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Faith Is Not a Work - a study of Galatians 3:1-14

Are we better off harvesting our field with scissors or a combine?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Galatians 3:1-14

Paul builds an irrefutable argument that the Galatians were being extremely foolish by rejecting Paul’s true gospel of grace for the Judaizers’ false gospel of law. In being saved, the Galatians had already begun to experience the blessings of God; why would they walk away from that? Questions we should ask ourselves . . .

You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you? Galatians 3:1

[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]

Getting Started: Things to Think About

The Fruit of the Spirit Is . . . Kindness.

In the New Testament, this word can be translated gentleness, goodness, uprightness, generosity, graciousness. Can you think of a better example of this than what Jesus did for us? I can’t. On a related note, that’s what our Sunday School passage is about. Think everyone might get that hint?

Fun with Logic and Contradictions and Inconsistencies.

I love people. Sometimes our brains just don’t work right. Have you ever realized that you’ve been inconsistent in your thinking? This isn’t about being a hypocrite, this is about realizing that your conclusions or behaviors just don’t make any sense when you stop and think about them (Lucy’s character was always full of those kinds of contradictions).

Sometimes these can be funny. Here's a gallery of signs that might spark some ideas about how we run into inconsistencies all the time (the funniest part is that not all of the signs are doctored, but they all make me laugh):

Here’s the point. In our passage, Paul points out a clear and logical fallacy in the Galatians’ thinking. We scoff at them, but we can do the same thing. How might we try to find errors in our own conclusions, particularly how it relates to our walk with Jesus? How do we obtain the humility to admit we’ve been wrong?

Murder She Wrote. or Encyclopedia Brown.

I love, love, love mysteries. I read all of the Encyclopedia Browns growing up. I still remember one case where the bully tried to get out of being blamed by saying “I was locked in a room and the hinges were on the outside” and then later said “When I heard the thief coming, I waited next to the door, but then it swung open so fast that it knocked me down”. What’s the problem with that story? [You can figure it out!] Aha! The bully was the thief! For a 5th grader, that was mind-affirming logic.

Do you have any favorite mysteries you remember “figuring out” along the way. Isn’t it such a great feeling to see the facts and then draw the right conclusion? Well, the Galatians didn’t do that. Paul reminded them of the very clear facts of the gospel he had taught them during his time there. But then they turned right around and believed the false message of the Judaizers. They should have known better. The facts were clear!

The facts of the gospel are clear (people might not believe them, but the facts are clear). How do people today draw the wrong conclusion from them? (I’m thinking of the counterfeit gospels we talked about two weeks ago—see below for an exercise you can use to tie together the detective theme with the gospel.)


This Week's Big Idea: What Makes Christianity Unique?

There are lots of religions out there. Most of them believe in some sort of god. Most of them have a holy book of some kind. Most of them have churches and rituals and beliefs about the afterlife. But none of them is quite like Christianity. Why? What separates Christianity from every other religion? The background is simple: all of those other religions are people trying to find their way to God. Only in Christianity does God Himself condescend to humanity—so of course it’s unique! God’s truths are always so much more compelling than anything a person could create.

First, the resurrection of Jesus. While other religions have people who have been raised, only in Christianity is the resurrection of its founder the actual crux of the entire system.

Second, the nature of God. Only in Christianity do we realize that God is triune. Try making that up!

Third, the basis of salvation. In every other religion, people have to do something in order to receive access to “heaven” (or there is no heaven). Only in Christianity is salvation by grace alone through faith alone. No other religion is even close. That’s the heart of our passage this week, and it also explains why Paul was having such a hard time getting the Galatians to understand. The truth of salvation runs counter to what people want to believe (and that’s what made the message of the Judaizers so compelling to them). And that’s the whole point. Salvation in Christianity is utterly unique among all religions because people can’t make this stuff up! Only God can reveal that His plan to be right with sinful humans is to send His only Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins, for part of the triune Godhead to become human and die and then rise from the dead, opening the door to heaven.

“Get Ahold of Yourself!”

