Galatians 3:1-2, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that 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?”

How can God accept me? Only if I trust in Jesus Christ. This is the biblical doctrine of justification by faith that Paul taught the Galatians. I cannot be saved by anything I do; I can be saved only by what Jesus did when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. There is no way for me to make myself right with God because I am unrighteous. But Jesus made things right through his crucifixion and resurrection. All that is left for me to do is receive the gift of God’s free grace by putting my faith in God’s Son.

This doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone has always had its detractors. If justification comes by grace, then all the glory goes to God. But people want to keep some of the glory for themselves. Thus they seek to justify themselves before God by their own works.

Martin Luther encountered this problem when he began preaching the gospel in his native Germany. According to Luther, “The doctrine of justification is this, that we are pronounced righteous and are saved solely by faith in Christ, and without works.” Yet when Duke George of Saxony heard this teaching, he complained that it was “a great doctrine to die by, but a lousy one to live with!” The duke recognized that justification by faith is a great comfort in death. It guarantees that when the sinner stands before God’s throne, all his sins will be pardoned. Instead of having to defend his life, the sinner will be defended by the life of the crucified Christ. But Duke George wanted to know what there was to do in the meantime. If the sinner is saved ultimately by God’s grace rather than by his own works, how or why should he live for God?

The answer Paul gives at the beginning of Galatians 3 is that justification is not only a great doctrine to die with, but also a wonderful doctrine to live by. The biblical doctrine of justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is a doctrine for the whole Christian life from beginning to end.


It may be helpful to review Paul’s argument to this point. In chapters 1–2 he used his spiritual autobiography to prove that he was a genuine apostle of the one true gospel. Now in chapters 3–4 he explains the theology of that gospel, beginning with a rebuke.

Paul’s rebuke must have caused quite a stir when his letter was first read in Galatia: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Gal. 3:1). Paul was upset. Although to this point his language has been forceful, it has not been quite so personal. Yet here he practically splutters with indignation. And rightly so! The Galatians were in danger of nullifying the grace of God. The so-called Judaizers had come from Jerusalem to persuade them that works of the law were necessary for their justification. But in that case, what was the point of the cross? Why would someone else have to die for my sins if I could take care of them myself? The logical implication of justification by works is that “Christ died for no purpose” (2:21).

With this thought in mind, Paul’s subsequent outburst becomes completely understandable. “For when we hear,” wrote Calvin, “that the Son of God, with all His blessings, is rejected and that His death is esteemed as nothing, what godly mind will not break out into indignation?” As far as Paul was able to tell, the Galatians were guilty of sheer spiritual stupidity.

The Galatians were behaving so foolishly that the apostle suspected some kind of witchcraft. “Who has bewitched you?” he demanded (Gal. 3:1). The Greek term ebaskanen means “to give someone the evil eye, to cast a spell over, to fascinate in the original sense of holding someone spellbound by an irresistible power.” It was as if a sorcerer had cast an evil spell on them, or as if a magician had them under his hypnotic influence.

Paul knew, of course, that the Galatians were not really enchanted. They were under the influence of false teachers who wanted to add the law of Moses to faith in Jesus Christ to produce a “Jesus plus” gospel. But the language he uses suggests that there was some kind of demonic influence at work. One of the devil’s favorite stratagems is to distort the truth so that people can no longer tell the difference between the one true gospel and all the false alternatives.

Doctrinal error has two primary sources: human ignorance and demonic malevolence. The church in Galatia faced both problems. The Galatians themselves were so foolish as to abandon the gospel, but as we shall see, they were doing so because they were under spiritual attack. Even to this day, theological nonsense always comes from the same two sources. A family member becomes entranced with a cult, for example. Parents refuse, on religious grounds, to give a child proper medical care. The leaders of the church are either unable or unwilling to discriminate between justification by faith and justification by works. In part, these errors may be due to sheer human folly. But if this seems like an inadequate explanation, remember that Christian doctrine is the battlefield where the most intense spiritual warfare takes place.

