"O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain. He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?" (Gal. 3:1-5.)
There is scarcely a more interesting portion in St. Paul's writings than this, because it shows the peculiar fascination of the law on real believers. One form of the corruption of the gospel of the grace of God is the reducing it to a system of ordinances: this tendency showed itself in the Galatian churches, and the correction of it forms the subject of this part of the epistle. The apostle addresses the Galatians, as 'foolish,' just as our Lord did His disciples, "O fools, and slow of heart to believe."
There was folly in looking to the law for righteousness after they had known the grace of the gospel. The grace of the gospel had been presented to them most conspicuously in the doctrine of the Cross of Christ, but there was a 'bewitching' power which drew them off from the Cross, and made them turn to the law for righteousness. It was as though the law had set its eyes on them, like the snake on its victims, so that they were utterly powerless to get away from it. No language can more forcibly present to us what the law really is; whether moral or ceremonial, we need not enquire, for the Scripture regards the law as a whole. Some would fain add their own moral righteousness as a make-weight in the scale of their justification; others have recourse to a system of ordinances, to make up for the defect of moral righteousness; but, in either case, it is the fascinating power of law which prevents them from looking to Jesus Christ, as the object which God proposes for righteousness to every one that believeth. Again, how strong is the expression, "before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you." The publicity and prominence which the apostle gave to the doctrine of the Cross, was that of a proclamation set forth by authority in the most frequented parts of the city. Such appears to be the force of 'set forth.' Had the eye of the Galatians been fixed on the cross of Christ, they would not have turned to law for righteousness. When the doctrine of the Cross is set forth in all its stern truth, it is God's verdict against man's pretensions to wisdom, or righteousness, or strength; and it is this which makes that doctrine still offensive. But at the same time, the doctrine is full of comfort to those who know it; for it is the "making an end of sin, and bringing in everlasting righteousness."
Did you, says the apostle, receive the Spirit, because you kept the law? or because you believed the testimony to the finished work of Christ? The Holy Ghost is the seal of God set on that perfectly finished work, that we may know the value which God has set on it. God will not set such a seal on any imperfect work or righteousness. But if He gave the Holy Ghost to them, it was in consequence of their complete cleansing by the blood of Jesus, and the perfect righteousness in which they stood before God in Him. Beginning in such a blessed standing in the Spirit, they were so foolish as to think to better their standing by some works of their own. This is very instructive, because it so often characterizes a stage in the career of a believer. Ignorantly and unconsciously, it may be, after his first joy in the knowledge of Christ has been blunted, and he has lapsed into worldliness or carelessness, he seeks to recover the sense of security by some energies of his own, instead of seeing that the sense of security can only be had by standing in grace. He begins in the Spirit, acknowledges the true doctrine of the Cross, not only as that in which he finds remission of sins, but as that which has also taught him his own worthlessness; nevertheless, such is the fascinating power of law, he would fain be made perfect by the flesh, as the Galatians were attempting to do.
Again, they had been sufferers; but had they suffered because of their attempts to keep the law? No; but on account of their confession of Christ. Their heathen friends and relatives did not persecute them because they asserted that duties were to be regarded, but because of the exclusiveness of the doctrine of Christ, which would allow no goodness, strength, righteousness, or wisdom, but in His name.
As to the apostle himself, had he been putting them under the law? did he minister the Spirit to them upon the ground of legal obedience, or of faith in Christ? He then refers to Abraham.
"Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness. Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham." (Gal. 3:6-9.)
