Galatians (Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament), Tom Schreiner
Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
The days where people get a job in their 20s and then work it until they retire seem to be behind us. I feel like when I’m asking you all how I can pray for you, I’m always hearing of a possible change in jobs from at least some of you. That means you have to interview for jobs typically, and when you do, you have to rely on something in order to be accepted by that employer. Normally you rely on a good reference, your past job experiences, your skills, your education, maybe even your interview skills. But what if you were applying for a job as a doctor, and you relied on your experience as a roller skater in high school? What if you went to the interview saying, “I know I didn’t go to med school or anything, but I was a really good skater back in the day?” We’d think that’s pretty foolish right? Well, in the passage at which we’re looking today, Paul, the author of the letter, thinks something the Galatians are being tempted to rely on is also foolish. The Galatians had believed the gospel Paul proclaimed, which spoke not of acceptance with an employer, but acceptance with God. In the passage just before this one, he taught that we are accepted by God, or justified to use the biblical word, by faith alone. Yet the churches of Galatia were being taught by other false teachers that they ought, instead, to rely on works of the law like circumcision. Paul says in response, what we’d basically say in response to the person trying to get a job as a doctor on their roller skates: That’s foolish. Relying on works is foolish, and we see four reasons why in this passage: That’s not how you received the Spirit, you already have God’s blessing, those who do are under God’s curse, and Christ already redeemed us from that curse.
That’s not how you received the Spirit
Our passage begins in verse 1 with this statement of exasperation from Paul: “O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” He clearly sees that what they are doing is foolish. He tells us that it was before their eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. We have no record in scripture of anyone drawing a picture of Jesus on the cross for the churches of Galatia though. Instead, we have the record of Paul preaching Christ, and him crucified, to the Galatians. In the subsequent verses we see that the Galatians heard a message with faith; they didn’t see anything. So the way Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified was through the preaching of Christ crucified. As one book title puts it, the Word (that is, the gospel word of Christ crucified) is worth a thousand pictures. So he says the Galatians, “This really happened. You guys have clearly heard the gospel,” and so he asks them in verse 2, did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? The churches of Galatia clearly had received the Holy Spirit, God himself, to come and dwell in them. The Spirit had come upon them in some noticeable way, and we find in chapter 5 that the fruits of the Spirit, that is, the outward evidence of the Spirit’s presence, the things the Spirit produces, are these: Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These things were evidently present in some measure in the churches of Galatia, and Paul asks them how they began to be present.
The answer to the question is clear: It was by hearing with faith. They know from their own experience; we know from the book of Acts, which records the history of the early church. There we see repeatedly that Jews steeped in God’s law, who were circumcised, obeying the food laws, and so forth, did not have the Spirit of God in them. But when people hear the word and believe it, the Holy Spirit comes upon them. So the Galatians clearly received the Spirit by hearing with faith the gospel message, as Christ was publicly portrayed before them as crucified in it. How foolish, then, verse 3 says, having begun by the Spirit, to now seek to be perfected by the flesh.
It would be like having an electric car and getting ready to go on a big road trip. In order to get started, what do you have to do? You have to charge it up. So you get going on your journey, but you realize to reach your destination, you’ll have to charge up again. But instead of going to a charging station, you go to a gas station, swipe your credit card, pull out the gas pump, stick it in your outlet, and pull the lever. That’s foolish, right? Like I don’t actually know, but it sounds dangerous! If you were the gas station attendant and you saw the gas spilling down the side of the car because there’s nowhere for it to go, wouldn’t you want to run out and say, “Hey! What’s the matter with you?! You have an electric car! It doesn’t run on gas!” You can’t begin by electric and then try to reach your destination on gas. And so likewise, Paul says, you can’t begin with the Spirit, and then try to reach your destination, your heavenly home, by the flesh.
So Paul presents two possible paths to perfection. One path is the path of the Spirit, which we progress on by hearing with faith. The other path is the path of the flesh, which we progress on by works of the law. But which of those paths actually leads to perfection is clear from which path we started on. The electric car starts with electricity, and only reaches its destination with electricity. We start receiving the Spirit by hearing with faith, and as verse 4 says, it’s still presently the case that he who supplies the Spirit to us does so by hearing with faith. The way not only for you to be saved, but the way for you to grow, is by the Holy Spirit working in you, and that happens as you hear with faith the gospel message. In other words, you continue in the Christian life as you began the Christian life. As Tim Keller says, the gospel is not just the ABC of the Christian life; it’s the A to Z of the Christian life. It’s not just the diving board that gets you into the pool; it’s the whole pool.
