October 23, 2016 “Law or Faith?” – Galatians 3:1-14

Galatians 3:1-14
“Law or Faith?”
October 23, 2016 – Twenty-third Sunday after Pentecost

Emma Pole was bewitched by a fairy. That’s the first development of Susanna Clarke’s massive fantasy novel Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Beth and I recently watched the BBC television series adaptation which brought to the screen Emma’s dismay at being resurrected from the dead by Mr. Norrell’s summoning of the fairy, only to dream all night, every night of dancing in a creepy twilight ballroom owned by a malicious whitehaired supernatural being, “the gentleman with the thistledown hair.”

No one else knows what happened to Emma. She can’t even explain her problem, because the fairy magic makes her speak nonsense every time she tries to talk about what she experiences when she’s asleep. Everyone thinks she is insane, but she is totally enchanted and bewitched by the fairy’s power. No one seems able to rescue her from her predicament.

In the central argument of his letter to the Galatians, starting with Galatians 3:1 in the middle of page 159 in The Books of the Bible, Paul exclaims that these new Christians, who live in the center of Asia Minor, have been bewitched. They are believing and acting totally contrary to what Paul taught them. They should know better, so they must be, says Paul, caught in a spell, literally “under an evil eye.”

To that evil eye, Paul opposes in verse 2 what he showed them, “Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” He taught them that hope and salvation was in Jesus alone and now they have foolishly let themselves be enchanted by a different teaching. They wanted to add something to their faith in Jesus in order to be complete, in order to be justified, to be righteous.

Those bewitching teachers were Jewish Christians who came to the Galatian churches, which were mostly Gentile Christians, promoting the notion that, in order to be fully righteous, Gentiles needed to keep and fulfill Jewish law. In particular, they taught, Christian men need to be circumcised. The Galatians fell under that spell. Paul heard about it and now he is writing to break the spell.

Paul could have argued directly that faith in Jesus was all they needed, but he chose to appeal to their own experience with a few rhetorical questions. The basic one is in verse 2. Paul says it’s really the only question, “Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?” literally, “by the hearing of faith?” In other words, when you first got saved, when you first received the Holy Spirit, asks Paul, was it by law or by faith? Law or faith? That’s the question for the Galatians and ultimately for you and me.

Of course, like a concerned parent addressing a teenager who’s acting up, Paul is not really going to ask only one thing. The rhetorical questions keep rolling and verse 3 begins with the snarky “Are you so foolish?” But then Paul asks again about their experience, “After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” That question has a double meaning.

Paul often talks negatively about “the flesh.” So people get the idea that he is an ascetic who hates the physical body, who wants us just to focus on “spiritual,” immaterial life in our minds or hearts. But for Paul the word “flesh” means a whole way of life and thinking that is opposed to God and His way for us. That’s what he means when he asks the Galatians if they are going to finish what they began by the flesh, by entering into a kind of life which is the opposite of life Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Yet Paul knows that “flesh” has its usual meaning as well, so he’s also asking them if they are going to complete the work of the Holy Spirit by focusing on some physical act like circumcision or eating a Jewish diet. Are they really imagining that living the life they started by faith is going to be made better by the way they treat their bodies? Taking care of your body is not bad, but is it really going to save you?

Once again in verse 4 Paul gets sarcastic, “Have you experienced so much in vain…? That is, was everything faith in Jesus did for them all for nothing? So verse 5 puts it another way with another rhetorical question, “does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” There it is again, “Law or faith?” this time wondering where all the miracles they saw came from. Was it faith in Jesus or keeping kosher that produced all those miraculous experiences?

Since the issue in Galatia is Jewish Christians trying to make Gentiles more Jewish, Paul goes back to the very beginning of Jewishness. Abraham is where Jews got their start, the ancestor of them all. So verse 6 quotes Genesis 15:6 to make the point which we also read in Romans 4 this past week, that Abraham himself was blessed by faith, not by doing the law. He “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”

The law didn’t even exist when Abraham put his faith in God. As Paul explains in Romans, Abraham’s faith came before he was circumcised. The law had not yet even been given. Moses was still more than four hundred years down the pike. It was faith that was first and primary. Being circumcised because God told him to was simply an expression of Abraham’s faith. It was faith that made him the father of God’s people, not the law.

