The Foolishness of Legalism, Part 3

December 20, 2009 Pastor: John Fonville Series: Galatians

Scripture: Galatians 3:1–3:5

The Foolishness of Legalism

Part 3


Text: Galatians 3:1-5


December 20, 2009




To keep the Galatians from living gospeless lives, Paul reminds them of three distinct experiences they had undergone that uphold the truth of justification by faith alone.

In 3:1-5, Paul will ask his converts 6 pointed, penetrating questions to expose their foolishness and to demonstrate the truth of justification by faith apart from works of the law. The first experience Paul reminds the Galatians of was his preaching of Christ crucified.


I.            The Galatians Experienced The Preaching of Christ Crucified. v. 1


There was no mistaking Paul’s message. The Galatians knew from their own experience of Paul’s preaching that justification is by grace through faith in Christ alone.




II.            The Galatians Experienced The Regenerating Power of the Holy Spirit. vv. 2-4


Paul’s mentioning of the Holy Spirit in v. 2 is a reference to the grace of regeneration, which is common to all believers. The Galatians’ reception of the Spirit marked the beginning of their Christian lives (see Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XXI, p. 81).

Thus, Paul asks,


“This only I want to learn from you Galatians. How did you receive the Holy Spirit? How did you begin your Christian life? Did you begin it by following the Law of Moses? Or, did you receive the Spirit by believing the gospel? Were you required to meet certain conditions (i.e., be godly) before you could be justified or were you freely invited to believe in Him who justifies the ungodly (Rom. 4:5)? Knowing that you received the Holy Spirit by hearing the gospel with faith, how can you possibly now believe that you received Him by works of the law?”


Based on their experience, the answer was obvious: When the Galatians heard the gospel, not the law, preached by Paul (v. 1) they received the Holy Spirit.

The receiving of the Holy Spirit in conjunction with the preaching of the gospel and faith is the consistent witness of Scripture. On the Day of Pentecost, Peter preached the gospel and Luke tells us the Holy Spirit immediately fell upon three thousand who received his word (Acts 2:41). When Peter preached the gospel to Cornelius’ household (uncircumcised Gentiles), Luke records how the Holy Spirit fell upon those who heard the gospel (Acts 10:44-47). Peter, at The Jerusalem Council in Acts 15: 7-11, defended the truth of the gospel and argued that uncircumcised Gentiles, who did not keep the Law, were nonetheless justified and received the Holy Spirit.

Likewise, the Galatians’ experience forced them to acknowledge this same truth. Therefore, the answer implied by Paul’s question was sufficient to expose their folly, to uphold the truth of justification by faith, and to refute the Judaizer’s false gospel.

F.F. Bruce writes, “If they conceded this point- and in the light of their experience they could do no other- they had conceded Paul’s case: the ground was taken away from the Judaizing argument,” (Galatians, pp. 148-149).

The Galatians knew they had received the gift of the Holy Spirit at the beginning of their Christian lives by faith alone. To answer to the contrary simply belied reality. They knew that Paul had not imposed upon them additional requirements to meet (e.g., circumcision) in order to be justified. However, this is exactly what the Judaizers were doing. The Judaizers maintained that if the Galatians really wanted to be right with God and enjoy His full favor, there were certain requirements/conditions they first had to meet.

Note carefully, the devil approves of this message and magnifies it in our hearts (later we will see what message the Holy Spirit approves of and magnifies).

As a result of this false gospel, many Christians, tragically, believe they are sub-par Christians. They think they have not attained to some, higher spiritual level of Christian existence.

As a result, they fall into tremendous guilt and despair because they do not think the grace of God and His promise of forgiveness applies personally to them. Why? They think that they need to wait to believe until they are better prepared (i.e., worthy). They believe they need to meet some set of special conditions or requirements.

But, listen to Walter Marshall,


“Christ wants you to believe in Him who justifies the ungodly; he does not require you to be godly before you believe (Romans 4:5). Jesus came as a Physician for the sick. He does not expect them to recover their health before they come to him (Matthew 9:12). The vilest sinners are properly qualified and prepared for the gospel’s design, which is to show forth the exceeding riches of grace when God pardons their sins and saves them freely (Ephesians 2:5-7)…The real insult to Christ is when you condemn the fullness of his grace and merit by trying to make yourself righteous and holy before you receive him! You condemn the justice and holiness of God when you try to improve yourself before you receive the righteousness and holiness that can only come through faith in Christ,” (The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, p. 103).


This is Paul’s argument to the Galatians. Again, the Galatians knew from their experience that Paul had not required them to be godly before they believed in Christ? There was not a set of conditions they had to meet before they could receive the Holy Spirit?

By believing the Judaizer’s false gospel (e.g., get circumcised, refrain from certain foods, etc.. in order to come into favor with God), Paul says the Galatians were foolishly nullifying God’s grace and calling into question the total sufficiency of Christ (cf. 2:21).

