Positive Proof from the Old Testament
Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the nations shall be blessed in you.” So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. (3:6–9)
Paul’s positive proof that the Old Testament teaches salvation by faith rather than works revolves around Abraham, father of the Hebrew people and supreme patriarch of Judaism.
The Judaizers doubtlessly used Abraham as certain proof that circumcision was necessary to please God and become acceptable to Him. After first calling Abraham to leave his homeland of Ur of Chaldea, the Lord promised, “And I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great; and so you shall be a blessing; and I will bless those who bless you, and the one who curses you I will curse. And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2–3). Abraham and his descendants were later commanded to be circumcised as a sign of God’s covenant and a constant illustration of the need for spiritual cleansing from sin: “This is My covenant, which you shall keep, between Me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10). (The cutting away of the foreskin on the male procreative organ signified the need to cut away sin from the heart—sin that was inherent, passed from one generation to the next; cf. Deut. 10:16; Jer. 4:4; Col. 2:11.)
Putting those two accounts together, the Judaizers argued, “Isn’t it obvious that if the rest of the world, that is, Gentiles, are to share in the promised blessings to Abraham, they must first take on the sign that marks God’s people, the Jews? If all the nations of the earth will be blessed in Abraham, they will have to become like Abraham and be circumcised.”
“But that doesn’t follow,” Paul replied in effect. Quoting Genesis 15:6, he asked, “Don’t you know that even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness? Had they conveniently ignored the fact that Scripture precisely ascribed righteousness to Abraham by faith and that God commanded Abraham to be circumcised many years after He had reckoned Abraham to be righteous because he believed God?”
When some ten years passed after God’s first promise and his wife, Sarah, was still childless, Abraham prayed, “O Lord God, what wilt Thou give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezar of Damascus?” The Lord then took Abraham “outside and said, ‘Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ And He said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’ Then he believed in the Lord; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:2, 5–6). It was at least fourteen years after that occasion (see Gen. 16:16; 17:1) before the command for his circumcision was given.
Paul used the same argument in his letter to the Roman church. Speaking of believers “whose lawless deeds have been forgiven, and whose sins have been covered, … whose sin the Lord will not take into account,” he asked,
Is this blessing then upon the circumcised, or upon the uncircumcised also? For we say, “Faith was reckoned to Abraham as righteousness.” How then was it reckoned? While he was circumcised, or uncircumcised? Not while circumcised, but while uncircumcised; and he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had while uncircumcised, that he might be the father of all who believe without being circumcised, that righteousness might be reckoned to them, and the father of circumcision to those who not only are of the circumcision, but who also follow in the steps of the faith of our father Abraham which he had while uncircumcised. (Rom. 4:7–12)
The Judaizers, like most other Jews of that day, had completely reversed the relationship of circumcision and salvation. Circumcision was only a mark, not the means, of salvation. God established circumcision as a physical sign to identify His people and to isolate them from the idolatrous, pagan world around them during the time of the Old Covenant. Circumcision is an external, physical act that has no effect on the spiritual work of justification. God gave the sign of circumcision to Abraham long after He had already declared him to be righteous because of his faith.
It has always been true that “he is not a Jew who is one outwardly; neither is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh. But he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that which is of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter” (Rom. 2:28–29). Physical circumcision was a matter of earthly, ceremonial identity with God’s people, whereas salvation is a matter of spiritual identity with Him; and if the earthly symbol had no genuine spiritual counterpart it was worthless. Even under the Old Covenant, circumcision itself carried no spiritual power.
Since the Fall, proud mankind has been naturally inclined to trust in himself, including his ability to please God by his own character and efforts. The Jews of Jesus’ day put great stock in circumcision and physical descent from Abraham. When Jesus told a group of them, “If you abide in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free,” they replied, “We are Abraham’s offspring, and have never yet been enslaved to anyone” (John 8:31–33). Their answer was obviously absurd from a historical standpoint. The Jewish people had been in severe bondage many times throughout their history and were at that time under the iron rule of Rome. Even more foolish, however, was their thinking that mere physical descent from Abraham made them acceptable to God. In one of His most powerful denunciations of bankrupt Judaism, Jesus said: “I know that you are Abraham’s offspring; yet you seek to kill Me, because My word has no place in you.… If you are Abraham’s children, do the deeds of Abraham. But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do.… You are of your father the devil, and you want to do the desires of your father” (John 8:37, 39–40, 44).
By counting on ceremonial nationalism, legalistic Jews imagined they were in the spiritual as well as racial heritage of Abraham, whereas they were really in the spiritual heritage of Cain, who, in rejecting God’s way, not only followed his own way but also Satan’s. Jesus’ point on that occasion was that, no matter what physical lineage a person may have, if he does not have faith in God he is not a spiritual descendant of Abraham. Abraham was secondarily the physical father of the Jewish people. He was first of all the spiritual father of everyone, of whatever race or nationality, who believes in God (Rom. 4:11). Just as with Abraham, “to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is reckoned as righteousness” (v. 5).
It should be noted also that Abraham is not only the pattern for justification by faith but for obedient living by that faith.
