Some hard looks. That’s what I received recently as I began teaching through the New Testament book of Galatians. The theme of Galatians goes to the heart of the gospel message: there is only one way to please God; sinners are justified only when they repent of their works and cast themselves through faith alone upon the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. But when I worked my way verse by verse through chapter one recently, I got a taste of what Paul (and scores of other biblical messengers) invariably received—some hard looks.
I began as I usually do—by asking a question. My question was simple: What is our biggest problem before God? As the small group mulled that over, I asked some related questions: how is anyone justified, and secondly, what does God require of us? These questions go to the heart of the gospel. Several in the group answered, “God requires obedience.” Others said, “We are to trust God.” Still others said, “We are to love.”
All of those answers certainly touch upon the heart of the matter. But what Paul labors in his letter is the necessity of faith alone in the person and finished work of Christ. But that goes against our nature. We are wired for law. We are wired to assume we can do enough to somehow infuse righteousness or merit rewards through doing certain things or not doing certain other things.
All worldviews except Christianity teach works-based systems of justification. Some teach you must uphold dietary laws and obey litanies of laws. Except for Christianity, all other worldviews teach your good works must outweigh your bad works in order to merit justification. If we’re baptized in a particular worldview, do missions work, observe certain ordinances, tithe, etc., will that suffice? Must you face certain directions when you pray, give alms, make a pilgrimage, recite creeds, and make converts? Are those sufficient? If people deny themselves, renounce desire, and follow the Four Noble Truths, will those works suffice? Others teach their followers that their works follow them via reincarnations. The pattern is simple: our works can somehow merit righteousness. But not in Christianity, and that is what Galatians is all about.
The bad news is this: our spiritual resumes will damn us. No work we do suffices to forgive our just punishment for our sin. No diet, no law, no work, no pilgrimage, no tithe, no holy day, no spiritual one-upmanship, etc. will do. Why? Because they all smack of human pride, and that’s our problem.
However, in Christianity alone, there is redemption. And it comes one way—by faith in the person and finished work of Christ: “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Galatians 2:16 ESV).
If we do not repent and cast our faith completely in the person and finished work of Christ, we’re believing “a different gospel” (Galatians 1). The Bible teaches that if anyone believes or preaches any other gospel besides the atoning substitution death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, he/she is accursed. Anathema. Under God’s wrath. That’s how important it is to get the gospel right. Why? Because any human work smacks of works righteousness and our works are polluted garments/filthy rags (Isaiah 64:6).
Our spiritual resumes or Christ? Yes, I got some hard looks, but truth is worth it.