God Justifies the Gentiles Just as He Justified Abraham - By Faith

“Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Galatians 3:6

Family trees are usually treasured things. If you have admirable people or characters of historical importance in your family heritage, you are more likely to be positive about your family history. The Jewish people of Paul’s day were no different. Each and every Jew could claim to have a wonderful family heritage stretching back thousands of years.

The father of the Jews was considered to be Abraham. Being a child of Abraham was a matter of family pride. The Jews claimed Abraham to be a righteous man because he kept God’s law. The Jews of Paul’s day identified righteousness with conformity to the Mosaic law. This was also what certain people in Galatia thought. Paul had preached the gospel of free grace in Jesus Christ, but Judaizers were perverting that gospel.

The idea that faith in Christ was not enough to be right before God was taking hold. The Judaizers insisted that the Gentile Christians follow the law and be circumcised, just like Abraham. Otherwise they could not be right before God. To be a good Christian you first need to be a good Jew. Paul sees this for what it is: it is a satanic attack upon the gospel.

Paul was deeply concerned for the salvation of the Galatian believers — they were turning away from faith, turning away from Christ, and relying on themselves. This was why Paul gave the illustration of Abraham, the one who was so close to the hearts of the Jewish people. He does it to vindicate the proclamation of the true gospel and ultimately to bring the Galatian believers back to the truth.

The Background of Abraham’s Justification

Paul begins by appealing to what happened with Abraham in Genesis 15. God came to Abraham in a vision to give him comfort. The Lord told Abraham not to be afraid, for He is Abraham’s shield and his very great reward. In this context, God established the covenant with Abraham. This is important for understanding Paul’s use of this passage. We see that in the covenant, God is everything to His people. God shows Abraham that everything comes from God. It is all God’s grace and not man’s work.

But Abraham still had questions. In chapter 12, God had promised to make Abraham into a great nation. But how is God going to fulfill that promise? Abraham was still childless at this point. In response, God showed him the starry heavens. He told Abraham that his offspring would be as innumerable as the stars. Then we find the text quoted by Paul: Abraham believed the LORD and He credited it to him as righteousness. Abraham literally said his “amen” to God’s promises.

He did not trust in what he had done or could do, but in what God had said and would do. The result is that God credited this to him for righteousness.

Paul chose this text very carefully. Take note that Abraham was declared righteous by God before the Mosaic law – that did not exist until 430 years later. Moreover, all of this took place before Abraham was even circumcised, that does not happen until Genesis 17. Abraham was justified without works of the law and without circumcision. He believed, and God credited his faith to him for righteousness.

In other words, God declared Abraham to be righteous by means of his faith. Therefore, Abraham was in a right relationship with God. Abraham enjoyed wonderful communion with the LORD in which his sins were forgiven. Abraham was justified before God, declared to be righteous, even though in and of himself he was, and continued to be, a sinner.

This was possible because Abraham did not look to himself or his works. He looked to God’s promises, specifically to God’s promise for seed. This seed would ultimately be for the salvation of Abraham and his descendants. Jesus Christ would be born of the line of Abraham. And so it was possible that Abraham’s sins could be forgiven and he could be considered righteous by faith in God’s promises.
If Abraham was justified, not by following the law, nor through circumcision, but by and through faith, why should it be any different today? No amount of holy and righteous living is good enough to earn our justification. We are not going to be justified by visiting the elderly and the sick. We are not going to be justified by welcoming outsiders into our congregation. We are fooling ourselves if we think otherwise. We must therefore renounce our own so-called righteousness and place all our trust and faith in God’s promises for salvation in Christ Jesus.

The Lord Jesus Christ kept God’s law perfectly. He did what we could not do and so, through Him, we are justified before the Father. It all comes through faith. That is the way it was with Abraham and that is why Paul points to him. Paul wants to show that faith stands alone as the means of justification, there is no room for works of the law. That was true for Abraham, the covenant child of God, and that remains true for us as covenant children of God today.

