“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?” (Gal. 3:2–3).

From first to last, the Christian life is a life of faith. At no point can fleshly works do anything to move the soul one inch closer to God. Do you believe this? I am not sure that all of us do. I think that instinctively, we all believe that while we are saved by faith alone, we are sanctified by the dint of our own hard work, grit, and gumption.

Do we not see this in our often-failed attempts to white-knuckle our way through temptation, digging deep to resist the flesh and trying harder to be holy? Such efforts, however, have more in common with a CrossFit gym or a twelve-step program than they do with the truth Paul preached. Paul’s gospel never recommends mere self-effort, it never leaves a sinner simply to his own devices, and it has nothing to do with reaching into some hidden tank of self-determination for the strength to meet the needs of the hour. Rather, it is about reaching out of ourselves and up to the Lord Christ. It’s about laying hold of the risen and exalted Lord Jesus, and by faith, pulling down His resurrection power in the hour of need. This is Paul’s argument at the start of Galatians 3. Let’s work through it together.

Paul asks the Galatians how they began the Christian life. Was it by doing something? No, it was by hearing something and by believing what they had heard. This is an amazing statement. Paul could not be more emphatic in his description of the passivity of faith. At the level of justification, faith isn’t acting on a message; it is simply receiving this good news with a childlike posture of trust. And by means of that faith, we receive not only salvation but also the Holy Spirit of God Himself.

This has astounding implications for living the Christian life, for when you have the Spirit of God, you have all the fullness of the Godhead in Him. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul describes the experience like this: The Holy Spirit strengthens us with power in the inner man (Eph. 3:16). He does this so that Christ might dwell in our hearts through faith and not through works (Eph. 3:17). I believe the Spirit’s principal role here is to strengthen our faith through the Word of Christ (Rom. 10:17), and then through that faith in the Word, Jesus enters the believer’s soul (John 15:7). As Christ floods the Christian’s heart, He roots and grounds their spiritual experience in an ever-growing enjoyment of the love of God (Eph. 3:17–20). The end of all this is to leave us filled with all the fullness of God the Father Himself (Eph. 3:19). If this blows your mind, and it should, don’t worry: God’s capacity to act isn’t limited by our capacity to think or even to imagine (Eph. 3:20–21).

At the level of justification, faith isn’t acting on a message; it is simply receiving this good news with a childlike posture of trust.

All this begins with the reception of the Holy Spirit by faith alone. Works have no part in this process: you receive Him by believing, not by doing (Luke 11:9–13). This has important implications for second-blessing theology, which teaches that the pathway to the Spirit’s presence is full surrender. At best, this is dangerous teaching, because a half-truth told as a whole truth is a whole untruth. Such teaching leaves the Christian wide open to the false notion that we gain the Spirit by the work of surrender, or that God is somehow waiting for us to make the first move toward Him before He will reward our effort with the Spirit’s grace. Nothing could be further from the truth. At no point in our experience of salvation, do we ever make the first move toward God. Even our response to grace is the result of grace. As the hymn writer said, “Every thought of holiness comes down from above.” From first to last, we are debtors to free grace. The Spirit’s presence is never earned or worked down; He must be received as a gift, by faith alone.

This has important ramifications for our growth in holiness and our experience of the Spirit, the driving force in sanctification (Rom. 8:1–39; Gal. 5:16). At no point can we simply “flesh” our way to God. Fleshly works are of no value whatsoever. How could they be? Nothing good dwells in the flesh, and nothing good can be done by it either (Rom. 7:18). The flesh, a prisoner to the law of sin, knows only how to resist God and wage war against His law (Rom. 7:23). By the law of sin, Paul describes the commanding and authoritative voice of the sin nature: “Don’t read your Bible. Don’t spend time in prayer. Give in to distracting thoughts at church during the sermon. If your lust is itching, scratch it!” To all these and many more such evil thoughts, the flesh simply responds with delight, “Oh, yes!” In the flesh, therefore, Paul says, “I am wretched; I cannot help myself” (Rom. 7:24, paraphrase). He feels himself strapped to a dying, decaying body. He longs for freedom. 

Christ is the answer to this longing (Rom. 7:25). He receives all the condemnation God has to give the Christian. As a result, though Isaac had one blessing left for Esau (Gen. 27:38), God has no condemnation left for us. He has given it all to His firstborn Son Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Because of this, through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, a new commanding authority enters the Christian’s soul, “the law of the Spirit of life” in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:2). What a contrast to the law of sin and death. What the naked Mosaic law could not do (Rom. 8:3), God has done through the gospel—a message of both justifying and sanctifying grace (Rom. 8:3–4). Without this Spirit, sanctification wouldn’t just become more difficult; it would be impossible.

When I was a young child, my mother would leave me in the car while she would nip quickly into a shop on an errand. While she was away, I would climb into the front seat and pretend to drive the car. I would turn the wheel, stomp on the brake pedal, and even change the gears. Occasionally, I would mash the gas pedal, but this tended to flood the engine, and Mom never seemed to appreciate that when she returned! Of course, all my efforts at driving came to naught because I didn’t have the key and could not start the engine. In a stationary car, you can turn the steering wheel until the cows come home, but you won’t change direction until there is forward momentum.

Without this Spirit, sanctification wouldn’t just become more difficult; it would be impossible.

In many ways, it’s just like that with the Christian and his efforts toward sanctification. Our fleshly works (turning the wheel in our illustration) amount to nothing by themselves. But when God gives us the key of faith and the Holy Spirit fills the engine of our souls with gospel energy, then we are off to the races. Then when we turn the steering wheel of our hearts in an effort to make a spiritual U-turn (repentance), something useful actually happens—not, in the first instance, because we have turned the wheel, but because the Holy Spirit is moving us forward, the Spirit whom we received by faith alone.

This should completely change the way we respond to temptation. Rather than simply trying to white-knuckle our way through the darkness, we should instead reach up for the Holy Spirit by faith. We get the Holy Spirit, remember, not because we have done something, but because Christ has done everything, even paying for this incredible gift with His very blood. 

When the Holy Spirit comes to lead us away from sin, He tends to use means. We call them the ordinary means of grace. They are the Word (especially when preached), the sacraments, and prayer. Full of the Holy Spirit, these means bring the mind-transforming, heart-cleansing, soul-renewing, will-engaging power of grace to bear on our spirits through faith. Through them we learn to say “No!” to sin and “Yes!” to righteousness. Paul describes this dynamic to his young understudy Titus:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11–14)

This is the life of faith, and it brings with it the power of Christ’s resurrection (Gal. 2:20; Phil. 3:10). In our death struggle with the flesh, nothing less will do. Go on, then, Christian, by the Spirit of the living God: “Be killing sin, or sin will be killing you!”

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