A concerned preacher in another town contacted me recently regarding an article posted on our website in which I listed the following lesson from Galatians with accompanying scripture references from that book, “Justification is by faith, not law in general or the Law of Moses in particular (2:16-21; 3:1-14, 21-23; 4:1-5; 4:22-31).” The brother asked me to clarify that statement, especially in light of passages that speak of the New Testament being a law, such as Galatians 6:2, “the law of Christ,” and James 1:25, “the perfect law of liberty.” He was concerned that my affirmation that justification was not by “law in general” might unintentionally put me at odds with those passages. Since we are studying Galatians on Sunday mornings, I thought that my response might be helpful in our ongoing study of that great letter. Following is the gist of that response.
Regarding your question from our website, when I say that we are not saved “by law in general” I mean that we are not saved by a system of mere law. To be justified by a law system one would have to keep the law perfectly. One’s salvation, if it were ever attained under such an arrangement, would be by merit.
In all but a few instances in Galatians, when Paul references “the law,” he does so without the definite article (even though most of our English translations add it). For just one example, there is no article in Galatians 2:21. “If righteousness comes through law (the principle of mere law, EP), then Christ died needlessly.” So what I believe Paul condemns in the letter is, in principle, any legalistic or meritorious approach to pleasing God. The Judaizers in Galatia were teaching such an approach to justification using the Law of Moses as the vehicle through which they believed justification could be obtained. So the immediate and primary application of Paul’s teaching in Galatians applied to “the Law of Moses in particular,” but I believe that it applies “in general” to ANY legalistic or meritorious attempt at justification. It’s even possible to approach the law of Christ legalistically if one is not careful (e.g., if I believe baptism, church attendance, or good works earn my salvation). To use Paul’s own words, “It is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham” (Gal. 3:7), and “as many as are of works of law are under a curse” (3:10). If one wants to be justified, he must trust in what God did for him in Jesus (which trust will obviously show itself in obedience). But one will remain under a curse if he is a “works of law” person, that is, a person who tries to be justified by merit, regardless of the specific law through which he tries to save himself.
I do believe that obedience to the law of Christ is necessary as the proof of our trust in God and the salvation he has made possible for us in Christ (James 2:14-26; Heb. 5:9; Luke 6:46). But the foundation or source of our salvation is in what Jesus did for us, not what we do for him.