MESSAGE FOR MAY 11, 2008 FROM GALATIANS 3:1-5
This morning, all of us who have struggled with trying to be pleasing to God on the basis of what we do for him and the feelings of either self-condemnation or self-righteousness that inevitably result from that, can once again find liberty and comfort in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Last week, we were reminded that anyone who tries through their own efforts to be acceptable to God by obeying his law is on a dead end street that leads only to futility and frustration. We saw that, it’s only as we forsake our own efforts to be acceptable to God and instead look in faith to Christ alone, that we can by God’s grace live in holiness and spiritual triumph. As we live by faith in Christ, that faith hooks us into Christ who then lives his life through us. As we move to today’s text, Paul continues to answer the question—“Once you have been united with Christ and given his righteousness, how do sustain or maintain that relationship?” As we have seen, the false teachers who opposed Paul taught that living by faith was necessary, but not sufficient. Their fatal error, and where they opposed both Paul and the gospel is--the gospel does not simply teach we are to live by faith; it teaches that we are to live by grace through faith in Christ alone. The Judaizers claimed that you were made right with God in part through faith, but this saving work was brought to completion in your life by things like circumcision. It was Jesus PLUS a person’s good works that saved them. That’s not Paul, it’s not gospel and it won’t save anyone or enable us to live in spiritual triumph.
Paul berates the Galatians for believing this “Jesus PLUS” false gospel in 3:1-5. There Paul says, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith” Paul is very troubled here —to the point of insulting the Galatians. In verse one he opens this part of his argument with “O foolish Galatians!” Then again in verse three, after showing them how foolish their theology he says again, “Are you so foolish?”
In using this word translated “foolish” Paul is not speaking of any stilted intellectual development among the Galatians. This is not a matter of intelligence. The Galatians were not stupid, but by their acceptance of the Judaizers’ false teaching, they proved themselves to be horribly spiritually undiscerning. They were like a family that had hired a contractor to build a foundation for a new home. After Paul laid this theological foundation of the gospel, they proceeded to allow the false teachers to come in and build for them a house of beliefs on some nearby quicksand that was totally removed from the foundation of Paul’s gospel. This was so spiritually idiotic that Paul is incensed by it. He is so annoyed by this radical and lethal departure from the truth of the gospel that he asks in verse one, “Who has bewitched you?” The word translated “bewitched” in secular Greek means “to give someone the evil eye, to cast a spell over, to fascinate in the original sense of holding someone spellbound by an irresistible power.”[Kittel, TDNT 1:1594-5]
It would be easy to say that Paul is using this word in a purely metaphorical sense as if he were saying, “Whose spell are you under, anyway?” The problem with seeing it only as a metaphor is there is in the New Testament a clear connection between false teaching and demonic spiritual power. Paul says in First Timothy 4:1, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,” Paul makes a direct connection between the false teachers and demonic power as do both Peter [2Pet.2:15] and John [1John 4:6] in their writings. According to Jesus in John chapter eight, the fundamental character quality of Satan is that of deception. He says of Satan, “…he has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. [John 8:44b]
The point of Paul’s use of the word “bewitched” is not to make a major issue of the demonic influence upon and through the false teachers to the Galatians. Paul doesn’t do that. However, it does call to mind an important point of application for us and that is simply this—there is a dark, spiritual element underlying any false teaching. That means when we speak to someone who has been deceived by false teaching, we must not assume the primary barrier keeping them from accepting the truth is intellectual, as if the only thing the deceived person requires is a proper framing of the theological issues. There is a prayer element here that is crucial as well. These people have been deceived by the father of lies—their minds have been spiritually darkened by the enemy. The light of truth is essential, but often before they can see the truth, we must persistently pray for the removal of the dark veil over their minds.
