There is a difference between seeking justification* before God by faith or by the law. Some think we must combine the two, relying both on faith and individual works of obedience. Is this what God requires? Galatians 3 has the answer.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Galatians 3:10-14)
Believing Versus Doing
From Tabletalk, June 2013
Faith that invests itself wholly and completely in God and His promises alone is the only faith that pleases the Lord. When, in the seventh century BC, Habakkuk could not understand how God could use the evil Babylonians to chastise His people, when it seemed from a human perspective that the Lord’s purposes for Israel had failed and that His faithful servants would not be vindicated, God responded that those He regards as righteous live by faith (Hab. 2:4). That is, those who are righteous in His sight continue trusting Him and do not rely on what they can see from a human perspective or what they can do to vindicate their own righteousness. Dr. R.C. Sproul explains: “Anybody can believe in God. What it means to be a Christian is to trust him when he speaks, which does not require a leap of faith or a crucifixion of the intellect. It requires a crucifixion of pride, because no one is more trustworthy than God” ([Commentary on] Romans, p. 35).
Note Dr. Sproul’s key point that God-pleasing faith means crucifying our pride. This is another way of saying, as Paul does in [Galatians 3:10-14], that we give up trying to attain our own righteousness before the Lord. The righteousness of God revealed in the gospel is ours by faith alone, for it is God’s gift to His people, the result of His saving acts that fulfill His promises to redeem His elect (Rom. 1:16-17; 3:21-26; 4:1-5; 5:12-21). To say that the righteous live by faith does not mean only that God’s people believe in Him but also that those whom the Lord declares to be righteous trust in Him alone. The essence of such faith is believing God in contrast to doing works of obedience. Galatians 3:10-14 contrasts these ways of establishing our relationship with the Father. No one can be declared righteous before God by obeying His law, for the law demands perfect obedience for our justification – our right standing before Him – and no sinner can obey God perfectly. Hoping even a little in our good works of obedience puts us under the Lord’s curse (vv. 10, 12). Our only hope is to trust Christ alone. In so doing, we are redeemed by His death from God’s curse for breaking His law, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to our account, making our standing before the Lord all of grace (vv. 11, 13-14).
Attempting to earn our right standing before God is the stance of pride, the arrogant assertion that our sin-tainted good works can meet His perfect standard. It is not the stance of faith, which rests wholly in Christ alone for His righteousness.
We can say with certainty that the one temptation that all people have in common is the temptation to believe we can make ourselves right with God, that our efforts, even when done with His help, are good enough; rather, we are to be perfect (Matt. 5:48). That means that only Christ’s perfect righteousness can suffice to put us in a right relationship with the Father. We must trust in Him and Him alone.
*Justification: “a forensic (legal) term related to the idea of acquittal, justification refers to the divine act whereby God makes humans, who are sinful and therefore worthy of condemnation, acceptable before a God who is holy and righteous.” (Grenz, Guretzika & Nordling, Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms)