After an introduction to his letter (Gal 1:1–5), rebuke of the Galatians for going astray (Gal 1:6–10), and a defense of his apostleship and the gospel’s divine origin (Gal 1:11–2:14), Paul directly addressed his letter’s primary burden, to steer his readers away from seeking justification by works and back to knowing they are justified by faith alone, that is, that they had been declared righteous by God through their faith on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ (see Gal 2:15–21, esp. 2:16). In Galatians 3:1–5, he gave a series of rhetorical questions to emphatically assert in various ways that the readers really did know that justification was by faith alone. I will state each of these assertions in my own way for us today below. So, if Paul were to ask you how you would know you have been justified, here are some answers you could give today.
First, you can know that you are justified because you believe the gospel. For the Galatians, Paul stated, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal 3:1). “Publicly portrayed” has the idea of something like a placard with writing being held up before their eyes. What Paul meant was that, while in Galatia, he vividly preached the death of Christ along with its significance so that it was as if they had seen His crucifixion for themselves. When confronted with a false gospel of being justified by works, they should have known better than to have been led astray. Instead, they should have remembered the message preached by Paul and what they had first believed. Jesus lived a perfect life. He died a sinless death. And we must believe in Him in order to be united to Him and have His death and righteousness be our own. Otherwise, He will never live in us so that we might live to God. If your faith is in this gospel, you can know that you are justified through your faith.
Second, you can know that you are justified because you received the Spirit. Paul asked the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit…by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:2). The answer is an obvious yes. The Spirit is given to those who hear and believe. Perhaps a helpful follow-up question is to ask, How can I know I received the Spirit? One answer could be that you know the Spirit lives in you now. As you live a life led by the Spirit according to the Word of God, the Spirit communicates to your spirit the assurance that you are indeed a son of God (see Rom 8:14–17). If you have the Spirit now, then you received the Spirit previously, and you received the Spirit when you first believed. And, if you have received the Spirit, you know that you have been justified and need to do nothing else for your justification.
Third, you can know that you are justified because you continue live by the Spirit. Paul asked the Galatians, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:3). The implied assertion in this question is that what is begun by the Spirit in salvation is continued by the Spirit in our sanctification, giving evidence of our justification. If we think that our initial faith in Christ and continued life in the Spirit must be set aside in order for us to gain or maintain justification by our own works done apart from the Spirit, then we fall prey to a false gospel. However, if you have received the Spirit by faith and continue to live in the Spirit by faith, then you can know that you have been justified and will one day stand before God complete (cf. Phil 1:6).
Fourth, you can know that you are justified because you have suffered for the gospel. Paul asked the Galatians, “Did you suffer so many things in vain?” (Gal 3:4). Were they to abandon the gospel, they would be abandoning a gospel for which they had previously suffered (cf. Acts 13:50; 14:5, 19; Gal 4:29). Turning to a works-based false gospel, they would be saying that their past suffering was for nothing because it was for a gospel based on faith alone. However, they had believed it enough to suffer for it, showing that they indeed believed it. So why turn away now? When we believe in being justified through the work of Christ and not our own works, and when we are willing to suffer for our belief in this message, we can know that we are justified.
Fifth and last, you can know that you are justified because you see the Spirit at work in your life. Speaking of the Father, Paul asked, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:5). While I do not personally believe that we should expect to see miracles at work in our churches today as an evidence of our faith, it could be said that it is a miracle when God supplies the Spirit and thereby transforms sinners into saints who serve one another for the glory of God. This work of the Spirit comes by hearing with faith, and when we see it in our lives and others who believe the gospel, we can know that we are justified.
Believe the gospel. Live and believe as you ought in order to know the Spirit lives within you, and do so not in your own power but by the Spirit through faith. Suffer for the gospel if necessary. See the Spirit’s work in your life. In these ways, you can know that you have been declared righteous by God.