Can You Begin by the Spirit and Be Completed by the Flesh?

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes 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 with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so many things in vain?—if it really is in vain. 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?

We have learned at least four things from chapters 1 and 2 that we need to keep in mind as we begin the main body of the letter. 1) There are false teachers in the Galatian churches preaching what Paul calls a different gospel (1:6), which is no gospel at all. 2) The opponents of Paul are discrediting his message by denying Paul's authority as an apostle. They say he has his gospel and apostleship secondhand and that the real authorities are the Jerusalem apostles. 3) Paul establishes by historical reports that his gospel and authority are not from any mere man, but came by revelation of Jesus Christ, and not only that, there is a deep unity of theology and faith between Paul and the Jerusalem apostles in spite of their independence. 4) The way Paul has defended his authority and his gospel show the kind of false teaching that is threatening the churches of Galatia. It appears that a Jewish group of professing Christians who claim to have James on their side (2:12) are teaching that it is not enough to trust Christ for righteousness. If you rely on faith alone, you become a "Gentile sinner" and make Christ the agent of sin (2:17)—they said.

So faith must be supplemented with "works of the law." Trusting in what Christ did for you has to be supplemented by what you can do for Christ. God's work plus your work equals justification. So the Judaizers required circumcision (2:3), dietary restrictions (2:12, 13), and the keeping of feasts and holy days (4:10), and at least implied that by these works the Galatians could contribute their part to the transaction of justification.

As far as Paul is concerned, if you buy into this mingling of faith and works, you nullify the grace of God (2:21), you step out of sync with the truth of the gospel (2:14), and you remove the stumbling block of the cross (5:11). As close as it may sound to the truth, as close as it may seem to be tied to the apostles, it is another gospel, which is no gospel (1:7), and those who follow it will be accursed and cut off from Christ (1:8, 9).

"It's Not How You Drive; It's How You Arrive"

The importance and relevance of this issue for us only increases as we turn to Galatians 3:1–5. For here it becomes crystal clear that the heresy of the Judaizers is not so much related to how you begin the Christian life but how you live it and try to bring it to completion. Anyone who says, "Well, I know that I began the Christian life by faith alone, and so the warnings of Galatians don't apply to me,"—that person has not understood the book, especially 3:1–5. Like my dad always used to say to me when I would out-drive him by 50 yards off the first tee: "It's not how you drive; it's how you arrive!" And he was right.

In 3:1–5 Paul does the same thing to the Galatians that he did to Peter in 2:11, 14ff.—he confronts them head on with their folly and the inconsistency of their behavior. They have begun to be sucked in by the Judaizers, and Paul shows them that their action contradicts the work of Christ on the cross and contradicts the work of the Spirit in their lives. Let's see how he does it. If you want to know the main point in advance, it is stated in 5:5. Galatians 3:1–5 is a series of rhetorical questions that don't come right out and state Paul's point. But 5:5 does: "Through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness." The hope and confidence of every Christian is that at the end of the world, when he stands before the Judge of the universe, the verdict he will hear is "righteous." And the point of this verse is that the only way to hear that verdict is to wait for it through the Spirit, not the flesh, and by faith, not by works. That's the main point of 3:1–5, indeed, of the whole book. So let's listen carefully to 3:1–5 and let the Lord teach us how to live through the Spirit by faith rather than through the flesh by works. For as Paul says in Romans 8:13, "Those who live according to the flesh will die."

The Foolish Galatians

Twice Paul calls the Galatians foolish. Verse 1: "O foolish Galatians"; and verse 3: "Are you so foolish?" The next phrase in verse 1 explains what he means by foolish: "Who has bewitched you?" He means that they are acting as if someone cast a spell on them. It's as if they have been hypnotized. They are irrational, out of touch with reality, mentally drunk.

Let me draw out two minor implications of these words. First, don't ever forget that it is the people who don't take Christ into account who are in a dream-world. The real fairy tale is not the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, but the fantasy of godlessness. The most seriously bewitched people are those who don't believe in demons. The most deluding stupor in the world is caused by the sedative of secularism. If Christ is real, it is not his followers who are fools.

