Justification by Faith Alone in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul argues for “faith in Jesus Christ” as the sole avenue to “justification.” (Gal. 2:16). He expresses concern that the church in Galatia has returned to observance of the Mosaic Law and rituals (e.g. ibid 1:6-7, 3:1-5, 4:10, 5:2-4, 6:15), and urges its members to despair of achieving justification through “human effort” (ibid 3:3) and to instead solely embrace “faith expressing itself through love” (ibid 5:6). For Paul, “faith in Jesus Christ,” rather than adherence to Mosaic law, is the only way to be “justified.”

Background

The “Galatia” of the church in question appears to have been a Roman province in present-day Turkey, east of the Greek archipelago and Aegean Sea and south of the Black Sea, so-named for its population of Celtic/Gallic immigrant ancestry: “Gaul” begets ”Galatia” (Erdman 15-18). There is some dispute over precisely where the church was located; it is possible that, rather than the official Roman province of “Galatia,” Paul’s addressees inhabited a region farther north (ibid; q.v. Neil 2-3). From his letter, Paul appears to have personally visited the church in his missionary efforts: in 4:8-11 Paul describes the Galatians’ conversion to Christ, then writes “I fear…that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.”

Paul’s letters were written between 50-64 CE (O’Grady 13), a generation after Jesus’ crucifixion in roughly 30 CE (Woodhead 9). This means that “the gospel” Paul refers to in 1:6-9 is distinct from the Synoptic Gospels, which were written based on existing texts and oral tradition beginning in the late first century (Woodhead 9; Grant 18, 20). Perhaps Paul isn’t refer to a concrete document at all, but rather to the “good news” of the Christian narrative in oral tradition (O’Grady 14). On the other hand, Christian writings—including those on which the Synoptic Gospels were based—were circulating at that time, so it’s plausible that Paul is referring to a text or texts which were direct or indirect precursors to the Synoptic Gospels. Paul himself complicates the matter when he says that “I did not receive (the gospel) from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Gal. 1:11). However we take this claim, it makes the relationship between the gospel Paul preached to the Galatians and the Synoptic Gospels even hazier. In short, it’s not clear how closely “the gospel” and doctrines which Paul had given to the Galatian church resemble the canonical Synoptic Gospels available to us today. We can’t be quite sure about what Paul took “the gospel” to be, and this limits our ability to compare Paul’s letters with “the gospel” which is their subject.

The Law

Paul’s primary concern in this letter is advocating for justification through faith in Christ alone, rather than through the law. To understand his argument, we need to have a clear idea of what is meant by “the law,” “justification,” and “faith.” And because Paul defines “justification” in reference to “sin,” we need to also understand how “sin” works.

Paul—himself an erudite Jewish priest—describes himself as speaking to Peter of “the law” as involving “Jewish customs,” such as circumcision and keeping separate from Gentiles while eating (Gal. 2:12-16). Later, Paul quotes a statement of Moses (Deut. 27:26), spoken on God’s behalf to “the priests,” as an example of “the law” (Gal. 3:11). Paul also contrasts the law against the “promises” God made to Abraham in Genesis 15, which Paul says predate “the law” by 430 years (Gal. 3:15-18). So Paul construes “the law” to mean Jewish customs which derived their authority from the instructions given by God to Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. This is not an unconventional use of the term; for example, in Joshua 8:31 we read of “the Book of the Law of Moses” in reference to God’s instructions to Moses on Sinai (Ex. 20:25).

The law given to Moses tends to take the form of action-imperatives. The Ten Commandments (Ex. 20) are almost entirely concerned with conduct (the ban on “coveting” excepted). Other rules include bull-liability (Ex. 20:35-36), seduction reparations (Ex. 22:16), and festivals (23:14-19). About a third of Exodus has to do with properly building the Tabernacle (i.e. temple-tent). Twice, the Israelites are warned against cooking a goat in its mother’s milk (Ex. 23:19, 34:26). The next three books follow in the same vein: for example, all of Leviticus 16 deals with the varieties of uncleanliness associated with bodily discharges, and proper methods of cleansing. Numbers 5:5-10 describe the method for atoning for unfaithfulness. Deuteronomy 4:44-45 says, “This is the law Moses set before the Israelites. These are the stipulations, decrees, and laws Moses gave them when they came out of Egypt…” and then repeats the Ten Commandments and various other rules (e.g. Deut. 12:23 repeats the warning against eating blood).

All this gives us a picture of the law: it is the intricate series of imperatives given from God to Moses to the Israelites. It is primarily concerned with action in the form of ritual: the law presents a list of Dos and Don’ts, and methods of atonement for when a law is broken. (Q.v. Blackman 1028: “Law, meaning predominantly the Mosaic legislation…”)

Sin

The law is related to sin. We can use Leviticus 4:1-2 as an example: it begins to explain what must be done if “anyone sins unintentionally and does what is forbidden in any of the LORD’s commands.” So sin, according to this passage, is disobedience to God. Sin is not an intrinsic attribute of humanity, nor an entity or force in the world. “Sinning” is a discrete action which consists of breaking God’s rules. To sin is to contradict the law, and thus be in wrong-relationship with God.