In the epistle to the Romans, as well as in this epistle, the apostle refers to the history of Abraham. His history is given us at large in the Scriptures, as God's portrait of a believer. If the history of all believers were written by the Spirit of truth, we should find the same general outline as in the history of Abraham. "They which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham." Abraham stood before God not as a doer, but as a recipient of blessings, and depositary of promises. And thus Abraham becomes the head and pattern of the family of faith. The language which the apostle uses is very remarkable, — "the Scripture foreseeing." He here invests the Scriptures of the Old Testament as with an attribute of God; and this shows the place which these Scriptures have in unfolding the counsels of God. "The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed." A sinner of the Gentiles is justified before God, just in the same way as Abraham was, undertaking nothing, doing nothing, but receiving the testimony of God to what God Himself has done. It was indeed in the case of Abraham as to what God would do but "the promise which God made to the fathers, He has fulfilled the same, in that he has raised up Christ from the dead." Abraham believed God, and we believe the same God, who now testifies to what He has done in the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus. The more simply we take God at His word, the more we resemble Abraham. "So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful [that is, with believing] Abraham."
"For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith." (Gal. 3:10-14.)
But if, instead of taking God at His word, by believing on His Son, and thus setting to our seal that God is true, we have recourse to legal works or legal ordinances for our justification, we immediately get off the ground of blessing, as being recipients of what God gives to us in Christ, as freely as He gave promises to Abraham, and we bring ourselves under the curse. This is a solemn thought that after hearing of the grace of Christ, any should be so fascinated by law as to bring themselves in so terrible a position. But so it is. That same Scripture which so blessedly preached the gospel to Abraham, as sternly says to all who put themselves under the law, "Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them." This Scripture cannot be broken. But the great professing body have so modified the grace of the gospel of God, so fettered it with conditions, and at the same time so pared down God's law to the level of human convenience, that they have become almost identified with the Galatian error, and, therefore, under the sentence of these solemn words. The law knows nothing of mercy. It takes its course. It is of no use to say, I believe that God gave the law, or even to approve of it. Have you continued in it? If not, you are under the curse. But the gospel pronounces this great oracle, "The just shall live by faith." As the apostle himself had said, "I live by the faith of the Son of God." Those who live on their own graces get into an unhealthy state of soul. Neither our good works nor our graces are Christ. We cannot have faith in them. They may be evidences to others, but not to ourselves, who have the certain evidence of God's testimony to Christ. "The law is not of faith;" it is not answered by believing, but by doing. But you do answer God's testimony to the finished work of His Son; and rest your soul upon it by faith. It is well to notice the 'we,' 'ye,' 'us,' in this epistle. It was not Gentiles, but Israel, who were brought under law at Mount Sinai; and those who were under it needed Christ's work on the Cross to redeem them from under it; and yet these Gentiles were virtually putting themselves under the law. Paul knew what it was to be under the law, and knew the blessedness of deliverance from it. "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree." Those who were under the law must needs be rescued from such a position, or they never could have confidence in God. Christ magnified the law, and made it honourable; not to impose it on sinners of the Gentiles, to bar their access to God, but to make a clear way for the outflowing of the riches of God's grace to them, "that the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ." God now meets sinners, not in the way of requirement, as under the law, but in the way of setting forth Christ "as a propitiation through faith in His blood." God Himself is preaching peace by Jesus Christ; so that the blessing comes as freely to those who believe, as it did to Abraham. There was no promise of the Spirit to those who were under the law; that promise was connected with faith, and was made good in consequence of Christ having glorified the Father, and finished the work He had given Him to do; for the Holy Spirit came down in consequence of the exaltation of Jesus. It was not because they had kept the law, that Paul and other believing Jews received the Spirit, but because they believed in Jesus; they received "the promise of the Spirit through faith."
"Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise." (Gal. 3:15-18.)
