Faith and Paul's Theology of the Law/Gospel Contrast in Galatians 3:9-12

It is becoming increasingly common today for many to mix faith and obedience into, at root, the same thing. The implication of this way of thinking is that we are justified just as much by loving our neighbor (obedience) as by looking to Christ for salvation (faith) since, on this view, it is incorrect to make a real distinction between faith and works of love.

This exploration of Galatians 3:9-12 is intended as a short response to such views by fleshing out Paul’s wider theology of the law and the gospel. My purpose is not to delineate who has or has not fallen into the error of confounding faith and obedience, but to lay out the biblical teaching that we must be faithful to on this vital issue. In the end, we will see that any teaching which truly mixes faith and obedience--despite all claims to the contrary--really does undermine the work of Christ and, if we subscribe to it, places us in danger of the curse of Galatians 1:8 and 3:10.

9 So then those who are of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer. 10 For as many as are of the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to do them.’ 11 Now that no one is justified by law is evident; for, ‘The righteous man shall live by faith.’ 12 However, the law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’

Paul’s words to us here are structured around a theme of three opposites. First, two destinies are contrasted: those who are of faith are blessed (v. 9), whereas those who are of works of law are cursed (v. 10). In context, the blessing is a right to eternal life—or, in other words, justification; [1] and the curse is eternal condemnation (since it is the opposite of this blessing). Second, two human actions are contrasted: it is those who are of faith who have this blessing while it is those who are of works of law who are cursed. Third, two ways of receiving this blessing (i.e., two ways of being justified) are contrasted: the law promises justification (life) to "he who practices them [the works of law]"—(v. 12), but Paul’s gospel says that justification comes to those who believe (v. 11; cf. Romans 1:16-17).

These three sets of contrasts are closely related to one another. In a nutshell, they relate like this: there are two opposing methods of justification (traditionally called gospel and law) which correspond to two different human actions (faith and works of law) and lead to two radically contrary destinies (eternal life or eternal condemnation). This contrast in destinies underlines the gravity of the other two contrasts: If we are "of faith"—that is, if we seek justification by faith—we will have eternal life; but, for some reason, if we are "of works of law"—if our justification is based upon works of law—we will be eternally condemned.

It is, therefore, profoundly important to understand the contrast that Paul is making here between faith and works of law. For without grasping this we will not understand the nature of faith. And if we do not understand the nature of faith, we are in danger of either being "of works of law" (and thus cursed) ourselves or of leading others into becoming cursed by being of works of law—which also brings us under a curse (Galatians 1:8-9).

May God protect us from this danger by giving us a true understanding of faith. And may He give us the consequent joy and peace and confidence that come from seeing the glory of how Christ becomes our refuge from this curse by faith. Then we will be strong people, we will have a powerful curse-shielding gospel to preach (for all are under this curse by nature—v. 13), and we will lead many to life—that is, to justification.

Our goal, then, is to understand the nature of faith by seeking to grasp the difference that Paul sees between faith and works of law. I think that the best way to understand this difference is to understand the contrast he makes between the two opposing methods of justification which correspond to these two different human actions—justification by law and justification by faith. And so the main question we must ask is, "What does Paul mean in verse 11 when he says that ‘no one is justified by law’?"


Some have argued that Paul is using "law" here to mean the Jewish perversion of the law into legalism—defined as the attempt to bribe God with one’s so-called virtues—by certain Jews. And so when verse 11 says that no one is justified by law, this view takes Paul to mean that no one is set right with God by "obedience" done in his own strength in order to earn justification. For such "obedience" is actually the height of blasphemy and rebellion against God, for it treats Him as if He can be "served by human hands" (contra Acts 17:25) and implicitly denies that "from Him…are all things" (Romans 11:36).

While agreeing that this kind of legalism is surely sinful and will never justify anyone (not even Adam before the fall could have been justified by this kind of law-keeping), I do not think that it is what Paul has in mind here. Neither do I think that Paul is using the term "law" in any of the other restricted senses that have been proposed through the ages—such as obedience to the ceremonial law only or obedience that treats the Mosaic Covenant as the final and ultimate expression of God’s will (and thereby denies the new age inaugurated by Christ).

