Excerpt: The Galatians did not need the works of the Law to receive the Spirit and miracles. But now they want to continue in their own power. That is both illogical and a disregard of the Cross. To seek salvation in your own power puts you at risk of losing eternal life.
The Galatians complied with the “works of the Law” in an attempt to earn justification in their own power. In these verses, Paul gives two reasons why this approach does not make sense:
Firstly, when they became Christians and received the gift of the Holy Spirit, they did not first have to comply with the ceremonies and rituals of the Law.
Secondly, they do not need “the works of the Law” to receive the supernatural manifestations of the Spirit.
All they had to do was to believe what they heard. To now continue in their own power is, therefore, not only illogical but also a disregard of the value of the Cross of Christ. The mindset that one must earn your salvation might cost you your eternal life.
3:1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?
3:2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3:3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 3:4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?
3:5 So then, does He who provides you with the Spirit and works miracles among you, do it by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith?
YOU FOOLISH GALATIANS
After recounting two historical incidents in chapter 2, concluding that chapter with his speech at Antioch, Paul now turns to address the Galatians directly.
The last verse of the previous chapter implies that righteousness comes through Christ:
“If righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Gal 2:21).
The current verse continues this thought by referring to “Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal 3:1). This implies that the “false brethren” (Gal 2:4) undervalued the Cross of Christ. The Galatians were “bewitched” by the distorted gospel (Gal 1:6-7), which teaches that man’s “righteousness comes through the Law” (compare Gal 2:16).
PAUL PROVIDES REASONS
In Gal 3:2-5, Paul provides reasons for his statement in Gal 2:16 that man is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Christ Jesus:
Firstly, the Galatians became Christians in the power of the Spirit, but are now trying to “perfect” their lives by their own power (Gal 3:3), which is not logical. This may be compared to the Cornelius incident in Acts 10, where uncircumcised Gentiles received the Holy Spirit just like the Jews at Pentecost (Acts 10:45; 11:15), which implies that one does not have to be a Jew to share in the dispensation of the Spirit.
Secondly, the Galatians did not need “the works of the Law” to receive the supernatural manifestations of the Spirit. All they had to do was to believe what they heard (Gal 3:5).
PERFECTED BY THE FLESH
“Flesh” is often used in Paul’s writings for “the desire of the flesh”, but, in Gal 3:3, “flesh” does not have a connotation to sin. It would not make any sense to say that the Christians “are … now being perfected” by the desires of their flesh. “Flesh” in 3:3 simply means by one’s own effort. To be “perfected by the flesh” (3:3), therefore, explains the nature of the “works of the Law” as an attempt to earn justification in one’s own power.
DID YOU SUFFER SO MANY THINGS IN VAIN?
Paul was concerned that the Galatian Christians suffered so many things “in vain” (Gal 3:4; 4:10). This implies that these Christians were at risk of losing their eternal salvation. One can be a Christian and still lose eternal life if one does what the Galatians did. It is important that we understand what they did wrong so that we can plead with God to protect us from that error.
Gal 5:2-4 explains the error in clear language:
“If you receive circumcision,
Christ will be of no benefit to you. …
You have been severed from Christ,
you who are seeking to be justified by law;
you have fallen from grace”.
THE REAL DANGER
The danger, therefore, is that Christians will receive circumcision, but circumcision, in itself, is not the danger. Circumcision is only the door into Judaism and to live like Jews according to the Law of Moses and the Traditions of the Elders. But this is also not the real danger. The real danger rather lies in the thinking behind observing those laws, namely to seek “to be justified by law” (Gal 5:4), which means to seek to earn salvation (Gal 3:3).
People that believe that one has to earn your salvation will always create a large number of demanding rules as a barrier against sin. These rules turn the mind away from God to self, kill love and lead to selfish and narrow-minded criticism all who fail to comply. This is what happened in the Judaism of Paul’s day and we still face this danger today. For a more detailed discussion, see the Real Danger.