Galatians 3, the promise of salvation by faith as given to Abraham and James 2, the seeming contradiction with James. The purpose of the Law of Moses. The danger of adding conditions to the gospel of salvation by grace through faith.

Let’s start with Galatian 3:6-14 6 [j]Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, [k]be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. The Scripture, foreseeing that God [l]would justify the [m]Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with [n]Abraham, the believer.

10 For as many as are of the works of [o]the Law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to perform them.” 11 Now that no one is justified [p]by [q]the Law before God is evident; for, “[r]The righteous man shall live by faith.” 12 [s]However, the Law is not [t]of faith; on the contrary, “He who practices them shall live [u]by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a [v]tree”— 14 in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might [w]come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.

I don’t think we talk enough about Christians being the sons of Abraham, the father of believers. The promise that all nations (that brings us Gentiles in) would be justified by faith, just as Abraham was justified by faith. Paul goes on in Gal 3:16 to say that the seed promise (Gen 22:16 in your seed shall all nations be blessed) was fulfilled in one seed, or descendant, i.e. Jesus Christ. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. God had great plans for his chosen nation, Israel (the Jews), but his final plan was to bless both Jew and Gentile through one of Abraham’s special descendants, Jesus Christ. The Old Covenant had may physical blessings for Israel if they would obey Him (which usually they did not obey Him), but the New Covenant is about spiritual blessings, the forgiveness of sins primarily. Those spiritual blesssings are available to Jew or Gentile through faith in Jesus, not through the keeping of the Law of Moses. When a Gentile is saved by faith in Jesus, he/she becomes a “son of Abraham”, a spiritual child of Abraham. He/she has imitated the faith of Abraham. In Genesis 15:6 God promised him that he would have many descendants, as the stars or sand on the shores, and Abraham believed. It was then that God reckoned it to him for righteousness, declaring him to be righteous in God’s eyes even though he was unrighteous. That is called reckoned righteousness (see my blog article). Paul, in Romans 4:1-6 says that was when God declared him righteous: 4 What then shall we say that Abraham, [a]our forefather according to the flesh, has found? For if Abraham was justified [b]by works, he has something to boast about, but not [c]before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness,

Abraham would go on to prove his saving faith by his works. 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? 22 You see that faith was working with his works, and [s]as a result of the works, faith was [t]perfected; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled which says, “And Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness,” and he was called the friend of God. 24 You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone. (James 2:21-24). It seems almost contradictory for James to use the same verse as Paul did (i.e. Genesis 15:6) to say he was justified by works, not faith alone. This seeming contradiction is what caused Martin Luther to wan to reject the book of James. James does not contradict Paul. Paul is saying that the basis of Abraham’s salvation was his faith, not his works. We are saved 100% by grace through faith, not works. But if it is by grace, it is no longer [d]on the basis of works, otherwise grace is no longer grace (Romans 11:6). In Philippians 3:9, Paul defines this salvation on the “basis of faith”, not our own righteousness: and may be found in Him, not having a righteousness of my own derived from the Law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith,

James, the Lord’s brother and author of the epistle of James, did struggle with the issue of Gentiles keeping the Law of Moses. In Galatians 2, some men from James went to Antioch and caused quite a problem. They persuaded the Jewish Christians to quit eating (basically a very serious withdrawal of fellowship) with the Gentile Christians. Even Peter and Barnabas were caught up in this, for which Paul rebuked Peter to his face. 11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he [i]stood condemned. 12 For prior to the coming of certain men from [j]James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing [k]the party of the circumcision. 13 The rest of the Jews joined him in hypocrisy, with the result that even Barnabas was carried away by their hypocrisy (Galatians 2:11-13). Paul rebuked Peter to his face. He told him that when he made such eating issues as a test of fellowship with the Gentile Christians that he was no longer trusting in the grace of God that should cover such issues. BTW that has happened repeatedly in Christian fellowships over the centuries.

Did James not understand that all men are saved on the “basis” of grace through faith, not works? Well, in Acts 15 there was a great council to decide if Gentiles converts had to keep the Law. James actually spoke up and said they didn’t. 13 After they had stopped speaking, [e]James answered, saying, “Brethren, listen to me. 14 Simeon has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. 15 With this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written,16 ‘After these things I will return, And I will rebuild the [f]tabernacle of David which has fallen, And I will rebuild its ruins, And I will restore it,17 So that the rest of [g]mankind may seek the Lord, And all the Gentiles [h]who are called by My name,’. He went on in Acts 15 to say the Gentile converts did not have to be circumcised although he said they should do a few things, mainly to keep from offending Jewish brethren, such as eating blood. In our time in Trinidad, West Indies, we observed eating of blood sausage and blood pudding, but it wasn’t an issue. If there were Jewish Christians in Trinidad, it might have been an issue. So, it seems strange that in Acts 15 James is outspoken in saying that the Law should not be made a test of fellowship with Gentile Christians and yet in Galatians 2 men from him made a command from the Law (not to eat unclean meats) a test of fellowship. Apparently James struggled with fully applying the principles decided by the council in Acts 15, even though he endorsed them.

