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Galatians 1: The Allure of Works-Based Righteousness

Before you read this, may I encourage you to stop and take a moment to read over the first chapter of the book of Galatians. Here’s a couple links to it If you don’t have your bible handy at the moment: (ESV) and (NKJV). It’s only 24 verses, I would strongly encourage you to test everything you read from me (or anyone else) against the Word of God rather than simply taking it at face value. That said, let’s get to it.

Paul opens the book of Galatians by making a very clear effort to clarify the purpose for, and authority behind, his teaching of salvation by Grace alone, through faith alone. There is debate as to which point in His life Paul wrote the book of Galatians, but I tend to lean towards the idea that he wrote it while on His third missionary journey, sometime around when he also wrote the book of Romans. I lean this way because the two epistles share so much in the way of structure and content. But regardless, the situation is that Paul had planted a church in Galatia and founded it on the good news that Christ had given Himself up to save His people from the present evil age (1:3), according to the will of God; who alone deserves the glory. Based on his clarifications later in the book, he had taught them very clearly that Christ had paid the totality of the debt owed to righteousness, and had ransomed them from their sins to live a life fully devoted to God out of gratitude and identification with Christ, rather than out of an effort to earn their right standing with God that had already been purchased through Christ.

However, shortly after Paul left, men came into his newly planted church in Galatia and began teaching a highbrid form of Judaism and Christianity which required men to be circumcised in order to attain salvation. This “false gospel” as Paul calls it, coupled with the news of how quickly the Galatians had accepted it, infuriated Paul and lead him to write the book of Galatians in a much harsher and more direct tone than any of his other epistles. Because there is much to be learned here, even for modern believers and churches, what I would like to do is briefly explore a few aspects of each chapter in Galatians over the course of 6 different posts. This is the first, focusing on chapter 1, and examining the groundwork that Paul lays for taking on the false gospel of justification by faith in partnership with works. In this post we will examine one of the key issues from chapter 1: the allure of works based righteousness.

The Allure of Works Righteousness

Immediately after his introduction, Paul remarks that he is astonished at how quickly the Galatians have abandoned the gospel. I make two observations from this: first, it seems that whatever caused them to abandon the gospel is incredibly enticing, considering it was able to cause them to so quickly forget the price with which they were ransomed by Christ. Secondly, I think that on the surface it must be no significant shift from what Paul had originally taught them, because anything more drastic would presumably cause a serious objection on their part, and likely take much longer to be accepted if it wasn’t rejected outright. Now if you, reader, will permit me to “cheat” a bit here, because (based on the rest of the book and historical context) the thing Paul was writing about was a form of works based righteousness, I think it not unreasonable to go ahead and plug that title into the observations. So to put it plainly, works based righteousness is two things: It is enticing and at first glance it is very similar to the Gospel.  

Why is it Enticing?

Last year I was blessed with the opportunity to visit Italy with a missions group from my church. While we were there we visited the Vatican in Rome, and what I saw there affected me so deeply that it lead me and my wife to try pursuing full-time missions work within the country. Sadly for us, that was not God’s plans for our lives right now, but the impact it had on me has not lessened since then. While we were in the Vatican, we saw a large bronze statue of what was supposed to be the Apostle Paul. The Roman Catholic church had propagated the rumor that rubbing one of the feet one the statue (I don’t remember if it was the right or left) would somehow absolve a person of their sin. So for decades upon decades, people had come to the statue to rub it’s foot for forgiveness until eventually the entire foot was literally rubbed away. Not wanting to leave the people without such a convenient means of idolatry, the church told them that they would make a special allowance, and now it would be acceptable to rub the other foot for absolution. By the time I visited that foot had already begun to rub away as well. At the time I thought that was the most unthinkably stupid thing I had ever heard of, and I could not possibly imagine how anyone could fall for such a charade.

