Some of the best-known verses in Protestantism are found here, by Paul: “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Galatians 2:16).
As Protestants, we tend to read this text, and other like them, through the lens, the filter, of the Reformation. Through Luther and so forth. And no wonder. It was because of texts like these, and others, that the Reformation began.
However, that’s not what Paul was, of course, dealing with at the time. Paul, instead, was dealing with another issue completely—mostly circumcision and other aspects of Jewish ceremonial law as well.
And yet, how fascinating that 1500 years later these verses, dealing with another issue altogether, would so perfectly fit what Luther and others needed to begin the break with Rome.
And that’s because there’s something in us all that wants to work for, to earn, our salvation. We want to become good enough, we want to deserve what we get. And yet, whether dealing with ancient Jewish customs, or Roman Catholic practices, or whatever good deeds that we think we are going to do in order to earn favor with God—it doesn’t work that way. Our works, even our works of the law, which we are to do (James 2:11), only point to the salvation that we have, by faith alone, in Jesus.