Oh Foolish Galatians

Studies  in  Galatians

(Galatians 3:1-9)

O foolish Galatians! (3:1a) It is only because of the extremity of the Galatians’ error in their repudiation of the grace of God (cf 2:21), that the apostle is led to speak thus, explicitly declaring unto the Galatians that in respect of their repudiation of divine grace they are foolish indeed.

By his explicit characterization of the Galatians as “foolish,” Paul was prepared to risk initial offense for the sake of eventual good; the eventual good that would come whenever the Lord Himself (cp 5:10a; Rom.14:4c), through these very words of Paul’s, would bring the Galatians to a realization of the truth.

It has been the part of inspiration as well for Paul to speak thus, in consideration of the needs of every believer, down the centuries, whom God would enlighten in the truth of the evangel. Often, that we might truly acquire wisdom, it is needful for us to know not only that of which it consists, but that of which it does not consist.

It is not that Paul’s appraisal of the Galatians as “foolish” was inaccurate; nor can we charge him with having overstated the case. It is only that, for so long as one remains foolish, he cannot be expected to respond favorably to any true appraisal of his condition.

It is to be regretted that in everyday speech the word “foolish” is usually used connotatively, in a disparaging or demeaning sense. It is often a term of belittlement or ridicule. Indeed, it is in a consideration of this common usage of “foolish,” together with an awareness that we do well not to demean or ridicule others, that we hesitate to speak at all of others as being foolish.

The primary definition of “fool,” however, is “One who is deficient in judgment, sense, or understanding”; likewise, a “foolish” thought or deed, is one “Having or resulting from poor judgment; unwise.”1 This accords with the Greek term for “foolish,” anoêton, the elements of which signify “UN-MINDed” (i.e., “thoughtless,” in the sense of deficiency of proper thought). Any secondary or tertiary definitions of foolish such as “ridiculous” or “gullible,” not to mention connotations of derision, denigration, or scorn, are not the essential meaning of either “fool” or “foolish.”

It is true that we do well to minimize both our declarations and thoughts in consideration of such ideas as those which these lesser definitions of “foolish,” and especially their connotations, call to mind. But it is also true that we do well to note, whether in ourselves or others, that which constitutes deficiency in judgment, sense, or understanding, especially where the measure of that deficiency is extensive.

All such deficiency is “foolishness”; it is a deficiency of wisdom, which is the highest and best application of knowledge. Since it is impossible to know what is wise apart from a knowledge as well of that which precludes wisdom, it is vital that we be mindful not only of that which is wise, but also of that which is foolish. Those who are foolish, are those who engage in that which is foolish; in that which is marked by deficiency in judgment, sense, or understanding. To imagine that it is the sine qua non2 of love to avoid appraising others as foolish even where this is the case, is itself a foolish notion.

It is rather that, as a rule, it is the sine qua non of prudence not to inform a fool of his foolishness. This is because, “The foolish despise wisdom and discipline” (Prov.1:7); and, because “The way of a fool seems upright in his own eyes” (Prov.12:15). “Wisdom is too high for the fool” (Prov.24:7). Indeed, “Though you bray the fool in a mortar, in the midst of the grist with a pestle, his folly shall not go away from him” (Prov.27:22). Accordingly, then, “Let a bereaved bear encounter a man, but certainly not a stupid [i.e., undiscerning] person in his folly” (Prov.17:12).


Who bewitches you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was graphically crucified? (3:1b)

“Who” is the indefinite pronoun, tis, signifying ANY. When possible, the Concordant Version seeks to preserve its indefiniteness by rendering it “any,” “
asome,” or “acertain.” Idiomatically, however, it must often be rendered “awho,” “awhose,” “awhich,” “awhat,” “awhy,” or with negatives, “aone.” Paul’s point, then, was not to inquire specifically as to just “who” it was who had bewitched them; nor does he seek to elicit just “what” particular means any such ones had used unto this end. His point is rather–since it was evident that they had become “bewitched”–that something must have bewitched them. This sense, stated as a rhetorical question, may be expressed thus: “[In light of your profound withdrawal from the faith,] is there not “asomething that bewitches you–before whose eyes Jesus Christ was graphically crucified?”

“Graphically” is an idiomatic variant of prographõ (BEFORE-WRITE), which literally means, “write before” (e.g., Eph.3:3). Paul had “written before” the mind’s eye of every one of the Galatians that Christ had died for their sakes, and that–in the bloody death of His crucifixion–they were now justified (cp Rom.5:8,9). It was ever the burden of Paul’s ministry to declaim the word recorded in Romans 8:32, which is: “Surely He Who spares not His own Son, but gives Him up for us all, how shall He not, together with Him, also, be graciously granting us all?”

This is the truth which Paul vividly outlined and clearly set forth concerning “Christ crucified,” graphically presenting it before the eyes of the Galatians. It is not at all that he denied the horror of the cross or sought to minimize it, but that he did not specifically rehearse the details of its terror. Much less did he employ any account of our Lord’s sufferings merely to evoke the maudlin, thus stirring the emotions while leaving the intellect quiescent, specifically in the knowledge of the evangel itself.

“The phrase ‘openly set forth’ [ASV; ‘graphically,’ CV] is regarded by some as proof of the oratorical ability of the apostle. He possessed, so we are told, an eloquence which had at its disposal the whole armory of rhetoric, and he captured an audience by drawing vivid, impressively realistic pictures of the scenes attending the betrayal and death of our Lord.

“Modern preachers, nursed in the artificial atmosphere of academic theories, imagine that eloquence, imagination, descriptive ability, are the most effective weapons of a herald of the cross, and that, equipped with these, the truth is sure to ride on prosperously from conquest to conquest.

“Imbued with the idea, they strive to fascinate an audience with animated word pictures of the scenes enacted in the garden of Gethsemane, the judgment hall of Pilate, and the hill Golgotha. The audience is spellbound and visibly moved. Moist eyes are in evidence everywhere. A solemn hush pervades the room.

“At the conclusion of the service, commendatory remarks flow in profusion. The sermon is unanimously pronounced ‘wonderful.’ The congregation disbands and everybody goes home. By the time the afternoon repast is over, popular mood turns to a lighter vein. The effect of the sermon has worn off. Its elegant style and rhetorical flourishes have volatilized. Many begin to feel that a visit to the ‘movies’ would fittingly complement the sermon.

“Why has such a seemingly impressive oration failed to produce a lasting impression? How did it come to pass that it so readily resolved itself into thin air? Just because the preacher’s preoccupation with the circumstantial events of our Lord’s death prevented his understanding its deep purpose and vital import. In divorcing the external events of our Lord’s passion from the underlying purpose, his preaching became sentimental, producing emotional ebulliencies, ecstatic raptures, anomalous and spectacular experiences, outbursts of gush, while the intellect remained inactive and the conscience dormant.

“The apostle disdained the artifices which form the stock in trade of professional evangelists and preachers (cp 1 Cor.2:1-5; 2 Cor.10:10). He never wasted a second in reciting the chain of circumstantial events which brought about the death of God’s Son. He pushed his way above and beyond these. The purpose of God for the universe converging in the cross of Christ was the one object engaging his mind. The bearing of the cross on the tremendous questions of law, sin, and life–these were the initial truths which he strove to impart to his hearers–these were the truths which he set forth lucidly and convincingly, which he drove home to the mind by the irresistible power of his logic and burned into the heart by the consuming passion of his love.

"So powerfully were these truths presented by the apostle and so profoundly did they grip the Galatians, that they yielded an immediate harvest of precious fruit. So firmly were they convinced of the truth of the evangel that their faith weathered the storm of persecution. They suffered ‘many things’ for truth’s sake. That they should now remove to a different evangel, and meander in bypaths of legalism, after so splendid a record, was a strange enigma, a positive ‘marvel,’ which the apostle could only attribute to ‘bewitchment.’3

Though in Galatians 3:1, “bewitches” is a figure of speech, it is quite an apt metaphor. When believers withdraw from the faith, their situation is not unlike one in which, in certain religions of the world, a “witch” “casts a spell” upon its victim, thus rendering its captive subject to its own wicked behests and sinister designs.

Similarly, the situation that literally obtains in cases in which even believer’s themselves begin to withdraw from the faith, is one in which they now “give heed to deceiving spirits and the teachings of demons, in the hypocrisy of false expressions, their own conscience having been cauterized” (1 Tim.4:1,2).

It is evident that these deceiving spirits themselves are but Satan’s own agents. This is because wherever believers are found “antagonizing” (INSTEAD-THRU-PLACing) the words of the apostle Paul, we are to account for this, not by a mere acknowledgment of the infirmity of the flesh, but by recognizing that, at a deeper level, what has occurred is that such ones have fallen into “the trap of the Adversary, having been caught alive by him for that one’s will” (2 Tim.2:25,26).

Paul was mindful that, in our response to such fearful encounters, we must, first of all, “not be fighting”; then, we must rather, “be gentle toward all, apt to teach, bearing with evil, with meekness training those who are antagonizing, seeing whether God may be giving them repentance to come to a realization of the truth (and [whether] they will [then] be sobering up out of the trap of the Adversary, [hitherto] having been caught alive by him for that one’s will)” (2 Tim.2:24-26).


This only I want to learn from you: Did you get the spirit by works of law or by hearing of faith? So foolish are you? Undertaking in spirit, are you now being completed in flesh? So much did you suffer feignedly? Since, surely, it also is feignedly! (3:2-4)

Paul astutely reduces the dispute between himself and the Galatians to a single issue. The strength of his protest lies in its appeal to the Galatians’ own experience, which they cannot well deny. Yet the success of his argument assumes that they are honest enough to acknowledge the facts, being sensible enough as well to apply them logically.

The Galatians could not honestly deny that they got the spirit through the glad-tidings of faith, not through works of law. Accordingly, they got the spirit of sonship, in which they cried, “Abba, Father!” the spirit itself testifying together with their spirit that they were children of God (cp Rom.8:15,16; Gal.4:6).

The sense of the phrase “So foolish are you?” literally, is “Thus foolish are you?” That is, rhetorically, Paul asks the Galatians, “Are you foolish in the following way?” Namely, he asks them, Are you foolish in such a way so as to be supposing that while, as you yourselves must acknowledge, you have undertaken in spirit, you must now, nevertheless, go on and become completed in flesh?

Having assured them that any such notion is a foolish notion, in a similar vein, Paul then continues on, inquiring, “So much did you suffer feignedly? Since, surely, it also is feignedly!” That is, the Galatians were as aware that they had genuinely obtained the spirit simply by the tidings of faith, as they were likewise aware that their sufferings for the name of Christ were not a sham but were altogether real. They could not honestly deny the former fact any more than the latter, though to justify their recent apostasy, they would be constrained to deny both of these propositions.

Paul has the Galatians on the horns of a dilemma. Turn which way they will, they simply cannot (1) remain honest, and (2) continue to acknowledge Paul’s authority as an apostle, while at the same time justifying their own departure from his teaching.

When the truth is reduced to a single issue expressed in its simplest form, its acceptance is still dependent upon the integrity and sensibility of those to whom it is presented. Those who will not face the simplest of facts and respond appropriately thereunto, show that, at bottom, their difficulty is not so much intellectual but moral; not so much ignorance as stubbornness. To all that precludes their position, they may indeed interminably continue to respond by the words, “Yes, but.” But what they may no longer do for even an hour, subsequent to such a crisis, is to continue to respond thus out of a clean heart governed by a sound mind.


Paul is willing to rest his case on this one item of evidence. Verse two (along with its repetition and amplification in verses 5 and 6) is the linchpin of the apostle’s argument, the Galatians own experience of having received the spirit. He deems it irrefutable that they got the spirit not ex ergõn nomou (“out of acts of law”), but ex akoês pisteõs (“out of hearing [i.e., tidings] of belief [i.e., faith]”).

By the phrases “by works of law” and “by the [tidings] of faith,” we are not to understand two alternative methods of common principle, but two proposed sources of mutually-exclusive, antithetical principle. One is false, the other true, in reference to being that out of which the spirit is obtained.

Paul does not present two alternative means by which man, ultimately by his own efforts, secures his acceptance before God; the one works, the other faith. It is not that one human means of gaining the divine acceptance is now supplanted by another human means of doing the same thing. Even if faith is reduced to acquiescence, assent, or even non-resistance, thus understood, as a human means of gaining God’s acceptance, it retains a meritorious nature evoking reciprocity, to which Righteousness itself must grant its just due. Such a schema merely replaces one system of merit with another. “It simply substitutes the mental act of having faith for the bodily one of being circumcised.”4

“Suppose one man to rely on his own faith and another to rely on his own works; then the faith of the one and the works of the other are equally of the same filthy rags.”5 This is the whole point: if we are relying on anything of ourselves, whether our works or our faith, we have repudiated grace and are fundamentally mistaken in our understanding of Paul’s evangel.

It is not that the Galatians got the spirit on the basis of a believing act of hearing, even if most suppose this to be so. Such reasoning is based upon the assumption that since “works of law” describes one type of human action, “hearing of faith” must describe some alternative type of human action. This interpretation attributes to Paul the thought: “You got the spirit not because you did X but because you did Y.” Such an understanding, however, is impossible, not because it is simplistic and naïve (though it is certainly both of these), but because it accords with fleshly glory and human pride, while failing to accord with either monotheism or divine grace.

Akoê literally means “hearing” (e.g., Mark 7:35). Sometimes, however, where it was noted that it was used metonymically of “that which is heard” (e.g., Matt.24:6; Rom.10:17), the Concordant Version renders it “tidings,” in reference to the message itself which is associated with the “hearing” thereof. This clearly appears to be the sense as well in Galatians 3, verses 2 and 5, in the phrase, ex akoês pisteõs, which can be better rendered in accord with the context as “tidings of faith,” instead of “hearing of faith.”

This is so, for, in the nature of the case, the Galatians got the spirit out of the tidings (or “message”) of faith, which they subsequently heard and believed. The glad-tidings of Christ which are “of faith” (i.e., which pertain or relate to faith), do so in that they constitute the object of faith; that is, that which is believed, based upon that which is heard.

As “Isaiah is saying, ‘Lord, who believes our tidings?’ ” (Rom.10:16; cit. Isa.53:1). Even so, to those who do believe, according as it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those bringing an evangel of good!” (Rom.10:15; cit. Isa.52:7). “Consequently, faith is out of tidings, yet the tidings through a declaration of Christ” (Rom.10:17).

It was not, however, “by,” in a transactional sense, the Galatians’ acceptance of tidings of faith, that they “qualified for,” or “met the requirements of,” getting the spirit. By their acceptance of the evangel, the Galatians gained a beginning in the knowledge of God, according as it is in Christ Jesus. They did not thereby gain a right to any endowment of the spirit of God.

Instead of gaining a right to spiritual blessing by an acceptance of spiritual truth, it is rather that out of the power inherent in the message of the glad-tidings of Christ (the “tidings of faith”), God’s chosen ones graciously obtain the spirit and believe. This occurs in the day when it delights God to unveil His Son in them, according to the pattern which Christ Himself established in the salvation of Saul of Tarsus, who is also Paul, the apostle of the nations (cp Gal.1:15,16; 1 Tim.1:12-16; 2 Tim.2:10).