The danger of all such views is that they seem to imply that Paul would have no problem with those who thought that obedience done in the right way (i.e., obedience from faith instead of pride, obedience that looks to the New Covenant for the will of God, etc.) would bring justification. The reason such an implication is dangerous is because it is actually the very thing that Paul is opposing. In other words, I think that if we look at the context it will become clear that Paul is using "law" not in any restricted sense (such as to mean "legalism") but to mean the true expression of God’s eternal moral will. His point, then, is that no one is justified by doing the commandments.

The parallel between vv. 10 and 11
First, notice how Paul’s declaration that "no one is justified by law is evident…" at the beginning of verse 11 begins with "now that…" This indicates that he is bringing out a thought contained in verse 10—a thought that, probably, was being assumed rather than explicitly stated in verse 10. That’s why he has to bring it out in verse 11a. What is that thought?

Since Paul had just said "cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law" and since he views all people as law-breakers (Romans 1:18-3:18) and thus under the curse of the law (Galatians 3:13; Romans 5:6-11), it seems in verse 10 he was presupposing that all people do in fact fail to abide by all that the law commands. Thus, when he says that "no one is justified by law" in 11a, this is what he is making explicit—namely, that this curse of the law falls upon everybody without exception because everybody fails to abide by all things the law commands.[2] And he does this by saying "no one is justified by law."

If this is so, then the term "law" at the beginning of verse 11 is parallel to the phrase "all things written in the book of the law" at the end of verse 10. Consequently, since the "things written in the book of the law" are the commands that God really gave—commands which (need it be said?) require obedience that comes from faith and the power of God’s enablement (not our own strength)—"law" in 11a cannot mean legalism. It refers, rather, to Mosaic Law (the "book of the law") as God really gave it.

Isn’t this the most natural way to understand the connection between verses 10 and 11? When Paul says that "no one is justified by law" (11a) right after having said "cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law" (10b), isn’t it most likely that 11a is simply Paul’s way of saying that everybody is cursed (i.e., not justified) because nobody has obeyed all things written in the book of the law? The parallel between "law" in 11a and "all things written in the book of the law" in 10b, then, reveals that to be justified by law means to be justified by doing what God’s law commands—that is, to be justified by abiding by all things written in the book of the law.

The nature of the Mosaic Law
Some might conclude from this that Paul has in mind here only the Mosaic Law—after all, that is surely the "book of the law" in which the commands called "law" in 11a are contained. On this view, Paul would not be saying that no one is justified by good moral behavior in general but rather that no one is justified by following the law of God as expressed in the Mosaic Economy. But we can be justified by following the law of God as expressed in the New Covenant. In other words, Paul’s point (on this view) would be that no one is justified by submitting to the commands of the Mosaic Law; but we can be justified by submitting to the moral commands of the New Covenant.

The problem with this is that Paul views the Mosaic Law as a picture of the universal will of God binding upon all humans at all times whatever their station. For in Romans 2:12-16 Paul views the Mosaic Law as an instantiation of the universal law written on the conscience of all humans, and in Romans 3:19-4:8 he uses the specific term "works of law" as roughly equivalent to "works" in general—that is, good deeds in general, done without reference to the Mosaic Law (cf. the example of Abraham in 4:2, who lived before the Mosaic Law). We don’t even need to move beyond the context of our Galatians text to see this important aspect of the Mosaic Law. For Paul views the curse that comes upon those who do not abide by all the commands of the Mosaic Law (10b) as encompassing even those who have never been subject to the Mosaic Law since he says that Christ had to redeem all Christians from the "curse of the law" (13a). Many Christians were never under nor ever subjected themselves to the Mosaic Law.

The Mosaic Law, then, is a picture of the universal moral law binding all humans generally. The "book of the law" in 10b and the "law" in 11a, then, does indeed immediately refer to the Mosaic Law—but it refers to it as a picture of the universal law of God. The "law" that will not justify anyone, therefore, is ultimately the transcendent and universally binding command to love God with our whole hearts and our neighbors as ourselves (which is the essence of what is written in the book of the Mosaic Law, as Matthew 22:36-40 shows, and thus the essence of the universal law of which it is an instantiation).

The parallel between 3:11 and 3:21
Second, that the "law" that no one is justified by in verse 11a is the Mosaic Law (and thus ultimately a reference to the universal moral law) is also evident from the parallel between 3:11 and 3:21, where Paul writes: "Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law." In 3:11 Paul said that no one is justified by law. In 3:21 he says that righteousness is not based on law. These are two different ways of saying the same thing. He is, therefore, speaking of the same law in both places.

