Justified From Faith
According to Paul, what identifies God’s people and determines membership in the covenant community is Jesus, especially the Messiah revealed on the cross, and nothing else! That does NOT mean the Mosaic Law serves no purpose, but it is not the basis for determining who is and who is not a redeemed son of God. Right standing before God is based on the “faith OF Jesus Christ,” not the “works of the Law.”
In the first two chapters of the Letter to the Galatians, Paul explains how he received his Gospel for the Gentiles by revelation, a commission confirmed by the leaders of the Jerusalem church, and he details how certain “false brethren were smuggled in to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus” in a similar controversy in the city of Antioch.
|[Photo by Pascal Debrunner on Unsplash]|
There, “certain men from Jerusalem” infiltrated the assembly disseminating disruptive teachings, especially the claim that it is inappropriate for Jewish believers to eat with uncircumcised Gentile disciples.
If implemented, that policy would prevent Jewish and Gentile believers from participating together in the “Lord’s Supper” and other communal meals. The pressure to conform was so great that even Peter and Barnabas were caught up in the practice. Therefore, Paul confronted Peter over his hypocrisy:
- “When I saw that they are not walking straightforwardly regarding the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of all: ‘If you, being a Jew, are living like Gentiles and not like Jews, how are you compelling the Gentiles to Judaize?’” - (Galatians 2:11-14).
LIVING LIKE JEWS
The conflict concerned the status of Gentile believers. Were they acceptable members of the covenant community without submitting to circumcision? The key phrase in Paul’s statement is “compelling Gentiles to Judaize.” The Greek verb is a strong one and means just that: “to compel, force” (anangkazō – Strong’s - #G315).
The Greek infinitive rendered “to Judaize” occurs only here in the New Testament. It is from a Greek word applied to someone who lives like a Jew. It means to adopt a Jewish lifestyle - (Strong’s - #G2450).
This was the crux of the matter. Some Jewish believers were “compelling” Gentiles to conform to their customs and practices, effectively, becoming Jews. And refusing to eat with Gentiles insinuated there was something defective in their faith, that on some level they were not full-fledged members of God's covenant people.
Paul’s opponents did not deny God’s grace or the necessity for faith. Instead, circumcision was presented as a necessary component of the disciple’s life, a requirement in addition to faith. Apparently, for them, getting circumcised was necessary to “complete” one’s faith - “Having begun in Spirit, are you now to be MADE COMPLETE by the flesh?” -(Galatians 3:1-5).
His opponents had a strong case, biblically speaking. After all, circumcision was given by God to Abraham as the “sign” of His “everlasting covenant.” Any male not circumcised was “cut off from Israel” since “he has broken my covenant.”
Because the church originated from the faith of Israel, confrontation over this matter was inevitable once the Gospel was preached to Gentiles - (Genesis 17:7-14, Acts10:44-48).
Galatians is Paul’s response to these agitators. In it, he argues why it was a mistake for the Galatians to submit to circumcision. If Gentile disciples adopted circumcision, they would place themselves under the Law with all its various rituals and obligations - (Galatians 3:10, 5:2-3).
The first disciples were Jews. Initially, the Gospel was preached only to the Jewish people but later was opened to Gentiles. The church did not view itself as a new religion but as the fulfillment of the faith of Israel. Was not Jesus the Messiah of Israel?
The question in Galatia was, What is the basis on which Gentile believers become acceptable members of the covenant people? If Gentiles were not set right with God from the works of the Law and therefore not required to submit to circumcision, What is the purpose of the Law? Paul addresses both questions in Chapter 3 of the Letter.
The immediate bone of contention was circumcision. To be full members of the covenant people must Gentiles also add circumcision to their faith in Jesus? Paul’s emphatic answer is “NO!”
The Apostle did not charge his opponents with compelling Gentiles to keep the entire Law, nor did he accuse them of repudiating faith in Jesus. The indications are that his opponents insisted on Gentiles conforming to certain requirements of the Torah, not all its regulations and rituals. This included circumcision, and most probably, calendrical observations and dietary restrictions.
Paul’s stated position is found in Chapter 2. First, he presents what he holds in common with his opponents (verses 15-16). Second, he summarizes the areas of disagreement (verses 17-21). He begins by explaining the basis on which a man is acquitted before God:
- (Galatians 2:15-16) - “We ourselves by nature Jews and not sinners from among the Gentiles, know that man is not declared righteous on the basis of the works of the law but through the faith of Christ Jesus; even we believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be declared righteous on the basis of the faith of Christ and not on the basis of the works of the law; because from the works of the law will no flesh be declared righteous.”
It begins with an emphatic pronoun - “we ourselves.” Rather than a rhetorical statement, Paul states something on which he and other Jewish believers agree. A man is not put in right standing with God “from the works of the Law but from the faith OF Jesus Christ.” That is common ground.
The Greek does not read “by faith in Jesus,” but, “from the faith of Jesus.” It refers to something that Jesus had or did.
The noun can be rendered as his “faithfulness.” Most likely, it is shorthand for his faithful obedience unto death, and this understanding is confirmed in verse 21 (“I live by faith, the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up on my behalf”).
Acquittal before God is based on Christ’s act of obedience, not on the Torah or the deeds it requires. The agitators want to add things to that faith. Paul reminds his audience that these same Jewish believers also responded to the Gospel by putting faith in Jesus (“even we believed in Christ Jesus”). Exercising faith is how the disciple responds to the “faith of Jesus.”
The underlying issue is NOT good works in general or human effort, but a specific category of works, the works of the Law, the deeds and requirements stipulated in the Torah. Elsewhere, Paul speaks of the necessity of good works and even refers to “the law of Christ” - (Galatians 6:2, 1 Corinthians 9:21).
In this context, the “works of the Law” can only refer to the things required by the Torah. Next, Paul presents the key areas of disagreement:
- (Galatians 2:17-21) - “Now, if in seeking to be set right in Christ we ourselves also were found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if the things that I pulled down these again I build, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For I, through the law, died to the law that I might live to God. With Christ have I been crucified; and I am living no longer, but living in me is Christ, as long as I now do live in flesh, I live by faith, the faith of the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up in my behalf. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if through the law is righteousness, then Christ died without cause.”
Probably, the agitators are claiming that if the Law does not regulate the Assembly, then moral anarchy will result. But that would make Jesus responsible for all subsequent sins, a false charge Paul adamantly rejects.
To return to the Law after being freed from its jurisdiction and “curse” is the real transgression. By rebuilding the former way in which one walked, the disciple transgresses by stating that Jesus died in vain. That is a transgression of the worst sort since it declares the death of Jesus insufficient to acquit a man before God.
The disciple of Christ has “died to the Law” on the cross (“I through the law died to the law that I might live unto God”). In Paul’s parlance, dying to something means ceasing to have any relationship with it. The crucifixion of Jesus releases believers from the Law’s jurisdiction and its potential curse.
What defines the people of God is identification with Jesus and his act of faithfulness in his death on Calvary, not circumcision or submission to the other regulations and rituals of the Torah. Right standing before God is based on the “faith of Jesus,” and not on the works required by the Law of Moses.