Login to download lecture and curriculum
Discussion of the meaning and application of the term, "by faith alone" as it relates to the subject of justification.
I. Galatians 5:1-21
A. Galatians 5:1-6
B. Paul summarizes his argument
C. An all-or-nothing approach to the Law (verse 3)
D. Circumcision or uncircumcision is of no value
E. Faith expressing itself through love (verse 6)
F. Transitional text (verses 5-6)
G. Galatians 5:5
1. Description of judgment
2. Possible definition of faith to include works
H. Questions and answers
Lecture: Galatians 5:1-6
A. Galatians 5:1-6
Now we want to finish off this central section of the argument in chapter 5. I’m not going to debate the issue of where 5:1 belongs; a lot of the commentaries make this the concluding verse and there are a lot that make this the first verse of the next section. It is clearly transitional; it picks up the language of freedom and makes sense of it in terms of the freedom language that we had in chapter 4, but it also introduces an imperative form, the broader conclusion that Paul now wants to draw. In taking 5:1-12 as our unit, it is the place where Paul makes the final appeal in this central section that he began back in 3:1-15. The appeal was in 3:1-6 and now we have a corresponding appeal in 5:1-6 also. A lot of the same ideas and emphasis emerge here that we saw back in 3:1-6 as well. Galatians 5:1-6:
‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.’
B. Paul Summarizes his Argument
To set us free is the main verb, in freedom from the past or for freedom in the future. It depends on how we handle the Greek here. It could mean to set us free by the means of the freedom that we already have. There are a lot of legible options there. What about verse 5 where it says that we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. This is the hope of righteousness, which is a more straight forward rendering, not a literal rendering of the Greek here. Other issues involve having Paul in a kind of summary fashion bringing together a lot of the threads of the argument throughout the letter. A lot of the key words Paul has used now reappear in new combinations. Paul now wants to bring the elements of that Argument together. I have used the realm terminology here about this salvation historical scheme. A lot of scholars use the language of time, old age and new age. This is helpful and useful and sometimes I think the language of realm as it speaks a little more about living under certain authorities can be really helpful. The New Testament has a lot of say about who people are and having to live under the authority they live under, the regimes in which they live. This is a fairly standard way of conceptualizing the human condition. Here, you have the contrast between circumcision, Torah, human works, slavery and alienation from Christ. That is the old realm as it were, the realm that the agitators want to bring these Galatia Christians back to; to be circumcised and take on the obedience of the Torah, involving those human works which is really a condition of slavery and this means being alienated from Christ. This situation is an either/or situation; you can’t have both. But in the new realm, we have Christ, God’s work of grace, faith, the Spirit and love.
C. An all-or-nothing Approach to the Law (verse 3)
In verse 3 along with chapter 3:10 seem to suggest that a kind of all or nothing approach to the law. In 3:10 we suggested that there was a kind of implicit logic that God’s curse comes on those who are depending on the law because no one can do the whole law. Here, likewise, Paul says not to misunderstand, don’t let the agitators mislead you. We don’t quite know what the message of the agitators may have been specifically; I think we know generally what they are saying. They were perhaps arguing a sort of gradualism, first doing some of the things the law requires and then progressing on from there. This could have been a wedge to start them on the way of full emersion into living by the law. Paul wants to make it clear to his readers that this was a package; circumcision doesn’t have any significance unless it is tied to the larger covenant issue. And the covenant law is broad, detailed, consisting of a lot of things beyond circumcision. To be circumcised obliges you logically and of necessity to take on the whole law. You can’t just choose parts of it that might be easier or convenient or you think will be enough for the whole thing. The point Paul is making assumes a way that the law was being viewed in Paul’s day. The whole thing is God’s law. You can’t divide it up into bits and pieces and decides what parts you want to obey and what parts that you don’t want to obey. Paul makes the point very clean that if you are circumcised, you are going to be separated from Christ. You are trying to be justified by the means of the law that is going to separate you from Christ and the grace found in him. Paul is very clear that in this new era, after the coming of Christ, God’s grace is focused on and comes through him.
