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“O Foolish Galatians!”

Galatians 3:1-9
Bob DeGray
February 18, 2018

Key Sentence

The cross, the Spirit and the word all point to salvation by grace through faith.


I. The Witness of the Cross (Galatians 3:1)
II. The Witness of the Spirit (Galatians 3:2-5)
III. The Witness of Abraham (Galatians 3:6-9)


In 2002 there was a scandalous murder case that riveted the nation It involved a man named Scott Peterson and the death of his wife Laci and their unborn child. On Christmas Eve 2002 Scott Peterson of Modesto California, according to his testimony, used the day off to go fishing. When he returned his wife was missing. He thought she was at her sister’s. When he discovered she wasn’t there he and the family launched an intense, initially fruitless search.

But Scott Peterson quickly became the focus of the investigation, partially because he was reportedly the last to see Laci, and partially because it soon became clear he was having an affair and had told the other woman weeks before that he had been married but that his wife had died. In April of the following year the bodies of his wife and the unborn child washed up on a California beach, but no cause of death could be established. So Scott Peterson went to trial, and he was sentenced to death and he’s on death row today.

The case continues to draw attention, with many books and documentaries on both sides of the issue, his innocence and his guilt. According to at least one of the Scott-Peterson-isn’t-guilty arguments, the police didn’t take certain witnesses seriously. That’s what drew my attention, because this morning, in Galatians 3:1-9, we learn about three witnesses to God’s grace: the cross, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God. Paul wants us to take these witnesses seriously.

So in the Scott Peterson case, this theory says there was a classic mysterious white van in the neighborhood, and that the house across the street was robbed. This van and three men were seen by a neighbor, a witness. But the police said the house was actually robbed after Christmas, at 6:30 am on the 26th. That was disputed by a witness who was at the house at that time, a news reporter who was filming right in front. He says “the house couldn’t have been robbed at that time.” Furthermore, the police theory is that Scott took Laci with him that morning, out on the boat, and dumped her body. But there are supposedly 11 witnesses who saw her walking the dog that morning.

Now I don’t know who is right in this case, but I do know you have to take witnesses seriously. In the case of grace, God accused of saving people by grace alone through faith alone, you have to take the witnesses seriously. If you do I think you’ll find God is guilty of doing this grace thing, saving us through Jesus. The cross, the Spirit and the word all point to salvation by grace through faith. We’ll read the whole text, but then look at the witness of the Cross, the witness of the Spirit, and the witness of Abraham’s faith as testified in God’s word.

Galatians 3:1-9 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—6just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? 7Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 8And 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.” 9So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Verse 1 is the witness of the cross: O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. This is the first time since chapter 1 that Paul has addressed the Galatians by name. Here it is by the impersonal term "Galatians" rather than by the word "brothers" he used earlier and is prefaced by the word ‘foolish.’ Paul is saying that their embrace of the works of the law is irrational. The word used is not moros, used often in Christ's parables and referring to one who is mentally deficient and so stumbles into moral error or spiritual lethargy. In Galatians the word is anoetos which, in contrast, suggests the actions of one who can think but fails to do so. This kind of foolishness was probably suggested to Paul at the end of the previous chapter, where a doctrine of salvation by works foolishly denies the necessity for grace and makes the death of the Lord Jesus unnecessary. This is what the Galatians were embracing. They were being irrational and self-contradictory. How do you explain this? Paul suggests facetiously that maybe they have been placed under a spell by some magician.

The other reason this Galatian law-keeping is inexplicable is because the true gospel has been so clearly preached to them. Paul is referring to his own preaching, arguing that the gospel had been made as clear by him as if he had posted it on a public bulletin board, or preached in a way that all had to see it. Paul's preaching had been forceful and clear. There should have been no way of misunderstanding. And at the heart of the message, over and over was the fact of the crucifixion. The heart of the gospel must, always, be "Christ crucified." Later Paul will write to Corinth, saying “Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles.” He’ll say “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” It was only by his death on the cross that he put away our sins. To understand that was to understand that no keeping of the law was necessary for salvation.

