The Holy Spirit in the Epistle to the Galatians

Notes on a Bible Reading, Revised

The Christians in Galatia had been bewitched by a perverted gospel, which is a very popular gospel today, but in reality is no gospel at all, for it had removed them from Him who had called them to the grace of Christ. This false gospel was, that while, of course, Christ cannot be left out of the question, yet it is necessary that a man bring in his own works in order to be fully right with God. He may begin with Christ but he must trust to himself also and bring in the law and his keeping of its enactments. It was a mixture of grace and law, which won't mix, for if a man could be justified by the works of the law, there would be no need for grace at all, and Christ has died in vain.

In the third chapter of the Epistle Paul begins his great argument by challenging them as to how they received the Holy Spirit. Was it by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith?

Question: Explain the difference between the works of the law and the hearing of faith.

By the works of the law, everything depended upon the man himself. If he succeeded in keeping the whole law he was all right, but if he didn't, the curse rested on him, "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" (v. 10). As no man ever did keep the law, and as the flesh nature is in deadly opposition to it, it follows that every man who goes on that line, instead of getting the blessing is under the curse.

The hearing of faith brings God in. You listen to what He has to say. "Faith comes by hearing (not by working) and hearing by the Word of God." has he any good news for condemned and helpless sinners? Yes, He has. It is wonderful news. "Our Lord Jesus Christ, gave Himself for our sins, that He might deliver us from this present evil world, according to the will of God and our Father" (chap. 1:4). What a crime it is to spoil that. To hear and believe that gospel means that a man turns from his works and from himself as possessing any good, or having any hope of salvation by his own efforts, and turns to God. It is now with him a question of what God is and can do for him through Christ Jesus and not what he is himself or can do for himself and God.

Question: Why does he say, "Received ye the Spirit" and not "Received ye the Saviour?"

We believe on our Lord Jesus Christ, the Saviour, and we receive the Spirit in consequence. That seems to be the way the Scripture puts it. The gospel is concerning God's Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and we are sealed by the Spirit when we believe the gospel (Eph. 1:13-14). I wonder if gospel preachers are sufficiently impressed with the fact that the present purpose of the gospel is that men might receive the Holy Spirit. That comes out in Peter's first sermon in the Acts. "Repent and be baptised every one of you in the Name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost" (Acts 2:38).

Question: Why do you link on the Spirit to the gospel and not to church truth?

There could not be any church, apart from the Holy Spirit. "Ye are all baptised into one body by the Holy Spirit." But that is not the side of truth presented here. Here the gift of the Holy Spirit is part of the gospel: God could not give to us a greater gift. He gave His Son for us, that is the unspeakable gift, but He gives His Spirit to us. When a man believes the gospel, God says, That man belongs to Me, and He takes possession of him by His Spirit. The Spirit seals Him as God's property. This is a great evidence of His love.

I heard a very illuminating remark made by a brother. He said, "I would not give you my spirit if I could, Why? Because you'd know too much about me if I did. But God has given His Spirit to us because He wants us to know all about Him." It is by the Spirit that we enter into the joy and peace of the new life that grace has given us in Christ Jesus, and "the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit that is given to us."

Question: The flesh and the Spirit are set in contrast in this Epistle. What is meant by the term "the flesh"?

We must distinguish between the expression in chapter 2:20, and the way it is used elsewhere in the Epistle. There it is the body, the life of flesh and blood, but elsewhere it is the term used for what is entirely evil. It describes the natural condition of unregenerate man, whose will is opposed to God's. "They that are in the flesh cannot please God" (Rom. 8:8). There it is plain that it is not the body that is in question, for our bodies may be living sacrifices to God. It is that evil principle in man which makes self the centre of all his thoughts and actions instead of God. This is its very nature which cannot be changed: "It is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be." It was this flesh that was under trial under the law in the Old dispensation, and the law only demonstrated its badness. It should not be difficult to see what folly it was to turn from "the grace of Christ," which gave life, righteousness and power, to that which could only bring condemnation and death upon men.

Question: Why were they, and why are people now, guilty of such folly?

