A Commentary by John Stott
Galatians 3:2-5. 1). The argument from their own experience.
Paul assumes that they have all received the Spirit. His question is not whether they have received Him, but whether they received Him by works or by faith (verse 2). He assumes also that this is how their Christian life began (verse 3: *having begun with the Spirit*). What he is asking concerns *how* they received the Spirit and so began the Christian life. What part did they play in the process?
It is important to be clear about the possible alternatives, which the apostle terms ‘by works of the law’ (i.e. by obeying the law’s demands) and ‘by hearing with faith’ (i.e. ‘believing the gospel message’, NEB). The contrast already adumbrated in 2:16, is between the law and the gospel. As Luther writes: ‘Whoso…can rightly judge between the law and the gospel, let him thank God, and know that he is a right divine.’ 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. So the law and the gospel are contrary to one another. They are not two aspects of the same thing, or interpretations of the same Christianity. At least in the sphere of justification, as Luther says. ‘the establishing of the law is the abolishing of the Gospel’.
In verse 5 Paul uses the same argument in a second way – not now from the point of view of *their* receiving the Spirit, but from the point of view of *God* giving the Spirit: *Does He (that is, God) who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?* The verbs ‘supplies’ and ‘works’ do not necessarily refer to a continuous activity of God. It seems more probable that they are timeless, referring still to Paul’s visit when they received the Spirit, but that now he is speaking of their experience from God’s point of view. When Paul visited Galatia, God gave them the Spirit and worked miracles through him (‘the signs of a true apostle’, 2 Cor. 12:12). The question is the same: ‘*How* did God do these works among them?’ And the answer is the same: Not ‘by works of the law’, but ‘through hearing with faith’. God gave them the Spirit (verse 5) and they received the Spirit (verse 2), not because they obeyed the law, but because they believed the gospel.
This, then, was a fact of their experience. Paul had come to Galatia and preached the gospel to them. He had publicly portrayed before their eyes Jesus Christ as crucified. They had heard the gospel and with the eye of faith had seen Christ displayed on the cross. They had believed the gospel. They had trusted in the Christ exhibited in the gospel. So they had received the Spirit. They had neither submitted to circumcision, nor obeyed the law, nor even tried to. All they had done was to hear the gospel and believe, and the Spirit had been given to them. These being the facts of their experience, Paul argues, it is ludicrous that, ‘having begun with the Spirit’, they should now expect to complete ‘with the flesh’. This is another way of saying that, having begun with the gospel, they must not go back to the law, imagining that the law was needed to supplement the gospel. To do so would be not ‘improvement’ but ‘degeneracy’.
Tomorrow: Galatians 3:6-9. 2) The argument from the Old Testament Scripture.