not sin in any way.
- Because Christ was perfect He did not deserve the curse of the Law and so could suffer it on behalf of others who did. He could pay others’ debts because He did not have a debt of His own.
- Those who believe God, who trust God for salvation as Abraham did, and believe they cannot come to Him by any effort of their own but only through Christ’s death on their behalf, are justified – legally declared righteous by God.
- Those who are justified by faith – as Abraham was – receive God’s Spirit who enables them to become more and more like Him and to increasingly obey God’s commands out of love for Him (salvation leading to obedience instead of vice versa).
- Those who are justified by faith also receive eternal life – complete freedom from God’s wrath along with the promise of living in His presence for all eternity and the assurance that all things will be made right in the day of ultimate justice.
Rehearsing the gospel is integral to the Christian life. I must live every day with the gospel in front of me – continually returning to the cross to gain a right perspective on the world and sin and the cost of my redemption, and continually remembering that I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. Salvation is all of Him, all about Him, and all for His glory. I died with Christ and thus no longer live for me. Nothing in my life has meaning apart from these truths.
If the threefold receipt of salvation per Galatians 3 is justification, eternal life, and the indwelling Spirit, then the believer should measure everything by the cross, see the world through the lens of eternity, and live by the power of the Spirit. The impotent Christian life is the one that takes the cross for granted (works = approval), forgets the Spirit (effort = obedience) and lives as if eternity does not exist (world = reality).