A Fool’s Errand: Law-keeping and Christlikeness

Michael F. Bird of Ridley College in Australia recently quipped that Galatians should be printed in all capital letters since he’s fairly sure that Paul screamed the words of the letter to the poor sot who acted as his scribe. Bird’s remark is humorous because, as with most zingers, it contains a fair bit of truth. In no other letter is Paul’s tone quite as strident and severe, as he anathemizes those who preach a different gospel than what he delivered to these believers.

In the 3rd chapter, he calls the Galatians foolish in two spots. The second of these comes at 3:3, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”  One of the prime messages of the epistle is that justification through the keeping of the law is not possible—that this is not the gospel. It is, in fact, antithetical to the gospel. But the other point is equally important. Just as the law is not part of our justification, neither is it part of our sanctification, of our growth in holiness. On this second point, all Christians do not agree. Some insist on a division; that justification is entirely apart from the law, but that the law is part of our walk, our growth in Christian maturity. Paul’s assessment of this is, this is foolish.

It’s important to see what Paul joins together, what he equates, and what he contrasts. In 3:2, he wrote, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” He contrasts law with faith, and Spirit with flesh. To contrast faith with the law, and the Spirit with the flesh is, for some readers of Scripture, confusing, or presents a conflict. They resolve this conflict by the division I noted above; justification apart from the law, sanctification through a Spirit-enabled, or grace-assisted keeping of the law. Robert McQuilken writes, “What was true of Moses is true of every believer today. By the grace of God he is enabled through supernatural power to keep the law of God—but never perfectly. Because he is not under law, he is therefore not under condemnation.”[1]

But where in the New Testament does any apostle teach that we are supernaturally yet imperfectly enabled to keep God’s law? Indeed, Paul teaches that law-keeping, if undertaken, must be pursued with exactness, completeness and without compromise. In Gal. 3:10 Paul has repeated Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” In other words, keeping the law imperfectly is not an option. Keeping it imperfectly means you are a law-breaker, and cursed. This puts a person in a position unknown to the New Testament: under a curse and a Christian. Christians are those who are free from any curse. Paul has said this in the following verses: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Gal. 3:13-14.

The promised Spirit comes through faith not through law, and the apostle has also said in the prior verse: “But the law is not of faith” (!) A grace-enabled keeping of the law, as McQuilken suggests, is not in Paul’s doctrine.

Someone may object that Paul is specifically focused on justification in these verses, rather than living the Christian life. But this division is artificial and an a priori assumption. Nowhere in Paul’s teaching is the law presented as incompatible for entering into the Christian life, (justification) but completely useful for continuing in the Christian life (sanctification.) Such, says Paul, would be beginning by the Spirit, but seeking to be completed by the flesh; by law-keeping. In the remainder of the letter, Paul reinforces these contrasts of Faith/Law and Spirit/Flesh.

Consider what he writes later in chapter 3, where he presents the law as temporary, that it did not precede the promises, and indeed, now that the promise has come, and we believe the promise of the gospel, the law is not a factor in our walk with the Lord.  “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” 3:25. Andrew Wakefield rightly asks, “If Christians can and should keep the law once they are enabled by the Spirit, why is Paul so concerned if the Galatians—who are already believers, who have already received the Spirit (Gal. 3:2-5)—take up the law?”[2]

In chapter 5, Paul writes “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (5:16.) In other words, victory over the flesh does not require law at all. Rather, as we walk by the Spirit, we will not carry out what is contrary to God’s will. He is yet more explicit in verse 18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Is there a qualifier here? Is Paul suggesting that the Galatians know he only speaks of justification, and not of sanctification? Is there a suggestion that the way to conformity to Christ, to a Spirit-led walk in any way relies on the law? None at all.

If there is anywhere he speaks of both justification and sanctification, it may be in 5:25. “If we live by the Spirit, by the Spirit let us also walk.” (ASV) In other words, since you began your Christian life by the Spirit, continue to live your Christian life by the Spirit. This brings us back to the thought Paul expressed in 3:3. To bring in the law after we have come to know Christ is to seek completion, maturity by the flesh. It would be equally foolish to think that freedom from the law means that Christians do not pursue conformity to Christ. Though some may try to present this as “antinomianism,” this is a mischaracterization. I direct readers to several other posts on our growth into Christlikeness.

Does this make Paul sound harsh, that he would call someone a fool? He has said yet harsher things in the epistle, but this is just as important. Seeking Christlikeness by pursuing the law is, apostolically speaking, foolish.

[1] Robert Crawford McQuilkin,  God’s Law and God’s Grace (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1958), 47

[2] Andrew Hollis Wakefield, Where to Live: The Hermeneutical Significance of Paul’s Citations from Scripture in Galatians 3:1–14. (Leiden, Netherlands, Brill, 2003), 201.

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