STUDIES IN GALATIANS
Copyright © Rosemary Bardsley 2003
STUDY FOUR: FAITH VERSUS LAW: GALATIANS 3:1-14
A. PAUL REBUKES THE GALATIANS
A. 1 He calls them foolish [3:1,3]
The Greek word is anoetoi, and refers to a lack of understanding, a mindlessness, a being driven by the emotions rather than by the mind, a moral defect that caused them to allow themselves to be blindly and thoughtlessly carried away.
In what way are they foolish? He is about to explain.
A.2 He infers that they have been 'bewitched' [3:1]
So foolish does he consider their behaviour in accepting the false teaching, that he likens their stupidity to the effects of witchcraft. Their inane action is such that one would expect from someone whose mind has been manipulated and controlled by the powers of evil. They have been drawn away from the pure gospel by the fascination and allurement of the false teaching, and by the devious and deceitful words of its teachers. Had they acted by their reason they would not have fallen prey to it, but they have let rationality go to the winds.
A.3 He reminds them of what they knew [3:1]
Through the preaching of Paul and his companions the Galatians had had the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and the significance of that crucifixion placarded before them. They had been taught what the cross was all about. They had been taught its meaning - the substitutionary atonement, the justification, the reconciliation, redemption and forgiveness that is obtained there by the sheer grace of God. They had learnt how this cross had brought to an end all the strivings of man for acceptance with God. They knew its message. They knew its power.
A.4 He asks them a several questions [3:2-5]
- Did they receive the Spirit by keeping the law, or by believing what they heard? In other words, did God give them his Spirit (which is his seal, his guarantee, his affirmation that a person is his child), because they kept and observed the law - or through believing the message about Jesus Christ? Obviously, the answer they must give is, by believing the message. Their performance of law had nothing to do with their salvation.
- Are they so foolish, having begun their Christian life through the Spirit to think that they now try to finish it by the flesh - that is by their own human effort? Paul here again uses the pneuma/sarka contrast that he emphasises in Romans. They began by the Spirit revealing Christ to them, by the Spirit regenerating them. Surely they know that having started through the operation of the Spirit that they cannot continue in their own strength.
- Have they suffered so much for nothing? Here Paul seems to have some knowledge of what the Galatian Christians suffered on account of their faith in Christ at the hands of those who opposed the name of Jesus. It is obvious from Paul's experience in the Galatian towns that there was violent opposition. Given that this opposition was instigated by Jews there is a direct connection between believing in the pure gospel and getting persecuted by those who depended on observing the law. Paul is astounded that these people who have suffered so much for their faith in Christ and his grace-based salvation, should now forsake him for a law-based salvation - if they have indeed really done so.
- Did God give them his Spirit and work miracles among them because they kept the law or because they believed the message they had heard? Obviously it was because they believed the message. The inference is the stupidity of changing the basis of their relationship to God now.
B. A LESSON FROM ABRAHAM [3:6-14]
B.1 Faith credited as righteousness (6)
Here Paul repeats the classic statement of justification by faith:
'He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'
This refers back to Genesis 15:6. It speaks of 'righteousness' - which is a legal term referring to being in the right with, that is, being acquitted by, God, the judge of all the earth. [Note that the Greek word for 'righteousness' is identical to the Greek word for 'justification.'] It is clear from this statement that this pronouncement of legal acquittal is not related to the person's personal rightness or innocence, but to the deliberate action of God who pronounces the acquittal. For Abraham God did this when Abraham believed him.
B.2 Not for Abraham only but for all who have faith (7-9)
In these verses Paul affirms:
- All who believe are children of Abraham.
- This includes Gentiles who believe.
- Justification is by faith.
- This inclusion of the Gentiles was always God's plan. God told Abraham: 'All nations will be blessed through you.' This is stated in Genesis 12:3, 18:18 and 22:18.
- This promise to Abraham is termed 'the gospel'.
- This promised blessing through Abraham is the same blessing that Abraham received: that of justification by faith.
- Those who have faith have the same blessing as Abraham.