What’s the most dramatic way you can think of to get someone’s attention? I personally think it’s the famous “smack in the face”. It used to be in movies all the time. Someone’s gotten hysterical, someone’s behaving totally irrationally, someone’s being frighteningly out of character —the protagonist smacks them right in the face in try to “knock some sense into them”. Each one of us can probably think of someone we’d like to do that to.

[Note: smacking people is a terrible idea. It will probably get you arrested. And you’ll lose your job.]

My point here is that if we ever find ourself in this situation, we can take a lesson from Paul. He was dealing with church members who had completely lost what made Christianity unique, who were being led completely astray by false teachers to who-knows-what destination. He really, really wanted to get their attention. But he didn’t do anything physical. Instead, he wrote the “strongly worded letter”.

The language Paul used was about as strong as it gets in those days. I can imagine Paul sitting with his scribe, asking “how can I say this nicely?” So he calls them “foolish” and then proceeds to explain in great detail how they are being fooled. He even uses a witchcraft analogy to get their attention. Most importantly, he places the crucified Jesus in front of them—they aren’t just wrong, they’ve forgotten Jesus.

No yelling, no smacking, no name-calling. Just the truth, strongly worded in love. These days, that’s hard to do. How many disagreements have you had that would have been better if they had just focused on the truth.

Our Context in Galatians

Galatians is one ginormous argument for the simple Christian gospel. Remember the story. In Antioch, Jews and Gentiles started doing church together. This was such a shocking idea that Barnabas and Paul went to Antioch to see for themselves. Things went so well that the church sent Barnabas and Paul on a missionary journey through Galatia where they shared the gospel and planted a number of churches. By the time Paul returned to Antioch (and I believe that Peter also came to Antioch during this time after he escaped prison), hard-core Jews heard about this new arrangement, and they didn’t like it. They started putting pressure on Christian leadership in Jerusalem and sending delegations out to these new churches, including the one in Antioch and the ones Paul planted in Galatia. They successfully sewed discord both at the church in Antioch, and in the churches in Galatia.

Paul’s letter has three main sections:

  1. Paul defends his apostleship (chap 1-2) We’ve covered this section. The Judaizers questioned Paul’s integrity and qualifications. Paul told the Galatians his testimony and gave specific examples defending his place among the Jerusalem apostles.

  2. Paul defends his gospel (chap 3-4) This is where we are now. Paul asks the Galatians to think hard about this law-based gospel they’ve listened to. Were they saved by faith or works? Paul will use the examples of Abraham and Jesus to explain why he is right. He will end with an appeal to them not to go from freedom back into slavery.

  3. Paul explains life without the law (chap 5-6) The main argument by the Judaizers was that God wants people to live a certain way (i.e. like the Jews). Paul explains that God wants His people to live by the Spirit, not by the law of Moses. And life in the Spirit is much more intense than life under the law.

It’s a very tight, very powerful letter, filled in irrefutable facts and the conclusions that must logically follow them. Frankly, it is hard to understand how anyone could believe one of these counterfeit gospels after reading Paul’s careful argument.


Part 1: The Spirit Confirms (Galatians 3:1-5)

You foolish Galatians! Who has cast a spell on you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning by the Spirit, are you now finishing by the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing—if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law? Or is it by believing what you heard—?

Start with this: "how were you saved?” I know for certain that I wasn’t saved by anything that I did. (Incidentally, this is also how I know that I cannot lose my salvation—see below.) So why would I all of a sudden start believing that God’s grace actually isn’t sufficient for salvation and that in reality He wants me to do a number of things in order to be saved? That makes absolutely no sense! To snap them out of their daze, Paul uses some strong, attention-getting language. Most importantly, he focuses on Jesus. Earlier, Paul made it clear that if salvation could be by works, then Jesus didn’t have to die. But Jesus clearly did die! So . . . What? Did God sacrifice Jesus needlessly?

And if that wasn’t enough, Paul then reminds them that it was never something that they did to receive the Spirit; they simply believed Paul’s message. Do they think they are better or stronger than the Spirit of God that they must continue to course in their own strength? This would be like a solider saying “That armor I’ve been wearing, I don’t need it. It’s just been slowing me down. I’m not going to wear it any more.” Or a quarterback saying, “Those teammates of mine, they just hold me back. I don’t need them. I can win by myself.” Either of those ideas are insane. And that’s basically what the Galatians were saying. Having experienced life in the Spirit and the blessings of God, now they were just going to move on? It’s the same incredulity the prophets had about the Jews in the Old Testament. (Psalms 104-106 summarize this well.) Paul says that God continues to work miracles among them (those miracles could be the inward transformation).

