READ : Galatians 3:1-14
You have a choice: you can relate to God on the basis of performance – trying to do enough good works to qualify for salvation – or on the basis of faith – simply trusting in his grace. But only one of those ways leads to life.
According to the Gospel accounts, Jesus knew what was in the human heart. He could read people’s moods, he could see past their masks, he could tell what they were really thinking, and rarely did anything anybody said or did take him off guard. In fact, the gospels record only two instances when Jesus was said to be shocked or surprised. One was near his own home, where despite his miracles and teaching, his own people – family, friends and neighbors – rejected him. The Gospel writer says that Jesus “was amazed at their lack of faith” (Mark 6:6). Unbelief surprised him. It is an amazing thing that people should live in God’s world, see his beauty and power all around them, even have the benefit of hearing his Word and meeting his Son, and still refuse to accept him.
The other time Jesus was surprised happened when a Roman officer came up to him to plead for his help for a servant who was ill. As the Lord made ready to go with him, the centurion stopped him. He said he wasn’t worthy for Jesus even to enter his house, but that as a soldier he understood how authority worked and all Jesus needed to do was give the proper command. The Bible says that Jesus was astonished at this. He said that he hadn’t seen such faith anywhere in Israel, and it came from a Roman soldier! The only thing more amazing than unbelief is belief!
Faith is not an easy thing, and we should never take it for granted. It is always wonderful – wonderful in the literal sense, a thing full of wonder and amazement – that weak, sinful, spiritually blind people would ever respond to the light of God. Indeed, only the power of God’s Spirit working in our hearts and opening our eyes to the truth makes faith even possible. Faith is a gift; it does not come naturally to us. Those of us who have it should not look down too far on those who don’t, or feel superior to them, or make light of their difficulties. It is only by grace that any of us believes at all, and even then there is a strong tendency for us to slip from faith back into a religion of works.
So it’s no surprise that Paul continues to hammer away throughout his letter to the Galatians against the false teaching that would turn the Christian message of salvation through faith alone into a performance-based religion. As he develops his case Paul can’t stop thinking about the readiness of some in the church of Galatia to turn from the gospel back to a reliance on human effort. When he reaches the beginning of chapter 3, the apostle lets out an exasperated cry that is equal parts annoyance, frustration and incredulity: “You Galatians, how can you be so stupid? You became Christians simply by believing; do you think the way to continue and grow in the Christian life is to drop faith now and go back to works?”
ARGUMENTS FOR FAITH
The third chapter of the letter to the Galatians is really a series of arguments, all of which point to one conclusion: when it comes to salvation, faith is better than works. The way to be saved from beginning to end is by trusting in Jesus Christ, by relying upon his sacrifice for sin instead of our religious activities, by depending on God’s grace and power rather than our own will power. Paul opens his argument by going back to basics. He reminds the Galatians of something they were in danger of forgetting: that the heart of the Christian faith and life is the death of Jesus Christ on the cross. Here’s Galatians 3:1:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
When Paul says that the crucified Jesus was publicly portrayed to the Galatians he is referring to the content of the preaching that had converted them to Christianity. Paul should know; he had been the preacher. Paul’s evangelistic messages always centered upon the cross of Christ and its meaning. His preaching was so focused, so powerful, so real that it was as if Jesus had been crucified right in front of the Galatians’ eyes. This is what Christian preaching really is, what the gospel really is about. The gospel is not moralism or legalism; it does not proclaim a set of principles to be accepted or rules to be followed. It isn’t “Five Steps to a Better You.” The gospel is the announcement of an event – Jesus’ death and resurrection – an event whose meaning must be understood and embraced.
I remember reading a sermon some time ago by a famous preacher. The point the preacher was making was that we need to seize every opportunity to develop our character because that particular chance to do good might never come again. How true, and how eloquently and powerfully the preacher put it across! That sermon had everything – it had scripture, it had Shakespeare, it had gripping stories, one after another. It was interesting, inspirational, memorable; it was everything a sermon could be. Except for one thing. It wasn’t the gospel.
The gospel is the news about Christ crucified for us. It is the announcement that God, by sending his Son to die in our place, has saved us when we could not save ourselves. When Paul went to Galatia he didn’t put on a self-help seminar. He proclaimed the message of the cross. He portrayed Jesus Christ as crucified before the very eyes of the Galatians, for them and in their place. He didn’t tell them what to do; he told them what God had done for them in the person of Jesus Christ. That’s how the Galatians became Christians. If they were smart they would always keep the crucified Jesus at the front and center of their faith.
