Paul spends most of chapters 1 and 2 defending his ministry and message. After establishing his authority to speak to them, he shifts his focus to the Galatians. He is shocked that they have so quickly abandoned the gospel for another, false gospel preached by false teachers. They have left their first love. Paul aims to call them home.
1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 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— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 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.” 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
As J.B. Philips puts it in his translation, verse 1 says, “O you dear idiots of Galatia…surely you can’t be so idiotic?” Paul is not nice in Galatians 3:1. He can’t be. To turn away from the gospel is not an innocent mistake that we can laugh off. It’s an abandonment of God of which we should repent. Paul could have said, “It’s no big deal. We all get off course a little here and there. Just make your way over here, and it’ll all be ok.” Instead, he used harsh language to awaken them to their danger. You can be sure, if someone calls me an idiot or foolish, they’re going to have my attention.
The problem, as Paul sees it, is they have been bewitched. He’s not saying those who practice witchcraft have cast a spell over them, but the false teachers certainly have. And behind their words is the father of lies, the Devil himself. They have been spellbound by the enemy of God. But they shouldn’t have been. They received the real gospel at the beginning, and it’s more shocking than any news they’ve ever heard. Christ has been crucified. How can “Christ crucified” be replaced with “Yeah, but do this, and you’ll really have God”?
When we hear the phrase, “Christ crucified,” what comes to our mind? For many, familiarity has softened the shock. We know it as truth. We believe it. But does it move our heart? As John Stott says of the gospel, “It is not a general instruction about the Jesus of history, but a particular proclamation of Jesus Christ as crucified.” And that’s the message Paul took to the Galatians: Jesus Christ has been crucified! But they turned to works of the law as if it could ever produce the kind of life-changing salvation that faith did.
Paul uses their own experience to prove his point. In verse 2, he asks them how they received the Spirit. What is what they did or what they heard and therefore believed? They know the answer. They weren’t saved based on what they did but on what they heard. The message of Christ crucified changed their heart. The Holy Spirit entered and saved them. If, then, they began their Christian life by the Spirit, are they going to perfect themselves by works of the law now? If salvation means they have been granted a perfect standing with God, what could they add on top to make God accept them more?
These Galatians are so much like us. God's Spirit saves us through the work of Christ in the providence of God, and afterward, we slip into rule-following as if that’s where the real Christians gain their medal. But when we abandon God’s gift of grace for our effort, it’s a complete disaster.
Paul uses their own experience of salvation but also uses the Bible’s testimony of salvation to press his point further. The false teachers wanted to use Moses and the law God gave him as the ladder to God’s grace. But Paul wants to go back further to Abraham and show that it’s not the ladder we climb to God but the dimension he travels to us that mediates his grace.
Paul quotes from Genesis 15:6. Abraham had just received the covenant promise from God. “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5). Abraham was an old man, far beyond childbearing years. His wife, Sarah, was just as old. But Abraham looked at his circumstances and then at the promise of God and trusted God’s promise. That’s faith. Faith is seeing beyond the outward appearances to the object of God standing behind it all. That’s how we’re saved. We can’t atone for our sins. We must trust that Christ atoned for them on our behalf. We can’t reconcile ourselves to God. We must believe that God has reconciled us to himself in Christ. We can’t change our heart. We must believe that the Holy Spirit has been given to us and is transforming us from one degree of glory to another. That’s what Abraham did when he believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.
Faith has always been God’s method of salvation. And God has always been growing his faith family. That’s why Paul says in verse 8 that all the nations will be blessed because of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that the Gentiles would come to faith in Christ, and Abraham became their father. The blessing of God is not found in obedience to the law, but in faith in Christ. Once we have the blessing, then we can obey with a purified heart, which means we’ll obey as pleases God.
The false teachers in Galatia thought the way to please God was to combine God’s law with God’s gospel. But what God has filled up in the gospel, let no man empty with the law. That is not to say we should not obey. Paul never promoted disobeying God. But Paul also never (in his Christian life, anyway) advocated coming to God based on our merit. What Paul preached was Christ crucified, not Christ crucified plus works of the law. The gospel produces obedience, but obedience never produces the gospel. When the gospel comes first in our message, obedience flows from it. When obedience comes first in our message, the gospel becomes a side dish rather than the entire meal.
This passage confronts us with what we believe about the Christian life. Timothy George puts it well.
The true children of Abraham are those who believe, literally, those who ground their relationship with God and thus their very existence itself on the basis of faith. Paul’s argument resonates with the discussion Jesus held with the Jewish leaders of his day concerning their status as children of Abraham. If Abraham were your real father, Jesus said, you would act more like him, you would embody his characteristics—rather than those of the devil to whom you really belong (John 8:31-47). Paul already had hinted at the presence of the Evil One in Galatia (cf. the “bewitcher” of 3:1). Now he suggested that those who seek to be right with God through physical lineage or human effort will at the end of the day be found outside the people of God altogether, locked up forever in “this present evil age” of darkness and sin (1:4).