There are two great questions to follow this section: (1) What are ways we try to earn our salvation even after we know we’ve been saved? And (2) How do we know if we’ve received the Spirit (know we are truly saved)?


Aside: Can You Lose Your Salvation?

I believe this passage helps explain why Baptists and others believe that a Christian cannot lose his or her salvation. If we had nothing to do with being saved in the first place, why would we think we can have anything to do with maintaining our salvation? Think about that. Where is grace if you can lose your salvation? Unfortunately, some Baptists came up with the phrase “once saved, always saved” which made salvation something like a license to sin, but the idea is still true, and for all of the reasons Paul explained in our passage.


Bonus Aside: Witchcraft in the Roman Empire

You might find this interesting. Pliny the Elder, who was a Roman commander during Paul’s lifetime, wrote “There is no one who is not afraid of spells.” Folk religions (worship of pagan gods, old Egyptian cults, etc.) all claimed access to magical powers—think of the examples in the Old Testament. For the ruling parties in Rome—an elite class of powerful men—the only threat to their power was the threat they could not see or control, like a magical spell. On the possibility that someone could really cast a spell on them, Roman rulers routinely executed people who might be dabbling in the occult. As you might expect, most of the accused were slaves and women, people who otherwise had no power in the Roman empire. The caricature of the old hag with a bubbling cauldron and “eye of newt” goes all the way back to before Paul’s day, and men were truly afraid of such witches.

In ancient Greek plays, witches were satirized, so not everyone was afraid of them. Paul certainly wasn’t. His casual reference to witchcraft being done on the Galatians was designed to get the *gasp* effect, but Paul knew (though he believed in the power of demons) that no witch was stronger than the Holy Spirit or a threat to a saved soul.


Part 2: Abraham Believed (Galatians 3:6-9)

just like Abraham who believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness? You know, then, that those who have faith, these are Abraham’s sons. Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and proclaimed the gospel ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you. Consequently those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith

Now Paul brings out his strongest argument (one that he will expand in Romans), Abraham, the Jewish father, was made right with God before there was a law of Moses (or even before he was circumcised!). That’s the story from Genesis 15—Abraham asked God how he would become a great nation considering he had no children, God said Abraham would have a son, and Abraham believed God. Did Abraham earn salvation by the work of his belief? No, his belief demonstrated his right relationship with God; God decided that such belief should be counted/considered as righteousness. (Note: this is one situation in which people who believe in predestination have a cleaner argument—”God predestined Abraham to be saved, and that’s why Abraham believed.” I have to argue for a mysterious cooperation between Abraham and God’s Spirit.) Paul’s point is that the Galatians’ experience mirrors Abraham’s. Before they received any law, they heard the message of Jesus and believed it, and God credited it to them as righteousness (being right with God). It was always God’s plan to save anyone in the world through faith—just as Abraham had faith.

I don’t have room to spell this out, but create a short biography of Abraham. Was he perfect? Did he make mistakes after Genesis 15? Do we believe he is in heaven now? What can Abraham’s life teach us about our own life and relationship with God?


Part 3: Curse Demands (Galatians 3:10-14)

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written, Everyone who does not do everything written in the book of the law is cursed. Now it is clear that no one is justified before God by the law, because the righteous will live by faith. But the law is not based on faith; instead, the one who does these things will live by them. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, because it is written, Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. The purpose was that the blessing of Abraham would come to the Gentiles by Christ Jesus, so that we could receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Here is where Paul’s argument becomes irrefutable. The word “cursed” essentially means “doomed”, and that’s in the most frightening sense of the word. By attempting to keep the law, a person is automatically bound to “play by the rules” of the law. And those rules are that if you fail even once, you are under the curse of God. And you will fail. Why would anyone choose to play by a set of rules under which they know they would lose? Have you ever heard the phrase “the house always wins” or “the home team in Russia always wins”? The Galatians’ were being intergalactically foolish by believing they could win under those conditions. No. Because no one can live by the law, the solution is to live by faith.