Again, this has happened many times in Christian fellowships through the centuries. Many good preachers have made minor issues to be tests of fellowship even though they would agree that we are saved by grace through faith, not works. Maybe they do that with ulterior motives to obtain power and control over others. Maybe they just believe in obedience to the Lord’s commands so much that they get carried away. Either way, they should be rebuked to the face for their legalism and for causing splits in the body of Christ.

Back to James 2, we can see how James would have emphasized works based on knowing his tendencies. But what he says in James 2 is not a contradiction with Paul. James is simply saying that saving faith is perfected by works and that “faith alone” will not save. He is stating a practical truth. It would be easy to take Paul’s statements and say, “just believe and you will be saved and it can’t depend on you doing works after that”, which is basically what Calvinism says. In Romans, Paul is dealing with Judaizers who are making the Law a test of fellowship with Gentile Christians, so he hammers on salvation by grace through faith not works. Bu James is dealing with Christians in congregations who apparently were not as obedient as they should be in many issues, and so he stresses that saving faith is perfected by works, and salvation is by works, not “faith alone”. So both statements by Paul and James are true. The context clarifies the meaning and intent of each statement.

We seem to always end up with extremes in Christian theology, don’t we? In Calvinism, we see the extreme of grace only. Calvin said it would be good for one of the saved elect to quit being a drunk, for example, but not really necessary for him to quit to be saved. He said that salvation does not depend on man’s works at all: it must be all God’s grace and God’s grace is magnified when it saves a man who continues to sin. That’s taking Paul’s teachings to the extreme and contradicts many Scriptures. Then there is the other extreme: the James’ extreme, making minor issues a test of salvation and fellowship. Issues like instrumental music, which day to worship on, frequency of taking the Lord’s Supper, etc. When you think that grace won’t cover disagreements over issues like that, you apparently have gone to trusting in your own understanding and obedience on such doctrines more than trusting the grace of God. Keep whatever law it is according to your conscience, but don’t impose that as a test of fellowship on other believers (as in Galatians 2 with James).

Let’s get back to Galatians 3! 15 Brethren, I speak [x]in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s [y]covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds [z]conditions to it. 16 Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. 17 What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. 18 For if the inheritance is [aa]based on law, it is no longer [ab]based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise. 19 Why the Law then? It was added [ac]because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the [ad]agency of a mediator, until the seed would come to whom the promise had been made. 20 Now a mediator is not [ae]for one party only; whereas God is only one. 21 Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness [af]would indeed have been [ag]based on law. 22 But the Scripture has shut up [ah]everyone under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

Having stressed that the promise of salvation to Jew and Gentile goes back to “the gospel preached to Abraham”, his next discussion is quite logical. So why was the Law given then? If it is really all about faith, then why even add the Law 430 years later? He goes even further. The Law added later cannot change the basis of salvation through faith. The Law can’t change that basis to salvation by works. Again, pay attention to the word “basis”. He always required obedience, but the basis of salvation has always been God’s grace, not man’s works or righteousness. Otherwise, Paul says Christ died in vain: 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through [u]the Law, then Christ died needlessly.” (Galatians 2:21). The Law can’t “set aside or add conditions” to the promise of salvation on the basis of faith as promised to Abraham. For example, if you take out a 30 year mortgage with a bank at a fixed rate of interest. Years later, you can’t just change that rate of interest or the conditions of the loan without the consent of the bank. God is the one who established the basis of salvation to be by grace, not Law or works. He would have it no other way, or else salvation would be impossible since man cannot keep the Law perfectly. Also, if man could saved himself by keeping Law (as Pelagius claimed), then God is not glorified and Christ died in vain. So God would never give a Law 430 years later that would change the basis of salvation as promised to Abraham.

So, why then was the Law added? This may be my oversimplification, but it was added to convince the Jews that they needed grace. Or at least, that was God’s intent. And not just a few laws. God added so many laws that should cause a Jew to see how sinful he was. Hopefully, a Jew would end up saying, “no one can keep all these laws!”. Then, when Jesus brought grace, he would be so grateful and ready to receive that grace. 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth [p]were realized through Jesus Christ (John 1:17). Unfortunately, the Jews used the Law as a means of establishing their own righteousness, and felt so self-righteous that they did not see the need for grace when Jesus came. Paul comments on this in Romans 9 and 10 in depth. 30 What shall we say then? That Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, attained righteousness, even the righteousness which is [t]by faith; 31 but Israel, pursuing a law of righteousness, did not arrive at that law. 32 Why? Because they did not pursue it[u]by faith, but as though it were[v]by works (Romans 9:30-32). For not knowing about God’s righteousness and seeking to establish their own, they did not subject themselves to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the [a]end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Romans 10:3,4).

