“Are ye so foolish?”
“Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3)
The Galatians were acting foolishly, in utter stupidity. They had received the message of the gospel under the powerful demonstration of the Holy Spirit. They had trusted Christ as he was revealed to them by the Holy Spirit. They had received the great blessings of the gospel under the sovereign influence of the Holy Spirit. But now they were being bewitched.
The servants of Satan came among them preaching another gospel. The old serpent began to deceive many and turn them away from the simple faith of the gospel. These false teachers were saying that something must be added to faith; and that, though we are justified by faith in Christ, yet we are not perfected, or sanctified by faith. They taught that if men would be true Christians, if they would be sanctified, then the works of the flesh must be added to the righteousness of Christ to accomplish this. They did not openly deny the gospel. They did not come out and say, “You must be saved by grace and by works.” Satan is too slick for that. What these Judaizers declared is that though we are saved by grace, we must finish the work ourselves. Paul says, “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, having been justified by the work of Christ and having received it by the Spirit, do you now think that you can perfect yourselves?”
Our Savior declares, “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing” (John 6:63). The Spirit is life. The flesh is death. The indwelling of God the Holy Spirit is the indwelling of Christ, the indwelling of Life. It is by the Holy Spirit that we are born again. We have faith by the gift and operation of the Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit who gives us assurance of the forgiveness of sin, and of sonship. It is the work of the Holy Spirit to illuminate our minds, assure our hearts, and keep us sealed in grace as the purchased property of Christ. It is the Holy Spirit who bears witness with us, and who enables us to bear witness to others. The flesh can do none of these things.
The flesh speaks of the absence of Christ. As it is used here, the word flesh indicates anything apart from Christ, or in addition to Christ, which we depend upon as meritorious before God. The Galatians were beginning to renounce Christ as the all-sufficient Savior. Having begun in the Spirit, they were now placing their confidence in fleshly things, such as legal works, the observance of ceremonies, the practice of circumcision, sabbath keeping, and even the things they ate and drank, or did not eat and drink! They hoped to make themselves perfect, complete, and holy by the works of the flesh. What stupendous, disastrous stupidity!
Paul seems to say, “Your beginning was so hopeful, but your continuation is so sorrowful. And just think of it, those false guides whom you are following have a name for this process of going down hill. They call it “becoming perfect.” How foolish! What Paul here says of the Galatians applies equally to those who trust in anything except Christ for salvation in our day. If a man bases his hope for life, or anything in heaven upon anything apart from, or in addition to Christ, he is depending on the flesh. Christianity is “Christ in you;” and Christ in you is the work of God the Holy Spirit.
Christians are Trinitarians. We believe, according to the plain statement of Holy Scripture, that there is one living and true God, and that there are three persons in the Godhead: The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each is equal to the other in all things. This is what the Book of God declares. ― “There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost and these three are One” (1 John 5:7). Yet, for the purpose of our redemption, in the covenant of grace each of the Sacred Three voluntarily assumed to himself one aspect of the great work of saving the elect.
Ephesians 1 teaches this with complete clarity. In the covenant of grace God the Father is the great Architect of salvation. He purposed the great work (vv. 3-6). God the Son is the great Accomplisher of salvation. He purchased salvation (redemption and forgiveness) for his people (vv. 7-11). God the Holy Spirit is the great Applier of salvation. He produces the work of grace in the heart and effectually applies it to chosen, redeemed sinners (vv. 12-14). Let us never think lightly of God the Holy Spirit. He is not a mere influence upon us. He is our great God, and it is his office in the Covenant of Grace to apply the finished work of Christ to the hearts of the elect, and to bring them safely to heaven. Salvation, in the experience of it, is altogether the work of God the Holy Spirit.
At the very beginning of our experience of grace, in the new birth, in the gift of faith, and in effectual calling salvation is the work of the Spirit. Our Lord Jesus tells us plainly that our being born of God and our believing on him is not the result of something we do (John 1:12-13). He told Nicodemus that no man could either see or enter into the kingdom of God until he is born again; and that that new birth is the sovereign, irresistible work of the Spirit (John 3:1-8).
Yes, God’s elect were saved from eternity in the purpose of God. Let men argue with that as they may, God states it plainly (Rom. 8:28-30; 2 Tim. 1:9). Yes, every chosen sinner was saved by Christ when he redeemed them from the curse of the law ((Rom. 5:10; Gal. 3:13). In preaching the gospel we declare to eternity bound sinners, utterly helpless before God, dead in trespasses and in sins, redemption accomplished, and salvation finished by the crucified Son of God. In that sense salvation is altogether outside our experience.
Yet, salvation is something every chosen, redeemed sinner experiences in time. The chosen must be born of God. The redeemed must be called. The called must believe. The believing must follow Christ. The follower must persevere unto the end. The whole of salvation, as it is experienced in time, is the work of God the Holy Spirit. Those who are spiritually dead can no more raise themselves up to spiritual life than the physically dead can raise themselves. Resurrection to life is the work of God the Spirit (Eph. 2:1-5). Unbelievers can no more make themselves believers than blind men can make themselves see. Faith is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22), the gift of his grace (Eph. 2:8), and the operation of his omnipotent, irresistible mercy (Eph. 1:19; Col. 2:12).
It is God the Holy Spirit who, at the appointed time of love, causes chosen sinners to hear the gospel, not in word only, but in power and in much assurance, creating life and faith within (1 Thess. 1:5; Rom. 10:17; 2 Pet. 1:23-25). He makes the gospel effectual, making it to each of the redeemed the gospel of his own salvation accomplished by Christ (Eph. 1:12-14).
