Series: Spirit-filled, by Rosie Moore.
I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Gal 2:20-21)
It’s easy to spot an outright lie, but a twisted truth is more difficult to see.
The Galatian Christians had begun their Christian life well, in the power of the Holy Spirit. But now, many were losing sight of the gospel they’d first heard, forgetting that they must grow and persist in the same power of the Holy Spirit. They were struggling to trust completely in what Christ had secured on the cross and in his Spirit’s power to change them.
Just sixteen years after Christ’s death (49AD), many of these Christians were mesmerised by a false gospel that perverted the good news of Christ crucified. This hollow deception was infiltrating the church, leading sincere believers away from their freedom in Christ. In fact, it was driving them back into slavery to ‘works of the law’.
See if you can spot the six straight-shooting questions Paul asks the Galatian Christians to bring them back to the true gospel:
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 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— 6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Gal 3:1-6)
The way they begun
It is good to think back to when our spiritual life begun (Gal 3:3).
For the Galatians, many were probably converted in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost, others through Paul’s message. The Galatian believers had begun their Christian life when the Holy Spirit convicted them of the truth of the gospel, leading them to repent and turn in faith to Jesus as Saviour and Lord. They immediately received the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:37-39). As a sign of their cleansing of sin and new life in Christ, they were baptized in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Baptism was, and remains, a mark of belonging wholly to Christ.
So for us too, saving faith is the only entrance gate of the Christian life (Gal 3:2). It is not simply faith that believes in God or even tries hard to obey God’s commands. It is putting all our hopes in the life, death and resurrection of God’s Son, the Saviour. We begin our Christian life when we respond to the gospel with faith. There is no other way.
A twisted truth
But, ever so quickly and imperceptibly, the church in Galatia was absorbed in a new brand of Christianity touted by Jewish Christians called Judaizers. The fledgling church was lurching on dangerous ground. Even Peter and Barnabas compromised their beliefs to blend with these insistent Jews and keep the peace (Gal 2:11-14). They stopped eating with Gentile believers.
These radicals wanted to turn Gentile Christians into Jews, adamant that they should follow Jewish laws and customs, especially circumcision. But, what made this cultural ideology so beguiling was its ring of truth and reason: After all, weren’t God’s Old Testament laws good, custom-made for his people to flourish? Wouldn’t it be safer for the gospel if Christians could blend in as Jews and not stand out? (Gal 6:12)
It may not be easy to spot, but the deceiving power behind false teaching is its mask of half-truth.
Notice how Paul pulls back the mask and exposes the weak, miserable, enslaving principles that undergird them (Gal 4:9).
Nancy Guthrie explains why Paul was so intolerant: “The circumcision Abraham was commanded to carry out pointed to a cleansing to come that would not only mark the body but also change the heart. This ritual purification became an experienced reality when Christ provided the cleansing that circumcision pointed to…Christ also experienced in our place the judgmental aspect of this sign. He was cut off from God for us, fulfilling the penalty of the covenant, putting an end to circumcision as the mark of one belonging to God. Rather than being marked as belonging to God by circumcision, we are marked as belonging to God in a new way—through baptism” (Matt 28:19; Gal 3:27-29).
“Through baptism God marks us as belonging to him.” (Nancy Guthrie, The Promised One).
By running the false ideology through the grid of the true gospel, Paul shows that they are taking a step backward, not forward in their faith. It is a simple test that every Christian must apply if we are not to be taken “captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world, rather than on Christ” (Col 2:8). We cannot afford to be gullible.
A Gospel grid
Paul’s urgent plea is to persist in what we have originally heard. The alternative is to be sidetracked by cultural pressure and man-sourced wisdom. The false dogma didn’t match the simple truth of the gospel, and Paul gives four reasons why:
- The deceptive philosophy demanded human effort and rituals, rather than relying on what Christ had done perfectly, taking the curse of sin on our behalf (Gal 3:13; 4:8-11). It reduced Christianity to a set of rules, not grace. And it transformed the Good news of the gospel into burdensome, bad news (Gal 2:20).
- It perverted the unity that Christ purchased on the cross for all believers, when he permanently destroyed all human barriers, so there’s “neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus…Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (Gal 3:27-29). It undermined God’s plan to bring together a people from every nation, tribe, people and language to share equally in Abraham’s blessing (Gal 3:7-9).
- The relational fruits of this philosophy were rotten, breeding alienation, division, pride, envy and confusion—one believer devouring another (Gal 1:7; 4:17-20; Gal 5:15).
- The rot of hypocrisy was spreading quickly to well-meaning believers (Gal 2:13).
And so, Paul is adamant that nothing should distort the clear and true gospel in the Galatian church.
Likewise, for believers today, perhaps this is a useful grid to use whenever we need to “weigh carefully what is being said”, “to test and hold onto the good” (1 Cor 14:29; 1 Thess 5:21; 1 Tim 4:1). In a culture saturated with beguiling beliefs and false teaching, we must be discerning, as the consequences of being deceived are dire.
Persistence in the Holy Spirit
In a nutshell, we need the Holy Spirit to persist in the Christian life (Gal 3:3-5). Persistence is always more difficult than being sidetracked. I must admit that persistence often seems too simple or too ordinary to me.
But let’s remember that we became Christians through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit brings us new life, and even our faith to believe is a gift from him. Often the Spirit’s greatest work in Christians is to teach us to persist, to keep doing what is right, to keep believing that God is who he says he is, and will do what he promises to do. Persistence in believing the simple gospel message we first heard.
The reality is that life in a broken creation is hard. We get tired of fighting daily battles and who doesn’t wish for a magic formula to launch us into a better place? But let’s never move beyond the gospel of grace. We have been saved by God’s grace in Christ, and that’s how Christ’s Spirit will continue to mature us and make us more like our Saviour. The Holy Spirit will continue to teach and lead us, to create in us new desires for love, joy, peace and many other good fruit. Only the Holy Spirit can end our bondage to our sinful desires.
So let’s persist in the Holy Spirit, “that the gospel of truth may remain with us” (Gal 2:5)
Lord, fill us with your Spirit and stir us up to see that every day offers up new opportunities to live for you, wherever we are. Save us from hollow and deceptive philosophies that give us many things to do, but draw us away from the true gospel. May we persist in faith and in the power of the Holy Spirit, so that Christ’s character is formed in us, day by day. Amen.