By faith Abraham, when he was called, obeyed by going out to a place which he was to receive for an inheritance; and he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he lived as an alien in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, dwelling in tents with Isaac and Jacob, fellow heirs of the same promise; for he was looking for the city which has foundations, whose architect and builder is God.… By faith Abraham, when he was tested, offered up Isaac; and he who had received the promises was offering up his only begotten son; it was he to whom it was said, ‘In Isaac your descendants shall be called.’ He considered that God is able to raise men even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type. (Heb. 11:8–10, 17–19)
By faith Abraham followed God to an unknown land and by faith he was willing to give back to God the son who alone could be the means of fulfilling the divine promise. Abraham, as every true believer before and after him, understood faith as “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (v. 1). By faith Abraham even looked forward to Christ. Jesus told the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56).
To reemphasize the absolute importance of what he was saying, Paul added, Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham. He was making the same point to the believing Jews in Galatia that Jesus made to the unbelieving Jews in Jerusalem: Only genuine believers, those who are of faith, have any claim to a spiritual relationship to Abraham, or to God. Jews with no faith in the Lord Jesus Christ are not true sons of Abraham, whereas Gentiles who believe in Him are.
Lest Christians think that, because His chosen people have rejected Him, the Lord will reject them, Paul declares unequivocally, “I say then, God has not rejected His people, has He? May it never be!” Then he repeats the declaration, “God has not rejected His people whom He foreknew” (Rom. 11:1–2). God still has marvelous future plans for the Jews as a people. But at no time of history—before or after His special calling of the Jews—has any person been brought into saving relationship to God by any other means than faith.
Personifying God’s Word, the apostle goes on to say, the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham—which is an exposition of Genesis 12:3: “All the nations shall be blessed in you.” Gospel means “good news,” and God’s good news to mankind has always been salvation by faith alone, prompted by the power of His grace. Salvation by works would not be good but bad news. All the nations, Jews and Gentiles alike, are justified and blessed for the same reason Abraham was justified and blessed: their faith. So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. To be blessed means to be the recipient of all that divine love, grace, and mercy bestows on those who are in Christ (cf. Eph. 1:3; 2:6–7).
At the Jerusalem Council, James said, “Brethren, listen to me. Simeon [Peter] has related how God first concerned Himself about taking from among the Gentiles a people for His name. And with this the words of the Prophets agree, just as it is written, ‘After these things I will return, and I will rebuild the tabernacle of David which has fallen, and I will rebuild its ruins, and I will restore it, in order that the rest of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by My name’ ” (Acts 15:13–17; cf. Amos 9:11–12).
When Gentiles are saved, they are saved as Gentiles, just as Jews are saved as Jews. But no one from either group is saved or not saved due to racial or ethnic identity. Those who are saved are saved because of their faith, and those who are lost are lost because of their unbelief. A Gentile has absolutely no advantage in becoming a Jew before he becomes a Christian. In fact, by expecting salvation through the rite of circumcision, a person, whether Jew or Gentile, nullifies the grace of God and declares, in effect, that “Christ died needlessly” (Gal. 2:21).
Father Abraham Has Many Sons
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” (Gal. 3:7–8)
Some of the simplest Bible songs for children contain some of the soundest theology. Consider the chorus taken from Galatians 3:
Father Abraham had many sons,
And many sons had Father Abraham;
And I am one of them, and so are you,
So let’s all praise the Lord!
TheSo let’s all praise ththat—turning into a sort of sanctified “Hokey Pokey”—but its basic theology is profound. It is so profound, in fact, that I had no idea what it meant when I was a child. I first heard the song at camp, and I thought to myself, “Father Abraham had many sons? I thought Jacob was the guy with all the kids!”
Father Abraham was an important figure to the Judaizers, the goody-twoshoes of the apostolic church who believed in justification by faith plus the works of the law. If the Judaizers taught any Bible songs when they went to Galatia, they probably taught one that went like this:
Father Abraham had many sons,
And many sons had Father Abraham;
And I am one of them, but you are not,
So let’s all get together for a little procedure we like to call circumcision.
The Judaizers were serious about this. Belonging to God meant being a child of Abraham. So, for example, when the Jews wanted to prove to Jesus that they were children of God, they said, “We are offspring of Abraham.… Abraham is our father” (John 8:33, 39). Therefore, if the Gentiles wanted to belong to God, they had to become children of Abraham.
The only way to become a true child of Abraham, said the Judaizers, was to be circumcised as he was. This was taught right in the Scriptures. God said to Abraham, “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen. 17:10). What could be plainer? Until the Gentiles were circumcised, they had no right to call Abraham their father—or to call God their Father, for that matter.
The Man of Faith
Undoubtedly the reason the apostle Paul has so much to say about Abraham in Galatians 3 and 4 is that the Judaizers made such a fuss over him. They claimed that Father Abraham and all his children belonged to God, not by faith alone, but by works of the law.