D. Circumcision or Uncircumcision is of No Value
I want to come back to verse 5 for a more extensive discussion. In verse 6 Paul says that circumcision or uncircumcision has any value. What is interesting here is the inclusion of uncircumcision. You can understand what Paul is saying that circumcision is nothing and has no value any longer. It is no longer an essential part of God’s covenant people. It is no longer functioning that way. But the fact he brings in uncircumcision also, sort of broadens the issue in a way. He is saying that these human distinctions are not what ultimately matters anymore. He will say something very similar to this at the end of chapter 6. There is a phrase: faith expressing itself through love or working through love. There are several ways to translate the phrase and this has had a long and controversial history. It became a kind of key debating point at the time of the Reformation. The reformers wanted to insist that faith and works were in different categories. So they interpreted the phrase to mean faith that is demonstrating itself, that is evidence in a faith, whole and complete that ultimately revealed its presence by the good works that people who have faith do. So faith, when you come to Christ is whole and complete; you have the faith and then what happens after that is the life of obedience is stimulated by that relationship with Christ. The Roman Catholics responded by saying that it was faith formed by love; a faith that only truly becomes faith when people begin to love, so that the meaning of faith itself includes this active life of love. There is not a simply faith alone that justifies and then the works come after; it is rather faith itself is only formed by and is only completed by the works that we do out of love. The Protestant interpretation seems to be the more likely here. The idea is a faith that works, faith that ultimately moves on and produces things but it is not as if the faith itself is incomplete without love or works. You really have to read that into the text rather than read it out of the text. It is still a very important point to recognize in Paul.
E. Faith Expressing itself Through Love (verse 6)
We are going to talk a little about how often Paul and James are contrasted with each other. James talks about a faith that works in chapter 2. Paul talks about a faith that works also. This is not something alien to him and would have whole-heartedly agreed with. For him also, faith by definition is active and powerful force because that faith puts us into a relationship with Christ and introduces us into the life of the Spirit which is a key point Paul will be focusing on. Verse 5 to 6 is Janus; this is another fancy word. Janus was the Greek god famously depicted as looking both ways at once. This word has been picked up in literary studies, not just Biblical studies, to talk about a text that looks both ways, a transitional text; a text that looks back at what has come before and is anticipating what comes next. Verse 5 and 6 here, I think functions this way because we now have the Spirit brought in and associated with faith and righteousness. Where the great central argument of Galatians kept talking about these words: faith and righteousness and there wasn’t much reference to the Spirit. There was no reference to love or good works, but in chapter 5:13 and following, it is all about Spirit and love and active obedience.
F. Transitional Text (verses 5-6)
Verses 5 to 6 bring all of those ideas together. So it is by the Spirit and faith that we have this hope of righteousness; and faith itself is working through love. So Paul is creating a transition in this section of the letter, beginning in 5:13 where he is going to explore these matters of the Christian life in a more general sense of what follows from the initial experience of righteousness. Paul can say fairly strong things like this and at the same time, he can say things that are very intimate, emotional and warn things as he does in 4:13-20. He wants Christ to be formed in them, he has a deep desire to become the kind of people that I know God wants you to be. Paul is a passionate person as this is his personality, but this passion to some degree is a kneed sense of how serious the issues are for these people. It is clear that Paul is saying that these agitators are preaching another gospel; it is not the Gospel at all. Sometimes our failure is not realizing how serious some of the issues are.
Paul has drawn a line here and we have to learn from the New Testament where others lines need to be drawn, especially as people can use this kind of rhetoric to justify their own ideas and views and became intolerant of any other views of any sorts. We live under repeating influences of our culture at large that says that we just all get along with teach other. Let’s not fight about anything but there are a lot of subcultures that some of us are related to or know about. They look at this tolerance that is happening around the world and they go to the opposite extreme. We feel that we have to draw these lines to either keep certain people in or out. Paul has his compassion but yet he can be argumentative; this is typical of the Greek rhetoric of his day. And this is used today even and sometimes in the next moment; this is a common thing to do when you are trying to convince people of something.