The law of 3:21, however, is the Mosaic Law as God intended it to be understood and not legalism. Two factors bear this out. First, Paul is speaking of the law that had been given. God did not give Israel legalism, a law which calls for earning justification by obedience done in our own strength. Second, Paul says that there are circumstances where righteousness would indeed have been from the very law which he says does not now bring righteousness. This could never be said of legalism. Paul would never say, "If a legalism (understood in the sinful sense explained above) had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been by legalism." When Paul says, therefore, that righteousness is not by "law" in 3:21, he means that righteousness (justification) does not come by obeying the Mosaic Law—not legalism. Since 3:11 has the same law in view, it is also speaking of the Mosaic Law and not legalism. And since the Mosaic Law is a picture of the universal law, Paul is not exclusively speaking of the Mosaic Commandments, but of any and all commandments of God binding upon His creatures.

The connection between 3:11 and 3:12
Third, we know that the law Paul is speaking of in verse 11 is the Mosaic Law (and thus, ultimately, the universal law) because in verse 12b Paul quotes Leviticus 18:5 as a statement about the nature of the law: "However, the Law is not of faith; on the contrary, ‘He who practices them shall live by them.’" What is the "them" that those who practice will live by? Since Paul had just spoken of the need to "abide by all things written in the book of the law, to do them" (10b), when he says in 12b that "he who practices them shall live by them" he is surely referring to "all things written in the book of the law." Just as the "to do them" at the end of 10b refers to the commands written in the law, so also the "he who practices them" in 12b refers back to all the commands written in the book of the law. Paul is thus not speaking of legalism in 12b, but of genuine obedience. Since 12b is a statement about the law that Paul is speaking of in 11-12a, it therefore follows that the law in 11-12a is the Mosaic Law—which according to 12b is a moral standard which promises eternal life to those who do its commands.

We are not justified by doing the commandments
Since the "law" in 11a is the Mosaic Law as a picture of the universal law and since the essence of the Mosaic Law (and thus the universal law) is that we love our neighbor as ourselves and love God with our whole hearts, we are now able to understand what Paul means when he says in 11a that "no one is justified by law." He means that no one is justified by loving their neighbor or loving God. If this sounds either too radical to be true or to good to be true, or if it seems that this turns faith into mere intellectual assent devoid of any affection for God, just keep tracking with me. We will take a brief (but hopefully sufficient) look at issues like these shortly.

Justification by doing the commandments is contrasted with justification by faith
If we cannot be justified by loving God or our neighbor, how then can anyone be justified? Paul tells us in 11b: "Now that no one is justified by the Law before God is evident; for, ‘the righteous by faith shall live.’" It is important to realize that Paul is setting forth faith-righteousness as something different from law righteousness. For his argument is that since all the righteous are righteous by faith (11b), therefore no one is justified by the law. And this argument only works if law and faith are different methods of justification. If they were the same thing or even overlapping, Paul could not argue from the fact that all who are righteous have their righteousness through faith to the conclusion that no one is justified by law.

This, then, informs us of Paul’s meaning in 12a when he says, "However, the Law is not of faith." He is making explicit the necessary link in his argument that was being assumed in verse 11—namely, that law and faith are different methods of justification. Two things follow from this. First, since Paul is talking ultimately about the universal revelatory law of God in 11a, his statement that "the law is not of faith," is likewise a statement about the universal moral law of God and not a statement about legalism or simply the Mosaic Law per se.

Second, justification by following the commandments and justification by faith cannot be mixed. Whatever faith is, the flow of thought from verses 10-12 make clear that it cannot be the doing of the commandments because "the law is not of faith." This is confirmed by the Scripture which Paul quotes in confirmation of his point that "the law is not of faith." Having just quoted Habakkuk 2:4 (which says, "The righteous by faith shall live") as the embodiment of the principle of faith righteousness, he now quotes Leviticus 18:5 as the embodiment of the principle of law-righteousness: "He who does them shall live by them." As we saw, the "them" is surely a reference back to "all things written in the book of the law, to do them." Law-righteousness, then, means to be justified by doing all the commandments of God’s law. This is in contrast to (note the "on the contrary" prefacing Leviticus 18:5) being justified by faith.

