Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified (Galatians 2:16).
The story of Job, in some ways, is the story of human race. For all of us, the difficulties of life and the imperfections of creation highlight the gap that separates humankind from God and His perfection. Job’s search to bridge the gap was summarized sadly when he asked; “How can a man be righteous before God? (Job 9:2).
There it is, the human dilemma: How can sinful human beings be accepted by a holy God?
Our natural human response to suffering or to sin is to try to undo whatever wrong may have originally caused our trouble. If we have done something that made us unrighteous in God’s sight, then certainly doing some good should make us right, shouldn’t it?
Unfortunately, Scripture tells us that in God’s sight, committing one sin is equivalent to committing an infinite number of them (James 2:10). So, our good works can never make up for even one transgression. Trying to undo sin by good works is a prescription for righteousness that leaves us falling hopelessly short.
Of course, God knew that we could not be justified by our own efforts, so He arranged to remove our sin Himself. God gave to Israel (and to the world through Israel) access to a temporary state of reconciliation through ongoing sacrifices as outlined in His law. And because the law reminds us of God’s standards and our inability to meet them, He sacrificed His Son for our sins.
The most dangerous heresy on earth is the emphasis on what we do for God instead of what God does for us – Charles R. Swindoll
But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ; we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! (Galatians 2:17)
The Law and its Purpose
The law had two purposes, First, it perpetually reminded people of God’s standards and our inability to meet them, that is, our inability to make ourselves righteous before God. Second, “the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:24). As a tutor or teacher, the law revealed humanity’s lack of righteousness so that when Jesus Christ came as the once-and-for-all, perfect sacrifice, our justifier by faith, Israel and the world at large would be ready to embrace Him.
This is a key part of Paul’s letter to the Jews and Gentiles in the region of Galatia. Although these men and women had embraced the gospel of faith in Christ, they were being persuaded that their faith alone was not enough, and so they needed to add certain works of the law in order to be saved, a step backwards in their spiritual growth. Paul even had to correct the apostle Peter (Gal. 2:11-21) and his loyal Barnabas on this topic. Paul was direct, even blunt: “I do not set aside the grace of God (as you, Peter, are doing); for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:21).
Why would Christ need to die for our unrighteousness if we could earn our way back to God by our own efforts? That would make His coming unnecessary. To add human works to faith would be, as Paul said; to “set aside the grace of God.” There is no need for grace if our good deeds could be sufficient for righteousness.
Critics who have not experienced grace often attack it as a license for sin. Paul was horrified that some might think that faith in Christ somehow encouraged people to sin (Rom. 6:1-2, 1John 3:8). It is not only a person’s standing before God that changes when he or she is declared righteous; he or she radically changes! As new creations who are now indwelt by the Holy Spirit, Christians no longer think or act as we did prior to salvation. God gives the Christian a new desire for holiness!
In his argument against Peter and the Galatian Judaizers, Paul concludes that being justified comes only through the work of Christ and not through any human effort: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).
In his commentary The Message of Galatians, John R. W. Stott summarized justification by faith as “God’s act of unmerited favor by which He puts a sinner right with Himself, not only pardoning or acquitting him, but accepting him and treating him as righteous” (Acts 13:38, 39; Rom. 1:17). The only way we can be declared righteous is by putting our faith in God’s provision: “Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1).