Reading Time: 6 mins

Justification for Sinners and Beggars

Reading Time: 6 mins

Paul has zero patience for the gospel of God to be called into question, especially when the ones questioning it are the ones who should’ve known better.

As the page turns from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3 of Galatians, there is a sense in which we are finally arriving at Paul’s point. After taking two chapters to establish his apostolic authority as well as to clarify the “truth of the gospel,” he now returns to the matter that instigated this letter in the first place — namely, the problem of the Galatians turning to a “different gospel” (Gal. 1:6). The damage had seemingly already been done thanks to the Judaizers and their “Jesus-Plus” preaching. Consequently, church folk were being deceived and deluded into believing that Jesus’s cross wasn't enough. But, as Paul has already demonstrated, this is a completely ridiculous notion (Gal. 2:17–21).

Now, though, the apostle pivots to address the Galatians directly, unloading on them with a series of penetrating questions that expose their utter foolishness: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain — if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:1–5).

Paul, to be sure, was never one to mince words or beat around the bush, and by no means does he do that here. Twice he calls these Galatian believers “foolish,” a term that means “thoughtless,” “senseless,” or, in modern vernacular, “stupid.” “You stupid Galatians! Who has put a spell on you to make you believe this stupidity!” we might render these words. Paul has zero patience for the gospel of God to be called into question, especially when the ones questioning it are the ones who should’ve known better. Even though the churches in Galatia were mainly Gentile congregations, they had recently been visited by and introduced to the good news through Paul and Barnabas in striking fashion.

Paul has zero patience for the gospel of God to be called into question, especially when the ones questioning it are the ones who should’ve known better

Paul alludes to this when he reminds the Galatians that it was “before [their] eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal. 3:1). By this, of course, he isn’t referring to the actual crucifixion event. Rather, he suggests that “Christ crucified” was put on display for them through the preaching of the gospel. When Paul later says to the Corinthians that he “decided to know nothing among [them] except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2), that wasn’t a “new conclusion” he had just come up with; that was his mantra and calling card. “Christ crucified” has always been Paul’s message. What’s more, though, we are given a glimpse of the way in which that message was conveyed. To a congregation that wasn’t there for the event of Christ’s crucifixion, Paul was determined to preach in such a way that the awful scene of the cross was brought “before their eyes.”

Paul puts the Galatians in remembrance of all this to set the stage for his stinging line of questioning in verses 2 through 5. “Did the Holy Spirit come to dwell in you because of something you did? Because of your ability to keep the law?” the apostle pointedly inquires. The answer is no, of course not. It was more than a little silly, then, to conclude that what was inaugurated by God’s Spirit (through the preaching of God’s Word) was now being “perfected” and “completed” by them. But such is the deceptive doctrine of the Judaizers. More to the point, though, this is the deception that’s still wreaking havoc on the church today.

The dichotomy between “faith” and “works” evinced by the apostles remains one of the most polarizing points of friction within the church. At the heart of nearly every scandal and schism in the history of the church is division over this point: How much do our works matter? How is the scale balanced between faith and works? This, to be sure, is a topic that has ripped apart too many congregations. How you answer such an inquiry will not only reveal how you understand the gospel but will also reveal how you understand the Christian life as a whole. In the end, you will either be exposed as a Judaizer or a beggar — that is, as a person of works or a person of faith.

The dichotomy between “faith” and “works” evinced by the apostles remains one of the most polarizing points of friction within the church

Paul refused to budge from the position that the works of sinners are merely the byproduct of “the justified life.” In the paradigm of the law and the gospel, sinners are beggars. They have nothing to offer, they can only receive — and when they receive the gospel of “Christ crucified” for them, they are like an empty cup under a running faucet. They are not only filled to the brim, they’re overflowing.

In the paradigm of the law and the gospel, sinners are beggars

Accordingly, this is how we should understand the role of works and obedience in the “life of faith.” The things we do — our works and obedience — are an overflowing response to what we have been given in and through Christ. Works are never the reason for our right standing with God nor are they the catalyst for the Spirit’s work in us. Our works are the fruit of his work; that’s why they’re called the Fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–25). The things we do always follow on the heels of the gift of God’s righteousness received by faith in what Christ has done, which is always dispensed to us through God’s Word and the Spirit.