Let this sink in!
May this sink into our hearts! So much modern scholarship today tries to look at the Scripture from a purely detached point of view. In fact, the impression is given that if we are passionate about what Paul is saying we will end up distorting his meaning. Objective detachment (which is really impossible) is therefore implicitly (sometimes explicitly) seen as a virtue. But this fails to do justice to the greatness of God's truth! The things taught in God’s word are too great to let our affections—the measure of His word's impact on us—be set aside. Calvin was surely right to say about justification that "this whole discussion will be foolish and weak unless every man admit his guilt before the Heavenly Judge, and concerned about his own acquittal, willingly cast himself down and confess his nothingness" (Calvin, Institutes, 756).

In fact, so-called scholarly detachment often ends up distorting the meaning of the text because it leaves out an essential element of all communication—the "controls" that our emotional responses bring to our understanding of the text which send up yellow flags about certain interpretations. It is true that our emotions should not dictate the meaning. But they must certainly be allowed to function as signs of either danger of safety. And this is especially so in this area, as John Owen makes powerfully clear when he says, "…if men will be turned off from a continual regard unto the greatness, holiness, and majesty of God, by their inventions in the heat of disputation; if they do forget a reverential consideration of what will become them, and what they may betake themselves unto when they stand before his tribunal; they may engage into such apprehensions as they dare not abide by in their own personal trial" (John Owen, The Doctrine of Justification by Faith, 18).

Consequently, he counsels us as follows: "Justification is the way and means whereby [a guilty person] doth obtain acceptance before God, with a right and a title unto a heavenly inheritance. And nothing is pleadable in this cause but what a man would speak unto his own conscience in that state, or unto the conscience of another, when he is anxious under that inquiry" (Owen, 1).

It is thus refreshing to read how Calvin sums up the things we have seen with great unction: "The contradiction between the law and faith lies in the matter of justification. You will more easily unite fire and water, than reconcile these two statements, that men are justified by faith, and that they are justified by the law. ‘The law is not of faith;’ that is, it has a method of justifying" (John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians, 90). With Paul’s three contrasts now understood—the contrast between blessing and curse, faith and works of law, and justification by faith and justification by law—we can now briefly draw out the implications and apply them to our lives.


Faith and obedience cannot be mixed
Though the things that we have seen do not yet put us in a position to understand what faith is, they do decisively show us what faith is not: faith is not the doing of the commandments. For if it were, Paul could not so completely contrast justification by faith and justification by doing the commandments.

We are consequently in a position to biblically answer the question: is faith a distinct act from obedience, or are faith and obedience to God’s commandments fundamentally the same thing—at root, the same response to God?

From what we have seen, it follows that Paul would be fiercely opposed to such an identification of faith and works. Faith and obedience (that is, love for God and neighbor) are two entirely separate and distinct responses to God. Faith does lead to obedience, but is not of the same nature as obedience. For if it were, Paul could not say "the law is not of faith" and could not contrast law-righteousness with faith-righteousness based on the fact that former promises life to those who obey and the latter to those who believe.

The contrast, in other words, that Paul makes between the two opposing principles of justification by law (the law of God) and faith ensures that there is a contrast between the two corresponding human actions of faith and obedience ("works of law"). And the contrast in destiny between those who seek justification by faith (v. 9) and those whose justification is dependent upon their obedience (v. 10) ensures the importance of this distinction. It is, therefore, extremely important that we grasp this distinction—lest we mix faith and obedience and so end up seeking justification by works of law all the while thinking we are seeking it by faith (or, worse yet, lead others into such deception).

Faith is not devoid of affection for God
That faith and love for God are not to be mixed should not be understood to mean that faith has no affections for God in it. I would say, in fact, that faith is itself an affection—a joyful affection. What this alerts us to, rather, is that faith is a specific and unique kind of affection that is like nothing else in the human heart. And so it is even to be distinguished from love for God. If this sounds difficult, we must remember that this is the clear implication of verse 12 in its context.

