The Foolishness of the Performance Trap (Galatians 3:1–14)

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This sermon is part of a series on Galatians titled “Justified.”

Big idea: Our walk with God, from beginning to end, depends on our faith in Jesus Christ, not on the perfection of our performance.

Everyone lives with regrets. Every choice we’ve made has not been with the greatest of wisdom. Some moments of our lesser stupidity may be long forgotten, but there are a few happenings of our life that are immortally etched on the slate of our mind, in minute detail; reminders that we have, at one time or another, and on various occasions, acted foolishly.

But get this: nothing is more foolish than having once embraced the Christ of the Cross, then exchanging Him for something lesser of our own making.

The piercing question of Galatians 3:1-14 is found in verse 3, “Are you so foolish?” I have two or three incredibly foolish moments in my life that come to mind every so often. And every time they do, I ask myself, “Was I really that foolish?” My mind imagines ways to explain it without admitting foolishness, but at the end of the day the answer is: Yes, I really was that foolish. And, Yes, some of the Galatians have been so foolish—they have traded the Gospel of grace for a gospel of performance. Having begun by faith in Christ they have turned to rule-keeping and performance to make them right with God. That, of course, is foolishness, for no one can be made right with God through rule-keeping.

Rule-keeping is what you do because you love God; it is not what you do to be made right with God.

Rule-keeping is what you do because you love God; it is not what you do to be made right with God. This leads us to today’s big idea: Our walk with God, from beginning to end, depends on our faith in Jesus Christ, not on the perfection of our performance.

Here are the three points we will make from Galatians 3:1-14, 

  1. The Foolishness of the Galatians (3:1-6)
  2. The Futility of Legalism (3:7-12)
  3. The Faithfulness of Christ (3:13-14)

None of us like to recall our own foolishness, so let’s talk about someone else’s, but, beware, it may bring to memory some of our own.

The Foolishness of the Galatians (3:1-6)

“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (3:1). Remember that Paul is not writing to please the Galatians or anyone else besides God (1:10). It’s nowhere more apparent than here. “You fools!” is a strong rebuke and, if not salted with extreme care and a history of love, is deeply hurtful. No one wants to hear, “I’m so disappointed in you!” Those words hurt deeply. But Paul, who has a history of caring for and loving the Galatians, is trying to awaken them from their slip into deception. “Who deceived you into thinking that anything besides the marks of the Holy Spirit is indicative of a right relationship with God?”

DECEPTION THROUGH MISPLACED FOCUS

How could they so quickly lose the image of Christ on the cross? The Galatians had been deceived into trusting in circumcision rather than the cross. They have been deceived into trusting in performance when they should only be trusting in Christ and His perfect performance for our salvation. So profound is the foolishness of the Galatian deception that Paul likens it to being “bewitched,” or put under a spell.

David Blaine and Apollo Robbins are two of the greatest illusionists in contemporary entertainment. Their performances are captivating. They capitalize on the human ability to focus on one thing at a time. No matter how well you think you can multitask, it is a simple fact that our focus can only be on one object at a time.

For example, David Blaine, in a popular YouTube video, performs a card trick for President George W. Bush. Unbeknownst to the President, while he is focused on the cards, David Blaine removes the President’s watch from his wrist. At the end of the performance, Blaine gives it back as a “gift.” Blaine uses the power of suggestion and the human inability to focus on one thing at a time to deceive the President.

In a similar way, Paul’s antagonists in Galatia are deceiving the young believers of the Galatian churches into shifting their eyes away from the perfect gift of Christ and onto their own performance of rule-keeping. It had been suggested to the Galatian Christians that rule-keeping is necessary to enter into holy fellowship with God. Then, having believed this suggestion, the Galatian Christians lost their ability to focus on the Christ of the Cross, just like when David Blaine removed the President’s watch before his very eyes because he drew the President’s mind and attention elsewhere.

One time, just for fun—or so I thought—I asked an adult Sunday School class which is more important: the doctrine of justification, or a particular special rule we had in our church manual (a rule that was our application of a biblical principle but by no means the only way or even a necessary way to apply the biblical principle). The entire class looked at me dumbfounded until one older lady courageously vocalized the class’s uncertainty, “Well, pastor, I’m not real sure.” I thought I was throwing an underhanded softball, but, apparently, they saw it as a major league curveball.

While we have to work hard to apply biblical principles, we have to work even harder to maintain our vision of what lies at the heart of the Gospel—the doctrine of reconciliation with God through the atonement of Christ.

