The Holy Spirit in Galatians

I am scheduled to teach an adult elective class at The Sanctuary UPC on Sunday, March 14, 2021. The study guide posted below is from my newest book, The Holy Spirit: A Commentary. I plan to post the video from the class session no later than Monday, March 15, 2021.

The Holy Spirit in Galatians

March 14, 2021

Daniel L. Segraves, Teacher

Twitter: @danielsegraves

[1] Paul’s letter to the Galatians has only six chapters, but fourteen references to the Spirit. The reason for this is that the primary purpose for this letter is to counter the false teaching that it is necessary to keep the law of Moses to be saved. Thus, the letter’s overall message could be described as law versus Spirit.[1]

[2] As we saw in our look at Acts 15, the most significant challenge to doctrinal purity in the first century came from those who wished to perpetuate the notion that the law of Moses was still in effect and that Gentiles, as well as Jews, were required to keep the law to be saved. This false teaching found its way to the churches of Galatia shortly after Paul had ministered there.

[3] “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel,” wrote Paul. He continued, “Which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:6-7). The strength of Paul’s concern is further expressed in the next verses: “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9).

[4] A thorough reading of this letter shows the kind of “gospel” that rewards with a curse those who embrace it; it is a “gospel” of works, not faith, of the law, not the Spirit.

[5] As it relates to the Spirit, Paul’s first questions for his readers are these: “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? . . . Therefore He who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you, does He do it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith?” (Galatians 3:2-3, 5).

[6] It is apparent here that the Galatians had received the Spirit. This is when their spiritual lives began. Not only had they received the Spirit; the miracles worked among them were evidence this was so.

[7] That Spirit-filled people could so quickly be seduced by false teaching, especially by teaching that salvation is a reward for good works, suggests there is a deep-seated temptation to claim personal worthiness. Such an idea is rooted in pride and denies salvation is a gift from God. It forgets that on the birthday of the church, Peter declared the Holy Spirit is a gift (Acts 2:38).

[8] Paul’s questions are rhetorical. Of course, the Galatians did not receive the Spirit by the works of the law. They received it by faith. They would not be made perfect by the flesh, a law approach to perfection. The supply of the Spirit and the miracles worked among them were not God’s response to their law-keeping abilities. They were His response to their faith.

[9] Those who embrace the false gospel of the works of the law are “under the curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them’ ” (Galatians 3:10). Thus, the curse of the law is the requirement of perfect obedience to every commandment in the law of Moses, all 613 of them.[2]  Can this be done? No. As Paul wrote, “But that no one is justified by the law in the sight of God is evident, for ‘the just shall live by faith’ ” (Galatians 3:11).

[10] Paul’s use of Habakkuk 2:4 is influenced by the LXX. Both the Greek translation of Habakkuk 2:4 and Galatians 3:11 use pisteōs (faith). Some translations render Habakkuk 2:4 something like “the just shall live by his faithfulness” rather than “the just shall live by faith.” Although faithfulness is certainly a desired character quality, it can point back in the direction of a works or law approach to salvation. The common meaning of pisteōs is trust, and we must keep in mind that words have a range of meaning, and that the specific meaning of a word is determined by the context in which it is used. Context narrows the possible range of meanings.

[11] The Hebrew word ‘emunah, commonly translated “faith” in Habbakuk 2:4, can be translated “faithfulness,” but it need not be.[3]  But regardless of this, Paul used the Greek pisteōs, from pistis, in Galatians 3:11, following the LXX reading. Although this Greek word could, in some contexts, refer to faithfulness, its common meaning is in the range of “to believe in, to have confidence in, to have faith in, to trust” and so forth.[4]    The Book of Galatians uses pisteōs fourteen times, including in 3:11, and none of them demand the meaning “faithfulness.”[5] In fact, “faithfulness” doesn’t work in any of these contexts with the possible exception of Galatians 2:16, which the NET translation renders “yet we know that no one is justified by the works of the law but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.” Most translations read more like the NKJV: “Yet we know that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law. For no one will ever be made right with God by obeying the law.”

