Thursday, August 18, 2011

Galatians 3 – The ‘Spirit and Flesh’ Conundrum

“Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? Did you experience so much for nothing?—if it really was for nothing. Well then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?” ~Galatians 3:3b-5 (NRSV).

How might we contrast the Spirit and the flesh, for two things could hardly be more opposite? Faith is receptive of the Spirit; works alone is of the flesh, productive but not receptive at all. The flesh does its own thinking; those in the Spirit wait on God.

The Apostle Paul’s technique of enquiry in the abovementioned three verses, the opening of chapter 3, turns the focus from Paul’s experience of the gospel and grace (in chapters 1 and 2) to that of the Galatians.

He invites them to reflect; to juxtapose what they had previously heard (the gospel as revealed through Paul) and the legalism which apparently they had returned to. ‘What has power?’ seems to be Paul’s question to them.

The language is scathing; I have omitted the beginning of verse three, which says, “Are you so foolish?” My omission was for kindness, not wanting to draw attention to conflict—in present company—unnecessarily. This is the second time in only a few sentences that Paul has been unable to restrain his incredulity at what he sees as nonsensical—the Galatians relinquishing the power of the Spirit, in favour of works devoid of the Spirit and, therefore, power.

They choose death and not life; productivity over receptiveness; powerlessness over the power of God.

A Personal Reflection – How Would We Respond?

We can only wonder how the First Century Galatians would have taken such a letter.

We might imagine, if we read a similar personal communication to our churches today, that many people would take umbrage in their pride, getting caught up in the spirit of offense when, really, Paul would be warning us in love.

If we are admonished in our churches, or in our lives personally, by credible ministers and mentors, we might be tempted to react in the flesh via our pride, where humility is the essence of the response whose faith is in the Spirit. Pride is a trick for young players, when very often we fall for our own forms of legalism and the chiding reminder—to restore our reliance on the Spirit—should be most welcome.

Do Miracles Ever Occur Through Rigid Obedience To The Law?

This appears to be Paul’s question. Obeying the intent of the Law is one thing, but rigid subservience to rules negates even the need for God; Power is jettisoned for what we can establish, any and every day, through our own strength without God’s help.

How could the miraculous ever occur purely by our design? That, by definition, could never be miraculous. Experiencing miracles requires faith; first, as an attribution that the thing that occurred was miraculous and, second, miracles are beyond what can be explained and our doing. Faith is not ignorant, or arrogantly disparaging, of the miraculous. Yet, the legalist cannot see the miracle or God in the miracle. Their lack of faith blinds them.

We cannot have our cake and eat it too. We live according to the true gospel—through genuine faith—or we engineer and manufacture results to suit ourselves; the latter has nothing about God, and no Power, in it. The Lord’s Spiritual power is revealed only by way of trust.

© 2011 S. J. Wickham.

General Reference: Leon Morris, Galatians: Paul’s Charter of Christian Freedom (Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press, 1996), pp. 92-97.

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