It is foolish to try and make yourself righteous and holy before you receive Christ! To do so is in reality a condemning of the fullness of Christ’s grace and merit.

And so Paul reminds the Galatians that the moment they trusted in the gospel he preached to them (v. 1) they immediately received Christ’s righteousness and the Holy Spirit. Paul’s question in v. 2 highlights the two leading issues of this letter, namely “works of the law” and “hearing with faith.”

Once again in this letter (cf. Gal. 2:16), Paul clearly distinguishes between the law and the gospel. There are only two ways of justification: works of the law or faith in the gospel.

Martin Luther notes,


“The Law never brings the Holy Spirit; therefore it does not justify, because it only teaches what we ought to do. But the Gospel does bring the Holy Spirit, because it teaches what we ought to receive. Therefore, the Law and the Gospel are two altogether contrary doctrines. Accordingly, to put righteousness into the Law is simply to conflict with the Gospel. For the Law is a taskmaster; it demands that we work and that we give. In short, it wants to have something from us. The Gospel, on the contrary, does not demand; it grants freely; it commands us to hold out our hands and to receive what is being offered,” (Luther’s Works, vol. 26, p. 208).


The righteousness of law and the righteousness of faith are directly opposed, mutually exclusive, irreconcilable and cannot be mixed or joined together in any way without destroying the gospel. For, if the righteousness of man is sufficient or even slightly necessary for justification, the righteousness of Christ is unnecessary (2:21). But, if the righteousness of Christ is necessary, then the righteousness of man (i.e., works of the law) can have no place (see James Buchanan, Justification, p. 316).

John Stott, commenting on v. 2, writes, “This is the difference between them: the law says ‘Do this’; the gospel says ‘Christ has done it all’. The law requires works of human achievement; the gospel requires faith in Christ’s achievement. The law makes demands and bids us obey; the gospel brings promises and bids us believe,” (Galatians, p. 71).

Paul’s question again demonstrates the sufficiency of the gospel of grace for both justification and the reception of the Holy Spirit (cf. Gal. 3:8, 14). We do not strive in the Christian life to earn our righteousness or the Holy Spirit. Both justification and the Holy Spirit (like every other blessing included in salvation) are gifts received (not earned) by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.

Note Paul’s use of the word “receive” (e˙la¿bete) in v. 2. This is a key word, which highlights his theology of grace over against works/merit (see also 3:14).

Timothy George writes, “‘To receive’ in these texts does not refer to a self-prompted taking but rather to a grateful reception of that which is offered…the Galatians received the Holy Spirit as an unfettered gift from the sovereign God quite apart from any contribution of good works or human merit on their part,” (Galatians, p. 211).

All the blessings of salvation are received not merited and depend entirely on the atoning work of Christ (see James Buchanan, Justification, p. 396). By His obedience and suffering, Christ fulfilled the Law in both its precept and penalty. Thus, He dispenses all the blessings that He has merited and the Holy Spirit by His grace and power enables and persuades men to receive them through faith alone.

Therefore, the precepts of the Law, such as, “Be holy,” “Be perfect,” “forgive one another,” “Be imitators of God,” “Walk in love,” “Walk as children of light,” “give thanks always,” “pray without ceasing,” “submit to your husbands,” “husbands love your wives,” “children, obey your parents,” “honor your mother and father,”) do not justify when they are heard or performed (see Luther’s Works, vol. 26, p. 208).

Even when we hear and perform commands such as these, we are neither justified nor rewarded with the Holy Spirit. Justification and the Holy Spirit are not the rewards for faithful living. Both gifts are received by faith. From the very beginning of your Christian life, the moment you believe the gospel, you are justified and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

This is a most powerful argument taken from the experience of the Galatians. It forced the Galatians (and us!) to admit that the Holy Spirit (like justification) is not given through the Law but through hearing the gospel with faith. The implication of this truth is most encouraging!

In his commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther points out that because it is the Father’s good pleasure to bless us with all spiritual blessings (Eph. 1:3), we must not allow our unworthiness or the greatness of our sins to stand in the way of receiving the gifts of justification and the Holy Spirit.


“…we must learn by all means that forgiveness of sins, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are granted- and granted freely- only when we hear with faith. Even our huge sins and demerits do not stand in the way. We must not consider how great the thing is that is being given and how unworthy we are; otherwise the greatness both of the thing and or our unworthiness will frighten us away. But we must bear in mind that it pleases God to grant this inexpressible gift to us freely- to us who are unworthy…If He is offering it and wants to give it, I do not consider my own sin and unworthiness. No, I consider the fatherly will that He who is giving it has toward me. I accept the greatness of the gift with joy; and I am happy and grateful for such an inestimable gift granted to me in my unworthiness, freely and by hearing with faith,” (Luther’s Works, vol. 26, p. 214).