In addition to misunderstanding the gospel, the Judaizers were also guilty of misunderstanding the Old Testament. Therefore, in order to refute their performance-based version of Christianity, Paul had to go back to the Hebrew Scriptures. In verses 1 through 5, his argument for justification by faith alone appealed to experience—the Galatian experience of the Holy Spirit. In verses 6 and following, he argues for faith alone on the basis of biblical history, using Abraham as a test case: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gal. 3:6).
Paul’s choice of an Old Testament text was inspired. The Judaizers loved to go back to Genesis 17, where God’s covenant with Abraham was signified by circumcision. But Paul went back even further, to God’s promise of a child in Genesis 15.
God made Abraham quite a few promises in his time: “Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you’ ” (Gen. 12:1). Then God promised to make him into a great nation, to bless him, and to make his name great (Gen. 12:2–3). Abraham believed God’s promises. No sooner had he received his instructions than he “went, as the Lord had told him” (Gen. 12:4). In its short biographical summary of this period in Abraham’s life, the book of Hebrews says: “By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to go out to a place that he was to receive as an inheritance. And he went out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he went to live in the land of promise, as in a foreign land, living in tents with Isaac and Jacob, heirs with him of the same promise. For he was looking forward to the city that has foundations, whose designer and builder is God” (Heb. 11:8–10). So Abraham left the land of his fathers and journeyed by faith to the Promised Land.
Some years later, God came to Abraham with another promise. This time it was the promise of a son. Frankly, it was hard to believe. In the past, God had promised him land, but Abraham still did not own any property. Now he was promised an heir, but he still didn’t have any children. And he wasn’t getting any younger either! In fact, he was pushing one hundred. Abraham, a father, at that age?
To show Abraham what he had in mind, God took him outside and showed him the stars. He said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said, “So shall your offspring be” (Gen. 15:5). What God promised to do for Abraham was impossible. Yet Abraham believed that God would make it so. He took the promise the way every divine promise ought to be taken: by faith. As the Scripture says, “He believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Or, as Paul quoted it for the Galatians, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (Gal. 3:6).
What Paul emphasized was the result of Abraham’s faith. His faith was “counted” or “credited” (elogisthē) to him as righteousness. When Abraham believed, God reckoned that he was righteous. To put it in financial terms, he accounted him righteous. Trusting God was like opening a bank account. Immediately, God transferred righteousness into Abraham’s account.
This does not mean that Abraham was actually righteous, only that he was declared righteous. He was considered to have a right standing before God. To use the proper theological term, God “imputed” righteousness to Abraham. God is the one who has the legal right to state whether a man is righteous or unrighteous, and in this case, he considered Abraham righteous through his faith.
A good example of what it means to be declared righteous comes from the life of the astronomer William Herschel (1738–1822). As a young boy growing up in Hanover, Germany, Herschel loved listening to military music. Eventually he joined a military band. But when the nation went to war, he found himself marching into battle, totally unprepared for the horrors of war. During a period of intense fighting he deserted his unit and fled from the field of battle. The penalty for desertion was death, so Herschel could no longer remain in Germany. He fled to England to pursue further studies in music and science. Eventually he became a famous man, renowned throughout Europe for his musical abilities as well as his scientific discoveries.
William Herschel had left his past behind him, and for many years he gave little thought to the death sentence that remained over him. But then another German arrived in Britain: George, head of the House of Hanover, crowned King of England. King George knew the secret of Herschel’s past and summoned him to appear before the royal court. With great trepidation, the scientist arrived at the palace, where he was told to wait in a chamber outside the throne room. Finally, one of the king’s servants brought Herschel a document. Anxiously, he opened it and read the following words: “I George pardon you for your past offenses against our native land.”
Herschel had received a royal pardon. The fact of his desertion was not overlooked, yet he was acquitted, and therefore he was justified in the eyes of the law. In a similar way, Abraham received a royal pardon from the King of all kings. He was declared righteous. Unrighteous though he was, his faith was counted for righteousness by God.
Although everyone agrees that Abraham was righteous, not everyone agrees how he got that way. Some Jewish writings—outside the Bible—depict him as a man whose righteousness was a reward for his obedience. His right standing before God was not a gift; it was something he had to earn. According to the book of Sirach (44:19–21), for example, the promises God made were a response to Abraham’s faithfulness. Other rabbis said he had to pass through ten trials in order to merit God’s favor. Thus the first book of Maccabees asks, “Did not Abraham prove steadfast under trial, and so gain credit as a righteous man?” (1 Macc. 2:52). Paul’s answer to this question was a resounding “No!” Abraham was steadfast under trial, true enough, but he never gained any credit from God for his works of obedience. God counted him righteous by faith, and nothing else.
The striking thing about Abraham is that he was justified before he did any works. If Abraham had been justified by works, then he would have had something to brag about. But “what does the Scripture say?” Paul asks in his letter to the Romans. Simply this: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Rom. 4:3). He was justified not as a worker, but as a believer. Faith was the instrumentality of his justification.
In particular, Abraham did not have to get circumcised to be justified. This is the genius of Paul’s argument against the Judaizers: God counted Abraham righteous before he had even heard of circumcision! In Romans, Paul asks if the blessing of God’s forgiveness is “only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised” (Rom. 4:9). His answer is: “We say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised” (Rom. 4:9–10). In other words, the great patriarch was justified while he was still an uncircumcised Chaldean!