The Judaizers, you see, were confusing categories. They were putting the cart of works before the horse of faith, resulting in a jumbled mess of faith and practice. They were mixing up the “fruit of the faith” with the “root of the faith,” the latter of which is always an objective declaration of what has already been accomplished.

And this is when we arrive at Paul’s kill-shot: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith — just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’?” (Gal. 3:5–6).

Invoking the name of Father Abraham is a surefire way to make sure everyone is paying attention, especially when, as Paul attests, that “the patriarch’s patriarch” was justified in the same manner in which every sinner was justified — namely, by believing in God’s Word of Promise. The apostle quotes from Genesis 15, where the Lord repeats his covenant to Abraham regarding his offspring (Gen. 15:2–6). Abraham believed in God’s Word of Promise, which Paul defines as “the gospel” (Gal. 3:8), and was, therefore, “counted” or “regarded” as righteous in the eyes of God. The righteousness of God was imputed to Abraham by faith alone.

The “nail in the coffin” for the Judaizers, though, is the fact that this declaration from God occurred well before the rite of circumcision was instituted. Those whom the apostle calls “the circumcision party” were not only adding qualifiers and prerequisites to the gospel but also ignoring the clear teaching of the Word of God.

Anyone relying on the “works of the law” for their justification is “under a curse.” Why? Because the law demands complete and total “doing.” Living by the law means doing “all the things” (Gal. 3:10; cf. Deut. 27:26). This is the law’s operative framework; it’s all about what you “do” (Gal. 3:12; cf. Lev. 18:5). The only option, the only recourse and hope for those under such cursed conditions is for the curse to be broken or lifted. This is precisely what the gospel announces — namely, that Jesus has rescued us from the curse “by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13; cf. Deut. 21:23).

Does that statement shock you? Good, it should. There is no hope of justification apart from the curse being lifted or resolved, which is precisely what the gospel announces was accomplished at that wretched place called Golgotha. Instead of the curse being poured out on the heads of sinners and law-breakers, as it rightly should have, it was poured out on the head of God’s only Son. “The perfectly holy Son of God was numbered with the transgressors” in order to make “intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12). You and I, the cursed ones, are set free from the curse because God’s own Son became the Cursed One for us, bearing the weight of the world’s sin and wrongdoing on his own shoulders. He the Sinless One became sin for you and for me.

There is no hope of justification apart from the curse being lifted or resolved, which is precisely what the gospel announces was accomplished at that wretched place called Golgotha

On his deathbed, Germany’s feistiest reformer, Martin Luther, is said to have uttered these last words: “We are beggars. It is precisely for such cursed beggars and vagabonds that God’s Son had come, assuming their curse and setting them free by offering up his own body on the tree. According to God’s law and God’s gospel, sinners are beggars who can do nothing but receive what he has freely given, which is nothing less than his own righteousness.

The shockingly good news of the gospel invites every sinner to live by faith alone. As the apostle declares, “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Gal. 3:11). All we are and all we have is by faith. The good news of free justification in Christ Jesus is not merely the entry point to the Christian life, it is the Christian life. Like the Galatians, we often get confused on this point, falling prey to treating this gospel as nothing more than a ticket into the life of faith. Once we get in, however, the onus is on us to make sure we stay in. “I still have things to do, right? I still have to do my part, right?” To which I would ask the same question that Paul asks: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The gospel is your assurance. The good news of “Christ crucified” is what got you in and it is this same good news of “Christ crucified” that keeps you in.

The gospel of “Christ becoming the curse” for you is a bottomless reservoir from which every sinner and beggar is invited to drink “grace upon grace.” And the more we drink from that well, the more we will be filled with the faith that works through love (Gal. 5:6), not out of obligation to a God who might justify us but because we’ve been justified already.