Though there is not the time to elaborate in depth on how faith can have an affinity for God in it and yet not be the love called for in the law, it can be said here that this is really no more of a difficulty than reconciling how faith can be an act of will and yet not be a "work" (it is, after all, the same problem if one accepts Jonathan Edward’s view of the will whereby affections are simply the "more lively" and thus "felt" acts of will). The answer is that when Paul denies that faith is a "work" he is not denying that it is an act of will; he is rather affirming that it is a unique act of will in a class all by itself. So also the affinity which faith has for God is a unique affinity that is in a class by itself and ought not, therefore, be confused with the love commanded by the law (either for God or, especially, for neighbor).

But isn’t faith obedience since it is commanded by God?
It should also be clear from the nature of the difference between faith and obedience that when I say faith is not obedience I am not denying that when we believe we are "doing what God says." If one defines obedience simply to mean "doing what God says," then of course faith would be a form of obedience. But that is not the point. The point is that faith and obedience to the revelatory law are different. The revelatory law (the "law" of vv. 11-12) calls for, at essence, two things: love for God and love for neighbor. All of its various commandments can be boiled down to these two. Since the law of God calls for right motives in addition to right actions, love for our neighbor may best be defined as a disposition to do our neighbor good for the glory of God and, when possible, the carrying out of such dispositions. Likewise, love for God may be defined as a disposition to advance the glory of God—to promote God’s kingdom—and as a general wonder and marveling and worship of His excellency. When we say that faith and obedience are different, then, we are not denying that faith is "doing what God says." What we are denying is that faith is a disposition to either do good for my neighbor unto the glory of God or a disposition to advance God’s kingdom and marvel at His beauty per se (more on this later).

Didn’t the law teach faith?
It is common these days to hear that "the law taught faith." What are we to make of such a statement, in light of these things? It depends on what is meant by it. For one thing, we must make a distinction between the Mosaic Economy as a whole and the moral law which Paul speaks of in 11a. The law of 11a is a part of the Mosaic Economy but is not co-extensive with it. If, then, what one means by this statement is that the gospel is revealed in the Mosaic Economy, it is correct. Within the Mosaic Economy were both the gospel (illustrated by the provisional function of the sacrifices to deal with sin by foreshadowing the One who would put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself) and the "law"—understood as the command to love God and love neighbor.

Likewise, if what one means is that we cannot obey God without faith or that faith leads to obedience, we would once again have no problem. Surely no one can obey God unless they are first sure of where they stand with Him; and surely a sight of the beauty of God that comes with the knowledge that we stand right with Him will drive us to joyfully obey Him out of a delight in His glory as it is reflected in His law.

If, however, one means that the commands to love God and love neighbor are really commands for faith, we must disagree. For "the law is not of faith." Many of those who advocate a mixing of faith and obedience seem to think that they are escaping the charge of "works righteousness" by giving obedience the qualities of faith. But the fact is that this is not sufficient. For obedience is always something more than faith. Loving my neighbor is something beyond seeking refuge in Christ. Therefore, no matter what such teachers say, their statements cannot change reality and they are therefore putting on the people of God a yoke beyond what He intended us to bear for justification.


Before moving on to complete our picture of what faith is, we need to briefly draw out a few more of the implications of these things for the nature of the law.

Perfect righteousness would yield justification
First of all, Paul’s clear statement that "no one is justified by law" in 11a makes us wonder, Why? Why is no one justified by law? It might seem at first that the reason is that either the law is simply unable to grant justification or that it is inherently wrong to seek justification by law. But Paul’s flow of argument bears out neither of these views. The reason that no one is justified by law is because the law requires that one abide by and do all of its commandments (10b). Since no one obeys God perfectly (3:13; Romans 1:18-3:18), therefore no one is justified by law.

The reason, then, that we cannot be justified by law is not that there is something inherently wrong about justification by law but because we all break the law. This makes sense when you think about it, for all laws necessarily pronounce judgment on those who break them. Since God’s holiness cannot be relaxed, the judgment of His law upon us cannot be removed unless something other than the law comes in to pay the penalty (cf. verse 13). Until the penalty is removed, the law must pronounce judgment—the very opposite of justification. Since it takes something other than the law to remove the penalty, we cannot be justified by means of the law itself.