Well "the grace of Christ" makes nothing of us; it takes up those who are without merit, in whom dwells no good thing; it makes no demands, and asks no price. It gives its blessing to and receives into favour a brutal pagan like the Philippian jailer equally with a Pharisee of the Pharisees like Saul of Tarsus. To grace there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek; for the same Lord over all is rich to all that call upon Him (Rom. 10:12). You may say, that surely ought to be acceptable, but it is not, people don't like it; they don't like to have no cause for boasting in themselves, especially is this so with those who have built up a proud religious self. But when those who have been blest by this grace, fall from it (chap. 5:4) and turn again to the weak and beggarly elements whereunto they desire again to be in bondage (chap. 4:9), it is fairly certain that self has never been eclipsed by Christ, and that true Christian liberty has been but poorly realized if at all. So the flesh which is in us all re-asserts itself in them and would take credit to itself for being religious, ritualistic, perhaps benevolent, and even separate from worldly things; but sanctified, religious flesh is a poor substitute for the glorified Christ.

Question: The fact that the law has been set aside as a means of blessing, does not mean that there was any fault in it? Please say something about that and why grace has superseded it.

No: "The law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just and good" (Rom. 7:12), but it could do nothing with the flesh, "it was weak through the flesh" (Rom. 8:3), and only proved how bad the flesh was. Let us have an illustration. You are, we will suppose the best cabinet maker in the town and have the best of tools. I bring a piece of timber to your workshop and say, "I believe that to be a fine piece of timber and I want you to make a table of it for me." I call after a few days and say, "How are you getting on with my table?" "Not at all" you say. "Why, how is that," I ask, "I was told you were a first class workman and had the best of tools." "That's all true," you say, "no better work is turned out of any shop than mine; but your timber is rotten. Look for yourself, my saw only showed up how rotten your timber is, I can make nothing of it. If you are to have your table you will have to get an entirely new piece of timber. Let me show you," you say, and you take your saw and prove to me by it that my prized timber can never be turned into a table. The law has proved that no good thing can be made of the flesh, it has only brought out its badness. Having done that it has done its work, as the saw did its work with the timber, and just as I say, Throw the rotten timber out, so we are brought, sometimes by bitter experience, to condemn the flesh in us, and sin which is its very nature, and to have done with it. We can do this, because "God sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh" (Rom. 8:3). It is here that grace is appreciated and we can rejoice that we are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. We have received the Spirit by the hearing of faith and we rejoice in that and walk in the Spirit, instead of wasting our time on the rotten timber.

Question: It does not say we have received the Spirit by faith, but by THE HEARING OF FAITH. Is that important?

It is most important, for there are some who in a mystical way claim to have been baptised by the Spirit, as they call it, apart from the Word of God altogether. No, that is false and pernicious. The truth is that we receive the Spirit on believing a testimony from God; we believe the report that He sends us, for faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God. God reveals Himself to us in the word of the gospel that He sends us, we believe that He is as good as His word; as Abraham did, we are justified in consequence, as he was, and we are sealed by the Spirit. "That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith."

Question: There are two beautiful statements in chapter 4:4-7. I will read them. "But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ." Do these verses follow on in our subject?

Yes, they do, and wonderfully comprehensive they are. They bring out the absolute sovereignty of God's love when we were without hope in ourselves. The Triune God has wrought to bring us into the relationship of sons with the Father, and to make us intelligent and happy in it. What a wonderful gospel these verses unfold. We Gentiles were never put under the law by God, but we were under the yoke of sin and as far away from God as we could be and we needed redemption from our bondage, just as much as the Jew needed it from his. But the statement includes both Gentile and Jew, for if the Son of God came of a woman, it was with mankind in view; if He came under the law, it was that the Jew or anyone else who was under it might be delivered from it. But it was God who sent forth His Son, at the right time, when the law had done its work and there was no hope for man in it, when it was proved that man could bring nothing to God and that God's testing of him by the law only brought out the worst that was in him, then God sent forth His best — His Son. What wonderful love! And He did not send Him forth in the splendour of His eternal glory to fill us with fear, but He came of a woman. Thus was God's first promise made in the hearing of sinful Adam and Eve fulfilled. The eternal Son became a babe, the Seed of the woman, laid in the manger and tended by His virgin mother, and He came under the law, and thus was fulfilled God's promise to Abraham. He was the Seed of Abraham — a Jew — in whom all nations were to be blest.

