The Faith Trait
Consider one wealthy individual who died without leaving any last will and testament that contains the names of those who will inherit his wealth. The law of the land requires that the inheritance be distributed according to one’s blood and legal relations to the deceased benefactor. The widowed and the children will receive a portion of the inheritance. But the illegitimate ones will receive less and sometimes none. However if there’s a will and the benefactor specified that the chauffeur who was like a son to him will be given more from the inheritance, the “legitimate” sons and daughters who never treat their father rightly while still living will take offense and hate the chauffeur for it. Because they think of themselves as more worthy of the inheritance by virtue of physical descent.
Faith is the spiritual DNA by which our familial relationship to Abraham can be proven.
Like the sons and daughters in that parable, the Jews hated the idea that the Gentiles are included in the blessings promised to Abraham. They boast in their pedigree and they thought of themselves as the sole heir because they descended from Abraham in the flesh. But Jesus said that if they indeed were children to Abraham, they will do what Abraham did, namely they will believe in Him and delight at His coming(John 8:38-41, 56).
Abraham then is quintessential to Paul’s argument against the Judaizers in Galatia. Because for the Judaizers, the only provision given in the old covenant for the inclusion of Gentiles was if they were to become a proselyte by means of circumcision. They must be circumcised like Abraham. But Paul argued otherwise in Galatians 3:6-9. He will show from scriptures that Abraham’s acceptance was because of his faith and not because of being circumcised.
How are we like Abraham?(verse 6)
6 Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness
Paul begins this section in verse 6 with the Greek conjunction”Καθὼς”, literally “just as” in English. Which signifies comparison between what’s being said about Abraham in verses 6-9 and how one receives the Spirit in the preceding verses. The assumed answer to the rhetorical questions in verses 2-5 is hearing with faith. That is we receive the Spirit by faith, we will be perfected by faith, and God provides the Spirit by faith. The comparison goes something like this; Just as Abraham received the blessing of being counted righteous by faith, so also we received the promised Spirit by faith. The parallel is not exact but the focus of the comparison is on the essence, namely faith.
Now before we move forward, we should ask first why use Abraham as reference? Paul could’ve use other old testament patriarchs and heroes of faith to prove his point right? Why not Isaac, Jacob or Moses and David?
The answer lies on the fact that the “work” which the Judaizers add to faith in order to be accepted in the new covenant community is something that was given before the Mosaic law, namely the circumcision rite.
According to John MacArthur “The Judaizers argued, “Isn’t it obvious that if the rest of the world, that is, Gentiles, are to share in the promised blessings to Abraham, they must first take on the sign that marks God’s people, the Jews? If all the nations of the earth will be blessed in Abraham, they will have to become like Abraham and be circumcised.”
However, Abraham was at that time, still uncircumcised when God credited his faith as righteousness. He’s a Gentile when God reckoned him as righteous. It was only after fourteen years that the command for his circumcision was given(Genesis 16:16; 17:1)
The main point then of this comparison is to show that Jewishness and circumcision or Gentileness and uncircumcision does not qualify nor disqualify you from becoming sons of Abraham and heirs to his blessings. It is rather belief or unbelief that qualifies or disqualifies a person. Meaning, faith is the spiritual DNA by which our familial relationship to Abraham can be proven.
This main point is stated in two ways. First in verse 7 and it is preceded in verse 6 by its old testament support from Genesis 15:6. Second is in verse 9, which is supported in verse 8 by quotations from Genesis 12:3, 18:18.
True Sons of Abraham(verses 6-7)
6 Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness, 7 so then learn that those of faith, these are the sons of Abraham
Verse 6 is the grounds from which Paul inferred in verse 7 that the true sons of Abraham are those of faith. But how does the connection works?
All first-century Jews and the agitators would not contest the quotation from Genesis 15:6. They can readily agree that Abraham’s faith was credited to him as righteousness. The issue is with what Paul inferred from it. Was the conclusion in verse 7 legitimate? That is, how can Paul argue from the fact that Abraham’s righteousness was based on faith (vv. 6) to the fact that Abraham’s sons, or descendants, are also those who believe(vv. 7)? To see the conjunction “so then” or “therefore” is one thing, to know how it works is another.
Consider this, Genesis 15 mentioned Abraham’s descendants many times, but the context seems to suggest that these descendants were Abraham’s biological offspring; so Genesis 15:4 promises that “a son who is your own flesh and blood [יֵצֵא מִמֵּעֶיךָ, yēṣēʾ mimmēʿêkā, one who comes from your loins] will be your heir.” Thus the quotation seems to support the very opposite of what Paul is saying. Now if the conclusion drawn from verse 6 in verse 7 was about faith and circumcision then the logic makes perfect sense. But the conclusion was about Abraham’s true descendants.
