One of Paul’s favorite subjects in his writings is the relationship between the law and faith. Having come from a background of Judaism and the life of a strict Pharisee, Paul regularly engaged former Jews in other ways of thinking to understand how the Gentiles were also heirs of Abraham. To this end, he discusses in Galatians the purpose of the law and obedience, highlighting what it means to live by faith. Paul does this by appealing to the life of Abraham, as the premier example of Old Testament faith.
The problem for the Galatians, led on by false teachers, is that they forgot about faith and the Holy Spirit in their efforts to follow Christ and began to rely on their own performance of the law to save them. In the passage we will look at this week, Galatians 3:1-14, Paul contrasts the difference between living by the Spirit and the flesh. “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3b) As Christians, it is easy to slip into various forms of legalism in our effort and desire to follow God. When true worship is replaced by human efforts to meet the Divine commandments, we can be deceived into thinking it is our efforts and performance that God wants from us.
Paul addresses the Galatians using straightforward language at the beginning of his letter when he marvels that they are turning away from the grace of Christ to a different gospel (Gal. 1:6). However, in chapter 3, Paul says it even more directly, using sharp, heart-piercing language when he writes, “O foolish Galatians!” (Gal. 3:1a). This sounds somewhat disconcerting to those who are familiar with Scripture because Jesus said something once about the danger of calling someone a fool. It went like this: “And whoever says to his brother, ‘Raca!’ shall be in danger of the council. But whoever says, ‘You fool!’ shall be in danger of hell fire” (Matt. 5:22b). In discussing the consequences for murder and being in danger of the judgment, Jesus compares calling someone a fool, as carrying a potentially heavier penalty than even murder. The first part of verse 22 does appear to limit this danger to “without a cause.” Even so, calling someone a fool should not be taken lightly. What led Paul to make such a strong, and dangerous accusation?
In Galatians 3:1, Paul continues his tirade with the insinuation that it is Satan, who has cast a spell over their minds. They are deceived. He writes, “Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified” (Gal. 3:1b) Paul is perturbed by the fact that they seem to have forgotten that Christ died for their sins so that they could live by faith. He emphasizes again, “Are you so foolish?” (Gal. 3:3a) The Galatians are fools for believing, according to the false teachers, that they are being perfected, by keeping the law. It is interesting that Paul points to Satan as behind this mental delusion: the bewitching of their minds. The bottom line for Christians is, how we behave is not going to save us. We must live by faith. The Old Testament, which was the only Bible Paul had at the time, gave examples of saving faith.
In the first half of Galatians Paul identifies Abraham as the father of faith. He does this in order to demonstrate that the Gentiles are the heirs of salvation through the promises that God made with Abraham. Because Abraham believed God and it was accounted to him for righteousness, he became the heir to the gospel message that the gentiles would be justified by faith. The sons of Abraham are also of faith (Gal. 3:7). This includes Seventh-day Adventists too. The Old Testament and the New Testament are not separate gospels. The gospel, the good news has always been that the just shall live by faith. Those living in the Old Testament times looked forward to the promise of the Messiah and we today, along with the Galatians look back at Christ crucified for our sins.
Paul contrasts those who live by faith, as Abraham did, as blessed and those who do not live by faith, by the works of the law as cursed. “So then those who are of faith are blessed with believing Abraham” (Gal. 3:9). But those who are attempting to be justified by keeping the law, they are under a curse: “For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse” (Gal. 3:10a). Why would anyone be under a curse for keeping God’s law? Why would they be likened to having been deceived by Satanic witchcraft for believing that we are saved by what we do in our flesh?
Something to think about: Jesus never praised the Pharisees for their keeping of the law. He never spoke to them, as recorded in Scripture, in any way that indicated that keeping the law made them right with God or put them in a saving relationship with God. Christ said repeatedly to people he met and healed in daily life who came to Him for help, that their faith saved them. To the woman who broke the alabaster flask to pour the luxury perfume on his feet washed with her tears, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 7:48), and “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace” (Luke 7:50). On the other hand, we must be careful not to assume that Christ rejected law because he clearly says in Matthew 5:17 that he came to fulfill the law and the prophets. In other words, Christ came to fulfill the Old Testament. He is the perfect answer and model of saving faith. Without faith, no one can please God (Hebrews 11:6).
It is not our faith, but Christ’s faithfulness, which saves.
Receiving the Blessing of Abraham
What is the blessing of Abraham then? It is based on the covenant God made with Abram in Genesis 12:1-3. God told Abram to get out of his country to a land God would show him and that He would make him into a great nation. God promises He will bless Abram and make his name great and that he will be a blessing. The promise is indeed great because God says, “And in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12:3b). The blessing would potentially encompass the entire human race.
All of these blessings came to Abraham, not based on his works, but by faith. His story gets particularly interesting. Because even though Abraham leaves his country and his father’s house, in several instances he directly goes against the promises that God made to him in his actions and choices. He enjoins Sarai his wife to lie to Pharaoh about their relationship (Gen. 12:11-13) and they both lie to Abimeleh, king of Gerar (Gen. 20:2, 5); he doubts and questions God when it seems God is not acting (Gen. 15:2-3); and he sleeps with Hagar to produce an heir (Gen. 16:3-4). Translate this: faith doesn’t mean we always act in perfect ways or that we don’t sin. Ellen White says that we will often have to weep at the feet of Jesus over our sins and mistakes. Living a life of faith and seeking God for an ever deeper and meaningful relationship with Him is only prompted and sustained by the Spirit of God.
I find this extremely comforting and very good news. We may have doubts and fears, but ultimately it is about what God accomplishes through Jesus Christ. By faith we are saved. Paul summarizes the gospel of Jesus Christ in Galatians 3:11-14:
“But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for “the just shall live by faith.” Yet the law is not of faith, but “the man who does them shall live by them.” Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree”), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.”
There can be only one solution to our doubts and perplexities regarding salvation. Perhaps you are worried that you are not keeping the law. As we saw last week, some Seventh-day Adventists have at times majored in law keeping without understanding the gospel of Jesus Christ. Are you disturbed because someone you know and love is not keeping God’s Ten Commandments? Point them to Christ. We can teach people about keeping the Sabbath “until the cows come home.” We can remind them of the dangers of idols (work, money, houses, cars), or the painful results of adultery (affairs, pornography), or the immorality of lying or taking something that doesn’t belong to us. But no works of the law or flesh can bring us into a saving relationship with Christ through repentance and faith. As Paul says, we begin by the Spirit and continue in the Spirit.
By faith we too may receive the blessing of Abraham. All who accept Christ Jesus, whether Jew or Gentile, may live according to the promises of God, that He made to Abraham. Let’s hope and pray that we are not a ship of fools having lost our way over the truth of the gospel. When we keep pointing people to the law without introducing them to Christ we are in danger of acting in a similar manner to the false teachers, and to Satan, who bewitched them into thinking they were saved by the works of the law. All must fully understand what Christ has done for us by becoming a curse for us in hanging on a cross. Nothing we do can add to this. The price has already been paid. We are called to respond in faith. Then our actions will begin to be in step with our faith, when we trust in God, though it may take a lifetime of walking with Him. To believe as Abraham did, and trust in God’s promises was a blessing and it was credited to him for righteousness. When we exercise faith in God, our bank account is full, and our credit score is complete.