Are You Being Perfected by the Flesh?
© C. O. Bishop 1/7/15 THCF 1/18/15
Galatians 3:2-7; compare John 3:17, 18
You may remember we talked about the truth of the Crucifixion, and the fact that the Galatian believers had once been obedient to that truth, having placed their faith in it, but now were being disobedient to the truth of the Gospel, because they were shifting their faith from God’s Grace to their own works. They still believed (to some extent) that they had been saved by faith, but they had become convinced by false teachers that they had to add works to faith in order to “really be saved”, or, perhaps, in order to “stay saved”. I remember a woman from a particular church (I have no idea what sort; as a brand-new believer I made little distinction between one church and another) telling me that “Well, you are saved by faith, but you are kept by works!”
I had just been given a New American Standard Bible, at the time, and had just read Romans 6:23, so I recited the fact (quoting the NASB) that the “free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus.” She disputed the word “free”, saying that “it only says ‘gift’”. I was puzzled, because I thought “if it isn’t free, then it isn’t a gift!”, but I opened my new Bible, and showed her that it did say “free gift”. She glanced at it, then looked at the cover and said, “Well, that’s not the Bible!” (I had never run into that argument, before, either…apparently they admitted no other translation beside the King James Version…which is sad, because, in the first place, it cuts out every other language except English, and, in the second place, it denies that there will ever come a time when English as it was spoken 400 years ago might be sufficiently obsolete that we require a new translation in order to readily understand God’s Word.)
Since that time, I have repeatedly run into people who were adamant that unless you somehow prove that you are worthy of salvation, deserve salvation, or have earned salvation, then Jesus’ blood and Grace will not save you. So, who should we believe?
This sort of question was plaguing the new believers in the Galatian churches, too. The legalizers told them that Jesus’ blood was not enough, and gave them “logical” arguments to back their claim. But, God’s Grace is not dependent upon Human Logic. God’s Grace is dependent upon the unchangeable character of God Himself.
Who should they believe? The legalizers came to them looking good and sounding good. Paul had come looking very beat-up and half-blind, besides. He preached only Christ, and appealed only to the written Word of God. They claimed they did, too, but they insisted on turning aside to human reasoning, in order to back up their conclusions.
I knew a man who insisted that “Jesus only died for the Elect”. When I pointed out 1st John 2:2, where it specifically states that He died for the sins of the whole World, he would say something like, “But think about it! That doesn’t make sense! Why would he pay the price for the sins of people who he knew were going to reject him?” The fact is; I do not have to “make sense” of what God clearly says: I only have to preach it faithfully. But, Jesus himself explained that particular idea (John 3:17, 18): He said “God sent not his son into the world to condemn the world, but that the World through him might be saved. He that believeth on Him is not condemned; he that believeth not is condemned already, because he has not believed on the name of the only begotten Son of God.” The sins of the Whole World were paid for at the Cross. The “Whosoever will, may come” promise is true! But those who refuse it are already condemned; not waiting to be condemned. As an unbeliever, I was already headed for Hell. When someone shared the truth of Jesus’ Crucifixion, burial and Resurrection with me and (eventually) I believed it, I was saved by God’s Grace…nothing else.
Paul is turning their eyes back toward God’s Word. He offers proof from the scriptures, that the Gospel they had received was the whole truth, and sufficient in itself to save them. He also reminds them of what they had experienced before the legalizers arrived. They had already been born again, and they had already received the Spirit before the Legalizers ever arrived. He asks them, then, in verse two:
2 This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?
Paul confirms that these believers had received the Holy Spirit and implies that they themselves knew this was true. He then poses the question, “How was it that you received the Spirit: by keeping the Law?” Obviously, as lost sinners—Gentiles, to boot—this was not what had happened, nor could it have happened. They knew nothing of the Law, nor had they made any attempt to keep it. And in addition Paul had preached the Gospel of Grace—the Cross of Christ; he certainly did not preach the Law. He contrasts the concept of Law-keeping with the opposite—the hearing of faith. They knew three things:
- They had originally been offered that true Gospel, as Paul preached it;
- They had believed it, and
- They had received the Holy Spirit,
ALL without works—just by Grace, through faith. As we have seen earlier, that is the only way that anyone in the history of the world has been saved: it has always been by Grace, through Faith. There are no exceptions. Now, with that truth as the backdrop, Paul holds up their current error to show it for the folly that it is:
3 Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?
