Relying On Works is Foolish.
This week we hear from Pastor Mark about how Relying on Works is Foolish; he argues it’s not just “wrong,” but actually dumb, and we’re going to see three reasons the Apostle Paul gives why:
1.) Your experience of the Spirit proves it.
2) Scripture proves it.
3) Relying on works brings a curse.
ESV Study Bible
Tony Evans Study Bible
Galatians by Martin Luther
Zondervan Exegetical Commentary – Galatians – Tom Schreiner
The Message of Galatians by John Stott
In his book “Gospel Fluency,” author Jeff Vandersteldt tells a story about his kids which, while really simple, is super profound. One day his two elementary-aged kids were playing Chutes and Ladders. Now, if you know Chutes and Ladders, you know that this is a game that really pushes you in the area of sanctification. But anyway, Jeff the dad hears chaos erupt. Apparently his son Caleb, 6 years old, had ripped the head off a game piece because he was losing. Caleb, in turn, accused his older sister of cheating. So, turning to his son, who has a ripped game piece in his hand, he asks, “Caleb, did you tear the head off the player?” And then Caleb does something we’ve probably all seen a kid do at one time or another: he pulled his shirt up over his head and hid like a turtle. He felt ashamed, and he hid in his shame.
As everyday as this example is, it’s actually really profound. Because, as Jeff Vanderstelt points out, what Caleb was doing, both when he ripped the head off and hid inside his shirt, is actually something we’re all tempted to do everyday: rely on our own works to make us feel better, to make us somehow right with God. You see, why did he rip the head off? Because he was losing, and he thought that his identity was threatened. So he had to take some action to get his identity back. In the same way, why did he hide? Well, instead of turning to Jesus, hiding was something he could do to make himself feel better, to make things right. See that?
Do you see a little bit of yourself in the story of Caleb? Do you truly rely on what God says about you in Scripture to give you identity and purpose, or do you feel like you have to take matters into your own hands and define identity and purpose your own way? When you sin and do something wrong, do you feel you have to cover up or punish yourself, or do you run back into the loving arms of Jesus? We say as Christians that we relate to God on the basis of faith, but the question is, are we actually relying on our works? Is it Jesus alone, or Jesus plus?
We’ve been working our way through the New Testament letter of Paul to the Galatians. And if you’re new or if you need a refresher, the situation was like this: These churches, in an area called “Galatia” which is in modern Turkey, were gentile churches. They were churches mainly made up of non-Jews who had turned away from worshiping idols and turned toward faith in Jesus. But recently some Jewish Christians had come in and started to say “Hey, there’s actually some more stuff you have to do to be a Christian. It’s not “Jesus alone” but “Jesus plus.” For example, you need to observe the Jewish holidays to be a Christian. Probably can’t eat bacon anymore – you need to keep kosher. Oh, also? You guys need to be circumcised. Otherwise you’re not really Christians.” And the Galatians, probably for a couple of reasons, were starting to go along with it. And when Paul gets wind of it, he says, “Not on my watch.”
And so in our text today, Paul directly addresses the Galatians. And his words, to say the least, are not delicate. Verse 1: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” And then v. 3 “Are you so foolish?” That’s harsh language! He’s not saying “Let me come alongside you. Can you help me to understand where you’re coming from here?” Now there’s a place for that posture, but this text demonstrates that there’s also a place for dealing with something head on. I suppose it’s like if you have a toddler who makes a habit of going out into the street. There are times when you might say “Hey buddy, let’s not go out into the street, OK? There’s cars out there and you don’t want them to hit you. OK?” But there are times – like if he makes a dash for it – you’re going to be a lot more forceful, right? Why? Because it’s all on the line. It’s life or death. You don’t have the luxury of being nice. Well, Paul apparently feels like it’s life or death here. The Galatians are in danger of essentially walking away from Christ, or so changing their relationship with him that it’s as if they walked away. And so Paul doesn’t mince words. They’re turning away from Christ and relying on works, and Paul says that’s. just. Plain. dumb. Well, “foolish.”
This brings us to our big idea today: Relying on works is foolish. Relying on works is foolish. That’s what Paul is attempting to show the Galatians, and that’s what I’m going to attempt to show you from the text. It’s actually foolish to rely on your own works as a way of relating to God. To try and get God to approve of you because of what you do is not just “wrong,” but actually dumb. And we’re going to see three reasons Paul gives why it’s foolish to try and rely on works: 1. Your experience of the Spirit proves it. 2) Scripture proves it. 3) Relying on works brings a curse. Now, before we get into it, one disclaimer.
