It is a firm conviction of members of the Lutheran Church that Galatians 2:16 is a verse which proves Martin Luther’s doctrine of “justification by faith alone.” It is their contention that a sinner’s sins are forgiven by God the very moment that sinner puts his trust in Jesus as his Savior. Therefore, baptism is looked upon by them merely as being a symbol of the salvation already possessed; hence, it is non-essential to salvation. But let us consider this verse:
The Greek word dikaioutai which is rendered “justified” in Galatians 2:16 is from a verb used in the ancient world in the secular, civil courts. When a person on trial was acquitted and set free by the decision and declaration of the court, he was said to be “justified.”
The word has the same meaning in its New Testament usage. Forgiveness of the guilt of sins and becoming righteous in the sight of God is a declarative act of God. There is this difference, however, between the use of the word “justified” as related to a man being tried by a civil court and “justified” as related to a man before God: it is quite conceivable that the man before the civil court is indeed innocent and not guilty; but all who stand before the bar of God are guilty. This does not include infants and the mentally irresponsible; but does include every mortal who is capable of committing sin. All are guilty. Therefore, mercy enters into the act of God’s forgiving one’s sins.
Galatians is a letter to churches, to Christians, not to sinners. The Judaizers had convinced the Christians of Galatia (some of them at least) that the way to Christ and salvation was through the Old Testament law. Those thus convinced felt obligated to be circumcised and to keep the Mosaic law. Paul in verse 16 of this second chapter has “faith in Christ” and “works of the law” in antithesis the one to the other. The context does not warrant the idea that the Galatians were trying to be saved by their own meritorious works and behavior. Lutherans misunderstand the passage here, and often say that the Galatians were hoping to be saved by their own good works, their charities and benevolences, and not through faith in Christ. But “works of the law” simply means the Mosaic law, nothing more. Furthermore, the apostle does not define “faith” in this passage.
True, acceptable faith includes at least these three distinctive and particular phases: (1) hearing God’s word, (2) accepting it as authoritative, and (3) obeying it. All Paul is teaching in Galatians 2:16 is simply that one cannot find forgiveness of sins in the Mosaic law, but in Christ. Our Lutheran friends have confused “works of the law” in verse 16 with “obedience.” The same may be said of our Baptist friends in their dealing with Ephesians 2:8. They have cited this passage to press their doctrine that man can do nothing at all toward his salvation, but that all of it is from God, and comes by “faith alone.” The passage says no such thing; nor does it permit of such a construction.
Lutherans contend that the “righteousness of God” is imputed to the man (sinner) the very moment he has faith in Christ, according to Romans 1:17. The context of this verse neither demands nor permits such an interpretation. Verse 16 states that the gospel is the power of God unto salvation. But the “gospel” is something that man must “obey” (2 Thess. 1:8). The truth of the whole matter is that the sinner’s salvation depends upon his obedience to the conditions of salvation.
It is a common error of those advocating the “salvation by faith only” doctrine to try to prove their contention by taking passages of scripture written to Christians and applying them to the conversion of the alien sinner. But the Book of Acts is the particular portion of scripture to which one may go to find most easily and clearly what the will of God is for the alien sinner. Here we find the apostles fulfilling the commission of preaching the gospel to every creature; and the cases of conversion show us a clear pattern of what it takes to bring justification to a man, what it takes to constitute one a child of God.
Sometimes in these examples there is no mention of “faith,” but in such cases, faith is clearly implied in the context. The same may be said of repentance. But in every case of conversion in the Book of Acts, baptism is explicitly stated as a condition of salvation. It is perfectly evident, therefore, that God does not “justify” one and declare him free from his burden of sin until that one has been baptized. (Cf. Mark 16:15,16; Acts 2:38)
Our Lutheran friends declare that God made men free from sin in Old Testament times as well as in New Testament days. This is in direct conflict with Hebrews 10:3,4. Forgiveness of sins is to be found only in the blood of Jesus, and that forgiveness was not possible until the blood was shed. Lutherans do not recognize any difference between dispensations or ages. The truth is that God has dealt with people differently under each of the three dispensations. One may begin reading Genesis, chapter one, and not find forgiveness of sins at all in all the Old Testament. Forgiveness of sins is related to Christ, not to Moses.
The only time in all the Bible where “faith alone” is mentioned is in James 2:24, “Ye see that by works a man is justified, and not only by faith.” It is probable that this one verse is the main reason why Martin Luther rejected the epistle of James from the New Testament. It conflicted head-on with his doctrine of “salvation by faith only.”