This does not mean, of course, that Satan is to be blamed for our own foolishness. A good illustration of this comes from Germany after the Second World War. A group of ministers met to discuss why the church had failed to take a stand against the evils of the Third Reich. Some of them tried to justify their actions by appealing to the “demonic forces” that had led them astray. But another minister stood up to reproach them. “Gentlemen,” he said, “we have all been very foolish.” When it comes to theological error, we should beware the wiles of Satan without overlooking our own seemingly boundless capacity for folly.

Christ on Display

In order to “break the spell” that they were under, the Galatians needed to look to the cross. Paul follows his rebuke with a reminder: “It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal. 3:1). The fact that Paul specifically mentions the eyes is intriguing, because the ancients generally thought that enchantment came through “the evil eye.” Now that they were bewitched, the Galatians needed to fix their eyes back on the cross of Christ.

The Galatians had seen the cross before, when Paul came to them preaching the gospel. The word “portrayed” comes from the world of advertising. The Greeks used it to refer, for example, to the kind of public notice posted to show that a property was up for sale. What the Galatians had seen, then, was a graphic public display of the crucified Christ. Jesus Christ had been placarded before them, as if on a giant billboard or a large canvas. This does not mean that Paul used visual aids in his preaching, like a sketch pad or a flannelgraph. Nor does it mean that he hired an ad agency to market the gospel in Asia Minor. He is referring instead to his proclamation of the gospel. It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words. But if there is time for a thousand words, people can see the picture for themselves, which is what happened when Paul presented the gospel. Whether he preached standing out in the streets or sitting down in people’s homes, he always publicized the same thing: Jesus Christ, and him crucified.

When Paul and the other apostles preached the gospel, they began with the person of Jesus Christ, the incarnate Son of God. Jesus was and is true God and true man, one person in two natures, human as well as divine. The apostles first identified Jesus as the God-man. Because he was a man, he was able to enter into our situation and suffer for our sins. Because he was also God, he was able to live in perfect obedience and offer a sacrifice of infinite value.

The apostles preached that this Christ had been crucified. To preach is to portray the cross. Paul always preached what he called “the word of the cross” (1 Cor. 1:18). He said, “We preach Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:23). Or again, he resolved “to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). Paul’s gospel was the gospel of the crucified Christ. It centered on the death of God’s own Son on the cross, and on the implications of that death for the salvation of the world.

It is significant that in Galatians Paul speaks of the crucifixion in the perfect tense. He used the perfect form of the verb “crucify” back in chapter 2 when he said, “I have been crucified with Christ” (2:19). He uses it again at the beginning of chapter 3. Literally, Jesus Christ was portrayed not “as crucified,” but “as having been crucified” (Gal. 3:1).

The perfect tense denotes a past event that continues to have significance in the present. And if ever there was an event that called for the perfect tense, it was the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Jesus was crucified on a particular day, by particular men, outside a particular city, on a particular tree. If we had been there to witness his crucifixion, we could have reached out to touch the cross and picked up a splinter in our fingers. The crucifixion was a factual event in human history. On the cross, Jesus gave his life as the once and-for-all atonement for sin. According to God’s strict standard of justice, sin demanded the death penalty, which Jesus paid. By God’s mercy, the sacrifice Jesus made was accepted as the full price for sin. This is what it means to portray Jesus Christ as crucified.

But there is more. God proved that he accepted the sacrifice Jesus made by raising him from the dead. Therefore, to preach Christ having been crucified is not simply to preach him crucified; it is also to preach him risen. Jesus is no longer on the cross. At this very moment he is a risen and living Savior who is able to grant forgiveness to everyone who believes in him. This forgiveness goes all the way back to the cross, a past event with a present consequence.

Paul was upset with the Galatians because they were forgetting all of this. He had laid out for them Jesus Christ having been crucified. But then some other teachers had come along to write some graffiti on his billboard. Unwilling to accept salvation in Christ alone, they wanted to add their own finishing touches to the work of Christ.

What the Galatians needed, then, was a reminder that on the cross Jesus did everything necessary for their salvation. Jesus is, in the words of John Brown, “the only and all-sufficient Saviour.” His cross is the only and all-sufficient atonement for sin. Thus our faith in him is the only and all-sufficient way to be justified before God. And since Jesus is the only and all-sufficient Savior, it would be totally senseless to try to add anything to what he did on the cross. In particular, it would be utter and complete folly to try to get God to accept us by keeping his law. The only way to be justified is by faith alone.

