Galatians 3:2–3 (NAS): 2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
This is quite likely the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. It’s certainly the most liberating. It gives depth and significance to the death and resurrection of Christ in ways unfathomable. The implications of this two part question is joy inexpressible and transformational love. And the only reason more people haven’t heard this incredible truth is because…we are so foolish.
Surrendering my life to Christ was not easy. Understanding how to live the Christian life, by comparison, was a piece of cake. I had it all figured out by age 18. It was actually quite intuitive. Most people figure it out quickly. Believe that Jesus died on the cross for your sins and was raised to life three days later and your ticket to heaven has been secured. The only thing left is to get after living a life of obedience, so that others will see Jesus in you.
I got after it with new convert zeal. I began my new life in Christ like a teen with a new muscle car; overjoyed with what I had been given and enamored with the power. It took several years, but little by little the wheels began to come off, and the joy was tempered by the constant need for upkeep and maintenance. I found myself in an endless disheartening loop of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. A life of loving obedience to Christ was proving a weary yoke and a heavy burden. Especially in my college years.
But this is the way. This is what it means to follow Christ. This is dying daily; bearing my cross. I prayed often for the strength to not do what I really wanted to do; what my flesh wanted to do. My inability to win consistently was evidence I was doing it “in my own strength.” That’s how the struggle was always described. If only I could find the secret to not do this in my own strength and do it in the power of the Spirit. That’s what I heard from so many in Church. But I couldn’t. So for many years I limped along, trying not to lose my joy, as I wilted under the strain of the Lord’s standard of holiness. I had received the Spirit by hearing with faith. But now I was trying to be perfected by the flesh. Then, like Christopher Columbus, I discovered what was already there.
The greatness of the message is in the answer to this one question. “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Not only is this a foolish thing to do, but this is also deserting the one who called us by grace for a different gospel. And this foolish thing was exactly what my intuition told me about living the Christian life.
The answer is clear enough from the tone of the question. You don’t begin by the Spirit then get perfected by the flesh. What may not be as clear, is the answer to how then do you live after having begun by the Spirit. This will take some explaining so bear with me, it will be worth it.
The answer can be found in how the words flesh and Spirit are being used. There are two options for how we received the Spirit; by the works of the law or by hearing with faith. It seems clear that we began by option 2; hearing with faith. But instead of beginning the second part of the question with “having begun by faith”, it begins with “having begun by the Spirit.” Faith and Spirit it seems are being used interchangeably, as is law and flesh. In other words, to begin by the Spirit is to begin by faith. To be perfected by the flesh is to be perfected by the law. Or in laymen’s terms, to be perfected by your efforts to do right.
This is where the passage becomes the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. The implication is that we will be perfected by the same faith that we were saved by. In the same way that through faith, and not works, we were made right with God, through faith, and not works, our behavior will be made right with God. That’s wonderful news for us who can’t keep the muscle car on the straight and narrow.
It is in this that all fears are stilled and all striving ceases. It makes so much sense now. Now it all holds together. It’s only through faith that Jesus can say to the weary and heavy laden, “my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” If this were simply an argument of our understanding of flesh versus Spirit, then we would acknowledge the Spirit, between yawns, and then it’s back to business as usual. Of course it’s by the Spirit. We can do nothing by the flesh. Then we nod and wink our acknowledgment of the Holy Spirit and get back to our best efforts in the flesh.
But this is more than that. This is rest from your labors. It’s the rest Christ promised all who would come to Him. It is the Holy Spirit who will bear fruit in you. We must be patient and trust Him in faith. It’s His fruit and not our own.