The Identity of Abraham’s Children

The Jews said to Jesus, “We are the children of Abraham!” In a sense they were right. They were physically descended from Abraham. They made much of that, as if it were a matter of merit on their part.

Paul, however, concluded otherwise from his quote of Genesis 15. He claimed that those who have faith are the real children of Abraham. Those who trust in God’s promises that He will be everything for us in Jesus Christ, our shield and reward; those are the ones who are the children of Abraham. That totally contradicted those who relied on observance of the law. They were trusting in themselves and their own obedience rather than looking to the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Christ through faith.

There is an implicit contrast, or antithesis, in our text. There is an opposition set up (which has been there from the beginning) between those who are of faith and those who are of works. Indeed, there is a difference between those who claim to be the children of Abraham (and are not), and those who really are the children of Abraham. Paul is trying emphatically to make the point: it is only by faith that you can be a child of Abraham.

This has covenantal significance. To be a child of Abraham means that you are in the line of the covenant. One’s position in the covenant is determined by God’s gracious reckoning by means of faith. Yes, in general one may have a place in the covenant by birth, but whether that place works to your justification is a matter of the means of faith. Faith is the means or the tool by which we appropriate God’s covenant promises and thereby become children of Abraham.

This is what Paul was teaching the Galatian believers. But this was nothing new. Jesus Christ taught the same thing. When the Jews claimed to have Abraham as their Father, our Savior replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, then you would do the things Abraham did” (John 8:39). That of course includes looking to God’s promises and trusting in the Lord 100% for salvation, rather than trusting in their own “righteous” works of the law. So Paul does not bring anything new, he is not teaching man’s gospel, but only what he “received by revelation from Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12).

Therefore, if we walk in faith, believing in the Lord Jesus Christ as our satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness, then we too are children of Abraham. As Abraham was justified before God then, so are we today. Justification works the same way for us as it did for Abraham. Why? Because Abraham’s God is also our God and because Abraham’s Savior is also our Savior.

Justification is for us totally by faith alone. This is a lesson that we ought to have learned, not only from Scripture, but also from the struggles of the church in history. Think only of the Reformation and how central this doctrine of justification by faith alone was in that era. October 31st is the day we normally commemorate the Great Reformation of the 16th century. During the Reformation, there was a huge struggle about justification by faith alone.

There was a struggle because the Roman Catholic Church rejected this Scriptural teaching. To be sure, Rome does not deny that we are justified by the righteousness of Christ. The question is: how is this righteousness appropriated or seized by believers? The Roman Catholic Church teaches that the righteousness of Christ is infused, or ‘poured into’, the believer. This happens at baptism. But in order to be really justified, they continue, the believer has to cooperate with this infused righteousness.

Rome says that justification is by faith – but not by faith alone. There also have to be works and the sacraments. In fact, the recent Catechism of the Catholic Church says it bluntly, “Justification is conferred in Baptism, the sacrament of faith.” Baptism is what really causes justification. So while faith has a role in justification, it does not have the central place that it does with Paul in Galatians. That is part of the reason why the Reformation took place. The Roman Catholic Church was clearly no longer the bride of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The separation between Rome and us remains necessary. The Roman Catholic Church has not changed its position over the last five hundred years. According to the Council of Trent, Reformed believers are accursed, destined for hell – because we deny the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church on this point. That has not changed. The pope has not revoked it – indeed he cannot.

We believe that justification is by faith alone. But can it happen that we take this for granted? Could it happen that sometimes we think that our (pretended) righteousness really does earn us something for our justification before God? Or do we go in a slightly different direction, thinking that our place in the covenant assures us of our righteousness before God? In either case, we are looking to something other than faith in God’s promises in Christ for our justification. Do not think that you have a sure ticket to heaven just because you belong to a Reformed church. If we do that, we are saying that Christ is not enough; He is not a complete Savior. We cannot become complacent and apathetic. It is by faith in Christ that God graciously reckons His righteousness to us, so that we may stand before Him without fear and trembling.

