Summary: Performance-based religion is not the Gospel. In both the OT & NT redemption comes via grace apart from works.
Introduction: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood and I took the one less traveled by” wrote Robert Frost. There are two roads before us and only one leads to Heaven. Which one is it--the road of good works or faith? Works will get us lost in the woods. When we realize that none of us are “good enough”, we plead with God for mercy. We don’t want God to be “fair”; we want some of that Amazing Grace!
Faith or Works, Verses 1-5...Paul is amazed that anyone would abandon grace in favor of performance-based Christianity. The Galatians were under the spell of self-sufficiency. So Paul issues some tough-love. The word “foolish” suggests they were smart enough, but were being deceived by illogical arguments they should’ve been able to refute. Their faith was shallow--the result of spiritual laziness. They’d been duped by false teachers who had added conditions to the covenant God established. They were headed on the wrong path.
These “foolish” Galatians were clearly taught Christ-crucified as the basis for salvation. Justification is now by the New Covenant sacrifice, not the Old Covenant sacrificial system. The word “crucified” in verse 1 signifies past action with a continuing outcome. This means what Jesus did for us on the cross continues to have effect on us. Everything begins and ends with the cross. Therefore, don’t add to the finished work of Christ. Even the progress we make as believers is not by self-effort (Paul will make this clear in the 2nd half of the chapter). Jesus said, “The work of God is this: to believe in the One He has sent” (John 6:29). Belief is the only “work” required for salvation. God accepts us solely on the basis of our trust in the finished work of Christ; the record of our sins is wiped clean--a free gift of grace.
Paul asks in verse 3: “After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” Paul sees the “flesh” as life under the law (McKnight). We begin our new life in the Spirit; it’s foolish to think we can become mature Christians by self-effort. “No one is closer to or further from God on the grounds of their work” (David Wells). Most world religions demand that we earn our eternal reward…but the Bible offers undeserved grace and mercy.
Paul then reminds the church of their suffering—numerous hardships and persecutions; did these mean nothing? They were in vain if all they had was a performance-based religion.
Abraham’s faith, Verses 6-10...We sing in Sunday School: “Father Abraham had many sons, and many sons had Father Abraham; I am one of them and so are you, so let’s all praise the Lord!” Paul focuses on Abraham’s faith; he “believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” The word “counted” could be translated “credited”. Abraham was given righteousness, like having a sum transferred into an account--all before he did any works, even before he’d heard of circumcision. “When we are united to Christ, all our debts become His, and His riches become ours” (Michael Horton).
It is impossible to understand Christ and the early church apart from our Jewish roots. Because we gentiles have been welcomed into God’s family, this means the day we become Christians we also become Jewish, “children of Abraham.” The blessings of Abraham are extended to us and become ours. We’re given a new standing before God, and a new life. Abraham and his descendents gained God’s acceptance by faith, and gentiles are accepted on the same basis. Paul redefines the Abrahamic family--the “children of Abraham” are those who trust God’s promises.
Gentiles are accepted by God on the same basis as Jews in the Old Testament--by grace. This means people BC and AD both found salvation the same way--by love that pays a price. Jesus was the reality to which the sacrificial system had pointed. The OT gives us the foundation; the NT the fulfillment. Israel clung to two truths: One--that they were children of the Covenant, God’s chosen people; and Second--a system of atonement established by God, the Temple sacrifices for sin. Israel never assumed they could ever be “good enough.” But with a redemptive ritual in place, their sins were covered. What mattered then was how to live as God’s people. Lambs no longer need be offered upon a Temple altar because the Lamb of God offered Himself upon the cross. God’s grace existed in the days of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; God’s grace came to completion in Christ, and God’s grace will be with us all our days. There’s no other pathway.
Curse Reversed, Verses 11-14...Paul talks of the “curse” of the law, meaning sin’s penalty. The law requires perfect obedience--an impossible standard. God does not overlook our sins; they must be punished--and they were. Christ is our sin-bearer, and we become the righteousness of God in Him. We’re condemned by the law but redeemed by Christ. So how could anyone hope to be good enough? It is an exercise in futility to think our good is sufficient, outweighing our bad (yet it’s a popular notion). That’s not the measure God uses. The law could save us if we could keep it. But the law can’t secure us salvation since it wasn’t designed to do so. Salvation-by-works is not the Jewish or the Christian way. Those who figure they’re good enough have cursed themselves.