He works faith in us by revealing Christ to us and in us by the gospel (2 Cor. 4:4-6; Gal. 1:15-16; Zech. 10:12). When Christ is revealed, the Holy Spirit convinces the sinner of his sin, of righteousness accomplished, and of justice satisfied by the crucified Son of God (John 16:8-11). And it is God the Holy Spirit who preserves us, by whom we are sealed until the day of our resurrection (Eph. 1:14; 4:30). We persevere in faith because we are kept by his grace.
In all this great work there is nothing to be attributed to the flesh. The whole work is the work of grace, free, sovereign, irresistible, indestructible, everlasting grace. ― “It is the Spirit that quickeneth; the flesh profiteth nothing.”
The Holy Spirit indwells every believer. The church universal is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 6:19-20; 2 Cor. 6:16). Every true local church is the temple of the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17), an habitation of God by the Spirit (Eph. 2:22). He is the antitype of the Shekinah in the Old Testament (Num. 9:15-2; 2 Chron. 7:1-3). And every believer is indwelt by God the Holy Spirit. He is our ever abiding, indwelling Comforter, Teacher, and Keeper. That is the doctrine of Christ in John 13-16. The Holy Spirit keeps every believer in absolute security (John 10:28; 1 Pet. 1:5). He is our Sanctifier, the One whose presence with us, giving us a new nature, has sanctified us in the experience of grace. He is the Anointing and Unction of God, by whom we are taught all things (John 14:26; 1 John 2:27; 1 Cor. 2:14).
He comforts our hearts by taking the things of Christ and showing them to us (John 14:16-18). He gives us the peace of pardon by revealing Christ to us, by sprinkling (applying to our hearts and consciences) the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God crucified for us (Heb. 9:12-14). We know that we have the forgiveness of sins, because the Holy Spirit speaks pardon to our hearts, declaring that Christ’s blood has satisfied justice. We have assurance of salvation and eternal, immutable acceptance with God by the Holy Spirit who gives us faith in our immutably accepted Substitute (Rom. 8:16; 2 Cor. 1:22; Eph. 1:14; Heb. 11:1-2). It is this gift of faith that assures us that we are indeed the children of God (Gal. 5:6).
Yes, the Holy Spirit began the work of grace in us, and he will finish it. That is what the word “perfect” means in Galatians 3:3. The legalists who were seducing the Galatians away from Christ taught that, though saved by grace, we must now finish the work God began in us by contributing the works of our flesh (self-righteous, law obedience) to the work of the Spirit to make God’s work of grace complete. What horrid blasphemy! Yet, it is the commonly accepted religion of the world.
How often I have heard people say to me, after hearing the gospel of God’s free, sovereign, saving grace in Christ, “According to what you preach there is nothing for me to do. God does everything.” My response is always, “I’m glad you heard what I said.” Did you get that? In this business of salvation, there is nothing for you to do. God does everything. He who called you will keep you. He said so. He who began his good work in you with finish it (without your help). He said so (Phil. 1:6; John 6:39). He who brought you out of the grave and raised you in the first resurrection spiritually will bring you out of the grave and raise you up to glory in the second resurrection. He said so (Rom. 8:1123).
To walk in the Spirit is to live by faith in Christ, trusting Christ alone for the whole of our salvation. To live after the flesh is to seek in some way, to some decree, by some means to establish some sort of righteousness for ourselves. Therefore, the Apostle Paul writes, “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him” (Col. 2:6). “Walk in the Spirit, and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.”
How did you receive Christ? We did not receive Christ by the works of the flesh, or by the hearing of the law, but by faith (Gal. 3:1-3). That is how we must live, if we would honor God. We honor God, fulfill the law, and magnify our Savior, only by faith in him (Rom. 3:31). There is no other way to do so.
How did you receive Christ? If you have received him, you received him by faith. You came to him as a sinner, trusting him as your Savior (1 Cor. 1:30-31). You bowed to him as a servant, receiving him as your Lord. You came to him as a Bride, like Gomer, conquered by his love, embracing him as your husband. As you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, trusting him alone for all things.
The flesh and the Spirit can never come together. God’s work of grace Paul refers to here as “Spirit.” The law he calls “flesh.” I know that appears strange to many, and offensive to others. The reason is clear. ― Multitudes seek to make themselves perfect by the flesh.
The works of the law he calls flesh, because the ordinances of the law were “carnal ordinances” (Heb. 9:10). Imposed upon the Jews during the Old Testament. The commandments of the law are called the “rudiments of the world” (Col. 2:8, 20) and “beggarly elements of the law” (Gal. 4:9). In the Old Testament, for the Jews of that Mosaic age, the ordinances of the law were spiritual, the ordinances of God. But all the law was temporary by design, pointing to Christ who fulfilled the law and is the end of the law. The law was a schoolmaster to lead to Christ. Now that Christ has come, having died, and risen again from the dead, the carnal ordinances of the law became useless. Besides that, God never intended them to be anything other than temporary rudiments and first elements. We are no longer under the law. We worship and live after the Spirit (Phil. 3:3).
To return to the law is to become apostate. It is to depart from Christ and deny the grace of God. That is how serious the matter is (Gal. 5:1-4). It is for that reason that Paul spoke so strongly about the believer’s freedom from the law in Christ. And it is for that reason that we must reject and flee from every attempt by men to bring us back under the yoke of legal bondage today, no matter what their pretense is for doing so. ― “As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him.”