Verses 7 to 9 explain why Abraham’s faith is so important. God’s ultimate plan is not just to love and save Abraham and his physical descendants. God’s did not choose Abraham to single out one small group of people who prove themselves by getting circumcised and keeping the Sabbath and not eating certain foods. No, verse 8 says that God announced the Gospel of faith in Jesus in advance to Abraham when God said, “All nations will blessed through you.” And that happens through faith. “Those who have faith are children of Abraham,” says verse 7. Verse 9 repeats the idea, “So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.”

Some Christians, maybe Lutherans, will give you the impression that God had a plan A and a plan B. Plan A was to give people the law, a bunch of commandments to keep. When it turned out that no one was successful under plan A, when no one was able to keep all those commandments, God stepped up with plan B, which was Jesus.

That plan A and plan B idea left it open for “Judaizers” (that’s what you call people who try to make Christians be Jewish too) to suggest that while plan B to have faith in Jesus is fine, to be really right with God you need to complete plan A too. But that’s all wrong, says Paul, because there was really only one plan from the beginning, all the way back to Abraham and that plan is about faith, about trusting Jesus Christ.

Paul is amazed that the Galatians, having experienced faith, really want to put themselves under the law. Why in the world would they want to do things that way when God’s plan of faith is so much better?

My wife Beth experienced an epiphany about brownies when she left home. Her mother used to make brownies and frost them. But, Beth tells me, her mother would take the freshly baked pan of brownies, cut them into squares, and then individually pick up each brownie and frost it. It took forever. Out on her own, making her own brownies, Beth realized she could frost the whole pan first in a few seconds and then cut it all up. Now Beth would never go back to doing it her mother’s way. She’d have to crazy to want that. That’s how Paul feels about the Galatians wanting to be under the law. Why would they ever want to go back to all that work, which was not, in fact, ever the real plan?

The last part of our text, verses 10 to 14, get even more complicated as Paul points out that the law is never going to work the way the Judaizers say it will. It’s not going to make you more righteous before God. It’s going to make you cursed. Paul started out by saying the Galatians were bewitched. Now he’s telling them that if they try to follow the law plan they are going to end up not just bewitched but cursed.

Paul’s argument here is complex and I’ll come back to it in a minute, but just let me point out that our Gospel reading today from Luke 18:9-14 is Jesus’ own beautiful picture of just exactly what Paul wants to say. You can find it on page 40 in The Books of the Bible. That Pharisee who came to pray was working on the law plan and he looked down on everyone who could not do it like he did. He boasted about his fasting and his tithing. But the tax collector came to God in humble faith, asking for and trusting in God’s mercy.

Jesus’ conclusion to His parable is just the logical inverse of Paul’s point. Jesus said that the man who humbly confessed and prayed in faith went home justified, that is, righteous before God. Which implies that the Pharisee, trying to justify himself by all the law he had kept, was not justified. In other words, he was cursed.

How do you and I get justified and keep from being cursed? As Paul keeps saying over and over, it’s not going to be by keeping the law, whether it’s Jewish law or some law that we make for ourselves. The plan is what it’s always been, faith in Jesus Christ, and in verse 13 we read, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung upon a tree.’”

Paul’s talking about the Cross of course. Jesus was hung upon the wood of tree. It’s exactly where Paul started this text, that what he had showed the Galatians was first and foremost Jesus Christ crucified. Jesus came to die on the Cross and rise again to save us from being cursed, and it’s by faith in Him that we are saved.

All the best stories we tell as human beings participate in that basic story, that Jesus came to save us from suffering and death through His own suffering and death. That story of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell tells how Jonathan had to enter himself into suffering, into a “black tower” of darkness in order to rescue not only Emma but his own wife who had also become trapped by the evil fairy.