Like Father, Like Son
The fact that Abraham was justified as a Gentile made him the perfect example to use for the Galatians, who had been wrestling with two questions: Whom does God accept, and on what basis? For his answer, Paul took Abraham’s history and applied it to their situation, and to ours: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7).
No doubt this statement enraged the Judaizers when they heard it. Their claim to fame was that they were the children of Abraham, while others were not. “We have been circumcised,” they gloated, “so we are the sons of Abraham!” Paul picked up their vocabulary and smacked them with it, declaring that the only real children of Abraham are those who believe. Paul not only taught this; he insisted on it. Grammatically, verse 7 reads like this: “The ones of faith, these are the sons of Abraham.” All who believe—and only those who believe—are children of Abraham. Membership in Abraham’s family is not hereditary. Father Abraham’s true sons and daughters are not the people who keep the law, but the people who live by faith. Their family resemblance is spiritual rather than physical.
Practically speaking, this means that God will accept us only on the same basis he accepted Abraham. Like father, like son. If Abraham was justified by faith, then his children have to be justified by faith too. Therefore, we will never become children of God by what we do, but only by what we believe.
What, then, must we believe? Notice the object of Abraham’s faith: he put his trust in God. “Abraham believed God” (Gal. 3:6), and this was credited to him as righteousness. What Abraham believed was not simply God’s promises, which he could hardly believe, but God himself. Abraham put his faith in the faithful God—the God who made him the promise. When Abraham didn’t know where he was going, or how he was going to get there, he trusted God to get him where he needed to be. When he didn’t have any children, or any reason to think he ever would, he believed that God would make good on his promise. Against all hope and beyond all doubt, Abraham committed himself and his whole life to God. The Scripture says, “No distrust made him waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. That is why his faith was ‘counted to him as righteousness’ ” (Rom. 4:20–22).
If we are to become children of Abraham, and therefore children of God, we must have the same faith, and we must put it in the same place. We must trust the God who keeps every promise he has ever made. We trust him for guidance, believing that he will show us the way we should go. We trust him for providence, believing that he will take care of whatever we need. We trust him for deliverance, believing that he will bring us through times of trial. We trust him for everything, just as Abraham did. But most of all we trust him for salvation through his Son. Now that God the Son has come into the world, to believe God is to accept the gospel of Jesus Christ, “receiving and resting upon him alone for salvation, as he is offered to us in the gospel.”
To have faith is to believe the good news of the cross and the empty tomb. It is to accept what the Bible says about the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. It is to trust in “Jesus Christ as crucified,” as Paul said back in verse 1. It is to believe that Jesus died on the cross for our sins and was raised from the dead to give us eternal life.
These are the things we must believe if we want God to accept us the way he justified Abraham: “But the words ‘it was counted to him’ were not written for his sake alone, but for ours also. It will be counted to us who believe in him who raised from the dead Jesus our Lord, who was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:23–25). When we place all our trust and confidence in the God who raised the crucified Christ from the dead, then God credits Christ’s righteousness to our account. He imputes Christ’s righteousness to us, so that we are righteous in his sight by faith. Thus we become true children of Abraham, and of God.
The Same as It Ever Was
This faith is not just for Abraham and the Galatians, but for everyone. In verse 6 Paul proved that justification by faith was God’s plan for Abraham. In verse 7 he showed that people like the Galatians could become Abraham’s children by the same faith. Then in verse 8 he proves that justification by faith alone has always been God’s plan for all people everywhere: “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed’ ” (Gal. 3:8).
This quotation takes us even further back in Abraham’s story, to the very first promise God ever made to him: “And I will make of you a great nation, … and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:2–3). There is also an echo in Galatians from Genesis 18:18, where God said, “Abraham shall surely become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.”
By quoting from Genesis in this way, Paul teaches something important about the Bible. The promises in Genesis come from the mouth of God, but for Paul, what the Bible says and what God says are one and the same. So Paul says, “The Scripture … preached” (Gal. 3:8), even though God was the one doing the talking. This is one place where, as the great Princeton theologian Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851–1921) put it, “God and the Scriptures are brought into such conjunction as to show that in point of directness of authority no distinction was made between them.” The Bible is God’s word written. This is why the Scripture is alive. It has the power to announce because God speaks in it with a living and powerful voice. The words on the pages of the Bible come straight from the mouth of God.
Because it was written by God—through human authors, of course—the Bible speaks with one mind and one message. That one message is justification by faith alone. God’s plan of salvation, the covenant of grace, runs from Abraham right through to Christ: “The Scripture … preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham” (Gal. 3:8). What God said to Abraham was nothing less than a proclamation of the gospel. Christians sometimes sing about “the old, old story of Jesus and his love.” The story is older than some people realize. It goes back at least to the days of Abraham. Indeed, it goes all the way back to Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:15), who were the first to hear it. Ultimately, the good news of the Old Testament is the good news about Jesus Christ.
