So how do we avoid being as foolish as the Galatians? What do we need to watch out for so that no one can bewitch us in the same way the Galatians were?
If I’m reading it correctly, in v2 Paul is asking a question he expects the Galatians to know the answer to: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” and then, convinced they will know the correct answer to that one (by hearing with faith), in v3 he’s wondering how they could possibly be foolish enough to get the next question wrong: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
So I think we need to understand how the Galatians thought they could be perfected by the flesh, why they were wrong, and how do we get perfected by the Spirit instead?
So firstly, the Galatians’ mistaken idea that they could be perfected by the flesh. To understand that, it would be useful to know what Paul means by the flesh.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure. He could just mean we’re not made perfect by outward actions performed in the flesh, or alternatively I wonder if the false teachers in Galatia were bewitching people by appealing to the desires of the flesh that Paul talks about in Chapter 5.
But what I do think is clear is that Paul is concerned that the Galatians thought they were being made perfect by outward actions that weren’t powered by the Spirit.
The specific action in question for the Galatians was circumcision.
But Paul says in Ch5 that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything”.
So the issue is not whether they got circumcised, but why they were thinking of getting circumcised.
The Spirit hadn’t given them a desire to be circumcised.
Considering the context: in Chapter 2 we’ve been talking about the fact that “a person is not justified by works of the law”, and remember that to be “justified” is to be “declared righteous”, and in Ch3v6 Paul reminds us that Abraham “believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness”.
So I think it was the Galatians’ desire to be declared righteous that led them to want to be circumcised.
The false teachers had bewitched them into thinking there was this thing they could do to make sure they would be declared righteous, and, by implication, if they didn’t do it they would be considered unrighteous.
So why is that wrong?
If you can do something to make sure you’re declared righteous, then if you do that thing, you’ll have reason to be proud of yourself. On the other hand, if there’s something you know you should do or else you’ll be declared unrighteous, and you fail to do it, you’ll be ashamed of yourself.
In other words, the Galatians were motivated to do an outward action by either the opportunity to feel proud of themselves, or the desire to avoid feeling ashamed of themselves.
And that’s wrong because of what the Galatians knew in theory in v2. They knew they hadn’t become Christians by works of the law, but by hearing with faith. And because, as we talked about earlier, we’re not justified (declared righteous) by works of the law but by faith in Christ, it no longer makes sense for us to do works of the law in order to be declared righteous.
And since we can’t do anything ourselves to make sure we’re declared righteous, it’s no good trying to do works of the law so we can feel proud of ourselves. Nor is the desire to avoid the shame of being declared unrighteous a valid motivation for doing good works, because the declaration of our righteousness is not based on our works, but on Christ.
In connection with this, it bothers me when I hear people saying they like “challenging, practical sermons”. What do we mean by “challenging, practical sermons”?
Perhaps this is just me, but the word “challenging” suggests to me that the preacher is trying to use the shamefulness of my sin to motivate me to try harder in doing the works of the law so I don’t have to feel so ashamed next week. And it often works… for a while, because I hate feeling ashamed. But the thing is, you don’t need to be a Christian to not like feeling ashamed. Anyone you pick off the street will try to avoid feeling ashamed. And if you manage to convince them that if they break a certain rule they should be ashamed of themselves, they will try to avoid breaking it… or at least they’ll try to hide the fact that they’ve broken it. You don’t need the Holy Spirit to get people to change their outward behaviour; just challenge them to do the works of the law – give them a practical list of do’s and don’ts that they can tick off so they don’t need to feel ashamed of themselves.
But then on the other hand there are some days when I don’t really feel like I’m in danger of shaming myself, so on those days you’d be better off appealing to my pride. I love to feel like a good Christian, so give me a list of the works of the law that uber-Christians do and I’ll crack on – by the end of the week I’ll be able to count myself among the spiritual elite. Obviously I’m too well taught to make the mistake of boasting in public about how great a Christian I am, but even if no one else sees my good deeds, at least I can be pleased with myself knowing how well I’ve done.
Again, no Holy Spirit required, just challenge me with a list of practical things to do so I can feel like a good Christian.
So how does the Spirit work to make us perfect?
2 Cor 3:17-18: “As we behold the glory of the Lord, we are transformed into his image… this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.”
So that’s why, in Galatians 3v1 Paul talks about the crucified Jesus being portrayed before their eyes.
As we behold the glory of Christ, the Spirit works to make us more and more like him.
1 John 4:19 says “we love him because he first loved us.”
The cause of our love for God is his love for us, and as we see Christ portrayed as crucified, we see how much he loves us. And I think it’s probably fair to say that the more we comprehend of the depths of his love for us, the more we’ll love him.
And John 14:15 says “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”
I think some people think Jesus is using a kind of emotional blackmail in that verse. “If you really loved me, you’d do this for me.” But I think it’s just a simple statement of fact. If we love God, we learn to delight in his law, so of course we start obeying it, not begrudgingly but because it’s a pleasure.
So in conclusion, let’s stir one another up to love and good works by portraying Christ crucified to each other, not just in words, but in actions, sacrificing our own comfort for the good of others.