Having said that, Paul places the responsibility for believing the lie of this false gospel squarely on the shoulders of these Galatian believers. The “devil made me do it” is never an excuse to sin or believe a false gospel. Paul’s bottom line is—the Galatians were foolish—intensely, dangerously undiscerning and from Paul’s severe rebuke of them we can draw this main spiritual truth. That is—We are foolish if we believe we can, by our own performance, enhance or complete God’s saving work in us that Christ alone finished on the cross. Paul drives this truth home by unleashing a diatribe of six questions giving reasons why it is so foolish for us to believe the lie that our obedience to the law of God (or, being a good, upright, moral person) can in any way make us acceptable to God. The first of three reasons is found in the second half of verse one. He places this reason first because it is foundational. He says, “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”
Paul begins to confront the bewitching influence of the Judaizers by bringing his strongest weapon to bear against this lie--the cross of Christ. When he says that “Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” he is not saying that he staged a mock crucifixion before these people. He is speaking metaphorically. His meaning is more like, “the cross of Christ—his sin-atoning death was in my ministry to you so central, so prevalent, so labored, so repeated, so vividly preached, you could not have been more intimately acquainted with the crucified Christ if I had raised a placard sign with an image of Jesus nailed to a cross on it.” The cross is so central to the gospel; Paul at times uses the cross interchangeably with the gospel. In First Corinthians 1:18 he doesn’t say, “For the gospel is folly to those who are perishing…” though he certainly could have said that. Instead he says, “The word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” Later in verse 23 he says, “but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles.” Later still in 2:2 he says, “For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” For Paul, (and to us as well) the cross of Christ was the cataclysmic spiritual event in world history. To him, the cross should have forever slammed the door on any confusion about anyone ability through obeying the law or their good works to make them acceptable with God. Because Christ was crucified, no one should ever believe that a person could be made right with God by their performance—that’s what the cross was about! The first reason why the Galatians had been so foolish in believing this is-- the sufficiency of Christ crucified.
Richard Longenecker is powerful in his summary of Paul’s reasoning here. He says, “For Paul, the gospel of Christ crucified so completely rules out any other supposed means of being righteous before God that he finds it utterly incomprehensible for anyone who had once embraced such a gospel ever to think of supplementing it in any way.” [Longenecker, Galatians, 101] Like Paul, as we daily and increasingly internalize the message of the cross, this great spiritual black hole will be less imposing. It will rear its ugly head at points because our independent flesh loves to boast in our performance. To the degree that we struggle with this on a regular basis, we are not daily meditating and internalizing the message of the cross—we don’t own it as we should. We have heard and know the gospel—we are very familiar with the truth that Christ kept the law for us and paid the penalty of sin for us, but we are not daily permeating our souls with this liberating truth. The stark, glaring inconsistency of, on the one hand, Jesus living for you and dying for you because you could never be pleasing to God on your own and on the other, you trying to please God by your performance must daily be absorbed into our souls. To the degree that the truth of the cross is moment by moment being seared into our hearts and minds, we will not struggle with this.
A second reason it is foolish to try to be pleasing to God through our performance or good works is the reception of the Holy Spirit at conversion. Verse two says, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” Paul knows he possesses a slam dunk truth that, if the Galatians could understand it, would absolutely close this discussion. This truth about the Holy Spirit is a clincher for Paul and he spends the next four verses discussing the Spirit and how the initial, past and present ministry of the Spirit decisively decides this question. When Paul speaks of receiving the Holy Spirit, he means the receiving of the Holy Spirit at our conversion. When a person is saved, they receive the Holy Spirit. Ephesians 1:13 says, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit,” The false teachers had been claiming that it was circumcision that marks believers off as those who inherit the promises made to Abraham. Its circumcision and keeping the law that distinguish you as a person brought into covenant relationship with God. Paul destroys that argument by reminding the Galatians that it is receiving the Spirit that places God’s mark on you, identifying you as his child—his treasured possession. It’s when he gives us his Spirit that he sets his seal of ownership on us, not through our obedience to the law or circumcision.
He builds on that truth by asking them how they received the Spirit—the seal of God’s ownership on them. Was it by faith, as they renounced all trust in their own ability to be good enough for God and instead trusted in Christ? Or, did God give them the Spirit in response to something they did in obedience to God’s law? Paul’s point is to say, “If you will just think about your own experience with God--the fact that he gave you his Spirit in response to your faith and not through any works of your own—if God’s well established currency in your life has been grace through faith, then why are you trying to do business with him now by works?” He extends the point in verse three. “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” He calls them to look back to their spiritual roots—at the very beginning of their relationship with God. They began with the Spirit—why are they now trying to maintain their relationship by their own efforts—what Paul calls “the flesh?”