He, then, Who is supplying you with the spirit, and operating works of power among you–did you get the spirit by works of law or by the hearing of faith . . . ? (3:5)

In declaring, “He, then, Who is supplying you with the spirit, and operating works of power among you–” Paul does not complete his thought. Yet he then goes on to repeat the preceding question once again: “Did you get the spirit by works of law or by the hearing of faith . . . ?” Since the only true answer to this question is that they got the spirit by the hearing (i.e., tidings) of faith, Paul then rejoins, “He, then, Who is supplying you with the spirit, and operating works of power among you–”

It is as if Paul wishes for the Galatians themselves to be honest enough and perceptive enough to gladly supply the self-evident omission, which is, “. . . will be completing what He has undertaken.” Thus the full sense becomes: “He, then, Who is supplying you with the spirit, and operating works of power among you, [will be completing what He has undertaken]” (cp Phil.1:6).

. . . according as Abraham believes God, and it is reckoned to him for righteousness? Know, consequently, that those of faith, these are sons of Abraham. Now the scripture, perceiving before that God is justifying the nations by faith, brings before an evangel to Abraham, that In you shall all the nations be blessed. So that those of faith are being blessed together with believing Abraham. (3:6-9)

There is a foundational agreement in kind between Abraham’s calling and faith and our own calling and faith. Similarly, since the most just thing that any man can do is to believe God’s own word, when we ourselves also, even as Abraham, believe the word of His promise, our so doing is reckoned to us “for [i.e., ‘into’] righteousness” (Rom.4:22-24). God appraises our believing as being among (and so, thus He accounts it “into”) that class of deeds which He deems righteous. Even though faith extends no “rights” to its possessors, and is itself a gracious gift, it is nonetheless considered righteous by God Himself, besides being full of practical value for ourselves.

We are to know, “consequently,” “that those of faith, these are sons of Abraham” (3:7). Faith does not make God’s promise true; instead, it finds it true. Faith’s acceptance of the divine promise does not entitle its bearer to the promise’s blessing; rather, it convicts its possessor of the truth of the promise’s blessing. Faith has no value whatsoever as “legal tender.” It simply acknowledges that which was already true prior to and wholly apart from its subsequent acceptance thereof. It is not that we will obtain the blessing, “if we will believe it true.” It is instead, that we will be blessed; and, we believe that this is true.

Since the scripture, “perceiving before” that God is justifying the nations by faith, it therefore, prototypically, “brings before” an evangel to Abraham, declaring that, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” “So that,” those of faith are being blessed together with believing Abraham.

Our being “blessed together” with Abraham is on the common ground of faith, according to grace (Rom.4:16). It is not that our blessing “together” with him affords us the identical future allotment which God has appointed for Abraham. Similarly, while God will grant us eonian life even if we should be persisting in sin (cf Rom.5:20-6:1), no such principle obtained in the case of Abraham, concerning whom law-obedience still retained a vital place unto the realization of the blessing (cf Gen.26:5), its certainty in grace notwithstanding. This is so, even though Abraham’s blessing also, even as our own, ultimately depended upon God alone.

A striking commonality of grace through faith obtains between ourselves and Abraham. Hence, in respect thereof, we indeed become “sons of Abraham.” May we have “confidence in the Lord,” that one day not only the Galatians but every believer from every era will be made to stand in faith, full of wisdom, according to truth.

James Coram

1. AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY, second college edition, p.274 (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983).
2. i.e., indispensable condition or element; Latin: “without which not.”
3. Vladimir Gelesnoff, PAUL’S EPISTLE TO THE GALATIANS, pp.62,63.
4. G.M. Taylor, cit. in THE FAITH OF JESUS CHRIST, by Richard B. Hays, p.140 (Chico, California: Scholars Press, 1983); cit. “The Function of Pistis Christou [‘Faith of Christ’] in Galatians,” JBL 85 (1966) p.75.
5. William Law, op. cit., p.139; cit. A.G. Hebert, “‘Faithfulness’ and ‘Faith,’ ” Theology 58 (1955) p.379.

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