The Folly of Works-Salvation

Galatians 3:1-5   |   Sunday, October 9, 2005   |   Code: 2005-10-09-PJ

      Turn with me this morning to Galatians 3. This morning I want to cover five verses at the very beginning of Galatians 3. Galatians 3:1-5.

      Now, we're at a bit of a disadvantage jumping into the start of this chapter cold, because the context here is very important. There is an abrupt change of tone at the very start of Galatians 3.

      Whoever originally divided Sripture up into chapters and verses wisely chose this place for a major chapter division, because this is a very significant turning point in Paul's epistle to the Galatians. Here the apostle Paul launches into the very heart of his message to these churches. It's makes a powerful impact when you are reading through the entire epistle. If it hits you hard, or seems to you like Paul has suddenly turned very severe, that is exactly how it would have sounded to the original recipients of this letter. It's a bit of a shock, and I have no doubt that's precisely the effect Paul wanted to achieve. These are very pointed words.

      So let's start with just a very brief review of the epistle up to this point, so that you can follow the flow of thought in Paul's argument understand why he is writing with so much polemical force.

      Remember, Paul is writing this epistle to the churches scattered through the region of Galatia. These were churches that knew him personally. He and his closest associates had founded these churches. They were predominantly Gentile churches, in a strongly Gentile region. And they were therefore intimately associated with Paul's personal and apostolic ministry as the apostle to the Gentiles.

      But some influential men, who, it seems, were associated with the church in Jerusalem—perhaps men who had even been appointed as official (sort of) good-will delegates from the leaders in the Jerusalem church—had come into the Galatian region and were trying to conform those Gentile churches to Jewish culture and Old Testament ceremonial practices.

      These were men steeped in Old Testament law. Acts 15 says the Jerusalem church had some former Pharisees who had embraced Christ in name but without really understanding or believing what Christ had accomplished on the cross. These may have been those men, or others who had been strongly influenced by those Pharisees. And large in their thinking was the Pharisaical belief that Gentiles were inherently unclean and strangers and foreigners to the covenant of God. They looked down on everything that had the taint of Gentile culture.

      In their minds, the covenant of salvation was all about identification with Israel, and therefore they had come to embrace the opinion that all the ceremonial ordinances, especially circumcision, were the essential marks of people who had membership in any of God's covenants.

      We refer to these men as the Judaizers, because they were convinced that Christ (as Israel's Messiah) had a unique and exclusive relationship with the nation of Israel, so you couldn't be real a follower of Christ as a Gentile. They were willing to accept Gentiles in the church only if the Gentiles first became Jewish proselytes. So they placed a great deal of emphasis on circumcision as the mark of covenant membership.

      And their one mission in life was to make sure the church retained its Jewish culture and identity. It seems to me that they came to the Galatian churches with this singular goal in mind: they wanted these Gentile churches to adopt all the external symbols of Old-Covenant Israel. They probably presented themselves as scholars and experts in biblical law, come to instruct the poor Gentile converts about how to be better Christians by adopting the rituals and the lifestyles of Old Testament Judaism.

      And that message confused the Galatian churches. It certainly was different from the message they had heard from the apostle Paul.

      Naturally, this generated controversy and confusion in the Galatian churches. The Galatian Gentiles probably responded at first to the Judaizers' teaching by pointing out that they were bringing a different message unlike anything they had ever heard from Paul. (Remember that Paul himself had been a Pharisee prior to his conversion, but he says in Philippians 3 that he realized his own self-righteousness as a Pharisee was just dung, filth, utterly worthless in terms of its ability to earn merit with God. So he personally had set all of that aside, abandoned it, in favor of the perfect righteousness that was his by imputation in Christ.) And there's no way Paul would have wasted time in a Gentile church trying to get them to follow the external elements of a legalistic religious system he himself had been liberated from when he became a Christian.