Christ opened the way of faith by taking on the curse that God put on us for our failure to live perfectly. Deut 21:23 pointed ahead to the kind of death Jesus would die—by being crucified, Jesus fell under the curse (he did not bring God’s curse on Himself). By taking our curse on Himself, Jesus “bought” our souls from damnation. Our curse demanded a price that we could not pay, meaning that we would suffer separation from God for eternity. Jesus paid that price. (To whom? Not to the devil, and not even to God, but rather metaphorically to God’s justice and holiness. Sin cannot be in the presence of a holy God.) Now, in order to receive the blessings of righteousness, all anyone has to “do” is believe. And as I said earlier, we can only “do” that with the help of the Holy Spirit.

And then Paul wraps it up with a bow: the very reason Jesus came to the earth, lived a perfect life, and died under God’s curse was so that all peoples in the world could finally receive the blessing God promised to Abraham 2000 years before. Look closely at this verse: What is the promised blessing given through Abraham? Not eternal life, but the Holy Spirit. Eternal life is the byproduct of the true blessing, the Spirit.

Conduct a little experiment: what are the blessings of being saved? I just wonder how long it will be before someone mentions the presence of the Spirit. In Baptist life, we seem to take the Spirit for granted, but in reality, the Spirit is the source from which all of God’s blessings flow. Close with an illustration like this one: “You have been given one day to harvest your very large field. You can do it by hand or you can use a combine. Which do you choose?” Come on, easy question, right? The Galatians choosing the law was trying to do that by hand. But we also make that choice when we try to live day by day in our own strength! The Spirit is God’s daily blessing to us!


Aside: Is Putting Faith in Jesus a "Work"?

When you ask questions like “what did you do to be saved?” The “correct” answer is “I didn’t do anything—it was a gift from God”. But the answer you will likely get is something like “I trusted in Jesus”. Which is also correct. But put in that way, it sounds like a work, or something I had to do in order to be saved. After all, if we don’t trust in Jesus, we won’t be saved, right? That can be kind of confusing. So how is putting our faith in Jesus not a work that we do?

Here’s the best way I can explain it: trusting in Jesus isn’t something that we do at all. Huh? What I mean is that we cannot choose on our own to trust in Jesus. Jesus said that no one can come to salvation unless God draws that person (John 6:44). And God the Spirit is constantly drawing all people. In other words, salvation happens when we stop doing something (i.e. resisting the Spirit or trying to work our way to salvation) and let the Spirit work in our heart. Yes, we cooperate in the process, but we cooperate by not working. Does that make sense?


Closing Thoughts: Revisiting Counterfeit Gospels

Here is a summary of the list of counterfeit gospels from Trevin Wax:

  • Therapeutic Gospel: Church is about making us feel happy.

  • Formalist Gospel: Church is about checking off rules.

  • Moralist Gospel: Church helps us be better people.

  • Judgmentless Gospel: God will forgive everyone.

  • Social-Club Gospel: Church is about relationships.

  • Activist Gospel: Churches need to unite around causes.

  • Churchless Gospel: Salvation is purely individual.

  • Mystic Gospel: Church helps me feel close to God.

  • Quietist Gospel: Salvation is about individual life change.

Those gospels sound just true enough that people can be fooled by them. So here’s a project: pick one or two of them and analyze them in the light of the facts of the gospel as presented by Paul in our passage. Divide up into teams and get your Matlock on!

I’ll take the first two as an example.

  • (Therapeutic) We can look at the lives of the two people Paul focuses on—Jesus and Abraham—and know that they were not “happy” in the sense this gospel preaches. They were fulfilled, they were blessed, and they were a blessing to others, and that’s what “happy” means in the Bible—realizing that life isn’t about us at all, but what we do for others. In other words, this gospel misunderstands what a fulfilled life truly is.

  • (Formalist) This is basically the Judaizer heresy that Paul was attacking in our passage. Remember, people want to have control over their destiny—they don’t fully trust “grace”. Plus, we know there should be evidence of our changed life. But behavior follows salvation; it does not cause it.


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