We Evangelicals believe in Justification by Faith Alone. God accepts us because we believe, not because we work. Sometimes we get lulled into the idea that although this matters, it is not that important to God. Certainly he overlooks a little working for the sincere. In other words, he accept Christians that believe in the cross but reject justification by faith alone. This doctrine is important but not crucial.
That was not Paul’s perspective. The Jewish teachers in the Galatian churches had begun adding one teeny-weeny work, circumcision, as a necessary precedent to salvation. How did Paul respond? Radically and violently. He prayed down a curse on them. Twice he writes, “Let him be accursed!” (Gal. 1:8,9). Then in the third chapter he reiterates the idea. “All who rely on works of the law are under a curse” (Gal. 3:10). In Phil. 3 he calls them “dogs, evildoers, those who mutilate the flesh.” In 2 Cor 11 he even calls them “deceitful workmen,” servants of Satan who disguise themselves as angels of light. In Gal. 5:12 he prays that they will castrate themselves.
In an age like ours, one which prizes itself on tolerance, these are fighting words.
Why such strong statements? First, justification by works is a “basic principle of this world” (Gal. 4:9). It is the element common to all false religions. It consigns millions to Hell. Those who seek to be justified by their own efforts actually reject Christ and his cross. In Paul’s words, this belief system “severs us from Christ” (Gal 5:4). In other words, if I can work my way into salvation why do I need Jesus? I don’t.
The truth is the opposite. Christ came because self-salvation is impossible. When I insist on working I am really saying to Christ, “I don’t need your cross.” I can do it on my own. For God, the gift of Christ was infinitely costly. It is apparent why he is not too happy with those who take this stance.
The implications are far reaching. First, it means that every local church should place a continuous priority on the proclamation of this crucial doctrine. Second, it means that we should treat liberal Protestants, Roman Catholics, and men like N.T. Wright, who distort or twist this truth, like Paul treated those troubled the Galatians. No sweet talk. No false “niceness.” Heaven and Hell are in the balance. The glory of God is at stake. We should treat them graciously, but our resolve, and our language, should be similar to Paul’s.