While he sat in class, the young man’s frustration was evident, and when class ended, he was at the podium before I closed my laptop. He wanted to meet as soon as possible. In the lecture, I’d said,
We don’t add works to faith in Jesus. We stand before God, from first to last, justified in Christ alone. We never get past faith, and our righteousness is never properly ours—it’s always in Christ.
I’d said, “If we measure God’s faithful word to us in Christ only by the presence or absence of works, then despair or delusion will follow.”
We set up a meeting for the next day. I assumed the young man was angry, but I was wrong. After a few moments in my office, his eyes began to tear up. “I haven’t had assurance for as long as I can remember,” he said. “I never feel like I do enough, and I know that one day I’ll give an account before God.”
“Do you think God justifies you in Christ?” I asked, “That he forgives your sins and gives you Christ as your righteousness?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Do you think God does that only to get things started but will one day add your works to the mix to see if you really qualify?”
“No. But I live like I do.”
We confess justification by faith in Christ, yet practically the pressure is on to perform, to serve more, to love more, to be more. As Craig A. Parton puts it, there seems always to be an “evangelical urge to do more.”
In Galatians 3:1–3, Paul makes clear that when leveraged for identity or standing before God, all manner of works, virtues, and practices are evil enchantments. The Christian life isn’t about moving onward and upward from the cross. Instead, we should go back to the start.
Double Edge of Evidence
Let’s be clear: Saving faith flows outward in works of love for God and others. We’re saved by faith alone, but our faith is not alone. Whether good or bad, a tree is known by its fruit (Matt. 12:33). Love and obedience are signs of saving faith.
Moreover, none of us serve others enough, but that’s not the issue at stake in Galatians 3.
We confess justification by faith in Christ, yet practically the pressure is on to perform, to serve more, love more, to be more.
The question here is if we’ll fall into the dangerous trap of finding assurance, or establishing our identity, in what we do or if we’ll find it in Christ.
Problems can arise in the relationship between works and assurance because we love hard evidence, things we can see and point to. We love our own accomplishments, the things that set us apart as really committed Christians. This is a stumbling block. It’s easy to begin with Christ crucified and the Spirit but then be lured, trance-like, away from the cross and back to finding assurance in our effort. Even when Paul looked at his own life of faith, he looked away from himself by saying “no longer I . . . but Christ” (Gal. 2:20).
To the Galatians who succumbed to the temptation to find assurance in effort, Paul asked a series of questions. Let’s consider two of them.
1. “Who has bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1).
According to Paul, adding works to the cross of Christ isn’t a minor mistake. It means being led astray as though under a spell. False teachers lured the Galatians away from the apostolic gospel, essentially saying, “Yes, you have Jesus, but you need to add works of the law.” They “bewitched” or “cast an evil eye” on the Galatians. In chapter 2, however, Paul says no one can be justified before God by doing the law but only through faith in Christ (2:16). By falling under the enchantment of works, the Galatians lost sight of the Savior.
2. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).
He’s not talking about “getting saved” by works. He’s rebuking dependence on the flesh for progress in the Christian life. With “flesh,” Paul links dependence on works to a power and realm opposite to Christ and his Spirit.
Adding to the cross means falling back under a curse (3:10). While we must be conformed to Christ and live lives worthy of our calling (Eph. 4:1), the Christian life isn’t about proving or displaying our justification through our doing. We’re not justified by God in Christ and given the Spirit so we can put the cross in our rearview mirror. Growth in the Christian life isn’t progressing from the cross. We must constantly confess our sin—including our self-justifying tendencies—and return daily to the cross.
But What About . . . ?
I know what you’re thinking. Doesn’t Paul say “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith” (2 Cor. 13:5) and “Let each one test his own work” (Gal. 6:4)? Don’t these texts teach us works are necessary? Don’t they encourage us to measure our progress?
Yes, works are necessary, but we must distinguish works added to the cross from works that flow from it (Eph 2:10). Yes, Paul also commends self-examination, but the most important self-test isn’t found in evidence of progress. It’s in going back to the start and asking, “Am I believing? Am I trusting Christ?” After all, faith is both a gift and obedience, not merely a launching pad for obedience (John 6:29; Rom. 1:5).
We’re not justified by God in Christ and given the Spirit so we can put the cross in our rearview mirror.
Do you want to grow in Christ? Know that Paul’s questions in Galatians 3 are for you too. I doubt you feel pressure to add circumcision or other Mosaic ceremonies to your faith. But rooting our Christian identity and assurance in any works, God’s good law included, means aligning ourselves with the flesh. It’s starting with Christ who fulfilled the law for us then seeking to finish by another power.
Do you want to grow as a Christian? Know that Jesus stands before you every day in his gospel word. He’s calling you back to the start. Believe, confess, and repent. Return to the cross.