He says, in effect, “How can you be such fools as to think that you could begin by the Holy Spirit, but improve upon your position through your own works, and somehow, through your own effort, “perfect” your relationship with the God who gave his life to save you? You imply that His works were not enough, but that— somehow—yours are! What incredible folly!”
In fact, as I think of it today, it seems utterly blasphemous to suggest that “Well, poor old Jesus made a nice try, but He really couldn’t manage the job! So I’ll just step in and show Him how it should be done!” That is incredible arrogance, and actually denies the Deity of Christ, because if God, by definition, is All Wise and All Powerful, then Jesus could not be God in the Flesh, and fail to accomplish what, from the Cross, He claimed to have completed. When He said, “It is finished!”, that statement included the purging of all the sins of the whole world. Otherwise his original mission statement (John 3:17) was false. He said “God sent not his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the World through him might be saved.”
We need to turn our eyes to God’s Word, and believe Him. Paul turned the Galatian believers’ eyes toward God’s Word; Paul was the faithful witness, and the Legalizers were the false witnesses. All through this letter, Paul reminds the believers of Old Testament truths that pointed to the New Testament realities of the Church age. Let’s follow the rest of Paul’s argument:
The Negative Evidence
4 Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain.
Now, I am not absolutely certain what “suffering” he is referring to, here, but I suspect that they had been mistreated for their faith by unbelievers, both Jew and Gentile. In the book of Acts, we read of riots and revivals happening nearly everywhere Paul and his entourage went. We can see in Hebrews 10:34 that at least some believers had their belongings confiscated by civil or religious authorities because of their faith. And those in that passage endured that indignity joyfully, knowing that a greater reward was coming. (We see these changes coming in our own society, and are fearful because of it.)
These in the province of Galatia evidently had suffered for the name of Jesus as well, but now had doubts as to whether the name of Jesus was sufficient. I am reminded of Peter’s comment in Acts 4:12. He said, “…neither is there salvation in any other, for there is none other name under heaven, given among men, whereby we must be saved!” The evidence is clear: Peter preached the name of Jesus as the only means by which we must be saved. When Paul was in Philippi, the jailer asked “what must I do to be saved?” (Acts 16:30, 31) Paul’s answer was “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved….” He did not add any sort of works to the mix, though it might have been tempting, since Paul was in prison, with bleeding whip-marks on his back, and manacles on his hands and feet. But he added nothing to the truth of the Gospel. We are saved by faith in the Christ of the Bible—the God-in-the-flesh, only-begotten-Son, Lamb-of-God who takes away the sin of the world! That is who Paul had preached, with the results being riots and/or revivals, virtually everywhere he went.
The revivals began small, as he first offered the Gospel to whatever Jews were in a town. If there was a Synagogue in town, he began there. It took ten Jewish families to begin a synagogue, so there had to be at least that many, or there was no synagogue. Within those synagogues, there were usually a few Jews who responded in faith, but the majority of them rejected the Gospel.
Eventually, those who rejected the good news rose against Paul, accusing him of heresy. (Remember: he faithfully used the Old Testament to demonstrate the truth of the Gospel…they had no excuse for not believing the Word; they just didn’t like his conclusions.) At that point, upon their rejection of the good news, he would turn to the Gentiles of the region, who were generally more receptive. But, to the angry Jews, that was not acceptable either …and that is when the riots began. Sometimes things got really rough, so that he had to leave town almost immediately, both for his own safety and that of the new believers. Sometimes the Gentile civil authorities ignored the fracas; sometimes they joined in persecuting the believers. Occasionally, God used the civil authorities to defend the believers (same as today), but not often.
So, perhaps some of these believers had been persecuted for their faith; I can’t say for sure. But, you see, they would never have been mistreated by the Jews for trying to keep the Law—that, in fact, would have pacified them, which is why Paul asks, “Did you suffer all that for nothing?”
Even today, people of most of the world’s religions are not under attack—it is those who actually believe the Gospel and trust in the person and name of Jesus Christ who are universally maligned. What does that tell you about your faith? If all the enemies of God, religious and secular, condemn it, then I have to conclude that it must be a good thing: God’s enemies have become my enemies; which means I have been moved to a position with God. (Give that some thought!) There are four means by which we usually judge a person’s character:
- What they do: this is easiest to see, and usually pretty accurate.
- What they say; compared to what they do: (Do they match? If not, why not?)
- Who their friends are: Who are they most comfortable with? (“Birds of a feather…”, etc.)
