If a person – a Gentile convert – goes back to the law and becomes circumcised, this person has fallen from grace and is re-introducing again the barrier that was broken down by the Messiah and is again separating Jew and Gentile by the old covenant identity of circumcision because the only basis of fellowship for both Jew and gentile is in the Holy Spirit and the hope of righteousness that results from faith (Gal. 5.2-6 ). But if we live by the Spirit we will become expressions of the one to whom we belong, the Messiah, and we will not fulfil the desires and passions of the flesh (Gal. 5.16) but the Spirit will transform us into his image and likeness and we will exhibit in our life the fruits of a practical righteousness (Gal.5.22-23).
Before his conversion on the Damascus road (Acts 9.1-19), the apostle Paul would have found the idea of a crucified messiah abhorrent because of Deuteronomy 21.23 (‘for he that is hanged on a tree is accursed of God’). His encounter with the risen Jesus led him to build his case for justification by faith from the presupposition that Jesus’ death on the cross was a substitutionary atoning sacrifice for sin.
Paul’s contention against the false brethren or ‘judaizers’ in his letter to the Galatians is that they require Gentile converts to submit to the law and be circumcised in order to avoid persecution for the sake of the cross. John Calvin says that Paul’s mode of argumentation in Galatians is dialectical and can be reduced to four propositions:
- Everyone is required to keep the law perfectly;
- No one is able to keep the law perfectly;
- All who rely on the works of the law for salvation are under a curse (Gal 3.10 ; Deut 27.26);
- Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law when he became a curse instead of us.
Paul uses ‘the curse’ as the analogy in this syllogism to demonstrate that righteousness or justification came by faith in Christ and not from obedience to the law which can only bring a curse to sinners.
In Galatians 2 we read that Simon Peter was content to eat with uncircumcised Gentile Christians until certain Christians had arrived from James in Jerusalem who were zealous for the torah. Because of fear, Peter separated himself from the Gentile Christians, so Paul confronted him. The central issue that arose is whether it is right for Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians to enjoy table fellowship. The doctrine of justification by faith only and not by works of the law is the doctrine that provides the answer to this very important question.
Paul provides three reasons why works of the law cannot justify:
- God has re-defined his people as those who have faith in the Messiah who fulfilled the law and obeyed it perfectly and died as the perfect sacrifice on the cross on our behalf. This is the new covenant in his blood.
- Works of the law will never justify because what the law does is to reveal sin and nobody can keep it perfectly.
- The law cannot justify, because the law imprisons everything under the power of sin and acts as a guardian for those who are immature and under the slavery of sin until the coming faith that is to be revealed in the Messiah (Gal.3.23).
The divine answer to the problem of human sin and the division between Jew and gentile lies in the covenant promise made by God to Abraham in Genesis 15.5-6 (Gal.3.6) to bless the whole world through his seed by faith, and so by the same faith that Abraham exercised, Gentiles would become the seed of Abraham (Gal. 3.29) and be united with Jews into one body through the gospel (Eph. 3.6).