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The WELS Mission for the Visually Impaired presents The Peoples Bible – Galatians by Armin J. Panning, published by Northwestern Publishing House, Copyright 1997
With our awareness of the evils of bias and discrimination against ethnic groups, we have developed an aversion to the idea of one group forcing its culture or customs on another. We hear much about the dignity of each individual as a person and the inherent worth of his or her ethnic culture. Note, however, that Paul does not follow such logic here. Paul is not downplaying Jewish customs because he wants to uphold gentile culture. (Later he will have some negative things to say about their culture.) As important as cultural concerns are, Paul’s objection here rests on quite a different basis. His point is that before God no human work or activity has any merit. Even Jewish customs and ceremonies have no value for salvation. To force them on the Gentiles is not a cultural crime but a spiritual one. It undermines the gospel. Speaking as a Jew to a fellow Jew, Paul tells Peter:
Galatians Chapter 2, verses 15-16
“We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
The Jews had many advantages. They were, after all, God’s chosen people whom he had taken into a special covenant relationship with himself. Because of this relationship, God, through Moses, had given the Jews many regulations and directives to guide them in their everyday lives and worship.
But the Jews who truly understood the nature of this covenant with God never trusted or relied on their performance of these special regulations as the reason why God should be gracious to them. For example, when they brought their sacrifices, they did not view that as something they did for
God; their sacrifices served, rather, as reminders of God’s great promise. The sacrifice of an ox or lamb foreshadowed the real sacrifice that God had promised to make for them—the Lamb of God, who as the Savior of the world would one day suffer and die in their place.
When they were properly understood, all the Mosaic ceremonies and customs were viewed as a teaching medium—a reminder of the promised Messiah, the Christ who was to come. And the preparatory role and the teaching nature of these regulations became even clearer after Christ appeared and declared himself to be the fulfillment of all these Old Testament foreshadowings.
Hence Paul expects Peter to agree with him when he says, “We . . . know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.”
In effect, Paul is saying to his fellow apostle who was pressuring the Gentiles to keep the Old Testament ceremonies: “Come on, Peter! Even we Jews don’t trust in our keeping of Moses’ ordinances and ceremonies, because we know that our salvation rests solely on Christ’s merit. And if even we to whom the law was given don’t rely on it for our salvation, why should we pressure Gentiles to keep it?” The folly, yes, even the danger, in urging people to keep the Mosaic Law lay in their being led to put trust and confidence in their obedience and assumed merit. They would then be trusting in something that couldn’t save them, for as Paul adds, “By observing the law no one will be justified.”
That thought will receive a great deal more attention in the third and fourth chapters of the letter. Meanwhile, Paul anticipates another objection and heads it off. Still speaking to Peter he says:
Galatians Chapter 2, verses 17-18
“If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker”.
To understand this verse, we must realize that the sense in which Paul uses the word “sinners” is not the same as the sense in which he uses the word “sin.” That may require some explanation. Recall that in the previous section Paul spoke of Peter and himself as “Jews by birth” and not “Gentile sinners.”
The term sinner was a common derogatory term Jews attached to Gentiles. The Gentiles’ chief sin, of course, was that they did not observe the Mosaic Law. They ate unclean foods, worked on the Sabbath, didn’t offer sacrifices, didn’t circumcise their sons, and so on.
Paul has just finished saying that the believer in Christ is justified, that is, rendered acceptable before God. Observing the Mosaic Law makes no difference at all for justification. The law may be disregarded fairly, as Peter himself disregarded it initially upon his arrival at Antioch. But by standard Jewish terminology, nonobservance of the Mosaic Law made people sinners. By trusting in Christ and not their observance of the Mosaic Law, Christian Jews really became sinners in the sense in which that term was regularly hung on the Gentiles.
Paul now asks the question: Is this nonobservance of the Mosaic Law a real, moral wrongdoing, a “sin,” in the proper sense of the term? Or, to take it a step further, if faith in Christ allows people to disregard the law, could one say that Christ is a promoter of sin? “Absolutely not!” Paul replies.
Quite the opposite is true. Upholding the Mosaic Law and advocating it (as Peter did in weakness and as the Judaizers in Galatia were doing by design and conviction) is the real sin; that makes a person a lawbreaker. That is criminal, because it spoils the gospel and robs men of the free gift of salvation. Hence the apostle asserts, “If I rebuild what I destroyed [the Mosaic Law], I prove that I am a lawbreaker.”
