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Warning! Live by Faith Alone: Galatians 5:2-12

By Thomas Schreiner –

Paul teaches us in Galatians that we are righteous by faith alone. We are so prone as believers to trust in our feelings instead of in the gospel. But we are not righteous by our feelings. Martin Luther remarks that we can be full of anxiety and fear in the corners of our hearts. Despair can grip us as we begin to think of ourselves. Luther writes,

‘As sinners we say to ourselves, “I feel the violent terrors of the Law, and the tyranny of sin, not only waging war against me but completely conquering me. I do not feel any comfort or righteousness. Therefore, I am not righteous but a sinner. And if I am a sinner, then I am sentenced to eternal death.”’ But Luther gives us ammunition to battle against such a view. He says, ‘But battle against that feeling, and say, “Even though I feel myself completely crushed and swallowed by sin and see God as a hostile and wrathful judge, yet in fact this is not true; it is only my feeling that thinks so. The Word of God, which I ought to follow in these anxieties rather than my own consciousness, teaches much differently, namely, that ‘God is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit’ (Ps 34:18), and that ‘He does not despise a broken and contrite heart’” (Ps 51:17).’

Works Lead to Hell

The first truth we see in Galatians 5:2-4 is that trust in our works will lead us to hell. Paul writes, ‘Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.’

The verse begins with a solemn introduction in v. 2. Paul reminds the readers of the seriousness of the situation by reminding them that he speaks with authority and absolute seriousness. If they accept circumcision for salvation, which is another way of saying that one trusts in the law or one’s good works, then Christ becomes useless. There is no compromise here. One either trusts in Christ or circumcision.

If you trust in your ability to keep the law, then Christ cannot profit you with respect to salvation. By focusing on the law, you lose Christ. Think of it is this way. If you believe that you are good enough to get into heaven, you will feel no need of Christ. You will not look to another to grant you life eternal. This is evident from every day life. If someone comes to me, and says, ‘Let me help you translate the book of Galatians’ how do I respond? I reply, ‘I don’t need help to do that. Thanks very much. I already know how to translate the book.’ If someone says to an airline pilot, ‘Let me teach you to fly your plane, his response is, ‘I don’t need your help to fly a plane. I am an expert.’ If we think we are spiritually capable of keeping the law, we don’t trust in Christ for our salvation. We depend upon ourselves and our own goodness.

But that raises a question that v. 3 answers. ‘Why won’t it work to trust in our obedience and our keeping of the law? Why is it foolish to trust in our good works to save us?’ What if we say, ‘The fact is that I am a good person! I am not stealing, murdering, or committing adultery. I am honest and honor my parents. There are wicked people in the world, but I am not one of them.’ What Paul says here is quite remarkable. Those who trust in circumcision or baptism or any good thing they do to save them are obligated to keep the entire law.

What does Paul mean by saying that they are obligated to keep the whole law? I think his point is as follows. Those who trust in their own goodness for salvation are completely deceived. They are heading down a path that is an impossible burden.

Why is the pathway they are choosing such a burden? Because God requires that we keep the whole law in order to be saved. In other words, God doesn’t grade on the curve. He requires perfection. God doesn’t allow us into heaven if we keep the law most of the time or 75% of the time or 90% of the time. No, he requires a 100% compliance. So, relying on the law is a terrible burden because we can never do what is required. It is a no exit strategy. We enter into a maze that we can never get out of. You might say, ‘This is unfair. Why does God require 100%? No one can fulfill that requirement.’ That’s exactly the point. God wants us to turn away from trusting in ourselves. He wants us to look entirely to Christ for our righteousness. And if we don’t understand why God requires 100%, it is because we don’t grasp God’s perfect goodness and holiness. We are so used to looking at the smudged mirrors of our lives that we think we are pretty good. But God’s holiness is brilliant and dazzling, like sunlight hitting a mirror. We can’t even look at the mirror because its brightness is more than we can handle.

