“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing – if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?
“Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does those things will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit,” – Galatians 3: 1-14 (NIV)
Paul rips open a major flaw in the Galatian churches: their inability to discern. He calls them foolish a couple of times and asks them who “bewitched” them or who tricked them. But what does it mean “to discern”? And why does Paul treat it as a crucial ability in this case?
Dictionary.com defines “discern” as the ability “to perceive by the sight or by some other sense or by the intellect,” or “to distinguish mentally.” Essentially, it’s an ability that involves using your head. Whether or not we’re aware of it, we actually practice discernment on a daily basis. Which shirt will I wear? What will I eat for breakfast? Which running back will help my fantasy team?…
The ability to discern also goes beyond daily choices we might make. A general question we all face after graduating high school is: Will I go to college? If so, which one? And once I’m there, what will be my major? And once I’ve graduated with that degree, what will I do with it? Where will I live? Who will I marry? And on and on the decisions go. Whether we like it or not, life requires us to make decisions. It’s probably a good idea, then, to develop a strong sense of discernment.
When it comes to discerning in the spiritual sense, however, there is a little bit more to think about. Paul’s rhetorical questions in verses 2 through 5 allude to the greater issue at hand: If, by having faith in and believing Paul’s original teachings, they received the Spirit, why then are they turning to the law of Judaism? But why is he so adamant about calling the Galatians foolish? Because they failed to recognize – they failed to discern – that they already had the Spirit of God living and working within them.
A modern-day example of Christians not using their heads is what’s called “the prosperity gospel”; the good news that Jesus has come to bless our lives with wealth, possessions, and overall happiness. Now I for one believe God wants us to enjoy the lives He has given us. In John 16:24b, Jesus says, “Ask, and you will receive, that your joy may be full,” (ESV). But when it gets translated into a message of monetary success, I get a little irritated. That’s not within the promise. If anything’s promised in Jesus’ words to His disciples, it is absolutely not acquiring riches and possessions. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. At the end of John 16, Jesus promises His disciples that there will be hard times and days of suffering ahead of them for following after Him: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world,” (16:33, ESV).
So what’s wrong with this “prosperity gospel” and why should we be intellectually attentive to its teachings? Because it has misleading promises. In a very similar way, the teachings of the certain Jews who came to Galatia carried misleading promises: They said their fulfilling of the law would bring about the Spirit of God and salvation. They said it’s by what you do that determines your stance with God. But Paul very clearly says otherwise: “It is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham,” – 3:7. Implicitly here, Paul says it’s not those who practice and carry out the law – because that is a hopeless endeavor.
In our walks with Christ – and in life in general – we must use our brains to think through tough decisions. We must discern between what is God’s teaching and what is man’s teaching. And it will never benefit us to be ignorant.
“God is no fonder of intellectual slackers than of any other slackers. If you are thinking of becoming a Christian, I warn you, you are embarking on something which is going to take the whole of you, brains and all. But, fortunately, it works the other way round. Anyone who is honestly trying to be a Christian will soon find his intelligence being sharpened: one of the reasons why it needs no special education to be a Christian is that Christianity is an education itself,” – C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity