We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Understanding And Applying the Text
Paul states in no uncertain terms man is not justified by the works of the law. There is a heresy floating around the church that says if the Jews had kept the law they would have been saved. It is because they did not keep the law that Christ needed to come to die on the cross. Since they did not keep the law there needed to be a new dispensation. Paul denies that in strong terms. The law does not and cannot justify. It never did because it could not. It is through faith and faith alone, that we are justified.
Luther in his commentary on Galatians makes this statement.
“For the sake of argument let us suppose that you could fulfill the Law in the spirit of the first commandment of God: ‘Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God, with all thy heart.’ It would do you no good. A person simply is not justified by the works of the Law.”
Living a good moral life does not save a person. There have been many good moral men and women who have lived moral lives. But the fact that they lived moral lives did not save them. We are justified through faith in Christ alone.
Starting in verse 17, (“But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not!”). Paul’s argument may be difficult to follow. Paul is using a Hebrew phraseology. He does the same thing in II Corinthians 3. Paul is saying, since we are justified by Christ and not the law, if we observe the law in order to be justified or to maintain our justification, Moses becomes our savior. Christ becomes a minister of sin. That is blasphemy.
The law requires perfect obedience. It condemns anyone who does not do the will of God. No one can render perfect obedience. The law cannot justify. The law reveals our sinfulness. As the law reveals our sin, it fills us with the fear of death and condemnation. The law then causes us to realize that God is angry with us. If God is angry with you, He will destroy and condemn you forever. Once you have reached this point of despair the law has done its job. All you can now do is trust in Christ. There is no righteousness in you. But once you trust in Christ, your sin is taken away. The wrath of God and His condemnation are also taken away. We are dead to sin but alive in Christ. Once Christ justifies us, the law can no longer condemn us.
Paul explains true Christian righteousness is not our righteousness, it is Christ’s righteousness. Good works are not the cause, but the fruit of righteousness.
When Paul says, “I… if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” He is preparing for the second argument of his epistle. That argument is, that if we seek justification by works, we are rejecting the grace of God. The law is good and holy, but it does not justify. To attempt to keep the law to be justified means we reject grace and deny Christ. There is no greater sin than to reject the grace of God and refuse the righteousness of Christ. But there is also no more common sin.
Paul now goes into his Colombo impersonation. “There’s just one thing I don’t understand.” Paul asks the Galatians how they received the Spirit. Did they receive the spirit by doing good works? Or did they receive the Spirit by hearing the preached word of God with faith? The answer is obvious; it was by hearing the word of God with faith. That is it, by faith and only faith. The Spirit is not received by works. If it were by works, we would not need the death of Christ to receive the Spirit. Justification by faith alone is Paul’s point. He states it forcefully and repeatedly. We always think it is too easy. We think that surely we have to do something to have righteousness. But we receive both righteousness and the Holy Spirit by simply hearing of the Gospel. What a God!
Paul goes on to argue that righteousness through faith is not new. God declared Abraham righteous. Abraham did not have the law when God declared him righteous. Abraham was declared righteous by faith. Genesis 15:6: “And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Abraham had done nothing to earn righteousness. When God called him, he was an idolater, Joshua 24:2. Circumcision came after Abraham was accounted righteous. Circumcision was not the cause. There are other examples of justification by faith as well, Job, Nineveh, and Naaman. It is faith through which God declares righteousness. It has always been that way.
Paul’s argument goes like this. “Hey, Galatians do you understand how Abraham was justified? The man these false teachers are relying upon. Abraham was not justified because he left his home, family, country. Nor was he declared righteous because of circumcision or he was ready to sacrifice his own son. God justified Abrahma through faith. Check it out yourselves. And oh, by the way, do you remember Ishmael? He was the first born and by rights he should have received the blessing. But it was Isaac who received the blessing. Isaac was the son of promise and faith. It is the children of faith who are the real children of Abraham. It is not those who have a simple genealogical association.”
So what must you do to be saved? Nothing! We can do nothing. God changes the heart. Once he does then we exercise the faith he has given us. (Eph 2:8-10) We can only rely on Christ and Christ alone for our justification.
During the Reformation, Luther preached justification by grace alone through faith alone. Roman claimed that God could not simply declare someone righteous who is not righteous. That would be a lie. God can not lie. But Roman was denying the power of the word of God. God is not saying we are righteous when we are not righteous, we are truly righteous. We are truly righteous because God declares us righteous. Whatever God declares is so. He spoke and the universe was created. He speaks and declares us righteous so we are righteous through faith.
To be clear here, Paul does not say the law is evil. And he is not saying we must not teach the law. We need to teach the law. But we are not justified by the law. When the discussion is concerning works, we talk about the law. But Paul is talking about justification. We are not justified by the law, only through faith. Paul does not reject good works. They are not the vehicle through which we receive justification. Good works are good. But they do not justify. The law is a good thing. It helps constrain evil. It convicts us of our sin. It tells us how to live. But, it does not justify.
We fast and pray but that does not justify. We feel we must suffer to be worthy of such a gift. But scripture is clear. Nothing you do makes you worthy. You cannot appease the wrath of God. You will never deserve God’s grace. In fact, by trying to do something to be worthy of the grace of God is an attempt to rob God of His glory. Faith alone brings honor to God. Faith alone brings honor to God. It is God’s work that counts faith for righteousness. And that faith is not even yours. It too is a gift from God. (Eph 2:8-10)
Two things make for Christian righteousness. Faith in Christ and God’s acceptance of this imperfect faith. What have we added? Nothing. Because of faith in Christ, God overlooks your distrust, unwillingness of your spirit, and your sins. Because you live by the faith in Christ’s atoning sacrifice you have no fear of the wrath and justice of God. You can never be perfect in this life, but you can be holy.
Recently there was a popular saying WWJD, What Would Jesus Do? While imitation of Christ is something we should do. We must never forget that mere imitation will not satisfy God. We are sinners. God punishes sin. To follow the Christ’s example, to love one another, to do good to those who persecute you, to pray for your enemies, to patiently bear the ingratitude of those who return evil for good, is indeed praiseworthy. But simply being praiseworthy does not acquit us before God. It takes more than that to make us righteous before God. We need Christ, not His example, to save us.