I love to hear people tell what their favorite Bible verses are. Their choices reveal so much about who they are and how they look at life. And when they share their choices, you can see the joy in their hearts — you can tell that these verses have been the source of life for them, and you can see it welling up in them, bringing a sparkle in their eyes and a richness in their voice. It’s like asking someone to talk about something they are passionate about — they come to life.
But interestingly enough, whenever I share my favorite verse, I get a lot of puzzled looks. Many people act as if they’d never heard that verse, although it’s likely they just never caught it’s significance. And invariably I have to explain why that should be my favorite verse (fear not, I will tell you what it is soon enough!). And I see why that is — most people are drawn to the verses that provide comfort and hope, that promise the faithfulness of God. In fact, many of those verses have been very important to me in my Christian walk: “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free”; “I have come that they (we) might have life, and have it abundantly”; “I know the plans I have for you, plans for welfare and not for calamity to give you a future and a hope”, etc. These verses are wonderful, almost too wonderful to believe, and they have been promises I have lived on time and again.
But still, there is one verse that echoes in my head with more power than any of these. What is it? Galatians 3:17! Now do you see what I mean? You can’t think of what verse that is, can you? (I sure hope I’m wrong about that!) Well then, here it is, from the NASB:
“What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise.”
Isn’t that marvelous? What an amazing promise from the pen of Paul! Okay, so all this verse proves is that I am way too cerebral for most people’s taste. But once I first understood what this verse was saying, it transformed my whole understanding of the role of God’s grace in our lives. This is the verse that underlies my whole understanding of Christian freedom and of the radical nature of God’s grace.
You see, to understand this verse, you have to know the book of Genesis, because what Paul is doing here is re-reading the beginning of the history of Israel. I don’t mean re-reading in the sense of simply consulting the original texts. I mean that he is literally reading Genesis again for the first time. He is re-analyzing it in the light of the work of Christ. He is going back to the beginning and rejecting the standard interpretation of things in order to be faithful to what he sees as the real meaning of the text.
Let’s look at what he is saying about the book of Genesis. You see, we as humans have a tendency to believe in the progress of human nature — we view history as if it were a living being, in that it is born and must come to maturity. And this makes perfect sense, since we see this process occurring in plants, animals, countries, art forms, businesses, and even in own spiritual walks. So the natural tendency we have in reading the Hebrew Scriptures is to assume that the perfection, the completion, of the Jewish faith comes in the giving of the laws between the lands of Egypt and Canaan. Here, we think, God has finally revealed all we need to know to live rightly.
But Paul looks again and notices that this isn’t actually the way the scriptures read. What he notices is that the fathers of the Jewish faith, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, all found favor and redemption with God without receiving from God any rules to follow. Think about it: four hundred and thirty years passed before the descendants of Abraham received the law of God! This would be as if Abraham was living in the time of Shakespeare’s parents (before the Puritans landed on Plymouth Rock even), and only now are we receiving the law from God. Think of how many men and women have come and gone in that time! That is how long there was between Abraham finding salvation and the Law being given! Amazing isn’t it?
So what is Paul saying? He is saying that when the Law was given to the Israelites, it in no way replaced God’s promise to Abraham more than four centuries earlier. That covenant still stands firm — and that fact is the basis for the good news of the Gospel! Do you see it yet? Paul’s argument in Galatians is that we are children of Abraham not because we are physically descended from him, but because we follow him in his faith in God.
To understand this better, let’s follow Paul back into Genesis. And let us notice first what is so odd about Abraham, namely, that we know nothing about him when God first speaks to him. Nothing! He just appears on the scene at the end of chapter 11 and in chapter 12 he’s getting promises from God! We don’t know if he was a good man (though of course we assume so) or bad man or just a nobody or what. Compare this to our introduction to Noah: “Noah was a righteous man, blameless in his time; Noah walked with God.” We don’t get this with Abraham. And I think that this is intentional, that God, through the writer of Genesis, wanted us to see that being a good person is not good enough; even though Noah was righteous, sin still came back into the world and took hold of it. So where we would expect to learn that Abraham was holy and righteous, we get nothing but his ancestry. God chooses Abraham and we have no idea why: He will have mercy on whom He will have mercy. Right off the bat, we see God’s grace taking center seat in the story of Abraham.
