Galatians: Faith in Christ or the Faithfulness of Christ

Nestled in the tightly argued and exegetically demanding section of Galatians 2:15-21 we read this: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (2:16, ESV; similarly NIV). But if you use another translation, such as the NET, you would have read this: “No one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”

Codex Sinaiticus - Comma JohanneumThe first translates the Greek to mean that we are made right with God through placing our faith in Jesus Christ. However the latter renders the verse to mean that we are justified, declared righteous, by the faithfulness of Christ. There is a technical linguistic term for each of these, respectively: the objective genitive and the subjective genitive. For example, the phase ‘the love of God’ can mean: our love for God (objective genitive) or God’s love (subjective genitive). Usually context would inform our reading of the phrase. The same is true in Greek. Only in this instance translators are divided, with most admitting that the Greek cannot be argued definitively in favour of one or the other. So which is it?

I would be foolhardy to harbour any notions of settling a debate in which both sides boast the support of formidable scholars. But we must do business with the text and its context. Before offering my trifling opinion, it is worth stating that we would lose nothing theologically if we translated every instance solely one way or the other. For there are passages that unambiguously develop the significance of Christ’s obedience (Romans 5:19; Philippians 2:8) and that emphasise our faith in Christ (Galatians 3:1-5; Ephesians 2:8-9). I would also add, a point made by Carson, in his superb essay Approaching the Bible, we misconstrue how language works if we attempt to read a text while entertaining the whole semantic range of words or phrases (which is what the Amplified Bible sets out to do). In our reading of Galatians we must settle on a translation.

Mihaly MunkacsyWorking through the first half of Galatians I have became convinced that the subjective genitive fits more naturally with its surrounds. At first I thought it was simply a matter of avoiding repetition, since the next phrase in 2:16 straightforwardly reads: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus.” But as Schreiner rightly responds, ‘Instead of thinking these verses are redundant, we can read them as emphatic, stressing the necessity of faith.’ The reason I am more in favour of reading 2:16 as “the faithfulness of Christ” is tied to my understanding of an issue central to the letter: the works of the law. Paul is tackling readers who were confusing faith alone with a faith augmented by obedience. As I have written elsewhere, 1st century Jews did not view religion as either grace or works; so it follows that the Jewish believers at Galatia struggled to distinguish between sola fidei and faithful obedience. Therefore it is not unlikely that Paul’s emphasis extends beyond faith in Christ alone to the faithfulness of Christ alone.

These posts are meant to be short, so let me conclude. The wonder of the biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone is that the quality of my faith depends less on my grip and far more on the object: Christ. This challenges us to shift confidence away from ourselves and solely onto Jesus Christ, the one with whom the Father was pleased. I need that reminder, as the Galatians did, because my own faithfulness, obedience, and even my faith in Christ can subtly become the reason for my confidence, when it should never be anything other than his obedience and death on my behalf.

Galatians: The Lord’s Anointed may be Accursed

If you are a Christian then there is a good chance you have observed, or even received, the stern reproach: ‘Don’t speak against the Lord’s anointed.’ It is one of those declarations dripping with piety and a zealous concern to protect Spirit empowered leaders, apostles, and prophets. But more often than not, it is an excuse for theological ignorance and the undiscerning acceptance of influential, charismatic, and public Christian figures, regardless of what they preach or teach. It is, after all, much easier to meet criticism with a phrase that reveals your reverence for God’s mighty servants and the refusal to be dragged into an ungodly squabble.

Icon St PeterNow meet Peter. John may have been the disciple Jesus loved, but Peter is the disciple we love. He frequently overestimates his devotion to Christ and is subsequently humbled but also graciously accepted by Christ. In what N. T. Wright calls the ‘Peter cycle,’ we are offered a window into the Christian life, “Firm public declarations of undying loyalty followed by miserable failure, followed by astonishing, generous, forgiving love.” But we often think that that is the pre-Pentecost Peter. For at Pentecost Peter becomes a great hero of the early church. Wrong. Peter, like all Christians, was an object of God’s grace, throughout his life. He was far from perfect, despite his special appointment, Spirit anointing, and apostleship. Peter erred and was not above rebuke.