Second, even though the Galatians are, as it were, bewitched, irrational, out of touch with reality, Paul still writes a very reasonable and tightly argued letter to break the spell. Some people say, "If people are dead in their sins (Ephesians 2:1) and blinded by the god of this age (2 Corinthians 4:4), there is no point in reasoning with them. Only the Holy Spirit can open their eyes." But Paul reasons for six chapters with people so deluded he calls them bewitched. The reason is that the Holy Spirit does not work in a vacuum. He uses the Word to break the spell of confusion and unbelief. Don't let the unreasonableness of your acquaintances stop you from sharing the wealth of the gospel. God may grant them to repent and come to know the truth and escape from the snare of the devil (2 Timothy 2:25, 26).

Contradicting the Work of Christ

The main thing Paul does in 3:1–5 is help the Galatians see why their actions are so foolish. The two reasons he gives is that they are contradicting the work of Christ on the cross, and they are contradicting the work of the Spirit in their lives. Verse 1 says, "O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified?" It was incredible to Paul that anyone who had seen Christ crucified in the gospel could still get caught up in legalism. The death of Christ for our sin shows how hopelessly lost we are, and how we can't make any contribution to our salvation. The stumbling block of the cross, the thing that makes it so offensive, is that it means in ourselves we are helpless (Romans 5:6) and can't do anything to enhance our justification or sanctification. Paul said in Galatians 5:11, "If I preach circumcision, . . . the stumbling block of the cross has been removed." If we believe that by being circumcised or doing any other work of law (tithing, going to church, teaching Sunday School), we can add to the work of Christ, then we are bewitched and do not understand the gospel.

Not only does the death of Christ for our sin show how hopelessly lost we are. It shows how utterly sufficient the atonement is which God made in Christ for our sin. The death of Christ is the death knell to our pride, but also the dawn of our hope. That it should take the death of the Son of God to atone for my sin should shut my mouth forever and bring my life to an end. But that it was no less than the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me (2:20) awakens new life of hope and faith. The cross kills the independent, self-reliant, insubordinate me, and the cross quickens a new me who lives only by faith in the all-sufficiency of Christ and never looks to itself with any expectancy of power or virtue. Therefore, when we or the Galatians follow the Judaizers and erect the law as a ladder to heaven on which to demonstrate our contribution of will or effort, we nullify the grace of God (2:21), we remove the stumbling block of the cross (5:11), and we show that we are bewitched and foolish (3:1, 3). That, then, is the first reason Paul gives for why the action of the Galatians is so foolish: it contradicts the work of Christ on the cross.

Contradicting the Work of the Spirit

The second reason Paul gives that the Galatians are foolish is that their action contradicts the work of the Spirit in their lives. Some of you expressed a special interest in hearing more about the practical meaning of Galatians 2:20, "It is not I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." I think 3:2–5 are a commentary on that verse; only instead of speaking of Christ in us, Paul speaks of the Spirit. The experience is the same because 4:6 says the Spirit which God sends is the Spirit of his Son. Christ and the Spirit are one. Christ comes to us in his Spirit. So keep 2:20 in view as we look at 3:2–5.

Paul begins to show them how their action contradicts the work of the Spirit, by reminding them how they received the Spirit at the start of their Christian lives. Verse 2: "Let me ask you only this: did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?" This verse raises three questions: 1) What is the relationship between becoming a Christian and receiving the Spirit? 2) What is the evidence that the Spirit is present in your life? 3) How do you receive the Spirit?

Becoming a Christian and Receiving the Spirit

1) The answer to the first question is that becoming a Christian means receiving the Spirit of Christ. Paul assumes in this verse that all Christians have received the Spirit. It's not something that happens later. Romans 8:9 makes this crystal clear, "Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him." This is why it is impossible to think of Christianity merely in terms of a change of beliefs and a change of status before God. Becoming a Christian always involves the coming of Christ's Spirit to dwell and work in the believer. As 2:20 said, the old self dies with Christ, and in its place the risen Christ comes to live. As a Christian you are no longer your own; you have been bought by Christ and possessed by his Spirit.