This strengthened my belief that, while we have to work hard to apply biblical principles, we have to work even harder to maintain our vision of what lies at the heart of the Gospel—the doctrine of reconciliation with God through the atonement of Christ.

THE TRUE SOURCE OF SALVATION

I was quite disturbed by the lack of insight from that class similar to the way Paul was irritated by the Galatians. Consequently, he begins interrogating them with a series of rhetorical questions in verses 2-6:

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 – indeed if it was 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 – just as Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness [Gen 15:6]?

Notice that two of the questions raise the matter of the Holy Spirit in salvation. Belonging to God requires receiving the Holy Spirit, not performing well enough to be acceptable to God. The Spirit is given to us precisely because we cannot perform without Him. Faith, not works, is the door to justification. 

“Works of the law” in the first question is parallel to “the flesh” in the third question. One of the main practices in question was the rite of circumcision. The false gospel circulating among the Galatian churches taught that one must be circumcised in order to be justified. In the scheme of this false gospel, circumcision was the symbol of performance-driven salvation. This means to trust in rule-keeping is to trust in one’s self and not in Christ. If we can earn salvation through mere obedience, then why do we need Christ? The false gospel had no need for Christ, so it provided no place for Christ. The true Gospel, on the other hand, places Christ at the center and, as a result, put our works of righteousness in proper perspective.

The point of Paul’s questioning is to assert the fact that both justification and ongoing sanctification are by faith and not by rule-keeping.

Both justification and ongoing sanctification are by faith and not by rule-keeping.

The fourth question in this series has to do with suffering. Would you suffer so much and then give up before receiving the reward for your suffering? Suffering is one reason to endure and miracles that have occurred among them are another.

Finally, Paul ends this sequence by giving us an example of “hearing” with faith. Now this little metaphor of hearing with faith is subtle but important. To hear with faith means something akin to what we mean by listening. We know the difference between someone just hearing us talk and someone who is really listening. It’s a matter of attention. Notice that there is a contrast here: works of the law versus hearing with faith; or, rule-keeping versus paying attention to God. Get this: keeping rules means nothing if we have stopped paying attention to God. Did you get that? Works of the law mean nothing if we have stopped listening to God with faith.

This is why Abraham is an example of faith and righteousness. He listened to God with faith although his story as recorded in Genesis is filled with less than stellar performance at times. Key point: Abraham is an example to follow because he kept listening and following God’s voice. I should repeat these two last paragraphs again. 

The Futility of Legalism (3:7-12)

THE TRUE SONS OF ABRAHAM

“Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham” (3:7). So who is following Abraham’s example? Paul calls those who are following after the pattern of Abraham’s faith “sons.” So who are “sons:” are the antagonist, or those who are still following the Gospel that Paul preached in Galatia? The antagonists teach that we ought to rely on our obedience for salvation; the Gospel says that obedience is the fruit of salvation, not the seed of salvation.

By the way, let’s not miss this: remember Peter’s actions when the Jews from Jerusalem came to Antioch, Jews who thought themselves to be the sons of Abraham? Well, guess who the real sons of Abraham are? Paul tells us very plainly here and in doing so he begins a theme that he will continue to develop through the rest of the letter. The theme is this: Faith, not genetics, is what makes one a child of Abraham.

Remember, we are all part of God’s family by adoption, not by birth.

This statement in 3:7 is foundational: Who is a true son of God? Who is the real Israel? Who are the chosen people of God? Who is it that God promises will inherit the land? Who is it that God promises will have an eternal kingdom? And the answer is given without equivocation: those who believe in the Lord Jesus Christ.

THE GENTILES INCLUDED

“And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying [Gen 12:3], ‘In you shall all the nations be blessed.’ 9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (3:8-9, cross-reference added). Simply put, the Gospel was never intended to be the sole possession of Israel. Consequently, the Jewish law was never intended to be the means of entrance into the people of God. It wasn’t the means by which Abraham entered into covenant with God. The Law didn’t come until hundreds of years after Abraham, so it couldn’t possibly be the way into relationship with God!

THE CURSE OF THE LAW 

“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written [Deut 27:26], ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (3:10, cross-reference added). Paul is not saying that the law is inherently bad; rather, he is putting the law into the overarching story of grace. The law was never intended to be the means of justification. I firmly believe that many people’s insecurity in grace can be traced to this misconception: our salvation relies on our own keeping of the rules.