What does this have to do with Galatians or those who claim to be the ‘Lord’s anointed’? In Galatians 2:11-14, the apostle Paul recounts a striking event in the life of the early church, when he publicly opposed the apostle Peter. And he does so for reasons similar to his refusal to circumcise Titus, in Galatians 2:3-5. Paul boldly challenged any practices that threatened or obscured the gospel of grace (1:6-9). Peter was undoubtedly a giant in the early church. Paul on the other hand was a relatively unknown itinerant preacher who spent an earlier part of his public career killing Christians (1:23-24). Yet when he sees Peter behaving hypocritically (2:13) and out of step with the gospel (2:14), Peter’s status, title, feats, and fan club mean nothing. Paul is uninhibited in speaking against a man who might rightly be called the Lord’s anointed, second only to Jesus.

Paul’s language is unapologetically severe, claiming that Peter’s behaviour meant that he stood condemned, grossly in the wrong (2:11). Peter’s inconsistent conduct was leading others, including Barnabas, astray (2:13). And the implication of his withdrawal from table fellowship with Gentiles subtly implied that they needed to keep the Old Testament law and live like Jews (2:14). Earlier in the letter, Paul wrote that anyone preaching a gospel other than the one true gospel is accursed, under the judgment of God (1:8-9). It does not seem that Peter’s hypocrisy placed him in that category, but his misunderstanding warranted a stinging reproach. Even the apostle Peter got things wrong and repented. There is a reassuring familiarity in the blundering apostle, but also a noticeable humility and willingness to be challenged, even repent. Your leader might call himself the ‘Lord’s anointed,’ but if that means he is beyond being challenged and corrected, perhaps he is not the great leader he claims to be.

Galatians: Did Paul Deny the Truth of the Gospel?

Acts 16Acts 16 starts thus: Paul came to Derbe and Lystra. A disciple named Timothy was there and the brothers spoke well of him. He was the son of a Jewish woman, a believer, but his father was Greek. Paul wanted Timothy to accompany him, so he had him circumcised because the Jews in that region knew his father was Greek. The account is short and seems fairly insignificant, except for Timothy. But when placed alongside Galatians 2 it raises some heckles, not just Timothy’s.

As we saw in my previous post, it was Paul’s contention in Galatians to present and defend the one true gospel. At one point in the autobiographical section spanning chapters 1-2 he recalls his visit to Jerusalem where he met with some of the “influential people,” most likely the church leaders there. But what Paul met was an illustration of the larger issues Galatians is written to settle. Titus was compelled to be circumcised (2:3). The Greek, and most translations, emphasises that Titus was a Greek, just like Timothy. Only, here, Paul flatly refuses the idea of circumcision, much to Titus’ relief. He explains in 2:5 (using very similar language in 2:14), We did not submit or yield to them, so that the gospel of truth would be preserved.

GalatiansSo what about Acts 16? Can we conclude that, at Derbe and Lystra, Paul compromised the gospel of truth, the only true gospel? Or is this another instance proving the Bible to be an inconsistent collection of theological opinions and loose ends? I think it is neither, and instead reveals the zeal with which Paul preached God’s grace and his commitment to as many hearing of that grace as humanly possible. “Paul had thought long and hard about these things. He was…a remarkably flexible man himself…he could happily circumcise Timothy so that this young man could have as ready access to synagogues as the apostle himself (Acts 16:3). By contrast, Paul refused absolutely to allow Titus to be circumcised…because the demand for his circumcision was being made in a context that jeopardized the gospel” (D. A. Carson, Love in Hard Places).

Carson goes on, “If someone argues that a Gentile must be circumcised in order to be a true Christian, Paul forbids it absolutely, because that would annihilate the exclusive sufficiency of Christ; if no one is making that sort of demand, Paul is happy to circumcise a believer if it will advance the interests of the gospel.” Therefore at Jerusalem (and Antioch, both recounted in Galatians) Paul boldly opposed those whose practices threatened the true gospel of grace, even the Apostle Peter. On the other hand, at Derbe and Lystra (in Acts 16) he was willing, and we imagine Timothy agreed, to do whatever it took to reach more people with that same gospel of grace. Such an observation puts what I am willing to suffer for Christ and his gospel into stark perspective.

Galatians: No Other Gospel

GalatiansFor the next two quarters my church will be working through Galatians in our small groups. I have decided to attempt a translation of Paul’s letter, with the hope that it will aid insights into the details of the text and illumine the overarching purpose of the book. It must be noted: I am not promising this will result in regular posts on Galatians. In this short post I want to reflect on a point that you certainly do not need Greek to uncover: there is only one gospel. But while Galatians 1:6-9 is fairly straightforward to understand, a closer reading lends striking colour to Paul’s assertion.

