A Commentary by John Stott
How can sinners be ‘justified’, accepted in the sight of God? How can a holy God forgive sinful men, reconcile them to Himself and restore them to His favour and fellowship?
Paul’s answer is straightforward. Salvation is possible only through the atoning death of Jesus Christ on the cross. The Epistle is full of the cross. Paul describes his preaching ministry as ‘placarding’ Christ crucified before men’s eyes (3:1) and his personal philosophy as ‘glorying’ in the cross alone (6:14). But why was the cross the subject of his preaching and the object of his boasting? What did Christ do on the cross? Consider these three statements in Galatians: He ‘gave Himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age’ (1:4); ‘the Son of God…loved me and gave Himself for me’ (2:20); and ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us’ (3:13). That is to say, the sense in which He *gave Himself for us* is that he gave Himself *for our sins*, and the sense in which He gave Himself for our sins is that He *became a curse for us*. This phrase can only mean that God’s ‘curse’ (His righteous displeasure and judgment), which rests upon all who break His law (3:10), was transferred to Christ on the cross. He bore our curse that we might receive the blessing which God had promised to Abraham (3:14).
What, then, must we do to be saved? In a sense, nothing! Jesus Christ has done it all in His curse-bearing death. Our only part is to believe in Jesus, to trust Him without reserve to apply to us personally the benefits of His death. For ‘a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ’ (2:16). The sole function of faith is to unite us to Christ, in whom we receive justification, adoption and the gift of the Spirit.
The Judaizers, on the other hand, were troubling the church by insisting that faith in Jesus was not enough. Circumcision and law-obedience must be added to it. This perversion of the gospel Paul vigorously denies. If people could win salvation by the law, he says, ‘then Christ died to no purpose’ (2:21). If we contribute our works to the winning of salvation, then we detract from the adequacy of Christ’s work. If in His death He bore our sin and curse, then the cross is a sufficient sacrifice for sin and nothing whatever needs to be added to it. Such is ‘the stumbling block of the cross’ (5:11), because it tells us that salvation is a gift freely bestowed on the ground of Christ’s death and that to it we can contribute precisely nothing.
So the church is ‘the household of faith’ (6:10). Faith is the chief mark of God’s children. We are a family of believers, and faith is the factor which unites us with all God’s people of every place and age.
a). Faith unites us with God’s people of the past.
If we believe, we are the sons of Abraham (3:7,29), for he was justified by faith (3:6) just as we are. In Christ we inherit Abraham’s blessing (3:14). Thus, it is faith which binds together the Old and the New Testaments and makes the Bible one book instead of two. As we read the Old Testament authors, we have no difficulty in recognizing them as our fellow-believers.
b) Faith unites us with God’s people of the present.
Galatians 3:26,28: ‘For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’ This shows that if we are in Christ by faith we are both ‘sons of God’ and ‘all one’. External distinctions of race, rank and sex are all rendered null and void. So far as our relationship to God is concerned, they count for nothing. It is to be ‘in Christ’ which matters. And Paul refuses to tolerate any teaching or action which is inconsistent with this. So he castigates the Judaizers for their insistence on circumcision and opposes Peter to his face when he withdraws from table-fellowship with uncircumcised Gentile believers.
Still today faith abolishes distinctions. We have no right to deny our fellowship at the Lord’s Table to any Christians who are in Christ by faith, on the ground that they lack episcopal confirmation, total immersion, the right coloured skin, an acceptable culture or anything else. There is a place for order and discipline in each church, to ensure that its members are in Christ by faith. But there is no place for ecclesiastical, social or racial discrimination. The church is ‘the household of faith’; it is faith in Christ crucified which levels and unites us.