Summary: We are not justified through works of the law, but through faith.
Text: “Know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:16).
Message: As Christians, we are saved by faith not by religious works.
Doctrine/Teaching: Justification through faith.
Response: To trust Christ alone for salvation, not one’s own religious works.
A. Religion tells people to earn merit through works.
1. Once, when I was in Pakistan, I saw a man with a flock of birds in a cage. Another man came and bought a bird. I thought he was buying the bird for his kids to play with, but to my surprise, he immediately set the bird free. My translator explained that some people in Pakistan believe that setting a bird free is a good deed that erases a previous bad deed. They look for forgiveness through the ritual of setting birds free.
2. On another trip, I was in Ethiopia. The week before our team arrived in the city of Chuko, the townspeople sacrificed nine cows. They felt this religious ritual would give them favor with God.
3. In the nation of Nepal, the birthplace of Buddha, I visited the famous Monkey Temple that stands on a hill overlooking the city of Katmandu. I saw an old man diligently spinning prayer wheels. I witnessed a woman offering rice to a statue. I saw an old monk burning incense. These individuals were trying to earn merit through human effort.
4. To many of us, it may seem strange to think that setting one animal free or killing another, that spinning wheels, offering rice, or burning incense could affect one’s status with God. But, beliefs like this are common all over the world.
5. A common trait of every religious tradition is the need to perform a “special deed” or a “sacred ceremony” in order to be blessed by “the gods”: Muslims pray towards Mecca five times each day; Hindus offer incense to idols; Buddhists go on long pilgrimages. And for most religions, being on “god’s” good side requires a lot more than one or two simple rituals—there are whole lists of “to do’s”: Buddhists follow an eight-fold path, Hindus believe in karma, Jews keep the Torah, and Muslims impose Sharia law.
B. Even the religion of Christianity tells people they can earn merit through works.
1. Each religion asks its followers to do special deeds and good works in order to keep “the gods” happy, to avert divine or cosmic wrath, and to atone for sin. Through these means, religion makes spiritual discipline the key to a successful walk with God. Spiritual disciplines include things like fasting, prayer, penance, alms-giving, serving in the community, and generally doing good. As a person does all these things (and whatever other things in terms of moral laws and ethical codes that religion requires), religion promises the rewards of divine blessing and favor, with the ultimate reward being some form of “eternal life.”
2. Unfortunately, even Christianity has been turned into such a religion. The Christian “religion” often tells people they have to perform a special task in order to be blessed by God, to be saved from sin, and to be rewarded with eternal life.
II. Justification does not come through the works of the law.
A. The Background of the Book of Galatians
1. Galatians has been called the “Emancipation Proclamation for Christians.” Just as Abraham Lincoln proclaimed all American slaves free, so Paul sets free those who have been enslaved to the Law. Twelve times in this letter Paul uses the word “freedom” or “liberty.”
2. Paul initially visited the region of Galatia (part of modern Turkey) during his first missionary journey. He went to the cities of Pisidia, Iconium, and Lystra in order to encourage the churches there (Acts 14:20-21). Paul’s second missionary journey took him once more through the province of Galatia on the way to Mysia and Troas (Acts 16:7-8). Galatians was written either during or just after this second missionary journey.
3. Galatians was written because Paul was angry. The Gospel of grace was in danger. Paul had personally led many of the Gentiles from the region of Galatia to the Lord. He taught them that salvation comes by faith in Jesus Christ. But a group of Jewish believers began teaching the churches in Galatia that Gentile believers must be circumcised and must observe Jewish holidays (Galatians 4:10; 5:2; 6:12). The antagonists that Paul combats in Galatians are likely from the same group that Paul dealt with in the Jerusalem Council, the “Judaizers.” Paul calls them “the circumcision party” (Galatians 2:12). The Galatian Christians, who had started out by trusting Jesus for salvation, were now, because of the urging of the Judaizers, turning to the works of the Law in order to “improve” their Christian walk.