It’s common for Christians even to assume that you are saved by believing the gospel (hearing with faith), but then you grow by your effort. That’s foolish. So Keller again points out that if you’re struggling with anger, you should not simply say: “Lord, I have a problem with anger. Please remove it by your power! Make me gentle.” Nor should you rely on works: I’m going to take a deep breath and count to 10 when I start to feel angry, I’m going to think about all the good things I have in life instead of the things that make me angry, I’m going to avoid talking about that topic that makes me angry. We don’t often think of such things as works, but that’s what they are, aren’t they? They’re things we do, and they’re things any human can do apart from the Holy Spirit. For the highly religious Galatians who reverenced the Bible, the works were circumcision and eating the right foods. For highly secular Americans who reverence “what works,” the works are more like psychological techniques. And they aren’t all bad, just like not all works are bad. But you cannot be perfected by relying on them. They may make you nice, but they won’t make you truly gentle. Relying on them is foolish! They aren’t how you received the Spirit, are they? They aren’t how love, joy, peace, patience, and all the fruits of the Spirit began in your life, are they? So why would you think they’re the ways those same fruits will grow in your life?
Instead, in whatever you’re struggling with, ask yourself, “What aspect of the gospel am I not believing? In what way am I not hearing with faith?” In the case of anger, it may be that you aren’t believing how much you’ve been forgiven. You think you’re a small sinner, while the person you’re angry with is a big sinner, and therefore they don’t deserve the forgiveness you do. But the gospel says you’re so sinful that only Christ crucified could save you! On the other hand, you may believe that you’re a big sinner, but that God hasn’t really been gentle with you. You maybe believe He’s still a little mad at you. But the gospel says not only that Christ had to be crucified for you to be forgiven, it says that Christ was crucified so you would be forgiven! God’s not angry with you, though you deserve his anger far more than that person you’re angry with deserves yours. Hear that with faith, and the Holy Spirit will make you gentle. Do that with your anger, your sexual sin, your covetousness, your cowardice, and so forth.
We could call that the reactive work of growth: You notice a sin, and you put the gospel to work on it to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in its place. But don’t miss what these verses teach us about proactive growth, which is probably even the more common way growth occurs. These verses show us the importance of continuing to hear the gospel and believe it if we wish to be perfected. On a really simple level, this is one big reason you should come to church. I can’t promise you a lot about coming to church. I can’t promise that we’ll address the exact issue you’re facing, I can’t promise to inspire you, I can’t promise that the music will fit your preferences. What I can promise is that you will hear the gospel. I hope, in fact, that in some measure you feel like you come every Sunday and hear basically the same message. That’s by design. In fact, if it doesn’t happen, if even I or anyone else come to you preaching a different gospel, fire us. Because what you and I need most if we are to be perfected is not inspiration, entertainment, or technique. We need to hear the gospel and believe it. Is that what you come to church expecting, and even hoping for? Do you think you don’t still need it? Do you think, “I’ll be fine if a I go a few weeks without hearing the gospel.” That’s foolish. What else are you going to be perfected by? Whatever it is, it’s not how you received the Spirit, and therefore it’s not how the Spirit will continue working in you. Relying on works of the law is foolish because it’s not how you received the Spirit. It’s also foolish because you already have God’s blessing.
You already have God’s blessing
So in verse 6 Paul points out the way God works in us, by hearing with faith, is the same as the way he worked in Abraham—just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Abraham was a significant example for Paul to use, because Abraham was the father of the Jewish people, the one to whom God originally gave the sign of circumcision, and commanded him to circumcise all the males of his household for the generations to follow. So surely he’d be on the side of those who were claiming, against Paul, that you must circumcised to be saved, right? Paul says no, because Genesis 15:6, which he quotes here, doesn’t say, “Abraham was circumcised, and God counted it to him as righteousness,” nor does it say that Abraham did any work that God counted to him as righteousness. Instead, what it actually says, is that Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
So Abraham was counted righteous, even though he didn’t have any good works on which to be accounted righteous. This is the incredible message of justification by faith that we saw last week: God counts us righteous through our believing, even though in and of ourselves, we are not righteous. The false teachers were claiming you had to be righteous in order to be counted righteous, and hence you needed to do the works of righteousness required in the law. And that seems plausible, right? Isn’t that what our flesh assumes? The law and the flesh work great together. It seems intuitive to us, and is really at the heart of all world religions except Christianity, that you can only be counted righteous by God if you are righteous. The good people get saved, the bad people get punished. But that is contrary to the Christian gospel. The Christian gospel says you are counted righteous before you are righteous, and then, because you’ve been counted righteous by faith, as you keep hearing with faith, you become righteous yourself.
