The doctrine of justification remains a struggle with which generations of Christians are plagued. The struggle, it is to be understood, manifests not so much in the understanding of this doctrine, but in its application. Dissension regarding what it means to be justified is no novel feud, but rather, has persisted for centuries, most notably in the uproar that followed the life’s work of one German Augustinian monk, Martin Luther. Even before Luther’s day, however, squabbles over the intricacies of God’s justification of sinners can be traced back to the discourses of Jesus of Nazareth. Nowhere, though, is the doctrine of justification enlarged upon more than in the apostle Paul’s personal and forensic epistle to the churches in Galatia.
Throughout the letter to the Galatians, Paul exhibits a penchant for forceful discourse, the likes of which are unparalleled in the remainder of the scriptural canon. He exhausts no sentiment of appreciation for the churches to whom he is addressing. (Acts 13–14; 16:6; 18:23) Instead, as though wielding a Spirit-filled rapier, Paul promptly carves to shreds the Galatians’ unwitting acceptance of a “different gospel.” (Gal 1:6–9) For, in tampering with the doctrine of justification they were effectively perverting the entire fabric of the gospel itself. (Gal 2:19–21) The Galatians’ foolhardy embrace of the ascetic necessity of circumcision, therefore, is swiftly decimated by the apostle’s averment of the universal consequence of the crucible of Golgotha.
Are you so foolish? After beginning by the Spirit, are you now finishing by the flesh? . . . As for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world. For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation. (Gal 3:3; 6:14–15)
Indispensable to Paul’s thesis of justification by faith, divorced from the works of the law (Gal 2:16), is a tangential but nonetheless critical discussion of the ministry Spirit. Incidentally, it is precisely the Spirit’s work which had been more or less relegated to the sidelines by the Galatian Christians. The apostle’s declarative statement in Galatians 2:15–16 is not only axiomatic for Christians of all ages, it is paradigmatic for Christians of all nationalities and creeds. It is the Spirit, and not the law, which gives the believer his identity in Christ Jesus as a child of God and an inheritor of the kingdom of God. (Gal 3:27—4:7) “Identification by race, class or sex no longer has any significance because of identification with Christ,” G. W. Hansen states.1 The prevailing societal and spiritual barriers, which are exacerbated by the law, are obliterated by the curse-breaking cross of Christ. (Gal 3:13–14, 27–29)
The crux of Paul’s argument, therefore, is transmitted through “an either-or choice,” Hansen continues: “either attempt to attain righteousness ‘through the Law’ and so negate the value of Christ’s death; or die to the Law by participation in the death of Christ and so live to God by the indwelling life of Christ.”2 There exists no ancillary room for pious writhing or religious jury-rigging. “The believer’s present justified Christian experience,” writes A. E. McGrath, “is thus an anticipation and advance participation of deliverance from the wrath to come, and an assurance in the present of the final eschatological verdict of acquittal.”3 Or, in other words, sanctification is not a cooperative effort gleaned from some cruciform source and conducted by fleshly exertion. It is a gift and ministry of the Spirit which reverberates with the enduring note of Jesus’s cruciform conquest.
Furthermore, it is only by incorporation into him by faith through the ongoing work of the Spirit that salvation is experienced. “In the righteousness of faith,” writes the eminent reformer Martin Luther, “we work nothing, we render nothing unto God, but we only receive, and suffer another to work in us, that is to say, God.”4 The justified life, then, begins and persists because of the surgical and particular ministry of the Spirit, wherein sinners are awakened and reawakened to the certainty of righteousness by faith. (Gal 3:10; Hab 2:4)
G. W. Hansen, “Letter to the Galatians,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 332.
A. E. McGrath, “Justification,” Dictionary of Paul and His Letters, edited by Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin, and Daniel G. Reid (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), 518.
Martin Luther, Commentary on Galatians, translated by Erasmus Middleton, edited by John P. Fallowes (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 1979), xii.