E. The implications of his gospel (2:17–21)

As we saw last time, Paul is keen to move on, and set out the true relationship between the promises and the Law (3:1–5:1). But he could not conclude his narrative without addressing one of the most obnoxious Judaist arguments (2:17–18). Now he concludes by declaring his own great love for the Lord who had given his life for him, and who now lived in him (2:19–21).

ii. Righteousness and life are by love, faith and grace, not by the Law (2:19–20)

“For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. 20 I am crouched with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.”

2:19. And now Paul introduces a second thought, based on his own experience. “The law hath dominion over a man as long as he liveth” (Rom 7:1). Indeed, the Law had condemned him to death: “I through the law.” Very well: he accepted that death, and “died to the Law” (net); and the Law therefore had no more dominion over him. This was effected by his baptism, when, like every believer before and since, he symbolically followed Christ in his death and resurrection (6:1–4).

But his death was not backward-looking. It was not concerned only with the forgiveness of sins, although this is an important effect of baptism. It was forward-looking and purposeful. That purpose was a new life of righteousness, a life unto God (cf. Rom 7:4).

2:20. There follows “the most moving piece of spiritual autobiography ever penned” ( John Carter, The Letter to the Hebrews, page 51). It is clear that, in using the first person singular, Paul is referring to himself.

Only one man had ever literally been crucified with Christ, and that was the thief on his right hand. Like Paul, he had condemned himself, but pleaded in faith for justification: “Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss. And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom” (Luke 23:40–42). At that moment there was one person, and one only, who believed: and it was that man. In the circumstances his faith was truly extraordinary: and the Lord responded with an extraordinary promise.

“There is an ecclesiastical glamour about the cross; an emotional, sentimental feeling that has robbed crucifixion of its ugliness and shame. But Paul knew too much of what crucifixion meant as a horrible mode of death to sentimentalise about it” ( John Carter, page 52). Rather, he saw himself as that man: a sinner, justly condemned, and justly suffering, dying with Christ, but appealing to the Lord in faith and hope for righteousness, salvation, life, and a place in his Kingdom.

“This act of identification is seen by Paul in all the vividness of an actual association with Jesus on the cross. Instead of standing with the jeering spectators, Paul crosses over to the crucified. He endorses the crucified’s action in being there, in laying down his life, and in laying it down in that way. He joins Christ on the cross, and dies with him” (John Carter, pages 54–55).

So Saul was crucified, and Christ was resurrected. Or, as Paul puts, it, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (esv). Here is the outworking of the important but neglected doctrine of union with Christ. Paul’s faith united him to Christ in such a way that Christ’s death was his death, and Christ’s resurrection was his resurrection. “The life which I now live in the flesh,” Paul’s present mortal life, “I live by the faith of the Son of God,” that is, he lives every day in the certainty of the resurrection, and the power of its effect on spiritual life.

Paul adds,“Who loved me, and gave himself for me.” It is a beautiful acknowledgement of his Lord’s great love and self-giving. Indeed, he died for us all; and Paul affirms that throughout his writings: but, just for a moment, there is nobody in the room but Christ and Paul. He loved “me,” says Paul; he gave himself “for me.”

The Judaisers had never thought of the death and the resurrection of Christ in this way. It had never occurred to them to do so. Indeed, they saw the cross as an “offence,” an embarrassment that they had pushed into the background when sharing the Gospel with their fellow Jews. Pray God we never come to that, but live in the power of Paul’s affirmation.

iii. Justification by the Law would nullify God’s grace (2:21)

“I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.”

2:21. Paul wraps up his case against justification by the Law with an emphatic refusal to join the Judaists: “I do not frustrate” or “nullify” “the grace of God.” The Greek term is a strong one, used of rejecting God’s commandments (Mark 7:9) and John’s baptism (Lk 7:30), of despising Christ and his missionaries (Luke 10:16; Jn 12:48), of despising God (1 Thess 4:8) and His Law (Heb 10:28), of despising authority ( Jude 8).

Those who teach justification by the Law reject and despise the grace of God, and teach that the terrible death of Christ added nothing to the Law: that he died in vain. The Cross was a futile gesture, a waste of a life, a divine blunder, a pointless tragedy, without a good reason, and without an effect. What a terrible denial of the work of God! Paul’s listeners should have shuddered at the thought of putting themselves in that situation.

iii. Salvation by faith in the promises, not compliance with the Law (3:1–5:1)

Paul’s emotion has not faded, but he is ready to move on to a new subject. He wants to clear up once and for all the true relationship between promise and law, between God’s covenant with Abram in Canaan and His covenant with Israel at Sinai. He begins by appealing to the Galatians, and their experience of salvation (3:1–5), before launching into an argument from Scripture and history; a powerful set of contrasts between the Law and the promises (3:6–31). Instead of returning to the Law (4:1–7), they should remember their relationship with him when he first called them into Christ (4:12–20), rejoice in the promises which were their rightful inheritance, stand fast in liberty, and expel the trouble-makers from their midst (4:21–5:1), as slave-children unfit to receive the promise.

A. An appeal to their experience (3:1–5)

“O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? 2This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3Are ye so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? 4Have ye suffered so many things in vain? If it be yet in vain. 5He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”

3:1. Paul begins with an emotive appeal that compels them to reflect on their salvation experience, the way in which they had received the Gospel and the Spirit. His tone is direct, emotional, and severe. He jolts them with an exclamation of surprise and indignation: “O foolish Galatians!”