In the Beginning

Deep down, the Galatians knew that they were justified by faith alone, for this is how they had come to Christ in the first place. In order to stop them from going back to the law, Paul made a personal appeal to their spiritual experience.

This appeal came in a series of rapid rhetorical questions—four of them in all:

  1. A question about initiation, in which Paul took the Galatians back to the moment of their conversion: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:2).
  2. A question about completion, or how the Christian makes it to the end of the Christian life: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal. 3:3).
  3. A question about persecution, the cost of following a crucified Christ: “Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” (Gal. 3:4).
  4. A question about miracles and their meaning for the Christian life: “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?” (Gal. 3:5).

Essentially, all these questions boiled down to a single issue: Does the Christian obtain the Holy Spirit by working the law or by hearing with faith? This question was meant to be rhetorical, for the Galatians could not possibly deny their experience of the Holy Spirit. If they were Christians at all—as Paul assumed they were—they had received the Holy Spirit when they came to Christ.

Paul’s mention of the Spirit is a reminder of God’s triune being. There is one God, who exists in three persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Each person of the Trinity is involved in the salvation of the sinner. The Father sent the Son to be the Savior, and now the Father and the Son send the Spirit to convert the sinner.

The Galatians knew something about the work of the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Trinity, for they had come under his regenerating influence. They had received his gifts, such as teaching and prophecy. They were starting to display his fruit—love, joy, peace, and all the rest (Gal. 5:22–23). The Holy Spirit even worked miracles among them, as he often does when the gospel first penetrates a culture. The apostles cast out demons and healed the sick. Perhaps the Galatians themselves had performed mighty works of divine power, at least for a time. Having had all these memorable experiences, the Galatians could never forget what the Holy Spirit had done in their churches. They had irrefutable evidence of his work and presence.

Paul wanted to know the cause of this work of the Spirit among the Galatians. He recognized the life-shaping power of spiritual experience. He understood that people often make decisions based on their encounter with God. But he also understood that it is Christian doctrine that explains religious experience, and not the other way around. So he wanted to know how the Galatians had received the Holy Spirit.

There were and are only two possibilities: the Spirit comes either by “works of the law” or by “hearing with faith.” The phrase “works of the law” refers to law-keeping in general, and not simply to the Old Testament ceremonial law. So here two principles are set in opposition: law and faith. If the Spirit comes by working the law, then there is something I must do to get the Spirit. If I keep Torah and follow the regulations of the Old Testament law, then God will give me his Spirit. Thus the blessing of the Holy Spirit is God’s reward for my spiritual achievements.

Left to themselves, people want exactly that: some method that will guarantee a good spiritual experience. Show us where the bar of obedience is so we can press it and get the religious cheese. But God is not a mechanism. The only way to know him is by entering into a trusting relationship with him. The indwelling presence of his Spirit comes by faith alone. A group of Chinese Christians had this truth clearly in mind in 1998 when they drafted a confession of faith for their house churches, in which they wrote: “For by grace we are saved through faith; we are justified by faith; we receive the Holy Spirit through faith; and we become the sons of God through faith.” Justification and the Spirit come by faith.

There is another sense, of course, in which the Holy Spirit precedes faith, for it is the Holy Spirit who enables a sinner to believe in Christ in the first place. But the work of the Spirit does not become fully evident until the sinner actually believes, as the Galatians knew from their own experience. The question Paul asked them was a real “no-brainer.” They did not have to do anything to get the Holy Spirit. In fact, they had received the Spirit long before the Judaizers came to tell them they had to keep the law. They simply trusted in what Jesus had done on the cross and through the empty tomb. The Galatians received the Spirit when they came to faith in Christ. As Paul puts it, they received the Spirit “by believing what [they] heard” (Gal. 3:2 niv), namely, the law-free gospel of the crucified Christ. For the Christian, hearing is believing. Faith in Christ comes by hearing the gospel, and the Spirit comes along with the faith. Thus the Spirit’s work is not a reward based on a person’s own spiritual achievement, it is a gift granted to those who believe in Christ’s achievement.