When the cross is give its rightful place, the idea of the Judaizers that the keeping of the law was an advance on the gospel is shown for the heresy it is. For these Judaizers the death of Jesus on the cross would soon be reduced to useless, an unfortunate tragedy. For Paul it was the heart of the Christian faith.

So the first powerful witness to grace is the cross. If the cross is true all other ways of salvation are false. John Stott, in his great book The Cross of Christ says “There no Christianity without the cross. If the cross is not central to our religion, ours is not the religion of Jesus.” And of the grace of the Cross he says “Christ’s salvation must be a free gift. He ‘purchased’ it for us at the high price of his own life-blood. So what is there left for us to pay? Nothing! Since he claimed that all was now ‘finished’, there is nothing for us to contribute.” The cross is crying out to the Galatians. It’s crying out to you “Grace is true! Your forgiveness is free and full. Don’ try to set up a standard of performance to secure your salvation or to keep it. To do so is to mock the cross.”

The second witness to the preeminence of grace is the Holy Spirit himself. Paul says, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” The thing Paul can’t understand about the Galatian legalism is that it is so totally contrary to their initial experience. How did they begin? Did they receive the Holy Spirit by living up to some formal statutes? Or did they enter the Christian life simply by believing and receiving what they heard clearly proclaimed about Jesus? The form of the question (literally, "This only do I wish to learn from you") suggests that so long as they are in their present confused state, Paul wants only to ask one clear, simple question and force them to give a clear, simple answer. And the presumed answer, the true answer is ‘by hearing with faith.’ Paul will later examine this in Romans, saying “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

Paul also presumes that they did receive the Spirit when they believed. In verse 3 he’ll say “having begun by the Spirit.” You believe in Jesus and receive the Spirit. That’s the New Testament teaching, also seen in Romans 8, Ephesians 1, and numerous other places. They received the Spirit at salvation and they knew it. In verse 5 Paul will point out that the Spirit did miracles among them. One evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence is miracles and provisions that can not or at least should not be explained by mere human circumstances. And this evidence of the Spirit is still among us today. A few months back we saw God save from death a Harvey response volunteer named Jeff, from Chicago. He had what is normally a fatal kind of heart attack, but through prayer and the Spirit’s work he woke up on the way to the hospital and required only a stint to be returned to health. Did the Spirit do that because we obeyed some form of the law or by hearing God’s promises and praying with faith.

But I would affirm that the Galatians also knew they had received the Spirit because he made himself known in their hearts and in the joy of knowing Christ. My own experience 48 years ago and that of countless others is that Galatians 4 is true. Paul will say in Galatians 4:6 that because we’re redeemed from sin we are adopted as God’s sons and daughters and “God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” The Holy Spirit is in us. By him we receive the presence of the Father and the Son. Galatians 5 will teach us that we experience joy, peace and patience and the other aspects of the Spirit’s fruit. Now the fact that Paul has to write Galatians 5, encourage people to live by the Spirit means this experience is not all the time or always as intense. But it is true. We receive the Spirit when we believe. We see him work miracles of many kinds. We experience Him by his loving work in our hearts.

So, verse 3: “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” This is a crucially important question for the Galatians, who are probably saying “yes, Jesus saves and brings Gentiles into the covenant, but you only stay in the Covenant by observing the covenant laws.” Sadly the street level teaching of many Christian denominations and churches falls into this same trap, that you’re saved by grace but you are kept by works, or as Paul says, perfected by the flesh. No. If there is any perfection, that is, any growth in holiness or Christlikeness, it is only by the work of the Holy Spirit as a free gift. Now it’s true that these are cooperative processes. Faith comes by hearing, Galatians 3:2, and we keep in step with the Spirit, Galatians 5:25, but that’s not the same as accomplishing our salvation or keeping our salvation by works. So whenever you hear yourself saying of your inadequate Christian life “I just need to work harder,” it should set off bells and whistles. You and I may need to work harder, but the effort can only come through the Spirit. Paul says in Colossians that he toils with the energy that God works mightily in him. He says in Philippians that God is at work in you both to will and to work for His good pleasure. Zechariah teaches us that it’s not by might, not by power but by my Spirit says the Lord. So having begun by faith, are you now being perfected by human effort? No, it’s by the Spirit.

