“Who has bewitched you?” sounds more like a question Hermione Granger might ask Ron Weasley in the Hogwarts common room than something Paul would ask the church at Galatia. It is the steroidal version of “have you lost your mind?” Yet this is how Paul addresses the Galatians right after calling them foolish. What precipitated this exasperated expression?
The Galatians had done what so many of us do: turned to good works (in their case this was living by the Jewish ceremonial law) as their means of justification. They were living as if their standing in the eyes of God was based on their actions. This is why Paul reacted so strongly.
He hammers them with rhetorical questions each of which smashes the foundation for their false sense of justification.
“Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by believing what you heard?”
“After beginning by the Spirit are you now finishing by the flesh?”
“Did you experience so much for nothing?”
“Does God give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing or by works of the law?”
“Or is it by believing what you heard—just like Abraham who believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness?”
This last question is incredibly significant for people seeking to be good Jews, to follow the law. It harkens back to their patriarch and his standing before God. In Genesis 15 God promises Abraham, an old man, an heir who will lead to offspring as numerous as the stars. Abraham believed this promise and it was “credited to him as righteousness”—that is, his faith was his righteousness in the eyes of God. Abraham, the father of God’s people, was justified by faith. The Galatians could not rest on their law-based laurels. A few years prior John the Baptist had warned about this very thing when he preached the coming of Jesus: “Do not presume to say to yourselves ‘We have Abraham as our father.” He then preaches repentance and the coming of Christ, the true messiah.
What does all this add up to? We have a church inclined to seek justification through following the law. We see Paul point back to Abraham, their father figure, as justified by faith. We see John the Baptist dismiss justification by association with Abraham and point forward to Jesus.
Paul ends this section with the clarifying, defining words: “those who have faith, these are Abraham’s sons.” He does not dismiss the significance of Abraham or God’s promise to him. No, he clarifies it. Abraham was promised to be the father of a great nation through whom all the nations of the world would be blessed (gentiles, like me and most of you). How does this happen? Through Jesus, the offspring of Abraham. We are made right in the eyes of God by faith in Jesus and no other way, no other action, no other law. So it is that faith folds us into the family of Abraham, the people of God.
Written by Barnabas Piper