O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 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 with the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
I was a freshman in college back in the day when email was just being born and many people still communicated by writing letters. That first year away from home was harder than I expected (story of my life – why do I always expect life to be easy??), and I loved getting letters from my big sister. Having just graduated from college herself, she was spending a year teaching school in Bolivia.
Her lessons became my lessons as she wrote me letters, bridging the gap between our distance in age and geography. I can still see her beautiful flowing cursive as she discovered the freeing joy of this passage of Scripture and wrote to me about it. “O foolish [Kim and Becca]! Who has bewitched you?…”
Both of us are idealists and high-achievers, born of a line of people who were well-educated and far-reaching in their service to the King of kings. But I suppose each generation has to learn for herself the true worth of the Gospel: not only are we saved by grace through Christ crucified, but we are made into the holy women we long to be by that same grace through the power of the Holy Spirit. Our many efforts and hard work did not and do not perfect us. And of this we were dimly aware at that young age: our achievements somehow were not making us perfect – much to our disappointment.
When I first read that letter from my big sister, I did not take kindly to being called foolish. The spluttering in my mind went something like this: “I’m not foolish. She might be, but I’m not!”
But oh! how I’ve come to appreciate this gentle, loving rebuke from the Apostle Paul! The blunt truth is that I am constantly foolish. I often have to fight against my own self-righteousness, thinking that I can earn God’s favor rather than resting in his loving compassion. I mean, I get it that Jesus saved me by His grace alone, but surely I can make myself perfect now that the “big” job of salvation has been completed, right?
No. I have to constantly remind myself that He shapes my soul over the course of many years just like he shaped my body in the womb, through childhood, and into adulthood.
The verses before and after this little snippet give shape to it, reminding us that if we could become righteous through obeying the law, then Jesus died in vain. Instead, we live by faith (not our works) in the Son of God, “who loved me and gave himself for me.” When I rely on my obedience as the reason for and way of my righteousness, I put myself 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.’”
Much as I wish I didn’t have to rely on an intermediary, much as I wish I was self-sufficient and could work my way to perfection, I find myself constantly falling short of both the letter and spirit of the law – and therefore cursed, if I plan to stake my perfection on my own obedience. This was the exact problem of the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, and he had harsh words for them – harsh words designed to wake them up to their need for his all-encompassing grace.
The whole reason Jesus took on flesh and lived in our midst was for this purpose, to redeem “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.’” As Paul says elsewhere, “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Instead of relying on my own self-right-ness, I must rely instead on love – the self-sacrificing love that God has for me. Instead of trusting in my own obedience to make me perfect, I have to allow myself to rest in what Jesus has done for me.
But then! Oh glory! I receive “the righteousness from God” – a much greater righteousness than I could ever hope to achieve on my own.
As people who are in Christ, then, we know we are not foolish to say that, no matter how high our achievements, no matter how great our service to the King, we are his children and heirs by his grace alone, through His love for us. We receive the Holy Spirit through faith (not works), we keep in step with the Spirit through living in awareness of our union with Him (not through a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps “trying harder” to be good), and we use our freedom in Christ not to earn favor for ourselves, but to serve one another through love as we walk in the power of the Holy Spirit.
God alone can make my heart desire that kind of life, and He alone makes it possible for me to live it!