Verse 4: “Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” Some translations say “did you experience so many things in vain.” The Greek word often refers to suffering, but sometimes to positive experiences. Paul reminds the Galatian converts of the experiences that they had had as they started out on the Christian life. Some of these may have been positive, but we also know that true Christian living is a magnet for persecution and difficulty. As Leon Morris says “a religion of grace, a religion with the cross at its heart and with the gift of the Holy Spirit to every believer, demanded that people live in a very different way from that which was usual in the Roman world.”

That transformation would bring many new experiences, from fellowship and the illumination of God’s word to persecution and suffering. But Paul complains that they had experienced them in vain. If they add the keeping of the Jewish law to what they had learned about the Christian way, they would be nullifying what they' had learned. Paul is clear that salvation by grace and salvation by law are two very different things, and that each of them excludes the other.

But he adds, “if indeed it is in vain.” Despite all that he has heard about the situation in Galatia, and despite the evidence that many of his converts had embraced the legalistic error, Paul cannot believe that it has all been in vain. Perhaps these foolish Galatians will yet come to their senses and continue by faith.

Paul brings the argument full circle in Verse 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?” We’ve already talked about the Spirit’s presence and his miracles. These did not come because the Galatian Gentiles suddenly took up the Jewish covenant. They hadn’t done so until these Judaizers came along. Instead they saw these things as they embraced the Gospel of Jesus through faith.

So the cross is a witness to the grace of God, and the Spirit is a witness to the grace of God, that he saves as we hear the Good News of Jesus with faith. The third witness is the Word of God itself, which teaches God’s saving mercy and grace, embraced by faith. The example Paul uses is one we will become familiar with in the next couple of chapters. It’s Abraham. Verse 6: just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”

Paul wants to show that not only the experience of the Galatians but also the words of the Old Testament support his teaching about salvation by faith. His example presupposes a knowledge of Abraham by even the Gentile Galatians. It’s not hard to imagine how the people of Galatia gained that knowledge. If Paul had preached among them for any length of time, he would undoubtedly have taught Christian theology in part on the basis of Abraham's life. There was also a large Jewish population in the area with which Gentiles would have had contact. There is good evidence that the Jews scattered through the empire already had a great influence on the pagans of Greece and Rome.

On top of all that, the legalists were probably arguing that these Gentile believers must become "sons" of Abraham through circumcision. This teaching would have focused on Genesis 12 and 17 and would have claimed that no one could be blessed by God who was not part of the covenant rituals that accompanied God's promises. They would have insisited that one entered this company solely through circumcision. These arguments Paul encounters head on, arguing that Abraham was blessed through faith, not circumcision.

How, then, did Abraham receive God's blessing? How was he justified? Paul answers, quoting Genesis 15:6, that Abraham "believed God" and that "it was credited to him as righteousness." In Genesis 15 Abram questions God, who had called him out of his homeland and made great promises but not provided him an heir. When he voices this concern God says “your very own son shall be your heir.” 5And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6And he, [Abraham], believed the Lord, and he counted it to him as righteousness.” Abraham did not have a righteousness of his own by which he could claim God’s favor. But when God made these promises, Abraham believed God. By faith he embraced the promises and trusted the one who had made them. And God, not because of righteous things Abraham had done, and not by law-keeping, for the law was centuries in the future, credited Abraham with righteousness. He declared Abraham righteous, and gave him the blessings of right standing and right relationship with God.

Verse 7: “Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” Paul’s opponents claimed that it was their covenant law keeping that made them true sons of Abraham. But Paul says "Since Abraham was saved by faith, his true children are those who are saved by faith, as he was." This verse is important for linking the two covenants, that of the Old Testament and that of the New. Abraham's faith was of the same kind as Christian faith, and had the same result, righteousness. That’s the sense in which New Testament Christians, Gentiles, are sons of Abraham. Verse 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.” Paul quotes the promise of Genesis 12 to show that Abraham’s blessing was from the start intended to include the Gentiles. The gospel promise preceded everything else in God's dealings with his people, including the giving of the law.

