Folly of Returning to the Law

ByQuits Sabio

Folly of Returning to the Law

After a two chapter defense of his apostolic authority, Paul now proceeds with the defense of his message, namely the gospel. Galatians 3:1-5:12 comprises the main or central argument of the epistle. The preceding verses, Galatians 2:15-21 introduce many of the key words and issues raised in these succeeding chapters but formally we can be assured that 2:15-21 belongs to the apostolic defense. According Douglas Moo: “The first-person plurals and singulars indicate that Paul is to some extent relating the content of the speech he gave at Antioch (2:11–14). The direct address to the Galatians in 3:1 signals a shift.”

Verse 1-5 of chapter three expresses the essential argument for the entire section. We can treat it as Paul’s Thesis Statement. We can summarize the thesis this way: Justification is by faith alone apart from works of the Law, both in conversion and after conversion or in maintaining our being justified.

Folly of turning to another gospel

1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, [for] before your eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified?

Paul begins this section with a strong rebuke directly addressed to the Galatians. “O foolish Galatians!”, he said. The fact that only four times elsewhere in his letters he directly names his audience(2 Cor. 6:11;Phil. 4:15; 1 Tim. 1:18; 6:20). makes this address a very powerful one. Take note also that this foolishness does not merely mean lack of intelligence, but lack of obedience. This is not just an intellectual issue but a moral one. (Luke 24:25; 1 Tim. 6:9; Titus 3:3). The rhetorical questions in the following verses imply that they do know the gospel. That’s why the charge against them was not owing to ignorance but owing to blatant disobedience.

Now Paul demonstrates their foolishness in two ways with two rhetorical questions. First, is in verse 1; “who has bewitched you, [for] before your eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified?” Then second in verse 5; “Does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you do it by [means of] the works of the Law, or by [means of] hearing with faith?” The former is a failure to draw the right conclusion from the death of Christ objectively, while the latter is a failure to draw the obvious inference from their own experience subjectively. Let’s look at the two one at a time.

Who has bewitched you?(verse 1)

1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, [for] before your eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified?

The important aspect of this question is not the who but the what of this question. In what sense were they bewitched?

The word for bewitched in greek literally means “to exert an evil influence through the eye” or “to be given an evil eye.” This is just a rhetorical device to make a point that they failed to see what is there to see in the crucifixion of Christ. The second part of the verse says that it was before their “very eyes” that “Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified”, and the failure to see what Paul stated in Galatians 2:19-20 is nothing short of having been bewitched. The Galatians were expected to draw from the death of Christ that we were crucified with Him and renders us dead to the law. They heard the gospel preached to them clearly yet they failed to see its implications on our relationship to the law.

The cross is central to Paul’s conception of the gospel. The cross delivers from the present evil age (1:4) and murders the law, thus terminating its lordship (2:19-20; 4:5), so that we can die to the law, sin, and the world (5:24; 6:14); the cross of Christ justifies (2:21), absorbs our guilt (3:10-14).

John Stott states the importance of the cross this way: “There is then, it is safe to say, no Christianity without the cross. If the cross is not central to our religion, ours is not the religion of Jesus.”

Therefore to go back to law keeping for our justification is as if Christ was never crucified.

Works of the Law or Hearing with Faith?(verses 2-5)

2 The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by [means of] works of the Law, or by [means of] hearing with faith? 3 [Thus] are you so foolish [that] although you began with the Spirit, are you now [trying] to finish by [means of] the flesh? 4 [That is] have you suffered so many things in vain- if indeed it was in vain? 5 Therefore does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you do it by [means of] the works of the Law, or by [means of] hearing with faith?

The second argument is in verse 5. All the rhetorical questions in verses 2-4 only serve as support to that last rhetorical question in a crescendo fashion. As mentioned earlier the second argument is more of an appeal to their experience hence it is subjective. One commentary said; “Paul here appeals not to logic or Scriptural foundation, but to the Galatians’ experience of conversion and Christian living.”

First he asked them about their own conversion experience in verse 2; “Did you receive the Spirit by [means of] works of the Law, or by [means of] hearing with faith?” He preface it with these words “The only thing I want to learn from you is this.” This clause not only implies importance but also that Paul’s whole argument hangs on this very first question. If they answer it right then the rest will follow naturally. The obvious answer, if they were truly converted, it is by hearing with faith or by believing what they have heard.

