Finish the Way You Start (Galatians 3:1-14)
In 1859, the famous tight-rope walker Charles Blondin traveled to Niagara Falls. He stretched a three-inch wire over the gorge. There, suspended on this wire, he walked 1100 feet from one side to the other. He did this a number of times: blindfolded, in a sack, pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet and standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope.
But that’s not all. He also carried a man on his back over that tightrope. This must be one of the best examples of trust ever placed by one human in another. It’s either brave or stupid. Blondin carried his manager on his back from one side of the Falls to the other. I don’t care if it was his manager; that goes beyond an honest day’s work.
Imagine if halfway across the manager had said to Blondin, “Look, I appreciate that you’ve taken me this far, but I really don’t trust you anymore. I think I’ll do the rest myself. Let me down, and I’ll take it from here.” Can you imagine? He’d be a dead manager from that point on. Having been carried that far, why in the world would he think that he could get the rest of the way across by himself?
It sounds ridiculous, but that is the very situation that Paul addresses in this passage. This is possibly one of the greatest misconceptions about the Christian life. I hope you’re clear that you’re accepted by God based only on Jesus and nothing else. I hope that if you’ve been with us so far, you’ve got that. But I sense that there is a lot of confusion going on. Once we’re Christians, how do we grow? How do we get the rest of the way? Having been justified (declared righteous before God), how are we sanctified (made holy)? There’s a lot of confusion and debate over this issue.
Let me tell you why this is an important question. One of my pastor friends went to see a famous chef in Toronto recently. Somebody asked him a question about what it was like to be on TV and to have published books that are read by millions of people. He said that it’s frustrating. Why? Because all these people are watching his TV show, and reading his books, and they’re still not eating well. They’re still eating garbage food that’s not healthy. All these people are hearing his message, but they’re not changing. My pastor friend leaned to his wife and said, “I know how he feels.”
That’s the problem, isn’ it? We know what it takes to become a Christian, but we’re not always growing as much as we’d like. We need to know not just how to begin the Christian life, but how to change.
Here’s the most common answer to that question if we’re going to be honest, and it’s the mistake that Paul is confronting in this passage. A lot of us act as if we’re saved by grace through faith, but then it’s up to us to grow. We believe we get into the Christian life by God’s grace, but then it’s up to us. It’s like we get to the middle of the tightrope and say, “I think I’ll take it from here.”
This is a crucial question, because we need to know how we grow. So let me walk you through this passage. We’re going to see three things in this passage.
- First: that the entire Christian life is based on faith, not performance
- Second: that this is the way it’s always been
- Third: that there could be no other way
First: The entire Christian life is based on faith, not performance.
Paul begins this passage by saying, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” He’s saying, “Are you completely out of your mind? What in the world are you thinking?” He’s looking at the Galatians, and he’s incredulous. Here’s the issue, according to the rest of verse 1, right down to verse 3:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
What Paul identifies here is actually one of the greatest issues we have to face. This is absolutely profound. Paul is talking about when the Galatians first heard the gospel and became believers. The power of the Holy Spirit was clearly at work in their lives. The Bible clearly teaches that, when we become Christians, at conversion, the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts, and that those who are genuine Christians have the Spirit living within them. The Holy Spirit is God’s seal and guarantee that he will complete his work (2 Corinthians 1:22).
So here’s his question: How did you become a Christian and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? The answer that they would give is, “I became a Christian and received the Spirit because I heard the gospel message with faith.” The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ has made a way for us to be accepted by God through his death and resurrection. To use the tightrope analogy, you became a Christian not by thinking you could cross over that chasm by yourself, but by placing your trust in Christ to do what you couldn’t do for yourself. Did they receive the Holy Spirit because they were circumcised, or kept the works of the law? No! The Holy Spirit never takes up residence in our lives because we’ve cleaned ourselves up and because we’re good enough. No, the Holy Spirit entered our lives when we heard and received the gospel message by faith. We are not saved by doing, Paul says. We’re saved by hearing. We don’t become Christians by doing anything to earn God’s acceptance. We become Christians when he hear the gospel preached and place our faith in Christ.
