It is hard for human beings to accept that we have nothing to put towards our own salvation. It’s not simply a blow to our own pride, it’s also a challenge to our understanding of the way the world works. Many of us have been trained to believe, “nothing comes for free.” We apply, then, this same truth to our relationship with God. Some of us know what we deserve and we cannot fathom God simply giving us grace. It’s inconceivable. That, however, is the beauty of the gospel. Paul emphasizes the free gift of grace throughout his letter to the Galatians. They were tempted to return to the law, but only faith in God’s grace will save. In chapter three he uses Abraham as the example of saving faith. The example of Abraham was meant to be a shocking reversal of expectations.
The Judaizers, whom Paul was writing against in this letter, were telling the new Gentile believers that in order to truly be acceptable to God they must become like Jews. They must fulfill all the mandates of the law. Paul’s appeal to Abraham here is stunning. He is using the founding father of the Jewish people as a witness to his own case for the supremacy of faith. By appealing to Abraham he is essentially saying, the father of the Jews would not agree with these Judaizers. Essentially that is his point in verse 6: Abraham was a man of faith. “He believed God,” Paul says, “and it [his belief] was counted to him as righteousness” (v. 6).
He shifts gears then to draw the people into the equation. If Abraham’s faith is what sets him into right relationship with God, then it is those who have faith who are truly “sons of Abraham” (v. 7). Which is exactly, Paul says, what God meant many years ago when he promised that through Abraham all the nations would be blessed, not simply the Jewish people. Faith is the key distinctive of this relationship.
Verses 11-12 paint an alternate picture. There are two ways to live: faith or works. But he demonstrates here the futility of depending on works for righteousness. The law cannot save! Timothy George breaks this pericope down into three major propositions, each with a corresponding support from the Old Testament:
- Those who rely on observing the law are under a curse, because those who don’t perfectly fulfill the law are cursed (Deut. 27:26)
- No one can be justified by means of the law, because the Bible says the righteous “shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4)
- Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming cursed on a tree for us (Deut. 21:23) (see George, Galatians, 227)
V. 14 reiterates the main point: Christ redeemed us “in order that the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles and that by faith we might receive the promised Spirit” (George).
Paul’s argument with the Judaizers is intended to make a significant impact on their understanding of the whole Bible. It should impact ours too. The idea that we ought to have faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection for us is not a development in the New Testament. It is part and parcel to the whole redemptive plan of God. From the very beginning faith in Jesus was always to be the prescribed means of salvation. The Jews had misread the Bible, and many of us today still misread it. There are many of us who are inclined to approach the Scriptures as a rule book, a legal code describing how we are to work our way to God. We approach grace still has something to be earned and salvation something to be merited. We emphasize, even after conversion, that staying in relationship with God is all about fulfilling some law. Yet, Paul’s point strikes a blow to such notions. We are saved by grace through faith! Faith is still the key, and God’s whole plan of salvation was set up to point to faith in Jesus.
When you contemplate your own salvation where do you put the emphasis? Do you put the focus on faith? Do you emphasize belief in Jesus’ finished work? Or do you emphasize your own work? Do you focus on your failed attempts to live righteously or Jesus’ perfect sacrifice for your failure? Do you focus on your good deeds as though they merit you some favor with God? Faith was, is, and always will be the key to our salvation. We are saved by faith, and God set it up that way from the beginning. Emphasize faith!