Let’s look at Galatians 5 again and try to understand what is being said at the end of the verse. The phrase in the Greek brings together two Greek words: righteousness and hope. The problem is to understand what relationship they have to each other. In the NIV, we have ‘the righteousness for which we hope.’ You can paraphrase this in other ways, the hope that consists in righteousness, so that the righteousness is what is hoped for. On this view, the verse righteousness is future. We, by faith, by the Spirit are hoping for righteousness. The other option is to take the phrase in the sense of the hope that is based on righteousness; the hope that righteousness produces in us. There is a hope for something in the future made indefinite here; there is a hope that is rooted in the righteousness we already have. Why this becomes fairly important is because it goes back to the question on justification. Is there in Paul’s thinking a future aspect of justification or is Paul being justified in something that is completely and fully done with at the point of our conversion. If we go with the first reading of this verse, then this verse would be one that suggests in Paul there is a future moment of righteousness or justification. When I wrote my Romans commentary in the 1990’s, I was looking particularly at verses 5:1, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God. Then in Romans 5:9, those who have been justified by the blood of Christ, how much more shall we be saved from the wrath of God to come. I concluded that for Paul, righteousness / justification is something entirely present. We are justified when we come to Christ and we look forward on the basis that to being ultimately saved on the last day from the wrath of God. When I started work on Galatians, this is one of the first verses I started serious work on; the more I wrestled with the verse, the more it seemed that the NIV translation is more correct. That the righteousness is more likely here; it is something that we are hoping for.
Paul hasn’t used the word hope elsewhere in Galatians and if he is saying that we have the hope based on righteousness, hope is left undefined by anything else in Galatians. There is no reference to Christ’s return; there is a reference to the resurrection of Christians; there is no content to the hope which seems an odd thing for Paul to say. In looking closer, I started to look back in Galatians 3:1 where you have this emphasis on the importance on finishing well. They have begun well by the Spirit and by faith, but the question is, how are they going to finish? I then looked back at the immediate context in verse 4 and came across the line, you who are trying to be justified by the law. It is possible to take that as past in the Galatians experience, but it looks more likely that Paul is addressing Galatia Christians who already have been initially justified, who have come into a relationship with Christian and will be tempted to use the law to achieve final justification. I looked at other passages in Romans 2:13, the doers of the law will be justified or Romans 8:33 which also talks about being justified in an uncertain time sense. That I also remembered James 2 where justification comes into play and we will talk about that as well. I think for Paul, the verdict of justification is part of his inaugurated eschatology; that is; it partakes of the well-known, already-not yet dimension of New Testament theology. In one sense we are already justified but in another, we are not yet justified. As I did my work on Galatians, I came to think that you clearly have some places where justification is something that is present in our experience. It is basically associated with the time of conversion: 3:6, 3:8, 3:21 and 3:25 and very similar to the text I mentioned in Romans.
G. Galatians 5:5
1. Description of Judgement
For others, it is a kind of general where you can’t really determine. We spent a lot of time looking at Galatians 2:16; we Jews believe that a person is justified, present tense, a general statement that doesn’t commit to a particular time. It is a statement about justification whenever it might occur and then there are these others such as 5:4-5 and also 2:17 where Paul talks about, we who are seeking to be justified in Christ; this might be a reference to a future justification. Perhaps also Romans 5:19 is included here. The status of righteousness as we now enjoy that is ours because we have been justified and will be confirmed at the time of the judgement. This gets into the issue of the judgement as well which I want to talk about in a moment. The idea of ultimate justification or the future aspect of justification is relating also to the New Testament teaching about a judgement to come. Most of us are aware that all New Testament authors, not least Paul, continue to talk about a judgement to come. Even though as Christians, we are justified by faith, we are reconciled to God, we are adopted as his children and all those good things that we should underplay at all; we still have to appear at the judgement before God. Often evangelicals say that we can reconcile all of this, present justification by faith alone. That is the final deciding point; ultimate judgement according to works where judgement simply is to determine how big our mansion in heaven is going to be. That is the ultimately judgement has to do with the degree of reward. It has nothing to do with whether we are in or out with salvation itself. I just don’t think that works; I encourage you to look at all those texts sometimes and see whether you think that idea works or not. It is a convenient way to get around what seems to be a little bit of a tension, theologically. I have come to the conclusion as I have worked through this issue fairly seriously over the past few years with the help of some of my students at Wheaton College; that there is a bit of a tension in the New Testament that is quite deliberate. That there is an assurance that we have as believers, because we have been justified by faith, bringing us into union with Christ and alien righteousness is what puts us in our relationship. That tension, along with the reality that Christians will still have to face a judgement, is when our works will come into play.