If you’re here and you’re not yet a follower of Christ – if you haven’t repented of your sins and placed your trust in Christ – if you haven’t opened up your heart for Christ to enter in and truly be Lord of your life – well, first, I’m glad you’re here! But second, a bit of a heads up: The first two points of this message are really aimed at Christians. It’s aimed at people who share certain assumptions and have had certain experiences as followers of Jesus. And if you don’t share those same assumptions or if you haven’t had those same experiences, then some of the arguments Paul is making probably just won’t make a ton of sense. I’m just being up front about that. There’s nothing I can do about that, my job, and all of our jobs when we get up here and deliver the sermons, is just to preach what is in the text. To make the main point and the sub-points of the text our main idea and our subpoints. But if that’s you, if you’re not yet a Christian, here’s my advice: just hang tight. Hang tight for a few mintues, feel free to listen in, and wait especially for the third point. Because that’s the one that really applies to everyone whether you’re a follower of Jesus or not. In fact at that point I’m going to switch things up and mainly speak to you, the non-Christians, and then all the Christians can hopefully listen in. OK? Let’s dive in. Main point? Relying on works is foolish. Why? Point 1:
- Your experience of the Spirit proves it. (vv. 1-5)
Let’s walk through verses 1-5. O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. He’s saying, “when we preached the gospel to you, we really made it really clear what it was all about: Jesus Christ, and what HE did. We never said anything about it having do with your works. And then he goes on and it’s very interesting: Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?
Notice how Paul is arguing with them. He’s appealing to their experience – especially, their experience of the Holy Spirit. He’s saying “Hey, go back to when it all began. Do you remember what happened? Specifically, how you got the Holy Spirit? It came from believing in Christ, not by “just saying No” to bacon, right?
Now, frankly, this whole way of arguing is kind of unexpected for people like us. It’s not how we would have done it, is it? I mean hey, we’re Bible people around here, right? And so, we probably would have said “Let’s look at what it says in Scripture. And Paul does do that in the next section, but that’s not how he starts. He starts with our experience. This shows that our experience matters. We are people of the Word – we’ll get to that in a minute – but our experience of Christ and the Christian life actually matters. And actually, experience has always mattered. Think of how many times in the Old Testament God tells his people: remember what I did for you. I brought you out of Egypt, etc. And so this means that God wants us not just to believe a bunch of things, but actually to have an experience with God.
More specifically, it shows that he wants us to have, and the normal Christian expectation is to have, an experience of the Holy Spirit. When you believe. What does that mean? What does that look like? Well apparently, for the Galatians, having the Holy Spirit come upon them when they believed in Jesus was a big deal. It was something so obvious, so objective, so impossible to miss or explain away, that Paul could point back to it and say “Remember that?” It looks like, for them, it had something to do with “miracles” – God working miraculous signs and wonders among them. Maybe they also started speaking in tongues, as we see happening in the Book of Acts. Or maybe they all just got a heaping dose of the fruit of the Spirit that Paul talks about in Galatians 5. But whatever it was, Paul says, “Do you remember that? How did that happen? Did it come from doing or did it come from believing?
Now, what about us? How do we apply this? I could be wrong, but there’s probably nobody here who’s tempted to start keeping kosher or to run out and get circumcised. But, we’re all liable to the “Jesus plus” mindset, are we not? Let me give you a few examples. Let’s go back to the example of Caleb and the “turtle.” He got caught; he sinned; and what does he do? He has to PERFORM, he has to DO SOMETHING in order to feel better. How about you? How do you pull your shirt over your head? When you sin, do you go right back to the cross and remember that the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all our sin, or do you hide from God and do the “turtle?” Punish yourself or come up with some little ritual that will make it all clean?
Or, how about this: Have you ever had thoughts like: “God’s not blessing me today because I didn’t do my devotions this morning” or because you chickened out and didn’t share your faith with your co-worker? Does that sound familiar?
Or what about the thought: “I’m just not doing enough. God wants me to do more. I could do more.” You know, we have a lot of folks around here who are pretty driven. You operate at a pretty high level, whether it’s in your job, or your home, or your hobbies. But if you’ve always got a running sense of low-grade guilt because you’re not doing enough, and as a result God’s not blessing you the way you want, guess what? You’ve started by faith but you’re trying to finish by works.
In other words, we’re all Galatians now. One way or another, as Christians, we’re all liable to the Jesus plus mindset. Are you so foolish? Let me ask you this, is that how you received the Holy Spirit? Think back to when you first came to Christ. Did you receive the Spirit by works or by believing with faith?
