By Pastor Don Strand
A friend recently asked why Paul talks about grace before he discusses the law in his letter to the church at Galatia. Here is the explanation.
Galatians was a letter written by Paul before 47 A.D. is the earliest letter in the New Testament. He wrote just 17 years after Jesus’ resurrection. Paul was “a Hebrew of Hebrews” (Philippians 3:6), meaning he considered himself blameless according to the law. Paul was zealous for the law and hated Jesus although it’s not clear he ever saw Him, and, by extension, the people who followed Jesus. Paul knew Jesus claimed to be the fulfillment of the law (Matthew 5:17). He knew Jesus claimed to be God in the flesh (John 10:30). He knew Jesus claimed He was the final sacrifice for sins (Matthew 20:28). And he knew His followers claimed that Jesus had risen from the grave, and they had seen Him. Paul didn’t believe any of this.
So Paul (early on in Acts he is called “Saul” his Hebrew name) made it his life’s mission to persecute the early church and stamp it out. He was a well-schooled and privileged young man hoping to rise in stature in the religious ranks in Jerusalem. He obtained permission from the religious leaders in Jerusalem to persecute Christians in Damascus. On the way there, Jesus literally knocked him off his horse. But Jesus also gave Paul the new life and spirit to know and understand all that the Bible (only the Old Testament existed then) had prophesied about Jesus. Paul was ‘born again’. The story is in Acts 9, vss. 1-19.
This new birth was the beginning of Paul’s Apostleship. Unlike Peter, Andrew, John and James who had been with Jesus during His three years of earthly ministry, Paul was chosen by the resurrected Jesus. Paul describes how Jesus revealed the deepest mysteries of God’s plan of redemption to him (2 Corinthians 12:2) and that Paul was chosen to reveal those mysteries (Ephesians 1:9; Colossians 1:26). Paul summarized the mystery by explaining that it was by grace, not because he was special but by grace alone, that God gave Abraham the promise of offspring more numerous than the stars (Genesis 15:5). Then Genesis 15:6 makes this amazing statement: “And (Abraham) believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.”
In other words, God credited Abraham with righteousness by faith alone. The Hebrew word means “just,” “honest,” “loyal,” “justly,” which portray the reality of being blameless before God. The idea in Genesis 15 is that God revealed Himself to Abraham and made an incredible promise and because Abraham believed, he was credited with “righteousness.” This idea of righteousness by faith alone through grace alone was somewhat concealed in the Old Testament, but it is now revealed to Paul. And Paul was so amazed (as we all are) that, under the inspiration of the Spirit, he went on to write almost one-half of the New Testament.
So Paul wrote letters to the Galatians, to the Christians in Rome and to other churches throughout the known world and the idea of righteousness by grace through faith was the meaning of the promise God had given to Abraham in Genesis 15:6. Righteousness is credited to everyone who believes, it is by “faith.” And as Paul wrote later, that faith is not our own, it is a gift of God because of His grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). Paul tells the Galatian church this very thing when he says “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith— just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” (Galatians 3:5–7, ESV).
That is why Paul puts grace first. Grace came before the law, and the law cannot cancel the promise of grace made by God (Galatians 3:17-18). That is the beauty of the gospel. It’s not about our keeping the law; it’s about believing the promise of righteousness by faith alone because of God’s grace alone. We cannot add to the righteousness that Jesus earned in His life on earth because His was a complete and perfect righteousness. No more is required. By grace, God gave Abraham the ability to believe, and because he believed, he was declared to be righteousness. It’s the same for everyone who believes.
Paul says in Galatians 3 that before we were given faith, we were subject to (captive under) the law (Galatians 3:23). Paul affirms that the law was useful in that it revealed right and proper living. But now that we have been given faith, we are no longer under the law but under grace. Yet we do love the law and want to obey because it demonstrates we have true faith, is the way to healthy living and relationships, and it pleases God. Jesus says: ““If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). But we do so not to earn favor with God; we can’t earn more than we already, but to show we love Him. And even though we’ll never be able to fully keep the law, we’re not condemned, we are under grace. That’s the gospel truth, as my friend Miles McKee likes to say.