The gospel is the good news about God forgiving sins and granting eternal life. These are the very things Abraham believed. He did not know Jesus Christ by name, but he trusted him nonetheless. He believed that God would forgive his sins and grant him eternal life. He had faith, in other words, in both the atonement and the resurrection.
Consider Abraham’s actions on Mount Moriah, where God told him to offer his beloved son Isaac as a sacrifice. Children love to question their parents about travel arrangements, and Isaac was no exception. As they hiked up the mountain, it dawned on him that something was missing. “Behold, the fire and the wood,” Isaac said, “but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” (Gen. 22:7). Abraham believed that God would provide the atoning sacrifice. So he answered, “God will provide for himself the lamb for a burnt offering, my son” (Gen. 22:8). Abraham was right: God provided a ram, caught in the thicket, which Abraham offered in place of his son (Gen. 22:13). He had faith in God’s gift of an atoning sacrifice.
Abraham also had faith in the resurrection. Before he went up the mountain with Isaac, he “said to his young men, ‘Stay here with the donkey; I and the boy will go over there and worship and come again to you’ ” (Gen. 22:5). Abraham went up the mountain, knife in hand, fully intending to sacrifice his son. Yet there was not the slightest doubt in his mind that Isaac would walk back down the mountain with him. How could this be? The Scripture tells us what Abraham was thinking: “He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead, from which, figuratively speaking, he did receive him back” (Heb. 11:19). Father Abraham believed in God’s power over death. He trusted God to forgive sins and grant eternal life. Thus the gospel according to Abraham included both the atonement and the resurrection.
All Abraham’s children believe the same gospel. His true sons and daughters are the people of faith. If the gospel was good enough for Abraham, it is good enough for us. We trust the atoning death and the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ, as God planned from the very beginning. His way of dealing with us in our sin is eternally the same.
One of the implications of this is that the doctrine of justification by faith is not some kind of theological novelty. In their fascination with Rome, some evangelical Christians now question the importance of Reformation theology. In particular, they wonder if it was really necessary to divide the church over the doctrine of justification. What does it matter, they wonder, whether I am saved by faith alone or by faith plus works? Who cares whether God makes me righteous or declares me righteous, as long as I am righteous in the end?
To those who doubt the necessity of the Reformation doctrine of justification, we testify—with Paul as well as Abraham—that justification has always come only by faith. Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone has always been the very heart of God’s plan for the salvation of sinners. Thus Ernst Käsemann has rightly concluded that “justification remains the centre, the beginning and the end of salvation history.”
Paul could not have expressed this point more forcefully than he did in these words: “the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith” (Gal. 3:8). The Old Testament had the foresight to predict the coming of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. The Scriptures not only predicted that he would come, but also prophesied the precise way that he would save. He would justify sinners by faith, exactly as God justified Abraham.
So Let’s All Praise the Lord!
This plan of salvation is for all people everywhere. It is universal. It is for all nations. The blessing of justification was never for the Jews alone; it was always intended for the whole world. In Galatians 3:8 Paul refers to the “Gentiles” and to the “nations.” In fact, these are two different translations for the same term. The word does not refer to political states, but to people groups. Through Abraham, God’s blessing would come to every ethnic community in the world, to every tribe, people, and language. This was the agenda that Jesus established for the church, to “go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). It later became Paul’s agenda for world missions. This explains why he went to places like Galatia to proclaim the good news about Jesus Christ that God had first announced to Abraham.
Preaching the gospel to every people group remains the church’s agenda to this very day. To think and to act biblically is to think and to act globally. We preach the whole gospel to the whole world, knowing that it is the will of God for Jesus Christ to stake his claim on every ethnic community on the face of the earth. In the words of another children’s song, which is also profound in its theology:
Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world;
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight;
Jesus loves the little children of the world.
If the little children of the world want to become sons and daughters of Abraham, they must come to Jesus Christ by faith. The gospel we preach to the nations is the gospel of justification by faith.
In verse 9 Paul summarizes what he has been saying to this point: “So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:9). This verse speaks of a common blessing. We are blessed with Abraham, so that all his blessings become our blessings. By faith, we become the object of the blessing God promised to Abraham. Thus he becomes our brother as well as our father. This is part of the doctrine of the communion of the saints. God offers one salvation in one Christ, to be shared by one people, Abraham included.
The blessing Paul has in mind is the gospel blessing God announced to Abraham: to be justified, or accepted as righteous in God’s sight. Timothy George asks, “What was it that the Scriptures ‘foresaw’and ‘preached beforehand’ to Abraham? Simply this: the good news of salvation was to be extended to all peoples, including the Gentiles, who would be declared righteous by God, just like Abraham, on the basis of faith.”
Abraham received many blessings from God in his time. He obtained an inheritance in the Promised Land. He was given a child, and through the child, he became the father of many nations. But the greatest blessing he ever received was to be justified.
