You foolish, idiotic, imbecilic, stupid, air-headed Galatians. Not exactly the way to make folks feel good about themselves. But with those “shake someone by the collar” kinds of words, Paul challenges them to examine their path.
Paul writes, “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” (Galatians 3:1–5, NASB95) Up to this point in Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he has been on the defensive; responding to the charges of the Galatians. Now, Paul is on the offensive, desiring to pull them back on the right path.
In Paul’s salvo, he asks six questions designed to challenge their assumptions. He begins with, “who has bewitched you?” Who, dear Galatians, has convinced you to leave the path of Christ and Him crucified? Paul, of course, knows the answer. The question is a wake-up moment. Who are you listening to? Who is manipulating your thoughts, feelings, and choices?
The second question takes them back to their beginning. “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the Law or by hearing with faith?” Did you actively do something to receive God’s grace, or did you simply receive it? The answer is “hearing with faith.” In Romans, Paul wrote, “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ.” (Romans 10:17, NASB95) Hearing something is about as passive an action as is possible. Faith always begins with hearing God’s Word.
The next question is rhetorical and designed to shake them up a bit more. “Are you so foolish?” Paul asks. No one wants to be counted as a fool. But I do not I advise, as a general rule going around calling folks foolish.
The fourth question asks, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” And this is really the meat of the matter. What is the “normal Christian life?” How am I supposed to behave? What things are ok and what things are forbidden? What does it look like to be a “good” Christian? Most Christ-followers will agree that faith begins with grace and it is not a work of the Law. But what follows, how faith is lived out, there’s plenty of contention on that front.
The writer of Hebrews called Jesus the “author and perfector” of our faith. (Hebrews 12:1–2) Author is the creator, the beginning of our faith. Jesus is that. He is also the perfector, the finisher of our faith. We often think like this. By faith in Christ, we have a new foundation, and it is up to us to finish the job. To build a house on the foundation of Christ. In reality, it is Christ and the Holy Spirit who finishes our house. That doesn’t mean that we don’t do things. Of course, we do, but they are acts of love and not works of the Law.
The fifth question deals with their personal history. Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? I honestly don’t know what Paul is referring to. But consider this, our faith in Christ may have cost us something, a friend, a career, family, a habit, or a sin. Was it vain, worthless, to suffer that loss, or did we gain something greater in Christ and His grace?
The final question is, “so then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?” Does God answer prayer through faith or through works of the Law? Does the Spirit nudge, comfort, and guide through hearing with faith or through doing/saying the right things? We can’t “work” God into doing anything. Everything we receive from God is by grace.
It is easy to fall into the mindset of “doing to get” instead of “loving to do.” That pattern of thought that our actions, words, and life-choices somehow earn us points with God. Or that God, in some way, owes us something. It is likewise easy to fall into a set of laws for the “normal” Christian life. The problem is those laws become our assurance of faith instead of what the Holy Spirit is actively doing (or wants to do) in our heart, mind, and soul. And they also can quickly become a weapon of judgment against others.
Paul is challenging the Galatians to “look inside.” What is your faith really anchored to? The ability to act a certain way, to keep the Law, or is it anchored in the grace and love of Jesus Christ. Paul’s words challenge us to the same self-examination of probing our true motives for doing or not doing, saying or not saying everything. Is it out of love, or is it Law?