Now this is where it gets a little awkward, because you might be like “Um, there were actually not a lot of miracles when I came to Jesus.” Oh no? First off, for some of you, I know that when you came to Christ, there really was some legit supernatural miracle-working stuff that nothing else could reasonably explain except the power of God. But what if that wasn’t your experience? Maybe you just sort of grew up in the church and slowly started to believe and you’re not actually sure what that point was when you believed.
Well, it may not have been as dramatic, but we all know this: at some point, something changed. And if it didn’t change outside – miracles or tongues or whatever – it changed inside. Look at what Paul says just a little further down in Galatians 5: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (Galatians 5:22-23). Friends, that peace you had that you couldn’t explain – that joy you experienced that was deeper than your circumstances – that love you found you had for the first time for someone really hard to love- that’s a miracle. That’s the holy spirit at work. And whenever or however you came to Christ, it came simply by resting in faith.
Having started by faith, are you tempted to tack on some works? Remember the miracles. whatever miracles Jesus has worked in you by the Holy Spirit, he’s done it through faith, not your efforts. Remember what Jesus has done, through faith. Don’t be foolish & try to carry on by your works. However you try to make yourself right before God, remember that’s not how you came Are you a newer Christian who has experienced the Spirit for the first time when you believed? That’s great – just stay right where you are! Now, I said this section wasn’t mainly for non-Christians, but in case you’re listening in, let me speak to you for a second: Don’t you want to experience God? Do you really not need love, joy, peace, etc.? I’m just saying.
So that’s the first reason that relying on works is foolish. You didn’t experience God that way, and you never will. The second reason is a little different. Let’s move on and see what Paul does next. We’ll start in v. 5:
Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—  just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:5-9)
So Paul starts talking about Abraham here. But what he’s actually doing is, he’s moving from an argument based on experience to an argument based on Scripture. Because the story of Abraham is found in Scripture – in the Book of Genesis. And all the Reformed Protestants just breathed a sigh of relief. And this gives us our second reason why relying on works is foolish:
- Scripture proves it. (vv. 6-9)
Now, if you’re not familiar with the story of Abraham, here’s a refresher. Way back in Genesis 15, God makes an astounding promise to Abraham: “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” (Genesis 15:5). Look up at the sky and count the stars. That’s what your children will be like. To realize what a big deal this promise is, you only need to know two things: first, Abraham had no children. Second, he’s 85 years old. His wife’s old too. Now, how does Abraham respond? Does he say “What do I have to do to deserve this?” “What great work must I perform in order for you to bless me like this?” No. He doesn’t say any of that. Instead, in Genesis 15:6, which Paul quotes in Galatians 3, it simply says: Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).
Think about that. He believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. He didn’t ask God what he had to do, he didn’t ask what he had done to deserve this grace He simply believed God. Trusted in his word. And because of that, God counted it as righteousness. God said “he’s righteous.” He justified him. In other words, Abraham was justified by faith.
And Paul turns to Abraham now for 3 reasons. First, he wants to prove that relying on works is foolish based not just on experience, but on Scripture. He wants to prove it not just because the Galatians’ experience lines up with this, but because the Word of God does. And friends, let’s not lose that point: Our experience is important, but we also want to ultimately point to Scripture to back up everything we do and believe.
But second, let’s think about this. One of the things the Jewish Christians were saying to the Galatians was that they needed to be circumcised. Well, circumcision started with Abraham! So no doubt these people are saying “You need to be circumcised to become a child of Abraham” which they knew was something that Scripture foretold. But here’s the thing – circumcision isn’t mentioned until later in the story, until Genesis 17. But this is Genesis 15. So Paul brings up Genesis 15 to say “Wait a minute – look – Abraham was declared righteous before he was circumcised.” You want to really be a child of Abraham? Then do what Abraham did to be declared righteous: just believe God’s word. He didn’t HAVE to be circumcised to be right with God. He’s outmaneuvering the false teachers.
But third, and most profoundly, Paul brings up Abraham simply because it is such a clear and beautiful picture of what salvation in Christ is all about.In fact, Paul actually says it’s the gospel:
The Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” Galatians 3:8
Here, Paul’s actually reaching further back into the story – to Genesis 12 when God appeared to Abraham for the very first time and said “in you shall all the nations be blessed.” “Nations” – that means gentiles. And so Paul is saying that having Gentiles come to know God is a very very old idea. It’s part of God’s great purpose from the beginning. That every nation, tribe, and tongue would inherit the blessing: by faith.