[12] The same Greek word, pisteōs, is used in the next verse, Galatians 3:12: “Yet the law is not of faith, but ‘the man who does them shall live by them.’ “ We can readily see that it would not do to translate this “Yet the Law is not of faithfulness.” Paul’s point was that the law is not a faith covenant. He offered a quotation from Leviticus 18:5 to make this point: “You shall therefore keep My statutes and My judgments, which if a man does, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” Paul referred to this same verse in his letter to the church at Rome: “For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. For Moses writes about the righteousness which is of the law, ‘the man who does these things shall live by them’ “ (Romans 10:4-5).

[13] Galatians 3:12 tells us the law was not about faith, but about works. The word “live” in Leviticus 18:5 was not a reference to eternal life, but to long life in the Promised Land. There is no promise of eternal life in the law of Moses. Rather, the promise was long life as a reward for perfect obedience. Paul makes this point in Ephesians 6:1-3: “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother,’ which is the first commandment with promise: ‘that it may be well with you and you may live long on the earth’.”

[14] Now Paul turns to the purpose for Christ’s redemptive work: “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’), that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus, that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Galatians 3:13-14).

[15] The promise of the Spirit is connected with the blessing of Abraham, not with the law of Moses. The way Gentiles receive Abraham’s blessing is through faith, not by the works of the law. The phrase “promise of the Spirit” reminds us of the “promise of the Father” (Acts 1:4). They are the same, for immediately after His reference to the “promise of the Father,” Jesus said, “For John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). We must keep in mind that Abraham was blessed on account of his faith (Genesis 15:6; Romans 4:3-5). He lived four centuries before the law of Moses, and there was no connection between the covenant God established with Abraham and what He later did with the nation of Israel. (See Galatians 3:15-18.)

[16] The “elements of the world,” further described as “weak and beggarly elements,” to which Paul’s Jewish readers had been in bondage before the coming of Christ included the observation of “days and months and seasons and years,” all aspects of the law of Moses (Galatians 4:3, 9-10).

[17] The parallel phrases “God sent forth His Son” and “God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son” contribute to the idea of the oneness of all things having to do with deity (Galatians 4:4, 6). The Son, Jesus, was God manifest in human existence, as indicated in the phrase “made of a woman” (KJV).[6]  The Spirit God sent forth on the Day of Pentecost, identified then as the “Holy Spirit” and “My Spirit” is none other than what Paul recognized here as “the Spirit of His Son.” This is a fitting term, for it was Jesus who, “having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit,” poured out the Spirit on Pentecost (Acts 2:32-33). To receive the promise of the Spirit means the Spirit was His to pour out.

[18] In his use of the account of Ishmael and Isaac to illustrate the radical contrast between the law of Moses and the New Covenant, Paul identified Ishmael as one who was born “according to the flesh” and Isaac as one who was born “according to the Spirit” (Galatians 4:29). This again defines the nature of the two covenants. The law was a fleshly covenant; the New Covenant was a covenant of the Spirit.

[19] The distinct and irreconcilable contrast between a law approach to God and a faith approach is seen in Galatians 5:1-6. Those who embrace faith have found liberty. Those who opt for law are entangled with a yoke of bondage (Galatians 5:1; 2:4; 4:3, 9, 24, 25). Although circumcision was required under the law, those who are circumcised for religious reasons in the era of the New Covenant receive no profit from it. Instead, since they have chosen to follow one commandment of the law, thinking there is some benefit in doing so, they are now “a debtor to keep the whole law” (Galatians 5:2-3). That is the nature of the law; it is all or nothing. There is no benefit to keeping selected commandments. But those who attempt to be justified by law, an impossible task, have fallen from grace. They are estranged from Christ. On the other hand, those who are people of faith wait eagerly “through the Spirit” for the hope of righteousness by faith. They will not be disappointed.