Let me try to illustrate the foolishness of doing this. Let’s say that you have a great idea for a business you want to start. You develop a business plan; form a corporation, secure a line of credit and you open for business. In the first week of this venture, everything possible goes wrong. The bank that handles your loans turns out to be a phony, non-registered on-line institution run by a crook and there is no money to pay the bills or to operate on. You are forced to declare bankruptcy in the first week because your start up debts are staggering with absolutely no way to pay them. You are absolutely tapped out with no way to pay your bills and no way to work your plan.
You spend the next week in gut-wrenching despair until one day the phone rings and it’s Bill Gates. He has somehow heard about your plight and deeply believes in what you were trying to do. He offers to pay all your outstanding debt and totally fund a new company for you, himself. He tells you that whenever you need any money to fund the business, just email him and he will direct deposit any needed funds into your on line checking account. What’s more, this is his gift to you—for reasons that are a complete mystery to you; he just wants to do this. This is not a one-time, low-interest loan—this is an ongoing, unlimited gift—never to be paid back. He has only one condition—that you close down the first corporation that was financed through your paltry resources and form a new one that relies totally on him.
You agree to the offer because you really have no choice and you are absolutely thrilled. This is too good to be true. Even though Mr. Gates had urged you to keep this arrangement quiet, you can’t help yourself. You just tell everyone you meet what a fantastic human being Bill Gates is to do all this for you free of charge. You quickly pay all your creditors from your former corporate debacle and you begin funding your newly formed corporation with his money.
Things are going along swimmingly for months. The business is funded and is a great success—very fruitful. As time progresses however, you begin to feel a bit strange about taking all this money from Mr. Gates. It just feels like you ought to be doing something to fund the company. You’ve proven you are a good business person—(as long as it’s on someone else’s nickel) and you now have some means to run this company. You think thoughts like, “After all, it’s MY Company—I’m responsible for it ultimately. I better do some of this myself.” Fueled by that independent attitude, one morning you see a stack of recent bills on your desk, but instead of emailing Mr. Gates for the money—as has been your habit, you start writing checks out to pay these bills. The problem is—the only checkbook you have is the one from the first bankrupt corporation. You had recently come across it as you were rummaging through your desk. For some reason, you never bothered to throw it away after the first business went under.
The insurmountable challenge here is of course—there is no money in that account—there never was any money in that account and you closed it months ago. As you can imagine, not very long after you start writing those bogus checks, the business takes a steep nose dive. The bad checks come back, accounts are canceled and you find yourself in a huge mess; ashamed, deeply frustrated and in debt up to your eyeballs. Meanwhile, Mr. Gates is wondering why he hasn’t heard from you in a while. Now, like all illustrations, you can’t press that one too far—Bill Gates is not Jesus Christ. But do you get the point? Paul’s point is this—after declaring your own efforts to be acceptable to God bankrupt, you looked in faith to Christ—you received the Spirit and became a Christian. As you trust or rely on Christ for your spiritual provision, you prosper. So why, after beginning with the Spirit by faith, would you go back to relying on the flesh, which you had earlier renounced as spiritually bankrupt? Paul again points to the Galatians’ own experience with God—their reception of the Holy Spirit to press his case that just as you began by faith, so also you continue in faith. He says it this way in Colossians 2:6, “Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him,” Just as your performance could never in the first place have earned you the Spirit of God; likewise it is not the way you continue with God.
Think of it another way. Let’s say you’re in
He asks another question in verse four. “Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” The word translated by the ESV as “suffer” is difficult to understand. The best Greek lexicon does not render it that way in this verse and there is nothing else in the letter that even hints that the Galatians had suffered any persecution. A better translation in light of the context is “Did you have such remarkable experiences in vain—if indeed it was in vain.” Paul is again pointing to those wondrous works of deliverance and blessing they had experienced in the past. This understanding also fits better within the immediate context of verse five. “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?” A third and final reason why it is so foolish to try to be pleasing to God through what we can do for him in obedience is our past and ongoing experience of the supernatural ministry of the Holy Spirit.