So too, God’s goodness is matchless and infinite, and demands nothing less than perfection. And that perfection is ours through Jesus Christ. He lived the perfect life, so that we put our trust in him alone for our salvation. That is why Paul is so strong in his warning in v. 4. There is no middle way: we trust either in Christ for salvation or in the law. If we are trying to be justified (right with God) by the law we are cut off from Christ. If we trust in the law for our salvation, we are no longer relying on God’s grace. Justification is no longer a gift but based also on our own efforts and our obedience. If we trust in the law, we take away from the glory of Christ in our salvation, for if our justification is due to our work, then we get the glory and honor and praise. Then people say, ‘Tom Schreiner is a good man. He should go to heaven.’ But the gospel says, ‘Jesus Christ is a great Savior. He saves the worst of sinners.’

Let’s step back again and think of vv. 2-4. These verses were not written to unbelievers. They were written to the believers in Galatia. Paul doesn’t say that the Galatians are trusting in their works. He warns them not to trust in their works. These verses are not a declaration but a warning. And since Paul warns the Christians in Galatia not to fall back into works, we need this warning too! We also need to be admonished, so that we don’t fall back, even subtly, into trusting in ourselves. Warnings are like road signs along the way in our Christian lives that admonish us to keep driving in the Christian life in the right way. Paul warns us that if we abandon Christ and turn to the law for our salvation, then we will be damned, that we will be cut off from Christ.

What if you were to object? But I don’t need a warning like this, because I am a true Christian and I will never fall away from Christ. He has promised to keep me by his grace. I agree. He has promised to keep you by his grace. But the warnings are one of the means God uses to keep us in the good way of trusting in Christ. Warnings are not opposed to promises, but are one of the means God uses to fulfill his promises. Just like road signs keep us driving safely onto the highway, so warnings remind us to keep putting our trust in Christ.

In the last few months we had some friends staying with us and they parked a rented van in back of our driveway. I joked that one day when pulling out of our garage I would hit it. Well, one day our family had to go somewhere in a hurry. We jumped in the van and I backed up quickly. Suddenly John yelled out, ‘Dad. Stop!’ I slammed on the breaks and missed the van that was parked out back. I had completely forgotten about it being there! John’s warning was the means by which I avoided an accident. That’s how God’s warnings work too. They prevent us from falling away from Christ.

But how does a warning like this fit with the gospel? For it says that if we fall away from Christ, we will be damned. Doesn’t this fill us with fear, and impel us to trust in ourselves and to rely on our own works? God forbid! Do you see here that the Lord warns us against trusting in our righteousness and in our works? We have already seen that the sin that he warns the Galatians about is returning to the law and their own righteousness, about trusting in themselves rather than Christ. Paul isn’t teaching works-righteousness but just the opposite. He encourages the Galatians to turn away from the law, and to keep clinging to Christ, to keep trusting in Christ.

The warning, then, should not turn us to a kind of obsessive perfectionism but just the opposite. Paul warns us to trust in the cross alone for our salvation, to find our righteousness in Christ alone, to turn away from ourselves to God. The warning can be expressed this way: don’t trust in yourself but trust in Christ. Look to him alone. He is your hope, your strength, and your shield. Don’t trust in your strength, your intellect, your wisdom, or your accomplishments. Look only to Christ.

Trust in Christ Alone for Our Righteousness

The second truth we see in this passage is that we trust in Christ alone for our righteousness. We find this in Galatians 5:5-6, ‘For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.’ Paul often teaches that we are righteous by faith now if we trust in Christ. But here he looks at the judgment day, the day when all our secrets will be revealed. As believers we await that day eagerly and with confidence. We await that day with confident hope. As Paul says, we have the ‘hope of righteousness’ on that day. Hope doesn’t mean that we are uncertain about our righteousness on the last day. It isn’t like saying in August in Louisville, Kentucky (where I live), ‘I hope it won’t be too hot today.’ For we all know in Louisville that it will be blazing hot in August. But biblical hope isn’t like that. Rather, we have a sure and certain confidence and assurance that we will be declared righteous on the last day.

