Galatians 3:1-14 – The Centrality of the Cross

A question came up last week, whether the maxim “Once Saved Always Saved” is correct. In other words, if a person is saved, is it possible for them to lose their salvation? We will address this question when we look at Gal 3:3-4. Let me just say this for now. This question has a theoretical or theological side, and a practical side. I think for most of us, we don’t care about a theoretical answer but want to know what it means for us today. Can Christians lose their salvation? That could be because we are thinking about someone who we know and love who has walked away. Or even closer to home; the question becomes: “Is it possible for me, personally, to fall away from my faith and be condemned by Jesus on the final judgment”? Although there is a debate about this subject theologically, the Bible’s answer for practical everyday living is crystal clear. Yes, it is possible for me to fall away from my faith and stand condemned before God in the final judgment, and this is true for any Christian who is alive today. There are clear and urgent warnings in Scripture that would make no sense if this were not true. However, this may not be the full answer. More on this when we get to Gal 3:3-4. 

Coming to today’s text we will look at Galatians 3:1-14. Paul could have concluded his letter at the end of chapter 2. He has made his point, that justification is by faith alone. But thinking about the Galatian Christians, his feelings overwhelm him as they did in Gal 1:6, and he begins a whole new section for the next two chapters to buttress his statement of the gospel with theology. We will see the first few of his arguments here.

  1. An appeal to their own experience (Gal 3:1-5)
  2. The example of Abraham (Gal 3:6-10)
  3. Two roads leading to two destinies (Gal 3:11-14)

“O Foolish Galatians! Who has Bewitched You”? (Gal 3:1)

Here is an interesting question. How could the Judaizers ever convince the Galatian Christians that the way of the law was better than the way of grace? Paul asks them “Who bewitched you”, or “Who cast a spell on you”? 

Of course Paul knows who deceived them. It was the Judaizers. However, there is a subtle hint here, that there is more going on. There is a spiritual battle being waged against their souls (1 Peter 5:8) which is being masterminded by Satan. Behind the false teachers, Paul sees the activity of the devil himself, whom Jesus calls a “liar and the father of lies” (John 8:44).

The reason this was so astonishing to Paul, is that it was “before [their] eyes that Jesus was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal 3:1). The word could be translated “placarded”, as in announced in a poster and waved in public. In other words, Paul is saying that “the message of Jesus as Messiah who died on the cross was plastered up in bill-boards before your very eyes” (Cole). Paul had preached about the death of Jesus with crystal clarity. Remember, Paul preached in Galatia exactly the way he did at Corinth, where he said, “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Cor 2:2). Paul did not allow his preaching to get distracted from the single point of the death of Jesus on the cross. So let us ask ourselves. Is this the focus of the preaching we often hear today? If not, we may possibly be listening to a false gospel.

Why is the gospel of works so enticing? Because it panders to our old nature. It enables us to compare ourselves with others, and to feel proud. It enables us to have a sense of superiority to others. This is why we are always tempted to add to the gospel. But to yield to that temptation is deadly, and our eternal destiny could be at stake.

When Paul says Jesus was publicly portrayed as “crucified”, the word is in the perfect participle. This means it was a once-for-all event, but the benefits of Jesus’ crucifixion are forever valid and fresh. The death of Jesus was completed, and it achieved its purpose perfectly. The gospel is not good advice for men, but good news about Christ. It is not an invitation to do anything, but a declaration about what God has done. It is not a demand but an offer.

This is why Paul is saying that if the Galatians had grasped the gospel of Christ crucified – that everything necessary for our salvation was accomplished by the death of Jesus on the cross, they should have resisted the spell of whoever was bewitching them. They were enticed because they did not carefully think through the implications.

Here is a sobering truth. The gospel needs to be grasped by our minds and not just by our hearts and our emotions. We need to think deeply and process its truth and make it our own. This is how we grow deep spiritual roots. Cole says “theology is nothing more than the ordinary rules of grammar and logic applied to the text of Scripture”. This is the gift that our education gives us as Christians. We can use all our study of language and grammar to help us understand the deep truths of God. Ultimately the only purpose of education is to help us understand God more. Everything else is chaff that will pass away and has no eternal value.