Paul asks the question, “In the past—when God has so powerfully moved in your life and church and even in the present as God does miracles among you—(this would doubtless have included all the miraculous sign gifts in First Corinthians 12 and 14—healings, prophecy and other supernatural manifestations of the Spirit) what caused those things? Was it some virtuous act you did—some sacrificial act of obedience that caused God to respond by spitting out an act of deliverance or healing or dramatic answer to prayer? Is that the way this relationship works? Or, do you understand that all those acts of the Spirit in and among you and your family and your church came solely by the grace of God in response to your looking to Christ in faith?” Did these things come by “the works of the law, or by hearing with faith…?” That is, by believing what you heard. Paul is asking these Galatians—on the basis of your experience with God through the Holy Spirit, does God’s economy operate on the basis of the currency of works or the currency of grace through faith? His implicit point is—if God gave you the Spirit initially by faith and if in the past he has worked marvelously through faith and if today he is working miracles in your life by faith, then why on earth would you believe that your walk with God is in any way maintained or sustained by anything other than faith?
Paul’s point is that grace through faith is the only way God will ever relate to us. We began our relationship with him by grace through faith and we will continue our relationship with him by grace through faith. Just as we could never earn our salvation initially, neither can we be pleasing to him through our works now. It may be helpful to remember that Paul teaches that our salvation is not only as a past event, but also an ongoing process. Again First Corinthians 1:18 says, “For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” We are called to “work out our own salvation in fear and trembling.”[Philip 2:12] The New Testament teaches that we have been saved, we are being saved and we will be saved when our salvation process is completed when we see Jesus. The point is that God saved us by grace through faith, he saves us (present tense) by grace through faith and he will save us by grace through faith. Paul promises us in Philippians 1:6, “And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
God began his work in us by grace through faith and he will continue and complete that work the same way. The only spiritual air we breathe is grace through faith. Anything else we try to add to that is pollution and will only choke our spiritual lives. This text, with its scathing rebuke of any attempt to try to please God or be acceptable to God by what we do for him is important for us to remember on at least two fronts. First, it reminds us that our past experience with God should impact our present walk with him. As we look back and see that anything good that has helped us come to Christ or blessed us in Christ was totally by his grace through faith, that is a powerful lesson for us to continue to walk in him. Part of the reason some saints lose their first love is because they began their Christian walk with child-like faith, amazed by God’s earth-shattering grace. Somewhere along the line however, we begin to more and more rely on themselves—our own judgment, decisions, personality strengths. In so doing, we grieve the Spirit who sealed us and become increasingly independent. If that pattern continues, the end result is either becoming constantly discouraged and self-condemned, as we make a huge mess of things or worse, becoming self-righteous, believing ourselves to be super saints—far better than those around us in church--when what we are really doing is living life in the power of our self deceived flesh. We should regularly call to mind past, glorious experiences with the Lord and see if they match up to what we are experiencing today. If they don’t why not?
Second, this helps us see that trying to be good enough for God in our own efforts is not a noble endeavor; it is spiritually stupid and dangerous. It’s easy to believe the lie that God somehow likes it when we are making ourselves miserable in trying to please him under a performance-based rule of life. It’s so much work and it brings such suffering into our lives, God must really appreciate it, right? Wrong. We must renounce that lie and see a performance based Christianity for what it is—foolishness. God calls us to repent of this sinful independence and once again bask in his blood-bought grace, moment-by-moment looking to Christ in faith, not ourselves. The only way to do this is to daily preach this gospel to ourselves. Our flesh is independent and life in the Spirit is thoroughly dependent, fueled by faith and not our performance. The truth of the gospel alone enables us to put down our flesh’s rebellious inclination to be pleasing to God by our works. May God give us the grace to live for Jesus as we were saved by him—by grace, through faith alone.
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