Evidence of the Spirit's Presence

2) What is the evidence of the Spirit's presence in your life? The New Testament teaches three kinds of evidence, and all of them are mentioned in Galatians. The first is mentioned in verse 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?" One evidence that the Galatians could point to was miracles that God was doing by the Spirit in their midst. I think this refers to the kinds of miraculous signs Jesus did, because the language used is so close to the language which describes Jesus' miracles in Matthew 14:2 and the gift of miracles in 1 Corinthians 12:6. In other words, mighty works like healing and exorcisms and significant altering of circumstances through prayer—these gave evidence to the Galatian believers that the Spirit had been poured into their lives. But Paul is aware that physical miracles in themselves do not verify the work of God's Spirit, since (according to 2 Thessalonians 2:9) Satan can produce powerful signs and wonders.

So it is important that we consider the second evidence of the Spirit in the Christian life, namely, the deep assurance that God is our Father and we are his children. Galatians 4:6 says, "And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts crying, 'Abba! Father!'" When your heart is enabled to cry out sincerely to God as your loving Father, it is evidence that the Spirit of sonship is in you. Paul puts it like this in Romans 8:15, 16, "You received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, 'Abba! Father!' it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are the children of God." So the second evidence of the Spirit's presence is the assurance we feel that God is our Father and that we are heirs with Christ of glory. (See also 1 Corinthians 12:3, "No one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit.")

But even assurance can be deceitful. Jesus tells about people who felt they were his disciples but will be turned away from heaven because their lives weren't changed (Matthew 7:21–23). So the third evidence of the Spirit's presence should be added, namely, a genuine impulse of love. Galatians 5:22 says, "The fruit of the Spirit is love." The bottom line in testing the Spirit is the test of love. For most of us there is a combination of these and other evidences (like joy in affliction, 1 Thessalonians 1:6; and boldness in witness, Acts 4:31) that signify the Spirit's reality in our lives.

How the Spirit Is Received

3) Now the third question verse 2 raises (and answers) is how we receive the Spirit. "Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?" Answer: by hearing with faith. Paul asks them: Remember back to the time I was preaching there in the synagogues and in the streets? I was reasoning from the Old Testament Scriptures that Jesus was the Christ; I was arguing that all people are sinners, that this Jesus died for sin and rose again, that any who trust him can have forgiveness and hope . . . and as you were hearing my message faith happened.

You didn't plan it, you didn't force it. It came upon you like dawn comes upon a darkened city, and with it—whether in front or behind you could not tell—came the Spirit. And you felt yourself crying out in your heart, "Abba! Father!" (Galatians 4:6), and, "Jesus is Lord!" (1 Corinthians 12:3). You did no works. You were worked upon. The Word of God, "sharper than any two-edged sword" (Hebrews 4:12), cut away all your defenses and laid bare your need and God's provision. "The light of the gospel of the glory of Christ" drove out the darkness of unbelief. You found yourself as helpless as a little child, yet utterly secure in the love of Jesus. He had come to you in his Word; the Word had produced faith; the old self of rebellion died; and the Spirit of Christ took up residence in your heart. Galatians, you did not get the Spirit, you did not become Christians, by working for God. You received the Spirit when God worked for you. As James 1:18 says, "Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth."

So verse 2 is the first step in showing the Galatians why their actions contradict the work of the Spirit in their lives. Paul reminded them how they began the Christian life. Then, as step two, Paul tells them in verse 3, you have to keep going the same way you began. "Are you foolish? Having begun in the Spirit are you now ending (or being completed) in the flesh?" The clear implication is, it can't be done. If you try it, you will make shipwreck of the Christian life (Romans 8:13). So we need to be very clear about what the Galatians were about to do here so we can avoid it like the plague.

