The Book of Galatians: Chapter 3 (verses 1–14)

September 26, 2023

by Peter Amsterdam

In Galatians chapter 2, having written that he had been crucified with Christ and that Christ lived within him, Paul stated that he lived by faith in the Son of God. He then moved on to chapter 3.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.1

Paul scolded the Galatians for their foolishness. They were close to denying the gospel. Paul didn’t call them “brothers” like he had earlier (1:11), but rather addressed them abruptly so as to take them to task and remind them of their responsibility to the truth they had been taught.

The Galatians had lost sight of the significance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Their focus on circumcision and the law diminished the importance of the cross.

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?2

Here, and in the upcoming verses, Paul asks several questions which he hopes will bring the Galatian believers back to reality so that they won’t turn away from the gospel. Paul says that he desires to learn only one thing from them. Did they receive the Spirit through keeping the law or through trust in Christ?

When someone becomes a Christian, the Holy Spirit is poured into their heart. God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.3 Those who belong to Christ have the Holy Spirit dwelling in them. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.4 It is God who establishes us with you in Christ, and has anointed us, and who has also put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee.5

Since the Gentile believers had the Spirit of God, circumcision was not required. Likewise, since they had the Spirit, they were Christians and belonged to the people of God; therefore circumcision and following the law were not necessary.

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?6

Paul questions whether the Galatians have compounded their foolishness by starting in the Spirit and finishing by works. They thought they could improve on relying wholly upon the Spirit. They were attracted to being “perfected by the flesh.” The word “flesh” here likely alludes to circumcision, which involves cutting of the flesh.

The Judaizers (Christians who taught that a combination of God’s grace and human effort was necessary) argued that it was necessary for the Galatians to be circumcised in order to belong to the people of God. Paul disagreed. He believed that the Galatians were Christians because they had been filled with the Spirit. To require them to be circumcised would make progress in the Christians’ lives dependent on efforts of the flesh instead of the Spirit.

Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?7

Suffering was a common part of Christians’ lives, and it’s likely that the Galatians experienced discrimination and verbal abuse due to their faith. Paul asks if the suffering they experienced was in vain, because if they had renounced the gospel of grace and accepted circumcision as a requirement to perfect their faith, then their suffering as Christians had no purpose.

In verse 3, Paul assumes they are Christians, and laments the foolishness of trying to progress according to the flesh. However, now in verse 4, he considers the prospect of their accepting circumcision and concludes that if they do, they would have suffered in vain.

Paul warns the Galatians about the dangers of succumbing to the tactics used by the Judaizers. He closes the verses with a hypothetical statement: if indeed they are in vain. He doesn’t say that the sufferings of the Galatians were in vain. Rather, he leaves them with a condition. If they follow the Judaizers and reject the truth of the gospel, then their suffering as new believers was for nothing. Paul’s hope is that warning them will cause them to reassess their position and repent, so that they will obtain the full reward.

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…8

The paragraph is now summed up with one last rhetorical question. The work of the Spirit has been seen among the Galatians. It may be that Paul described the impact of his ministry among them. The main point is that God had given them the Spirit, and the presence of the Spirit has been manifested among them. Since the Galatians have the Spirit, they are members of the people of God. They are members of the family of Abraham, so they no longer need to follow the Torah.

just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?9

Paul states that Abraham’s right standing with God was due to his trust in God. He makes the point that both Abraham and the Galatians exercised faith.

The Judaizers probably appealed to Abraham and circumcision to support their view that circumcision was mandatory to become one of the people of God.10 After all, Abraham was the father of the Jewish people, the one to whom God's promises were made.

Paul didn’t discount Abraham’s obedience.11 Rather, he put the focus on Abraham’s faith, which was the fundamental aspect of his life. He believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.12 In Genesis 15, Abraham thought that Eliezer, his servant, would be his only heir. The Lord promised him that his offspring would be as numerous as the stars in the heavens, and Abraham believed what the Lord said; he trusted in Him. Genesis 15 ends with God Himself, symbolized by fire, passing through the pieces of the sacrificial animal, showing that the covenant would be fulfilled by the Lord alone. All of Genesis 15 focuses on God’s work and Abraham’s trust in God.

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.13

Paul forcefully calls the Galatians to realize the truth that thus far has evaded them. What is necessary to be part of Abraham’s family, to be counted as his sons? Not circumcision or other works required by the law. Those who belong to Abraham’s family believe as Abraham did—for he lived before the law was given. Therefore it was faith that made him righteous before God. The Galatians, then, did not need to be circumcised to be Abraham’s sons. They were already his children if their faith was in Jesus. Paul emphasizes that it is faith and faith alone that makes one a child 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.”14

God promised Abraham that all people would be blessed through him. Paul makes the point that this blessing comes through the gospel, and that the Gentiles receive this blessing when they stand before God in their faith in Jesus.

