1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 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— 6 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 have 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 something was missing. More was necessary. They had bought into the lie that circumcision was an added requirement for salvation but Paul’s problem was not so much with the rite of circumcision as it was with the problem of legalism.
Jesus Christ died a gruesome death on the cross 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 an act of propitiation, fully satisfying 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 been insufficient. The Judaizers had successfully sold their formula of faith plus circumcision.
Paul’s opponents probably accused him of being against doing good deeds. They couldn’t understand why a former Pharisee of the Jews would be so opposed to encouraging the rite of circumcision. But 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. He truly believed that Jesus had done everything that needed to be done for mankind’s salvation. Jesus’ 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 you don’t have to do anything now that you are saved. Theologians refer to these two extremes as nomism and antinomianism. The Greek word for “law” is nomos, so nomism means “religious conduct based on the law.” Antinomianism is “a theological doctrine that asserts the freedom of Christians from the obligation to observe moral laws” (Collins English Dictionary. Copyright © HarperCollins Publishers).
Two more familiar terms are legalism and license. One promotes a doctrine of salvation based on religious rule-keeping while the other encourages the rejection of any moral requirements altogether. Essentially, license propagates the idea that Christians 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 found himself constantly having to deal with both of them. In the case of the Galatians, the greatest threat to their faith was legalism. They had placed their faith in Jesus Christ as their Savior, but now they were being convinced that something was missing. This 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 been oblivious to the Mosaic Law and had done nothing to keep any of the commands it contained, and yet they had managed to 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.
Paul took his argument 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). Essentially, Paul was asking them if they thought their salvation had been up to God, but their sanctification was somehow up to them. Now that they were saved, were there some “next steps” they had to take to remain saved?
The issue Paul is raising is that of sanctification, their ongoing transformation into the likeness of Christ. Paul firmly believed in salvation by faith alone but he also believed that faith, if left alone, was not true saving faith. In his first letter to the churches in Corinth, Paul shared some stern words of warning about their lack of spiritual maturity.
Dear brothers and sisters, when I was with you I couldn’t talk to you as I would to spiritual people. I had to talk as though you belonged to this world or as though you were infants in Christ. I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready, for you are still controlled by your sinful nature. You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren’t you living like people of the world? – 1 Corinthians 3:1-3 NLT
He and Peter saw eye-to-eye on the matter of sanctification. It was Peter who penned these powerful words of admonition and expectation:
…get rid of all evil behavior. Be done with all deceit, hypocrisy, jealousy, and all unkind speech. Like newborn babies, you must crave pure spiritual milk so that you will grow into a full experience of salvation. Cry out for this nourishment… – 1 Peter 2:1-2 NLT
But Paul was adamant in his belief that good works of any kind were not an add-on to salvation. In fact, Paul believed that sanctification was also a byproduct of faith, not human effort. He wanted the Galatians to understand that not only had they been saved by faith in Christ, but their transformation into His likeness was accomplished by the very same process. That is how he could confidently tell the believers in Philippi, “I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT)
For Paul, there was no such thing as self-sanctification. A man can no more sanctify himself than he can save himself. God’s plan of salvation is all-inclusive and designed to culminate in a finished product that reflects His glory and Christ’s likeness. Paul wanted the Galatians to understand that God didn’t save them and then leave their spiritual transformation up to them.
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. Later in this same letter to the believers in Galatia, he writes, “…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 Corinthian church, “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, “For 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 process, orchestrated by God and powered by the indwelling Holy Spirit. Faith is a lifestyle, a way of life, and the key to our salvation, sanctification, and ultimate glorification.
The Galatians didn’t need circumcision to complete their salvation. What they needed was continued faith in the grace and goodness of God. He wasn’t done yet. Paul knew that the Galatians had not yet arrived. Their salvation had been accomplished but their sanctification was a work in process. God, through the indwelling presence and power of His Spirit, was molding each of His children into the likeness of His Son; a process that the apostle John said will one day be made complete when Jesus returns.
Dear friends, we are already God’s children, but he has not yet shown us what we will be like when Christ appears. But we do know that we will be like him, for we will see him as he really is. And all who have this eager expectation will keep themselves pure, just as he is pure. – 1 John 3:2-3 NLT
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.