by Dr. Robert R. Seyda



Medieval Catholic scholar, Thomas Aquinas, gives us his assessment of what was happening here and the charges being made. Someone could say, he argues, that the Apostles sinned by abandoning the Law and turning to the faith in the Anointed One for salvation. But Paul shows that this would lead to the following unwelcomed conclusion, namely, that the Anointed One is the author of sin in calling men and women from faith in the Law to faith in Him. Paul responds adamantly, “God forbid!” the Anointed One is the minister of justice; the Anointed One is not the minister of sin in leading someone from the First Covenant to the Final Covenant. This should be plain to see because if Paul himself, by wanting to glory once more in the Law, were to build up again the things he tore down, namely, his pride for glorying in his obedience to the Law, he would make himself a liar and fraud by putting trust back into what was already destroyed. He was not speaking of the Law itself, but his pride in being a servant of the law. This is what the Manicheans[1] were teaching because the Law is holy, but pride in having knowledge of and in keeping the Law is not holiness.[2]

The great Reformer Martin Luther shares the agony he went through on both sides of the issue when it came to salvation by works instead of faith.  To him, Paul was crying out: “What are these false Apostles doing?” Paul saw that they were turning Law into grace, and grace into Law. They were changing Moses into the Anointed One, and the Anointed One into Moses. By teaching that besides the Anointed One and His righteousness, the performance of good works under the Law was necessary for full salvation. In doing so, they advocated the Law in the place of the Anointed One, they attributed to the Law power to save, a power that belongs only to the Anointed One only.

Luther then goes on to explain his situation: Catholic priests quote the words of the Anointed One: “If you want to obtain timeless life, keep the commandments.”[3] But they don’t realize that with their own words they deny the Anointed One and abolish faith in Him by placing emphasis on the commandments. By doing this, the Anointed One is made to lose His good name, His office, and His glory, and is demoted to the status of a law enforcer, reproving, terrifying, and chasing poor sinners around. The proper office of the Anointed One is to raise sinners, and extricate them from the clutches of sins. But Luther wasn’t finished. He accuses Catholic Priests and Anabaptists[4] of being critical of him and his followers because they so firmly require faith. “Faith,” they say, “makes people reckless.” What do these law-workers know about faith, Luther wants to know, why they are so busy calling people back from baptism, from faith, from the promises of the Anointed One to the Law?[5]

John Calvin disagrees somewhat with Chrysostom’s conclusions. For him, Chrysostom, and some other commentators make the whole passage to be an affirmation of the fact that if, while we seek to be justified by the Anointed One, we are not yet perfectly righteous but still unholy. If this is true, then the Anointed One is not sufficient for our righteousness which makes Him a minister of a doctrine which leaves people in sin. By supposing that anyone accepts such an absurd proposition, Paul is calling for a charge of blasphemy against those who attribute any part of justification to the Law. However, Paul does not hold back in saying that when it comes to justification, it’s like making the dead try to continue doing good works in order to comply. He puts a question, in his usual manner, into the mouth of his antagonists. “If, in consequence of the righteousness of faith, we, who are Jews and were sanctified from the womb, are reckoned guilty and polluted, shall we say that the Anointed One makes sin to be powerful in His own people and that He is, therefore, the author of sin?”[6]

Calvin goes on to explain that this all arose from the fact that Paul indicated that the Jews, by believing in the Anointed One, renounced their inherited righteousness under the law. As such, even before they became believers, and having separated themselves from the Gentiles were never called sinners, are they now being placed on the same level with Gentiles, therefore, becoming sinners? Paul’s conclusion that the Jews were mistaken in claiming any holiness for themselves in the Law apart from the Anointed One. As a consequence, the Anointed One did not bring sin, but unveiled it; He did not take away righteousness but stripped the Jews of a false righteous disguise.

Paul insinuates a charge of blasphemy against those who attribute a part of justification to the Law. His “absolutely not!” says all that is needed to say to quash such a notion. Calvin takes the rest of what Paul says here as setting aside an absurd conclusion which some thought Paul’s doctrine appeared to warrant. He puts a question, in his usual manner, into the mouth of his antagonists. “Are you saying, that if, as part of obtaining righteousness by faith in the Anointed One, we, who are Jews and were ‘sanctified from the womb,’[7] are still reckoned guilty and polluted because the Law is not involved? Are you charging that we are saying that the Anointed One makes sin so powerful in His own people who give up the Law as a source for justification, that He is, therefore, the author of sin?” I think we all join Paul in saying that such an idea is ridiculous!

Catholic scholar Cornelius à Lapide questions that if we are still in sin and are looking to faith in the Anointed One for forgiveness but find that there is no forgiveness in Him but in the Law, as the Judaizers were teaching, does that make the Anointed One a preacher of sin? After all, He’s the one who says we must forget the Law and believe only on Him. Lapide points this out as the interpretation of early church scholars Jerome, Chrysostom, Primasius, Anselm, and Theophylact. Lapide examines two other interpretations but settles on this first one as the best to define what Paul was saying because it is less forced.

