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Third Quarter 2017 (June 24–September 29)
COMMENTARY ON THE GOSPEL IN GALATIANS
Week 4: July 15–21
COMMENTARY ON "Justification by Faith Alone"
Following is a combined commentary on the material included in the Bible Study Guide with references as necessary to the supplemental passages included in the E. G. White Notes for the Sabbath School Lessons.
Note: Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotes are from the English Standard Version (ESV).
This week’s lesson focus on the heart of Paul’s message in Galatians, which is the heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that we pay attention to what is taught and compare it with what the Word of God states (Acts 17:11). In fact, the apostle Paul himself claims that the gospel is of “first importance” (1 Cor 15:3). For any organization, church, or individual, to miss the central message of the gospel is very dangerous indeed. This author’s favorite Bible verse (Galatians 2:20) is cited as the memory text for the day’s reading. Well does it reveal the deepest reason that Paul was so agitated in this letter: at stake is not just the salvation of people, but also the very honor of Jesus Christ, who selflessly gave Himself for the apostle.
In today’s lesson, the author rightly defines the Greek word group that lies behind the English words “justification” and “righteousness.” Justification is indeed a legal and “positive declaration that a person is righteous.” Left out, however, is a clarification of the phrase “works of the law.” In many circles (not just among Adventist theologians), this term has been taken to mean simply, the outward and ceremonial badges, or marks, of being a Jew. The author seems to hint at this when comparing (Jewish) spiritual privileges in the same sentence with “works of the law” (though the next lesson expands more on this and rightly notes that it refers generally to the entire set of requirements found in the Mosaic law). In Paul’s thinking, righteousness goes far beyond mere membership in the Jewish covenant, not least of which because even Jews themselves had an urgent need of justification.
This lesson expands on the phrase “works of the law” and argues for a full-orbed definition that “likely involves all the requirements found in the commandments given by God through Moses, whether ceremonial or moral. This view, however, goes against much of historic Seventh-Day Adventism (including Ellen G. White), which has fluctuated between only seeing ceremonial aspects of the Mosaic law here (as intended by Paul), and the interpretation held by the author. Of course, the historic SDA doctrine of the Investigative Judgement stands is the real proverbial elephant in the room and brings into question whether Adventism really teaches that salvation is gain by faith alone apart from any works of the law (including moral). The questions asked at the end of the lesson contribute to the confusion, as any born-again Christian would see the following questions as ridiculous: “In your experience, how well do you keep God’s law? Do you really sense that you keep it so well that you can be justified before God on the basis of your law-keeping?”
A central claim of the author in this lesson is that the phrase “faith in Christ” actually carries a far richer meaning in the original Greek. It is asserted that the words pístis Christoú in Galatians 2:16 literally mean “the faithfulness of Jesus.” Because of this, as the author states, our justification does not have a basis in our works, but rather in the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. This is certainly a biblical doctrine and one of vital importance in the justification debate. However, most modern translations reject this interpretation (in contrast to the KJV’s “the faith of Jesus Christ”) in favor of what is technically called an objective genitive (that is to say, Christ is the object of the believer’s faith, not the subject). It is misleading to state that a literal translation of this Greek phrase is “the faithfulness of Jesus,” since it is actually ambiguous and could be taken in one of two ways (as we have seen).
The significance of all this may be stated in the following: one unfortunate side effect in interpreting this verse as referring to the faithfulness of Christt is the removal of the actual instrument of justification of the believer, namely faith. Paul’s whole emphasis in the epistle to the Gentiles is that the instrument of justification, the means by which one is declared righteous, is the sinner’s simple faith in Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection as his only hope. This point is driven home in Galatians 3:2, where Paul asks the Galatians rhetorically, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” One instantly sees that in Paul’s thinking, works of the law are properly contrasted with the obedience of faith. Notice that the individuals who hear with faith (and receive the Spirit) are the Galatians.
A popular teaching in many academic circles called the New Perspective on Paul stresses the faithfulness of Christ in this and other passages, at the expense of faith and faith alone being the means by which one is justified. Historic Adventism, too, has muddied the waters on concepts such as faith, and as such, it is important for Bible believers to be very clear on these distinctions.
This confusion about what faith is appears to continue on in Wednesday’s lesson, where faith is claimed to be “as much what we do, how we live, and in whom we trust as it is what we believe.” This desire to make more of the concept of faith is understandable, perhaps, from a human perspective. It is simply incredible to many an unbeliever that a murder, rapist, or thief can be justified by simple faith. This does not seem right! Because of this, faith is often loaded with meaning alien to the teaching of the New Testament, in order to make it seem more significant and weighty. Yes, faith is not mere mental assent. But neither is faith effective based on the fervency of one’s devotion to Christ (either in thought or in deed). Instead, what makes faith so amazing is the fact that it is Christ’s perfect imputed righteousness, and his accepting our guilt as His own, that causes God the Father to deem us as forgiven, righteous, even saints! Faith is God’s means of stripping us of any glory we may claim and giving all the credit to Jesus Christ.
Thursday’s lesson attempts to reconcile faith with the age-old claim that it is a license for sin. This, however, is not the primary concern of Paul in verses 17–19 of chapter 2. Rather, Paul is attempting to show the error of Peter’s logic by presenting him with an all-or-nothing proposition: either righteousness is achieved entirely through faith in Jesus Christ, or we are sinners (according to the Judaizers) and therefore Christ was a liar! Paul goes on to say that it is no longer he that lives, but rather Christ lives in him (v. 20). That is to say, Jesus’ righteous life is entirely imputed to him by virtue of his faith in Christ. There is no adding to this. The question of the believer’s righteousness and standing before God was already settled at the cross. By contrast, the following statement by the author reveals much about his seeming confusion on the gospel: “While it is possible that a person might fall into sin after coming to Christ, the responsibility would certainly not belong to Christ. If we break the law, we ourselves are the lawbreakers.” We are lawbreakers, and as Christians we are justified by faith, perfectly righteous (as Luther famously stated, Simul justus et peccator “Righteous and a sinner––simultaneously”).