“This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (Galatians 3:2)
“This only would I learn of you.” ― Here Paul strikes at the heart of the Galatians’ great error, and demonstrates that the gift of the Holy Spirit, that is to say grace, salvation, eternal life, and all the blessings of the covenant of grace of which the gift of the Spirit is the seal and assurance (Gal. 3:13-14; Eph. 1:13-14), come to chosen, redeemed sinners only by the hearing of faith, not by the works of the law.
“Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” ― John Gill asserts, “This question supposes they had received the Spirit; that is, the Spirit of God, as a spirit of wisdom and knowledge in the revelation of Christ; as a spirit of regeneration and sanctification; as a spirit of faith and adoption; and as the earnest, seal, and pledge of their future glory.”
Paul addresses the Galatians as brethren, as genuine believers. His hope was that their apostasy was not a total departure from the faith. He hoped they had not yet made shipwreck of their souls. It is very important to observe this fact. Writing by divine inspiration, Paul shows us that men and women may embrace much error regarding gospel doctrine, who do truly trust Christ. The Galatians were involved in grave error, just as the apostle Peter had been at Antioch (2:11-16). They appeared to be in danger of total apostasy (5:1-4). Indeed, some may have totally abandoned the faith they had once professed to believe. But Paul’s language in this verse clearly indicates that there were some in the Galatian church who were truly born of God, who had true faith in Christ, who were possessors of the Holy Spirit, who embraced in measure the horrible heresy of legalism.
I stress this as a matter of importance, because there is a terrible, proud, self-righteous tendency among God’s people in this world, and among preachers of the gospel, to set themselves up as judges of others, to quickly condemn as reprobate everyone who falls into doctrinal error regarding the gospel. What sad divisions there are in the visible church (among true believers) because of this tendency. In matters of judgment concerning others, if we err, let it be on the side of leniency, not severity.
Still, Paul uses the language of stern reproof. His purpose is to settle the issue in our hearts and minds. When he says, “This only would I learn of you,” he is saying, answer this question and the matter is settled. ― “Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” If salvation’s initial experience (regeneration and conversion) is altogether the work of the Holy Spirit in us, a work of grace alone received by faith alone then the whole of salvation must be the same. The Holy Spirit, who had been given to them in their initial experience of grace (Acts 10:44; 11:16), was to them, as he is to God’s saints now, the proof of God’s favor and their acceptance with God in Christ. If we receive justification without works, we also receive sanctification, perseverance, and glorification without works.
“They had been converted. They had received the Holy Spirit. They had had abundant evidence of their acceptance with God; and the simple matter of inquiry now was, whether this had, occurred as the regular effect of the gospel, or whether it had been by obeying the law of Moses?” (Albert Barnes)
This gift of the Holy Spirit is in no way connected with obedience to the law of Moses, or of any other law. It was not a matter of works. This, Paul implies, is a matter of such absolute clarity to any believer that none who know God can call it into question. The indescribably rich gift of God’s salvation has nothing to do with something we do.
The Hearing of Faith
When Paul asks, “Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?”, he is asserting that it is ludicrous to imagine that we merited and procured the Spirit of God by our obedience to the law, or that the Spirit of God came into our hearts by the preaching of the law. Though the law gives a knowledge of sin, it can do nothing else. The law is a killing letter. It brings a sense of wrath, condemnation, and death, but not the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus.
The Holy Spirit comes by “the hearing of faith,” that is by the hearing of the gospel. The preaching of the gospel is the declaration of righteousness and justification, redemption and forgiveness accomplished by Christ (Rom. 4:25; Gal. 3:13; Heb. 9:12). “In this way,” as John Gill stated, “the Spirit of God is received. While the Gospel is being preached he falls on them that hear it, conveys himself into their hearts, and begets them again by the word of truth.” In other words, if we are God’s children, it is because we have heard the voice of God in the gospel and responded to it by faith.
“I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘Come unto me and rest;
Lay down, thou weary one, lay down thy head upon my breast.’
I came to Jesus as I was, weary, and worn, and sad.
I found in Him a resting place, and He has made me glad.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘Behold, I freely give
The living water – thirsting one, stoop down, and drink, and live.’
I came to Jesus, and I drank of that life giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived, and now I live in Him.
I heard the voice of Jesus say, ‘I am this dark world’s light;
Look unto Me, thy morn shall rise, and all thy day be bright.’
I looked to Jesus and I found in Him my star, my sun;
And in that light of life I’ll walk till traveling days be done.”
The Scriptures teach that all of God’s children have heard in their hearts the voice of Christ, and have responded to that voice by faith (Rom. 10:17). It is clear that the life of the Christian is a life of faith, of faith in Christ (Hab. 24; Rom. 1:17; Gal. 3:11; Heb. 10:38). The believer’s life is from beginning to end a life of faith. We are not saved by the law, sanctified by the law, nor kept by the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.
The Holy Spirit is the gift of God, with and by whom all the gifts of grace, salvation, and eternal life are received into the soul. It is by the Spirit that the works of the Savior are known and received. The Holy Spirit is himself the seal of God’s favor, the seal of his covenant, and the token of our peace with God. When he enters our hearts we are saved, resurrected from death to life, and brought into a conscious awareness of adoption (Gal. 4:6-7; 2 Tim. 1:9-10). He is the source of light, life, faith, love, and liberty in our souls. He even sanctifies our bodies, making our very bodies the temples of God.