“Who hath bewitched you?” he asks. The false teachers had fascinated and confused them, and they were acting as if subject to a weird occult influence: fascinated, confused hypnotised. Before their very eyes Jesus Christ had been “evidently set forth,” publicly placarded, set forth for public proclamation or public reading, “crucified among you.” The Galatians had not seen him – yet they had. Paul had come to their isolated cities and towns with Barnabas, jointly fulfilling Isaiah’s great prophecy that the “Servant of the Lord” should be a light to the nations (Acts 13:46–48 cf Isa 42:6–7; 49:5–7). They had heard him preach the Gospel, and been convicted by it. They had seen him die, or nearly die, at the hands of the Jews from Iconium, who whipped up the crowd and had him stoned, and thrown out of the city (14:19–20). They had seen him departed, battered, bloodied, bruised, and broken, pressing on to the next town, Derbe, there to preach the Gospel yet again. Weeks later he had returned and part of his message had been that those who would inherit the Kingdom must endure “much tribulation” (14:21–22). These things they had forgotten and Paul, desperate to regain their loyalty, fires a fourfold broadside of questions at them.

3:2–5. (1) How did you receive the Holy Spirit? From the Judaisers (“the works of the law”) or from me (“the hearing of faith”)? (v. 2). (2) How will you be perfected? By your own efforts (“the flesh”) or by God (“the Spirit”)? (v. 3). (3) Why have you suffered? (v. 4). (4) How are the gifts of the Spirit exercised? (v. 5).

Each question is loaded; and the answers are self-evident. They had received the Spirit by the hearing of faith; they would be perfected by God’s activity, through His Spirit; they had suffered after he had gone, as he had forewarned them they would, and that at the hands of the Jews, for the Gospel; yet they had the comfort and aid of the Spirit’s gifts—long before the Judaisers came on the scene.

Of great importance is the contrast Paul draws between ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’. The contrast first occurs in Genesis 6:4 and it is a recurring theme in Scripture, in Paul’s writings, and in this letter (cf. 4:23, 29; 5:13, 16–26; 6:8, 12). The terms represent two mutually exclusive systems.To the flesh belong sin, slavery, works of the Law and death; to the Spirit, righteousness, freedom and sonship, inheritance and promise, works of faith, and eternal life. “The flesh propheteth nothing,” as Jesus had said(John 6:63); but by the Spirit God offered them all things. It was imperative that they see this contrast clearly.

B. An argument from Scripture and history (3:6–29)

For a time at least, Paul winds back his censure, enabling him to make a tightly structured case for the superiority of the promises over the Law, Christ over Moses, faith over law-keeping, and baptism over circumcision. While the promises justify (3:6–9), the Law curses (3:10–12); but Christ has accepted the curse of the Law, and borne its weight, in order to fullfil it once and for all, and take it away (3:13–14). The promises were given directly to Abraham by God; but the Law was ordained by angels in the hands of a mediator, hundreds of years later (3:15–18). The promises still stood, yet to be fulfilled; the law was temporary (3:19–25), serving as a prison warden, governor and custodian until “the fulness of time” signalled by the advent of God’s Son, the time for faith and spiritual maturity.

i. The promise justifies (3:6–9)

“Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. 7Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. 8And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. 9So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.”

3:6. Three different passages from the life of Abraham are quoted in three verses. Paul begins with a quotation from Genesis 15:6, where Abraham is presented as the exemplar of those who are justified because they believed God.

3:7. Those who believe, as Abraham did, “they which are of faith,” are his children and are justified, as he was. The expression, “of faith,” is central to Paul’s doctrine of justification or righteousness by faith. It is taken from Habakkuk 2:4, “The just shall live by his faith” (Gal 3:11; later, Rom 1:17; Heb 10:38). It is found throughout Galatians (2:16; 3:7, 8, 9, 12, 22, 24; 5:5) and Romans (3:26, 30; 4:16 (2x); 5:1; 9:30, 32; 10:6; 14:23 (2x)) and is expanded in various ways in other places (Rom 10:17; Gal 3:2, 5; Phil 3:9; 1 Tim 1:5). If we do not believe in God, we cannot be righteous before Him.

3:8. Paul’s second quotation is taken from Genesis 12:3 and repeated in 18:18. Here Abraham is presented as the locus of blessing for all nations. e Scripture is personi ed by Paul, symbolically endowed with divine powers. It foresaw that God would make the nations righteous and that is why it preached the gospel 1,500 years before Christ in the words of the promise: “In thee shall all na- tions be blessed.” Paul identi es justification by faith as the great blessing for all nations that God had promised — just as Peter had done when he informed the Jews,“Ye are the sons of the prophets, and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying unto Abraham, And in thy seed shall all the families of the earth be blessed. Unto you rst God, having raised up his Son (servant. Gk ‘paida’, and also verse 13), sent him to bless you, in turning away every one of you from your iniquities” (Acts 3:25–26).

3:9. Just as he had done in verse 7, Paul makes his point explicit. The faithful receive righteousness with faithful Abraham, their spiritual father.

The case is mounting. The Judaisers would be unable to refute Paul’s straightforward teaching from foundation passages. But Paul, ever the master, is achieving far more than the demolition of their argument. He is building a positive case: that for us, as for the Jews, if we believe, righteousness and blessing are ours from God.