Faith Working by Love

This post was written by Rev. Martyn McGeown, missionary-pastor of the Covenant Protestant Reformed Church in Northern Ireland stationed in Limerick, Republic of Ireland. If you have any questions or comments for Rev. McGeown, please post them in the comment section on the blog.

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The issue in Paul’s epistle to the Galatians is justification. How is a guilty sinner declared righteous before God? The answer: a sinner is justified before God on the basis of the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ received by or through the instrument of faith alone without works.

Paul preached that gospel in Galatia. The saints in Galatia had received and believed that gospel. But false teachers infiltrated the churches. They brought a different message, the message that the sinner is justified on the basis of his obedience to the law of God; or that he is justified on the basis of good works; or that he justified on the basis of faith and good works.

These false teachers confessed the death and resurrection of Jesus, but something, they insisted, must be added. Since these false teachers were Jews or professing Christians from a Jewish background and since they targeted in their teaching the Gentiles or Christians from a Gentile background, they were called “the Judaizers.” They tried to make the Gentiles Jews. They did this by requiring that the Galatians keep Jewish ceremonies, especially circumcision. They required of the Galatians that they observe Jewish food laws. These things, especially circumcision, were necessary for salvation, said the Judaizers. In teaching this false gospel these evil men sought to bring the Galatians into bondage to the whole law.

Paul urged his beloved saints in Galatia to stand fast in the liberty wherewith Christ had made them free (Gal. 5:1). He warned them not to be entangled again with the yoke of bondage. In the course of his polemic against the error of the Judaizers, the apostle alerted the Galatians to this great truth: circumcision avails nothing in salvation. Therefore, the law, of which circumcision is a part, avails nothing in salvation. Only faith avails something, and the faith that avails works by love.

Powerful Faith

Paul addresses the Galatians as “in Jesus Christ.” Jesus is the Savior. The name Jesus means “Jehovah salvation.” Jesus is the only Savior. He is the Savior from sin. He is the effectual Savior. To be “in Jesus” is to be saved: it is to enjoy salvation; it is to possess all the benefits of salvation purchased by Jesus; it is to be regenerated, called, justified, and sanctified; it is to have the certain expectation of being glorified.

Christ is the anointed of God. Christ is the Savior’s official name, given to him because he occupies the position of the only mediator. His work of the Mediator is to be the prophet, priest, and king of God’s people. To be “in Christ” is to be guided by his word (for he is the Prophet); to be redeemed by his blood (for he is the Priest); and to be under his gracious rule (for he is the King). To be “in Christ” is to be united to Christ; to be in the kingdom of God; and to be in the church.

The Galatians were “in Jesus Christ.” Christian reader, you are in Jesus Christ also. They—and we—were chosen in Jesus Christ (in election); redeemed by Jesus Christ (at the cross); and united to Jesus Christ by the Spirit (in the mystical union, in regeneration, and by faith).

“In Jesus Christ” some things do not avail. One thing does avail. Clearly, that verb “avail” is pivotal to the meaning of verse 6. The verb translated “avail” means “to have power/strength.” To avail is to have power/strength to do something; it is to have power/strength to accomplish something. In Luke 16:3 the unjust steward complains, “I cannot dig.” Literally, “I have not the strength to dig” or “I do not avail to dig.” In Revelation 12:8 we read that the devil, the great red dragon, “prevailed not.” The devil did not have the power to defeat the kingdom of God. And in Philippians 4:13 Paul confesses, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me.” In other words, “I have power/strength for all things,” which in the context refers to the power to be content in every situation.

Certain things, says Paul, avail not in Jesus Christ. There is one powerful thing, however, which does avail. That is faith. There are other things, namely circumcision, uncircumcision, the keeping of the law, good works, and man’s obedience, which things avail not.

One thing avails, then. It is faith. We could paraphrase verse 6 this way, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision has power to do anything, nor uncircumcision has power to do anything, but faith, faith has power [to do something]—and it works through or by love.”