Since then, though I still think it absolutely unacceptable, I no longer think of it as stupid. Now I see it for what it is: dangerously tempting. Ever since I saw that statue, every time I would slip and fall into sin, grieving the Holy Spirit and momentarily shunning my savior, the grief would cause me to look back and long for a method of seeking forgiveness that was so convenient and impersonal as rubbing the foot of a statue. If only I didn’t have to return to God in prayer, lay my sin at His feet, and confess directly to Him. If only I didn’t have to open His word and feel the sting of conviction, or think of my crucified savior and the nails which only represented the thing that really held Him on the cross; my sin. If only I could just rub that damned statue’s foot and be done with it. I would climb any number of stairs on my knees if I could erase the grief I caused my savior, and be assured of my right standing with the Father then and there.

This train of thought was my heart’s natural bent towards idolatry expressing itself in the form of unbelief and false piety. If I truly believed in my Savior’s Words at the moment, I would know that “It is finished.” (John 19:30) I would know that I “stand” in the “Grace of God.” (Romans 5:2) Moreover, I would have believed that I stand in that Grace because Christ makes me to stand. (Romans 14:2). I would know that I have put on His righteousness and He took on the guilt of my sin. (Romans 8:3-4) And I would have known that the Father looks down on me, in my sin, with the love and forgiveness of a Father who has just seen His child injured (Galatians 4:6), and who sees me while I am still far off, and runs to embrace me and put His ring back on my finger, and His cloak back on my shoulders. (Luke 15:20) It is only in that context that the statue once again looks cold, dead, and unable to give me what I need. It is only in the forgiveness of Christ and the satisfaction of His grace that idols lose their appeal. Like the prodigal son who saw pig slop as food, I am unable to be repulsed by the grossness of sin until I am satisfied in the beauty of Christ. I imagine after his father killed the fattened calf for him, the prodigal son did not ask to go out again to the pigs trough instead. But when I am walking in the flesh, as Proverbs 26:11 says, I am a dog returning to it’s vomit, lacking the taste to discern the reality of what I’m returning to over and over again.

How is it similar to the Gospel?

Finally, how in the world can this false gospel be similar to the good news of Christ? Paul saw it as so different that he accused the Galatians of abandoning the original gospel, so it cannot be said that these two are in any way compatible. So, outwardly similar, but totally incompatible. How? Because works based salvation is the corrupted version of the gospel that lies within man’s heart. The first chapters of Romans make it abundantly clear that all men have the knowledge of God (Romans 1:19-20), and that because of the fall their minds had become futile, and they began to worship idols and images of creation rather than the Creator. And in all historical and biblical accounts of man’s idolatry, one thing remains consistent: idolatry is always works based. Man’s standing before his false God is always dependent on what actions he does or sacrifices he makes to garner the false deity’s favor. It’s as if man knows that God exists, and that his own natural behavior is insufficient to please that God.

But as Romans says, man’s sinful desires take over and make the law of God utterly unacceptable to the natural man. So he must reinvent his own deity that only finds unacceptable those behaviors the natural man is willing to let go of, and often times commands the very thing man’s sinful nature craves; murder, sexual perversion, and theft. Yet no matter how perverted the false deities may be, they almost always still demand certain behaviors, and prohibit others as a requirement for garnishing the god’s favor. That same spirit of paganism creeps all too easily into our views of God, and our subsequent worship of Him. Time and time again we return to it just like the Jews returned to their works based perversion of God’s Law, and we seek justification before God in the form of good behaviors rather than the righteousness of Christ.

It’s so easy because it’s so close to the truth. The reality is that God does demand perfect righteousness, not only in deed but in thought. (Leviticus 19:2, Matthew 5:28, 48) The only problem is that his standard of righteousness is so deeply contrary to our sinful desires that it is completely impossible for us to maintain. (Romans 8:6-8) So we must have a substitute or we will die in our sins. And the idea that there is a perfect God who chose to come and die for us – his totally broken and sinful creations, is so contrary to our corrupted sense of justice that it will never come naturally. We must remind ourselves and even re-convince ourselves daily of the Gospel, and let it transform us by the power of the Spirit. In Him, we see we are not saved by our own good works, rather we were saved by His perfect works, for the purpose of living out our own good works in Him.

“For [it is] by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them”
– Ephesians 2:8-10

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