Paul’s tact at this point is rather striking. Note that he shifts to the first person. By turning to his own case, he is, in a sense, taking the heat off Peter and his unfortunate building up of the Mosaic Law. Paul himself had made the same mistake. Paul had gone the route of legalism. He had been a Pharisee, bent on serving God with such fervor that he’d become acceptable to God. But it didn’t work. He could impress men, but not God. God himself had to confront him on the road to Damascus and tell him that what he was doing in trying to earn God’s favor was totally wrong. It had to be wrong because, as Paul subsequently learned to say, “By observing the law no one will be justified.” It lies in the nature of the case that no one can be justified by deeds of law, because no one can do God’s will perfectly.
Galatians Chapter 2, verses 19-21
“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”
Notice the tone of hopelessness and helplessness that shows through when Paul says, “For through the law I died to the law.” Yet dying to the law and despairing of his own ability had a very wholesome effect on Paul. It drove home to him the impossibility of earning salvation by himself and made very attractive the only possible alternative, letting someone else meet God’s just demands for him. Then Paul became willing to accept the gospel, which brought him the good news that Christ had done everything for him.
By faith Paul shares in Christ’s merit. In fact, so close is his connection with Christ that Paul can say he has been “crucified with Christ.” It really is no longer Paul who is living but Christ who lives in him. “The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Not the demands of any law but love for the Savior was moving Paul to live the life of willing obedience he now leads. Only such a life, motivated by love and gratitude, is consistent with the gospel of free grace in Christ. For if righteousness could be gained through our obedience—if justification really depended to some extent on our observing laws—then Christ’s death for us would have been in vain.
With these words Paul concludes his rebuke to Peter, and on this note he also closes the first part of his letter to the Galatians. Recall the emphasis throughout this opening section. Paul was being challenged by Judaizers who questioned his authority in view of the fact that he was not one of the original apostles, who followed Christ during his public ministry and then were formally commissioned at his ascension. Paul’s response was that he needed no connection to the Jerusalem apostles because he was their equal in every way, since he too had been called by God and formally commissioned to preach the gospel.
To support this claim of equality Paul marshaled three proofs: At the Jerusalem Council the original apostles found no fault with his teaching of a law-free gospel, for Titus was not required to observe any Old Testament ceremonies. Furthermore, the Jerusalem apostles acknowledged the trustworthiness and reliability of the message Paul preached, for they encouraged him and Barnabas to continue preaching that gospel to the Gentiles while they would continue to share the same message with the Jews. Finally, when Peter later in Antioch unfortunately departed from the message both sides had agreed on, he recognized the validity of Paul’s rebuke and accepted the correction Paul offered.
Thus, it is evident from Paul’s line of logic that both he and the Jerusalem apostles were preaching the same gospel. But just what was the gospel they were preaching? And what is the relationship of the Old Testament ceremonies to the New Testament gospel? That will be the thrust of the second main part of Paul’s letter. Here Paul will address himself to the doctrine of justification, that very important topic of how a gross and vile sinner can be accepted by a just and holy God.
End of Part Three
Paul Explains Justification—How the Sinner Becomes Accepted before God
Not by works but by faith alone
In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, there has been and will continue to be a great deal of discussion about Jewish ceremonies and the Law of Moses. That is only natural when we recall the problem in Galatia. Judaizers were urging gentile Christians to make their salvation certain by conforming their lives and actions to the Jewish way.
The fundamental error was in telling people to do something in order to secure salvation. In this case conformity to the Mosaic Law was demanded, but merit earned by adherence to any other legal pattern would have been just as damaging.
We need to keep that in mind to understand Paul’s blanket criticism of “law works.” Any deeds done to gain God’s favor are worthless, yes, worse than worthless. They are damning because they separate people from their only hope, the merits of Christ that are received by faith.
Paul leaves no doubt that these two stand in direct opposition to each other. Works are man’s doing. Faith is accepting what God has done in Christ. Paul’s thesis throughout is that justification comes not by works but by faith alone. This thesis is bolstered and undergirded by four supporting points:
1. The Galatians’ own experience (3:1-5)
2. Abraham’s case (3:6-9)
3. The difference between law and gospel
4. The promise given already to Abraham
The Galatians’ own experience
Galatians Chapter 3, verses 1-5
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?