Earlier I mentioned the pardon that William Herschel was granted by King George of England. There is more to the story. The document the king gave to Herschel began by pronouncing him “not guilty,” but it went on to say that for his outstanding service to humanity as a musician and scientist, Herschel would be granted a knighthood. From that point on he was one of King George’s knights, honored throughout the United Kingdom as Sir William Herschel. When Herschel was justified, not only was he declared righteous, but he also became a friend of the king.
This was Abraham’s experience too, and it can become our experience. We can receive the same blessings that Abraham experienced. We can be made right with God. We can become a personal friend of the Creator of the universe, and live with him for all eternity. All that is required is faith in Jesus Christ. If we want the same blessing Abraham received, we have to receive it the same way. Abraham was justified as a man of faith. He was not justified as a circumcised Jew, but as a believer. Therefore, the legacy of Father Abraham is inherited by faith: “those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Gal. 3:9).
We do not have to be circumcised in order to be justified before God. We do not have to keep the law. We do not have to become culturally Jewish. We do not have to do anything, only believe. It is those who believe in Jesus Christ who receive the blessing God promised to Abraham. Thus it is by faith alone that anyone sings the words of the song, so profound in its theology:
Father Abraham has many sons,
And many sons has Father Abraham;
And I am one of them, and so are you,
So let’s all praise the Lord!
A doctrine with a long history (vv. 6–9)
Paul will have more to say about the sanctifying ministry of the Spirit later in his letter. For now, it’s back to justification and the critical role faith has in making that blessing ours. Specifically, in verses 6–9, he would have us understand that justification by faith is no new doctrine but one that has been around for a very long time indeed.
Justification lay, of course, at the heart of the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. Its rediscovery transformed the life of Martin Luther and, in turn, through him and the other Reformers, the face of Europe. But justification by faith is no mere Reformation doctrine. The Reformers were at pains to show that what they were preaching was nothing more than what they had learned from the pages of the New Testament, especially from Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians.
The doctrine wasn’t new, however, even in New Testament times. Certainly, greater light was shed on it through the death and resurrection of Jesus and by the outpouring of the Spirit. But the doctrine itself was already old in Paul’s day—a point clearly established by the quotation in Galatians 3:6 from Genesis 15:6 that refers to Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ The event in question had taken place some 2,000 years before. Way back then, Abraham, the father of the Jewish race, had been justified by faith.
The meaning of faith being credited for righteousness has been the subject of debate. And it is no mere academic debate, for, according to Romans 4, faith continues to be credited to believers for righteousness. Is Scripture saying (as some maintain) that faith is itself our righteousness? That, since it is not possible for us to attain righteousness by obedience to the law, God accepts faith as a kind of substitute or equivalent? Paul’s teaching elsewhere about ‘righteousness from God’ that ‘comes through faith … to all who believe’ (Rom. 3:22) and ‘righteousness that comes from God and is by faith’ (Phil. 3:9) points to a different solution. Faith and righteousness are not one and the same thing, but two distinct things, the one being the instrument by which the other is obtained. The righteousness that is credited to the believer is a ‘faith-righteousness’, that is, a righteousness that comes into our possession by means of faith.
Well, this had been Abraham’s experience, and the Galatians needed to lay the lesson of it to heart. It seems that the false teachers had seriously misled them by saying something like this: ‘If you Gentiles want to belong to God, you need to become children of Abraham. You need to get into Abraham’s family line so that the blessings of salvation promised to Abraham’s offspring can be yours. The only way to do that is to be circumcised as Abraham was.’
Paul would have none of it: it is ‘those who believe’ who ‘are children of Abraham’ (v. 7, emphasis added). It was true that Abraham had been circumcised—but not until long after the events of Genesis 15. Abraham’s circumcision had nothing to do with his justification. It was wholly a matter of faith laying hold upon God and his Word. That meant that, if the Galatians shared Abraham’s faith, they were already his children and therefore heirs of all the saving blessing promised to his offspring. It is no different today. Those who enjoy salvation are Abraham’s spiritual children (see Gal. 3:29), and have become such in exactly the same manner by which they have become the children of God: by faith.
A doctrine with a wide geography (v. 8)
Paul reminds us of something foreseen long ago by Holy Scripture: ‘The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you” [a quotation from Genesis 12:3]’ (v. 8).
The New Testament interprets this for us. A Saviour would come in Abraham’s line. In and by the gospel he would be presented to all the nations as an object of saving faith, and people would believe in him and be justified. That is what was foreseen and announced. And it has happened! Justification by faith, the doctrine with a long history, has come to have, as it were, a wide geography. It is being preached in every corner of the globe, and wherever it goes it both announces rich blessing for sinners and communicates it to everyone who believes. It did so in Gentile Galatia. By faith in the Jesus whom Paul preached to them, the Galatians fell heirs to the same blessing of justification that Abraham enjoyed. It is no different today. All over the world, helpless sinners are hearing of a Saviour to whom they can go in their desperate need, a Saviour who pardons them and clothes them with his perfect righteousness the moment they believe in him.
