Paul’s most scathing words are found in Galatians, where he vigorously defends the doctrine of justification by faith. Why was this teaching so important to him?
Let us look at a passage in Galatians 3: “For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law’” (Galatians 3:10 NRSV). God requires no less than perfect obedience. There are no small, insignificant sins. One white lie, one angry word, one lustful gaze brings God’s curse and is worthy of eternal condemnation (Romans 5:15, 6:23). Justification through the law is “all or nothing.” That is, it is not as if a sinner can earn God’s favor by pointing to all the parts of the law they have obeyed as much as a murderer can be acquitted by telling the judge of his community service. As James writes, “[W]hoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10). No one is righteous in God’s sight by their works (Psalm 143:2).
Our sin, however, is much deeper than this, for it is not merely the case that we aren’t perfect but “all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth” (Isaiah 64:6). Let me ask you this: have you ever truly loved the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and loved your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27)? Even brief introspection will prove that you have not — not by a long shot. There is so much self-centeredness, pride, greed, hate, deceit and ingratitude in our hearts. We see glimpses of this in everyday life, but we don’t even know its depths. Since our hearts are so far from pure, how can any of our actions be pleasing and acceptable before God? They cannot. Thus, it can rightly be said that all our actions are marked by sin and, if we were to stand even on the merit of our best works, each would bring upon us condemnation and God’s wrath. If you are depending on your own good works and performance to merit eternal life, in part or whole, there is no hope for you. You will be damned. All who rely on works of the law are under a curse.
At this point, some may suggest that I’ve overstepped and that the works of the law in Galatians 3:10 refer to only the ceremonial law. While the crisis in Galatia surrounded circumcision, Paul’s teaching here is not restricted to the ceremonial law but includes the moral law as well. This is evidenced by his citation of Deuteronomy 27:26 here and Leviticus 18:5 in 3:12, which describe the general nature of the whole law and are found in passages primarily discussing the moral law. Further, such an understanding of the law in Galatians 3:10 is consistent with other passages in Galatians (5:3,14) and Romans (2:13-29, 7:7-12). But I digress.
“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law; for ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith.’ But the law does not rest on faith; on the contrary, ‘Whoever does the works of the law will live by them’” (Galatians 3:11-12). Notice the opposing nature of justification by works and that of faith. The law promises life based on performance; if you’re good enough, you’ll be saved. But justification by faith does not rest on your own works, your own performance or your own purity but on that of Another, Jesus Christ. He is the Object of our faith. Now this faith is not mere intellectual assent but a living trust in Him and His finished work. Just as Abraham, in his old age, believed in God’s promises and was saved thereby, so also those “who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Romans 4:24) will be saved. Note, too, that this salvation is by faith alone and not by works. “Now to the one who works, wages are not reckoned as a gift but as something due. But to the one who without works trusts him who justifies the ungodly, such faith is reckoned as righteousness. So also David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God reckons righteousness irrespective of works: ‘Blessed are those whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not reckon sin.’” (Romans 4:4-8).
But how can God justify the ungodly? Galatians 3:13 helps us here: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.’” He suffered the wrath of God our sins deserved. “[H]e was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). His substitutionary death has fully paid for all our sins (Colossians 2:13-14). It is a finished and sufficient sacrifice (Hebrews 10:18). Nothing, including your good works, can be added to it; how can you add something to an already perfect and finished sacrifice? Our salvation, then, can only be by faith alone, and therefore boasting is eliminated (Ephesians 2:9).
If we rely on our own merit for any part of our salvation, we will never find hope and rest. As we face death and when we stand before God, we will know that none of our good deeds merit eternal life. Only a wholly sufficient and complete Savior and sacrifice can bring us to glory, and praise God that He has given us such a salvation in Christ! On that day, you will desperately need this Rock of Ages. It is the only way any of us can be saved. Let us, then, say with that famous hymn, “I need no other argument, I need no other plea, It is enough that Jesus died, And that He died for me.”
Andrew Sveda is a senior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science and theology. In his free time, he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.