Now let us jump ahead to what must have been the key passage for Paul, Genesis 15:1-6. For the sake of clarity, I have quoted the entire passage:
“After these things the word of the LORD came to Abram in a vision, saying, “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you; Your reward shall be very great.” Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will You give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” And Abram said, “Since You have given no offspring to me, one born in my house is my heir.” Then behold, the word of the LORD came to him, saying, “This man will not be your heir; but one who will come forth from your own body, he shall be your heir.” And He took him outside and said, “Now look toward the heavens, and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” And He said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” Then he believed in the LORD; and He reckoned it to him as righteousness.”
Do you see what happened? God promised Abraham an heir, and Abraham believed him. And that was enough! Abraham didn’t DO anything to earn God’s favor — no sacrifice or pilgrimage or work of charity — he simply believed God. Plain and simple — he took God at His word. And that, I am sure is what Paul saw in his story that was so crucial to him: righteousness is not based on the Law, for Abraham didn’t have the Law. Righteousness comes to us whenever we believe God’s promise: the righteous shall live by faith. So when the Law came, it did not replace faith as the basis for righteousness; rather the Law was to be lived out as an expression of faith, and not because of it. The Law was to be followed because one was already righteous, and not in order to become righteous.
Think also about when the Law was given — after God had led the Israelites from Egypt. After! God did not give them the Law in Egypt and say, “If you will obey this, then I will free you”. No! He freed them first, then gave them the Law! Do you see it now? The Law of God was given to people who were already free! In fact, we see the same principle of grace that governed Abraham’s faith in the story of the Exodus. Do you remember what God did? He warned the Israelites that He was about to kill all the firstborn of Egypt; the only escape was to paint lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their houses. Obviously, anyone who took God at His word would escape the judgment. So the Israelites, like Abraham, were saved because they believed God’s promise.
So how does this apply to us today? Well, God has made each of us a promise as well: if we believe that Jesus was sent by God, we have found salvation. It is that simple. Now, personally, I would qualify it and add that if we believe that Jesus’ death was sufficient to gain our forgiveness and reconciliation with God, then we will find salvation. But at least in the Gospels, Jesus says only that if we believe that He is the Son of God, then we will find salvation. In fact, in the Book of John, he says something rather surprising: “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” Before Jesus had been lifted up on the cross, before He took our sins inside His body, before He was raised from the dead, the disciples were clean because of His words!
I admit, I don’t fully know what to do with this verse. But there it is, and it testifies to God’s grace in our lives. God makes the promise of reconciliation in Christ Jesus, and if we believe it, we have salvation. We do not have to live according to a certain set of rules and standards, nor do we have to do anything except believe in order to gain God’s love. In fact, we cannot earn God’s love, because God has already given to us freely — it is already ours if we will simply believe it. We are now free to live in the presence of the most loving, most holy, most powerful God.
Does this make sense? God’s grace means that God freely loves us, even before we start making all of our silly attempts to become worthy of that love. God’s grace means that if we are given commands to live in a certain way or abstain from a certain behavior; it is not in order to make us righteous, but because we already are righteous! God’s grace means that we are free to approach God as His own children rather than as servants; we are free to be bold before God, to participate with God in His work, even to beg God to change God’s mind! God’s grace means that we are free to live as we choose, confident in God’s promises to make us fruitful as we seek to draw all nations to God. God’s grace means that simply because we believe God’s promises, we have found eternal life. And the promise is this: Believe on Christ. That is all that is required of us. Amazing, isn’t it? How sweet the sound indeed!
Steve Pearson is a Protestant mutt and failed theologian who has a Ph.D. in Literature and teaches at a midsize university in the South.