3:7–9 / The rival evangelists were almost certainly using the story of Abraham to contend that unless the Galatians were circumcised they were not true heirs of Abraham. Paul turns this around and says that those who believe are children of Abraham. In Paul’s view his case is clear from the evidence in Scripture, where it was foreseen that God would justify the Gentiles by faith. In other words, Paul asserts that he has Scripture on his side. Implicit in Paul’s use of the passage from Genesis is a warning that those who do not agree with him are outside the circle of blessing. In Genesis 12 God makes this promise to Abraham: to “bless those who bless you; and the one who curses you I will curse.” As Paul is convinced that only those who have faith through his law-free gospel are heirs of Abraham (3:7), it follows that those who are attacking that gospel are attacking also the true heirs of Abraham and so are cursed by God. Paul here infers what he said plainly in the opening of his letter—“if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!” (1:8; cf. 1:9).
Paul’s exegesis would be seen by the rival evangelists as a misconstrual of the biblical text. In Genesis the promise to Abraham occurs three times, only once prior to the covenant of circumcision (Gen. 12:3). Within ot Scripture the promise is to be understood as a promise that takes for granted the covenant of circumcision, rather than, as Paul presents it, one that is independent of that covenant. The rival evangelists might further have taken issue with Paul on the basis that the word “Gentiles” is not found in Genesis 12 but only in the later passages (Gen. 18:18; 22:18). The precovenant promise in Genesis 12:3 has rather “peoples” (often correctly translated “tribes”), which does not serve Paul’s purpose of making a direct connection between this text and the gospel he preaches to the Gentiles.
Moreover, Paul’s opponents may legitimately have found it hard to understand how Paul could find scriptural support for his contention that the Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith. In Genesis the Gentiles are promised blessing, not justification. And when in other parts of Scripture there is an expressed hope for the inclusion of the Gentiles it is inclusion into the covenant (e.g., Isa. 56:6).
Nevertheless, Paul considers himself to have Scripture on his side. Here as elsewhere, Paul interprets Scripture with the understanding that he has been granted authority to see clearly its meaning since, as he says in 1 Corinthians 10:11, “These things … were written down as warnings for us, on whom the fulfillment of the ages has come.” In the face of his opponents Paul boldly asserts that those who believe are the descendants of Abraham.
Paul appeals to his converts’ self-perception as those who believe, which later he will use effectively in distinction from those “who rely on observing the law” (3:10). The Greek phrase hoi ek pisteōs, which reads literally “those who are of faith” (the Greek of 3:10, hosoi … ex ergōn nomou, is literally “those of works of law”) conveys the sense that there is a recognized group of people who distinguish themselves as believers. Earlier in the letter Paul can speak of “the faith” (1:23), expecting his readers’ sympathetic attachment to that word. Paul now works his argument on the basis of his readers’ self-understanding as “those who believe” (see also 3:9, where those who have faith is a translation of the Greek phrase hoi ek pisteōs, which is identical to the one in 3:7, translated “those who believe”). Since his addressees are “those who believe,” they are children of Abraham.
The Greek reads literally “sons of Abraham,” resonating with 3:26 (“sons of God”). The significance of “son” in this context is that it highlights the metaphor of inheritance, since in the ancient world the son was the inheritor of the father’s legacy. The words understand, then should be read imperativally. Paul is commanding the Galatians to recognize what they have already implicitly accepted about themselves and to understand the consequences of such self-understanding: because they are believers they are sons of Abraham.
The curious phrase the Scripture foresaw is a way of saying that God foresaw (cf. Rom. 9:17). Paul, along with other Jews, could refer to Scripture speaking or acting. In the Mishnah (Kerithoth 6:9) it reads: “R. Simeon says: Everywhere Scripture speaks of sheep before goats.… Everywhere Scripture speaks of the father before the mother” (trans. Danby, p. 572). It was understood that when Scripture spoke or acted, God spoke or acted.
In Paul’s interpretation of the Scriptures, Abraham is the first recipient of the gospel that Paul now preaches—a gospel in which “God would justify the Gentiles by faith.” This is a powerful rhetorical move on Paul’s part: he claims Abraham as not only the first one to enact the gospel of justification by faith (3:6) but also as the first one to know about it (3:8). The good news that God declares to Abraham is that all nations will be blessed through you. The Greek reads “in you” (en soi). Being “in Abraham” is to benefit from (be blessed … with [3:9]) Abraham’s character and position. Being “in Abraham” is to be faithful (3:9) and righteous (3:6).
Paul wraps up and pulls together his thought by stating that believers are blessed along with Abraham. By referring to blessing Paul neatly deals with one of the problems his earlier use of the Scripture has caused—that in Genesis the Gentiles are promised blessing not justification. But he makes clear that he understands that the blessing is to be shared along with Abraham, who is the man of faith, the one who believed and so is righteous (3:6).
The Argument from Old Testament Scripture (verses 6–9)
Verse 6: Thus Abraham ‘believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.’ Paul’s allusion to Abraham was a master-stroke. His Judaizing opponents looked to Moses as their teacher. So Paul went centuries further back to Abraham himself. His quotation is from Genesis 15:6. Let me remind you of the circumstances. Abraham was an old man and childless, but God had promised him a son, and indeed a seed or posterity. One day He took Abraham out of his tent, told him to look up at the sky and count the stars, and then said to him: ‘So shall your descendants be.’ Abraham believed God’s promise, ‘and it was reckoned to him as righteousness’.