Before I conclude my comments on that, let me look at James for a moment. Ultimately, it is certainly the case that perhaps in some form of theology stemming from the Reformation, we spent a lot of time on Paul and kind of neglected James. James is a book that I have worked on as well. It has been a tendency every sense Luther’s famous Epistle of Straw kind of approach; not to spend a lot of time on James in terms of our theology. But James, along with the Gospel of Matthew, makes it clear that the life of the disciple is not something that is an option for a believer with respect to the Day of Judgement. He famously says that people are justified by works and not by faith alone and we compare that with Paul where a person is justified by faith apart from works of the law. This is the infamous promise that has been commended on, endlessly. James seems to be saying that works are necessary for justification and Paul seems to be saying that works are not involved. There are various options in understanding what all of this means. We talked about works of the law earlier. If you few works of the law in the way some of the new perspective people do, it has a kind of distinct meaning of its own which is not the same as works. So then you have bring James and Paul together where Paul says that we are not justified in terms of Torah obedience, but in James, we are justified by works and a lot of people are making that move in our day. And this ends up having works and what we do as humans being brought into our status of righteousness itself. I can’t buy into this restricted works of the law idea. I don’t think this is the way to solve the problem. The most common way to do it is to understand that Paul is talking about God’s declaration of our status, but James is talking about how we demonstrate that status. And of course James has some language in verses 18 and 19 where he says, show me your faith apart from works; I will show you my faith by my works. There is a demonstration language here. I don’t think the works finally for James because the issue seems to be salvation. There is an initially declaration by faith and an ultimate declaration or vindication by faith plus works.
Remember N.T. Wright, we circle back to that. To some extent Wright he is not real clear on this, but he provides us with language in two or three different places where he suggests that initial justification is by faith alone, ultimate justification is on the basis of the whole ‘life lived’ is a phrase that he used in one of his books.
2. Possible Definition of Faith to Includes Works
That would be a way of bringing Paul and James together; the difference between initial justification by faith alone and ultimately justification by faith and the work of the Spirit and also based on the actual life that we live. Wright also goes on to say, as being a believer in eternal security, that everybody who has been justified by faith alone will be vindicated on the last day. This is an interesting point to also include in his theology. But as I read Galatians going back to 5:5, it is by faith and by the Spirit that we have this hope of ultimate righteousness. What I think Paul is saying here in light of what he has been doing elsewhere in Galatians, Justification, whether initial or final is by faith alone. While I do think there is a final justification in Paul which has always been within the Reformation Theological thinking, at least with many. This has been a view that has been fairly acceptable and widely held for many years. But for me, as I have worked through Galatians, what Paul is saying about justification, whether present or future, does bring in this by faith alone. It is faith, not works of the law; Galatians 2:16 if we see this as an all-encompassing comment whenever it occurs and the works of the law has the meaning that I think it has, then Paul is making a point fairly clear that justification whenever it happens for the person, it is by faith apart from works; faith alone is a valid way to talk about that. So then in James to finish that up, we have to recognize that he is using his prepositions a little differently than Paul does. There are different Greek authors that use very flexible Greek prepositions in different ways. I think James is insisting that our ultimate justification does not come apart from works. It takes place in view of works. I don’t think he is saying that it is on the basis of works, but it is by means of works in the sense of ultimate justification takes our works into account which is standard New Testament Reformation teaching that comes out of Luther and Calvin and all the reformers. This emphasis that no one is ever justified, no one ever goes free in the judgement without good works.