Abraham believed God’s word about having children and was counted righteous. The Galatians believed God’s word about trusting in Jesus the Son of God for forgiveness of sins, and were counted as righteous. And that means that they will inherit the blessing of Abraham:
Brothers and sisters, this is our family history. It’s not just some cute Bible story. Four thousand years ago, God appeared to Abraham, chose him, told him he would bless him, and that in him – and in his seed – we’ll get to that in a couple of weeks – all the nations would be blessed. And so when we repented of our sins and simply trusted in Jesus for the forgiveness of sins, we too became children of Abraham. Not by works, not by keeping the law, but simply and only by faith. This is your origin story. Know it. Love it. Teach it to your children.
So Paul tells the Galatians that relying on works is foolish. We know that because of experience, and also by Scripture – especially the origin story of Abraham. But there’s one final reason Paul gives that it’s foolish. And here’s the place where I said I wanted to pivot and speak a little more to the non-Christians in the room. The third reason it’s foolish is this: Relying on works brings a curse.
- Relying on works brings a curse (vv. 11-14)
Look at what Paul writes next:
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Galatians 3:10
Notice he’s still arguing from Scripture. But look what he says here: You’re trying to rely on the law to make yourself right with God? Well, look at what the law says: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” In other words, it’s all or nothing. To make that clear, he goes on:
11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
Here, Paul appeals to 2 more Scriptures to show that there are only 2 ways to live. He quotes Habakkuk 2:4, which says “the righteous shall live by faith” and then he quotes Leviticus 18:5 that says if you do them you’ll live by them. Now, this doesn’t sound like such a big deal until you realize that the word “live” in both these contexts means, in context “live eternally”. Let that sink in for a minute.
In other words, if you want to live eternally with a perfectly holy God by means of your works, your works better be perfect. “The one who DOES them will live by them.” Why is that? Well, think about this, God is infinitely holy. That means that sin is obliterated in his presence. You want to live eternally with him? Then there can’t be ANY sin in you. Not a drop. The standard is moral perfection. Not because God doesn’t feel like grading on a curve, but because it’s impossible. No more can darkness remain when a light is turned on than sin can remain in the presence of God. It’s not gonna happen.
Deep down we know this. In fact, think about this, you don’t even have to worry about living up to GOD’s standards. You don’t live up to your OWN standards! Do you ever notice how we are so inflexible with other people – “she should have known this;” “why did he say THAT. I can’t believe he did such-and-such” – But we’re always making excuses for ourselves. “Well, I had an off day. I really meant well.” We’re always letting ourselves OFF the hook while we always put others ON it. We judge others by their worst actions, and ourselves by our best intentions.
A few years back the group called Humans of New York did a series on incarcerated persons. And one inmate in federal prison said it like this: “When someone wrongs us, we want the maximum amount of punishment. But when we do wrong, we want the maximum amount of understanding.” (Humans of New York)
And what this means is that if we’re going to try and relate to God on the basis of what we do, we’ll always be under a curse. And you’re like “well why can’t God just let me off the hook? Why can’t he just grade on a curve?” But don’t you see, if he can let you off, why can’t he just let everyone off? That quote a minute ago? That’s for someone in for murder. Why not let him off if we’re going to start down that road? In other words, God lets us off, he’s no longer just. And so when we try to live by the law, we’re forever under a curse.
What do we do? Instead of the law, we choose the gospel. Paul writes:
13 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”— 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. Galatians 3:10-14
That’s the gospel. That’s the good news. All of us are under God’s curse for failing to keep the law. But instead of giving us what we deserve, God sent his son who became a curse for us. Deuteronomy 21:23 says “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” How did Jesus die? He was crucified on a Roman cross. In the Jewish mind, tree, cross, same difference. Devout Jews would have looked at Jesus who was crucified and said – there’s no way he could be the Messiah – he’s cursed! Look! Paul says: exactly. He bore the curse, so that WE could inherit the blessing. Why was he on that “tree”? Not for HIS sins, but for yours and mine. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. 1 Peter 2:24.
If you’re not yet a follower of Christ, and you want to know God, lay your doing down.Stop trying to make things right with God on the basis of what you DO. Instead, simply come to God on the basis of faith through the finished work of his son. Trust in HIS cursed death on your behalf, and receive the blessings of Abraham.
Theologian John Stott, commenting on these verses, puts it this way:
This is the difference between [the law and the gospel]: The law says ‘Do this’; the gospel says ‘Christ has done it all.’ The law requires works of human achievement; the gospel requires faith in Christ’s achievement. The law makes demands and bids us obey; the gospel brings promises and bids us believe.”
Room for nations / missions?
And if you are a follower of Christ – if you HAVE come to him by faith – you started well. Finish the same way you started. Don’t go back to the law – it’s under a curse. It’s foolish. Jesus plus anything equals nothing. But in Christ, we have everything. Let’s pray.