The apostle proceeds to illustrate his doctrine by reference to an ordinary practice among men. If a man makes a will, and bequeaths certain legacies, absolutely and unconditionally, no one would allow an executor afterwards to impose conditions. "Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto." We usually attach a legal sense to the word covenant; but it was no legal covenant that God made with Abraham, but absolute, unconditional promises, which God Himself covenanted to perform. But God's covenant had respect to Christ, Abraham's special Seed, in whom all the promises of God are yea and amen, unto the glory of God by those who believe. Receiving Christ by faith, therefore, we receive all the promises as absolutely and unconditionally as they were made to Abraham. Now, says the apostle, the law, which was given so long a time after the promises made to Abraham, cannot invalidate these promises: such a thing would not be allowed in a parallel case among men. The legacy, bequeathed absolutely and unconditionally, cannot be disturbed by any thoughts of the executor as to the fitness of the person to receive it. Just so, the New Testament may be regarded as the Will of the Lord Jesus. He gives a legacy, and is the Executor of His own Will, when He says, "Peace be unto you; and He showed the disciples His hands and His feet." He will not allow that which He has freely given to be disturbed by conditions afterwards imposed; because it would nullify promise altogether. "For if the inheritance be of law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise." The word 'gave' in the original implies the idea of grace. The blessing, therefore, depends, not on the competence of man, but on the faithfulness of God. Will He who has promised revoke His promise? No; that is impossible. Abraham believed God, and so we, through Christ, believing on God, our faith and hope are in God.
"Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one." (Gal. 3:19-20).
The question necessarily suggests itself, — "Wherefore then the law?" "It was added because of transgressions;" literally, for the sake of transgressions — that is, to make manifest to man himself what the sin was which God knew to be in him (see Rom. 5:20); and to show man, if he had not a faithful promiser to undertake for him, and to fulfil all that was needed, he never could attain to blessing. The law itself proved, that man could not stand under it, and was necessary in order to vindicate the wisdom of God in promising blessing in Abraham's Seed; and was to continue till that "Seed should come to whom the promise was made." Thus, the law, instead of invalidating or superseding, tended to confirm the way of promise made known to Abraham, as the only possible way in which a sinner was or is capable of being blessed by God. The apostle adds — "It was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one." This is a passage of confessed difficulty, yet I think the leading thought may be gathered from it, and a blessed thought it is. God used the ministry of angels in giving the law, putting them between Himself and Israel, as Stephen testified, "who have received the law by the disposition of angels." This was a kind of mediation of distance; and distance from God characterized the giving of the Law from Mount Sinai. All the circumstances were those of terror, and the people were alarmed, and dared not hear the voice of God, but would have Moses receive the words direct from God which he might rehearse to them. There was Moses the mediator, as he tells them: "I stood between the Lord and you that time, to show you the word of the Lord: for ye were afraid by reason of the fire, and went not up into the mount." (Deut. 5:5.) The mediation of Moses was to keep the Lord and the people apart — a mediator is not a mediator of one. The people were one party at Mount Sinai, and the Lord the other, and Moses stood between them. Such was the mediator of the law, the very opposite to the Mediator of the New Testament, which is to bring near and bring together, instead of keeping apart. Corrupt Christendom has followed the pattern of Moses, and, by a system of false mediation, whether the Virgin Mary, or angels, or an earthly priesthood, bars nearness of access to God; setting God and man in the same relative distance in which the law set them. Mediation connected with law, and mediation resulting from grace, are as opposite as possible, — distance characterizing the one, and reconciliation the other. There was no terror when the word of the Lord came to Abraham — no terror in the gracious words which proceeded from the lips of Jesus — no terror when the apostles went forth on the ministry of reconciliation, based on the mediation and finished work of Jesus. God is one. It is no longer two parties to be kept at a distance one from the other, lest destruction should ensue; but God preaching peace, God testifying to what He has done in the death and resurrection of Jesus, God Himself in the New Testament writing His laws in the heart, putting them in the mind, saying, "They shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord; for they shall all know Me, from the least to the greatest; for I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more." God is one; and therefore there is not a people in the new covenant undertaking to answer the requirements of God. But to turn from the gospel back to the law is to undertake, on our own responsibility, that which God promises to perform according to His own grace and faithfulness. Distance from God must be the necessary consequence. If you look for salvation to anything yet to be done on your part, instead of rejoicing in Christ Jesus and His finished work, you will become as these 'foolish' and 'bewitched' Galatians. In the old covenant, the people undertook; in the new covenant, God Himself hath undertaken. "God is one;" and therefore there can be no failure.