If you mix works of the law in the beginning, no justification, and if you mix works of the law in the middle and in the end then no justification. We either rely on Christ and the Spirit’s work in us alone or not at all.

The receiving of the Spirit is the mark of a true Christian. There’s no Christian who’s not indwelt by the Spirit. Therefore all Christians must have at one point in time received the Spirit by faith in the past. Not only that, we’re also granted faith by the Spirit when we heard of the gospel, that’s why it’s hearing with faith. We heard the message, the Spirit granted faith, then we received the Spirit. That’s what conversion is all about and that’s why preaching is important and reliance on the Spirit’s sovereign purpose is important!

The debate is over if the Galatians will answer honestly and rightly. For Paul, this will already settle the matter, but he nevertheless continued, so to speak, with the cross examination. Because the real issue in the churches at Galatia was not how they started but how they tried to finish and be perfected.

Thus in verse 3 he asked; “Are you so foolish [that] although you began with the Spirit, are you now [trying] to finish by [means of] the flesh?” It has to do with post-conversion experience and not prior to or during conversion. Knowing that we began with the Spirit, it is foolishness then to try to finish by the flesh. The Spirit already accomplished more than what our flesh can ever accomplish if there’s any. So to return to works of the law for our sanctification is foolishness indeed. It is suicide!

Then he explained with another rhetorical question in verse 4 what’s at stake if we rely on the flesh this side of conversion. Paul asked; “Have you suffered so many things in vain- if indeed it was in vain?” This means that if in all our sufferings, and runnings and struggles we rely on our own flesh and not by the power of the Holy Spirit alone, then all will be in vain. That’s why in Galatians 5:4 he said that “you are severed from Christ” and “you have fallen away from grace” if you would try to be justified by the law.

To become a Christian is more than just learning some doctrines. It is experiencing the work of God.

So in verse 5 he returned to the real issue; “Therefore does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you do it by [means of] the works of the Law, or by [means of] hearing with faith?” I want you to notice how Paul started and how he closed his argument. In verse 2 he asked how we received the Spirit – that’s conversion. But here in verse 5 he asked how God provides or sustains the Spirit – that’s sanctification. In other words, we start with faith and end with faith. We began with the Spirit then finish off with the Spirit. That’s what living by faith and by the power of the Holy Spirit means. If you mix works of the law in the beginning, no justification, and if you mix works of the law in the middle and in the end then no justification. We either rely on Christ and the Spirit’s work in us alone or not at all. Galatians 5:2-3 states that if we accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage for us and we are obligated to keep the whole law.

Place for experience and truth

Christianity is not just a religion of theories and abstractions. Christianity is also an experience. If you’re yet to experience the regenerating work of the Spirit then you’re not a Christian. If you haven’t receive the Spirit by faith then you’re not a Christian. If you’re not experiencing the transforming work of the Spirit as you walk your life then that’s symptomatic that you are not a Christian. If there’s no witness of the Spirit who tells you that you are a child of God then you are not a Christian. Therefore to become a Christian is more than just learning some doctrines. It is experiencing the work of God.

But Christianity is not less than doctrines and theology. Our experience must be grounded on an objective reality that is outside of us. Christ died for our sins according to Scriptures, he was buried and on the third day He rose again according to scriptures. That’s doctrine! And if you don’t believe that, then you can’t be justified. Without hearing the gospel doctrine there’s no born again experience. 1 Peter 1:23 says that “For you have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through [by] the living and enduring word of God.” Then it doesn’t stop there. We are are shown to be Christ’s disciples when we abide in His word according to John 8:31. In Philippians 2:16 we are called to hold fast to the word of life.

Sanctification by the Spirit

Yes sanctification is not without obedience and striving. But with all the striving we must rely only on the power of the Spirit and not on the flesh, else we’re returning again to works of the law. We don’t follow the law of Christ as if we’re following the letter(Mosaic law). We follow because our obedience is wrought by the Spirit. It is not a mustering up of will power that we obey but because the Spirit made us willing. Therefore brethren be very careful because legalism lurks not only before conversion but also after conversion with a vengeance!

About the author

Quits Sabio administrator

Serving as an Elder and Board Member at SMEC. Founder and President of Reformed Exegetes Society. Quits is currently working as a Senior Lead Game Developer at Funguystudio(A Game Development studio at Makati Philippines). A husband to Malou and a father to Amara.

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