Was All This in Vain? (Gal 3:2-5)

Paul first appeals to the Galatians’ own experience. Usually it is dangerous to depend on our experience, so Paul will not stop here. This is a launching pad for him to buttress all his assertions from Scripture.

He asks them how they initially received the Holy Spirit. Paul is making an implicit assumption here that he states explicitly elsewhere. To have new life in Jesus Christ is to receive the Holy Spirit in our lives (see Rom 8:14). This is a good place for me to point out another false teaching that is prevalent among us today. There are some who teach that after accepting Jesus, we need to live a life of purity and seek after a “second blessing” called the baptism of the Holy Spirit that is evidenced by tongue speaking. Here Paul is clearly stating that our conversion is marked by our reception of the Holy Spirit. I would like you to keep this false teaching of the second blessing in the back of your mind as we go through today’s study, and evaluate it in the light of what the Bible says here.

Paul goes on to say “Did you suffer (or experience) so many things in vain – if indeed it was in vain?” (Gal 3:4). He is basically saying that if they go back to semi-Judaism, all that they experienced will be worthless. I.e. They will not be saved. Another way of looking at it, they “began in the Spirit” (Gal 3:3). That is they were “born again”. They had a new spiritual life. How can they feed that spiritual life by trying to be “perfected in the flesh” (Gal 3:3)? That does not make sense. They need to continue in the same way that they started. They cannot go back to what would only gratify their old natures.

Once Saved, Always Saved?

Clearly, Paul sees the possibility that all that the Galatians experienced could have been “in vain” (Gal 3:4). This is why he also says, “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Gal 5:3-4). He also says, “I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you: (Gal 4:19). So regarding the maxim: “Once saved always saved”; is it true? By this, if we are asking, “Can a professing Christian fall away”? The Bible’s answer is clear. “Yes”.

The reason this is not necessarily the full story is because God makes certain promises, e.g. John 3:16. All those who believe “will not perish but have eternal life”. Jesus promises that He will not cast away anyone who comes to Him (John 6:37). He promises that “no one can snatch us from His hand” (John 10:28). Everyone who is “justified” will also be “glorified” (Romans 8:30). So those who look at this question from the standpoint of what is called “Reformed Theology”, point out that if God is true to His Word, He is promising to take the responsibility of keeping all those who come to Him in faith and are “justified”. Jesus is the good Shepherd who keeps His sheep (John 10:9).

But if that is true, how can a professing Christian fall away? Here is how we reconcile both these strands of biblical teaching. We have already seen from Galatians, that it is possible to “come to Christ” without putting our entire trust in Him. In today’s society, it is possible to come to Christ for the sake of all the blessings we think we will get if we become Christians. There are people who come to Christ because they think God will become their “bartender” who will give them whatever they want, be it health, wealth or prosperity. There are many reasons people may “accept Christ” but may not really understand the gospel, who do not come solely trusting the finished work of Christ. Sometimes I have heard preachers preach that if we come to Christ, God will take care of our problems, and our lives will become very fulfilled. That is not the gospel. If they give an altar call with such a message, many may come forward without really understanding the true gospel at all. Therefore, there could be many of us who think we are Christians, but in reality have believed a false gospel and are not saved at all. We may then attend Bible studies, go to church regularly, read the Bible and pray, and yet still not be saved. Then when difficulties come, we get disillusioned with God and lose our faith. This is what happened to the seeds that fell on rocky soil and among thorns. Both started to grow, but never bore fruit. Their growth was external without penetrating into their hearts. I.e. they appeared to be saved, but never were and so they fell away. This is why we sometimes see those who appeared to be strong Christians, preachers even, who have walked away from their faith. There is no guarantee that apart from repentance they will be accepted by Jesus on the final judgment.