Paul explicitly says, however, that if we did keep the law perfectly we would in fact be justified: "He who practices them [i.e., the commandments] shall live by them" (v. 12). Likewise, he tells us in 3:21 that "if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law." This is also implied in 10b—for if the law curses those who don’t obey it perfectly, the implication is that it would justify those who do keep it perfectly. This implication is validated in 11b where Paul speaks of justification by law as a real possibility that, however, is never actualized. Perfect obedience to the law, therefore, results in justification—that is, it results in a verdict of righteousness and a consequent right to eternal life.

Justification by perfect obedience is not bribery
The truth that perfect obedience yields justification has sometimes been expressed by historical Protestantism like this: perfect obedience "merits" or "earns" eternal life. This is indeed a confusing way to speak, for it can imply that God is in our debt and that we gave to Him something that He did not first give to us (contra Romans 11:36). But that is not what is meant. Rather, all that is meant is that perfect obedience would be the ground of eternal life.

Calvin himself wrote: "Though a man were to excel all the angels in holiness, no reward is due to works, but on the footing of a Divine promise. Perfect obedience to the law is righteousness, and has a promise of eternal life annexed to it; but it derives this character from God, who declares that ‘they who have fulfilled them shall live" (Calvin, Commentary on Galatians, 67-68, emphasis added). And he also says that "to the Lord we have given nothing unrequired but have only carried out services owed, for which no thanks are due" (Calvin, Institutes, 790).

Justification by law, then, does not call into question the independence of God either in historic Protestantism or in Paul; it is, rather, simply the bestowal of the blessings that, because of God’s promise and not need, belong to those who meet the condition of perfect obedience (not bribery).[3]

The need for imputed righteousness
What is striking from our text is that not only is perfect obedience to the law taught to result in justification but, furthermore, it is taught that there is no justification without it—even of those who are "of faith." For since God is coherent, He saves us in a way that upholds His law rather than sets it aside. Since the law pronounces a curse not simply on those who break it but on those who do not obey it perfectly, it follows that if God is going to save us in a way that upholds His law He must not only forgive our sins but also somehow provide for us a perfect conformity to His law. For without such a perfect and positive fulfillment of the law (as opposed to simple forgiveness of transgressions), the law would still curse us: "cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the book of the law, to do them." Since we have already broken the law, this perfect fulfillment cannot come from us—that is, it cannot be performed by us. Instead, it must be performed by another. In redeeming us from the curse of the law (v. 13), therefore, Christ not only paid the penalty for our sins but also perfectly fulfilled the positive precepts of the law (v. 10). In other words, both the active and passive obedience of Christ need to be imputed to us.


Do not nullify the death of Christ or grace of God
With all of these pieces in place, we can now go beyond what faith is not and understand what faith is. Part of the lexical definition of the term "faith" is reliance. Since verse 13 says that our salvation is based upon a Savior who redeemed us from the curse of God’s wrath by both paying the penalty for our sins and perfectly obeying the law on our behalf, faith is therefore a reliance on this Savior and this work for our justification. Faith is not, as it is so often caricatured, on this view a mere reliance on Christ because you want to escape hell. It is also a reliance on Christ because you want the blessing that He brings—fellowship with Himself and His Father forever.

Positively, saving faith is a resting on the perfect obedience of another (that is, Christ’s obedience to fulfill both the penalty and precept of the law—though this distinction may not be explicit in the believer’s mind) for our right to eternal life. Negatively, saving faith is not obedience (i.e., a disposition to seek the good of my neighbor for God’s glory or disposition to seek the advancement of God’s kingdom) because all the obedience required has been done; if faith was obedience, the implication would be that the ground of our justification (which must be obedience—10b) accomplished by Christ is insufficient. Therefore, no matter what is said to the contrary by those who mix faith and obedience, their view really does end up saying (albeit unintentionally) that the work of Christ is insufficient. The glory of Christ—not simply the destiny of man—is indeed at stake in this whole issue.

This is not simply a logical inference. Paul explicitly says so in Galatians 2:21: "I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly." It would do violence to Paul’s flow of thought to understand "law" here to mean anything different than what it means in 3:11-12. What Paul is saying, then, is that if righteousness comes through doing what the law commands (i.e., genuine obedience to God), then Christ’s death was in vain. Even more, Paul says that such teaching therefore nullifies the grace of God. And so if we teach that obedience to God’s law leads to justification—either as the basis or means—we are both implying that Christ died needlessly and nullifying the grace of God. And this is true even it is veiled by a strange mixture of faith and works in our minds.

