1O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayedamong you as crucified? 2 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? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (Gal. 3:1-3)
When the Apostle Paul dealt with errors in the churches he had either founded or had a spiritual influence in, there was no church he was so hard on as the one in Galatia. This fact might seem strange, since there seemingly were no serious moral sins happening there, as in for instance Corinth, where one of the church members openly lived in a relationship with his father’s wife (see 1 Cor. chapter 5).
The reason why Paul was so hard on the Galatians, was that the very truth of the Gospel, the same truth that was the foundation of Paul’s revolutionizing message of God’s grace and the finished work of Jesus, was challenged.
Paul did not hold back: “Who has bewitched you?”, he exclaimed. When we think about witchcraft today, we normally think of a witch or witchdoctor in a third-world country who, for payment, chants a curse on another person. However, when Paul referred to “witchcraft”, he was talking about something completely different: To abandon the pure gospel of grace for “another gospel”, where Christ’s grace is mixed with the law of Moses. To stop trusting in God’s unconditional love through Christ, and instead start trusting one’s own performance (works of the law). Paul likened religions legalism to witchcraft!
In the case of the Galatians, it was about the issue of circumcision and being a Jewish vs. a Gentile Christian. Legalistic preachers from Jerusalem, who lacked understanding of the fullness of the Gospel of grace, came to Galatia and preached that they needed to be circumcised to be completely holy and righteous before God. The religious pressure became so intense that Simon Peter himself, and even Paul’s companion Barnabas, started compromising with the truth of the Gospel. Suddenly they no longer wanted to hang out with the Gentile Christians during the church meals.
Paul finished his letter to the Galatians by settling the case once and for all:
”For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation.” (Gal. 6:15)
The problem in Galatia, however, went much deeper than a debate about whether circumcision was for the New Covenant believer or not. A veil of legalism had blinded the church, leading to that they tried to follow both the Gospel and the law of Moses at the same time. This is, of course, an impossible combination, since the Gospel is based on God’s unmerited grace and includes everyone, while the law is all about that we are blessed in accordance with our own performance and excludes everyone except for the Jewish people. Paul said:
9 But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements [the statutes and ordinances of the law of Moses], to which you desire again to be in bondage? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years. (Gal. 4:9-10)
He went as far as to say: ”My little children, for whom I labor in birth again until Christ is formed in you.” (Gal. 4:19)
Legalism had replaced a Jesus-focused Gospel. The church had come under the spell of witchcraft.
Can witchcraft likewise influence the church today? Probably more than we could ever imagine. However, today it is not the question of circumcision that threatens the truth of the Gospel. Instead, it can be things like rules about food and drink, celibacy among priests, focus on religious buildings, or regarding some days as more holy than others. It can also be about things like prayer, fasting, giving, and service – all important spiritual disciplines, but which easily become legalistic commandments unless practiced based on the knowledge of the finished work of Jesus.
Whenever what we must do for God (the law) is emphasized at the expense of what God through Christ already has done for us (the Gospel), we are in dangerous territory. However, there is a very effective antidote to the influence of witchcraft in God’s church, that breaks down every wall of condemnation, control, or spiritual manipulation: The preaching of the gospel of grace, as revealed through the New Covenant. May every church discover it. And may we all be established in it, so that we actually live it.