“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— 6 just as Abraham 'believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness'?
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, 'In you shall all the nations be blessed.' 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” – Galatians 3:1-9
When we hear the phrase “Christ crucified,” what comes to our mind? For many, familiarity has softened its effect. We know it as truth. We believe it. But does it move our heart? As John Stott says of the gospel, “It is not a general instruction about the Jesus of history, but a particular proclamation of Jesus Christ as crucified.” And that’s the message Paul took to the Galatians: Jesus Christ has been crucified! But they turned to works of the law as if it could ever produce the kind of life-changing salvation that faith did.
Paul uses the Galatian's own experience to prove his point. In verse 2, he asks them how they received the Spirit. Was it what they did or what they heard and, therefore, believed? They know the answer. They weren’t saved based on what they did, but by what they heard. The message of Christ crucified changed their hearts. The Holy Spirit entered and saved them. If, then, they began their Christian life by the Spirit, are they going to perfect themselves by works of the law now? If salvation means they have been granted a perfect standing with God, what could they add on top to make God accept them more?
These Galatians are so much like us. God's Spirit saves us through the work of Christ in the providence of God and, afterward, we slip into rule-following as if that’s where the real Christians gain their medal. But when we abandon God’s gift of grace for our effort, it’s a complete disaster.
Paul uses their own experience of salvation and the Bible’s testimony of salvation to press his point further. The false teachers wanted to use Moses and the law God gave him as the ladder to God’s grace. But Paul wants to go back further, to Abraham, and show that it’s not the ladder we climb to God, but the extent God goes to in traveling to us that mediates his grace.
Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6. Abraham had just received the covenant promise from God. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5). Abraham was an old man, far beyond childbearing years. His wife, Sarah, was just as old. But Abraham looked at his circumstances and at the promise of God and trusted God’s promise. That’s faith.
Faith is seeing beyond the outward appearances to the object of God standing behind it all. That’s how we’re saved. We can’t atone for our sins. We must trust that Christ atoned for them on our behalf. We can’t reconcile ourselves to God; we must believe that God has reconciled us to himself in Christ. We can’t change our heart; we must believe that the Holy Spirit has been given to us and is transforming us from one degree of glory to another. That’s what Abraham did when he believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
Faith has always been God’s method of salvation. And God has always been growing his faith family. That’s why Paul says in verse 8 that all the nations will be blessed because of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that the Gentiles would come to faith in Christ, and Abraham became their father. The blessing of God is not found in obedience to the law, but in faith in Christ. Once we have the blessing, then we can obey with a purified heart, which means we’ll obey as pleases God.
The false teachers in Galatia thought the way to please God was to combine God’s law with God’s gospel. But what God has filled up in the gospel, let no man empty with the law. That is not to say we should not obey. Paul never promoted disobeying God. But Paul also never (in his Christian life, anyway) advocated coming to God based on our merit. What Paul preached was Christ crucified, not Christ crucified plus works of the law. The gospel produces obedience, but obedience never produces the gospel. When the gospel comes first in our message, obedience flows from it. When obedience comes first in our message, the gospel becomes a side dish, rather than the entire meal.