[20] Galatians 5:16-25 brackets what it means to walk in the Spirit. Both the opening and closing verses include the phrase “walk in the Spirit.” To walk in the Spirit is the precise opposite of fulfilling the lust of the flesh: “For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish” (Galatians 5:17).

[21] The word translated “lust” refers to strong desires or cravings. The desires of the Spirit and of the flesh are so completely opposed to each other that they cannot be reconciled. Those who walk in the Spirit—that is, they yield to the desires of the Spirit—cannot at the same time yield to the desires of the flesh.

[22] To be led by the Spirit and to be under the law reveal the opposite poles of human behavior. We must keep in mind, however, that the behavior that results from being led by the Spirit cannot be achieved by sheer willpower. It does not come from self-discipline. Anyone can choose to behave in a certain way, at least temporarily. But that is not necessarily the result of a life transformed by the Holy Spirit. Good behavior is no sure sign of regeneration. The fruit of the Spirit is just that; it is the Spirit’s work in one’s life.

[23] The behavior of those who chose not to be led by the Spirit but to relate to God on the basis of law is predictable. The fruit of the Spirit has precise counterparts in the realm of the flesh. Indeed, the ongoing context in Galatians suggests that where we see references to “flesh,” the undergirding problem is “law.” This begins, at least in Galatians 3:2-3, where Paul posed the question, “Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law . . . are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” The statement “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” suggests that if you are not led by the Spirit, you are under the law” (Galatians 5:18). There is no law, however, against the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23).[7]

[24] The statement “If we live in the Spirit” in Galatians 5:25 is a first class condition, affirming the reality of the condition. Some translations render this “since we live in the Spirit.” This is an accurate translation. Since we have received the Spirit (Galatians 3:2), we should walk in the Spirit (Galatians 5:25). The Spirit within us is sure to desire those virtues described as the fruit of the Spirit. As we yield to the desire to love, to be joyous, to be peaceable, to be longsuffering, to be kind, to do good, to be people of faith (i.e., to trust God, regardless of the circumstances of life), to be gentle, to practice self-control, we will be led by the Spirit; we will be walking in the Spirit. If we have no desire for these things, but instead desire and continually yield to those negative impulses described as “works of the flesh,” we must, at the very least, seek to be transformed by the Holy Spirit, for “he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit will of the Spirit read everlasting life” (Galatians 6:8).



  1. Paul marveled that the believers in Galatia did not remain in the truth for long, but quickly succumbed to the false teaching that it was necessary to keep the law to be saved.


  1. To attempt to keep the law, with its weak and beggarly elements, is not only unnecessary; it is dangerous.


  1. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law


  1. The account of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac is an analogy showing the radical difference between the law of Moses and the New Covenant. They cannot be reconciled.


  1. The fruit of the Spirit contrasts with the works of the flesh, which are apparently the result of efforts to relate to God on the basis of law.


[1] The following texts reveal law versus Spirit tension in Galatians: Galatians 2:4-5, 11-21; 3:2-3, 5, 10-13, 17-19, 21, 23-25; 4:5, 9-11, 21-31; 5:1-14, 18; 6:12-13, 15.

[2] The number 613 was determined by Maimonides in the twelfth century.

[3] A representative sample of English translations that render ‘emunah as “faith” include JPS, KJG, KJV, NAB, NAS, NAU, NIRV, NKJV. A few that render it as “faithfulness” include NET, NIB, NIV, NJB, NLT, and YLT.

[4] Louw-Nida, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, 57.170.

[5] The fourteen uses of pisteōs are Galatians 2:16; 3:2, 5, 7, 8, 9, 11, 14, 22, 24, 25, 26; 5:5; 6:10.

[6] See also John 1:1, 14; I Timothy 3:16.

[7] For a shorter list of the fruit of the Spirit, see Ephesians 5:9.