It is must be frustrating to God to see how churches and preachers have added conditions to the new covenant of grace. They may mean well, but they end up making the new covenant of works not faith. There are some basic commands under the new covenant which are essential, such as belief that Jesus is the Son of God, the only propitiation and atonement for our sins. Also, a sincere effort to not practice sin (sin as defined by God), and the command to love (1 John gives these 3 conditions of fellowship with God and with other believers). But even when we obey these 3 conditions of salavation, we are still saved on the basis of grace, not works. In Galatians 4, Paul speaks of the necessity of “faith working through love”. He is not making salvation by works in saying that. He is talking more like James in James 2. If your faith doesn’t cause you to love as a general tenor of your life, then it is not really sincere saving faith. In Galatians 4, he goes on to say that a true believer will not “practice sin”: Galatians 5:24 that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. He is not saying making salvation by works or by our own righteousness in saying that. Like James, he is saying that if your faith doesn’t cause you to try to quit sinning then it is not really sincere saving faith.

Most Christian groups would agree with these “conditions” of being saved by grace through faith, but hen they add all kind of commands as conditions of salvation or fellowship in their group. For the Seventh Day Adventists, it is the observance of the Sabbath, although that was a command given to the Jews and not to Gentiles (Exodus 31:13-17: 13 “But as for you, speak to the sons of Israel, saying, ‘You shall surely observe My sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations. They argue that is was a command given to Adam, Abraham, and to Gentiles in general, but I disagree with that. I believe that under the new covenant, all days of the week and year are holy to God. But if an Adventist feels that he/she should keep the sabbath, then he/she should keep it. But don’t make that a test of fellowship with those who believe that it was a command for the Jews and not for Gentile converts. Often churches come up with creeds and anyone joining that church must comply with their creed. Often those creeds add conditions based on human interpretation of minor doctrines.

In the church I was brought up in, the Church of Christ, we did this. We might have meant well, seeking to obey God’s laws fully, but we ended up making minor doctrines and issues as tests of fellowship with all the other other Christian groups. I remember as a youth the preacher using Galatians 1:6-9 to condemn all the other Christian groups: I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you [c]by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another; only there are some who are disturbing you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel [d]contrary to what we have preached to you, he is to be [e]accursed! As we have said before, so I say again now, if any man is preaching to you a gospel [f]contrary to what you received, he is to be [g]accursed! The preacher said that the other groups were preaching an accursed gospel because they allowed instrumental music in worship, didn’t keep the Lord’s Supper every Sunday, didn’t have the right name on their sign, didn’t have the Biblical form of church government, etc. What the preacher didn’t realize is that he was the one violating Galatians 1:6-9. He was the one preaching an accursed gospel by making these issues a test of fellowship with other Christian groups. Paul makes it clear that the accursed gospel he spoke of in Galatians 1 was that of making circumcision a test of fellowship with Gentile converts. It wasn’t that if a Gentile convert chose to keep circumcision or not. Galatians 5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, The accursed gospel was making circumcision a test of fellowship with other believers. It was my church, not the other Christian groups or denominations, that was preaching the accursed gospel by making minor issues as a test of fellowship. And yet we as a group felt so self-righteous as if we were the only ones preaching the pure gospel! Most preachers in my church felt they were defending the truth, but that doesn’t justify the harm they were doing to the gospel.

Paul says in Galatians 3 that if there was ever a perfect law, it was the law of Moses, but the problem was that men could not keep it perfectly, and it did not provide for ultimate forgiveness of sin. What shall we say then? Is the Law sin? May it never be! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except [e]through the Law; for I would not have known about [f]coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not [g]covet (Romans 7:7). The sacrifices in Leviticus 1-7 did provide for “atonement” for sins, but that was just to keep them in good standing with the Law as a Jew. For example, if I pay a fine for speeding, that keeps me in good standing with the laws of the land, but it doesn’t forgive me of the sin of speeding! I have to appeal to God’s grace for that forgiveness. Maybe I should have used an example of a sin that we don’t all commit regularly! Men like David understood that even while living under the Law: 16 For You do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; You are not pleased with burnt offering.17 The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; A broken and a contrite heart, O God, You will not despise (Psalm 51:16,17). David knew that the basis of salvation could not be by animal sacrifices. Church groups and preachers today keep trying to come up with the perfect list of commands and doctrines that must be believed and obeyed, but what they end up doing is making the new covenant a law of works, nto grace. They make the new covenant a law of works, just like the old covenant, the only difference being the specific laws that must be kept but kept perfectly in order to be saved.

Well, that was a lengthy discussion! I started out just wanting to discuss Galatians 3 but it just kept growing! I hope it has been worth your time if you read the whole discussion.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s