Paul’s most damning words are found in Galatians, where he vigorously defends the doctrine of justification by faith. Why was this teaching so important to him?
Let’s look at a passage in Galatians 3: “For all who trust in the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not keep and obey all things which are written in the book of the law’” (Galatians 3:10 NRSV). God requires nothing less than perfect obedience. There are no small, petty sins. One white lie, one evil word, one lustful glance brings God’s curse and is worthy of eternal condemnation (Romans 5:15, 6:23). Justification by law is “all or nothing”. That is, it is not that a sinner can earn God’s favor by pointing out all the parts of the law they have obeyed, as a murderer can be acquitted by telling the judge that he has done community service. As James writes: “[W]whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become responsible for everything” (James 2:10). No one is righteous in God’s sight by his works (Psalm 143:2).
Our sin, however, is much deeper than this, for it is not only that we are imperfect, but “all our righteous deeds are as filthy rags” (Isaiah 64:6). Let me ask you this: Have you ever really loved the Lord with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and loved your neighbor as yourself (Luke 10:27)? Even a brief introspection will prove you haven’t — by no means. There is so much self-centeredness, pride, greed, hatred, deceit and ingratitude in our hearts. We see glimpses of this in everyday life, but we don’t even know the depth of it. Since our hearts are so far from pure, how can any of our actions be pleasing and acceptable to God? They can not. So it can rightly be said that all our deeds are marked by sin, and if we insisted even on the merit of our best works, each of us would bring condemnation and God’s wrath upon us. If you depend on your own good works and achievements to earn eternal life, in whole or in part, 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 transgressed and that the works of the law in Galatians 3:10 refer only to the ceremonial law. While the crisis in Galatia surrounded circumcision, Paul’s teaching here is not limited to the ceremonial law, but also includes the moral law. 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 entire law and are found in passages primarily discussing the moral law. Furthermore, such 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 law; for “The just shall live by faith.” But the law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘He that does the works of the law shall live by it’” (Galatians 3:11-12). Note the opposite nature of justification by works and that of faith. The law promises life based on performance; if you are good enough you will be saved. But justification by faith rests not on your own works, your own achievements, or your own purity, but on that of Another, Jesus Christ. He is the object of our faith. This faith is not mere intellectual assent, but a living trust in Him and His finished work. Just as Abraham believed in God’s promises in his old age and was saved thereby, so will those “who believe on Him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead” (Romans 4:24) be saved. Note also that this salvation is by faith only and not by works. “To the one who works, the wages are not counted as a gift, but as something owed. But whoever trusts without works in him who justifies the wicked, such faith is counted as righteousness. Likewise David speaks of the blessedness of those to whom God imputes righteousness, regardless of works: “Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the one against whom the Lord will not count sin’” (Romans 4:4-8).
But how can God justify the wicked? Galatians 3:13 helps us here: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse to us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree.'” He suffered the wrath of God deserved our sins. “[H]e was wounded for our transgressions, bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us well, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5). His vicarious death paid in full 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 to an already perfect and completed sacrifice? So our salvation can only be by faith alone, and boasting is therefore eliminated (Ephesians 2:9).
If we rely on our own merit for part of our salvation, we will never find hope and rest. When we face death and when we stand before God, we will know that none of our good deeds deserve eternal life. Only a fully sufficient and complete Redeemer and sacrifice can bring us to glory and praise God for giving us such salvation in Christ! On that day you desperately need this Rock of Ages. It’s the only way any of us can be saved. Then let’s say with that famous hymn, “I need no other argument, I need no other plea. It is enough that Jesus died, and He died for me.”
Andrew Sveda is a senior at Notre Dame from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, majoring in political science and theology. In his spare time he enjoys writing (obviously), reading and playing the piano. He can be reached at email@example.com or @SvedaAndrew on Twitter.