And, Paul says, Abraham is Exhibit A of this. So then, verse 7: It’s those who are of faith who are truly his sons, even Gentiles, non-Jews, with no biological relationship to him and no sign of circumcision to mark it. God foresaw this very thing in fact, and so Paul says in verse 8, God, foreseeing that he would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations to be blessed.” That’s a really deep verse that sheds light on the whole story of the Bible, but let me just point out a few things in passing: Notice that verse 8 says the ”Scriptures” preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham. If you go back and look at Genesis, it’s God saying to Abraham, “in you shall all the nations be blessed,” but Paul can say the Scriptures said it because Paul assumes that what the Scripture says, God says, and what God says, the Scripture says. The words of scripture are the words of God. Notice also that Paul calls this the gospel, that in Abraham all the nations would be blessed. We usually think of the gospel as the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, and we’re right to do so. But in Abraham’s day, Jesus hadn’t come, died, or been risen. So the gospel in seed form, as revealed to Abraham, was that in him all nations would be blessed. And Paul sees the fulfillment of that in God’s justifying the Gentiles by faith. That’s the way all nations are blessed in Abraham: People from every nation are justified by faith in Christ, who is the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham. So, verse 9: those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
So Abraham actually believed the same gospel we believe, though it was revealed to him in words that fit his time, and when he did, he was counted righteous, and was thus blessed by God. To be under God’s blessing means that God is fundamentally for you, not against you. If you are counted wicked in God’s sight, you are under God’s curse. I got a letter the other day from a law firm who the PA turnpike commission has apparently contracted to hunt down people with unpaid violations. I had an unpaid violation of 36$ from January 2021 that I didn’t even know about. I was still counted guilty in the sight of the PA turnpike commission, and therefore I was still under their curse: They’re coming after me to get their 36$! In a far more significant way, that’s the condition we are all in before God by nature. But those who believe the gospel, like Abraham did, are no longer in that condition! You have been counted righteous by faith, and therefore you already have God’s blessing! He is for you, not against you! He’s not coming after you to make you pay for the sins you’ve committed. You are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith, if you believe the gospel.
But here’s what happens as you live the Christian life: You realize you’re actually guilty of more sin that you even realized, and you commit new ones. And you know that God pronounces a curse on such things; it’s true, there’s no use trying to deny it. So even though you already have God’s blessing in those times, you feel cursed by God. And so what becomes attractive when that’s how you’re feeling? Do something, and then you’ll feel blessed again. As the false teachers were saying to the churches of Galatia, “Get circumcised, and then you’ll feel blessed.” Sometimes it is religious works like that, right? I feel cursed, so I go to church, I sign up to volunteer at the homeless shelter, I take up the right cause, I read even more of my Bible than normal, I get even more serious about my faith, until I feel blessed. Perhaps more commonly, though, we turn to people to pronounce a blessing on us. That’s why false teachers can be so powerful: They’re here, and they’re cursing us. That doesn’t feel good. But they say if we get circumcised, they’ll bless us, and man, that would feel a lot better. So we do this in religious ways: We confess our sins to a priest and do whatever he tells us so we can hear him say we’re forgiven, or we do it non-religious ways. We don’t feel blessed by God, so we try to feel blessed by our co-workers, and do whatever works it takes to move up the ladder in our career. We don’t feel blessed by God, so we try to feel blessed by a significant other, and do whatever works it takes (lose weight, change our appearance, talk differently, get the best dating profile) to get them to bless us.
And it’s all such folly because if you believe the gospel, you already have God’s blessing! You’re blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith! It may not feel like it, but that’s why you don’t believe your feelings! Abraham didn’t believe his feelings and it was counted to him as righteous. He believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness. That’s who you need to believe when you feel cursed by him. Believe his promise, that all those who believe are counted righteous, though they aren’t righteous in themselves. Relying on works is foolish because you already have God’s blessing if you believe, and then, on the flipside, it’s foolish because those who rely on works are actually the ones under God’s curse.
