Galatians is one of the most passionately written, emotionally and spiritually challenging books in all of the Bible. Paul’s anger and sarcasm drips from its pages as he battles what he sees to be not only an enemy of the gospel of Jesus Christ but a heresy devilish enough to endanger the entire church. Very often, evangelical ministers, following Martin Luther, argue that in this book Paul is defending the idea of justification by faith alone. Specifically, they say that he is attacking “the Judaizers”–Jewish Christians who taught that Gentile Christians needed to submit themselves to the Law of Moses–for teaching that salvation is by faith in Christ plus keeping the Law.
But what if that isn’t what Paul is saying at all? It is certainly the case that Paul is frustrated that Jewish Christians were telling Gentile Christians that keeping the Law was a requirement. But the question is, what were these people saying that keeping the Law was a requirement for?
I think Galatians 3:1-6 answers that question for us in what may be a surprising way, and possibly a way that could force many of us to change the way we practice our faith today. Following the NIV, the passage says,
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh? 4 Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain? 5 So again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard? 6 So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Let’s walk verse by verse through this passage.
Verse by Verse Commentary
v.1 – Paul begins this passage by calling the Galatian believers “foolish” and asking them who has “bewitched” or tricked them. In short, he is saying that they have been deceived by these Judaizers (note: you can read in chapter two how even Peter and Barnabas were tricked by the same people, so it isn’t as if this church was the only one having this problem). Then he makes what might seem to be an odd point: Jesus Christ was portrayed as crucified. How is that relevant? The Judaizers believed that. In fact, they made a big deal out of it. Jesus lived and died according to the Law. For them, we should do the same. So why does Paul feel like the crucifixion is relevant? I’ll go into more detail below, but for now, I’ll answer it with one word: freedom. If you skip ahead to Galatian 5:1, you’ll see that Paul says. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” And again in 2:20, Paul says, “I am crucified with Christ, therefore I no longer live. Jesus Christ now lives in me.” The point is that, for Paul, Christ’s death brings freedom and allows Him to live in and through us. And in some sense, Paul sees that the “gospel” of the Judaizers directly contradicts that.
v.2 – To show that contradiction, Paul wants to make a single point: the Gentile believers “received the Spirit,” not by keeping the Law, but by faith. It’s important to follow what the text says very closely here. We might be tempted to make Paul’s point that the Gentiles were saved by faith and not by keeping the Law. If that were his point, it would be true enough. We certainly are saved by faith and not by the works of the Law. But I just want you to notice that is not what he actually says. He is here speaking of how they “received the Spirit.” He expects that they know well the answer: “We received the Spirit by faith, not by keeping the Law.”
v.3 – Pointing out their foolishness again, Paul drives his point home: if the Gentile Christians began the Christian life by the Spirit (which they received by faith), why are they trying to mature in the Christian life by keeping the Law? There are a couple of interesting things about this question. First, Paul characterizes keeping the Law as “means of the flesh.” Why would he do this? To contrast that with the means of the Spirit. Look at the two questions set side by side to see the contrast more clearly:
Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?
After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?
So the means of the Spirit is faith, whereas the means of the flesh is the Law.
The second thing I want you to notice is the word “finish.” I don’t want to get to geeky-Greeky on you, but it does help to know that this word has the idea of becoming complete or mature. That’s why your KJV renders this question, “Are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” The idea here has nothing to do with becoming sinless. It has to do with becoming a mature Christian–the kind of believers that Jesus wants us to be. Theologians and preachers sometimes call this “sanctification,” which is, the process by which God makes us holy.
So we can see that Paul is saying we become mature Christians by faith, not by keeping the Law. The error, then, the Paul was dealing with was sanctification by works, not justification by works! Apparently, these Gentile Christians had come to faith in Christ and then, under the influence of Jewish Christians, had come to believe that they became mature believers by their own efforts.
v.4 – Now Paul begins to look at the implications of their error asking, “Have you experienced so much in vain?” The KJV renders the word “experienced” here as “suffered,” but the NIV probably has it right for reasons we will see in the next verse. More difficult is the word meaning “in vain.” The idea here is to lack purpose or cause, and we might translate it, “for no reason.” Jesus uses the word in Matthew 5:22 to say that if we become angry at someone “without cause” then we are in danger of judgment. Basically, Paul is asking if the things the Galatian Christians had seen in their Christian lives had happened without cause. But what things is he talking about? We can see that in the next verse.