Question: But it was not enough that He became Man. His death was necessary, wasn't it?

Yes, and such a death. If we were to be redeemed from the curse of the law Christ had to be made a curse for us; if we were to be set free from sin, He had to be made sin for us. He hung upon the tree for us, and "cursed is everyone that hangeth on a tree" (chap. 3:13).

And now we who were bond-slaves and far off have been received into sonship. God can do as He pleases, when He acts sovereignly. Under the Old Covenant — the law — God was limited by the conditions that men accepted but did not honour. In grace He acts according to His own desires, without any limitations. He does as He pleases. He might have made us servants and that would have been good, just as the prodigal thought that his father might have sent him into the kitchen to share the servants' bread, but that would not have satisfied his father's heart, nor would anything like that have satisfied God. He has nothing for us but the best. "Wherefore thou art no more a servant but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ."

Question: Chapter 3 says that we received the Spirit by the hearing of faith, and here we learn that it is BECAUSE WE ARE SONS that God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts. Is there any difference?

The first passage shows how the Spirit is received, and the second shows the character of the Spirit when He is received, He comes to us as the Spirit of God's Son sent forth by God from heaven. The Son was sent forth from heaven to redeem us, and the Spirit of the Son has been sent forth to indwell us and to lead us consciously and intelligently into this new relationship with God, which He in His marvellous grace had purposed for us. It is by the Spirit that we cry, "Abba, Father."

Question: What is the meaning of that?

It shows the nature and freedom of our relationship and approach to God. We are not at a distance from Him, nor are the great names by which He was known in Old Testament days the names by which we specially know Him, though they abide. To us He is Father. He has adopted us into His family, making us His sons, but if He had done that and no more, we might have felt utterly strange in such a relationship, but now having the Spirit of His Son, we are not strangers in it. We know the Father, we can enter into His thoughts and enjoy His love. The Spirit of His Son is our capacity for this, and we say, "Abba, Father," to Him. The very way in which Jesus confidingly addressed Him is the way we address Him now, and the way we address Him shows the freedom we have in His presence. We are not servants to God but sons.

Question: You speak of freedom, and I remember that we are told "the truth shall make you free, and the Son shall make you free." has that anything to do with this, and is it freedom from sin that is in question?

The words you quote are in John 8, and of course freedom from sin is an absolute necessity for the enjoyment of sonship freedom. "Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin"; from such bondage only grace and truth can set us free. But "if the Son shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." He makes us free with the freedom of the house, we have access to the Father who loves us as He loves His Son, and His Son shares His own place and relationship before the Father with those upon whom His choice and favour thus rests. It is inconceivable apart from sovereign grace, but it is the revelation of God's thoughts of love towards us. If we want to know the greatness and blessedness of this freedom we must learn it as set forth in Christ, the beloved Son, but we could not know it at all apart from the Spirit of the Son. He has come into our hearts that it might not be a mere dogma but a living and blessed reality.

Question: And when people go back to efforts at law keeping and ordinances and ritual as the Galatians were doing, they go back from that blessedness?

Yes, they give up the substance for the shadow, like the dog in the fable, that when crossing a stream with a piece of meat in its mouth saw the meat reflected in the water, and snapped at the reflection and lost the meat. Or to leave the faulty fable and turn to the perfect parable. Suppose the son in the father's house had said, My father is very good and this feast is very good, but if I am to keep my father's good will I must go into the kitchen and live as a servant and not a son. I must speak to my father as the servants do and not as a son should. Would not that be folly? And would it not prove that the prodigal had failed altogether to appreciate the full and unconditional character of his father's grace and love? Yet Christians who stand at a distance, and attempt to worship God by forms and ceremonies, according to the ritual of the past dispensation and who put a priest between themselves and God, are doing this. They are not standing fast in their Christ-given liberty; they are not crying by the Spirit of sonship, "Abba, Father."

Question: Why has the Holy Spirit of God such a prominent place in this Epistle?