In case the Galatians had any doubts as to where the Spirit came from, Paul gave them a hint: “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal. 3:2). The gift of the Holy Spirit was not something they gained; it was something they were given. This is hinted at again in verse 5, where Paul makes it clear that God is the one who generously supplies the Spirit—not to those who observe the law, but to those who believe the gospel of his Son.

What Paul says here helps to clarify several important truths about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. Some Christians teach that the Holy Spirit is a gift Christians receive sometime after they come to Christ. This “second blessing” suggests that Christians come in two varieties: with and without the Spirit. What Paul says here obviously rules this idea out. The gift of the Spirit is received by the same faith that lays hold of Christ. The works, gifts, and fruit of the Holy Spirit belong to the very beginning of the Christian life. Thus the whole Christian life is lived in the Spirit.

Notice also that the Spirit is not opposed to sound doctrine. Indeed, the two belong so closely together that we cannot live by the Spirit unless we are orthodox in our theology. A church that does not have sound doctrine does not experience the true blessing of the Holy Spirit. The converse is equally true: a church without the Spirit is not as orthodox as it thinks it is.

From Start to Finish

Once the Galatians were forced to admit that they had received the Holy Spirit by faith alone, the argument was over. This is why Paul said he wanted to ask them only one question. Grant him that the Spirit comes by faith alone, and the whole matter is settled.

This truth—that the Holy Spirit comes by faith alone—has profound implications for the Christian life. It means that the Christian life finishes exactly the way it starts. The way into the Christian life is also the way on in the Christian life. “Are you so foolish?” Paul asks. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (Gal. 3:3 niv), or, more literally, “by the flesh”? The term “flesh” calls to mind the physical rite of circumcision. What it means is human nature apart from God’s Spirit, in all its weakness and sin. So Paul’s question is this: Are you trying to be perfected by your own (sinful) efforts?

The very suggestion is absurd, of course, yet it is precisely what the Judaizers were telling the Galatians. They said that faith was fine as far as it went, but justification was completed through works. John Stott summarizes their theology as follows: “They did not deny that you must believe in Jesus for salvation, but they stressed that you must be circumcised and keep the law as well. In other words, you must let Moses finish what Christ has begun. Or rather, you yourself must finish, by your obedience to the law, what Christ has begun. You must add your works to the work of Christ. You must finish Christ’s unfinished work.” However, there is never any need to refinish the finished work of Christ. In fact, trying to do so would ruin his priceless work altogether. It would be something like retracing Babe Ruth’s signature on a baseball. Rather than adding to its value, doing so would completely destroy it.

Paul understood that only God can complete what God has begun, so that the completion must come by faith rather than by works. He said as much to the Philippians, using exactly the same word to say it: “he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion [i.e., perfection] at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil. 1:6). And if it is true that God is going to complete his work in us by faith, it would be sheer folly to go back to the law: The gospel of Christ crucified, as Paul saw it, so completely ruled out the law as a means of getting right with God that it was scarcely credible that people who had once embraced such a gospel should ever turn to the law for salvation.”

One of the reasons it would have been especially foolish for the Galatians to return to the law has to do with all the hardships they had faced: “Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?” (Gal. 3:4). The word “suffered” (epathete) may refer to actual suffering, such as the kind of persecution that Paul and Barnabas endured when they first came to Galatia (Acts 13–14). Perhaps the Galatians themselves had come under attack for their faith in Christ. But if the cross is unnecessary, then why bother to be persecuted for it?

There is another option, however. The Greek word is also a word for “experience.” Thus it might simply refer to all the spiritual experiences the Galatians had been through. The Holy Spirit had done a gracious, even a miraculous work among them, but now Paul wondered whether it had all been in vain. He sincerely hoped not. In fact, his words at the end of verse 4—“if indeed it was in vain”—seem almost hopeful. Perhaps all is not yet lost.

At first glance, these verses seem to be about sanctification rather than justification. Sanctification is the process by which a sinner becomes more holy. Christians usually think of sanctification as everything that happens after justification (which comes at the beginning of the Christian life). Their thinking goes something like this: “I was justified by faith when I first came to Christ. Now that I am justified, I must move on to my sanctification.”