The nature of faith
Though the meaning of faith we have inferred from Galatians 3:9-14 could be explicitly shown from many places in Paul, Psalm 34:22 is particularly relevant to me: "The Lord redeems the soul of His servants; and none of those who take refuge in him will be condemned." Paul seems to be echoing this passage in Romans 8:1: "there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." This echo indicates that Psalm 34:22 is speaking of saving faith (since Romans 8:1, which echoes it, is speaking of a Christ as shielding us from eternal condemnation) and that the refuge in God that it speaks of is immediately a refuge in Christ and therefore God.

Putting all these things together, we see that the essence of saving faith—and, indeed, we must say the whole essence of faith—is a taking refuge in Christ to, by His obedience unto death, remove the wrath of God from us and secure eternal life for us. Saving faith is a looking to Christ as the ground of our acceptance with God; it is coming to Him like a truck to shield you from the fire around you and transport you into paradise. It is the placing of Christ between you and the wrath of God which you deserve, saying "I count on Christ to shield me from wrath and secure eternal life for me. He is my certainty of eternal life. I stake my destiny on Him. Give me what He deserves—not what I deserve."

In this act of taking refuge, we do indeed have an affinity for Christ and God that could in a certain sense be termed "love." But it is not obedience to the revelatory law because it is a refuge-seeking love and not simply a love for God’s glory per se. It is the kind of love that a baby in its mother’s arms has for the security that the mother is giving the infant—a security which is in fact the mother herself.

An analogy of faith
Perhaps it would help to close with another example. Imagine that you are dead on the bottom of the middle of the Pacific ocean. A man comes down and breathes life into you and brings you to the top. You open your eyes to see that he is hanging down from a helicopter, and in order to be rescued from the ocean he requires you to lay hold of him so that you can be drug up out of the water. Since He has made you alive, you are able to take the necessary action to become connected with him and thus be delivered from the water. But what exactly is it that you must do to lay hold of him?

There are several things, first of all, which would be good to do but would not connect you with the Man hanging from the helicopter. You could speak well of Him to all those around you (just bear with me here and assume that there are people swimming in the middle of the ocean!). You could marvel in amazement at the grace of the man up in the helicopter to come to rescue you. You could even be filled with a great love for the man who came down to rescue you and the one who is up in the helicopter engineering the whole thing—a love which drives you to seek the welfare of the many others who are still lost at sea. While all these things are good, however, and in fact are required by the one in the helicopter once you have laid hold of the man hanging from the helicopter, these things cannot get you connected to that man.

You cannot lay hold of him by speaking well of him, marveling at the wonders of the man in the helicopter who came to save you, or seeking to help others to find this man. Rather, you can only lay hold of this man by grabbing onto him and resting on him as he brings you up into the helicopter.

Likewise, speaking well of Christ, worshiping God, doing good to our neighbor, or any such good things can never bring us into union with Christ. To tell people that resting in Christ is essentially the same as doing good to our neighbor (obedience) is just as harmful as telling a man being tossed about in the ocean that he will lay hold of the life preserver thrown to him by seeking the welfare of the other people in the sea with him. We can only come into union with Christ by resting on Him,, cleaving to Him, and taking refuge in Him. And when we do so, it is because we want the blessing He offers—fellowship with Himself.


1. This is evident from reading verse 9 together with verses 7-8—especially in light of the parallel passages of 3:18, 24-26, 29.

2. This would explain why Paul can view even those who are "of faith" as having once been under the curse of the law in verse 13 even though in 10a he had only said that "those who are of works of law" are under a curse."

3. In fact, although Calvin sometimes used the term "merit" in regards to the work of Christ, he did not like the term: "I must first make these prefatory remarks concerning the term ‘merit’: whoever first applied it to men’s works over against God’s judgment provided very badly for sincere faith…Why, I ask, was there need to drag in the term ‘merit’ when the value of good works could without offense have been meaningfully explained by another term. How much offense this term contains is clear from the great damage it has done to the world. Surely, as it is a most prideful term, it can do nothing but obscure God’s favor and imbue men with perverse haughtiness" (Calvin, Institutes, 789).

Scripture quotations are generally from the New American Standard Bible, copyright 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1975, 1977, by the Lockman Foundation.


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