The Blessing of All Who Have Faith

Abraham’s seed was to be the means of blessing to all the peoples of the earth. This seed of course is the promised seed of the woman who would bruise the head of the serpent, Jesus Christ. Already in the Old Testament, God indicated that His plan of salvation included the entire human race, not just those physically descended from Abraham. Already at the time of Abraham, God had Pentecost in view. The Gentiles were going to become children of Abraham by faith in the promises given to Abraham.

All nations were to be blessed. That is really something if we stop and think about it! What is the opposite of being blessed? Cursed. The good news was that all nations would not be cursed by God. In Abraham they would be blessed. Of course, this does not mean that every person of every nation would partake of this blessing. The Bible clearly teaches limited atonement. But it does mean that the blessing is not restricted to people from one particular nation. Through faith, all can have a part in this blessing. This blessing comes from God. In the seed of Abraham, that is, in Jesus Christ, people of every tribe, tongue, and nation are received into fellowship with God. They can have a right standing before Him, not standing accursed, but justified, declared to be righteous.

In a world of sin and darkness, there is good news on the horizon for Abraham, and this good news comes through Abraham’s seed. The promise with which God came to Abraham is similar in essence and content to the gospel that Paul proclaimed. This was the gospel that the Galatians were first taught and that they first believed. They had heard the apostolic proclamation that salvation is through faith in Christ Jesus alone. Abraham heard the same message in a different form, as a promise yet to be fulfilled. A promise of salvation for all who believe, Jew and Gentile.

The difference between Abraham and the Galatians was that the promise is even better news for the Galatians because they know it as a fulfilled reality. The Lord Jesus Christ came into the world and died for those who are His own. For the Galatians to turn their backs on that now would be disastrous. The gospel of salvation full and free through faith in Christ would be lost. We would still be under the curse. So Paul wanted to show the Galatian believers: don’t you see what you deserve as sinners? We deserved God’s curse, but instead we receive a blessing graciously through the seed of Abraham. This blessing does not come to us through works of the law, but it comes by means of faith. Faith — the gift of God. All of it is from Him!

Thus Paul draws a second conclusion in our text: all who believe as Abraham did are blessed as he was. The blessing is that those who have faith are justified. They may have sweet covenantal fellowship with God. Paul goes on to write in verse 10 that those who rely on observing the law are under a curse, but those who are righteous by faith have life; they have the promise of the Spirit and they have it fully. They no longer stand condemned, but they stand before God rightly. They have a right relationship with God. Abraham had faith, he believed God and was blessed; and so we can expect that those who have faith today will also be blessed.

The implication is that this has nothing at all to do with works of the law. The Judaizers are dead wrong! Our keeping the requirements of God’s law, whether those be precepts found in the Mosaic law or anywhere else in the Bible, has nothing to do with the root of our justification. Indeed, Paul is saying in Galatians, if it were up to us, who could be saved? Neither Jew nor Gentile. There would be no good news.

We must come as sinners to the gospel of God’s free grace in Christ. Look to the Lord Jesus Christ, trust in Him alone for your salvation. Abraham believed the promise — and so should we, much more so now that we see the fulfillment of that promise in our Lord and Savior. When we do that, good works come into the picture, not as part of our justification, but as part of our sanctification. Indeed, it is always good to be reminded that good works are not the root but the fruit of our justification. When we keep that in mind, then we avoid the error of the Galatians.

On the scale of human history, it was not that long ago that most of our forefathers in Europe were rank pagans. But if we, by the grace of God, with His Spirit working in our hearts, follow the way of faith, then we may be assured that God justifies us just as He justified Abraham. We do indeed then have Abraham as our father. And that is the glorious gospel — we have been adopted, not only as sons of Abraham, but most importantly as sons of the Most High God — by faith in the eternal Son of God. He is our Father and we are His children who may stand before Him without fear, for we have been justified through faith alone in Jesus Christ.

Rev. Wes Bredenhof is a co-pastor of the Canadian Reformed Church in Smithers, British Columbia, Canada.

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