Justification: why by faith?

Marc Chagall’s White Crucifixion. Photo: Ed Bierman

Alec Goldberg, Israel Director

A man is justified by faith – that is Paul’s main statement in his epistle to the Galatians, the text I studied during my Sabbatical last year. How does he argue for it? I could track three arguments.

First, if justification is not by faith in Christ, “then Christ died in vain” (Gal. 2:21). Paul does not develop that thought any further, but it seems that it flows as follows: “Now, if Christ died in vain – imagine that for a second – then God achieved nothing through his death. But God always achieves his purposes. Therefore, He did achieve His purpose in Christ’s death, which was our redemption. Thus, Christ did not die in vain and justification is indeed by faith in Him”. In formal logic, this is called “proof by contradiction”: assuming the premise in question to be false, one reasons his way from that assumption to an obvious contradiction, and since contradictions are, by default, unacceptable, the initial premise must actually be the opposite of what it was assumed to be. In other words, it must be true.

Secondly, justification is by faith because a prophet said so in Habbakuk 2:4 (Gal. 3:11). That is proof by Scripture.

Thirdly, justification is by faith because it is by faith that the believers in Galatia received their blessings so far, the Spirit and the miracles (Gal. 3:2, 3:5). That is proof by experience.

Are these three convincing to you? On the one hand, they are better than nothing. Paul is the only biblical author who even bothers to explain the importance of faith, and not merely proclaim it. On the other hand, I did not find these arguments convincing enough. I kept asking: What’s the big deal with faith, really? God is love, not faith; yet the foundation for our relationship with Him is faith, but why? Why it is faith that saves, justifies, and channels the Spirit and his gifts? What is so special about it?

Putting my logician’s hat on, I reasoned as follows: Had sin come into our lives by unbelief, it would have made perfect sense for our salvation from sin to come via the opposite of unbelief. In other words, if the root cause of sin is unbelief, then surely faith saves. So how did sin come into humanity? Reading Genesis 3 afresh made me realize that creating unbelief in Eve’s mind was actually the sole focus of the snake’s strategy with her.

He never pushed Eve to eat the forbidden fruit. No, he wanted her to do it on her own initiative. He knew that it is only the free choice to disobey that would count before God. But how could he make that choice happen? How could he make Eve want the fruit? How could he get her to “see” what she “saw” after that short conversation with him – that the fruit was, all of a sudden “good for food,” “a delight to the eyes” and “to be desired to make one wise?” (Gen. 3:6, ASV)

The snake knew that Eve’s vision of the fruit depended on her vision of the God who forbade eating of it. She had never eaten of it so far because she had believed in God’s goodness. It was therefore that belief, faith, or trust, that had to be undermined. It was Eve’s picture of God that had to be radically changed.

Our relationships with people work just the same, if you think about it. When our mental picture of someone is good, we trust them. If we believe that they are honest, caring and competent, we don’t hesitate to act on their advice, be it a physician, a car mechanic, a teacher, a coach or a lawyer. But the moment we start doubting at least one of these qualities of their character, our image of them becomes less than shining, and our trust in them is undermined.

This is exactly what happened when Eve bought into the snake’s lie about God. His message, if unpacked, was very clear: “He allowed you to eat everything but that which gives access to the greatest of all blessings! Now think for yourself, how sincere and generous this God really is. Do you still think he spares no good thing from you?”

1 John 5:10 says “Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar.” Eve became the first human personification of that principle when she bought into the snake’s idea: God is a liar, and should therefore not be trusted.

To restore the vital relationship with God, we need first of all to restore its foundation: our trust in him. And since our trust towards someone is a function of our view of them, we need to first of all restore the true view of God. Like Eve, we need to start believing once again, that He is trustworthy.

How can we get there? The answer is Jesus: his life, death and resurrection. In all of these, we have the best image of God available to us as humans. That is why faith in Jesus saves. It saves because it is through Jesus that we can see God for who He really is – all of his attributes, but especially the one that Eve doubted most: his generosity. He that spared not his only Son, will spare nothing from us.