Apart from the Holy Spirit the true blessedness of grace and of the Christian life and liberty cannot be known, and it was to bring them back to this from which they were departing that the Epistle to the Galatian churches was written. The legalists had by their seductive teaching forced Christ out of His true place in their lives, they had made them self-centred instead of Christ-centred, and Paul agonised and laboured that Christ might be restored again to the paramount place within them. "My little children," he wrote, "of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you?' This work had to be done IN them. So crucifixion and the Holy Spirit stand out in the Epistle. To use the allegory at the end of chapter 4, which we would do well to consider, Ishmael had to be cast out and Isaac had to be made supreme. Crucifixion deals with the first; the Holy Spirit is in us to establish the second. Multitudes of Christians have been bewitched by the Galatian error; they need deliverance from it. This can only be by the Holy Spirit's teaching and work.

Question: What is the teaching of the allegory of Ishmael and Isaac?

Ishmael is a figure of the man after the flesh, and Isaac is a figure of Christ. The flesh as we have seen is the very nature of the unregenerate man, and it will always make "self" the great object of a man's life instead of Christ, and while the Word definitely states that those in whom the Holy Spirit dwells are not in the flesh, yet the flesh is in them, and if they do not walk in the Spirit, the flesh will take control. Now one or the other, Ishmael or Isaac, the old self or Christ, will be magnified in our lives, and the flesh and the Spirit are continually opposed to each other in this conflict as to which shall have the Supreme place. The nature of Ishmael came out when Abraham made a great celebration for Isaac as his heir. He had probably behaved himself fairly well up to that time, for he had been educated and trained by Abraham, but the exaltation of Isaac tested him, it brought out his pride, and his contempt and hatred of the true heir, and proved that he had no sympathy with Abraham's thoughts. And as Ishmael was in regard to Isaac so the flesh is towards Christ. It can be very religious and amiable as long as it is allowed to control our lives; it is when the rights of Christ over us come to be considered that it shows what it is, it won't tolerate Christ. Paul himself had learnt this by a poignant experience. He was blameless in his flesh life as to all the outward observance of the law, he was a model and highly respected man; but be hated Christ with a great hatred. What an exposure of himself to himself it must have been when be discovered that God had exalted Jesus to the highest place in heaven. What soul agony he must have endured when he realized that in spite of his boasted goodness he had not a single thought in common with God, and that the flesh within him hated God's beloved Son! But he never would have awakened to his true condition of soul, and would have continued to be well satisfied with himself if he had not been born again by the Holy Spirit.

Now the flesh that was in Saul of Tarsus, and that made him Christ's enemy, is the same flesh that is in us, and nothing can change its nature, "that which is born of the flesh is flesh," and if there is to be anything in our lives for God the man after the flesh must give place to Christ in them, for "what says the Scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son; for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman" (chap. 4:30).

Question: How can that be done?

Let us see how Paul did it. He has told us that he "was not disobedient to the heavenly vision," but the "I" that had up to that time been Saul of Tarsus, the "I" dominated by the flesh, had to be swept from his consideration and from the control of his life, to make way for a new object and a new power. The new object was Christ and the new power the Holy Spirit. He had to confess, when he saw things as they really were, that the law in which he had boasted condemned him to death, he had incurred its penalty, and while he had thought himself so commendable, he was nothing more than an injurious law breaker under sentence of death. That must have humbled him to the dust. Moreover, it was the end of all hope for Saul of Tarsus as to putting himself right. Certainly the law could not help him for it had already condemned him "I through the law am dead to the law" (chap. 2:19), "and the commandment which was ordained to life, I found to be to death" (Rom. 7:10). And then he discovered what was ten thousand times worse, that he was fighting against God, and that his greatest energies were concentrated upon destroying the Name of the One whom God delighted to honour. But then and there he discovered the way of deliverance and life God had intervened for him. He had sent forth His Son to redeem him from the law's curse, and the Son of God had loved him and given Himself for him. What a revelation this was to his soul. It was the end of the hatred, and the end of Saul of Tarsus too, for he said, "I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me." That was the casting out of Ishmael and the enthronement of Isaac in Paul's life; the old "I" had given place to Christ.