Then how can we know we are saved? Never 100%. The Bible uses the term “assurance” of salvation. It is not a guarantee, but a gift given to us by the Holy Spirit. “The Holy Spirit testifies with our spirits that we are the children of God” (Rom 8:16). When we are walking with God our assurance is strong. When we stop walking with God, He withdraws our assurance, along with the sense of His Presence, to draw us back to Him. This is God’s gift to His children, to draw them back to Him through this unease that they feel. Those who subscribe to the reformed view will go as far as to say the evidence of true salvation is that a person remains faithful to Christ until death. We may wander, but God will draw us back. Those who fall away and never come back have most likely demonstrated that they were never saved. “They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would have continued with us. But they went out, that it might become plain that they all are not of us” (1 John 2:19). While we are on earth, we need to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling” (because eternity is at stake) (Phil 2:12). We need to battle against sin because our passions “wage war against our souls” (1 Peter 2:11) and because Satan seeks to devour us and destroy us like a roaring lion (1 Peter 5:8). Please note, only God knows who really belongs to Him. He sometimes disciplines sinning believers with death, but that does not necessarily mean they were not saved (see 1 Cor 11:30). If you have a loved one who accepted Christ and then walked away, and is now no more, only God knows if that person had really put his or her trust in Jesus. We cannot see the heart. For ourselves however, we are warned to keep watch over our own souls.

So in summary, is “once saved, always saved” true? There are some who would say “no”. Others would say “yes” and “no”. “Yes” is from God’s standpoint. God knows those who are His, and He will preserve them and keep them in His fold (2 Tim 2:19). However in either case, from a human standpoint, the evidence of our salvation is by the fact that we remain in the faith and bear the fruit of the Spirit (Matt 24:13). It is dangerous to just look back to a time in the past when we “accepted Christ”, and be confident we will be saved. Many will say to Him on the last day: “Lord, Lord, did we not do x, y and z” (Matt 7:22), and He will say “Depart from me, I never knew you, you who practice lawlessness” (Matt 7:23). It doesn’t matter what we professed in the past, or even profess now. If there is no evidence of new life in us, we need to heed Christ’s warning. Let us not be lulled into a false sense of security. Regardless of which view we hold, we can only be confident of our salvation to the extent we are walking with God. This sense of assurance sometimes waxes and wanes as we live our lives, and that is God’s way of making us “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”.

However we cannot face sin, trials or truly love if we are stunted by fear, because our motivation for doing such things will be wrong. We won’t seek God for His own sake. If you lack assurance of your salvation, you will question His care for you. So if you are wrestling with doubt, spend time studying the BIble, praising God and filling your mind with Scripture. Does this make you saved? No because these are works (see Eph 2:8-9). But doing this will remind you of the gospel. We need to be constantly reminded of Who God is, and what He has done – that we are saved by grace, not works! Don’t rely on your feelings. Trust His promises.

Abraham Become Righteous By His Faith (Gal 3:6-9)

Paul then points out that Abraham became righteous while he was still a “kind of Gentile”. Let us recall the story. Abraham was an old man. Although he had no children, God promised him a son. One day he took him outside on a clear night’s sky and showed him the stars and said “so shall your descendants be” (Gen 15:5). The bible then records “And he believed the Lord and He counted it to him as righteous (Gen 15:6). Remember what we said about “justification” last week. It is a declaration by God that we are “not guilty” and have a right standing before God. This verse indicates that Abraham was “justified” in this sense at that very moment. This was well before Isaac was born, and definitely well before God instituted circumcision as the sign of His covenant with Israel. Paul is therefore pointing out that Abraham was justified by faith, and not by works.

Paul then takes this a step further. He says that Abraham is the “father of the faithful”. He takes us back to an even earlier promise God made to Abraham. “In you shall all the nations of the earth be blessed” (Gal 3:8, referring Gen 12:3). Paul says this was the gospel that was first preached to Abraham. Everyone who has faith in God are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith (Gal 3:9).

Two Roads, Two Destinies (Gal 3:10-14)

Paul explains this further by providing two alternatives to the Galatians, both from the Old Testament.