Yes, we are already righteous now. The verdict of the judgment day has been announced in advance. But we await the day when God’s verdict will be declared to the whole world, and when his work will be completed in us. Right now we are righteous but still sinners, but we await the day when God’s work will be completed. By faith in God’s promises we trust that God will announce to the world what is now hidden, and that he will finish the work he started in us. Luther remarked,

‘This is a very important and pleasant comfort with which to bring wonderful encouragement to minds afflicted and disturbed with a sense of sin and afraid of every flaming dart of the devil . . . your righteousness is not visible, and it is not conscious; but it is hoped for as something to be revealed in due time. Therefore you must not judge on the basis of your consciousness of sin, which terrifies and troubles you, but on the basis of the promise and teaching of faith, by which Christ is promised to you as your perfect and eternal righteousness.’

But what role does the Spirit have in all this? Why does Paul say that it is ‘through the Spirit . . . we await the hope of righteousness?’ I think the idea is that we cannot sustain faith on our own. Our faith is a miraculous and supernatural work of the Holy Spirit. What an encouragement this is to me. My faith is not ultimately something I do. Our faith is the result of the Spirit’s work in us. He is the one who grants us faith. We are righteous by faith alone and not by works. And our faith is not a work. It is the result of the Spirit’s work in us. Where does faith come from? It comes from the supernatural work of God himself.

Verse 6 confirms that righteousness is by faith alone. We aren’t righteous based on our obedience to the law. Being circumcised, going to church, reading the Bible, and being a good person do not avail before God. But neither is God impressed if we don’t do religious rituals. We can also become proud of the fact that we are not focused on externals. We may become proud of the fact that we are theologically astute enough not to know that circumcision is not required, and that we don’t keep the food laws. Works-righteousness is incredibly subtle. We may begin to think we are especially godly because we understand the doctrines of grace, and we know righteousness is by faith alone, and we reject views that are wrong. But the only thing that matters before God, however, is faith. Faith means that we trust God in Christ for everything. Faith means that we are always holding up to God an empty hand. I want to be strong and capable and a can-do kind of person. But faith alone is important because it reminds us that we are weak and needy and that we need him every hour. Do you ever get tired of the trials in your life, and look forward to the day when everything is going great? But thank God for the trials because they remind you that you need him every hour, and that righteousness is by faith alone. Luther said,

‘In the conflicts and fears that continually return to plague you, you should patiently look with hope for the righteousness that you have only by faith, though only in an incipient and imperfect form, until it is revealed perfectly and eternally in due time. “But I am not conscious of having righteousness, or at least I am only dimly conscious of it!” You are not to be conscious of having righteousness; you are to believe it. And unless you believe that you are righteous, you insult and blaspheme Christ, who has cleansed you by the washing of water with the Word (Eph 5:26) and who in His death on the cross condemned and killed sin and death, so that through Him you might obtain eternal righteousness and life. You cannot deny this, unless you want to be obviously wicked, blasphemous, and contemptuous of God, of all the divine promises, of Christ, and of all His benefits.’

And Paul tells us something else that is very important in this verse. Faith expresses itself in love. We are not justified by our love but by our faith. Faith is the root and love is the fruit. Our love flows from our faith. So, we should never say that our justification is based on our love or on any other good thing we do. But faith is a living and active thing. It produces good fruit. When we trust God for our lives, then we are freed from the worry of thinking about ourselves all the time. We are set free to love others and to care for them.

Thomas Schreiner joined the Southern Seminary faculty in 1997 after serving 11 years on the faculty at Bethel Theological Seminary. He also taught New Testament at Azusa Pacific University. Dr. Schreiner, a Pauline scholar, is the author or editor of several books including, Romans, in the Baker Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament; Interpreting the Pauline Epistles; The Law and Its Fulfillment: A Pauline Theology of Law; The Race Set Before Us: A Biblical Theology of Perseverance and Assurance; Still Sovereign: Contemporary Perspectives of Election, Foreknowledge, and Grace, co-edited with Bruce A. Ware; Women in the Church: A Fresh Analysis of I Timothy 2:9-15; Paul, Apostle of God’s Glory in Christ: A Pauline Theology, 1 and 2 Peter, Jude, New Testament Theology: Magnifying God in Christ, Magnifying God in Christ: A Summary of New Testament Theology, and Galatians.

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