Given this, Paul then asks, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The answer of course is, “Duh, no.” What Paul is saying is this: Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. Anything else would be ridiculous. It would be foolish to start one way and finish another. God had promised in the Old Testament:
And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)
Now that God has kept this promise, and given us the Holy Spirit to live within us and change us from the inside-out, it would be foolish to think we could improve on this with a new strategy. It would be utterly foolish to think we reject the Holy Spirit and rely on our own steam to get the job done.
Here’s the main question. Are we saved by the Spirit and faith, and then we move on to progressing in the Christian life through works and human effort? Absolutely not, Paul says. We are saved by the Spirit and faith, and then we progress in exactly the same way. We progress by the Spirit working in our lives, and as we in faith return to the gospel message and put our full and complete trust in Christ in every area of our lives.
I like how John Piper puts it:
The essence of the Galatian heresy is the teaching that you begin the Christian life by faith, and then you grow in the Christian life by works, that is, by drawing on powers in yourself to make your contribution to salvation. One modern form of the heresy is: "God helps those who help themselves." … Faith is the only response to God's Word which makes room for the Spirit to work in us and through us. Flesh, on the other hand, is the insubordinate, self-determining ego which in religious people responds to God's Word not with reliance on the Spirit but with reliance on self. It can produce a very rigorous morality, but it nullifies grace and removes the stumbling block of the cross.
I hope you can see that the essential mark of a Christian is not how far you have progressed in sanctification, but on what you are relying to get there. Are you striving for sanctification by works? Or are you striving for sanctification by faith?
There could be some confusion here, so let me clarify. Paul is not saying that we should passively sit and do nothing while we wait for God to change us. This is not passive at all. The issue here is how we’re going to change. And Paul says that the power to change doesn’t come from ourselves; it comes from the Spirit. It still takes effort, but it’s grace-driven effort.
This is so important. Verse 3 is one of the most important verses for the Christian life. I love how Thomas Schreiner says:
As Christians we need to relearn the gospel every day. We are prone to wander, as the old hymn says, and hence we may act as if a spell has been cast over us. The Christian life is a battle to rely on the gospel, and even as Christians we are inclined to look to ourselves and trust in our own achievements rather than relying solely on the cross of Christ. In our counseling and our preaching and our teaching we must summon people over and over to the cross of Christ and call them to look away from themselves and focus on Christ. We may slowly drift from the gospel, just as the Galatians did. The problems Paul addressed in Galatians remind us all that the Christian life cannot be lived on autopilot, that there is a daily struggle to grasp the gospel.
That’s the principle that we have to grasp. You continue the Christian life the same way that you started it: by grace through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. We grow by grace.
Paul also shows us:
Second: This is the way it’s always been.
This gets to the heart of one of the biggest mistakes we make when we’re reading the Bible. It’s one of the reasons we have the wrong idea about how to grow in the Christian life. If you ask most people what the Bible is about, they’ll tell you it’s about how to live a good, moral life. It’s about how to be a good person. If you ask about the stories of the Bible, many will tell you they’re stories that show you how to be a good person. The Bible becomes a how-to book that provides examples of people we should imitate.
There’s a problem with this approach though. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible is all about. You see that in this passage as it relates to Abraham, who is the father of the Jewish people, and to whom many of the most important promises were made. Paul writes: “…just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’”. This is so important. When we look at Abraham’s life, what should we learn? You could focus on Abraham as an example of good works. He picked up and moved when God told him to. He was ready to give up his son when God asked him to. Was Abraham saved because of his good works? Is that the lesson we’re supposed to take away from his life? No, Paul says. Paul was saved exactly the same way that we were saved. He was saved by grace through faith. And through faith, he was counted righteous before God.
The term Paul uses is an accounting term. I went to the bank the other day with a check. The check was from someone who normally doesn’t write checks to me, and the amount was large enough that they were nervous about it. She told me she’d have to put a hold on the check, and that it would take days to clear. I asked her to check with the manager. She did, and she came back, and she typed all these things in the computer. I’d love to know everything she was typing; it looked like she was writing a novel. Then she smiled and handed me the receipt. That money was reckoned to me. It was deposited to my account.
