In the book of Galatians, chapter 3, Abraham is the pivotal figure in all of Paul’s arguments from Scripture. The Judaizers appealed to Abraham for their understanding of salvation, which was based on meritorious deeds. So, Paul used their central figure to debunk their theology while at the same time, establishing the doctrine of Justification.
The patriarchs became the focus of intense study and speculation during the years between the Old and New Testaments. The purpose was to try and answer the question of what it means to be in covenant with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
In the Jewish literature of this time period, Abraham is always depicted as the hero of the faith whose faithfulness and obedience merited the favor of God and brought divine blessing on him and his descendants. He is presented as the friend of God, a man of hospitality, virtue and conviction. He was not only the father of the Jewish nation, but also the original source of blessing for the Jewish people.
There were two incidents in his life that were singled out as illustrations of his faithful obedience and worthiness before God. It is referred to in the Apocryphal book of Sirach. In it he is praised as the great hero of Israel’s past. Sirach 44:20 mentions the mark of the covenant in his flesh, which is an explicit reference to circumcision. It also states that Abraham had kept the law of the Most High.
Since he lived before the law of Moses was given, it was (and is) believed that he had fulfilled it in anticipation through his exemplary obedience and faithfulness before the Lord. Also, the Apocryphal book Jubilee says, “For Abraham was perfect in all his deeds with the Lord, and well pleasing in righteousness all the days of his life.” This anticipatory obedience is further illustrated by the ten trials that proved Abraham’s trustworthiness. The Ten trials correspond to the Ten Commandments that would later be broken by the Israelites. In Rabbinic writings, the last of the ten trials was the binding and sacrifice of Isaac.
So, these two things, Abrahams’ obedience to the law and his sacrifice of Isaac were brought together in the story of Mattathias, the father of Judas Maccabeus, who organized an army of liberation to wage guerilla warfare against the Gentile invaders of Israel (Rome). First Maccabees 2 describes how these freedom fighters swept through the land, pulling down pagan altars and forcibly circumcising all the uncircumcised boys who were found within the territory of Israel. Thus, they “saved the law from the Gentiles and their kings and broke the power of the tyrant.” On his deathbed Mattathias gathered his sons about him, exhorting them to be zealous for the law and give their lives for the covenant of their fathers. He reviewed the catalog of Israel’s heroes who God blessed because of their obedience to law:
Joshua – kept the law and became a judge in Israel
Elijah – was zealous for the law and was taken up to heaven
Daniel – observant Jew in a pagan culture and was rescued for the lion’s jaws
AT THE TOP – Abraham who remained steadfast under pressure and so gained credit as a righteous man!
This is the standard portrayal of Abraham – the valiant warrior of faith who received the reward of righteousness because of his obedience and steadfastness under testing, even to the limits of sacrificing his own son.
No doubt Paul was well aware of this traditional portrait of Abraham. In fact, it was probably thrown at him by his Judaizing opponents. Interestingly, Paul didn’t ignore their appeal to Abraham, but he shifted the point of departure to an earlier event in the life of Abraham – not the sacrifice of Isaac or Abraham’s submission to circumcision.
For Paul the critical verse was Gen. 15:6 – “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness”. Paul quoted this verse and connected the faith of Abraham to the experience of the Galatians. In effect he was saying, just as the Galatians had trusted God’s Word, which they heard through Paul’s preaching, so also Abraham believed what God said and was counted righteous, just like the Galatians, through the hearing of faith, not by the doing of deeds.
Since Paul quoted the same text in Romans 4:3 and described more fully how faith became the instrument of Abraham’s justification, the best commentary on Galatians 3 is Romans 4. If we look at both passages for a better context of Paul’s theology, we can learn 3 important principles about faith from the example of Abraham.
Faith excludes boasting
This is a major theme running through Paul’s writings (Galatians, Romans, Corinthians and Philippians). Boasting is to glory, to take credit for, to claim the right of self-determination, to brag about one’s self-sufficiency. Just beneath the surface of every unregenerate heart lies the thought, “I am the master of my fate; the captain of my ship”
The faith by which Abraham was justified stands in absolute contradiction to every kind of self-glorification. This is Paul’s point in Romans 4: If Abraham had been justified by works, he would have had reason to boast. Yet, Abraham could not boast because God called him 430 years before the law given.
Faith transcends reason
Abraham’s faith was not based on his independent inquiry into the structure of reality, nor on his assessment of various arguments for or against the existence of God. In Romans 4, Paul gave the example of Abraham’s trust that God would fulfill his promise to give him descendants as numerous as the stars in the heavens or the sands along the seashore even when he and Sarah were well past the normal age of childbearing. When reason would have counseled doubt and despair, Abraham “was fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised” (Rom. 4:21)
This is also how the sacrifice of Isaac must be interpreted. Abraham was willing to slay his son of promise at God’s command, believing that, if necessary, God could raise him back to life in order to fulfill his word.
Faith issues in obedience
This is the area where James’ and Paul’s teaching on justification seem to contradict each other. This is not the case. True faith is confirmed by good works, but those works do not save anyone. We are justified by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is not alone.