So works and justification then and in talking about N.T. Wright, for him it is initially by faith and ultimately by the whole life lived. Another option is that it is always by faith alone, but faith gets expanded to include works. And often the phrase, the obedience of faith, is used here to justify that idea: Romans 1:5 and 16:26. I would want to argue that finial justification is always only by faith alone with faith being restricted to basic human response works as evidence. To put it another way, at conversion, there is a definitive moment of justification because I think the New Testament as a whole teaches that the initial verdict of justification will not be reversed. It is the final word and cannot be changed by anybody. But that definitive justification doesn’t erase the reality of a final justification. So when we enter into this relationship by faith alone, there is this disposition to work. Jonathan Edwards like to use this language of disposition. He is getting into some of the same issues that we are talking about here. Faith isn’t a matter of just intellectual agreement. We all know that; it is not just the matter of intellectually thinking that something is true. There is more to our faith than that. We talk about by faith alone; we have to make sure that we are giving faith it appropriate Biblical robust definition. It is a movement of the will and it involves this word disposition which is not actual obedience but instead it talks about orientation, a fundamental attitude or directly that face changes the direction of our life around and naturally then produces those works where the Spirit is working to produce as well. So, what I think we have in the New Testament is a deliberate tension, but I don’t think that it is a contradiction. But my faith alone is a vital idea that I think Paul clearly teaches wherever the justification occurs. But in emphasizing that point, we have to be very careful not to become imbalanced and fail to recognize that many New Testament passages also emphasize how vital the life of discipleship is, not just to reward but to our actual salvation on the last day. It plays an integral role that we have to recognize more than we sometimes have.
It is interesting to track historical theology here and in a sense that is what the Wesleyan reaction was all about. In Wesley’s day, he looked around and said look what the great Reformation teachings have led to; these Christian all over England who claim to be Christians by faith alone and grace alone and they could care less about having any kind of obedience to Christ. They are shadow and uncaring about any kind of life of holiness; to some extent the Wesleyan movement was an attempt to right that imbalance they saw. Too much emphasis on faith alone can lead to that kind of shadow superficial Christianity where you have all these people who claim to be Christians but don’t have much eagerness or even willingness to really grapple in leading a life for Christ. We see in the history of theology reaction; Luther and Calvin in their day had so much emphasis on works in the Roman Catholic Church, needed to highlight justification by faith alone. Wesley needed to bring a different emphasis after what he saw; Wesley talks about double justification for instant. I think as preachers, it is useful for us to emulate this to some degree as we work with our people. Part of that involves carefully understanding who our people are. You have to know whether you are dealing with people who are legalist and they need a strong dose of by faith alone or am I dealing with people who have bought into faith alone in an unfortunate way and to a degree that makes them uncaring about the Christian life. They need to hear about works and judgement in order to maintain the balance. I think I used this saying before: comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. The teaching of justification and the Day of Judgement wants to give us genuine assurance built on the alien righteousness of Christ but without leading to presumption which assurance easily leads to. There is another strand that wants to encourage us to earnestly strive for holiness, using God’s Spirit to become holy in life, but to do that without anxiety at which point we lose our assurance as a final sort of broader philosophical theological reflection.