v.5 – Paul asks his question again: “does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” Notice the change in wording. Before Paul asked if they had received the Spirit by faith or by works. Now he is asking about a general principle: does God give the Spirit by faith or by works? But did you see that he added something to his question? God doesn’t just give the Spirit through faith. He also “works miracles among you” by faith. This, I believe, answers our previous question. It wouldn’t make any sense for Paul to appeal to “miracles among you” if there had never been any miracles! Paul, then, wants to know what caused them. Did those miracles happen because they were good, Law-keeping Christians? Or did those miracles happen through faith?
Once again, the answer should be obvious. We can almost hear them saying, “God worked those miracles through faith, not by our keeping the Law.” Therefore, it turns out that they did not experience those things (those miracles) “in vain” or for no reason. The reason they happened was because the Galatians had been living by faith.
v.6 – Paul concludes his line of thought by appealing to Abraham, the father of faith, and quotes Genesis 15:6, “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Abraham was not declared righteous because he kept the Law. In fact, the Law didn’t come into existence until over four hundred years later! No, Abraham was declared righteous because of his faith.
What is Paul’s overall point? As we said above, it is that “we become mature Christians by faith, not by keeping the Law.” Yet the Gentile Christians had lost sight of that. They were originally saved, received the Spirit, saw the miraculous, and were growing in and through their faith. Yet now a danger had come along that was threatening all of that. They were abandoning faith in favor of human effort. Rather than simply trusting the Spirit to lead them and guide them, rather than simply letting Jesus be their Savior, they were trying to be “good Christians.” When the Judaizers said that these Gentile Christians had to keep the Law to be mature Christians, they were saying that Jesus is not enough. And that, I think, gets us back to the first point Paul made. Jesus was portrayed as crucified precisely because it was and is His death that allows us to live. The Law has absolutely no power to save, no power to heal, no power grow or mature us. That’s all Christ, and Christ is enough. Therefore, by walking away from faith in favor of the Law, these believers were actually walking away from Christ Himself, the source of all that they had seen and learned and experienced!
I think when we look at the passage that way, we can see that it could very well have a lot of relevance to our churches today. How many Christians initially trust Christ alone for their salvation and then, under the guidance of well intended preachers and Sunday school teachers, “buckle down” and start trying to be “good Christians.” They begin focusing on Bible study, church attendance, tithing, evangelism, and other such things. They pray and repent and seek to avoid sin. They try to love one another and thereby fulfill the Law of Christ.
Who could argue with any of that? Perhaps surprisingly, Paul could! Those are all good things, but then again, so was the Law (Rom 7:12; 1 Tim 1:8). The problem is using it in a way God did not intend for it to be used. The purpose of the Law was never to bring about righteousness. That ways always by faith (again, see Gen 15:6). It still is today. And yet how many of us are trying to become righteous by keeping our own laws?
So let me close with this suggestion: learn to live by the Spirit of Grace, which is to say, learn to live by faith. Things like Bible study and church attendance are good things. But if you make them the means by which you grow in faith, you will ironically find yourself unable to grow at all. That’s one of my biggest worries with the spiritual disciplines movement that is taking the evangelical world by storm . . . as if by certain disciplines we grow in grace. No, the fact is that those good things simply help us put our focus where it needs to be: on Christ. My prayer life doesn’t make me righteous. It helps me bring everything to Him in faith, and through that faith, He makes me righteous. My Bible study doesn’t make me righteous. It helps me learn how to live by faith so that through that faith He makes me righteous. My evangelism doesn’t make me righteous. It helps me see the power of God in the lives of others so that my own faith may grow, and through that faith He makes me righteous. So in all of this, the important thing is only faith. In fact, we can take this all one step further. Paul says elsewhere, “That which is not of faith is sin!” (Rom 14:23).
Are you committing the Galatian Heresy? Have you trusted Christ but are now living your Christian life by the flesh, trying to please Him by keeping the Law? If so, I encourage you to look to Christ crucified. Remember that He is sufficient. Trust Him not merely with your salvation, but with your life, and watch what He will do in and through you in the power of His Spirit. I can promise you this: a life of freedom in Christ is much more powerful and leads to much greater Christian maturity than a life of bondage to the Law.