We Must Begin With Born Again
Robert Wurtz II
This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? (Galatians 3:2–4 NKJV)
The book of Galatians is unique among Paul’s epistles as the only one written in his own handwriting. In his other epistles, he employed an amanuensis to do the writing — book ending the text with a greeting at the front and a closing salutation at the end. For Paul to take up the pen, and write himself, we know this signaled a very serious urgency. Teachers had come into the church preaching a different Gospel.
Ministers generally preach their own experiences. If they struggle with sin, they preach that Christians struggle with sin. Few have the mind to let God be true in spite of their personal experience. This was likely the case at Galatia. The born again experience was not working in these ministers, so they were teaching and preaching the people back under the Old Covenant system of laws. They did not understand that “one cannot do with institutional law was can only be accomplished by a constitutional change of ones’ nature.” (R. Bailey)
In our passage above, Paul appeals to the experience of the Galatians. He knew that these saints had been truly born again. They repented, believed and received the Holy Spirit. This is not salvation by logical deductions and proof texts as is often the case today; Paul knew they had truly believed and received. Regardless of what these new teachers were saying, the Galatians had an experience far beyond what they were being taught.
Did You Receive?
Paul asked the Ephesians if they had received the Holy Spirit when they believed. Paul asked the Galatians if they received the Holy Spirit by the works of the Law or by the hearing if faith. In both cases, receiving the Holy Spirit is in view. Receiving the Holy Spirit is essential to new Covenant Christianity. How the Spirit is received is the question Paul asks the Galatians. This is important because they already received the Holy Spirit in the beginning; now they are being taught that they need to come under the law. Why? So they can continue to be filled with the Spirit? It could never happen. The two approaches to receiving the Spirit are incompatible. One is either in the flesh and under the Law, or they are in the Spirit and not under the Law. (Galatians 5:18)
Having Begun In the Spirit
Coming under the Law cannot facilitate Spirit filled living. However, this may not have been the teaching at all. They could have been told that receiving the Holy Spirit gets things started, but afterward we come to perfection by keeping the Law of Moses (or some legalistic system). This is completely false. Nevertheless, it is often how Christians live and teach. I suggest it happens most often because the teacher has not received the Spirit in the genuine article and are struggling to live a life as outlined in the New Testament. Many doctrines have been invented to compensate for an inadequate Born Again experience.
The late Leonard Ravenhill, author of Why Revival Tarries, stated in his final interview in ca. 1988, “I guarantee that not five percent of people in America and England are genuinely born again of the Spirit. They are born again of a decision. They give up a few lousy habits some of them and some of them don’t. They go right back.” This is a sobering comment. He had lived long enough to see a transition in how people are brought along into Christ. Decisionism, as it is sometimes called, has left us with a multitude of people that have “believed on Christ” and show no fruit afterwards.
Since roughly the time of D.L. Moody, the emphasis in preaching has been on getting sins forgiven. This has morphed into a humanistic “gospel” that leaves multitudes believing they are saved, but they have not truly repented, believed, or received the Holy Spirit. In other words, they have not been Born Again. Everything is done from proof texts and logical deductions. The dealing of the Holy Spirit is left out. The churches are loaded with these type people. Sins forgiven is essential, obviously; however, this is only a portion of the starting point.
The End Before the Beginning
I wish to end this entry with a provoking thought that summarizes the whole of our subject:
The old must end before the new can begin.
Paul asked the Galatians, Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? Have you suffered so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Because the Galatians had obviously been living many years before beginning in the Spirit, the implication is that the old life had to come to an abrupt end. Paul said it this way, I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless, I live. Crucifixion implies death. I died, but nevertheless, I live. This is the effect of repenting, believing, and receiving the Holy Spirit. God baptized us into Jesus Christ so we can share in His death on the cross — bringing an end, to “I” or “me.” We cannot begin a life in the Spirit until our life in the flesh is ended. This is the force of Calvary — it brings an end to a person.
Many people want to be a Christian, but they don’t want to be crucified (with Christ). They believe they can get on with something less than the death of them. They want reformation or a few changes here and there. They are even willing to go under a system of rules, so long as they don’t have to be crucified (with Christ). This is why Paul spoke to the Galatians of the things they suffered. He was concerned that they were about to undo all that God had done in their lives making the sufferings they went through in the beginning all in vain.
Some of those people were so radically changed that they were not recognizable to friends and family. For Paul, his transformation resulted in the loss of everything. Some people have lost mothers and fathers, wives or husbands, or even children to the alienation experienced when others will not accept their having been changed. Paul reminded these people at Galatia of their ” beginning ” as if to say, “are these new teachers promoting an experience at that level? Or are they preaching something so inferior that you might as well have lost everything for nothing. Because what you’re doing right now — the substandard pretentious forgery of a Christian life — doesn’t have the power to offend anybody like that.” In other words, if you had begun the way you are trying to continue — you would not have lost any family or friends.
God wants to bring an end to the old that He can make all things new. We have to be willing. We can’t be joined to the Spirit and the flesh at the same time. We cannot be married to both the Law and Christ. We have to die to the Law and the flesh, so we can be raised in Christ to live in the Spirit. These are light-years beyond the imposition of laws and rules. The Law was tailored for the man of the flesh. Nevertheless, when we truly begin in the Spirit, we walk in a changed constitutional nature that no man in the flesh following a Law could ever rise to. This is the reality of truly having begun the road to perfection in the Spirit.