Those who do are under God’s curse
So verse 10 says that all who rely on works of the law are under a curse. Why? Because it is written that cursed are all those who do not abide by all things written in the book of the law and do them. In other words, if you rely on works, you’ve got a big problem: God requires perfection. So if you get circumcised in order to be counted righteous by God, you aren’t just saying, “Ok; I’ll do this one work in addition to believing just to make sure I’m righteous in God’s sight.” You’re saying, “Ok; I’ll do all the works the law requires to be righteous in God’s sight.” And it’s not like God put that in fine print, like if you sign up to get circumcised, there’s a small footnote that says, “Oh and by the way, now you have to keep the whole law.” God put it right in the Bible, in the same size font as the rest of it. But the false teachers were trying to leave that part out when they told the Galatians they must be circumcised to be counted righteous.
The logic of verse 10, then, is that since the law pronounces a curse on everyone who does not perfectly obey it, and since no one does perfectly obey it, all who rely on works of the law are under a curse. And we know that no one is justified before God by the law, as Paul says in verse 11, because also in the Old Testament scriptures, again even before the coming of Christ, we read that the righteous shall live by faith. Given the connection between this verse and Paul’s discussion of justification, we can see that he’s talking there about eternal life. The righteous will receive eternal life by faith, according to the Old Testament. Now, maybe you say, “It doesn’t say faith alone,” and you’re right. False teachers have tried to use that fact to say, “Yes, we all agree that we’re saved by faith…but you also need to add good works to faith to receive eternal life, to be justified, to be counted righteous.” But the next verse, verse 12, rules that out. The law and faith can’t be mixed, because the law is not of faith! They’re oil and water. Rather, the law says, “The one who does these things shall live by them,” a verse also taken from the Old Testament scriptures.
So again, the Bible itself presents these two paths to us, these two ways to live: Relying on works, in which case you will be justified, counted righteous, and receive eternal life, only if you do those works. The one who does these things shall live by them. And that means you must not just do some of them. You must do all of them. God’s justice requires nothing less. If you choose this path, you must be righteous in order to be counted righteous, and you must not just be a little righteous; you must be perfectly righteous. You must not be able to say what we commonly say when we confess our sins together as a church: That there are sinful works you have done, and good works you have left undone.
Yet it comes so naturally to our flesh for us to assume that if God were to weigh our works, we would receive his blessing, not his curse. That is foolish! There’s just no way you could think that if you really understand what God’s law requires and that God is perfectly just. God’s law doesn’t just require that you make it through life without murdering anyone. It requires that you love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. It doesn’t just require that you believe in Him; it requires that you treasure Him above all else. Do you really plan to stand before his judgment seat one day and pretend that you have? Like, what argument are you even going to make in your favor? That you went to church? That you weren’t as bad as a lot of other bad people in the world? That’s not the standard of God’s justice. Are you going to say, “Well I know I wasn’t always perfect, but…” But what? That’s the problem! If you’re relying on your own goodness, as soon as you admit you weren’t always perfect, the case is closed. If you think otherwise, it can only be because you think God is not perfectly just. You think, “Ah; I’m sure God’ll be nice and look the other way on the stuff I got wrong.” No he won’t. If you come to God on the basis of justice, if you come to God with your works, God will treat you with justice. And if you are still coming to God today on the basis of your goodness, in hope that it’s good enough to deserve his blessing, it’s not good enough, and you are still under God’s curse.
And that curse etches itself on your psyche too, because you know deep down about the sins you won’t admit. You know deep down that for all your professed goodness, you could be better. And you know deep down that even if you volunteer at the shelter, even if you read your Bible, there’s more charity work to do, more money you could give away, more Bible to read. So even when you do those things, you may feel blessed for a moment, but then the curse returns, and you have to do more works. No matter how many boxes you check, more boxes appear. You resent the people who seem to be checking more boxes than you. And you know deep down that even if you could get that boss to bless you, or that significant other to bless you, or those friends to bless you, you’re still under God’s curse. And so even in the times when you do work hard and earn the blessing of others, it’s never enough. You feel the need for a new boss to bless you, a new group of friends, or a new significant other, and so you find you have new works to do. All who rely on works can never rest, because all rely on works are under a curse. That’s another reason it’s foolish to rely on works. But finally, it’s foolish because Christ already redeemed us from the curse of the law on those who do not do all things written in it.
