In his letter to the Galatians, Paul is reviewing the core ideas and benefits of the gospel message that he originally preached to them. He also warns them against the distorted gospel brought to them by the Judaizers.
It is interesting to note that both Paul and the Judaizers had the same objective, it was their methods that were different. The Judaizers wanted to be perfect and thus be saved from condemnation and hell. Their method to achieve this was to obey the commands of the Law of Moses (beginning with circumcision) and receive salvation as a reward. Paul recognized that the way to salvation was to be sin free. He argued that the way to this perfection was to receive it as a gift from God based on one's faith in Jesus Christ.
The thrust of Paul's argument was that in living an absolutely perfect and sinless life, Jesus fulfilled all the demands of the Law. In offering His perfect life on the cross, He paid the moral debt owed to God for all sinners. Those who believed in Him received freely the same perfection that He had earned by living a perfect life.
This perfection, this absolute obedience, Paul calls righteousness. Righteousness by faith is perfection granted by virtue of one's union to Christ by faith in Him (which he later explains is expressed in repentance and baptism). This is why there is salvation in no other person but Jesus. Not because God is cruel and will not accept sincere offers of worship from other religions who have ancient and reverent worship practices. There is no salvation outside Jesus because only Jesus fulfills the requirements of the Law that is universal in its demands and condemnation. Only in Jesus can one be considered perfect and thus spared the condemnation that will come from the final judgment of God. The only access to perfection is through Jesus. That is why there is no salvation outside of Him since there is no other way to be perfect before God.
Why are faith and baptism so important then? Because it is the point where one is united to Jesus in order to be saved. This was God's way of making man perfect and no other way was to be substituted. Here are a few reasons why:
- God decreed that it would be so. Righteousness was to be by faith, not law (Galatians 3:11). God's word is what brings a principle or a thing into being and gives it legitimacy. Therefore, there is no relationship between faith and moral excellency unless God says so.
- Righteousness is a gift and cannot be earned. Man began righteous, he was created this way, it was a gift to him at creation. The new man becomes righteous again as a gift from God when he is recreated in Christ (Romans 3:23-34; 6:23).
- Righteousness by faith glorifies God and puts man solely at His mercy and into proper submission (Romans 3:27-28). God subdues His enemies with wrath and destruction (II Thessalonians 1:7-8). God brings His children into submission through grace and the offer of righteousness by faith (I Corinthians 1:26-31). Either way, we will submit to Him.
In Galatians 2:15-21, Paul establishes the idea that this righteousness is obtained through faith. Jesus' faith was expressed in perfect obedience to the Father (what we cannot do), and the believer's faith expressed in repentance and baptism (what we can do). It is because we believe in Jesus that we are united to Him and it is because we are united to Him that we are perfect according to the Law.
Now Paul goes on to describe other things that are obtained through faith, which cannot be obtained through the keeping of the Law.
Paul demonstrates that not only righteousness is obtained by faith but other spiritual blessings as well, such as the regenerative work of the Holy Spirit within them. He shows this by asking five questions to the Galatians, starting in chapter 3:
1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
Paul asks, "What is the matter with you?" They are being foolish and thoughtless in what they are doing, that is, abandoning perfection through faith to try to obtain it by perfect law keeping. How can they even think of doing this after Christ has been so plainly and publicly presented to them through Paul's teaching? The fact that Christ earned everything for them through His cross was so plainly stated and portrayed, how could they be so foolish as to discard this? Who is fooling them?
2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?
How did they receive the Holy Spirit? They were mostly Gentiles with no previous knowledge of the Law. When they heard Paul's preaching they responded with faith and received the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38). If it was not received by faith, how then did they receive the Holy Spirit?
3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
What system is working in you now? With the Spirit also came the regenerative power in their lives as they began bearing the fruit of the Christian character. They knew that this change was begun by the Holy Spirit who was received by faith. Are they now trying to complete the work of the Holy Spirit through human efforts bound to the Law? How can what was begun by the Spirit without the help of human effort be completed by human effort?
4 Did you suffer so many things in vain-if indeed it was in vain?
Was it all for nothing? They suffered for this faith through various persecutions. Paul asks if all of it was for nothing now that they are threatening to throw it all away. "If indeed it was in vain" is another way of saying that Paul cannot bring himself to believe so until it happens. He still has hope for them.
5 So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?
Where do the miracles come from? God had done signs among them through Paul when he preached to them. God had given them the Holy Spirit at the preaching of Paul. How was this done? Was it done based on their response of faith or works of law? The Judaizers did no miracles while among them to confirm their gospel, but the true Apostles with the true gospel were confirmed by miracles and signs just as Jesus said they would be (Mark 16:20).
Paul re-establishes that the blessings of salvation were obtained by Jesus because He obeyed the Law perfectly and offered His life for sin. Those who want to receive these blessing do so by being united to Christ by faith and thus share in the blessings he has obtained.
So far, Paul has mentioned two of the blessings of salvation: righteousness and the Holy Spirit, and both are received freely as one is united to Jesus by faith, not by keeping the Law. Paul reminds the Galatians how they originally received these blessings to prevent them from throwing them away.
In closing out this chapter I'd like to answer a common question that often comes up when discussing this issue of righteousness obtained by faith:
"If I am already perfect in God's eyes, why do I struggle to avoid disobedience, why do I make efforts to do good works?"
Both Judaizers and Paul struggled against sin and made human efforts to do good, the difference was why they did it. The Judaizers did it in order to be perfect and thus earn salvation. Paul said that whatever good he did was prompted by the Spirit within him and carried out as an act of faith to glorify God, because God had already saved him through Christ.
The Christian does what he does to glorify God and lift up Christ, and his faith that saves him is evident in this. Those who make no effort to serve God, deny sin, and refuse to confess Christ demonstrate that they have no faith and thus are separated from Jesus and salvation.