“Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? just as Abraham “believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel to Abraham beforehand, saying, “In you all the nations shall be blessed.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham.” (Gal. 3:5-9).
Writing to the church in Galatia in the passage just cited, Paul gives one of the clearest explanations of his use of Abraham as an example of justification by faith. Why is it so important that we grasp this principle? On it hinges a MAJOR disagreement amongst Christians—are we justified by faith only or by a working faith?
An Important Contrast
As Paul enters into his repudiation of a doctrine that had been embraced by the brethren in Galatia (a doctrine markedly different than the gospel of Jesus Christ — cf. Gal. 1:6-10), he challenges them with a simple question. He asks, “He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”
Observe the contrast Paul has in view. He is contrasting “works of the law” with “the hearing of faith.” Both terms (“works” and “faith”) seem generally applied (because they lack a definite article like “the” in front of them), but is Paul thinking generically here? Is Paul including any works taught by the “perfect law of liberty” or the “law of Christ”? What “law” and what “faith” does Paul have in mind? To truly understand this text, these questions must be answered.
Consider the Context
To really grasp the contrast, we have to go back a little farther in Paul’s letter, where he defines his terms and sets forth his thinking (i.e., we have to consider the context). Paul cites a rebuke of the apostle Peter, because Peter was being a hypocrite and not being “straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14a). The question Paul asks of Peter, as a rebuke of his actions, contains the key to understanding the terms he is contrasting in chapter 3.
Paul asks of Peter, “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” (Gal. 2:14b). Through verse 21, Paul will expound upon that question. In verses 15 and 16, we find our key to the terminology he will use throughout the letter as he makes his case. He writes, “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law; for by works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (emphasis mine, jlp).
As Paul rebukes Peter, he contrasts Jews and Gentiles. He specifically charges Peter with encouraging the Gentiles to live as Jews. This obviously includes the act of circumcision. Note that in chapter two, it is obvious that the problem even included trying to compel Titus (a Gentile with Paul in Jerusalem) to be circumcised, but he was not compelled — Gal. 2:1-3; cf. Acts 15:1-5). Those demanding that Gentiles obey the law of Moses and be circumcised wanted to bring them into bondage, not into general law-keeping or “legalism” (as many argue today), but into keeping the law of Moses, or at least parts of it. Clearly, when Paul speaks of “law” here, he must have specific “law” in mind — the Law of Moses.
This is further evidenced by the fact that Paul continues to speak of his coming to Jerusalem, he clearly speaks to these great events of Acts 15 (Gal. 2:6-10). The result of that great conference was clearly set forth in the letter written to the Gentiles by the apostles and elders and delivered by Paul and Barnabas. It included the following words, “Since we have heard that some who went out from us have troubled you with words, unsettling your souls, saying, “You must be circumcised and keep the law”—to whom we gave no such commandment…” (Acts 15:24). So again, what “law” did Paul undeniably have in view?
What “Law” is Contrasted?
Returning to our main text (Gal. 3:5-9), we now have half of the contrast clearly laid out based on the context. The “law” he clearly has in view there is the “law of Moses.” It cannot possibly speak generically to ALL “law.” Moreover, it cannot possibly speak to the “law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2) or “the perfect law of liberty” (cf. Gal. 2:4; 5:1, 13 with Jas. 1:25). Many read other “laws” into the text (eisegesis), based on the assumption that if it applies to one law, it must apply to all laws. That simply cannot be proven, as Paul clearly acknowledges we are “under law toward Christ” as Christians (cf. 1 Cor. 9:21). If there was no other evidence in the New Testament to suggest otherwise, I might agree with the assumption. However, there is a plethora of evidence that we are still under law as Christians, just not the law of Moses (as we have proven with several citations already).
What “Faith” is Contrasted?
As we round out our contrasting statement from Galatians 3:5, we must answer what “faith” Paul speaks of when he says, “by the hearing of faith.” Too many today want to generalize “law,” but they do not want to generalize “faith.” They recognize that the faith Paul speaks of is specific — it is a faith in Jesus Christ (cf. Eph. 4:5). As we look back at the context earlier in the article, this was obvious (cf. Gal. 2:15-16). We are obviously “justified by faith in Christ.”
Yet, what does he mean by “faith in Christ?” In Galatians 3:6, Paul cites Abraham as an example of what it means to be justified “by the hearing of faith.” He does this also in Roman 4, as does James in James 2:14-26. Citing Genesis 15:6, Paul proves that Abraham believed God and it was accounted (credited) to him for righteousness. What did Abraham hear (“the hearing of faith”) and believe that prompted Paul to use him as an example of “justification by faith”?
In the latter part of Galatians 3:8, Paul tells us that THE GOSPEL was preached to Abraham beforehand. How was THE GOSPEL preached to him? Paul cites these words of God to Abraham: “In you all the nations shall be blessed” (Gal. 4:8b). This inspired testimony suggests that Jesus Christ was preached to Abraham (and even though Abraham likely did not understand the sum total of what he was hearing, he believed the promise which we now know beyond a doubt to have its ultimate fulfillment in Christ—cf. Gal. 3:15-18) and that by believing, Abraham basically believed in Jesus.
So, this is why Abraham was said to be justified by faith. This is why only those who are “of faith” are sons of Abraham. This is why the Scriptures foresaw the Gentiles being justified by faith. It was because they too would have the gospel of Jesus Christ preached to them, as Abraham did in that simple three-fold promise, and that by believing the promise of salvation through Jesus Christ, they too would find eternal life.
“By The Hearing of Faith”
Therefore, it is “by the hearing of faith” that we find salvation. It is not hearing the words of faith alone that saves us. It is the hearing and doing of the words of faith, just as Abraham did, that saves us (cf. Jas. 2:21-24).
As Paul demonstrates in Romans 10:5-17 (I encourage you to read this text), those who do the law of Moses, shall live by the Law of Moses (v. 5). On the other hand, the righteousness of faith is different. God’s word (which we must hear) is near us and in our mouths and hearts. If we confess with our mouth and believe in our heart that God has raised Jesus from the dead, we will be saved (vs. 6-10). This is what it means to believe on him, whether Jew or Greek (vs. 11-13). He even continues to argue that one must believe having heard (vs. 14) and one must obey having believed (vs. 15-16). He then sums it up saying, “So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (v. 17). This is “the hearing of faith.”
It is in no way faith independent of ALL DOING or ALL WORKS or ALL DEEDS. It is faith in Christ, independent of the Law of Moses. As Paul proclaimed in Acts 13:38-39, “Therefore let it be known to you, brethren, that through this Man is preached to you the forgiveness of sins; and by Him everyone who believes is justified from all things from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses” (emphasis mine, jlp).
In several other ways, it can be shown that Paul’s purpose was NOT to combat some generic form of “legalism” that was rampant in the first century churches (i.e., they were trying to be saved by perfect law-keeping), as so many today believe. Paul’s purpose was to demonstrate they cannot be justified by the Law of Moses, but only by faith in Jesus Christ. This, we can prove conclusively, was a first century problem (cf. Acts 15:1-5). Legalism” (or any other such thing), is pure speculation and must be read into the text, as the inspired history just does not support that as a premise for Paul’s words.
From Expository Files 21.5; May 2014