by Barry Newton
Although Howard Hughes died in 1976, individuals have filed claims for a share in his vast fortune as recently as 2008. Whenever an inheritance is at stake, principles are required to winnow the legitimate beneficiaries from all other claimants.
Paul sought to settle a thorny spiritual problem festering among some Galatian Christians based upon the principle of being a legitimate heir. His opponents had claimed that fulfilling the Law’s requirements regarding circumcision enabled a person to be right with God. They were likely also affirming that this method revealed the legitimate spiritual heritage bequeathed to Abraham as those who belonged to God. After all, God had promised him and his offspring that he would be their God.
Did the way of Jesus require Gentiles to be circumcised?
Paul was adamant. He insisted Jesus through his death had entirely rescued Christians from evil (Galatians 1:4) making them right before God (2:16). The Christian had appropriated these blessings by trusting in Christ (2:16) at their baptism, resulting in all people, whether Jewish or Gentile, entering into the very same spiritual relationship with God (3:26-27). No additional steps were needed.
But how to respond to those who were arguing that the proper spiritual heritage of Abraham is traced through Abraham’s descendants, through those who received God’s Law and circumcision as its seal? Paul gravitated to an event prior to Abraham’s circumcision (Genesis 17:7-14).
Roughly speaking, Paul’s argument unfolded like this: since Abraham was credited as being right before God on the basis of faith (Galatians 3:6), and since the promise given to Abraham’s offspring referred to Christ (3:16), Paul concluded, “All are sons of God through faith of Christ Jesus” (3:26, papyrus 46 – the earliest manuscript we have of Galatians). Christ, not the Law, could provide the legitimate basis of heritage for claiming to be justified before God.
With a tranquil voice Paul concluded, “If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise” (3:29). Therefore, faith, not Law, provided the key principle for being a legitimate spiritual claimant to God’s promise to Abraham.
Paul’s message continues to provide a necessary corrective, albeit to a new audience who have made different claims. Some would deny that baptism plays a necessary role for entering into salvation, because it is assumed that responding with faith is nothing more than genuine but mere belief.
However, Paul described responding to Christ’s faith/ faithfulness as involving baptism, that moment when we were united with Christ and put on Christ, thereby enabling us to be legitimate spiritual heirs as God’s sons.