Paul had not required the Galatians to undergo circumcision, follow dietary laws, keep Jewish feast days, etc… Rather, he came to Galatia and placarded Jesus Christ as crucified before their very eyes. The Galatians merely heard the gospel and believed and the Holy Spirit was given to them.

This is why Paul asks the Galatians, “Are you so foolish?” Having received the Spirit by hearing the gospel with faith, it was foolish for the Galatians to go back to works of the law. It is foolish to turn away from the pleasure of God (hearing with faith) to the curse of God (works of the law)!Yet, this is exactly how legal hearts think (i.e., the flesh, see v. 3). A legal heart views simple faith as completely insufficient. “Surely,” a man reasons, “this gift is so great, I must make myself worthy of it. I must do something. I must contribute something. I can’t just listen and simply receive such an immeasurable gift.”

However, listen again to Martin Luther,


“It seems to be exceedingly inadequate to say that the Holy Spirit is granted solely through hearing with faith and that nothing at all is demanded of us but that we refrain from all our works and just listen to the Gospel. The human heart neither understands nor believes that such a great prize as the Holy Spirit can be granted solely through hearing with faith; but it thinks this way: ‘The forgiveness of sin, deliverance from sin and death, the granting of the Holy Spirit, of righteousness, and of eternal life- this is all something important. Therefore you must do something great to obtain these inestimable gifts.’…But we must learn by all means that forgiveness of sins, Christ, and the Holy Spirit are granted- and granted freely- only when we hear with faith…a man becomes a Christian, not by working but by listening. And so anyone who wants to exert himself towards righteousness must first exert himself in listening to the Gospel,” (Luther's Works, vol. 26, pp. 213-215).




The law kills; the gospel gives life (2 Cor. 3:6). The law kills because it announces God’s requirements without granting the power to keep them. Just a few verse down in Galatians 3:10, Paul says the breaking of God’s law brings people under God’s judgment/curse.

The gospel, however, is the ministry of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:8). When the gospel is proclaimed the Holy Spirit works and brings life! But, if all people are subjected to week after week is a steady diet of moralistic legalizing, the Holy Spirit is not at work!

The question we want to consider is this: How do you know if you have the Holy Spirit?

The Holy Spirit doesn’t diminish Christ and make Him less sufficient or necessary. Rather, He testifies of and magnifies Christ in our hearts. When we receive the Holy Spirit, He doesn’t lead us back to relying upon our performance as the basis for maintaining a right standing relationship with our heavenly Father.

The Spirit’s chief work is to effectually persuade us to receive and rest upon Christ alone for salvation as He is freely offered in the gospel not only at the beginning but throughout the entire course our Christian lives.

James Buchanan writes, “So far from making Christ less ‘precious’ to us, the Spirit endears Him to us the more, as at once, ‘the Author and the Finisher of our faith,’ and teaches us to ‘rejoice in Him with joy unspeakable, and full of glory,’” (The Doctrine of Justification, p. 401).

Ask yourself: Am I trusting in Christ alone for my justification? Or, do I to some degree depend upon my morality or religious duties? When I find myself turning back to my performance (i.e., cherished idols), do I repent, confess my unbelief and look to Christ alone?


Do I find that I am made to pour out my affections, in some measure, on Christ, whereas before they were poured out on some idol? Do I find that I cherish Christ’s life and death? Are His obedience and suffering endearing to me? Do I rejoice in His Person and work?

Do I find more joy and comfort in Christ’s work for me or in my work for Christ? Is the truth of justification not only a past event but also a present reality in my daily life?

Finally, which reality affects my daily life more in terms of my sense of acceptance with God, the truth of the gospel (i.e., justification through faith in Christ, 2:20) or my own behavior?

“This is the grand object of His whole work in conversion, to bring a sinner to close with Christ, and to rely on Him as his own Saviour,” (James Buchanan, Justification, p. 398).

And I would point out that we do not simply close with Christ one time but rather every day. We are to close with Christ and rely on Him as our sole source of justification not just at the beginning but throughout the entire course of our Christian lives!

Paul reminds the Galatians (and us!) that we will always be dependant on the perfect righteousness of Christ for our acceptance/right standing with God. There is nothing we can do pre or post justification that will make us acceptable.

We will never come to a point in our Christian lives when we can dispense with Christ and depend upon our character for our acceptance with God. We are accepted for Christ’s sake not only the moment we believe but also throughout the course of our entire Christian lives.

The good news is that God doesn’t require you to be godly before you can be justified or receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Rather, Christ wants you to believe in Him who justifies the ungodly, as Paul wrote, “to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,” (Rom. 4:5).

The blessings of justification and the Holy Spirit are given solely by hearing the message of the gospel with faith and not by works of the law. Close with Christ. Receive and rest on Him now and forever.


43 To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” 44 While Peter was still saying these things, the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word. 45 And the believers from among the circumcised who had come with Peter were amazed, because the gift of the Holy Spirit was poured out even on the Gentiles,” (Acts 10:43-45).



© John Fonville

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