Summary: In Galatians 3:1-5 the apostle Paul defends the doctrine of justification by faith from personal experience.
Someone recently sent me the following story. . . .
After stopping for drinks at an illegal bar, a Zimbabwean bus driver found that the 20 mental patients he was supposed to be transporting from Harare to Bulawayo had escaped. Not wanting to admit his incompetence, the driver went to a nearby bus stop and offered everyone waiting there a free ride. He then delivered the passengers to the mental hospital, telling the staff that the patients were very excitable and prone to bizarre fantasies.
The deception wasn’t discovered for three days!
Isn’t it amazing that people can be so easily deceived? So easily led astray? So easily gullible? So easily bewitched?
I think that if the apostle Paul heard this story, he would have said, “I know some people who were once so easily bewitched. Let me tell you what I wrote to them.” We read about what the apostle Paul wrote to them in Galatians 3:1-5:
"1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4 Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?" (Galatians 3:1-5)
Shortly after I became a Christian I started attending the University of Cape Town. I lived in one of the dormitories on campus and blossomed as a new believer in Jesus Christ. I grew in my relationship with Christ and shared my testimony of how I became a Christian with many of the non-believers who lived in the dormitory with me. I told them that by simply trusting in Jesus Christ (this is what the Bible calls faith) I received the gift of eternal life.
Then one day a new student showed up at the dormitory. He also professed to be a Christian, and he also was extremely zealous about sharing the good news of the gospel. However, this student was teaching that in order to receive the gift of eternal life a person had to trust in Jesus Christ and be baptized. He was so zealous that as soon as someone agreed with what he taught he would immediately take them to the swimming pool next door and baptize them himself!
Unfortunately this student caused a great deal of confusion and even managed to baptize some believers in our Christian fellowship.
Thankfully, he did not stay long, but by the time he left, a few students in our Christian fellowship believed that, in addition to faith, baptism was necessary for salvation.
The problem that we faced as students at UCT with the false teaching of the new student is a modern version of the problem the apostle Paul faced with the false teachers in Galatia. You see, the false teachers (known as the Judaizers) taught that a person was saved by trusting in Jesus Christ and by being circumcised (cf. Acts 15:1, 5), the Old Testament equivalent of New Testament baptism.
The false teaching propagated by the Judaizers keeps popping up wherever the true gospel of grace is taught. It popped up at UCT when I was a student, and it pops up whenever someone teaches a person can be saved by faith plus works. These works can include things such as circumcision, baptism, a list of dos, a list of don’ts, church membership, and so on.
The truth of the matter is that a person is saved by faith—and by faith alone. This is what the apostle Paul is so vigorously defending in his letter to the Galatians. A person is not saved by faith plus anything; a person is saved by faith plus nothing. In fact, the entire Christian life is lived by faith alone, not faith plus works.
The doctrine (or teaching) that the apostle Paul is defending is known as the doctrine of justification by faith. Justification is the doctrine that teaches us how a guilty sinner comes into a right relationship with God.
In answer to the Westminster Shorter Catechism Question 33, “What is justification?” the answer given is: “Justification is an act of God’s free grace, wherein he pardons all our sins, and accepts us as righteous in his sight, only for the righteousness of Christ imputed to us, and received by faith alone.”
Justification is a judicial act of God, in which he declares a condemned sinner “not guilty,” on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Faith—and faith alone—is the instrument by which we receive Christ and his righteousness.