Paul’s second argument in Galatians 3 in his defense of faith versus works is an appeal to his readers’ own experience. Here’s what he says:
Let me put this question to you [he writes]: how did your new life begin? Was it by working your heads off to please God? Or was it by responding to God’s Message to you? Are you going to continue this craziness? For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren’t smart enough or strong enough to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it? . . . Answer this question: Does the God who lavishly provides you with his own presence, his Holy Spirit, working things in your lives you could never do for yourselves, does he do these things because of your strenuous moral striving or because you trust him to do them in you?
Galatians 3:2-5, from The Message
The believers in Galatia, you see, had already proved that the gospel operates by faith from first to last, for that is how they first received the Spirit in the very beginning of their Christian life. They should have known better than to think that there is any other way to live as Christians. Paul can only marvel at – to put it bluntly – the stupidity of starting out the Christian life by trusting in Christ and relying on God’s saving power and then switching part-way through to reliance on your own strength and willpower and performance.
Paul’s third line of argument in building up his case that the Galatians should be relying for salvation on faith alone rather than on their own good works is the testimony of scripture. Reason and experience are both important determining factors, but for Christians the Bible must always have the last word. So what does scripture teach about faith vs. works? Well, says Paul, take a look at Abraham, the father of us all. “Consider Abraham,” Paul urges the Galatians, and then he quotes the testimony of Genesis 15:6: “‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'” Abraham, you see, was justified. He was reckoned to be righteous in God’s sight not by virtue of his good works but by faith. Abraham was credited as righteous, the Bible says, not because he first obeyed God’s law but because he first relied upon God’s word. Abraham accepted and trusted in God’s promises to him, and that is what made him acceptable to God. So he became the great model of justification by faith alone, of salvation by faith and not by works; and, Paul adds, Abraham is also the spiritual father of all who follow him in the way of faith.
THE CURSE OF THE LAW
So let’s try to gather up the threads of Paul’s argument. He first appeals to the very heart of the gospel: the cross of Christ. Authentic Christian faith revolves around the central truth of Christ crucified for us; genuine Christian experience is founded upon the realization that “the Son of God . . . loved me and gave himself for me,” in Paul’s words (Galatians 2:20). But if faith in Christ crucified is not what saves us, if instead we could earn our way to heaven just by making an effort to lead a decent life, then what’s the point of the cross? Why should Christ have had to die, if all it takes to be saved is a little decent effort on our part? If we can be saved by our works, then Christ died for no purpose. Then Paul after this argument from reason, Paul appeals to the Galatians’ own spiritual experience. How did they become Christians in the first place? What brought them the gift of God’s Spirit, God’s presence, God’s grace and his mercy? Was it their own religious performance? Or did all this come by faith, when they simply believed the gospel and put their trust in Christ? Well, that’s easy. It’s faith from first to last. Finally, Paul’s third argument is to direct their attention to scripture, to the witness of the Bible itself, the clear teaching of the Old Testament and that great model of faith, Abraham. Before there was circumcision, before all the ceremonies and rituals, the rules and regulations of the law, even before there were Ten Commandments, Abraham already knew and loved God and served him, justified by his faith.
So those are the arguments Paul puts forward in his effort to convince these wavering Christians in Galatia to stick to the gospel and to reject the false teaching that would turn Christianity into just one more system of human merit, and make salvation a good-conduct award.
But there is one more thing that must be said. If people insist on following a religion of works instead of believing the gospel of grace, they should know the truth. It is a perilous course they’re choosing, for if you choose to put your relationship with God on a business footing, you should know the penalty for failure. Paul turns once more to the testimony of the Word of God: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; as it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law'” (Galatians 3:10). God, you see, will play it whichever way we choose. If we want to try to earn our way to heaven by keeping the rules, by obeying the law, we can certainly try. The law is not hard to know and understand; we only have to live in perfect love and truth with God and all people. But the penalty for failure to keep this law in every particular is to be cursed forever by the living God.
Thank God there is another way. Jesus Christ, the God-man, has undertaken to keep the law perfectly as our representative. He has offered himself on the coss as an atoning sacrifice for sin, taking our place, bearing our curse.
Christ [writes Paul] redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us . . . in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.
Galatians 3:13-14, nrsv
All we need to do is to accept this blessing and receive the promise with believing hearts. That is the gospel.