The Law Kills — The Spirit Gives Life


I. Paul issued a series of searching questions (Verses 1-6)

A. In the first question, Paul challenged their clarity of thinking.

  1. He uses strong words like “mindless,” and implies that such notions are without any rational grounds but could only have been smuggled in some kind of enchantment. “Who has bewitched you?”
  2. The position they received from his teaching was the straightforward, clear presentation of a historical work. Paul’s preaching, written before them as it were (proegraphe – to have an argument written before one’s eyes), called on them to consider, contemplate, weigh the arguments and draw a rational conclusion as to what the crucifixion of Christ meant.
  3. Paul’s theology of the cross was given full display as he preached to them. When they believed his message, they believed that we cannot be right with God by human works of righteousness of any sort but only by the completed work of Christ.

B. The Second question has two parts, the first part to be answered, “Yes” and the second, “No.”

  1. He asked them to recall how they received the gift of the Spirit. Was the Spirit given in response to their works of righteousness conforming to the whole law of God? Surely, they knew that this was not the case. Both Jews and Gentiles had believed Paul’s preaching and it was clear that the works of the Law had nothing to do with their being received by God as his children (Galatians 4:5, 6) or being granted the gift of eternal life.
  2. Or was it in fact a belief in the message that Paul had preached –“The hearing of faith.”
  • Forgiveness, justification, the presence of the Spirit in giving hope, assurance, sanctification, and distribution of gifts all flow from what Christ, and Christ alone, has done. This is the message the Spirit blesses with true faith and his consequent sanctifying presence. Did you receive this by faith, or as a reward for your own performance of some work of the Law?
  • When they believed Paul’s message, they had not been instructed in any of the details of the ceremonial law. Jews were present in the cities of Galatia, and they opposed the message of Paul, but the people of Galatia had believed in spite of the Jewish persecution of Paul (Acts 14:1-28). They believed Paul’s message of sin, judgment, Christ’s atonement and resurrection. God had “opened the door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27).
  • In Romans 10, Paul discussed the unbelief of Israel in terms of the relation between hearing and believing. “How shall they believe in him of whom they have never heard? . . . They have not all obeyed the gospel. . . So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.” By the work of the Spirit, who opens the ears and shines in the heart, gospel truth carries with it its own evidence. Belief means to place absolute trust in the provision for sin as reported in the gospel message. Only the Spirit of God grants this kind of belief.
  • Paul knew well that the operations of the Spirit of God in power had come with both external and internal manifestations, granting both salvation in true faith and showing power through miraculous works (Acts 14:1-3).

C. The third question assumes an answer to the second and then proceeds to challenge the consistency and clarity of their thinking. Knowing how the gospel came to them, how they were taught by Paul even in the midst of Jewish opposition, are they now going to fall into the trap of Jewish ceremonialism for the maturing of their faith? If true saving faith originated through the hearing of the Gospel and by the work of the Spirit, do they now believe that by the power of the flesh they will be brought to spiritual maturity and make greater attainments toward true holiness by a series of observations of Jewish ceremonies?

D. The fourth question points to the possible vanity of their experience in Christ. “Did you suffer so many things in vain?” There are two ways in which one’s belief could be in vain.

  1. They could believe a message, the leading feature of which never actually occurred. This was the kind of vanity referred to in 1 Corinthians 15:2, 13, 14. If Christ is not raised from the dead, then believing a message, the efficacy of which depends on the resurrection, is vain. If the resurrection did not occur, then believing it for eternal life is preposterous and such a belief is empty.
  2. On the other hand, the vanity of belief could be in the unsettled nature of the belief itself. Paul asked if the entirety of their previous experience of the gospel was an empty charade. “Did you feel the convicting power of the Spirit and see the demonstration of miraculous powers among you with no real internal change in your hearts and no firm conviction of the gospel’s truth in your mind? Did you see and hear the gospel preached in the midst of hateful opposition without grasping the eternal importance of it? Did you not think that the message we preached had the element of absoluteness about it? When we proclaimed that human efforts to achieve saving righteousness through any element of the law would always fall short, were vanity in themselves, and that we could be justified only by what Christ himself has done, that we were leaving something out? Did we rob you of the full truth in the midst of our suffering?” He issues a similar warning to the Colossians when he reminded them that they would be presented blameless and above reproach in the sight of God “if indeed you continue in the faith, grounded and steadfast, and are not moved away from the hope of the gospel which you heard” (Colossians 1:23).

E. Having energized their minds in thinking about theological truth, Paul returned to the first question. Simply reiterated, Paul wants them to answer, “Are all the blessings and riches of life in Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit given as a result of works of the Law or a response of sincere and full trust in the gospel? Are God’s gifts rewards to you in the midst of your imperfection or are they rewards granted for the sake of Christ and the provisions resident in perfect obedience?”

F. He caps off the questions by pointing to Abraham, the one who was clearly the paradigm for the maintenance of circumcision according to the false teachers.


