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”?
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. – Galatians 3:1-9 ESV
Paul describes the Galatian believers as “bewitched.” The Greek word he used is βασκαίνω (baskainō) and it can mean “to fascinate by false representations” (“G940 – baskainō – Strong’s Greek Lexicon (KJV).” Blue Letter Bible). It was as if they were under some kind of a spell, cast on them by those who were teaching that they must submit to circumcision and the keeping of the Mosaic law to be truly justified before God. They were being coerced into believing that faith in Christ alone was not enough. And Paul was frustrated that they would so easily succumb to a message that was so contradictory to the one he had preached to them. Paul had gone out of his way to vividly portray the significance of Christ’s crucifixion and its one-of-a-kind role in their justification before God. As Paul made clear to the believers in Rome: “The law of Moses was unable to save us because of the weakness of our sinful nature. So God did what the law could not do. He sent his own Son in a body like the bodies we sinners have. And in that body God declared an end to sin’s control over us by giving his Son as a sacrifice for our sins” (Romans 8:3 NLT).
The law was incapable of justifying anyone before God. Not because the law was at fault, but because of man’s sinful nature. Justification by the law would have required absolute adherence to each and every one of God’s commands. As James makes quite clear, “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10 ESV). No one could be justified by keeping the law. It was impossible. Except for one individual, Jesus Christ, who kept the law of God perfectly. It was His sinless adherence to the law that made Him the perfect, unblemished sacrifice for the sins of mankind. So rather than men having to put their faith in their own ability to keep the law, they would be able to place their faith in the finished work of jesus Christ. And Paul will elaborate on this very point just a few verses later: “Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Galatians 3:11 ESV).
Paul even uses the Hebrew patriarch, Abraham, as a point of reference. He reminds his readers of what the Old Testament states about Abraham: “Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’” (Galatians 3:6 ESV). This is a direct quote from Genesis 15, where God confirmed His covenant promise to Abraham to make of him a great nation. Abraham had just attempted to coerce God into considering Eliezer, his servant, as his heir. Since Abraham and Sarah were both old and she was barren, it seemed obvious to him that they would never have a child of their own, so in order to help God fulfill his promise, Abraham offered a plan B. But God would rejected Abraham’s plan, and said to him, “‘This man shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.’ And he brought him outside and said, ‘Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your offspring be.’ And he believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:4-6 ESV).
Abraham placed his faith in God and in His promise to do the impossible. And what is important to recognize is that God deemed Abraham as righteous long before the law was given. It would be well over 400 years before the tablets of stone were carried by Moses down from Mount Sinai – “the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise” (Galatians 3:17-18 ESV). God’s declaration of Abraham as righteous had nothing to do with the law, it was based solely on his faith in the promise of God. God had promised to make the “offspring” of Abraham a blessing to the nations. Paul emphasizes that the offspring or seed is to be understood as singular, speaking of Jesus Christ, the Messiah, who was a descendant of Abraham. And to make sure his audience understands what he is saying, Paul makes it quite clear. “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, ‘And to offsprings,’ referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ” (Galatians 3:16 ESV).
So what’s Paul’s point? What is he really trying to say? That justification, man’s right standing before God is through faith in Christ alone. It is not through law-keeping. And if our justification is by faith, so is our sanctification. Our progressive growth in holiness is not based on human effort or attempts at living up to a particular standard. Sanctification is a work of the Spirit of God as He produces within us and through us His fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Yes, it requires that we submit to the control of the Holy Spirit in our lives. We are to pursue righteousness (1 Timothy 6:11). We are to strive after holiness (Hebrews 12:14). But our sanctification is ultimately based on faith – faith in the finished work of Jesus Christ on the cross and the power of the presence of the Holy Spirit within our lives. As the author of Hebrews reminds us, “without faith it is impossible to please him” (Hebrews 11:6 ESV). Like Abraham, the man of faith, our righteousness before God is based solely on faith, not works. And in the same way, our sanctification is based on faith, not works. This does not invalidate the need for works, but simply puts them in their right place. Our obedience to the will of God is a result of His justifying, sanctifying work in our lives made possible by our faith in the death of Jesus Christ on our behalf.