The experience of God’s people, as it is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, is a clear demonstration of the fact that the Spirit of God comes to sinners by the hearing of faith. He had been promised to the disciples, and he was given as they in faith waited for him (Acts 1:4-5, 8; 2:1-4). The same thing happened at Samaria (Acts 8:12-17). Thus the Holy Spirit came upon Cornelius and his household through the hearing of faith (Acts 10:44-45). When Paul preached the gospel among the Gentiles, the Holy Spirit fell sovereignly on those who heard (Acts 15:7-12).
The Holy Spirit and Salvation
When Paul speaks of the reception of the Holy Spirit by the hearing of faith, he is not talking about a second work of grace, but about the initial experience of grace in salvation. Ephesians 1:13, as it is translated in the King James, has been horribly misinterpreted by many to imply that after sinners are saved, if they are really good, praying, spiritual Christians, then they may receive a higher form of spiritual life by receiving the Holy Spirit. That text in the King James Version reads, “In whom ye also trusted, after that ye heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also, after that ye believed, ye were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise.” That translation might appear to teach that there is an interval between faith in Christ and the seal of the Spirit. But that is incorrect. Ephesians 1:13 would be far more accurately translated, “In whom you also trusted, having heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation: in whom also, having believed, you were sealed with that Holy Spirit of promise.”
In other words, every chosen, redeemed sinner is, by the effectual call and irresistible grace of God the Holy Spirit, granted faith in Christ when he is made to hear the word of truth, “the word of faith,” the gospel of his own salvation accomplished by Christ. And, trusting Christ, he is sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise. He has sealed to him, that is he is given the conscious assurance of all the blessings of God’s everlasting mercy, love, and grace in Christ (Eph. 1:3-7); and he is sealed in grace, sealed up in infallible, indestructible security in the grace of God (John 10:27-30).
There can be no question regarding this interpretation of Paul’s teaching about God’s people receiving the Holy Spirit, because it is the universal testimony of Holy Scripture that no sinner is saved who has not received the Holy Spirit. All the graces of faith, hope, and love that are wrought in us are the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-24). It is the Holy Spirit who reveals Christ in us, grants us faith in him by the mighty operations of his grace, and assures us of our acceptance with God in Christ (Gal. 1:15; Eph. 2:8; Phil. 2:13; Col. 1:12).
Salvation is the knowledge of the one true and living God as he is revealed in his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (John 17:3). But there is no possibility of anyone knowing God, knowing Christ, except God the Holy Spirit take the things of Christ and reveal them unto him (John 16:8-14). If we belong to Christ, we have received the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 12:13). We have been enlightened by the Holy Spirit. He showed us our guilt, convincing us of sin. He convinced us of righteousness, of righteousness accomplished and brought in by Christ our Substitute. He convinced us of judgment, judgment finished, justice satisfied, condemnation forever removed by the death of Christ in our room and stead at Calvary. It is God the Holy Spirit who has revealed the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ to us (Rom. 3:24-26; 2 Cor. 4:3-6).
This great gift of grace is altogether without our works. We received faith by the Holy Spirit (Eph. 2:8-9). Our works could never bring it. We received peace by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 5:1-5). Our works could never give it. We have been sanctified by the Holy Spirit. It is God the Spirit who formed Christ in us in the new birth, making us partakers of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4). Our works could no more sanctify us than they could justify us. We have communion with God the Father by the Holy Spirit. Our works could never give us access to him. The Holy Spirit teaches us to pray and helps us in prayer (Rom. 8:26). The law could never do so. The Holy Spirit, as we have seen already, is our seal and pledge and assurance of heaven (Eph. 1:13). The law never secured that for anyone. The Lord Jesus Christ brings his people into rest, which Moses and Joshua could not do, by the operation of the Holy Spirit (Heb. 4:9-10). The Holy Spirit is a fountain of living water springing up in the soul (John 7:36-39). The works of the law are a broken cistern.
Clearly, the doctrine of Holy Scripture is that salvation is wrought in us by the power and grace of God the Holy Spirit, without our works. But what is the connection between the hearing of faith and receiving the Holy Spirit, between the hearing of faith and the experience of salvation. It is just this ― “Faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the Word of God.”
Not only has the Lord God ordained who shall be saved, as well as the very time and place when he will work his grace in them, he has also ordained the means by which grace, salvation, and faith shall come to them; and that means is the preaching of the gospel. This is exactly what he says in his Book, God’s elect are “born again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, by the Word of God, which liveth and abideth forever.” And he does not leave us to guess what he means by that. He says, “And this is the Word which by the gospel is preached unto you” (1 Pet. 1:23-25).
When the time of love has come (Ezek. 16:8), when the Lord God will call out a sinner, he raises up a man to preach the gospel to that sinner and causes their paths to cross by one means or another. He causes the chosen sinner to hear the gospel preached; but the sinner has no ability to understand it. He cannot receive the things of God. They are foolishness to him (1 Cor. 2:14). But when the Spirit of God conveys the gospel to the heart, he comes with it, enlightens the mind, gives understanding, and sweetly, irresistibly, effectually inclines the heart to believe and the will to receive and embrace Christ, as he is set forth in the gospel (John 1:12-13; 6:63; 1 Cor. 2:9-13; Heb. 4:12). Then, believing on the Son of God, having received God’s salvation by the hearing of faith, the saved sinner sings with David, “Blessed is the man whom thou choosest, and causest to approach unto thee!”