The Use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians 3:11 and the Issue of Legalism Among the Galatians
The key text for our Sunday school series is Habakkuk 2:4. We have been examining biblical teaching in key passages to understand more about how those who are the just who live by faith have a faith that works.
The NT uses Habakkuk 2:4 three times (Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38). Interestingly, the three books in which the noun faith occurs more than any other books in the NT are those same books: Romans (39x), Hebrews (32x), and Galatians (21x).
Introduction to Galatians
Paul preached to the Galatians as part of his gospel ministry on his first missionary journey (Acts 13-14). Notice how Paul ends his gospel message in a synagogue in Antioch of Pisida by using Habakkuk 1:5 to warn his hearers to accept the good news that justification is by faith in Jesus and not by the works of the Law (Acts 13:38-41)!
Later, Paul preached the gospel to some pagan idolaters in one of the cities of Galatia (Acts 14:15-17). Notice that his preaching the gospel to them corresponds to his later ministry to idolaters in Athens (Acts 17:16-31) and to his key testimony about his practice everywhere of challenging everyone to turn to God (Acts 26:20).
At the end of his missionary journey, Paul returned to Antioch (Acts 14:26-28). Acts 15:1-2 record the events that then took place that likely led to Paul’s writing the book of Galatians.
Paul probably wrote Galatians in about 49 AD or so, just before the Jerusalem Council, which we studied carefully from Acts 15. Galatians is one of the key books in Scripture about the gospel (Romans has the word 10x; Galatians has it 11x).
Its purpose is to refute legalism. The theme of the book is “grace as the basis for salvation” (New Testament Introduction, 6).
Paul wrote to deal with the Galatians because he was amazed at how soon after they had been saved they were being tempted to go after false teaching about the gospel (Gal. 1:6). Some false brethren (Gal. 2:4) had troubled them and were seeking to pervert the gospel of Christ (Gal. 1:7).
Introductory Considerations for Properly Understanding Galatians 3
Galatians 3 is one of the most important chapters about faith in Scripture: the word faith occurs 14x in the chapter and refers to genuine faith every time (only Heb. 11 has more occurrences – 24). Moreover, because 10 of the 11 occurrences of gospel in Galatians come before 3:11, we know that 3:11 comes in connection with intense teaching about the gospel (cf. esp. Gal. 3:8).
How then does Paul use Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians 3:11 to refute legalism? To answer this question, we need to consider briefly the preceding teaching in Galatians 2:11-21.
Paul’s Confrontation of Peter Concerning Hypocrisy That Was Contrary to the Truth of the Gospel
Galatians 2:11-21 records Paul’s confronting Peter after he came to Antioch (Gal. 2:11). Because he feared certain men who came from James, Peter and others who were misled because of his influence were acting hypocritically in a way that was contrary to the truth of the gospel (Gal. 2:12-14).
To rebuke Peter, Paul explained the truth about how people are justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law (Gal. 2:15-19). He also emphasized that he (Paul) had died through the Law so that he might live to God (Gal. 2:19).
Strikingly, Paul then directly linked his justification by faith with his continuing living by faith (Gal. 2:20). He ends this section by emphasizing that he does not nullify the grace of God by holding that justification is through the Law because that would mean that Christ died needlessly (Gal. 2:21).
What Kind of Legalism is Galatians 3 Addressing?
Galatians 3 is certainly Pauline teaching that refutes legalism, but what kind of legalism is it addressing? Many today believe that Galatians 3:3 has in view legalism concerning sanctification.
Does Paul’s flow of thought in Galatians 3 that leads to his use of Habakkuk 2:4 in 3:11 support this belief? Many considerations about Galatians 3 argue against this belief.
First, Paul used very intense language (Gk. “O” [Gal. 3:1]; “foolish” [Gal. 3:1, 3] to refute a very severe error, which would not be fitting if he were dealing with an erroneous view concerning sanctification. Rather, he was rebuking the Galatians about their serious departure from vital teaching about justification by faith (Gal. 2:15-20).
Second, Paul’s subsequent argumentation in Galatians 3:1-14 does not support holding that he was addressing an error concerning sanctification in Galatians 3:3. It does not do so because the key truth that Paul focused on is how the Galatians received the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:2; cf. 3:5, 14)—either it was through faith or it was through the works of the Law, but it was not both!
He then challenged them whether they were being perfected by the flesh after having begun in the Spirit (Gal. 3:3). Comparing what Paul says here with the issue that led to the Jerusalem Council proceedings (Acts 15:1, 4, and 5), we understand that when Paul spoke of their being perfected by the flesh, he had in mind that they would be circumcised after they had received the Spirit and then would be directed to keep the Law of Moses.
Furthermore, Paul challenged them about their suffering many things (Gal. 3:4), which does not fit with the view that he was dealing with legalism about sanctification—would there have been legalistic Christians who were actually persecuting these new believers for not having a right view of sanctification? No, clearly, Paul was talking about those who persecuted them because they had believed that they had been justified by faith without being circumcised and keeping the Law of Moses (cf. Acts 13:50; 14:2, 5, 19, 22).
The close parallel between Paul’s teaching in Galatians 3:5 and the apostles’ teaching at the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15:8, 12) shows that Paul was addressing the same error here that that Council would deal with a short time later. Just as the Council, of which Paul was a part, later conclusively concluded that the Gentiles were saved by faith without circumcision and keeping the works of the Law, so Paul argued for the same truth here (Gal. 3:5).
Paul then further supported that justification is by faith without the works of the Law by arguing for that truth from Scriptural teaching about Abraham’s reception of the gospel promise (Gen. 15:6; 12:3) when he was not circumcised and long before the Law had been given (Gal. 3:6-10). He then explained that the Law itself validates that justification is by faith today as it was with Abraham (Gal. 3:9-10).
Paul then cited Habakkuk 2:4 as conclusive and plain Scriptural evidence that no one is justified by the Law before God (Gal. 3:11). Note carefully that both here as well as in Romans 1:17 Paul removed the pronoun “his” that is in Habakkuk 2:4.
He then argued from Scripture that there is no possibility of mixing faith and the works of the Law (Gal. 3:12). Finally, he concluded this section by speaking of the redemption that Christ provides for us from the curse of the Law (which we never have or could have fulfilled) in order that in Him the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the Sprit through faith (Gal. 3:13-14).
Paul’s chiastic argument about reception of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:2, 14) teaches us that this whole section concerns reception of the Spirit when people are justified by faith (cf. Peter’s emphasis on Cornelius’ reception of the Spirit without any works)! Clearly, then, Galatians 3 is Pauline teaching concerning a legalistic approach to justification, not sanctification.
Those who are just by faith should actively combat those who try to distort the gospel truth that justification is by faith and not by the works of the Law. To do so, they must be solidly grounded in the truths that Paul teaches in Galatians 3.
Furthermore, our study of Galatians 3, including Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4 in Galatians 3:11, has shown that Paul was not correcting the Galatians in 3:3 about an erroneous view of Christian sanctification. The common practice in the Church today of using Galatians 3:3 as Scriptural support for calling other Christians “legalists” is therefore illegitimate, and we should not misuse this key text to justify our calling other believers “legalists.”
See the other lessons in this series here.