Discussion Point #7: In what ways are these verses relevant to today's Christians? What do they tell us about the historic distinction between Jew and Gentile? What do they tell us about the importance of faith? What do they tell us about our tendency to give significance to our good works?
B.3 The curse of the law (10-12)
This is a heavy and significant passage. Paul here spells out the horrendous results of trying to be right with God by keeping the law:
- All who rely on keeping the law are under a curse. [To be cursed means to be cut off from God.]
- To try to relate to God by keeping the law means that a person must keep 100% of the law, to 100% of its standards, 100% of the time. Anything less than perfection is failure. This thought is also expressed by James: 'For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it' (James 2:10). By failing to observe one point of the law a person becomes a law-breaker - you have shown disrespect for the law and disobedience to the God who established it.
- Those who do not achieve this comprehensive and complete and constant observation of the law are cursed, according to the Scripture (Deuteronomy 27:26).
- It is obvious that the Scripture does not expect or encourage a person to seek justification (legal acquittal) on the basis of keeping the law, because the Scripture teaches that 'the righteous' (that is, those who are declared righteous by God) 'will live by faith' (Habakkuk 2:4) that is, not by works.
- The principle of faith and the principle of law as a means of relating to God are opposed and contrary to each other. This is indicated in verse 12 where Paul states literally 'the law is not out of faith but ... '. The 'but' is a strong but, contrasting two opposite concepts.
- As in Romans 10:5 Paul states that the principle of law as a means of 'righteousness' or legal acquittal is: that the man who does these things lives by these things, that is, 'If perfect obedience were rendered, it would, from the nature of the case, confer happiness and life as long as the obedience was rendered. God would not punish the innocent. But in this world it never has been rendered, except in the case of the Lord Jesus; and the consequence is, that the course of man has been attended with pain, sorrow, and death.' (Barnes). The in-built threat and impossibility of this is obvious.
- The principle of law means that a man is dependent on his own action for his acceptance with God.
- The principle of faith means that a man is dependent on God's word of acquittal for his acceptance with him.
B.4 Redeemed by Christ (13-14)
This is one of the key passages teaching Christ's death as substitutionary atonement. Paul has just explained 'the curse of the law' and the impossibility of anyone ever achieving acquittal in the presence of God on the basis of his/her own personal legal rightness. Every human being is damned by their own inability to perfectly observe the law. All who seek to do so are inevitably and inescapably under this curse, not only of God's condemnation and punishment but also of their own hopelessness ever to get out from the reality of their own imperfection and inability.
Paul here teaches:
- Christ redeemed us from this curse of the law. 'Redeemed' means set us free by the payment of a price.
- He did this, 'by becoming a curse for us'. The significance of the 'for us' is substitutionary; it is 'in our place', it is 'on our behalf', it is 'instead of us'. The curse of the law was upon us. Christ took that curse and bore its consequences.
- Proof that Christ put himself in our place - that is, as one cursed - is established by the Scripture that everyone who 'hangs on a tree' is cursed (Deut 21:23). The crucifixion nature of the death of Jesus is no accident. It specifically points to this curse-bearing significance of his death.
- The reason Christ set us free from the curse of the law - from the heavy and impossible necessity of having to keep the law 100% to live in the presence of God - was in order that 'the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles ... ' Christ took the curse legally due to non-performance of God's law so thatthe declaration of legal acquittal could be given to the Gentiles totally apart from the law.
- This blessing of Abraham comes to the Gentiles 'through Jesus Christ'. Not through themselves and their efforts at keeping the law - they did not have the law, and were grossly guilty of breaking it.
- Because the blessing of Abraham comes to the Gentiles through Jesus Christ (and not through their own efforts) both Jews and Gentiles receive the promise of the Spirit by faith. They are reunited with God by faith not by works. This promise of the Spirit includes not only the indwelling Spirit of God by whom we cry 'Abba, Father' as Paul mentions later in this letter, but also all the spiritual blessings of salvation imparted to the believer when he/she is 'born of the Spirit'.
Discussion Point #8: What are the implications of these verses for the false teaching that required observation of Jewish ritual law? In what circumstances are these verses relevant to today's Christians?