- Who their enemies are: Who is it that can’t stand them? Would I rather be amongst their enemies or their friends?
Paul is stating that the persecution they have received is evidence of the truth of the Gospel, specifically because it was unjust persecution for faith, not for evildoing. (There have been modern-day cults who claim they were persecuted for faith, but the historical fact is that they were persecuted for immoral deeds that they committed as a result of their beliefs.)
The Positive Evidence
5 He 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?
On what basis does God administer (the Greek word means “supply”) the Holy Spirit to you? By what means is He working miracles among you? Notice that in this verse the three verbs, “minister”, “work” and “do” are all present tense. I checked in the Greek, to make sure, and it turns out they are all present tense in the original as well. Why is that important? Some commentators believe that Paul is only reminding them that when he, Paul, was among them (past tense), they did not receive the Spirit by obeying the Law, but by believing the Gospel. And that is certainly true. However, that is not what he is referring to, at all, here: Paul is not there, and is not doing anything among them…but God is! The people who believe the Gospel still receive the Holy Spirit in Paul’s absence, both then and today. They do not do so by keeping the Law, and never have! Paul goes on to show from Scripture that this has always been the case:
6 Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.
This is not the only place where Paul uses this argument, citing Abraham as an example (see Romans 4:1-25). In both cases, he is referring to Genesis 15:6. God called Abraham out to look at the night sky: He said, “Try to count the stars! If you can count the stars, that is how many your progeny will be!” It goes on to say that Abraham believed God and God accounted it to him as Righteousness. He imputed Righteousness to Abraham on the basis of faith. Paul says:
7 Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham.
Bear in mind that the Jews thought they were the children of Abraham, because they were physically of his lineage. Jesus himself debunked that idea, saying (John 8:39) “…if you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham.” I am sure that was a shocking idea to the Jews, and utterly offensive, as their whole hope was in their physical kinship to Abraham and their own keeping of the Law. But Jesus was warning them that their bloodline was not enough to save them. In fact, in that same passage (v. 44) he told them “you are of your father, the Devil, and his works you will do…” (Yow! Do suppose that might have gotten their attention?)
8 And 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. (My emphasis….)
This one is actually referring to Genesis 22:18. Remember back in Genesis 22, Abraham had proved his faith, at least thirty years after the initial promise back in Genesis 15, by attempting obedience, in offering Isaac as a burnt offering, as commanded. On the basis of this attempted obedience (remember, faith is an obedient response to a revealed truth) God made an additional promise—the beginning of the Good News that we preach today. All nations have been blessed at one time or another and to one degree or another, through the person and work of Christ, the “Seed of Woman”, also identified as the Seed of Abraham. And all, in varying degrees, have at some point eventually rejected that blessing.
But faith is on an individual basis: Do you remember Rahab? She was a member of an already condemned nation. She was commended for her faith; and through her initial faith and obedience, her whole family was salvaged out of the destruction of Jericho. Ultimately, she married a Hebrew man named Salmon, and the two of them had a son named Boaz. Does that sound familiar? Not only was Rahab saved by faith; she was entered into the genealogy of Christ, just as we are saved by faith and are placed into the Body of Christ.
9 So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham.
Paul concludes that the blessing of God—His Grace, in fact—is entirely dependent upon faith, not works, as he points out in Romans 4, since the Promise Believed was thirty years earlier than the obedience which brought the blessing of the Promise Expanded. Abraham had enjoyed that blessing for 30 years before his ultimate test came about. And now the Grace of God is extended to the whole world, through faith. Do you desire the blessing of God? Then enter in by faith.
We are admonished to understand our new position in Christ, and not allow false teaching to deprive us of the blessings of Faith.
We are reminded that, while Godly behavior (obedience) is the expected result of Faith, it is never achievable by the Flesh. Righteousness (a right standing with God) in both salvation and service, is attained by faith, not works.
Faith always results in Godly good works, but good works are not always from faith. They could be from vanity, self-will or even false teaching.
We have to examine our motives and make sure we allow the Holy Spirit to rule in our lives. Later on, (Galatians 5:16) God makes the promise that if we walk in the Spirit, we will not fulfill the lusts of the Flesh. Let’s strive to see that fulfilled in our daily lives.
Lord Jesus, Help us to walk with you by faith, obey you by faith, and examine our motives in all things. Help us to mature as believers, and become the men and women of God you have called us to be. Amen.