Galatians 3 - IVP New Testament Commentaries
Identifying the Children of Abraham
Just as the converts in Galatia were struggling to understand how their new faith in Christ affected their identity, so I have heard Chinese Singaporean Christians struggle to define their identity as Christians in response to constant negative references in the media to "Christian/Western values." This equation of Christian values and Western values implies that when Chinese people become Christians, they abandon their Chinese identity and become Westerners. Unfortunately, conversions to the Christian faith are often accompanied by such a change in cultural identity, which seems to be required by strong Western influences both in society and in the church. As a result there is often a painful confusion of identity. "I feel like I'm not really a true Christian unless I give up my Chinese identity and become thoroughly Westernized," one young Chinese Christian man told me. "But I don't understand why I have to adopt so much of the Western culture and deny my own Chinese heritage in order to be a true Christian."
Similar questions have been raised in every age and culture as converts to the Christian faith wrestle to understand their identity as Christians. Even in so-called Christian countries, Christians need to discern the difference between their identity as God's children and the identity offered by the dominant forces of the surrounding culture.
It is helpful in the context of this discussion about the Christian's sense of identity to reflect on Paul's response to the identity crisis faced by the Galatian Christians. They were adrift in a no man's land between the pagan temples and the Jewish synagogues. They belonged to neither. They had abandoned the gods and religious practices of the temples. But they did not attend the Jewish synagogues, nor were they welcome there, even though they read the Jewish Scriptures and believed in a Jewish Messiah. As new Christians without a clear sense of identity, they were easily persuaded that if they acquired a Jewish identity they would belong to the people of God. They were probably reminded that the mother church in Jerusalem was a law-observant Jewish church. So if they really wanted to belong to the true church, they would have to be Jewish. They were in the process of receiving circumcision and the law so that they could belong to the people who claimed to be the true recipients of God's blessing.
In Galatians 3:6-9 we see how Paul defines the identity of the Galatian believers: he compares them to Abraham (v. 6), then he identifies them as children of Abraham on the basis of a common family characteristic (v. 7); he confirms that identification by quoting Scripture (v. 8), and on that basis he includes them in the family blessing (v. 9). Our own sense of identity can be clarified and strengthened as we trace the steps in this identification process.
After his questions in 3:1-5, designed to evoke a reaffirmation of faith, Paul points to the story of Abraham's faith: Consider Abraham. Since Abraham is the father of God's people, his experience with God establishes a guide to the will of God for his people. If the experience of the Galatians can be shown to correspond to the experience of the patriarch, then their experience conforms to the will of God. Verse 6 begins with a comparative conjunction (missing in the NIV): [Just as Abraham] believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Paul shows the striking similarity between the experience of the Galatians, who believed the preaching of the cross and received the blessing of the Spirit, and the experience of the great patriarch of God's people, who believed God's promise and received the crediting of righteousness. Paul draws two significant parallels between the Galatians' experience and Abraham's experience: the human response of faith and the divine blessing enjoyed by those who believe.
The human response of faith. The Galatian believers were being excluded from the family of Abraham because they did not have the required membership badge: circumcision and works of the law. "After all," they had probably been told, "circumcision is the sign of the Abrahamic covenant, and Genesis 17 declares that anyone without this sign is to be cut off from the covenant family. So you uncircumcised Gentiles cannot possibly be included in the Abrahamic family and blessing. You don't belong!" It must have been very upsetting, as it always is, to be excluded from the blessing of God and the fellowship of God's people on the basis of racial, social and religious entrance requirements.
But Paul quotes Genesis 15:6 to prove that faith is the only entrance requirement for full membership in the family of God. The close parallel between verses 5 and 6 of Galatians 3 sets Abraham's faith in contrast to the works of the law. Keeping all the requirements of the law is not the way to belong to the covenant family of God. Faith is the way to enter into a relationship with God.
The content of Abraham's faith is not specified in verse 6, but in verse 8 Paul asserts that the gospel was announced in advance to Abraham, the gospel of blessing for Gentiles. So it is not stretching the text at all to draw the conclusion that Paul sees Abraham's faith as a response to this gospel of blessing for the Gentiles. The context of Genesis 15:6 indicates that the content of Abraham's faith was God's promise of an innumerable offspring. One clear night God challenged Abraham to count the stars. Then God gave Abraham his promise: "So shall your offspring be" (Gen 15:5). When Abraham heard God's promise, he believed. His faith was a response to God's promise.
The content of the Galatians' faith is essentially the same. Their faith is believing what they heard (vv. 2, 5). What they heard was the gospel of blessing for Gentiles through the cross of Christ. So the comparison of the response of faith of Abraham and the Galatians points to a remarkable similarity that cannot be denied. No wonder, then, that Paul commands the Galatians to draw the appropriate conclusion from this comparison with Abraham: they belong to the Abrahamic family. But before we look at that conclusion, we need to examine the other side of the comparison.
The divine blessing. Believing what was heard is the basic parallel between the experience of the Galatians and the experience of Abraham. But by quoting the entire text of Genesis 15:6, Paul also sets up a parallel between the bestowal of the Spirit upon the Galatians and the crediting of righteousness to Abraham. This parallel points to the close connection between the bestowal of the Spirit and the crediting of righteousness. Paul's line of argument seems to be that the observable experience of the bestowal of the Spirit is evidence of the unobservable act of God's judicial acquittal that brings the believer within the covenant relationship. Miracles (3:5), the heart-cry of "Abba" (4:6) and the fruit of the Spirit (5:22-26) provide solid evidence of the bestowal of the Spirit. And the bestowal of the Spirit indicates that the crediting of righteousness has taken place.