The churches of Galatia were deserting – not Paul but – God, the one who called them in grace, for a different gospel (1:6). We might even conclude that they were deflecting to another god. But how and why did this happen quickly? I think the answer partly comes in 1:7-9. The troubler makers had not entirely reinvented the apostolic message but subtly distorted it (1:7). I imagine they still used words like “grace,” phrases like “the gospel of Christ,” and called people to faith in Jesus. However, they had introduced irreconcilable elements that destabilized the gospel, without altering it beyond surface level recognition. As we read through the letter we learn that the Galatian issue was the confusion between our works and Christ’s sufficient work. The success of the false teachers in Galatia, like many today, was due to them being barely distinguishable from Paul. They did not appear to change much; perhaps they claimed to simply emphasise different aspects of the gospel message. But the results are always the same: a different gospel leads us away from the true God.

GalatiansI promised myself that these posts would be short, and therefore not too onerous on you the reader, or my time, so let me make one more point. In 1:8-9, Paul twice uses the verb ‘proclaim good news.’ The false teachers came to the Galatian Christians with an appealing message, something happily received as good tidings. The verb is the same one used throughout the New Testament to speak of God’s salvation. And so as we saw above, the greatest danger of other gospels is when they are difficult to discern from the true gospel of grace. Politicians, advertisements, and preachers proclaim good news. However, the major distinction between the gospel of Christ (see 1:10-12) and the many gospels championed around the world is that only the former tells us what we desperately need to hear, while the others are shaped by what we want to hear.

I have also previously written on Galatians 3, discussing what it means for the Christian to be free from law.

The Law, Galatians, And ‘The Shawshank Redemption’

Commandments on tablets and MosesTowards the end of last year I preached on Galatians 3:15-29. We had been working through the book in the evening service at Tokai Community Church and in our midweek bible study (ahem, my apologies, in our “community group”). Making our way through Paul’s letter I discovered that despite having a lot to say about the law; if we assume the traditional view of the law, Paul doesn’t expound the third use of the law, also known as the normative. John Webster gives a really helpful and concise definition of this aspect of the law in Holiness (p95): The law is God’s given order for life within the drama of God’s saving work. Therefore, the Christian, much like the Hebrew in the Old Testament, should see the law as teacher (usus didacticus), for it is no longer magistrate.

With that helpful qualification it isn’t entirely fair to say Paul ignores Christians’ relationship to the law. He spends most of the epistle challenging the wrong approach to the law that was prevalent in Galatia. Paul stresses throughout the letter that Christians are free from the law; or rather, that Gentile Christians are as much a part of God’s new people without strict obedience to the law, specifically around the issue of circumcision. The passage I was given to preach is emphatic that Christians are children of the promise, and not the law (3:15-29). And immediately after, we are heirs not slaves (4:1f). Faith has set us free and Paul wants Christians to enjoy their new freedom in Christ, not to fall back into fearful obedience to every aspect of God’s law.

In applying this passage I had to ask myself how this is tangible to our experience today, beyond the obvious. And the point I reached was the tendency of Christians to be duty bound, burdened by what James Dunn calls the world’s ‘grim captor,’ the law. Whether we love it or loathe it, most evangelical Christians struggle to move away from feeling some sense of obligation. This means that a lot of what we do is driven by guilt or fear. And that is to miss not only Paul’s point in Galatians but the essential truth of the gospel: we are no longer enslaved but free, justified by grace. Our service ought to be borne from the desire to become like Christ and the empowerment coming from the Holy Spirit to honour our loving Father. It is not anxious service to avoid punishment. Yet we often retreat back to the law, for assurance and accomplishment, allowing duty to accompany our faith.

The Shawshank Redemption: BrooksThe illustration that I used to drive this home was taken from the classic film, The Shawshank Redemption. Set in a maximum security prison, the film follows the life of a young man who is sentenced to life imprisonment for murdering his wife along with her lover. One of the fascinating characters he meets is a much older inmate called Brooks Hatlen. After nearly 60 years of incarceration he is granted parole. When he first learns of his parole, Brook is excited to leave and enjoy freedom for the last few years of his life. But prison was all he ever knew and he found security in the order and control of imprisonment.

Red, a fellow inmate, explains Brooks’ anxiety and our nature, with tragic clarity: “There’s a harsh truth to face. No way I’m gonna make it on the outside. All I do anymore is think of ways to break my parole, so maybe they’d send me back. Terrible thing, to live in fear. Brooks Hatlen knew it. Knew it all too well. All I want is to be back where things make sense. Where I won’t have to be afraid all the time.” It is a terrible thing to live in fear, hankering after the control we find in obedience and duty. Only that isn’t control but submitting ourselves again to a yoke of slavery. Christ has set us free.