Consider carefully what happened. First, God made Abraham a promise. Indeed, the promise of descendants was ‘placarded’ before Abraham’s eyes, much as the promise of forgiveness through Christ crucified was ‘placarded’ before the eyes of the Galatians. Secondly, Abraham believed God. Despite the inherent improbability of the promise, from the human point of view, Abraham cast himself on the faithfulness of God. Thirdly, Abraham’s faith was reckoned as righteousness. That is, he was himself accepted as righteous, by faith. He was not justified because he had done anything to deserve it, or because he had been circumcised, or because he had kept the law (for neither circumcision nor the law had yet been given), but simply because he believed God.
With this promise of God to Abraham Paul now links another and earlier promise. Verses 7–9: So you see that it is men of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ So then, those who are men of faith are blessed with Abraham who had faith. Here Paul is quoting from Genesis 12:3 (cf. Gn. 22:17, 18; Acts 3:25). We must examine what this blessing was, and how all nations would come to inherit it. The blessing is justification, the greatest of all blessings, for the verbs ‘to justify’ and ‘to bless’ are used as equivalents in verse 8. And the means by which the blessing would be inherited is faith (‘God would justify the Gentiles by faith’), which was the only way in which Gentiles could inherit Abraham’s blessing since Abraham was the father of the Jewish race. Perhaps the Judaizers were telling the Galatian converts that they should become the sons of Abraham by circumcision. So Paul counters by saying that the Galatians were already the sons of Abraham, not by circumcision but by faith.
Both verses 7 and 9 affirm that the true children of Abraham (who inherit the blessing promised to his seed) are not his posterity by physical descent, the Jews, but his spiritual progeny, men and women who share his faith, namely Christian believers.
All this, the apostle says, the Galatians should have known. They should never have been so foolish. They should never have fallen under the spell of these false teachers. Indeed, they would not have done so, if they had kept Christ crucified before their eyes. They should have realized at once that the Judaizers were contradicting the gospel of justification by faith alone. They should have known it, as we have seen, from their own experience and from the Scriptures of the Old Testament.
We too should learn to test every theory and teaching of men by the gospel of Christ crucified, especially as it is known to us from Scripture and from experience.
- What the gospel is
The gospel is Christ crucified, His finished work on the cross. And to preach the gospel is publicly to portray Christ as crucified. The gospel is not good news primarily of a baby in a manger, a young man at a carpenter’s bench, a preacher in the fields of Galilee, or even an empty tomb. The gospel concerns Christ upon His cross. Only when Christ is ‘openly displayed upon his cross’ (neb) is the gospel preached. This verb prographein means to ‘show forth or portray publicly, proclaim or placard in public’ (Arndt-Gingrich). It was used of edicts, laws and public notices, which were put up in some public place to be read, and also of pictures and portraits.
This means that in preaching the gospel we are to refer to an event (Christ’s death on a cross), to expound a doctrine (the perfect participle ‘crucified’ indicating the abiding effects of Christ’s finished work), and to do so publicly, boldly, vividly, so that people see it as if they witnessed it with their own eyes. This is what some writers have called the ‘existential’ element in preaching. We do more than describe the cross as a first-century event. We actually portray Christ crucified before the eyes of our contemporaries, so that they are confronted by Christ crucified today and realize that they may receive from the cross the salvation of God today.
- What the gospel offers
On the ground of Christ’s cross, the gospel offers a great blessing. Verse 8: ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ What is this? It is a double blessing. The first part is justification (verse 8) and the second the gift of the Spirit (verses 2–5). It is with these two gifts that God blesses all who are in Christ. He both justifies us, accepting us as righteous in His sight, and puts His Spirit within us. What is more, he never bestows one gift without the other. Everybody who receives the Spirit is justified, and everybody who is justified receives the Spirit. It is important to notice this double initial blessing, since various people nowadays are teaching instead a doctrine of salvation in two stages, that we are justified at the beginning and receive the Spirit only at a later stage.
- What the gospel requires
The gospel offers blessings; what must we do to receive them? The proper answer is ‘nothing’! We do not have to do anything. We have only to believe. Our response is not ‘the works of the law’ but ‘hearing with faith’, that is, not obeying the law, but believing the gospel. For obeying is to attempt to do the work of salvation ourselves, whereas believing is to let Christ be our Saviour and to rest in His finished work. So Paul emphasizes both that we receive the Spirit by faith (verses 2 and 5) and that we are justified by faith (verse 8). Indeed, the noun ‘faith’ and the verb ‘to believe’ occur seven times in this brief paragraph (verses 1–9).
Such is the true gospel, the gospel of the Old and New Testaments, the gospel which God Himself began to preach to Abraham (verse 8) and which the apostle Paul continued to preach in his day. It is the setting forth before men’s eyes of Jesus Christ as crucified. It offers on this basis both justification and the gift of the Spirit. And its only demand is faith.