  1. “The one who does [the deeds of the law] shall live by them” (Gal 3:12 quoting Lev 18:5)
  2. “The righteous shall live by faith” (Gal 3:11, quoting Hab 2:4)

These are two completely different paths, but both offer eternal life. Do you remember Jesus’ answer when the rich young man came to Jesus with the question “What must I do to obtain eternal life” (Mark 10:17)? Jesus answered the question. “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother” (Mark 10:19). God’s promise with regards to keeping the commandments was “do this and you will live” (Luke 10:28). The problem is, that no human being besides Jesus has ever kept all the commandments perfectly. And God’s promise of life through the law has a flip side. “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the book of the Law and do them” (Gal 3:10, quoting Deut 27:26). This means every one who tries to please God by obeying the law is under God’s curse.

Then Paul goes on to say that Jesus took on our curse on Himself. He does this by pointing to the fact that by hanging on the cross Jesus was cursed, according to Deut 21:32 which says “a hanged man is cursed by God”. This was the same curse we are under because we cannot keep the law. Jesus was cursed by God because of our inability to please God. This is why Jesus cried out from the cross “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me” (Mark 15:34)? He Himself bore God’s curse for our sins. This is why we are saved when we put our trust in Jesus. Our sins have been accounted for and we have been set free or “redeemed”.

Paul says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by being a curse for us” (Gal 3:13). Redemption always has the connotation of being “bought with a price”. It is used for slaves who were purchased, or prisoners who were set free. The actual price that obtains redemption is called the ranson. Paul is saying that Jesus purchased our salvation through his death on the cross. Jesus said: “The Son of Man did not come to serve but to be served, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The apostle Peter says it beautifully: “you were ransomed … not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ” (1 Peter 1:19). His blood was “precious”. Our redemption was costly. Yet Jesus did this for us.

Paul also says Jesus became a curse “for us” (Gal 3:13). This has the idea of substitution. Jesus’ gave up his life as a substitute for mine. He died the death we deserved. He took our place and bore our punishment. We deserve God’s curse for our sin and Jesus bore that curse in our place. Therefore, when we put our trust in Him we are no longer under that curse. The penalty of sin has been paid. We are free!

So Paul is challenging the Galatians, just as he is challenging us today. Which road should we take? One, where the price is paid in full, and our freedom from the curse of the law has been secured in Christ? Or do we think we can help God by working for our salvation? If we do, we remain under God’s curse, and are not saved. This was what is at stake for the Galatians, and what is at stake for us, if we do not rely wholly on the cross of Jesus for our salvation.

Application

What the gospel is. The gospel is Christ crucified. It is His finished work on the cross. To preach the gospel is to publicly portray Jesus Christ as crucified. The gospel is not primarily a baby in a manger or the teachings of a wise teacher, or even just the empty tomb. The gospel contains Christ on the cross. Only when Christ is seen “publicly portrayed as crucified (Gal 3:1) is the gospel being preached. This was not just a historic event that happened 2000 years ago. It has relevance today, because Jesus bought our salvation on that cross. He died as our substitute, and faced God’s curse in our stead. We need to be confronted with this crucified Jesus, and we need to come to this crucified Christ for our salvation.

What the gospel offers. The gospel offers great blessing. God’s promise to Abraham was “in you all the nations of the earth will be blessed”. What was this blessing? First it was “justification” (Gal 3:8). Second, it is the gift of the Holy Spirit (Gal 3:5). These two gifts are interdependent. Both come together . Everyone who is justified get the gift of the Holy Spirit. This marks the beginning of new life in Jesus Christ – a life that bears the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23). It is a life that lasts forever, where we will spend all our days in the Presence of the One who redeemed us as a people to Himself.

Although the gospel is free for us, it came at a terrible price. Paul says to the Corinthian Christians: “You were bought with a price, therefore glorify God with your bodies” (1 Cor 6:20). Jesus paid the ultimate price to redeem us. The ransom was His very life blood, that He shed for us. Let us not take this lightly, but let us bow down in gratitude and worship before this God who was willing to pay so much to set us free.

What the gospel requires. The gospel offers blessing. What must we do to receive it? Nothing. Just believe that it has already been won for us by Jesus who died on our cross to procure it for us. This is the gospel of both the Old and the New Testaments. It unifies all people of faith in the history of the world. One day we will all celebrate this gospel together with Jesus. A gospel of grace, through and through! What a blessing this is!

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