In the letter to the Galatian church, Paul pleads for the believers there to cling to the faith that unites them and reject what others have argued as being the most important component to knowing who one is: keeping the law, especially the parts of the law that easily identified the community of God (i.e. circumcision).
Ben Witherington III’s commentary, Grace in Galatia: A Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, argues quite effectively that Paul is using a well-known rhetorical system that leads the audience to deliberate one course of action’s superiority over another’s. In this case, Paul is hoping to convince the believers in Galatia that they already know what they need to know— that they have already experienced the truth that they are being tempted to doubt— and that they are being led backwards in matters of faith, not forwards into fuller maturity.
To do so, Paul uses the Galatians’ own past experience, then appeals to the greatest patriarch in history while also appealing to the Scriptures. Immediately following in verses 15-18, Paul attempts to connect the whole situation with a then modern parallel. At each stage, Paul’s intent is to show them that any turning from faith as the foundation of life with Christ in the Spirit is a fool’s errand.
Paul even calls them foolish. Foolish and the victim of someone’s evil eye! “Just tell me one thing,” Paul says, “when your life with Christ began, did it start with keeping the law or hearing and believing that Jesus is Lord? When God came to you, was it because you did something, or did you simply receive the Spirit by believing what you heard? Why are you making this more complicated?”
The thing that Paul cannot understand is how the Galatians could fall for this trap. When he first presented the gospel to them, they understood it so readily it was as though they themselves witnessed the events of the cross in person. They heard the good news and they believed it. The Holy Spirit’s presence came and made its home in them and none of this happened because they were keeping a set of rules for the religious life. They did not earn this gift from God, they simply received it. As a result, their lives changed as they lived for God as the Holy Spirit had its way in them.
Paul reminds them that the Holy Spirit is at work in their midst is not contingent on their lawkeeping. It seems as though there are new voices in the community telling them that it is important to curry God’s favour by keeping his Mosaic law. But Paul tells them, “The Holy Spirit was at work because you believed in Jesus!” and not because they pleased Jesus with their actions. Righteous living results from believing in God, it does not precede it.
You can’t help but feel like all of this is a circular argument. Paul certainly talks in circles about it. But that’s because the link between faith and works/lawkeeping actually is circular. In both the Old Testament and New, faith and works are deeply connected: “faith without works is dead,” “the righteous shall live by faith,” belief with life-service is superior to law-abiding actions without a faith behind them. Faith circles round and produces works; works point back to a genuine faith. What Paul is saying here and elsewhere is that the circle has to start somewhere, and it starts with the gift of the Holy Spirit through faith in Jesus Christ.
In the new covenant of Christ, it is Jesus who justifies, not the law. And if it’s Jesus who justifies us, then what is required of us is faith and trust in him. Paul goes on to argue that faith in God has always been the starting point— even when the law and circumcision were instituted under the old covenant. Allegorizing from Genesis 15 and 17, Paul argues that Abraham was righteous in God’s eyes because he believed in God even before the covenant marked by circumcision was instituted. Therefore, Abraham is the example of faith and righteousness in relationship with one another: because Abraham was faithful, he kept God’s law. Because Abraham is the father of faith to whom the promise to bless the nations was made, the Gentiles in Galatia who exhibit faith are the seed of Abraham, connected to the old through Jesus and his new way to the Father.
Furthermore, no one can keep the law perfectly- we all, including Abraham, fail. The law curses us with our shortcomings but Jesus fills us with his righteousness. To live freed from the curse by Jesus, we must believe and have faith that that’s actually true.
Let’s face it, using a list of rules as your guide for everyday living rather than basing your life out of a relationship with a living God (i.e. living within the mysteries of faith which requires you to be in conversation with him) can be appealing because it’s seems simpler. “But!” Paul wants to scream, “to do so is to subject yourself to the very thing Jesus died on the cross to save you from doing!” Christ endured the curse of the law so that we wouldn’t have to live under its unending and unyielding yoke. We will never measure up to the holiness standard espoused in the law of God. But Jesus did. He did so for us, and he chose to take on the undeserved curse so that we could be free of it. Instead of living to the law, Jesus made it so that we could live for him. The law is a sorry, unsatisfying substitute for the God who offers himself, Father, Son and Spirit, through the gift of faith.