If you put the two Genesis verses together you have to arrive at the conclusion that God intended to save the Gentiles by grace and faith, not by law. The law hadn’t been given yet. Again I have to quote Peter in Acts 15, God “made no distinction between us [the Jews] and them [the Gentiles], having cleansed their hearts by faith. 10Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” That yoke was law-keeping. Even the Jews never succeeded at it. “But we believe,” Peter says, “we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” Paul’s third witness to justification by grace is Abraham. But in a larger sense it’s Scripture as a whole. Notice how Paul words this “And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham.”

Paul views the Scriptures as if they were God speaking. Another example is Romans 9:17, in which Paul writes: "For the Scripture says to Pharaoh: I raised you up for this very purpose." As Warfield observes, “It was not, however, the Scripture (which did not exist at the time) that, foreseeing God's purposes of grace in the future, spoke these precious words to Abraham, but God himself in his own person....” These statements could be attributed to "Scripture" only as the result of a habit of identification, in the mind of the writer, of the text of Scripture with God as speaking. It became natural to use the term "Scripture says," when what was really intended was "God, as recorded in Scripture, says . . . " These verses, along with others, highlight an absolute identification of Scripture with the words of God in the minds of the New Testament writers. This is important biblical support for the historical Christian belief, our belief, in the inspiration of the Bible and its authority.

Scripture’s witness to justification by grace through faith is found throughout the Bible. I was struck by this last year when we studied first Jonah and then Micah. In both cases a huge part of what Scripture said was that God is a God of mercy and grace. When Jonah prayed from inside the fish, God have him a second chance. And Micah taught us to say “Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over transgression for the remnant of his inheritance? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in steadfast love. 19He will again have compassion on us; he will tread our iniquities underfoot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea.” In Abraham’s example and in myriad other ways the Word witnesses to grace and faith.

As I close I just want to encourage you to believe the witnesses. Imagine that you are in a courtroom, and the case for grace is being tried before you and a jury of your peers. And the opposition calls out their witnesses. A four-year-old who says, as four-year-olds almost always do, that what you need to do to get to heaven is just “be good.” A Muslim cleric who swears by Allah that if your good deeds outweigh your bad, you will be in Paradise. And your neighbors, some Catholic, some Protestant, some Mormon, who ridicule the idea that works have no role to play in your salvation or in your sanctification.

But then the defender of grace puts his witnesses on the stand. Witness one is the cross. John Stott says “I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross. The only God I believe in is the One Nietzsche ridiculed as 'God on the cross.' In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it? I have entered many Buddhist temples in different Asian countries and stood respectfully before the statue of the Buddha, his legs crossed, arms folded, eyes closed, the ghost of a smile playing round his mouth, a remote look on his face, detached from the agonies of the world.

But each time after a while I have had to turn away. And in imagination I have turned instead to that lonely, twisted, tortured figure on the cross, nails through hands and feet, back lacerated, limbs wrenched, brow bleeding from thorn-pricks, mouth dry and intolerably thirsty, plunged in Godforsaken darkness. That is the God for me! He laid aside his immunity to pain. He entered our world of flesh and blood, tears and death. He suffered for us.” Then he quotes Edward Shillto “The other gods were strong; but thou wast weak; they rode, but thou didst stumble to a throne; But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak, And not a god has wounds, but thou alone.” The Cross witnesses to grace.

The Spirit witnesses to grace. What could you have possibly done to earn the right for the God of the universe to take up residence in you? To comfort, to guard, to guide, to work in and through you? To produce his fruit in you? What but grace can allow us to call the Father “Abba,” and to call Jesus friend?

The Word witnesses to grace. It reveals a God of justice, but a God who knows that his children cannot fulfill the just requirements of the law, cannot live the righteousness of righteousness. And so, from Genesis to Revelation, from Abraham to eternity God’s words witnesses to his big story of a rescuer who would come and offer himself as a spotless sacrifice. Through him the grace on every page of Scripture becomes manifest in our lives so that we can join the eternal chorus saying “Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, for by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation.” The witnesses have spoken. The cross, the Spirit and the word all point to salvation by grace through faith. What is your verdict?