Christ already redeemed us from that curse
If you really think deeply about what we’ve seen so far in this passage, it should create a tension, perhaps even a problem. If God is so just that in order to be counted righteous in his sight by works we must do all things written in the book of the law, how can he count Abraham righteous just for believing? And, for that matter, how can he count us righteous just for believing? I mean, it is true that all of us should love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love our neighbor as ourselves, right? Yes. And it is true that none of us have actually done that, right? Yes. Then shouldn’t all of us be under God’s curse? Yes, and we all, by nature, were in fact under God’s curse. So how then, by simply believing, can we be counted righteous and receive God’s blessing? Verse 13 is the answer.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written—cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” Now we can see why faith is counted as righteousness. It’s not because of any inherent quality in faith; it’s because of the object of our faith: Christ! Christ redeemed us. That word for redeem there was used in the ancient slave market: You’d redeem someone from slavery by buying them from their master. So Christ bought us out of slavery to our master: The curse of the law. Before Christ, it still hung over us like that letter I got from the law firm about my unpaid violation still hanged over me until I paid it. But in this case, we didn’t pay it. Christ redeemed us from that curse by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree. Again Paul quotes from the Old Testament here. In that time capital crimes were ordinarily punished by stoning, but then the bodies of the criminals were hung from trees, “publicly portrayed” as being under the curse of God. So Paul here uses that to explain what was happening when Christ was hanged from the tree of the cross: He was publicly portrayed as being under the curse of God. In that sense, he became a curse for us.
This is one of the key texts teaching the doctrine of penal substitutionary atonement. Penal substitutionary atonement is the doctrine that summarizes the center of what Jesus’ death means. Almost anyone can acknowledge that Jesus died, but what makes Christians Christians is that we confess that Jesus died for our sins. In what sense, though, did he die for our sins? That’s what penal substitutionary atonement explains. It was to pay a penalty (hence penal), which this passage calls “the curse of the law.” The law pronounced a penalty of death on those who did not do all things written in the book of the law. Jesus paid that penalty on the cross, as our substitute, hence penal substitutionary atonement. He didn’t die for his own sins; he’s the only who did all things written in the book of the law! And he did it to atone for our sins, that is, to so pay the penalty that we would no longer have to pay for it. His death really did redeem us from the curse of the law, so that when he said “It is finished” and breathed his last on the cross, the curse of the law against us was also finished. So Christ’s death was indeed a penal, substitutionary, atonement.
That’s why, then, verse 14, the blessing of Abraham could come to the Gentiles. That’s why faith could then be counted as righteousness. It’s not because God chose to be nice instead of just. It’s because God’s justice was satisfied when Christ became a curse for us, and therefore when we exercise faith upon him, we are counted righteous in him, though we are not righteous in ourselves. And then, because we are counted righteous in God’s sight, because we are no longer under his curse, we can receive the ultimate blessing, with which verse 14 concludes: We can receive the promised Spirit through faith. So Paul comes full circle to where he began. The Galatians knew through their experience that they had received the Spirit by hearing with faith, not by works of the law, when Christ was publicly portrayed before them as crucified. Now Paul explains why: Because Christ redeemed them from the curse of the law when he was crucified by bearing the curse in their place, in order that they might be counted righteous by faith, like Abraham, and therefore receive the ultimate reward: God’s very Spirit to live in them, bringing them into unbreakable communion with God, life that will never end, and producing in them love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Why would you, then, rely on works? However cursed you may feel, you don’t need works to redeem you from that curse, whether the works you do that you think will please God and earn you his blessing, or the works you do that you think will please others and earn you their blessing. Christ already redeemed all those who believe from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for them, and he rose again from the dead, proving that the curse was truly broken. Keep relying on works, keep trying to convince God, yourself, and others that you really are good enough, and you will remain under a curse. Believe in Christ, trust God’s promise of blessing in him, and you will receive God’s blessing by faith alone in Christ alone. To you who already believe, you already have God’s blessing! You’ve been counted righteous when you weren’t righteous. The Holy Spirit is in you, and you know you didn’t receive Him by works of the law, but by hearing with faith. So don’t buy the folly of now relying on works. Keep hearing the gospel with faith, and through that, the Holy Spirit will produce in you fruit that leads you to put sin to death and, yes, to do good works. But to rely on those works is foolish. Rely on Christ, both to be counted righteous in God’s sight, yesterday, today, and forever, and to be perfected in God’s sight in the end.