Our faith in the redeeming power of Jesus’ suffering is much better than Mr. Strange’s story and every other story. It’s better because it’s true and because it is full of hope and promise and because everyone is included in it. Verse 14 repeats the basic purpose of God’s plan through Abraham and the Jewish people, “in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham,” the blessing of being chosen and loved by God, “might come to the Gentiles.”

You’ve been invited to read the Bible this fall as a “novel,” as a story. At least one of you worried whether that might make some people think it’s “just a story.” But Paul is trying to tell us that what God is doing, what the Bible records, is the biggest and most inclusive story of all. God’s plan was not just for a few special people in the past. God’s plan is to wrap everyone who will trust Him in faith into the one, big, single story of Jesus Christ and what He has done and is still doing.

Paul was upset with the Galatians because they got bewitched into believing some other story, a story which maybe includes Jesus but which wants to add something, to say there are other things we need besides Jesus. It’s like taking what the old movie called “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” and saying there’s an even better sequel. It’s trying to make the greatest somehow greater.

Paul said the Galatians were bewitched into thinking they needed to add the law to their faith in Jesus. In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis has a devil advise his nephew named Wormwood that it’s just exactly that “extra” which will help him lead a Christian away from the real Gospel. So Screwtape writes,

The real trouble about the set your patient is living in is that it is merely Christian… What we want, if men become Christians at all, is to keep them in the state of mind I call “Christianity And.” You know—Christianity and the Crisis, Christianity and the New Psychology, Christianity and the New Order, Christianity and Faith Healing, Christianity and Psychical Research, Christianity and Vegetarianism, Christianity and Spelling Reform. If they must be Christians let them be at least Christians with a difference. Substitute for the faith itself some Fashion with a Christian colouring. Work on their horror of the Same Old Thing.[1]

In the mouth of an imaginary tempter Lewis has placed a description of how what Paul is saying here about being bewitched into the law is relevant to you and me. It’s not just about being seduced into trying to obey Jewish law or even into Christian legalism. It’s about the whole mindset which imagines that faith is not complete until you add something to it, until you meet some additional standard or join some cause or become part of some special group other than the wide and diverse church of those who believe in Christ.

Lewis had some fun with the causes of his day as Screwtape rattled off his list of “Christianity And”s. We don’t have to look far to see what some of our own “Christianity And”s might be. It could be Christianity and Conservative Politics or Christianity and Social Justice. It may be Christianity and the American Way or Christianity and World Peace. Or perhaps it’s just Christianity and contemporary music or Christianity and liturgical worship. And all of us are tempted to very small additions such as Christianity and My Family, Christianity and My Career, or Christianity and My Self-respect.

Paul says to us what he said to the Galatians. Don’t be fooled or bewitched. None of those “extras” are any part of God’s plan to save you. It’s only faith in Jesus Christ which gives you the Holy Spirit and the kind of promise God made to Abraham. Obeying rules or serving a good cause or voting a certain way or keeping your family happy may be very fine things, but they won’t bring you any closer to God. Only faith in Jesus will do that.

At the end of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, there is poignant discussion between Jonathan and his wife Arabella. He is still trapped in the black tower, trying to find a way out, to dispel the darkness. He promises Arabella he will come back but tells her she should “not be a widow,” in other words that she should find someone else to marry. After we watched it on television, Beth said, “I didn’t like that part.”

We have a much better promise a happier ending. In verse 14, Paul says God’s blessing came to us, to Gentiles (and Jews) “through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” The Holy Spirit in us is God’s promise that He is going to finish the job entirely. Jesus is going to return to us and raise us from the dead and make this world His kingdom and make us His bride. And the only way into that happy ending is faith in Him, in Jesus Christ who suffered, died and rose again to secure that promise.


Valley Covenant Church
Eugene/Springfield, Oregon
Copyright © 2016 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj

[1] C. S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1975), p. 115f.