Lesson Text: Galatians 2:15—3:6
Supplemental Text: Galatians 3:7-14; Romans 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 8:1-4
Aim: Choose the righteousness that is gained through faith in Christ because it cannot be achieved any other way.
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By Mark Scott
What could be more important than being in a right relationship with one’s God? All world religions strive to articulate how that can be achieved. Islam has its five pillars. Buddhism strives for Nirvana. Hinduism reads through the Vedas with the goal of advancing to different levels of reincarnation. Native American spirituality attempts to become one with the earth. (These are all overgeneralizations.) The gospel claims that being right with God comes through the righteousness of Christ. This righteousness has a God side to it (i.e., the faithfulness of Jesus) and a human side to it (i.e., faith in Jesus).
Having called the Galatians back to the true gospel (1:6-10), having defended his own apostleship in that gospel (1:11–2:10), and having confronted Peter (i.e., Cephas) when he failed to act in conjunction with that gospel (2:11-15), Paul begins to argue for the gospel of righteousness.
Righteousness is probably the third most famous quality of God (following his love and holiness). The terms right, righteous, righteousness, just, justify, justifier, and justification are all translated from one basic family of words. That family of words originally had a legal context to them; they come from the court. A judge can decide if a person is righteous in the eyes of the law. In the case of the true gospel, God plays the role of both the one who is just and the one who justifies (Romans 3:26). His law and mercy are in tension, play, and union in making someone righteous.
The Thesis of Which Righteousness
In many ways the thesis of the Epistle to the Galatians is in this paragraph. Paul stated the thesis in these verses, and then in Galatians 3–4 he made several arguments for that thesis. How can Jews and Gentiles be righteous before God? The answer is, “The same way.” Jews have an advantage by birth (not being sinful Gentiles), but both must be righteous the same way.
Verse 16 might be one of the most wonderfully redundant verses in the Bible. Three times in one verse Paul reminded the Galatians they were not right with God by works of the law. No one can obey the law that specifically or completely. Being justified comes through faith in Jesus Christ. A person must trust in the complete atoning work of Christ on the cross to be righteous.
In verses 17-18, Paul anticipated what critics of his thesis might say. They figured that if righteousness came from faith in Christ, then that would open the door for sinning without restraint (cf. Romans 6:1-4). In a twisted sort of way, Paul’s opponents would argue, this means that Christ promotes (is a servant of) sin. To this, Paul gave an unqualified no (Absolutely not!). If Paul were promoting this, he would be destroying his whole righteousness system and end up breaking the law.
The law was fulfilled in Jesus in the same way an apple fulfills itself from the apple blossom (Matthew 5:17; Romans 10:4). The apple blossom must die for the apple to live. Paul’s sin died through the law so he might live for God. This new life is viewed in terms of being in union with Christ. If verse 16 is the clearest statement of the thesis, then verse 20 is its loftiest expression. Spiritually speaking, Christians died to their sins and their old way of life when Jesus died on the cross. Christian living is just gratitude for this grace. Believers live by faith in Christ. Any other way of living would be to set aside (nullify or abolish) the grace of God and strive for one’s own righteousness.
The First Argument of that Thesis
With fiery logic and the passion of a courtroom lawyer, Paul argued for this righteousness. The first argument had to do with the Holy Spirit. Paul’s put-down was strong: “You foolish Galatians.” He followed this with a harsh question: “Who has bewitched (cast an evil eye or spell on) you?” The Galatians saw Jesus crucified through the preaching of Paul.
But more to the point, the Galatians did not receive the Holy Spirit because they obeyed the law. They received the Spirit (and all the attending miraculous aspects of his work) through faith in Christ. One cannot start with the Spirit and then add the flesh (i.e., the fleshliness of living by the law) and think that one is making progress. That would be ludicrous.
In Romans and Galatians, the spotlight shined on Abraham. Paul leaned into him to transition to his next argument. The famous Genesis 15:6 was invoked. Abraham believed God. That got credited (reckoned or counted) as righteousness. On the Day of Judgment, we will want the righteousness that comes from faith in Christ—not our own.
Dr. Mark Scott serves as minister with Park Plaza Christian Church in Joplin, Mo. He retired in May after more than 30 years as professor of New Testament with Ozark Christian College in Joplin.