One of the biggest criticisms that Paul received was that he was making the Law void and that any good works done to help others was needless. They concluded that he was preaching a spiritual philosophy that said once God declares you to be in right standing with Him, you may go on living in sin the way you are living now because God loves nothing more than forgiving a sinner. So, sin more so that God will show how great is His love, grace, and mercy.

Of course, that was ridiculous. For John Owen, there was only one way to answer such a fool-hearted idea. Our own personal righteousness and obedience to the Law in order to be justified before God would be something purchased by the work of our hands. But the justification that we receive as a gift was purchased for us by the blood of Jesus the Anointed One. But there was another factor, even some who were justified before God through the Anointed One, believed that their personal righteousness, holiness, and works could enhance their right standing before God. However, if it didn’t get us there, it can’t keep us there. There is a place for good works and holy living because it shows the evidence of our true nature as a born-again believer living in union with the Anointed One. Paul’s message here in verse eighteen to the Jewish believers in Galatia was that if they insist on working toward being made right with God by keeping the Law, they were only making themselves out to be sinners.[8]

Matthew Poole believes that some interpreters of verse seventeen think that Paul begins his discourse to the Galatians by picking up again the main theme of his Epistle, mainly, that justification by faith in the Anointed One is the only valid way to receive a right standing before God. However, he does admit that there were some who contended that by making the Anointed One alone the foundation of one’s faith, thereby forsaking the Law requirement for obedience in performing good deeds, that not only does one become a sinner but makes the Anointed One the minister of sin.

However, Poole notes that there are still others who think that the Apostle Paul hereby eliminates a common objection which was made back then, and also made during Poole’s day, that the doctrine of justification by faith alone in the Anointed One opens a door for believers to live any way they desired without any moral or ethical laws to control their behavior and conduct. To them, that was the role of the Law. So, by adopting this understanding it would make the Anointed One liable for their sinful behavior. Not only does Paul disavow any such idea by saying, “God forbid!” But to suggest that Christians mistake their faith in the Anointed One for justification as a license to do anything they want is to say that believers possess no sense of what is right or wrong in God’s eyes. Pleasing God by loving Him with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our fellowman as ourselves will keep all the laws that are written in God’s Holy Word.[9]

Joseph Benson shows us a neat way of expressing this argument that Paul is making. It’s as if Paul was being accused of saying that the Gospel promises justification to those who continue in sin. But that’s not what the Apostle was getting at. Therefore, if any, who profess the Gospel, do not live according to it, they are sinners but not justified in doing so. The Gospel is very clear, live God’s way or you will be living the wrong way. Benson sees Paul making this point: Through the Law, he understood, in its spiritual sense, the extent and obligation applied by the Holy Spirit to his conscience, enough to convince him of his utter sinfulness, guilt, and helplessness in trying to acquire salvation through the Law. Therefore, he considers the Law as a dead thing when it comes to being justified by it to a right standing before God.

Therefore, to all dependence upon the Law must be canceled. All dependence now falls on the Anointed One and His work on the cross. That’s why Paul said he wanted to live for God sake. So, he lacked any interest in continuing in sin. For this very end, he was delivered from the death sentence pronounced by the Law on all did not follow its rules. It was only by his faith in the Anointed One that he was justified and brought into a state of favor and acceptance with God. And for what reason? That he might be motivated by nobler views and hopes than the Law could give, and engaged, through love to God, his people, and all mankind, to a more generous, sublime, and extensive obedience than the law was capable of producing.[10]

[1] Manicheans were followers of a 3rd century Persian named Mani who was also known as the “Angel of light.”  They were long considered a Christian movement.  Mani taught a dualistic doctrine that offered salvation through special knowledge (gnosis) of spiritual truth.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit.

[3] Matthew 19:17

[4] The Anabaptist Movement began in 1525 with those joining the Reformation of Luther, Zwingli and others felt it wasn’t going far enough and insisted on more purity including being re-baptized in order to seal one’s salvation. Luther saw this as works.

[5] Martin Luther, On Galatians, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 44

[6] John Calvin, Commentary on Galatians, loc. cit.

[7] Jeremiah 1:5; Galatians 1:15

[8] John Owen: op. cit., Vol. 1, p. 525

[9] Matthew Poole on Galatians: op. cit., loc. cit., Kindle Locations 665-678, Kindle Edition

[10] Joseph Benson: On Galatians, op. cit., loc., cit.

About drbob76

Retired missionary, pastor, seminary professor, Board Certified Chaplain and American Cancer Society Hope Lodge Director.
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