Abraham was justified by Faith
Often the best thing to do is use a historical object lesson to drive home or illustrate your point. So, starting in verse six of Galatians three, Paul focuses on Abraham and God’s covenant promise to Abraham. Abraham who is the Father of the Jewish religion and father to the Christian religion is central to our understanding and Paul’s argument in his letter to a wayward church.
Strangely, all Jews consider Abraham the father of their people, but Paul’s Judaizing opponents looked toward Moses as their teacher in the Galatian controversy. So, Paul took the illustration, the history lesson all the way back to Abraham.
So, the question is, why did Abraham receive circumcision? It was a sign between God, with Abraham, and his descendants. A sign of what? A covenant, an agreement between God and Abraham and his descendants. Then, what is this covenant?
This question is answered in Galatians 3:16 and in Acts 2:30. “Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He does not say, ‘and to seeds’ as of many, but as to one, and to ‘your Seed,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16). Then in Acts it says, “Therefore, being a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that the fruit of his body according to the flesh, He would raise up Christ to sit on his throne” (Acts 2:30). Then, the covenant appears to have been made with Abraham that through him a Seed would be born and that Seed would be Christ. Circumcision was a practice that showed their faith in this covenant that had been made between God and Abraham.
This covenant had been in place since the fall of Adam and Eve when God promised in Genesis 3:15 that the Seed of the woman would crush the head of the serpent. So, the right of circumcision instituted with Abraham was an affirmation of the promise already given and by faith Abraham accepted this promise and showed his faith by performing circumcision.
Today, as Christians, we become baptized, publicly showing that we by faith have accepted the atoning sacrifice of Christ’s life, death, burial and resurrection.
So, by the time Paul wrote to the Galatians, had the covenant been fulfilled? If Christ was the fulfillment of that covenant, and the covenant pointed to the Seed being born, living, dying on the cross and being resurrected, then returning to heaven to be our advocate before God, then yes, Christ is the fulfillment of that covenant! Then what use if any was there for circumcision since it was the outward sign or evidence of faith in a reality that had now taken place? You are right, none! And this was the point Paul was attempted to make before the Jerusalem council and the now the Galatians, whose minds had been poisoned by the Judaizers.
But the Judaizers took it one step further by saying “Abraham is the father of the people of God, and if you Gentiles wish to be within that people you must not only have faith in Christ but also follow the example of Abraham and accept circumcision and what is implied in it, the observance of the will of God as conveyed by the Torah. If it was good enough for Abraham it is certainly good enough for you.”
As a result, the problem between Paul and the Judaizers arose from two divergent understandings of Abraham’s acceptance with God. To grasp the impact of the apostle’s use of Abraham, we need to remember that the Jews firmly held that the patriarch had been justified (accounted righteous) by works. Basing their thoughts upon Genesis 26:5 (that God blessed Abraham because “Abraham obeyed my voice and kept my charge, my commandments, my statutes, and my laws”), the Jews then reasoned that he kept the entire Torah (law) even before it was revealed.
Paul to quoted from Genesis and in chapter 15 verse 6 he quoted, “Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness” (Galatians 3:16, KJV). In Paul’s eyes and in our eyes today, this proved that Abraham was counted righteous by faith rather than works.
But down through the centuries the Jews had consistently interpreted Abraham’s faith as a type of merit-earning faithfulness. Paul being a former Pharisee was aware of that line of thought, but he also knew that it was wrong and needed to be overturned. This is the task he would later devote himself to undertaking in much greater detail in Roman 4:4-8. But in Galatians chapter 3 he merely asserts the fact that it was faith as belief in God rather than faith as action for which God counted Abraham as righteous. To Paul’s opponents he boldly states, “If faith and faith alone was good enough for Abraham, it certainly ought to be good enough for the Gentiles.” Paul drives this point home by saying “Therefore know that only those who are of faith are sons of Abraham” (Galatians 3:7).
It was here that the apostle reached an important conclusion. In chapter two the core struggle was over who constituted the people of God and were thus worthy of table fellowship and by extension, full membership in Christian community. Paul has been asserting that it was those who have faith in Christ even though they have not become Jews while his opponents have been arguing that the children of Abraham are only those who have been circumcised as he was and who hold to the Jewish customs.
Paul having established the point from Genesis 15:6 that those who constituted Abraham’s true children were those who had righteousness by faith, Paul in Galatians 3:8 cites Genesis 12:3 to prove that the Gentiles were to be blessed through Abraham: “All the nations will be blessed in you” (NASB). It is important to understanding this second Genesis quotation to realize that the word translated as “Nations” is also the Greek word for Gentiles. Thus, Paul has demonstrated from the Jewish Scripture that Abraham is the father not only of those who have faith within the covenant but also to those of every nation who have faith. That is, he is the spiritual father of both Jews and Gentiles, who have both been justified or counted righteous on the basis of faith alone. In God’s eyes, they are not two groups or two diverse varieties of Christians but one body unified in their justification through faith. There is only one way to get right with God. And that one way is the basis for defining who is in Christ and what the church is.
Therefore, by faith you and I whether Jew or Gentile are heirs according to the promise given to Abraham. The promise or covenant was that from him the Seed would be born and that Seed is Christ. Then by faith upon accepting Christ as my saviour I become part of his covenant people, and it does not matter if I am Jew or Gentile, male or female, for we are all equal in God’s eyes for he is no respecter of persons.