Question: We need to have "I am crucified with Christ" explained to us. We know that He died for our sins, but what does this mean?

If we have believed the gospel that tells us "that Christ died for our sins, according to the Scriptures," we have something to thank God for, for that means the sins are gone. To this "the Holy Spirit is a witness to us, for after that He said before, Their sins and iniquities will I remember no more" (Heb. 10:15-17). But here it is not the sins but the man who committed them that as gone, for a crucified man has ceased to exist as far as the guilty life in which he committed the sins is concerned. If a new life can be given to him, he may live in that life, but it won't be the old "I" that lives, but the new "I". It will be Isaac and not Ishmael, Christ and not the old self. This had happened to Paul. He had a new object to live for, the old self had come under the complete judgment of God in the cross of Christ; he had acquiesced in that judgment, and the life that he lived he lived by the faith of the Son of God, who loved him and gave Himself for him. In the Son of God he had found an object worthy of all his thought, all his labour, all his life. Henceforward he did not consider for Paul at all, everything was judged in relation to Christ. His will, His glory, His interests on earth: these were Paul's consideration now, and he considered himself exceedingly happy that it was so, for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus his Lord had made him throw everything that he had formerly valued upon the dung heap.

Question: Are all believers crucified with Christ?

Yes, it is thus that God views them; His just and holy judgment passed on all that they were when Christ was made sin for them; their "sin in the flesh" was condemned then (Rom 8:3), their old man was "crucified with Christ" there (Rom 6:6). But that great truth must be true in us if it is to be of any practical value to us and glory to God through us. We must first believe it, because God shows it to us in the gospel, but it is by the Holy Spirit that we answer to the truth. The Holy Spirit is indispensable to the new life; He is the power of it.

Question: Is that why we are told to "walk in the Spirit and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh" (chap. 5:36)? What does that mean?

It shows the Spirit to be the Christian's strength, and that He can make him superior to all the desires of the flesh within, which the law could never do. The principle on which the law worked was repression; it was one big and continual "don't," and if it said "do" it gave no power to accomplish its command. The principle on which the Spirit works is the exact opposite to that. First there is given to us a blessed and worthy object for our love; our hearts are engaged, and the Spirit is within to answer to Christ, who loved us and gave Himself for us. We have a new and worthy object without, and a new power within, and as we walk in the Spirit, i.e., as we are led by Him, as our hearts and minds are controlled by and occupied with His things, the desires of the flesh do not dominate us, for we have got something infinitely superior to those desires in the Spirit's things. The law would have kept down the fleshly weeds, but it could not; the Spirit works by the cultivation of the good fruit and flowers. He produces the desires, and gives direction to them and the power to realize them.

Question: But the conflict seems to be continuous, "for the flesh lusteth against the Spirit and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would." Is that like the conflict in Romans 7?

No, it is very different. In Romans 7, we have the experience of a man who is struggling with the evil within him, and is continually defeated. Here the Spirit takes up the conflict and assures us of victory. For the passage should read, "That ye should not do the things that ye would." Who would go back to the husks that the swine do eat when the Father's table lies before us so richly laden? This victory is a real thing in those who walk in the Spirit, who have Christ as their object and joy.

Question: Then the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit are contrasted.

Yes, and the contemplation of them will make us very thankful that we are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. The works set forth what the Adam life is in its sinful development; "the fruit" shows what the life of Christ is, and we by grace have been transferred from Adam to Christ. We are "in Christ," and by the Spirit may now bring forth this fruit; It is the natural development of the new life. The cross settles the flesh and all its claims over us and the Spirit brings forth the fruit, and develops the new life. Only we must walk in the Spirit; we must give our minds to His things, and this calls for patience and endurance, which is implied in sowing to the Spirit. We must set ourselves for the fruit; it we make provision for the flesh, or sow to the flesh, we reap corruption, distress of mind, a bad conscience, loss of peace, misery; but as we sow to the Spirit, life everlasting, the liberty and joy that goes with the knowledge of God, and the fruitfulness that that knowledge produces. But it can only be by the Holy Spirit's leading. He only is the Christian's power for true Christian living. Therefore "Grieve not the Holy Spirit of God, whereby ye are sealed to the day of redemption."