Paul’s quote from the Old Testament is a merging of two verses in Genesis, verses 12:3 and 18:18. Genesis 12:3 says: In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed. Genesis 18:18 states: All the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him.

By referring to “all nations,” Paul shows that it was God’s intention from the beginning to bless the Gentiles, as long as they had the same kind of faith as Abraham. They received the blessing of Abraham if they believed like him.

So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.15

The “so then” draws a conclusion from the previous verse (v. 8). Genesis 12:3 promises that all nations would be blessed in Abraham, and in Galatians 3:8 Paul says that this blessing becomes a reality when the Gentiles are justified by faith. He concludes that those who believe receive the same blessing that believing Abraham did.

The Judaizers said that the Galatians had to be circumcised to become part of Abraham’s family and to receive the blessing of Abraham. However, verses 3:7 and 3:9 show that this is untrue. The Galatians became part of the family of Abraham when they believed as he did, and they enjoyed the blessing of Abraham when they believed like him.

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.”16

Paul asserts that Gentiles receive the blessing of Abraham in Christ. Conversely, those who rely on the Torah are cursed. He goes on to give the reason why those who hold to works of the law are cursed—they fail to keep all that the law requires. As it says in Deuteronomy: If you are not careful to do all the words of this law that are written in this book … then the LORD will bring on you and your offspring extraordinary afflictions.17 The Judaizers believed they could be right in God’s sight by means of the law, which is the heart of legalism. However, it is impossible to keep God’s law perfectly.

Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”18

Paul made the point that the curse of the law applied to those who try to be right before God by means of the law. He now gives a second argument from a different angle. He states that no one can obtain right standing before God by keeping the law. All are cursed by the law, because all have sinned.

But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”19

Paul explains further why no one can be righteous by the law. The law requires perfect obedience, and no one can achieve that. Faith, however, looks to what God has done through Christ for salvation, relying on God’s work rather than one’s own work. Paul is using three arguments (3:10–12) to explain why the law cannot save.

Paul says that those who do what the law requires will live on the basis of their obedience. But no one can be righteous by the law, because the law requires perfection. Paul says that: All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Obedience to the law is contrary to faith, since it is predicated on obeying instead of believing to have salvation; on performing what is required rather than trusting in Christ. Trying to be righteous by keeping the law is opposed to believing, to trusting what God has done through Christ.

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.”20

The only way for the curse of the law to be removed is through the redemption of Christ. The curse of the law lies not only on the Jewish people, but includes all who look to the law for redemption. How can anyone be delivered from God’s curse, since everyone sins? Paul’s answer is that forgiveness comes through Jesus’ death on the cross. He liberates us from the curse which comes by the law.

Christ didn’t suffer and die for His own sins; He died for the sake of others. Paul tells us that Christ took upon Himself the curse that sinners deserve. He stood in our place as He took our punishment. Christ is the only way by which the curse of the law can be removed.

so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.21

The promise of Genesis 12:3, that all nations would be blessed in Abraham, has become a reality in Jesus—not by circumcision or by following the Mosaic law. The blessing of Abraham belongs to those who believe in Christ (3:8–9). Conversely, God’s curse falls on those who rely on the law for justification (3:10–12). By His substitutionary death, Jesus removes the curse from the law for all those who believe. This includes the Gentiles who are included in the blessing of Abraham by trusting in Christ, rather than keeping the Torah.

The second half of this verse speaks further on the promise of Abraham. The blessing of Abraham can be described as the promise of the Spirit, which would be the gift of the Spirit. Paul is likely alluding to Isaiah 44:3, which says: For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour my Spirit upon your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants.

Paul maintains that the Gentiles who have received the Holy Spirit enjoy the blessing of Abraham. If they enjoy the blessing of Abraham, then they are members of his family. If they are part of Abraham’s family by receiving the Spirit, they don’t need to submit to circumcision or to the law to be part of the people of God.

(To be continued.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

1 Galatians 3:1.

2 Galatians 3:2.

3 Romans 5:5.

4 Romans 8:9.

5 2 Corinthians 1:21–22.

6 Galatians 3:3.

7 Galatians 3:4.

8 Galatians 3:5.

9 Galatians 3:6.

10 Genesis 17:9–14.

11 Romans 4.

12 Genesis 15:6.

13 Galatians 3:7.

14 Galatians 3:8.

15 Galatians 3:9.

16 Galatians 3:10.

17 Deuteronomy 28:58–59.

18 Galatians 3:11.

19 Galatians 3:12.

20 Galatians 3:13.

21 Galatians 3:14.