O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 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 — just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? – Galatians 3:1-6 ESV
You can sense the frustration in Paul’s words as he begins his theological defense of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. From his perspective, it is as if his readers had been cast under a spell. His previous efforts, while living and ministering among them, seem to have been in vain. He had gone out of his way to convince them of the grace of God made available through the cross of Christ alone, but now they were allowing themselves to be ‘bewitched” into believing that more was necessary. They were buying into the lie that circumcision was an added requirement to salvation. Paul’s problem was not so much with the rite of circumcision as it was with the problem of legalism.
Jesus Christ had died a gruesome death on the cross in order to provide a means of salvation for men and make possible their justification before God. He did for humanity what humanity could not do for itself. He satisfied God. His death was the propitiation for our sins. He fully satisfied the righteous wrath of God against the sins of mankind. And yet, here were the Galatians allowing themselves to be convinced that His death had not been enough. They needed to do more!
Paul was not against good works. He was not propagating a life of moral, ethical and spiritual complacency. Paul’s issue is with works being tied to and made a requirement for salvation and justification. Jesus paid it all. His sacrificial death on the cross was fully and completely sufficient to ransom men and women from their sins and restore them to a right relationship with God.
The message of false teachers will always fall into one of two categories. Either you have not done enough to be truly saved or now that you are saved, you don’t have to do anything. Theologians refer to these two extremes as nomism and antinomianism. We might recognize them as legalism and license. One promotes a doctrine of salvation based on religious rule-keeping. The other can result in a rejection of any moral requirements altogether. In essence, it teaches that we are no longer obligated to keep God’s moral law because we have been set free from it. And while there is a degree of truth to that assessment, it can easily lead to a justification of sin and a life of moral ambiguity. Both legalism and license share the same root problem: Self-centeredness. One places self at the center of man’s redemption, making human effort the key to salvation. The other promotes self to the point of making salvation all about self-gratification. Rather than holiness, license preaches happiness. Instead of encouraging death to self, license promotes a life of self-satisfaction.
Both of these extremes are dangerous. And Paul was constantly having to deal with both. In the case of the Galatians, the greater threat was legalism. They had placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior, but now they were being convinced that there was something missing. Which is why Paul asked them, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:2 ESV). The answer was obvious. As Gentiles, they had done nothing in the way of keeping the law of Moses. And yet, they had come to faith in Christ and had received the gift of the Holy Spirit. None of them had done anything to deserve this incredible gift of grace from God. And Paul took it a step further, asking them, “After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Galatians 3:3 NLT). In other words, Paul was asking them if they thought their salvation was up to God, while their sanctification was up to them.
The issue Paul was raising was regarding their sanctification. Not only are we saved by faith in Christ, we are transformed or made Christ-like by the very same process. We can no more sanctify ourselves than we can save ourselves. God doesn’t save us, then leave it up to us to perfect ourselves. Again, Paul is not discounting the role of good works in the life of the believer. He is simply emphasizing the source from which those good works are to flow. Paul told the believers in Philippi, “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Philippians 1:6 ESV). Later on in this same letter to the believers in Galatia, he will write, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (Galatians 5:22 ESV). God not only saves us, He sanctifies us. Paul told the Corinthians, “And the Lord – who is the Spirit – makes us more and more like him as we are changed into his glorious image” (2 Corinthians 3:18 NLT). We don’t make ourselves more like Christ, that is the Spirit’s job. Our role is to remain submissive and obedient to His activity in our lives. Paul wrote to the believers in Rome, “if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Romans 8:13 ESV).
For Paul, the entire process of salvation, justification, and sanctification was the work of God. At no point does the responsibility for redemption fall on man. The only thing we are required to do is trust. We are to submit our lives to His will and relinquish our right to self-autonomy. Paul stated his position well back in chapter two: “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20 NLT). Faith isn’t a once-in-a-lifetime event, it is a life-long pursuit. Faith is a lifestyle, a way of life, and the key to our salvation, sanctification and ultimate glorification.