Paul uses “sin” three times in his letter to the Galatians. First, in 2:17 he says “we ourselves are sinners” and “does … Christ promote sin? Absolutely not!” In 3:22 he writes, “But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin …” (Compare to Rom. 3:23: “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God …”) And in 6:1 he refers to “someone (who) is caught in a sin.” The quotations from 2:17 and 6:1 mesh with the law-oriented concept of sin discussed above: in both instances, sin works as a discrete, transgressive act. In both cases, “crime/criminal” can be substituted for “sin/sinner” and the sentence will still make sense. But in the quotation from 3:22, when he writes that “the whole world is a prisoner of sin,” Paul seems to make a more radical claim. He seems to be saying that all human beings have contradicted the law and are thus in wrong-relationship with God.

In Gal. 3:10 Paul quotes Deuteronomy 27:26: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” Paul adds, “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law…” At first glance, this can be taken to mean that (1) Failing to obey the entirety of the law makes one cursed; (2) no one can obey the entirety of the law; thus, (3) everyone is cursed. Perhaps this explains what Paul means when he says that “the whole world is a prisoner of sin”: no one follows the entire law, so everyone is cursed, that is, a “prisoner of sin.” But in the next clause, Paul says that no one is justified before God by the law “…because ‘The righteous will live by faith,’” (a quotation from Habakkuk 2:4). Paul’s point in this passage is not that the law is unfulfillable (and thus Christ fulfils it for us), but rather that in terms of rightly-relating to God, the law is secondary to faith. That is, Paul appears to be appealing to the scriptural primacy of faith, not the impossibility of the law. This interpretation of Paul’s meaning is bolstered by the following paragraph. Gal. 3:15-18 refers to the “promise” made to Abraham, which Paul takes to preempt and supersede the law given to Moses. In 4:1-7 Paul compares humanity under the law (prior to Christ) to a child before maturity. He portrays the law as a sort of place-holder between Abraham (to whom the promise was made) and Christ (who fulfills the promise). So for Paul, in this section of this letter, the problem is not that human beings are incapable of standing in right-relation to God. Rather, the problem is that concentrating solely on the law as the method of rightly-relating to God distracts from faith, which is the more fundamental way of rightly-relating to God. That is to say, faith and the law are not exclusive, but faith supersedes the law.

Justification

Having unpacked “the law” and “sin,” we are well situated to understand the context of “justification.” Sin is just standing in wrong-relation to God, and the law is just a series of instructions which, when obeyed, ostensibly put one into right-relation with God. So perhaps “justification” is just the opposite of, or emergence from, sin. Being “justified” just means going from wrong-relationship to God into right-relationship to God.

The Hebrew root of “justification,” “just,” carries connotations of rulers and judges, and is sometimes translated as “deliverance” (Blackman 1027). According to Blackman, the OT concept of justice is redemptive, so punishments are means to “ultimate redemption” (ibid). Paul is using a Hebrew concept, but writing with the Greek DIKAAOW, which means, “treat rightly, regard as right,” and is close to “justice” or “rightness” in contemporary English (ibid 1027-1028).

Paul uses “justification” six times in his letter to the Galatians. In 2:16 he writes, “man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” In 2:17: “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it will become evident that we ourselves are sinners…” In 3:8: “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith…” In 3:11: “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law…” In 3:24: “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” And finally in 5:4: “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ.” In these six instances we can note several things. First, the opposition between justification by law vs. justification by faith is reinforced. As discussed above, Paul’s main concern in this letter is arguing for justification through faith alone. Second, the issues of Gentile Christians is present. (C.f. Gal. 28: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”) The controversy over Christian identity—whether and how much Christianity is a sect of Judaism—is the broader problem which motivates Paul’s concern over the issue of law vs. faith alone. If a Christian is a kind of Jew, then converts ought to obey the law: be circumcised, abstain from blood, etc. Conversely, if there’s no need for converts to observe Jewish law, then in what sense is Christ the messiah/anointed one? This is the larger issue behind the specific debate over law vs. faith: how inclusive is Christianity? Is it a universal religion, or is it a new chapter for the chosen Israelites? When Paul argues for justification through faith alone, he’s arguing for radical inclusion at the expense of traditional Israelite communality. It is no longer the tribe of Israel, but rather the faithful of Christ, who are God’s chosen people.