It is true enough that sanctification follows justification, but justification never gets left behind. We will never stand before God on the basis of our own righteousness. We can stand before God only on the basis of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Once and forever, we are justified before God by the righteousness we have received by faith. To be sure, we are becoming more holy all the time. Having been justified, we are now becoming sanctified. But we cannot use our obedience—as imperfect as it is—to establish our righteousness before God. To put this another way, we cannot base our justification on our sanctification.

From start to finish, the whole Christian life is by grace through faith. A new life in Christ commences with faith, continues by faith, and will be completed through faith. To put this another way, the gospel is for Christians just as much as it is for non-Christians. We never advance beyond the good news of the cross and the empty tomb. There is nothing else to add to faith as the ground of our salvation because faith unites us to Jesus Christ. Works have no part in establishing the basis for our salvation, but are added to faith in much the same way that a building rests upon and rises from its foundation. Therefore, the Christian always looks back to the gospel and never to the law as the basis for his righteousness before God.

What the Judaizers were saying really amounted to self-justification. They wanted the Galatians to justify themselves before God (and man) by adding works to faith. In particular, they wanted the Galatians to be circumcised. But for Paul the issue was not really circumcision; his concern was the very idea of merit-based religion, which is precisely why justification by faith alone is the main subject of his letter. Paul attacked the Judaizers over circumcision not simply because he wanted to promote better Jewish-Gentile relations, but because he was concerned for their very souls.

There is no such thing as performance-based Christianity. Having begun by faith, we must continue by faith. Justification is a doctrine for the whole Christian life from start to finish. It is not simply a doctrine for coming to Christ in the first place, although we are justified the moment we trust in Christ. Nor is it merely a great doctrine to die with, although God will justify us through faith in Christ at the final judgment.

Justification is a doctrine to live by each and every moment. It is a doctrine for the damned. There comes a day when every man, woman, and child must admit to being a hardened sinner, rotten to the very core, and deserving of God’s just wrath. When that day comes, the only hope is to come to Christ by faith alone.

Justification is also a doctrine for the doubtful. There are days in the life of every Christian when the whole thing seems rather implausible. Is it true that God loves me and has a wonderful plan for my life? Does he really care about me? When the doubts come, the believer goes back to the cross where Christ died to justify sinners and holds on to it by faith alone.

Justification is a doctrine for the discouraged, too. At times, things seem rather gloomy and hopeless. In fact, sometimes they seem altogether impossible, so that we wonder how we can make it through another day. But this is exactly why we need to preach the gospel to ourselves every day. As we get out of bed we say, “I know what my real problem is: I am a sinner living in a sinful world.” Then as we step into the shower we say, “Although I am a great sinner, I have an even greater Savior, who loved me and gave himself for me.” By breakfast time we are able to make it through the day, trusting in God’s grace alone.

The good news of the gospel is that even though we are lost and needy sinners, if we know Christ, then we are and always will be justified. Justification is much more than a great doctrine to die with, although it certainly is that. Justification by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone is also a wonderful doctrine to live by.

A painting by the Flemish painter Hendrik Leys (1815–1869) illustrates what happens when Christians lose sight of the crucified Christ. The painting is called “Women Praying at a Crucifix near St. James in Antwerp.” The women themselves are portrayed with painstaking detail. Careful attention is paid to every fold in the fabric of their gowns. Likewise, the background is painted to show the beauty of the garden by the church wall. There is one thing missing from the painting, however, and that is the cross itself. Leys shows the women at worship, but not the Christ they have come to adore. “So what do we see?” asks the Dutch art critic Hans Rookmaaker (1922–1977). “People from a past period, full of faith, reverent, praying—but we do not see the object of faith, the crucified Christ.”

Often, this is precisely our problem in the Christian life. Recovering Pharisees that we are, we sometimes lose sight of the object of our faith: Christ having been crucified for our sins. But when we bring him back into the picture, and see him portrayed as the Savior who not only died, but also rose again, then we regain the vision to live for him by faith.