So, the question for us is this. Whose children are we? Do we rest in Christ, or are we climbing the ladder of our own righteousness.
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 13 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”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
What we rely on for our justification determines if we are blessed or cursed. If we rely on faith, we find the blessing of Abraham. If we rely on the works of the law, we find the curse of all who have tread that toilsome path before us. We can’t be justified by the law no matter what we do because we’ve all failed to obey it perfectly. Furthermore, Christ died upon the cross to redeem us from the curse of the law, so why keep climbing when God has come down to us to destroy the ladder?
Timothy George helps us see Paul’s purpose in this passage.
The curse of the law, announced in v. 10, will find a remedy in the countercurse of v. 13, Christ’s redeeming death on the cross. In between Paul sandwiched two verses both containing a quotation from the Old Testament, the first from the Prophets (Hab. 2:4) and the second from the Law (Lev. 18:5), two texts that seem on the surface to offer two alternative ways of salvation. The two quotations are linked by a common verb, “will live,” but the two subjects form another of Paul’s antitheses: the one who is righteous by faith versus the one who does the things of the law.
If we want to live by the works of the law, we will work ourselves to the bone and still fail. Our sin runs so deep that we even sin in our obedience. We need a new heart before we can do anything good. And that’s what Jesus came to give. The gospel is good news because it is the story of what God has done. John Stott puts it beautifully, “The gospel is not good advice to men, but good news about Christ; not an invitation to us to do anything, but a declaration of what God has done; not a demand, but an offer.”
The law made demands. It said to us, “Obey, or else.” But the gospel silences those demands with the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. We who were cursed because of our failure were redeemed by Christ who became a curse so that we could have his blessing.
Paul uses Deuteronomy 21:23 to prove it that Christ became a curse for us. In the Old Testament, when a criminal was executed, he was hanged on a tree, or fixed to a wooden stake, after his execution to display that God rejected him for his crime. So when Paul points this out, he’s saying that Jesus, by hanging on the cross, was cursed by God. This was a big deal, and one of the many reasons Jews rejected Jesus as Messiah. How can one follow a man who was cursed by God in his death? As John Stott points out, “The fact that Jesus died hanging on a tree remained for Jews an insurmountable obstacle to faith, until they saw that the curse He bore was for them. He did not die for His own sins; He became a curse ‘for us.’”
The punchline of the gospel is that Jesus became a curse for us. What we don’t deserve, God freely gave. We deserve what Jesus received on the cross. But because of the love with which God loves us, we receive what Jesus earned because he took what we were owed. Paul puts it another way in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Martin Luther reflected on this truth in a letter.
"Therefore, my dear brother, learn Christ and him crucified. Learn to pray to him and, despairing of yourself, say: "Thou, Lord Jesus, art my righteousness, but I am thy sin. Thou hast taken upon thyself what is mine and hast given to me what is thine. Thou has taken upon thyself what thou wast not and hast given to me what I was not." Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners. On this account he descended from heaven, where he dwelt among the righteous, to dwell among sinners. Meditate on this love of his and you will see his sweet consolation. For why was it necessary for him to die if we can obtain a good conscience by our works and afflictions? Accordingly you will find peace only in him and only when you despair of yourself and your own works. Besides, you will learn from him that just as he has received you, so he has made your sins his own and has made his righteousness."
Far too often our spiritual problem is due to avoiding consciousness of our sin. We start thinking we’re pretty good. But being good little Christians, adding the law where God frees us from it, is to reject spiritual life with God for spiritual death with the Evil One. It’s when we see how far we are from God’s standard of holiness that we can begin to see the wonder that he would bridge the gap for us, without us moving a muscle. In the gospel, God doesn’t make us a little bit better; he brings us all the way home—all the way to his holiness.
We should not wallow in our sin, but if we are unwilling to see sin residing in our hearts, we will not be able to lift our eyes high enough to see Christ. We will begin to think he is on our level, perhaps even beneath us. But Christ is not equal or below. He is above. It would do our hearts well to see him where he truly is—above us as our head, seated on the throne, at the right hand of the Majesty on high, exalted above all. Banking our spiritual life on the works of the law is to suck the oxygen from the lungs. But viewing Christ by faith in his proper place gives life to our spirit, and like a rocket we shoot toward the sky, rising to meet him on his throne of grace.
Let us beware of letting our works of the law replace God’s free gift of grace. If we lose God’s grace in the gospel, we don’t just lose the booster in our life; we lose our life.