When the Galatians first heard it, they got it. But now others feel threatened by this new way and are trying to shake them of their firm foundation. Paul’s working even harder to convince them otherwise.
Connecting to our time and place
Paul’s impassioned plea for the church in Galatia to think very carefully about the choices they are making about matters of faith and religious practice are germane to believers everywhere and in every time.
In my own tradition (Reformed), there are still some churches with members who are afraid to participate in the Lord’s Supper because they are unsure of their salvation; they struggle to trust that their faith, which is a gift from God, is real and enough. And what about those who do not feel like they are good enough to be part of the church? What about those who have been told that they aren’t good enough because they are divorced, dressed immodestly, addicted to harmful substances, or marred by some other particular sin? What about those of us who have not had a charismatic union with the Holy Spirit, such as speaking in tongues, and are led to believe that we aren’t full members in the body of Christ? Or on a denominational level, what do we make of the divisions and judgments of who belongs to the “true” church based on specific practices? It is easy to fall into the temptation facing the church in Galatia to let faith in Jesus as Saviour take a back seat to matters of practice.
Anytime we use the law of God, or any other measure for that matter, as the basis for our identity, we’d do well to listen again to Paul’s arguments because God is speaking directly to us. Throughout his letter, Paul is seeking to keep the church unified, not divided. He is worried that this proposed introduction of law-keeping as the key to knowing who the believers in Galatia are is only going to further divide and separate them. As leaders in the church, we’d do well to show the same care.
I live in the Pacific Northwest of Canada, on Vancouver Island. At the time that the church I served was planted over thirty years ago, the city I serve in was the ‘least churched’/most secular in all of British Columbia. I wouldn’t be surprised if it still is. I regularly encounter and talk with people who describe themselves as spiritual, but not religious. Coming from serving in cities where this was not the milieu, I have become even more convinced of how important it is for Christians to hold fast to Christ by uniting under our common faith in him as the church rather than fall into the temptation of highlighting the differences among us. Though my particular set of theological beliefs, how I express it every day as well as what my church’s Sunday worship services are like, can be quite different from the other Christians and churches in this city, I have joined other pastors who have committed to holding fast to what binds us rather than letting these differences separate us as we live and love our city in the name of Jesus. Over the last couple of years, the commitment of church leaders to stand united on the common ground of our faith has resulted in partnerships that would have never happened otherwise. More people are getting enough food to eat, more children are being cared for, there is a stronger voice on matters of justice, and church members all around the city are worshipping together in all kinds of styles more often than ever before.
When I read Paul’s vigorous argument, I feel deep in my bones what he also knew: there will be enough challenges to living with the Holy Spirit in this world, so why add to the struggle by putting back on what Christ has taken away on the cross? Jesus is most important. He gives us faith, we believe and trust. And as we live in reliance and trust in him, the Holy Spirit works in and through us to produce fruit of righteousness, the proverbial proof in the pudding as to what we believe. But to start with the acts of righteousness and never make it back to the root of life with Christ— which is faith— then we’ve made a new kind of legalism, which is the very thing that Jesus put an end to on the cross.
But to trust in something that you aren’t in charge of— which, let’s be honest, is what makes legalism appealing— takes faith.
Our security doesn’t come from keeping rules, but by being hidden with Christ in God. (Colossians 3.1-17). May all that we do come from him, not some set of rules.
Chelsey Harmon is an ordained minister in the CRC currently pursuing a ThM in Spiritual Theology from Regent College in Vancouver, BC.
Sign Up for Our Newsletter!
Insights on preaching and sermon ideas, straight to your inbox. Delivered Weekly!
Faith or Observance of the Law
Galatians 3:1-14 Commentary