      It is obvious from the text and the tone of the book of Galatians that the Judaizers had answered whatever critics they encountered in Galatia by challenging the apostolic credentials of Paul. They also as questioned the accuracy of the message he had proclaimed to them. "Paul's not a real apostle. We represent true Christianity. We have the credentials and the knowledge and the implicit approval of the apostles in Jerusalem, and you ought to forget what Paul taught you and listen to us instead."

      So the first item on Paul's agenda in this epistle was the defense of his own apostleship and a reaffirmation of the gospel he proclaimed. And that consumes the first two chapters of Galatians. He recounts the history of his own conversion. He recaps the circumstances under which he was made an apostle and given the gospel by special revelation. He says he received both the gospel and his apostolic commission personally from the resurrected Christ (Chapter 1, verses 11-12: "I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.") He explains how the other apostles recognized and affirmed both the message he preached and the authority Christ had given him to be an apostle (chapter 1, verse 15 through chapter 2, verse 9). Then he described a conflict he had with Peter, in which he had to set even Peter straight when Peter began to compromise. And that episode goes through the end of chapter 2.

      This is Paul at his most personal. The only other place Paul talks more about himself is 2 Corinthians, where he is once more defending his apostolic credentials. He doesn't like talking about himself. He despises the idea of boasting, and he wasn't even normally given to a very vigorous self-defense. But he had to defend his apostleship for the sake of the gospel, so he does. And he spends two short chapters doing it at the very beginning of this epistle to the Galatians. It's a wonderful, intimate, personal insight into the life and heart of the apostle Paul.

      So this is the sum of everything up to this point: Paul has defended his own apostleship. He has made it clear that there have been at least a couple of times when he had to defend the purity of the gospel against the compromise of other church leaders in Jerusalem, as well as Peter in that infamous episode in Antioch. And the clear point he is making is this: the truth of the gospel takes priority over anyone's personal position or reputation. The epistle so far has all been one long commentary on the warning he issues in chapter 1, verses 8-9: "But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed."

      It doesn't matter who it is—whether it's a bigwig from Jerusalem, a prominent apostle like Peter, an angel from heaven, or even the apostle Paul himself, if he brings a message contrary to the message you have already heard, he says, treat that person as anathema. The truth of the gospel itself trumps everything—and don't forget it.

      So for two chapters, Paul has been defending the gospel by defending his own apostolic credentials, and by recounting episodes from his own experience.

      But here is that great turning point, and Paul turns from his own experience to the experience of the Galatians themselves. He addresses them directly, and in not-so-flattering terms, he reminds them how they were saved, what they have experienced, and where they have come from to get to this point—and he cites all these things as proofs of the great doctrine of justification by faith.

      That's what he began defending early in chapter 1. It's been the focus of his epistle all along the way: justification by faith. And it's still the issue here. But his style of defense changes, and the nature of his arguments change. And now he is going to defend the doctrine of justification in a way that is even more personal, more polemic, more biblical, more doctrinal, and more direct than anything so far.

      That's why this passage takes us to the very bedrock of Paul's own theological foundation. And Paul signals the change in tone and direction with some shocking and plainspoken personal words. Chapter 3, verse 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?

We'll limit ourselves to those five verses this morning, because they stand together well as a unit, and there is more than enough here to fill our time.

      Notice, first of all, that this is a series of questions, all put directly to the Galatians in the most blunt, candid, personal terms. Paul is not concerned with diplomacy here. He wants them to get the point, no matter how straightforward he has to be with them.

      Notice: every verse in this section contains a question. In fact, every sentence in this section is a question, framed in a way that would make them think, and examine themselves, and review their own spiritual history, and reflect on the way they had allowed themselves to be so easily shaken from the foundation his clear teaching had laid for them.

      From the opening words of the epistle, he has tried to make it clear that the religion represented by the Judaizers is a whole different religion, foreign to authentic Christianity. The gospel these men were preaching was a different gospel. The means of salvation they presented was a whole different way of salvation than the Galatians embraced when they first embraced the gospel. And the discord between the two gospels was no mere difference in emphasis. The Judaizers were teaching a whole different religion. They weren't simply preaching a similar message with a different slant.