The Spirit or the Flesh

Notice the change in terminology between verse 2 and verse 3. In verse 2 the contrast is between works of law and hearing of faith. In verse 3 the contrast is between beginning by the Spirit and trying to be completed by the flesh. We've talked about the Spirit. But now, what is this "flesh"? It is not physical. It's the old "I" which cherishes independence and self-assertion. Romans 8:7 says, "The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed, it cannot." Flesh is the autonomous self, so in love with its personal power of self-determination that it does not and cannot submit to God's absolute authority. But don't think the flesh always looks wicked. In its irreligious form the flesh always flaunts its insubordination to God in immorality, idolatry, envy, drunkenness, and the like, as Paul says in Galatians 5:19 where he describes the works of the flesh. But in its religious form the subtlety of insubordination and self-determination can manifest itself in a philosophy of Christian growth which encourages people who begin with faith to grow by works.

Consider verse 3 very carefully. It is not directed to those who are yet to start the Christian life. It is written for us who began some time ago and are now in grave danger of trying to live the Christian life in a way that nullifies grace and leads to destruction. The point of the verse is that you must go on in the Christian life the same way you started it. Since we began by the work of the Spirit, we must go on relying on the Spirit. 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." If you buy into that as a way of advancing in the Christian life, you have put works where faith belongs. 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? (Note well the issue in verse 3 is how to be completed, i.e., sanctification.) Are you advancing in the life of love by the power of the Spirit? Or are you trying to love in the power of the flesh, that is, by your own works?

Practical Advice

Let me close by describing, very practically, how I try to live the Christian life so that I can say it is "not I but Christ"; it is not by the flesh but by the Spirit. I use an acronym: APTAT. I begin my day with it, and I follow it when I must exert some effort to do right. The goal is for this way of thinking and feeling to become so much a part of me that I approach all of life this way.

"A" -
I acknowledge that apart from Christ I can do nothing of eternal value (John 15:5). I acknowledge with Paul in Romans 7:18, "In me, that is, in my flesh, dwells no good thing." I acknowledge that the old "I" which loved to deny this fact was crucified with Christ.
"P" -
I pray. I pray with Paul in 1 Thessalonians 3:12 that Christ would make me abound in love. I pray that grace might reign in my life through righteousness (Romans 5:21). I pray that God would produce in me the obedience he demands (Hebrews 13:21; 2 Thessalonians 1:11).
"T" -
I trust. This is the key because Galatians 3:5 says, "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?" In other words, the ongoing work of the Spirit to enable us to love as we ought happens only as we trust the promises of God (Galatians 5:6). So by faith I lay hold on a promise like Isaiah 41:10: "Fear not, for I am with you, be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand." I trust that as I act, it will not be I but the power of Christ in me and me only clinging to him in faith.
"A" -
I act in obedience to God's Word. But, O, what a world of difference now between such an act and what Paul calls works of law. The acknowledgment that I am helpless, the prayer for divine enablement, the trust that Christ himself is my help and strength—these transform the act so that it is a fruit of the Spirit, not a work of the flesh.
"T" -
Finally, when the deed is done and the day is over, I thank God for whatever good may have come of my life (Colossians 1:3–5). I thank him for conquering, at least in some measure, my selfishness and pride. I give him the glory (1 Peter 4:11).

APTAT: A—Acknowledge your inability to do good on your own. P—Pray for divine enablement. T—Trust the promises of God for help and strength and guidance. A—Act in obedience to God's Word. T—Thank God for whatever good comes. If you feel that this makes too little of you and too much of God, then I urge you to check your testimony against that of Paul who said in 1 Corinthians 15:10, "I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which was with me." And in Romans 15:18, "I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has wrought through me." So we are back to the main point of 3:1–5 stated in 5:5. Through the Spirit (not the flesh), by faith (not works), we wait for the hope of righteousness. Only when that is true can we say, "I am sure that the one who began a good work in me, he (and he alone!) will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6).