II. Paul answered the questions by pointing to Abraham.

A. The lasting universal significance of Abraham is not circumcision, but faith. According to Genesis 15:6, Abraham “believed God and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” Faith and righteousness preceded the giving of the sign of circumcision (Genesis 17:10, 11).

B. He draws this conclusion from the clear implications of the promise given to Abraham before he was given the mark of circumcision. In Genesis 12:1-3, God had promised Abraham two things: one, he would make him a great nation, and, two, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” The first of these promises concerned his physical lineage and the second referred to the universal implications of the continuity of this physical lineage. Circumcision would be the mark by which Abraham’s physical lineage would be traced, but the blessings to all the nations would be the fruit of faith verified through the means of sacrifice (Genesis 15: 6-21).

C. Those who seek, therefore, to make circumcision, or any aspect of obedience to the Law either ceremonial or moral, the cause of salvation have misunderstood the significance of Abraham and the place of circumcision in his relation with God.


III. Paul proves his answer by pointing to the intended operation of the Law.

A. The present effect of the law is a universal curse on all lawbreakers (Verse 10). Paul pointed to the statement of curses issued from Mount Ebal in Deuteronomy 27 that ended with this specific curse: “Cursed is the one who does not confirm all the words of this law by doing them.” Paul knew that the foundation of the law was aimed at the heart, and, because the human heart is corrupt, none has ever kept the law in its true spiritual intent (Romans 7:9-13). All of humanity fallen in Adam live consistently and universally under the curse and cannot extricate themselves from it for they can never become perfect Law-keepers.

B. That explains why justification is presented as resting on faith (Verse 11). Paul looks not only to Abraham, but to God’s word to Habakkuk during a time of impending judgment on Israel, when this fulsome phrase was stated, “Behold the proud, his soul is not upright within him; but the just shall live by his faith” (Habakkuk 2:4). There is the way of pride, which has to do with the confidence one places in his own righteousness; conversely, there is the way of faith, which has to do with full trust in the goodness, righteousness, prerogative, mercy, and holy purpose of God. Faith abandons hope in one’s personal moral or ceremonially religious standing, and rests all in the person and work of Jesus of Nazareth, the righteous Redeemer. By faith alone a sinner finds life.

C. The law blesses only those who keep it without any failure and is the antithesis of salvation by faith (Verse 12). Surely it is true that the perfect righteousness of the law would convey life, even eternal life according to the covenant of works established by God with Adam in the Garden of Eden. The Law, therefore is not of faith, for its way of giving life is through an unfailing practice of all that is required in the perfect uncompromised submissive love as the perpetual motive from which flows every righteous act. Of Christ alone was this true as prophesied in Psalm 22: 9, 10—“But you are He who took Me out of the womb; You made Me trust while on My mother’s breasts. I was cast upon You from birth. From my mother’s womb You have been my God.” Never from the moment of conception until he consummated his obedience in the bloody death of the cross, dying as a propitiation for our sins did Jesus do anything but find delight in the pursuit of submission to his Father’s will. It is not our obedience, therefore, by which we find life, but Christ Himself is our life. “For you have died and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Hm in glory” (Colossians 3: 3, 4).

D. Only in Christ do we find a perfect synthesis of the operations of the law and the promise to Abraham (Verses 13, 14)

  1. As moral agents made in the image of God, the covenant or works still is in authority over us and, having violated it, we are under a curse. For its fulfillment one must die. By his own blood, Christ has purchased us, redeemed us from the sentence of death, by taking our place under the curse. As an infinitely glorious person and yet fully capable of representing creatures, he removed the curse.
  2. The promise that Abraham would be a blessing to all nations, and that “all the ends of the world shall remember and turn to the Lord, and all the families of the nations shall worship before you” (Psalm 22:27) found its moral basis in the grace of the suffering servant, Christ Jesus. Even as Abraham was counted righteous by faith so, “it will be recounted of the Lord to the next generation, they will come and declare His righteousness to a people who will be born, that he has done this” (Psalm 22:30-31).
  3. The “promise of the Spirit” means that the promise given to Abraham becomes the possession of all of his spiritual posterity in the effectual operation, indwelling presence, sustaining power, spiritual circumcision of the heart performed by the Spirit as the mark of the new covenant people of God (“For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” [3:26]; “For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love” [5:5, 6].”
  4. The Second London Confession summarizes many of the ideas in this text in it first paragraph on “Justification” in chapter XI. “Those God effectually calls He also freely justifies. He does this, not by infusing righteousness into them but by pardoning their sins and accounting and accepting them as righteous. He does this for Christ’s sake alone and not for anything produced in them or done by them. He does not impute faith itself, the act of believing, or any other gospel obedience to them as their righteousness. Instead, He imputes Christ’s active obedience to the whole law and passive obedience in His death as their whole and only righteousness by faith. This faith is not self-generated; it is the gift of God.”
Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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