The doctrine of justification is central to Paul’s argument in the book of Galatians. In light of the fierce debate regarding justification in the various denominations that claim to follow Christ, Paul’s treatise to the Galatian church is as important as ever. In light of the challenges that the Galatian church was facing, Paul employs a variety of terms to describe justification and its effects that are foundational to understanding how this doctrine should impact their lives.
First, justification is only available through faith in the true gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. It was a matter of first importance when Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia to address the proclamation of a different gospel than he had previously delivered to them by divine commission (Gal 1:1-6). Paul argued that seeking to be justified through a gospel different from the one they had initially received could only bring about their condemnation (1:8-10). Contrary to the false gospels of men, the true gospel is of divine origin (1:11), and to reject it is to reject the One who gave it (1:6). The true gospel consists of the crucified Christ (3:1) and is taken hold of by faith alone apart from works of the law (2:16). Even Abraham, who is at the center of the debate because of his unique relation to God as the first member of God’s chosen people, was justified when he believed the gospel that was foretold to him by the Scriptures (3:6-8). Therefore, one must exercise faith in the true gospel if justification is to occur.
Second, justification is a matter of life and death, for it produces both in a true believer. Paul sets out to demonstrate that before the fullness of time came and provided faith for all men, all men were shut up under the law (3:23). Contrary to the teaching of those who were troubling the Galatians, being under the law was not a favorable position to be in because the law was never able to impart life (3:21). In this way, ‘life imparted’ can be viewed as a synonym of justification, for those who are justified receive true life. Paul explains that to be justified is to die to the law through faith in Christ so as to live in Him (2:19-20). In fact, if justification were able to be achieved through the Law, Christ’s death becomes ineffective and meaningless (2:21). In this way, a sinner’s faith in Christ brings about death to the law—a transaction in which they are crucified to the world (6:14)—and produces new life in Christ. This is alluded to when Paul references that neither circumcision or uncircumcision mean anything, but rather a new creation (6:15). Therefore, believers become new creations in Christ and possess new life in Him the moment they are justified.
Third, justification is the means through which we receive the Spirit of God. The false teachers made it appear as though Galatian believers needed to live life according to the law to experience the benefits of salvation. But Paul, appealing to their experience of salvation, writes, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing from faith?” (3:2). Upon being justified through faith, believers have ‘begun’ in the Spirit—a definite starting point (3:3). The One who called them both supplies the Spirit and works miracles among them through faith and not through works of the Law (3:5). This is important because the Spirit of God was central to the promise of the new covenant. Paul later highlights that an aspect of Christ’s substitutionary death was so that the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, namely, that they might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith (3:14). In Christ’s redeeming work, believers are able to receive His Spirit as sons and cry out to Him from a heart of love (4:6). Only then are believers able to walk by the Spirit and live in a manner that is pleasing in God’s sight (5:16).
Fourth, justification is the means through which we obtain a righteous standing before God. The idea that sinful mankind needed a righteous standing before God to have fellowship with Him and avoid His judgment was not a rigorous point of contention among God’s people. The conflict was not the need for righteousness, but the means through which righteousness could be obtained. The Jews of Paul’s day wrongly assumed that righteousness came through adherence to the Law. Rather, Abraham’s righteousness was credited to him through faith in God’s promise (3:6), 430 years before the giving of the Law (3:17)! Paul points out the error in Jewish interpretation—contrary to what they believed and practiced, the Scriptures had always proclaimed that the righteous shall live by faith because no one is able to succeed at every point of the Law (3:11). The Law’s inability to impart life to those under its jurisdiction made it impossible for sinful humans to obtain righteousness through perfect obedience (3:21). Therefore, a sinner must draw near by faith in order to possess the righteous status that justification provides.
Fifth, justification set us free from the curse of the Law and empowers us to fulfill the Law through the power of the Spirit. Paul makes it clear that, as children of the promise, believers have been set free from the slavery to the Law (5:1). To seek justification under the slavery that the Law offers severs a person from Christ and the grace that He provides (5:4). In dramatic contrast to the false teachers’ assertion that to be free from the Law would only produce lawlessness, only freedom from the Law enables individuals to lovingly serve others and fulfill the true letter of the Law (5:13-14). A right understanding of one’s justification will prevent prideful boasting in one’s abilities that leads to comparison with other believers, as well as self-centered insecurity in one’s inability (5:25-26).
Sixth, while believers are active in their exercising of faith, they are passive in their justification. Every use of the word ‘to be justified’ (dikaioō) that relates to the believer is employed in the passive voice (2:16; 2:17; 3:11; 3:24; 5:4). The active voice of this verb is only used once in Galatians, and it speaks of God’s active, justifying work of the Gentiles by faith (3:8). This rules out any idea of nomism or synergism playing a role in justification and preserves all the glory for the God who justifies the ungodly.
In conclusion, justification is central to one’s understanding of salvation. Paul’s argument is definitive—to get justification wrong is to get the gospel wrong, to get Christ wrong, and to live perpetually in slavery until the Spirit of God intervenes to provide spiritual clarity and direction. The history of religion has demonstrated over and over again that a wrong understanding of justification inevitably results in a works-righteousness approach to salvation. As a result, believers of all time have rested in the security of their justification and have effectively carried out righteous deeds to the glory of God.