What, then, is faith, and why does it—as opposed to other things—avail? Faith is that by which the Holy Spirit unites us to Jesus Christ or it is the spiritual bond that unites us to Jesus Christ. Faith is that power by which we live out of Jesus Christ, drawing out of him the fullness of graces that are in him. We see that in the context: “For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith” (v. 5). The activity described in verse 5 is the activity of waiting, which is an earnest longing and expectation for some future benefit. The object of this activity—that for which we earnestly long, or that for which we have expectation—is the hope of righteousness, which we shall possess on the last day. The means or instrument of our waiting is faith. And the agent of faith or the one who works this faith in us is the Holy Spirit.

You could not substitute other words for the words of verse 5 without destroying the gospel. For example, Paul did not write, “For we by the power of our free will wait for the hope of righteousness by our good works or by our obedience to the law.” That would be false doctrine. That would make our salvation depend upon our obedience. May that never be! The word of God is clear: “For we through the Spirit wait for the hope of righteousness by faith.”

Faith, therefore, is not our work. It is God’s gift to us. When God works faith in us, uniting us to Jesus Christ, then we become active.

Faith avails only because of its object. Faith in itself has no power. If faith trusted in another object other than Christ, then faith would also avail nothing. It would be as unavailing as circumcision or uncircumcision. If the object of faith were our good works or the law of God, then faith would avail nothing. Faith is never an end in itself. Faith looks away from itself to Christ. Faith embraces Christ; faith appropriates Christ; faith trusts in Christ; faith relies upon Christ; faith finds everything in Christ.

Paul virtually equates faith with the object of faith, namely Christ, in Galatians 3:23, 25: “But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed…But after that faith is come…” “Before faith came” means “Before Christ, the object of faith, came.” “The faith which should afterwards be revealed” means “Christ, the object of faith, should afterwards be revealed.”

By faith, then, Christ becomes ours. That is why faith avails.  

But faith is not in our power. We believe by the Spirit. The Spirit gives faith to us and works faith in us; he regenerates us, and then we believe. Furthermore, without faith everything that Christ did for us would be unconnected to us. Christ has accomplished our salvation. He has obeyed God’s law for us. He has suffered for us. He has died for us. He has endured the penalty of the law for us. He has borne the curse of the law for us. But that would be of no advantage to us, unless we were united to him and received all his benefits, which must come to us through the instrument of faith.

John Calvin understood this; he begins the third book of his Institutes, “The Way in Which We Receive the Grace of Christ,” with these words:

…We must understand that as long as Christ remains outside of us, and we are separated from him, all that he has suffered and done for the salvation of the human race remains useless and of no value to us. Therefore, to share with us what he has received from the Father, he had to become ours and to dwell within us…we obtain this by faith…the Holy Spirit is the bond by which Christ effectually unites us to himself…Faith is the principal work of the Holy Spirit.”[1]

Faith avails, then. Faith avails much. Faith avails everything. Without faith we have nothing. By faith we possess everything, because by faith we possess Christ. And by possessing Christ we possess all his riches and gifts.

Faith’s gift worked in us by the Holy Spirit becomes active under the gospel. If you present Christ in the gospel to someone who has faith, that person will reach out for Christ.  And every time that a believer hears the gospel, which should be at least twice every Sunday, he is active in faith. The Christian continues to believe in Jesus Christ. He is more and more united to him. He grows in faith in him.

Faith is the activity of knowing the son of God as our Savior. Faith is the activity of holding for truth everything revealed in God’s word. Faith is the activity of finding salvation in Christ alone. Faith is the activity of refusing to trust in the works of the law as the reason for our justification. Faith is the activity of refusing to be entangled again with the yoke of bondage of the law. Faith is the activity of being assured of one’s own personal election and salvation.

Oh yes, faith availeth! And although Paul does not mention justification in verse 6, faith avails for justification too. Faith is the sole instrument of justification. Circumcision is not the instrument of justification. Good works are not instruments in justification. The law is not the instrument or the basis of justification. Only faith is the instrument of our justification before God, for by faith we appropriate the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which is the ground or basis of our justification, and which God imputes to us.

To be continued...

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[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols., Library of Christian Classics 20–21 (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), 1:537.