In his “Notes on Galatians,” Thomas L. Constable commented: “Put some pure water in a clear glass tumbler. Then add some arsenic. The water will look just the same, but it has become deadly poisonous. Just so, adding a foreign element to the gospel message can transform it from the ‘water of life’ into the ‘water of death.’”
Paul taught that justification comes by faith alone in Christ alone. Add human good works, and the gospel is irretrievably corrupted and made poisonous. To rely on works not only does not lead to salvation, it actually leads to a curse or condemnation (v. 10; see Deut. 27:26). The Law required perfect obedience; to stumble even once was to stand guilty (James 2:10). Though the “circumcision group” positioned themselves as more righteous or more faithful than the “grace group,” Paul showed up their understandings of God and Scripture as woefully deficient by quoting the Law itself against them.
Then, in case they hadn’t gotten the point, Paul declared that the righteous live by faith, not works (v. 11; see Hab. 2:4). The Law describes righteous living, but it cannot actually enable or empower anyone to live this way (v.12; see Lev. 18:5). By contrast, God’s righteousness comes to us by faith in Christ. The condemnation and death that we deserved fell on Him instead, as the Law itself had anticipated (v. 13; see Deut. 21:23).
The Crucifixion occurred so that God’s plan would be accomplished and the blessing promised to Abraham would come at last to all people (v. 14). So the path of blessing is faith, not works, and the fulfillment of the promise is by the Spirit, not the Law. Those who reject this truth reject God’s salvation, God’s plan, God’s Spirit, and God’s blessings.
Apply the Word
If you’re looking for verses to memorize that further explain the relationship between faith and works, we recommend Ephesians 2:8–10. Paul affirms salvation as a gift of God’s grace, received through faith in Christ. Then he sets forth good works as prepared in advance by God for us to do. They do not contribute to salvation, but they are its fruit.