When Paul preached the cross, the Galatians saw Jesus! It’s not that he emphasized the mental and physical sufferings of Jesus until their hearts were moved to tears—you couldn’t live in the Roman world without daily encountering staggering brutality; crucified men were a dime a dozen. What they understood and felt was the meaning of Christ’s cross. In Acts, visions and other signs of the Spirit’s presence often accompany the spoken word, especially in totally new situations. It was likely so with the Galatians. But, most important, they heard the preaching and understood the cross with crystal clarity, clarity that only the Spirit could bring.
The pundits from Jerusalem might have befuddled the Galatians’ minds with their clever arguments, but they couldn’t do anything to change their experience. Paul has simply to ask them, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:2). Works of the law, neither pagan or Jewish, hadn’t flooded their hearts with the Spirit. Indeed, they were under “the elemental principles of the universe” until faith came through Paul’s message (Gal 4:3, 8–9). But when they heard the gospel, the gates of heaven were opened. Joy so great it carried them through the sufferings that accompanied their new life replaced their fear; surely, surely says Paul, this hasn’t all been in vain.
The hallmarks of the Spirit’s presence—love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, and on—don’t begin when you first try to obey. They begin when you first believe! Likewise, the secret to ongoing fullness in the Spirit is to keep on hearing and believing the gospel.
By contrast, the false teachers were great at selling train tickets to the state of Guilt, where the Forest of Shame was always open. The devil loves to ally with those voices; he’s the chief engineer and wants nothing more than to pull down the carriage blinds so you can’t see the grace of the cross out of the window of your soul. The great jailer masks himself as the tour guide to freedom, but his doctrine can never produce the Spirit’s fruit.
This is why Paul asked the Galatians to look back. What state were they in when they heard the gospel? What difference did it make when they heard it? How were they set free? And now look around. Is the same fruit being produced? Is the same liberty of the Spirit present? If not, what’s changed? The difference lies in what you’re hearing. But their problem is so often ours. If we began with God in one way, why do we assume we’ll continue with him in another? Why, having begun by the Spirit, do we so often attempt to perfect ourselves by the flesh?
One of the chief reasons is because we confuse our justification with our sanctification; that is, our position before God with our practice before God. The law can neither justify nor sanctify you; it can no more declare you holy than it can bring lasting change to your heart.
But the flesh loves to hear that it has a role to play. If, for a moment, it gives up believing it can justify itself, it immediately turns to the path of holiness to sanctify itself. Either way, it thinks the law is the answer. It can’t be educated or reasoned with on this point. It’s inimical to the Spirit in every way, believing it can still reform itself.
Certainly there is struggle and effort to the Christian life, but it is not where we think. It is not a struggle to be holy and practice holiness; this is trying to be perfected in the flesh. It is a struggle to continue in the way we began—namely, to believe our justification is true. Gerhard Forde put it well when he said that “sanctification is the art of getting used to justification.”
Sanctification is forgetting about ourselves and looking at Jesus in the way John the Baptist did: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30). The Christian life is always the life of faith. Active righteousness (or performance) is never the ground of our justification; it is the evidence of it. We bring nothing to the party except our sin….
The flesh may reluctantly admit that it needs a modicum of grace, but baulks at the “alone” bit. Yet that is where our security lies; there, it is all God’s work, not ours. And, as he has begun, so he will continue: “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and work miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” (Gal 3:5).
Paul is by no means saying that our faith pushes or pulls God to give us the Spirit. The Spirit precedes faith; he pricks us when we hear the Word and causes us to hear the voice of the Shepherd. It’s in this sense that Jesus said, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth”—that is, the truth of who Jesus is for us (John 16:13). Paul’s argument runs like this: “You can’t possibly deny your experience of the Holy Spirit and the regeneration of your hearts. The life-shaping power of the Spirit didn’t come by works of the law. You experienced the reality of the Spirit as you heard with faith. It was grace from beginning to end! So what’s changed? Why do you now think faith isn’t enough?”
Often we look to our emotions and feelings of holiness, or lack thereof, and feel pride or sorrow over where these place us with God. So we want to add works to cleanse our souls. After all, we’ve got to work at cleaning the kitchen floor; in the same way, don’t we have to work at cleaning up our lives? God surely can’t continue to love me if I’ve failed for the umpteenth time in the same area. There has to be something he needs from me—perhaps a hair shirt or flagellum would do the trick? (If you think this is a bit extreme, you haven’t read much church history!) Sometimes we make a community sport of “stoning” sinners. When the gospel loses out, physical and mental flagellation of ourselves and of others are ready to fill the void in a heartbeat.
Like the Galatians, we often fail to interrogate the legalist within us. To break the bewitching spell of legalism, we have to go back to the gospel again and again and again; to see Jesus crucified for us as a finished work. The way of the Christian life is learning to look away from ourselves and to the Lord Jesus. The way of sanctification is learning the art of our justification.
Peter learned this when he stepped out of the boat and started walking on the waves. When did he begin to sink? As soon as his eyes turned away from Jesus’ face.
So when your heart is in a dark place, look to Christ. When you feel like a failure, look to Christ. When you feel dirty in your sin, look to Christ. Go again and again to the cross of Christ. The perfectionist within you will tell you that to do so is failure: “Surely I should be beyond this!” But faith speaks otherwise: “The life I now live in the flesh I live [present continuous tense] by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20).
“To progress is always to begin again,” said Luther. How did we begin? In faith, at the cross. We never get to a place in this life where we can leave the foot of the cross. We never get past grace, never get to the point where we have fully plumbed the depths of the gospel, fully grasped it, or fully delighted in it. It’s God’s gracious mercy that he will not let us live without his crucified Son as our constant dwelling place.
Excerpt from Live in Liberty: The Spiritual Message of Galatians by Dr. Daniel Bush and Dr. Noel Due. Used by permission. You can follow Daniel Bush on Faithlife, where he shares devotionals, interviews and more. Interested in spiritual direction? Check out Dan's ministry at TLDynamics.com.
[excerpt from Live in Liberty: The Spiritual Message of Galatians (Bellingham, WA: Lexham, 2016), pp. 64–68