      And despite what the Judaizers claimed, what the Galatians were hearing from them was not a better, more pure, more authentic way of being a Christian. In taking the Galatians back to the Old Testament ceremonies, they were not making them better Christians. They were derailing their faith completely.

      And diplomacy wasn't called for here. I like how Paul didn't try to answer this through an appeal to scholarship. He doesn't offer to dialogue with the Judaizers. He isn't willing to compromise with them. Like a faithful shepherd, he only wants to expose their error and warn his flock not to follow these wolves. He takes a completely different approach from the postmodern approach we see today, where you're supposed to affirm what you "like" about every point of view you disagree with, and underline all the strong points. And then—but only then—if you're really gentle about it, you can give some weak little milksop words of caution about what you disagree with.

      After all, Paul could have said, "Now, these are well-meaning brothers, and it's good that they recognize the authority of the Old Testament, and they are bringing us a much-needed reminder that Christianity has Jewish roots." He could have commended the Judaizers for their scholarship and their zeal for the law and their and knowledge of Old Testament history, and all of that.

      But he didn't. He dismissed them and their doctrine as a serious danger to the spiritual health and well-being of the church, and he stressed the fact that their doctrine, by nullifying the central truth of justification by faith, was undermining the very foundations of the gospel itself. He did not affirm these men as brethren, even though they claimed to be Christians and evidently held positions of prominence in the Jerusalem church. He rejected both them and their doctrine as a serious danger to the truth of Christ. And he was absolutely blunt about it.

      That's important to acknowledge, because frankly it is the opposite direction many in the church want us to take today. Frankly, the Judaizers' doctrine had in it the very same seeds of error you find in Roman Catholicism, with its emphasis on rituals and ceremonies as the instruments of justification. It had much in common with the postmodern movement known as "the New Perspective on Paul," where justification is often portrayed as a process that depends, in the end, on the believer's own works of righteousness for our final justification before God. Similar errors are found in the teachings of Seventh-day Adventism, many expressions of Anglican and high-Presbyterian sacramentalism, modern Lutheranism, and other legalistic varieties of religion that are currently making inroads into the evangelical mainstream from the fringe of the movement.

      In fact, I think the very same thing is true of the latest fad among evangelicals, known as "the emerging church," where the stress of most of their teaching is usually placed on what believers do, rather than on what Christ has done on our behalf. And as the gospel continues to take more and more of a back seat in the visible church today, more and more people are pleading for "dialogue." They want a friendly, soft-spoken, academic-style approach to dealing with all these errors. And I think the example of the apostle Paul is more in line with the direction genuine believers need to take in answering the postmodern drift. So I appreciate Paul's bluntness in these verses, and I'm encouraged to be blunt, too.

      Not so long ago, J. Gresham Machen also drew courage from Paul's example in Galatians as he sought to answer the various errors of his day. He pointed out that Galatians is included in the canon for a reason. It's true that Paul was confronting a very specific error that was in some ways unique. The Judaizers were arguing specifically for continuing the Old Testament ceremonial observances in the church as a means of gaining merit for justification. No one today would teach that precise idea. And some people might even be inclined to think this has little relevance to our situation today, because, frankly, there is no one with any influence in the church anywhere today who is arguing that circumcision is necessary for salvation.

      Machen wrote, "At first sight, that fact might seem to destroy the usefulness of the Epistle for the present day; for we of today are in no danger of desiring to keep Jewish fasts and feasts. But a little consideration will show that that is not at all the case. The really essential thing about the Judaizers' contention was not found in those particular "works of the law" that they urged upon the Galatians [as grounds of justification], but in the fact that they urged any works in this sense at all. The really serious error into which they fell was not that they carried the ceremonial law over into the new dispensation . . . , but that they preached a religion of human merit [rather than] a religion of divine grace."

      And Machen went on to point out that virtually error the church faced in his day had at its heart the very same false teaching of justification by works. He saw it in the teaching of people who talked about "surrender" rather than faith as the means of sanctification. He saw it in the teaching of the liberals who said that love and good works were the true essence of Christianity rather than sound doctrine. He saw it in various theories of the atonement (theories that are being revived in many circles today), where people are teaching that Christ's death on the cross was merely an example for us to follow, and not a substitute punishment for our sins. Machen wrote, "These are all just different ways of exalting the merit of man over against the Cross of Christ, they are all of them attacks upon the very heart and core of the Christian religion. And against all of them the mighty polemic of this Epistle to the Galatians is turned."

      So this is an especially relevant passage of Scripture, and it confronts all of the main errors that are assaulting the church today. The principle Paul was defending is the very heart and soul of Christianity, and it would be sheer folly to think this doctrine is merely an academic point of truth, or to think that the defense of justification by faith calls for a dispassionate, friendly, academic dialogue as opposed to the passionate proclamation of the truth.

      By the way, the principle Paul is defending here is the very same principle that sparked the Protestant Reformation. It's the same point of doctrine Martin Luther called "the article of faith by which the church stands or falls." It's the same doctrine John Calvin called "the principle hinge of religion." It's a point of truth that calls for a clear and passionate defense, and those who think it's not really worth fighting over haven't begin to grasp the essence of the gospel message.

      Now, the series of questions Paul raises here all work to the same end. He is contrasting two radically different and mutually exclusive gospels. One promotes a religion of human works, and it is the religion that was being peddled by the Judaizers. The other is a message about divine grace, and it promises complete justification before the judgment throne of God on the basis of what Christ has done on our behalf.

      And the questions Paul proposes to the Galatians set up three contrasts. We'll let this trio of contrasts be our outline, and if you want to get the main points, here they are: These two completely incompatible approaches to religion are distinguished first of all, by the difference between Law and Gospel. Second, by the difference between Flesh and Spirit. And third, by the difference between Works and Faith. So with that as our outline, let's work our way through the text.

      First, notice the distinction Paul makes between—


1. Law and Gospel

      Verses 1-2: "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?"

      The bluntness of his language is stunning. He doesn't call them "brethren," even though he had already addressed them that way in chapter 1, verse 11. It's clear he regarded them warmly as his own brethren and spiritual children, sheep for whose care he was personally responsible. But here all the warmth and brotherhood of that relationship give way to some very abrupt and severe-sounding language: "O foolish Galatians!"

      The word "foolish" is from a Greek expression that speaks of a lack of understanding. It signifies spiritual dullness. It's not the kind of cheap personal insult Jesus condemned in Matthew 5:22, where he said if you call your brother a fool you're in danger of hell-fire. There, Jesus used a totally different word for "fool" that speaks of a godless person. What He forbid was angry name-calling. But, as a matter of fact, in Luke 24:25-26, when Jesus appeared to some disciples on the road to Emmaus, and they were discouraged and feeling totally defeated after the crucifixion, before He revealed who he really was, Jesus himself said to them, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And there, Jesus used the exact same word Paul uses here. In effect, Jesus gave the definition of this kind of "foolishness." It's a slowness of heart to believe. Spiritual dullness.

      That's what Paul was saying about the Galatians. Their willingness to be influenced by the Judaizers' error reflected an inexcusable kind of spiritual dullness. It was almost as if some witch had cast a spell on them, Paul says. "Who has bewitched you?" What has so blinded your eyes that you are missing something that should be so obvious? He's using hyperbole, of course. He didn't really think they were under the power of some evil magic. But, frankly, he says in effect, that's the only benign explanation for your confusion about these things.

      They certainly ought to have known better. Paul himself had taught them better. Look at the next phrase in Galatians 3:1: "Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified." In the familiar King James text, the verse says, "before [your] eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you."

      That's an interesting statement. Paul suggests that they are like eyewitnesses who don't believe something they saw clearly with their own eyes because they have been put under the control of a hypnotist.

      Now, don't misunderstand this. Paul is not suggesting that any of the Galatians were actual eyewitnesses to the crucifixion. Christ had not literally and visibly been crucified before their very eyes and in their very midst. So what does this mean?

      Matthew Henry, who is normally a reliable commentator, suggests that this is a reference to the sacrament of communion, and that the ordinance of the Lord's table was a visible picture and reminder of the atoning work of Christ. That seems a bit of a stretch to me. There's nothing in the context to suggest that Paul has the communion ordinance in mind in this verse, and frankly, while it's true that the Lord's Table is a memorial and a visible, tangible reminder of the body and blood of Christ, participating in the sacrament of communion in and of itself wouldn't really be the same thing as being an eyewitness to the crucifixion. While it's true that the elements of the Lord's Table are symbols and reminders of the body and blood of Christ, the breaking of bread and drinking of wine isn't really a vivid portrayal of the act of crucifixion.

      And Paul uses a word here that speaks of the most vivid kind of evidence. It literally means drawing a picture. "Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you." The Greek word is prographo—and it conveys the idea of a large, public, vivid illustration like a billboard. Most modern versions say something like this: "Before [your] eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified." That's the New King James Version: "clearly portrayed." The New American Standard Bible says "publicly portrayed." I'm using the English Standard Version, which likewise says, "publicly portrayed." The stress is on the clear, open, public portrayal of the crucifixion. One translator coined the expression "publicly placarded" "before your very eyes Jesus Christ was publicly placarded among you as crucified." It was as if a graphic picture of Christ crucified had been posted on a billboard or shown on a movie screen in the sight of all the Galatians together.  And not just once, but repeatedly. That's the idea of the verb here.

      And I think this is absolutely clear: Paul is making a reference to his own preaching of the gospel in their midst. Remember his own words to the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 2:2: "I determined not to know any thing among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified." And here's how he described his own gospel preaching in 1 Corinthians 1:23: "We preach Christ crucified." And here in Galatians, in the final chapter, verse 14, he says, "Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ." The cross was the single, central focus and substance of the gospel Paul proclaimed. And I am convinced that when he said that he was not suggesting that his gospel preaching consisted of a narrative description of the crucifixion-resurrection event itself. It included that, but that by itself wasn't the gospel. The gospel is Paul's explanation of the meaning of the cross—the significance of Christ's atonement. Listen to Galatians 6:14 again, this time the whole verse: "Far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world."

      Or Galatians 2:20, and a verse we have looked at together once or twice: "I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me."

      To put it as simply as I know how, the heart of Paul's message was this: The cross was a substitution, where Christ bore our sins and suffered the full penalty of our guilt on our behalf, and His resurrection is the proof that God accepted that sacrifice, so that we now participate in the resurrection life of Christ. Justification is not merely a future reality that hinges on what we do in this life. For the believer, united with Christ, justification is a past event, complete, unalterable—the guarantee that eternal life is our present possession even now, as we look forward to the full outworking of it.

      And if you set aside that truth in favor of a message about something you must do to participate in the covenant, you have in effect abandoned the true gospel in favor of the law, which could never save. That's the very truth Paul stated at the end of chapter 2: "I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose."

      The gospel itself is a message all about the perfect freeness of salvation in Christ. Justification is not something we can earn, and therefore it is not about what we do. And if it's not about what we do, it has nothing in common with the message of the law. Don't confuse the gospel with the law, Paul is saying. Remember how you were saved. I have one question for you, he says (v. 2): "Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?" What did you originally believe? Was it the law or the gospel? How was it that you received the Holy Spirit? Was it by obeying the law or believing the gospel?

      It's a pretty basic question, and it's designed to get them to reflect on the power of the message that brought them to faith. They were in danger of forgetting the gospel in their zeal to accommodate this other message—a different message—which was straight our of the law.

      Now, here's an important point to understand before we move on to the next point, and I want you to keep this firmly fixed in your thinking as we move through the rest of Galatians. Because starting here and continuing through the rest of the book, Paul sets up this antithesis between law and gospel. It's a crucial antithesis, and it's important to understand what he is saying. Several of the trends in today's theology that concern me all have this in common: they want to blur the line between gospel and law. Some have even denied that Paul made any antithesis between law and gospel. I don't see how you can make any sense of this passage at all unless you recognize that antithesis. It's clear, and it will become even more clear to you as we work through the rest of the epistle.

      However, in making that antithesis, Paul is not saying that the law is inherently evil. He deals with that clearly in Romans 7:7: "What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means!" May it never be! Certainly the law is not sin. It serves a good purpose. As a matter of fact, it has several good purposes. It eliminates every option we have for salvation except Christ, and is thus a schoolmaster that leads us to Him. It teaches us what evil is, and therefore its moral precepts—as distinguished from the ceremonial aspects—its moral content is a sound rule of life for believers. When Paul says (as he does in Romans 6:14) that we "are not under law but under grace," and when he says in Galatians 5:18 that "if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law," he is not suggesting that the law itself is irrelevant to how Christians live. He is not denying that the moral precepts of the law apply to us—as if it didn't matter whether a Christian followed the principles of the Ten Commandments. What he's saying is that the law is not a means of justification. The law's ceremonies are in no sense instruments by which we gain entry into the New Covenant or lay hold of justification. It is in that sense that we are not under the law, and it is in that sense, and that sense only, that the law is antithetical to the gospel.

      So that's the first contrast, and it is a careful distinction between law and gospel. Here's a second contrast you need to see. It's the distinction between—


2. Flesh and Spirit

      Verse 3. He's still using the blunt language, pointing out their unbelievable and inexcusable foolishness. "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?"

      Now the argument here is pretty simple. If you laid hold of salvation by simple faith in the very beginning, why would you abandon the simplicity of faith in Christ the first time someone comes along and suggests your faith isn't enough? Start adding requirements to the gospel after the fact, and you have in essence abandoned the gospel itself and adopted a different message.

      Or to put it in other terms that are relevant to some of the postmodern errors, if simple faith in Christ is the instrument of justification at the beginning, by what twisted rationale would you make something other than faith necessary for "final justification?" If you can trust Christ alone for justification, why would you put your trust for the rest of salvation in anything you do for yourself?

      Here's an illustration that might help you understand why Paul's language is so harsh-sounding:

      A couple of years ago, Darlene and I took a ship from Seattle to Alaska. We got on the ship, and simply trusted it to take us there. One night into the voyage, the seas were rough and half the people on the ship were seasick. Now I'm not prone to seasickness, but the ship was heaving up and down enough to cause me to examine the wisdom of trusting such a heavy husk of metal to get me all the way to Alaska.

      Now I'm not really this stupid, but let's just suppose—imagine, if you will—that I decided I could no longer trust the ship to get me to my destination. I wanted to get to Alaska, and plant my feet on solid dry ground. And so I go to Darlene and announce in all seriousness that I'm scared to be on this heaving ship, so I'm going to get out and swim the rest of the way to Alaska. What do you think she would say to me?

      "Are you nuts? Have you utterly lost it? What makes you think you could ever swim under your own power and in your own strength all the way to Alaska? That's insane! And especially in rough water! You trusted this ship enough to get on it. Don't even think about getting off now. That's suicide!"

      That is exactly the spirit of Paul's message to the Galatians. Having received the Spirit of God by faith, and having begun the Christian on that basis, why would you ever abandon the Holy Spirit and try to manufacture a self-made legal righteousness instead?

      Someone might say, "OK, I won't abandon ship completely, but I need to help this ship reach it's destination. So I'm going to jump in the water at the back and hang onto the ship while I paddle-kick and help push it toward Alaska. I'm going to keep trusting Christ, but just in case, I'm going to do all the legalistic stuff, too." And you know what? That's still just totally insane. If you think there's additional "stuff" you need to do to add your own merit to the work of Christ, you aren't really trusting Christ at all.

      In practical terms, the Holy Spirit is the seal and the guarantee of our covenant membership. In 2 Corinthians 5:5 and Ephesians 1:14, the apostle Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as "the guarantee" (or in King James language, "the earnest)" or the down-payment—the security deposit and collateral—of our final salvation. In the words of the apostle John, 1 John 3:24, "by this we know that he abides in us, by the Spirit whom he has given us." Paul always taught this, and you can be sure he had taught it to the Galatians as well. They were dead wrong to dream about giving up their confidence in the Spirit of God, who is the one true, living guarantee that we are in the covenant, and depend instead on an obsolete fleshly symbol from an obsolete covenant.

      So the expressions "flesh" and "spirit" here are shorthand for circumcision, which is a fleshly emblem of an old covenant, and the Spirit of God, who is the living, spiritual symbol of our membership in the New Covenant.

      So if you're following, we have these contrasts: The first is a contrast between law and gospel; the second is a contrast between flesh and Spirit; the third is the most important contrast of all, because it's the one that sums up and explains the others. It is a contrast between—


3. Works and Faith

      Verses 4 and 5. Paul continues questioning them: "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?"

      Now, there are two things in verse 4 that are significant and I want to explain. The first has to do with the word "suffer." I don't think he's talking about literal suffering or persecution here. Nothing in the context suggests that, and if he was talking about trials, hardships, persecutions, or afflictions that were being inflicted on them—if they were truly victims of any suffering, and Paul was referring to that, it would be totally out of character for Paul to bring that up in a context where he was actually scolding them.

      But he's using this expression idiomatically to speak of their experiences in general: "Did you [experience] so many things in vain? In other words, "All that you have gone through since you believed the gospel—was that all in vain?" This is an appeal to their experience. He wants them to remember what a dramatic difference Christ has made in their lives.

      A second thing I want you to see: He doesn't believe it was in vain. This little sentence fragment is really a parenthetical idea Paul tosses in here to let them know he has not written them off completely. He can't bring himself to believe that all the gospel ministry he had labored for in their midst was utterly and completely in vain, as if they had never truly believed the gospel in the first place.

      Then verse 5 makes the key contrast: "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?" You won't hear me say this very often, but here's a place where I actually like how the text is translated in the New International Version. It makes a good paraphrase for this verse, anyway, even if it's a looser-than-literal rendering of the Greek words. Here's what it means. This is the simple sense of the text:  "Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?"

      That's the bottom-line question. It's a contrast between faith and works. Why has God blessed you in  the first place? Is it because you earned His approval with your own legal obedience, or because through faith, you laid hold of His grace?

      Anyone who has ever truly understood the gospel knows that Salvation is a gift of divine grace, not a reward for our works. It is apprehended by faith, not by the works of the law. It is based on what Christ has done for us, and not what we do for Him.

      And that is a major distinction, and a crucial one to get right, because it makes the difference between true Christianity and a false religion like that of the Judaizers.

      That's why the doctrine of justification by faith is so supremely important, and why it is no small issue of theological trivia to confront and refute errors like the teaching of the Judaizers, and all their twenty-first-century counterparts.

      May God give us grace to understand the truth and the wisdom to defend it well. It's clear here, isn't it? I hope you can understand the apostle Paul's passion, and see why he defended so boldly what others in the church thought was just a minor difference of opinion. And I hope you share his zeal for the gospel.

      May we finish as we began—by faith, not by works; through the Spirit, not in the energy of our own fleshly efforts, and trusting completely in Christ, and not the works of the law.