Faith

This brings us to “faith.” Again, Paul is writing in Greek about Hebrew concepts. In the case of “faith,” he uses variations of TTIOTEUW, “I believe,” and TTIOTIC, “faith.” According to Blackman, the original Hebrew word signifies “firmness” and “stability” (Blackman 222). The verb-form of “faith” throughout the NT most commonly denotes “belief in God (Christ) as almighty, as self-revealing, and as beneficent in his attitude toward mankind, particularly toward his worshipers” (ibid 223). A secondary use is faith in the sense of “trust” or “give credence to” (ibid). In noun form—which is more pertinent to Paul’s letters, e.g. Gal. 3:9 refers to “those who have faith”—”faith” means “confidence in God and trust in his power to heal and save” (ibid 224).

Pauline “faith,” then, is trusting belief in God. It is not merely an attitude or orientation, nor is it only a descriptive claim about the world. It is both of these things: the faithful believe that God is real, and has certain attributes (almighty, self-revealing, etc.), and they trust in God to justify them. (Paul seems unconcerned with faith or belief in God’s existence per se, perhaps because he takes it as too obvious to be seriously disputed: in Rom. 1:20 he writes that God’s “invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”) In Gal. 3:6-9, Paul uses Abraham as his example of faith, (accurately) quoting Gen. 15:6: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” The passage in which this appears in not the infamous “testing” of Abraham, which occurs in chapter 22 and is described as demonstrating Abraham’s “fear” (Gen 22:12) of, rather than faith in, God. Instead, chapter 15 tells of God’s promise to Abraham that his offspring will rival the number of stars in the sky (Gen. 15:5). In other words, Abraham believes that God will keep his promise. Abraham’s faith, in the passage Paul quotes, is belief that God will keep his word. Paul’s reference to this passage isn’t just a comparison; Paul explains that the faithful, those who believe in God, are believing in the same promise as Abraham, and will be blessed and credited in the same way that he was.

So this is what “faith” is, for Paul: faith is the belief that God will keep his promise, and deliver “the world,” or at least the faithful, from it’s “(prison) of sin.”

A recapitulation: “the law” is body of instruction given from God to the Israelites via Moses, such as the Ten Commandments, which is primarily concerned with proper conduct and atonement for improper conduct. “Sin” is standing in wrong-relation to God, which can be construed as being in conflict with the law; however, Paul appeals to the faith-based righteousness of Abraham and claims that faith, not obedience to the law, is the fundamental basis of right-relationship with God. “Justification” is the transition from sin to right-relationship with God. “Faith” is the belief that God will keep his promise.

What promise? Obviously, to justify the faithful—that is, God will restore the faithful to right-relationship with him. But what does this concretely entail? Paul’s letter to the Galatians is not explicit on this question, presumably because it had already been addressed in “the gospel” he had previously preached to them. Paul’s concern in the letter is not informing the Galatian church of God’s promise, but to convince them that faith is the only way to collect it. He does drop some hints, though: God’s promise to the Galatians is analogous or identical to his promise to Abraham (e.g. 3:9); it has to do with “life” and “freedom” (3:21 & 5:1, respectively); it is related to “the Jerusalem above” (4:26); it will deliver “righteousness” (5:5); it is intimately connected to “the Spirit,” which “leads” (in the same way that the law “led” or guided conduct) and bears good fruits (5:18 & 5:22, respectively). It appears that, somewhat paradoxically, the condition for a person reaping God’s promise is that they believe that God will deliver on his promise, and the condition for a person being justified is that they believe that God can/will justify them. (Q.v. Matt. 7:7-8: “Ask and it will be given to you” etc.)

So Paul’s argument to the Galatians, as we said initially, is that “faith in Jesus Christ,” and not adherence to Mosaic law, is the sole avenue to “justification” from sin.

Bibliography

The Holy Bible: New International Version. International Bible Society, Colorado Springs, 1984.

Blackman, E.C. “JUSTIFICATION, JUSTIFY” and “FAITH.” The Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Abingdon Press, Nashville, 1984.

Grant, F.C. The Gospels: Their Origin and Growth. Faber and Faber, London, 1957

Erdman, Charles R. The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians: An Exposition. The Westminster Press, Philadelphia, 1966.

Neil, William. The Letter of Paul to the Galatians: Commentary by William Neil. The Cambridge Bible Commentary on the New English Bible. Cambridge University Press, 1967.

Lapide, Pinchas and Stuhlmacher, Peter. Paul: Rabbi and Apostle. Trans. Denaf, Lawrence W. Augsburg Publishing House, Minneapolis, 1984.

O’Grady, Joan. Early Christian Heresies. Barnes & Noble Books, New York, 1994.

Woodhead, Linda. Christianity: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford U. Press, 2004

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3 comments

  1. well thank you, very comprehensive but a mistake concerning the quotation in the “faith” part, about Genesis , it is not 15:16 but 15:6 🙂

  2. Thanks for the correction!

  3. Kat. · · Reply

    Thanks

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