But neither is Paul talking about total inability as if rule-keeping is impossible for us. Some people, a few at least, are perfectionists in rule-keeping. Paul is not talking about our inability to be law-keepers; rather, he’s talking about the inability of the law to save. Consider Paul’s own testimony in Philippians 3:6, He writes, “as to righteousness under the law, [I was] blameless.”

There is a common misconception out there regarding the Old Testament law. The misconception is that the law was impossible to keep. Here’s the truth: the Law itself did not require perfect obedience for a person to be considered blameless (e.g. David was called blameless numerous times). Rather, the law had within it provisions for transgressions. Thus, Paul’s point here is that perfect obedience was never the standard for being in fellowship with God, but rather reliance upon his provision of grace. Nothing changed between the Old and New Testaments regarding salvation by grace.

JUSTIFICATION BY FAITH ALONE

“Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith [Hab 2:4].’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them [Lev 18:5]’” (3:11-12). Here is an important summary statement by Paul: “No one is justified before God (that is, reconciled with Him) by the law (through rule-keeping).” In other words, justification is not a legalist doctrine.

Legalism is the mindset that depends upon obedience for justification.

Let me define what legalism is and is not. First, legalism is not believing that God’s laws ought to be obeyed. Rather, legalism is the mindset that depends upon obedience for justification. Here is how legalism usually works: some especially sensitive people are legalistic toward themselves, but most of us are legalistic toward others; that is, legalism is usually an attitude we have toward others to point out their imperfections. Seldomly do we require the same perfection of ourselves. But consider this: if God is so gracious to you, why wouldn’t he be gracious to others?

Further, when Paul says that “the law is not of faith,” this is not to say that obedience to God’s rules is unimportant for Christians. It is to say that the law does not produce faithfulness; rather, faith produces lawfulness. To get this turned around is the difference between the true Gospel and legalism.

What then is the basis of our faith? Paul answers the question in the next two verses.

The Faithfulness of Christ (3:13-14)

Verses 13 and 14 are in contrast to verses 10-12: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written [Deut 21:23], ‘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.”

The blessing promised to Abraham is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Paul put it this way in 2 Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” How was Jesus our Redeemer? By “becoming a curse.” We should not read into this that God the Father cursed God the Son. This is merely a literary way of saying “by being crucified on a cross.” That Paul means it this way is clarified by his citation of Deuteronomy 21:23. The cross is the symbol of our redemption.

The symbols a religion uses often express its core beliefs. For example (John Stott, The Cross of Christ, 19-20):

  • The Lotus Flower of Buddhism: its wheel shape depicts either the cycle of birth and death, or the emergence of beauty and harmony out of the muddy waters of chaos.
  • The Star of David of Judaism: a hexagram formed by combining two equilateral triangles. It speaks of God’s covenant with David that his throne would be established forever and that the Messiah descended from him.
  • The Crescent of Islam: the crescent moon is a symbol of sovereignty.
  • Hammer and Sickle of Marxism: this symbol represents the intersection of industry and agriculture, the union of workers and peasants, factory and field.
  • The Swastika of Nazism: the arms of its cross are bent clockwise to symbolize the movement of time and the process of creativity and prosperity.
  • The Cross: The one hanging on it must be paying for some serious sin. When the righteous died for the unrighteous (1 Peter 3:18), this symbol of cursing became a symbol of reconciliation between God and man. The cross is not a symbol of God forsaking mankind, but loving mankind.

The cross alone is a symbol that speaks to the need of every human being. There is no other symbol, no other reality that can reconcile people with people, and much more, people with God, than the cross. It is for both Jew and Gentile, and its benefit is received by faith through the Holy Spirit. “Justification and the gift of the Spirit are alike received…through one and the same act of faith” (Bruce, Galatians, 149).

Conclusion

Beware of the performance trap. Our walk with God—from beginning to end—depends on our faith in Jesus Christ, not on the perfection of our performance. Take a spiritual vision test. Perhaps you’ll find that your focus on the real ground of our salvation is fuzzy. If so, consider this:

  1. Read through Galatians in one sitting. Pay special attention to the sufficiency of Christ.
  2. Highlight these phrases in Galatians:
    • 1:4, “who gave himself for our sins”
    • 3:13, “Christ redeemed us”
    • 3:26, “in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God”
    • 5:1, “Christ has set us free”
    • 6:14, “far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
David Fry
Senior Pastor at the Frankfort Bible Holiness Church. PhD in Systematic Theology (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School). MDiv in New Testament Theology (Wesley Biblical Seminary).