The Trinity and Salvation: The Spirit as the Source for and Reward of Faith (Galatians 3:1–7)

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O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. 2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 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—6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? (Galatians 3:1–7)

In keeping with his whole letter, Paul boldly rebukes the churches of Galatia for their turn from the true gospel (see 1:6–9). In this section, he recalls their reception of the Holy Spirit and how God’s Spirit came to them—by works of the flesh or by hearing with faith? The answer is plain in the text: the Galatians received the word with faith.

Theologically, this passage has much to say about the order and operations of the Holy Spirit, and I’d like to make a couple observations that will help us to see how the Spirit’s indwelling is different from his work of regeneration.

Two Operations of the Holy Spirit

First, this passage teaches that the Galatians received the Holy Spirit by faith and not by works. Making a strong contrast, it came not by means of the law, nor by means of the flesh. In historical context, Paul is concerned that Galatians, who began by the Spirit, are now seeking to perfect themselves by means of the flesh. This will not do. As Paul teaches in Colossians 2:6, Christians must walk by faith in the same way that they received Christ by faith. 

This is the primary point, but there is something else. Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit as the instrument of the beginning of faith: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The implied contrast: If you began your life of faith by the Spirit, why are you now not walking in the Spirit?

As a part of whole theology of the Spirit in Galatians, Paul will command the Galatians to walk in the Spirit (5:16) and to keep step with the Spirit (5:25). Clearly, for Paul the Spirit who began the work, will continue to work (cf. Phil 1:6; 2:12-13). But notice, what this verse implies. Paul is teaching first that the Spirit is the gift of faith—those who believe receive the Spirit; but also those who believe have done so by the same Spirit. How is this possible?

It could be argued that “having begun” refers to the Spirit’s indwelling when the Galatians believed, but if that is what Paul meant, why would he not write, “having begun by faith.” This is how he speaks later. In Galatians 3:23, 25, Paul refers to “faith” coming, which refers to the arrival of the gospel and epochal shift from the old covenant (law) to the new covenant. If Paul was intending to speak of faith as the beginning point for the believer, he could have easily done that in Galatians 3:3, but he doesn’t. Instead, he makes the beginning dependent on the Spirit.

My answer to how Paul is speaking here, is that the apostle is speaking of two different operations of the Holy Spirit. The first mention (“receive the Spirit”), pneuma is the gift which God gives the believers upon faith in Christ. But the second mention (“begun by the Spirit”) sets the Holy Spirit in a prepositional phrase where the Spirit is the instrument by which salvation by faith begins. In theological terms, the first mention refers to the indwelling of the Spirit; the second refers to the work of regeneration by the Spirit (cf. Titus 3:5).

Other Clues in Galatians

Still, it could be that I am reading my theology into this text. So, we should ask, is there anything else in Galatians that confirms this reading?  I think so, and it is verse 5 of this same chapter.

In verse 5, a third mention of the Spirit is made. This time the Spirit is again in the place of the direct object. This could mean that Paul is once again referring to the Spirit as a gift, received by purchase of faith. But it could also mean that God (the pronominal subject of the sentence) supplies/provides the Spirit for both indwelling and regeneration. This is how I take the sentence.

However one understands regeneration—as the cause of faith or the effect of faith—regeneration is a gift from God by means of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:5). Yet, when we consider the verb used in Galatians 3:5, “supplies” (ἐπιχορηγῶν), we find that it is a word that speaks of ultimate source. Paul uses it in two other places—once metaphorically (2 Cor 9:10), once theologically (Col 2:19)

He who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will supply and multiply your seed for sowing and increase the harvest of your righteousness. (2 Cor 9:10)

And not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. (Col 2:19)

While neither of these passages are an exact cross reference, they do add to our understanding of what it means for God to supply the Spirit.

2 Corinthians 9:10

First, in 2 Corinthians 9:10, Paul can say that God provides both the seed and the bread. Interestingly, this metaphorical use of supply has two layers of provision in mind. God provides for the farmer and for the eater. He gives food by means of providing the seed from which bread can come. Paul takes this physical truth and applies it spiritually, so that he can say that God gives both the “seed” and the “harvest” to those who liberally sow the word of God.

What we find in this passage is the exact kind of thought Paul exercises in Galatians 3. God supplies both the seed and the fruit. Thus, in the new birth, God supplies the Spirit to make a new creation complete with a heart that trusts God and he gives the Holy Spirit as an indwelling gift to comfort, convict, and sustain the believer. In this way, the Spirit is a double-jointed gift. He is the life-source for the faith of the elect and he is the reward for the believer’s faith.

Colossians 2:19

Second, in Colossians 2:19, the body of Christ extends from and is nourished by (supplied by) the Head, Jesus Christ. In this instance, it is not God the Father who gives the spiritual life (which is no different than saying the Spirit who gives Life, cf. 1 Cor 15:45) but God the Son. In Christ, the Son gives the Spirit to his body. And the natural ordering of this is not that the Son gives the Spirit when the body comes to him and asks for it—i.e., when faith precedes regeneration.  Rather, the Son sends the Spirit to create his body—one cell, one sheep, one saint at a time—by means of personal regeneration, and then he abides with his new creations by means of giving the members of his body his indwelling Spirit.

To say it differently, the Son gives the gift of regeneration (through means of the preached Word) and then when these sinners are made alive, they believe on the gospel and are instantly justified, set apart, and filled with the Holy Spirit. In this way, Paul’s use of nourished/supplied does cohere with the reading I am proposing in Galatians 3.

Thus, on the reading of Galatians 3:5, Paul’s trinitarian theology is evident. The Lord God supplies the Spirit for regeneration and indwelling when Christ the exalted Son sends the Spirit to his elect children. As the gospel is proclaimed (“Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified,” v. 1), God the Son sends his Spirit to regenerate the sons of Abraham who will become evident by their faith (3:26–29). In truth, since faith is a gift of the Spirit (Gal 5:22–23), Jesus does not grant his Spirit to all people. Rather, he gives his Spirit to those whom the Father gave him before the foundation of the world (Eph 1:4–5), the ones whom he died for according to the will of God (Gal 1:4). In time, these elect ones receive the Spirit of Christ, as the work of salvation is applied to them. It is this Spirit who moves in them to repent, believe, and cry out for mercy (cf. Zech 12:10) and it is this same Spirit who comes to dwell with them in response to their Spirit-empowered, God-given faith.

The Trinity in Salvation

Unless we consider the Trinity, we will go astray in understanding the nature of salvation and the relationship between regeneration and faith. However, in this case as we see the the Father, Son, and Spirit at work in Galatians 3, we are given a beautiful display of what God does in every son or daughter whom he redeems from the curse and blesses with his Spirit. In truth, the work of the Spirit is not simply responsive to our believing. Rather, as verse 3 indicates it is the Spirit, sent by the Son, who begins our salvation in time, even as the Father began working for our salvation before time began.

In response to such grace, may we worship and endeavor to rightly perceive the God who saves as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds