Text: Galatians 3:1-18
Tom was a world-class athlete. He had reached the pinnacle of his sport by talent and sheer hard work. But in order to make sure of that Olympic medal, that world record, that number one spot, he started taking performance-enhancing drugs. Result: a ruined reputation.
Kevin and Julie had fallen deeply in love and in due course got married. After a while, the Julie announced to Kevin, “Darling, I love you very much and of course I trust you absolutely. However, just to be sure I’ve been paying a private detective to follow you around for the past two months. I hope you don’t mind.” Result: a spoiled relationship.
Arthur boarded a plane, waited until it was airborne, and then announced: “Thankyou very much, but I think I’ll get out and walk from here.” Result: a rather nasty mess on the pavement.
Well, that’s three increasingly absurd examples. But here’s the point: We sometimes talk about ‘beginning as we mean to go on.’ But it’s often just as important to ‘go on as we began.’ If we do not, the results can be disastrous.
Such, you may recall, was the problem in Galatia. Certain trouble-makers had been teaching that faith in Jesus Christ was all very well and good. But in order to be fully signed-up as a member of God’s family you also needed to adopt certain Jewish practices that were laid down at the time of Moses – kosher food laws, sabbath observance, and circumcision of male believers.
Why did this proposal put Paul in such a strop? Because it undermines the whole basis of our standing before God. We either trust in Christ, or we try to obey the law of Moses. You can’t have it both ways. They don’t belong together. They’re as different as chalk and cheese. They are as incompatible as oil and water.
To seek to supplement faith with works of the law would be, in the words of 2:21, to abandon God’s grace and to render Christ’s death completely pointless.
In our passage this morning, Paul drives two further nails in the coffin of this ‘faith plus law’ teaching. He gives first, an argument from the Galatian’s own experience, and second, an argument from Scripture.
1. The argument from experience
In the first five verses of the chapter Paul invites the Galatians to look back: ‘Remember when you first trusted in Christ. You know that God worked powerfully among you by his Spirit. He didn’t wait for you to you to be circumcised; he did it straight away, as soon as you believed. Why on earth would you now veer off course and continue some other way?’
There are a couple of things I would like to draw out of this.
First, it is clear that the Galatians had experienced the Holy Spirit. There was tangible, observable evidence of the Spirit’s power. He even, in v5, associates the gift of the Spirit with the working of miracles. They knew that they had received the Holy Spirit. There was no doubt about it.
Now, I’m not a card-carrying Charismatic, but I’m not prepared to slide over this text without comment. No doubt some Christians are credulous about the supernatural. They see an angel in every sunset and a demon lurking behind every bush. But I don’t think that the Church of England is over-run with superstition or fanaticism, do you? The problem for most of us is not credulity, but scepticism. We are hyper-cautious and ultra-careful. In fact, our expectations of seeing the Holy Spirit in tangible or extraordinary ways are so low as to be almost non-existent. But Scripture is clear: people should be able to tell whether they have received the Spirit or not.
Second, it is equally clear when they received the Holy Spirit. They received the Spirit at the very time that they believed in Christ. Down the years, some Christians have taught a two-stage initiation into the Christian faith. First, you receive salvation from Christ. Then, at some later date, you receive power from the Holy Spirit. Some of the Puritans referred to this second stage as ‘the sealing of the Spirit’, and that fine 20-century preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones adopted this approach too. The early Methodists, following John Wesley, talked about that second stage as ‘Christian perfection’. In the early days of the Keswick movement, there were those who taught that the ‘higher life’ was a separate and subsequent stage in the Christian’s walk with God. Classical Pentecostalism teaches the ‘baptism of the Holy Spirit’ as a second stage, subsequent to conversion.
Now, the spiritual instincts of such teachers were often sound. They looked around at the lack of spiritual power amonst many professing Christians and concluded, ‘there must be something missing.’ But any two-stage doctrine of the Christian life is dangerous, because it can lead too easily to pride, elitism, frustration, disunity. And it is also unscriptural. The clear implication of Paul’s teaching here is that they received the Holy Spirit with power when they received Christ, not some time afterwards. Elsewhere he clarifies that that all believers have been baptised by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ, and that if anyone does not have the Holy Spirit he does not belong to Christ. You cannot be ‘in Christ’ without the Spirit of Christ being ‘in you’. So, it’s never a question of us having more of the Holy Spirit. It is, perhaps, a question of the Holy Spirit having more of us.
All of that arises from Paul’s argument from experience. When the Galatians first believed in Christ, God equipped them with all things needful by his Spirit. There were no further qualifications required in order to be promoted to some ‘higher division’ of spirituality. They just needed to continue as they had begun.
2. The argument from Scripture
But now, from v6 onwards, Paul moves on to a second argument. This is the argument from Scripture. Vital as spiritual experience is, it is to Scripture that the Apostle turns as the final court of appeal.
It is very likely that Paul has the trouble-makers in his sights at this point, and he meets them on their own ground. They might well have argued as follows. “We have Scripture on our side. Trusting Christ is all very well, but you can’t just set aside the law of Moses. It was, after all, God himself who revealed it on Mount Sinai.”
Paul’s answer is to go back to the time before the law was given. ‘Let’s go back to Abraham,’ he says in v6. A very good choice, because the Jews regarded Abraham as the father of their nation. To be a member of God’s family meant being a descendent of Abraham. Now, was Abraham counted righteous before God by observing the law, or by believing God’s promise? Genesis 15 clinches it: ‘Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.’
Now the question is: ‘Who are the true children of Abraham? Who are the true people of God; the true Israel?” Is it those who practice circumcision and other requirements of the law? No. It is, v7, ‘those who believe who are the true children of Abraham’.
Where does that leave the law, then? Paul quotes Deut 27:26, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” The point is that the law demands absolute obedience. It is like a fence intended to contain a pride of hungry lions. It doesn’t matter if it is breached once or many times: the fence has been broken, and the lions are out.
But if the law condemns, what hope is there fore any of us? And now we approach the heart of the matter. Now we can see why, when Paul first preached the gospel to the Galatians, he placarded before their very eyes Jesus Christ as crucified (v1). It was in his death on the cross that ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,’ v13.
We are not, we cannot, be saved by law-keeping. Nor are we are saved by Christ’s example, or even by his assistance, but by a complete exchange. He has taken on our debt and paid it off in full. He has stood our place and borne the punishment that we deserved.
He did this, v14, so that the promise made all those years ago to Abraham might come to all people everywhere, and that through faith we all might receive God’s life-giving Spirit.
Thousands of people hope to get right with God through their own efforts. They suppose that Christianity is a system of doing good, hoping that they will prove good enough for God. I remember as a teenager being asked, “Jonathan, are you a Christian?” My answer was, “Well, I try to be.” It took me another 8 years before I joyfully realised that acceptance with God does not depend on anything that I might try to do. It is not ‘try’, but ‘trust’; not ‘do’, but ‘done’; not ‘turn over a new leaf’, but ‘receive a new life’.
This is how we begin the Christian life, and this is how we must continue it.
There are many outputs that flow from this new life of faith. Paul have much to say about these, as he expands on the role of the Holy Spirit in shaping our lives as Christian disciples. But there are no inputs that we can contribute. None whatsoever. ‘Nothing in my hand I bring. Simply to thy cross I cling.’
This is God’s single plan of salvation for all people, his one way of being counted a member of his family. Promised to Abraham. Accomplished by Jesus Christ. Experienced by all who come to him by faith. Celebrated as we come to the Lord’s table together, and feed on him in our hearts by faith.