We may not be able to make sense immediately how the logic of the apostles works in context, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrational. The problem is with us and not with the Scriptures.
Did Paul then misquote and misconstrue Genesis 15:6?
No. First, because Paul never deny the fact that the Jews really descended from Abraham in the physical sense, neither did he claim that Gentiles can become sons of Abraham physically by faith. Second, because the inference that was drawn from Genesis 15:6 hangs only on that verse, so Paul is warranted not to include the preceding verses as his support because that could be misleading. Third, Paul assumes that there are sons of Abraham in the physical sense and sons in the spiritual sense. And I think that the sense here in verse 7 is spiritual, given that the comparison that Paul’s making was with how did the Galatian believers received the promised Spirit and how did Abraham attained justification. Paul argued the same way in Romans 9:6-8;
Not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring.
Galatians 4:28-30 clarifies this issue of sonship for us too:
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.”
The comparison moves from the father and now to his son Isaac and the fact that we too are children of promise. That is we were born according to the Spirit like Isaac. Both Ishmael and Isaac descended from Abraham in the flesh but only the child of promise was counted as offspring.
True Recipients of Abraham’s Blessing(verses 8-9)
8 Since the Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, therefore the Scripture preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, by saying that, “All the nations will be blessed in you.” 9 So then those of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer
As mentioned earlier, verse 9 is just a restatement of the main point in verse 7. This will clarify more for us that Paul’s not misquoting the old testament. The promise that Abraham believed in was not just a promise that he will be blessed and be a great nation but that he will also become a blessing to all the nations. Genesis 12:1-3:
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”
The promised child in the physical sense in Genesis 15:4-6 was just a means to that end. The promise has a promised purpose. John Piper says it this way; “When God chose Abram to found a new nation, he made sure that Abram knew that the Jewish people were being created for the world. Their mission is to “be a blessing.” Their destiny is to serve all the nations. (Genesis 18:18 says the same thing, and uses “nations,” i.e., Gentiles, instead of “families.”) This is the text Paul quotes in Galatians 3:8, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.””
In which case you might object “but sonship was never mentioned in that verse.” That’s why John Piper is right in raising this question and the answer he gave in response to it; “But is this blessing which the nations get the same as sonship? Is there any clue in Genesis that the nations would be blessed in Abraham because they would become his sons? Yes, there is in Genesis 17. Here God spells out the terms of his covenant with Abraham and says in Genesis 17:4, 5, “Behold, my covenant is with you, and you shall be the father of a multitude of nations. No longer shall your name be Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.””
Therefore Galatians 3:9 serves as an explanation in what sense that those of faith are the sons of Abraham.They are sons by virtue of receiving the promised blessing and inheritance.
Those of faith, these are the sons of Abraham
Those of faith are blessed with Abraham, the believer
Paul supports this assertion by saying in verse 8 that the Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and therefore proclaimed the gospel to Abraham ahead of time by saying “All the nations will be blessed in you.” The gospel then that Abraham believed in is not just God’s promise to turn him into a great nation or that He will give him a son, but that all nations will be blessed in him.
To be justified and be accepted into fellowship with God is far more satisfying than any material inheritance.
Primacy of Apostolic Interpretation
One application we can draw here is how should we respond to apostolic authority when it comes to interpretation. Our posture when interpreting the scriptures must be of humility and submission to apostolic interpretation. We may not be able to make sense immediately how the logic of the apostles works in context, but that doesn’t mean it’s irrational. The problem is with us and not with the Scriptures.
Jesus said to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus in Luke 24:25-27; “How foolish you are, and how slow to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Messiah have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning” himself.
Same is true with our understanding of how the new testament authors quote old testament scriptures. Affirm and trust their conclusions first(Paul in this case) before objecting. Don’t be foolish and slow of heart to believe. We are no better exegete than the inspired authors, therefore trust their judgments. But as you grow, dig deeper into the word of God and see its coherence at the root.
Believe like Abraham Believed
Many of us will find this account as if it has zero significance in our 21st century mindset. What does a promise given to a founder of a nation has to do with us today? The reason we don’t find any interest in it is that we don’t know what it means to be sons and daughters of Abraham and what those promises and blessings are. Do we, like Abraham, delightfully believe God and his promised justification through his Son and the receiving of the Spirit? Believe joyfully like Abraham believed God brethren! For to be justified and be accepted into fellowship with God is far more satisfying than any material inheritance.