One of the great themes of the Reformation – and of the Apostle Paul – was that a sinner is justified not by works, but only by faith in Christ. In other words, a sinner is justified by faith alone in Christ alone, not by any sort of obedience to the law in any way, shape, or form. Here’s how John Colquhoun (d. 1827) summarized this point that Paul emphasized in Galatians:
The great design of our Apostle, then, was to draw them [the readers] off from their false views of the law; to direct them to right conceptions of it in its covenant form in which it can admit of no personal obedience as a condition of life, but such as is perfect — and so to destroy their legal hope as well as to confute their wrong notions.
In other words, Paul was telling the Galatian Christians that when a person thinks he can gain salvation from works of the law, he has a false view of the law. In this way, Paul destroyed their “legal hope” and their “wrong notions” of the law. Colquohoun continues:
By the reasonings of the apostle upon this subject, it is manifest that every evangelical, as well as every legal, work of ours is excluded from forming even the smallest part of a man’s righteousness for justification in the sight of God. It is evident that even faith itself as a man’s act or work, and so comprised in the works of the law, is thereby excluded from being any part of his justifying righteousness (see the Westminster Confession of Faith XI:I).
When Paul says that all works are excluded, that means we can’t even claim that faith is a sort of work that contributes to our justification. More:
It is one thing to be justified by faith merely as an instrument by which a man receives the righteousness of Christ, and another to be justified for faith as an act or work of the law. If a sinner, then, relies on his actings of faith or works of obedience to any of the commands of the law for a title to eternal life, he seeks to be justified by the works of the law as much as if his works were perfect.
If he depends, either in whole or in part, on his faith and repentance for a right to any promised blessing, he thereby so annexes [adds] that promise to the commands to believe and repent as to form them for himself into a covenant of works. Building his confidence before God upon his faith, repentance, and other acts of obedience to the law, he places them in Christ’s stead as his grounds of right to the promise; and so he demonstrates himself to be of the works of the law, and so to be under the curse (Galatians 3:10).
Justification by faith alone, as Scripture teaches, means the sinner doesn’t contribute anything towards his justification. Like the Heidelberg Catechism says,
“It is not because of any value that my faith has that God is pleased with me. Only Christ’s satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness make me right with God. And I can receive this righteousness and make it mine in no other way than by faith alone” (Q/A 61).
The above quote is found in John Colquhoun, A Treatise on the Law and the Gospel, p. 19-20.
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)