That’s what happened to Abraham, Paul said. Abraham was not saved by depositing his good works, even though he did some good things. No, he was saved when by grace he trusted God. His faith was counted to him as righteousness. Paul is saying that Abraham was saved exactly the same way that we were, by God’s grace, not by his own righteousness. God has always operated this way. There are not two ways to get to God. There is only one way, and it’s through faith, and not through good works.
That’s why we need faith if we’re going to belong to Abraham’s family. Remember, Paul is writing to Gentiles who are being pressured to be circumcised, to become Jewish, if they want to be saved. Paul writes:
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. 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.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Do you see that? Twice Paul says, “It it those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” He’s saying that it’s not circumcision that makes you a spiritual child of Abraham. There are many people who are circumcised who are not part of God’s family. It is faith that makes us part of Abraham’s family, and the recipient of the promises made to Abraham. Our right standing before God comes from believing what God has given us in Jesus Christ. We are not saved by what we do; we’re saved by believing in God. There is only one way of salvation.
Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. That’s the way it’s always worked.
One application: if this is the story of the Bible, we need to change the way we read the Bible! The Bible is not a book full of heroes we should emulate. God is the hero. Abraham and every other person we call a hero is actually a recipient of God’s grace. This completely changes the way we read Scripture. Instead of seeing them as people who were good enough, we can begin to see them as people who trusted God. And we can begin to see how this worked out in their lives. The Bible communicates that we grow through our faith, and it does so from start to finish.
There’s one more thing we need to see in this passage if we’re going to get the message:
Third: There could be no other way.
This is why it’s so important to get this through our heads. If we try to live the Christian life by our own strength, we’ll only end up condemned. We’ll never measure up. There is no way we can live on our own strength and succeed.
In verses 10 to 14 he contrasts two ways of trying to get God’s approval. One way is to try to keep the law. The problem is that God has pronounced a curse on all who break his law.
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.” (Galatians 3:10)
That is a huge problem. Our efforts to keep God’s law always fall short. God pronounces a curse on all who fail to keep all that the law requires. Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” When the Levite priests said this to the people, the people responded, “Amen” or “so be it.” But that leaves us in big trouble. Those who don’t do everything required by the law are cursed. No one does everything required by the law. Therefore, trying to earn God’s approval through keeping the law leads to a curse.
This isn’t very good news! At least not until Paul finishes his thought in verses 13 and 14:
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”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
We’re under a curse. The only way for that curse to be removed is through what Christ accomplished at the cross. Jesus became cursed in our place. He received our curse so that we could receive his blessing. We have all the blessings of being Abraham’s spiritual dependents through Christ. Nothing else is necessary.
It begins with the cross. It all begins when we hear the gospel message of what Christ accomplished on the cross. It continues the same way. We don’t progress in the Christian life by pulling ourselves up by our own effort. We continue the same way we began; through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is how we grow in the Christian life; not under our own steam, but through Spirit-enabled working out of what Jesus did for us at the cross.
If you’re like me, you’re sometimes frustrated by the lack of progress that you see in your own life. Do you ever feel disappointed with yourself? Do you ever find yourself not living up to your own intentions? Do you ever get frustrated with your lack of growth?
Here’s the key. Stop trying to improve yourself. The way you grow is the same as the way you became a Christian. We need to relearn the gospel every day. Again, Thomas Schreiner says:
Focusing on our sinfulness could depress us and discourage us, but God does not intend for us to live with a constant feeling of failure and condemnation. Our sins should drive us to the cross of Christ, where the full payment was made for our sins. God’s love, therefore, becomes exceedingly precious in the way we think and feel in our everyday lives. We acknowledge our sins daily, but we cling to the cross of Christ as the means by which we are forgiven. Hence, when Satan accuses us, we remind ourselves that we are free from all guilt and condemnation (not because we are so good, but because God is so loving and forgiving).
Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. Remember that it's always been this way. If you try to live according to your own strength, it will only lead tho condemnation. Live the rest of your Christian life the way you started, through continual trust and dependance in the Holy Spirit and a continual focus on the cross as you live to please him.