Wednesday, July 04, 2018

Focusing On Galatians 3 In Discussions About Justification

A good passage of scripture to focus on when justification through faith alone is being disputed is Galatians 3, especially verse 2. In that verse, Paul tells us about "the only thing" he wanted the Galatians to focus on. He didn't want them to focus on something like the deity of Christ or his resurrection. As important as those issues were, they weren't sufficient. Similarly, belief in Trinitarianism, belief in Jesus' resurrection, opposition to abortion, and other matters of common ground between Roman Catholics and Protestants (and Eastern Orthodox, etc.) aren't sufficient as long as their disagreement over faith and works persists.

The one thing Paul focused on in Galatians 3:2 was whether justification is received "by hearing with faith" or by some other means that denies the sufficiency of faith. Since "by hearing with faith" doesn't logically seem to include works of any type, since Paul goes on to illustrate his point by citing a passage in which Abraham has faith without doing any work (3:6), and since he denies that there's any law of works whereby justification can be attained (3:21-25), he's excluding every form of works. Notice that verses 21-25 aren't just about the Mosaic law or some other such narrower range of works, but rather any system of works you can imagine.

What Paul is referring to in 3:2 is the Galatians' initial belief upon hearing the gospel. They believed in their hearts as they heard the gospel being preached, without any works of any type accompanying their faith at the time of their justification (as in Acts 10:44-8, 15:7-11). And they weren't justified by any work that was added later (Galatians 3:3). The central issue for Paul in his letter to the Galatians is the acceptance of a view of justification that Roman Catholicism and other opponents of Protestantism reject.

Near the end of the chapter, Paul refers to how "you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ" (verse 27). Do those comments warrant including baptism as a means of justification? No, since it's far easier to reconcile verse 27 with justification apart from baptism than it is to reconcile the earlier verses with baptismal justification. In addition to what I've mentioned above, Ronald Fung notes that "in this chapter [Galatians 3] faith is mentioned fifteen times and baptism only once" (The Epistle To The Galatians [Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1988], 173).

If Paul is referring to baptism in some sense other than water baptism (e.g., "baptized into Moses" in 1 Corinthians 10:2), the passage isn't even relevant. So, I'll focus on the view that sees water baptism in the passage. If water baptism is in mind, Galatians 3:27 is likely referring to the same kind of concept we see in Romans 13:14, 2 Corinthians 4:10-11, and Philippians 3:10-12, where various activities done later in the Christian life unite us with Christ in some manner without being justificatory. Romans 13:14 uses the same sort of clothing language ("put on the Lord Jesus Christ") that we see in Galatians 3:27. (See the similar language in Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:12, and 1 Thessalonians 5:8.) Since verses 28-29 go on to refer to the Galatians' present life "in Christ Jesus", a post-justification event like water baptism would be relevant.

More could be said about these issues, but what I've outlined above is enough to make my point. Protestants tend to focus too much on didactic passages when discussing justification and too little on the narrative portions of scripture. One of the advantages of going to Galatians 3 is that it has so much significant material of both types. The didactic material is illustrated by what historically happened when the Galatians and Abraham were justified. The chapter covers so many important topics so concisely and clearly, and Paul himself singles the chapter out for us by telling us that "This is the only thing I want to find out from you" (Galatians 3:2).

(For more evidence of justification through faith alone in scripture, the church fathers, and later church history, see here.)


  1. One of my favorite texts to use in defense of Sola Fide is 1 Corinthians 3:10-15. See here for more information:

  2. It seems to me (and other commentators, eg Doug Moo) that "baptism" in the Scriptures is often simply being used as short hand for 'becoming a Christian' since baptism was/is the initiation rite of the Christian religion... Ie, when Scripture attributes certain things to 'baptism', Paul likely doesn't have simply the rite itself in view, but all that it signifies (ie public entrance into the community of faith)

    1. But there's an ambiguity to that. "Becoming a Christian" in the sense of salvation or membership in the church?

    2. Patrick,

      I think there's a better explanation for each of the baptismal passages. It was easy to distinguish between what happened around the time of conversion and what happened significantly later, such as at the time of baptism. The New Testament authors frequently distinguish between the two, like in the passages I cited above. In a context such as the one Paul is addressing in Galatians, it would be problematic to combine one or more works with faith and refer to them collectively as the means of justification. It's much more likely that the language in passages like Galatians 3:27 can be used in a justificatory or non-justificatory sense, with the context telling us what way the language is being used in a given case, and that a non-justificatory sense is intended in the passages in question. We see that in other post-justificatory contexts as well, not just with baptism, as I mentioned above.

      In the abstract, it makes sense that language like what we see in Galatians 3:27 could be used in a non-justificatory way. That's especially true when discussing something like baptism, which is so unique and so important, being the initiatory rite you referred to.

      And in practice, we see Paul and other authors using such language in non-justificatory contexts. So, not only does it make sense in the abstract to interpret passages like Galatians 3:27 as I'm suggesting, but we also have precedent for it.