Who are the true sons of George Washington? Every player in our political arena today attempts to legitimize his or her political agenda by an appeal to the Founding Fathers. American politicians must be able to show that they embody the principles first established by our Founders. Who best represents their concepts of justice? Of freedom? Of the “common good?” Of the separation of church and state? Conservatives, liberals, the American Communist Party, and even the American Nazi Party of the 1930s present or presented themselves as the true heirs of the Founding Fathers. You may have seen pictures of the rally in Madison Square Garden in the 1930s where pictures of George Washington and Swastikas were featured side by side. “If George were alive today, he would be one of us,” they were saying. Even Nazis had to demonstrate succession from the Founding Fathers in order to have any hearing at all. Incredibly, pornographers and abortionists also appeal to the First Amendment and “the principles upon which this country was founded.”
The same kind of appeal can be seen in the church today. The Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Charismatics, the Roman Catholics, the Episcopalians, indeed, virtually every Christian group attempts to demonstrate that they are the true heirs of the apostles. We all claim apostolic succession in one form or another. Our legitimacy rests on our ability to demonstrate that our beliefs and actions are those established by the early church. In both the political and ecclesiastical realms, the true successors of the Founders or the Church Fathers are not those who can trace their bloodlines to the Mayflower or to the apostles but those who believe and live as they did, whether one’s family immigrated four hundred years ago or yesterday, whether one’s church was founded in the first century or last week.
The early Christians attempted to demonstrate their legitimacy in the same way: through succession. Over against the accusations of Jews and Judaizers, they argued that they were the true successors of the patriarchs, particularly Abraham. The true sons of Abraham are not those with bloodlines or physical descent but those who share Abraham’s convictions and conduct. His true children are those who believe and live as he did.
The apostle Paul’s argument in Galatians 3:1–14 is that the Christian gospel, not the Judaizing distortion, represents the faith of the patriarchs. What, then, did Abraham believe? In what John Stott calls a “master-stroke,” the apostle Paul quotes Genesis 15:6: “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness” (Gal. 3:6).
Because Abraham “believed God,” he was justified. He was “reckoned” as righteous, a Greek word that means to “calculate” or to “credit to one’s account.” He had not done good works. He had not been circumcised. The Law had not yet been given. He simply believed God, and God, in response, credited to his benefit a righteousness that he had not earned. “Righteous-ness,” then, is not an ethical quality, but a verdict, a legal standing. It indicates not a change in character, but in status. Abraham does not become righteous, but is considered as righteous.
If Abraham was justified by faith, and believed what the apostle Paul even calls “the gospel” (v. 8), then what conclusion ought to be drawn regarding his children? “Follow the logic,” he is saying in verse 7. The word translated “know” is in the imperative. Paul commands us to realize this truth. Learn this, he is saying, “that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham,” meaning, says Leon Morris, “not that they sometimes have an impulse to believe, but rather that believing is their constant attitude; faith is characteristic of them.” The Judaizers would have argued that those who conform to the Law are the sons of Abraham. Paul identifies faith as the true criterion. Since Abraham was justified by faith, then his true children are those who likewise are justified by faith.
This insight stands behind the powerful question that the apostle Paul asked at the beginning of this section: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (v. 1). Given that the apostolic gospel is the Abrahamic gospel, why would you abandon it? Justification and the gift of the Spirit were given by faith (2:14–21). “Having begun by the Spirit” (3:2), why would you then try to “perfect” justification, or add to it, with works. Add Law to faith and the gospel is lost and one’s faith is “in vain” (v. 4). Law is the very thing from which Christ redeemed us. Christ became a curse for us, that the “blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles…through faith” (v. 14).
Which religion is the original, Judaism or Christianity? Which one flows faithfully from Abraham and which is an aberrant stream? Which has broken with the patriarchal faith and which has maintained continuity with the faith and practices of the Old Testament? The apostolic faith, say the apostles, is the Abrahamic faith. The Messiah who saved them by faith is the same One who saves us.