There is a lot of Biblical teaching that come into what I am talking about here, especially in terms of what in our day is of agency. Many of us operate with a zero sum model in which divine and human agency operate on exactly the same spectrum. So, as a Calvinist, let’s say, well I think God is the one who is in charge and he is doing things and he is sovereign. That means that humans have no will or responsibility at all and if humans are the ones that are making those vital decisions and they are responsible then we squeeze out the sovereignty of God. That is what I call a zero sum model; but I think the Biblical model is a model of tension in which you have divine sovereignty which covers everything and also a reality of human agency going along with that and operating in tension with each other in a way that we can finally resolve. This might be somewhat applicable to the issue we are dealing with here; God in his provision of Christ that I enjoy by faith alone is the basis for my justification now and future. But at the same time, I am a responsible agent who must produce those works by God’s grace and through his Spirit that I need to have at the time of the judgement. That is the usual way of works as being talked about as the evidence of faith is useful, but it can suggest that our works are sort of automatic. There are many New Testament passages exhorting us to be faithful disciples and produce works that suggest that we are involved; our agency is involved in this. It is not just God by his Spirit automatically doing it, but we are by our own will engaged in this as well. There is a final justification as mentioned in Galatians 5:5. It is still by faith alone but I think there are enough passages in the New Testament that bring in works as James 2 does that we have to honor that side of the matter as well and I want to emphasize that the active works that we do must be seen in terms of the works of the Spirit. But James is neither saying that justification itself means a person is shown to be just through works; I don’t think this is what James is saying in chapter 2, but I do think that is ultimately true.
H. Questions and answers
There is clearly a condition for our salvation but it is a condition that God himself by his Spirit infallibly fulfills in and through us. Wright says that our ultimate justification is based on works; at least that is how I read him in certain key text. I want to say, no; our ultimate justification is not based on works, but instead it is based on Christ’s righteousness that attained and continues to depend on by means of faith. If there is this definitive justification why is there this ultimate moment, what happens there? Beale says that it is the public proclamation of a declaration that I have already have. We are publically proclaimed and acknowledged to be the people of God at the time of the judgement. The idea of immediate judgement of whether you go immediately to heaven or hell is difficult to understand. These are difficult questions that go beyond our comprehension and these are questions of the way time operates apart from our experience here on earth. So, for a believer who dies, for instance, they are, as Paul makes clear, in the presence of Christ but their body is not yet raised and they have not yet entered into the New Heaven and New Earth. This is controversial but I see very little New Testament teaching that we go to some place called heaven when we die. The New Testament perspective is rather that the day Christ returns, God’s people will receive new resurrection bodies and ultimately enter into the New Heaven and New Earth to live in a renewed earth with renewed transformed bodies. That is our ultimate hope. To comfort a grieving person by saying that your love one is in heaven, I can say that. In 2nd Corinthians 5 Paul says to die and to be with Christ without the body is good but it is not the best; it is not what ultimately what we hope for. There is this persistent strain of anti-materialism that we have inherited from the Greeks. Sometimes, we portray life after death in a much spiritualized kind of terms and miss the concrete realities of the Bible in terms of resurrection, New Heaven and a New Earth. Believers who die automatically will come before Christ when he comes in glory. For them, there is no time; time is suspended, it doesn’t exist for them.
My understanding of Arminian theology has always been, yes, it is a matter of ceasing to believe that becomes the issue. As long as one has faith, one is secure. But it is the potential to cease to have faith which as a Calvinist I deny can happen. I have taught in places where you have full-fledged Calvinists and Armenians together on faculty; I like that atmosphere as I believe Scripture remains a bit unclear on that. That shouldn’t be a matter that divides us, in my view. Faith is always the means by which I maintain my status of righteousness. Paul says this in Galatians again and again; that faith because it does put me in union with Christ and brings the Spirit into my life and infallibly produces the fruit of that Spirit; in other words it is the works that genuine faith produces. I cannot ultimately be saved apart from those works which is the same as being saved apart from faith that always energizes and makes vital those works. I agree with all of that and that is standard reformed theology, but I want to add something, not to subtract from that, but instead add to it by saying, yes, but those works are maybe more important that we have sometimes put them in our Reformation tradition. And I am seriously obliged to be producing those works and must be careful about complacency that a faith alone idea could lead me into. I think the New Testament continues to say for all of the great things we enjoy already as Christians, there is this decisive moment of finial justification or judgement where the books are open where the ultimate decision is made and we might want to say that this is when the decision is simply ratified that I am in Christ. But that moment is something that the New Testament keeps putting before me and attaching works to. We all will stand before the judgement seat of Christ and answer for what we have done, whether good or evil. 2nd Corinthians 5:10 is one of many verses we can site, including James 2.