Paul takes his readers back to the beginning of the story of God's family. Abraham believed God: that was how the covenant relationship with God began. As Paul argues throughout this chapter, the terms of the relationship have not been changed. This comparison with Abraham demonstrates the unity of the Bible. Receiving the blessing of God by faith is the central theme of the entire story of God's people, from the first page to the last.
The comparison drawn in verse 6 between the experience of Abraham and that of the Galatians requires the conclusion of verse 7: Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The common family trait of faith is the decisive factor. Anyone characterized by that trait is definitely identified as a member of the family.
We might have expected the conclusion in verse 7 that God credits righteousness to all those who are of faith. That conclusion would have been more closely related to the previous verse's quotation of Genesis 15:6. But the fact that Paul's conclusion has to do with the identity of the children of Abraham shows that this was the major concern. The troublemakers insisted that circumcision was the indispensable sign of the covenant family. Paul uses Genesis 15:6 to prove that only those who believe can legitimately make the claim that they belong to the people of God as children of Abraham.
Faith is the true sign of covenant. In the context Paul clearly defines faith as faith in Jesus Christ (v. 16). So now identification with Christ by faith, rather than identification with the Jewish nation by circumcision and works of the law, provides the basis of belonging to God's covenant family.
The continuity between Israel, the "children of Abraham," and the church is clearly stated here: Christians have roots; they have a clear identity; they belong to the ancient people of God that began with Abraham.
The radical conclusion drawn from Genesis 15:6 is confirmed by a second quotation: The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you" (v. 8). It was not enough to show that those who believe are the children of Abraham. Paul proves that the principle of righteousness by faith attested for Abraham in Genesis 15:6 is explicitly extended by Scripture itself to the Gentiles. In Paul's quotation the phrase all nations from Genesis 18:18 is inserted in place of the phrase "all the families" (NIV "all peoples") in Genesis 12:3. This combination of texts in his quotation indicates that Paul's primary purpose is to demonstrate that Scripture witnesses to the inclusion of the Gentiles in the blessing promised to Abraham.
Paul interprets the promise of the blessing of all Gentiles in Abraham as a prophecy of what actually happened in his mission to the Gentiles. We must not forget that Paul wrote this letter as a missionary. He was called to take the good news about Jesus to the Gentiles. When he did so, he saw the incontestable evidence that God accepted the Gentiles who believed the gospel. It was clear that God justified them by faith. The evidence that this had happened was the bestowal of the Spirit on these Gentile converts. Paul had learned from his missionary experience that God would justify the Gentiles by faith (v. 8). In the light of that missionary experience, Paul understood the Old Testament promise of blessing for the Gentiles as a description and validation of his ministry.
Scripture foresaw what happened to the Gentile believers in Galatia. And because Scripture foresaw that God would justify Gentiles when they believed the gospel, Scripture announced the gospel in advance to Abraham. The gospel announced in advance to Abraham was a gospel of blessing for Gentiles. That was the gospel Paul preached to the Gentiles! To say that Scripture foresaw and announced the gospel in advance is to personify Scripture. The written text is treated as a person who sees and speaks. Paul's personification of Scripture means that for him the written text expresses the voice of God: what Scripture says, God says.
The blessing promised to Abraham for all nations is appropriated by those who have faith. This application in verse 9 of verse 8's quotation from Scripture is parallel to the application in verse 7 of the Scripture quotation in verse 6. Both applications have as subject those who have faith. Two related descriptions are given of those who have faith: they are children of Abraham (v. 7), and they are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (v. 9). The point Paul is making from his exposition of the Old Testament narrative of Abraham is that the Galatian believers are Abraham's children and recipients of Abraham's blessing.
What exactly is this blessing? In the Old Testament story God promised to bless Abraham with innumerable offspring and a land in which they would dwell. But in the context of Paul's application of this story, the blessing enjoyed by those of faith is transformed into a twofold spiritual blessing. In verse 8 Paul's introduction to the scriptural promise clearly equates the justification of the Gentiles by faith with the blessing. And the presence of the Spirit described in verses 2, 5 and 14 is presented as the observable evidence that the Galatian believers are recipients of the blessing. So justification and the gift of the Spirit are two dimensions of the blessing presented by Paul. God's declaration that Gentile believers are accepted as righteous and God's demonstration of his presence by his Spirit in the midst of the Galatian churches constitute the blessing enjoyed by faith.
Faith has been the emphasis in this section. Noun and verb forms of faith occur seven times in verses 1-9. No longer will anyone be excluded from the blessing on the basis of race; those of faith from all nations enjoy the blessing. Abraham is now the prototype of the universal people of faith, not simply the progenitor of the Jewish race. So it is not necessary to belong to the Jewish race to participate in the blessing of Abraham. All that is necessary is faith like Abraham's.
Just as the Galatian believers did not need to take on a Jewish identity in order to be Christians--their true identity as full members of the family of faith was based on their faith in Christ, not on their racial or social status--so today believers in every nation need to be encouraged to find their true identity in Christ, not in the attainment of a new ethnic identity.