Drawn as we are by a vision of a God-centered life but confronted
by such formidable obstacles as the world, the flesh and the devil,
we are most likely in our human nature to turn first to works for spiritual growth. We are convinced that being spiritual is going to be expensive and it will cost us tons of effort and will power. So we give ourselves “pep talks” and cheer ourselves onward with, “buckle down, tighten up, knuckle down, hunker down, root hog or die” theology of the Nike “just do it” culture.
The problem with Nike theology is that it suffers from spiritual blindness regarding two key perceptions. First, it overestimates our strength and underestimates our weakness. Second, it achieves through effort and will power alone, it does not receive through faith. Sanctification in one sense is as much by faith as justification, and this issue is precisely Paul’s pastoral concern in his letter to the Galatians. It is also true that when one looks at the ministry of Jesus, He never looks for moral achievement but for faith in Himself.
In Galatians 3:1ff Paul is addressing a bewitched congregation, which is by any estimation a very unflattering address. It was at the same time tough love confronting a dangerous situation. The Judaizers (law-driven false teachers) had invaded Galatia with another gospel that was not good news at all. They believed that the way you deal with antinomian culture of new converts was to rigorously apply the Law. The Law would fix or suppress the flesh. Holiness would result. Paul says that their thinking could not be more flawed and wrong headed.
The Galatians had a genuine experience of receiving the Holy Spirit and now were on the way to retrogressing from the Spirit to the flesh. They were moving from faith to works, and from grace back to law. They were opting for a new center of gravity. They were exchanging the liberty of the Gospel for the bondage of the Law. Paul had zero tolerance for tampering with the Gospel. Paul is saying the Galatians have been seduced. I read an interesting and enlightening survey of fundamental, evangelical beliefs a couple of years ago. 84% of evangelicals embrace the saying that God helps those who help themselves. 77% believe human beings are basically good at heart and that good people go to heaven, regardless of their relationship to Christ. 50% believe that self fulfillment is the goal and priority of life. 50% either reject or have a difficult time accepting the concept of absolute truth. Someone was misleading the Galatian church and is now misleading the Church today. At work is the father of lies and the Church must guard and protect the teaching ministry of the Church. Paul had publicly and graphically portrayed Christ crucified to the Galatians and now they were moving away from the purity and heart of the Gospel. They were bewitched and had lost sight of what should be central, Christ and Him crucified.
So Paul goes to the heart of their experience of the reception of the Holy Spirit and in rapid succession fires off six questions—upon what basis did you receive the Holy Spirit, i.e. justification and new life in Christ? Was it by the works of the Law, i.e. deeds done in obedience to the righteous demands of God’s law, or as we might say today, a sincere attempt to follow the will of God? Why was this idea so repugnant to Paul? Because it cast aspersions on the sufficiency of the Person and work of Christ. It was His obedience that merited the gift of the Holy Spirit freely given us by grace. Or was it the hearing of faith, i.e. the Gospel message of Christ crucified creating and generating faith. The bodily organ here is the ear not the hand, passive receiving not active achieving. The reception is not self prompted but is awakened by the preaching of the Gospel. It moves us to resting in Christ, looking outside of ourselves, renouncing our goodness and righteousness, and resting upon the alien righteousness of Christ. These two ways are mutually exclusive ways of relating to God. The greatest danger in the history of Christianity is not antinomianism but moralism and legalism. They are far more subtle, appealing and deceiving than lawlessness or license. This is Paul’s point. Paul argues in verses 3-5 this way. Since you have received the Holy Spirit as a gift and not as a reward for achievements, since you have been saved by what you heard with your ears not what you have accomplished with your hands, have you gone completely crazy? Are you stark raving mad? The question cuts to the heart of the potential we have for abandoning the Gospel. They had begun well, but now had turned back to a different gospel. They had lapsed back into the force field of the gravitational pull of the flesh. Human effort alone, i.e. an independent reliance on one’s own moral strength and accomplishments stands over against a spirit of dependence upon and submission to Christ.
Paul’s opponents argued that his Gospel of Christ and Him crucified was entry-level stuff, insufficient for the higher spiritual realities and the deeper things of God. The gift of the Spirit was merely an initiation into the Christian life, which is vacuous and incomplete until one is perfected by obedience to the Law. Paul warns that this view of spiritual fullness is in reality a step backward into the negative fleshly sphere of self justification and works righteousness. All attempts at higher spiritual life apart from despairing faith is a backward step.
Paul says we go on in our spiritual life the way we began—the hearing of the Gospel creating faith is the way to spiritual power. We do not obey the works of the Law in order to receive the power of the Spirit. We by faith receive the power of the Spirit who enables us to fulfill what the Law requires, i.e. love. Our obedience is not for the Spirit but from the Spirit. The greatest miracle that ever occurred in your life happened without your assistance or effort but was received by faith alone. Do you now think you can go on to fullness through self-reliant obedience to the Law? Faith is as crucial and central to our sanctification as it is for our justification.