Paul now turns to the Galatians and addresses them directly, calling them “foolish.” The Greek word Paul uses here doesn’t imply that they are ignorant or lacking in intellectual gifts. Rather, Paul’s complaint is that they’re not using the mental gifts and capabilities they do have. They really should know better!
The only explanation Paul can give himself for their folly is that they’ve been “bewitched.” The use of this term does not imply that Paul really believed in sorcery and magic and that he assumed someone had put the Galatians under a spell. It is a mode of expression such as we might use with
someone whose actions completely baffle us. We may blurt out, “What in the world has gotten into you?”
That’s Paul’s reaction when he sees what the Galatians have done with the message he preached so clearly to them. Paul preached Christ crucified. When Paul says that Christ was “clearly portrayed” as crucified, he’s using a Greek term that actually conveys the idea of putting up a poster or a placard. When Paul was done preaching, the centrality of Christ’s death on the cross was as clear as if someone had enlarged a picture of the scene at Calvary and mounted it on a billboard for all to see. There could be no mistaking that trust in the crucified Christ, and not in a person’s own paltry works, was the heart of Paul’s message.
With the centrality of Christ’s sacrifice so graphically portrayed to them and after Paul had urged them to accept this Savior by faith, Paul now directs a searching question to them. “I would like to learn just one thing from you,” he demands. “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?”
The full scope of Paul’s question becomes even more apparent if in our translation we remove the article from before “law” to conform to the original. Literally Paul asks, “Was it by law-works that you received the Spirit or by hearing with faith?” His question is, “Did you have to do anything, or was it merely a matter of receiving, of trusting, of taking what God was giving you?”
Before taking up the answer to that question, let’s look a bit more closely at what is being either earned or received as a gift. Paul asks, “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” How we understand this verse depends to some extent on what we determine to be the exact meaning of pneuma, the Greek word for “Spirit.” The original does not indicate whether it should be taken as Spirit (capital S ) or spirit (small s). With a capital S, it refers to the Holy Spirit. With the lowercase s, it refers to the spirit in man, his spiritual nature. For example, in chapter 5 Paul will speak of the battle in a Christian between the “flesh” and the “spirit.” There he is referring to the antagonism between the believer’s spiritual nature and his fleshly, or carnal, nature. Call it the new man fighting against the old Adam. In this passage also it would work very nicely for Paul to be referring to that new spiritual life that the Galatians enjoyed as Christians.
However, we really have no problem with the NIV translators’ choice of the capital S, thus referring to the Holy Spirit, for there can be no true spiritual life without the work of the Holy Spirit.
Whichever meaning we choose, the point of Paul’s question is this: When you became Christians and entered into that blissful spiritual state that became yours as a consequence of my bringing you the gospel, did that happen because you did something or because you believed what you heard? The answer, of course, was obvious. They didn’t work for their spiritual life. They didn’t launch into a program of keeping certain rules (either the Mosaic Law or any other legal pattern of works). They simply believed. They took Paul’s message at face value and rested their whole confidence in Christ’s merit.
That being the case, Paul now confronts the Galatians with another question. “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” They began without legal observances or works and had in this way received the blessings of true spiritual life with God. What a classic example of changing horses midstream. How foolish it was for them now to switch over to works of law to complete their spiritual life—a life that began so well without works or legal observances!
Paul has spoken of the beginning and the end of their spiritual life. Now he directs attention to their present state. He inquires: “Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” Actually, the Greek verb used in this verse (translated “suffered”) is neutral. Basically it means only “to experience.” The things experienced can be good or bad. The context must indicate and determine the precise shading of the verb.
From the following verse, it seems that Paul is talking about good things that are being experienced, rather than evil things suffered. It seems preferable, therefore, to have Paul ask, “Have you experienced so many good things from God in vain?
He then follows up with the good things that are still daily happening to them. He asks, “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” Note that Paul hasn’t written off his beloved Galatians. To be sure, they are under pressure from the Judaizers, whose arguments sound tempting. They may be undergoing temptation. They may even be leaning toward doing things that are foolish. But Paul gives them the benefit of the doubt. They are still children of God. God is still working in them. “How is it that all these things are happening among you?” Paul implies. They can fill in the answer themselves: not by works, but only by God’s grace in Christ that is accepted by faith.
Paul doesn’t say it. He doesn’t have to. Prudence and common sense would give the counsel: “Stay with a winner!”
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