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PauPs Argument from Experience:

A Closer Look at Galatians 3:1-5

John F. Johnson
Paul's argument from experience in the Epistle to the Galatians is rightly viewed as a formidable proof for justification coram Deo by grace. The purpose of this brief study is to explore the significance the argument has for contemporary ecclesiology as it ponders gifts (charismata) of the Holy Spirit. In marked contrast to the rich variety and abundance of special charismata experienced in Corinth (1 Cor. 12-14), only one such charisma is identified as being manifested in the churches of Galatia. Scholarly commentators usually distinguish a number of arguments in the so-called probatio section of the letter (3:1-4:31). The first is what Luther already in the 1535 Commentary describes as argumentum ab experientia.1 Some commentators refer to it as an argument of indisputable evidence, while others classify it as an argument from irrational experience.2 At least three reasons may be adduced as background for the use of the argument: 1) Paul had experienced the revelation of Jesus Christ at his call to be an apostle to the Gentiles (1:1, 15f.). He confesses that the risen Christ revealed to him lives in him (2:20). 2) Paul had experienced the truth of the Gospel (1:6-9, llf.; 2:5, 14). 3)

Epist ad Gal. WA 40/1.328 Many philosophers hold all arguments from experience to be at least dubious. Along with revelation-faith arguments they fail to meet the strict demands of logic or empirical evidence. Paul must have been aware of this, even though he may not have been at home in precise, contemporary terminology.

Dr. John F. Johnson currently serves as a consultant to the InterLutheran Council for Continuing Education. Until recently he had served as the Council's director.


Paul had experienced justification through faith in Christ, not by works of Law (2:16).3 The argument (3:1-5) is as direct and concise as Paul's description of the events which occasioned it. Paul had proclaimed the truth of the Gospel with such compelling integrity that he could label as false any compromise of his message.4 Through the Gospel both Jews and Gentiles in Galatia had experienced justification before God. Later, the opponents of Paul who preached to them a perverted, hybrid "gospel" demand that Gentile Christians adopt the Jewish Torah and submit to its external cultic sign of circumcision. Paul views such a demand as a substitution of merit for grace, of works for faith in Christ. The Galatians are not only confused; they are foolish (Luther: unverstaendiger Galater!) and bewitched if they fail to understand the dire consequences of such action. Any effort to bring them under the sphere of Law-works as means of justification undermines the Gospel of grace (1:3, 6, 15; 2:21; cf. 2:4f.). If that happens, the death of Christ for sins (1:4) becomes for them a death in vain (2:21). I Paul's carefully constructed argument takes the form of rhetorical questions whose answers are self-evident. The apostle had dramatically portrayed the crucifixion of Christ. He had done it so vividly that he can say that the Galatians have, as it were, themselves witnessed the event.5 His initial question is pointed and pressing. Who has bewitched you so quickly to desert the God who raised Jesus Christ from the dead and who called you in the grace of Christ? Who has cast a spell upon you to follow a gospel which is really no gospel at all?6 The answers are obvious, or should be obvious to the Galatian believers. Who? Neither God who called them nor Paul who preached

Note: "We have come to believe" (2:16b). This is followed by proof from Scripture (2:16c), a method Paul pursues when the argument from experience is followed by proof from Scripture (3:6). 4 A false gospel is really no gospel at all (1:6-9). Cf. 2:7 where Paul does speak of the "gospel of the circumcision.,> 5 Cf. 1 Cor. 1:13-18,23; 2:2. For Paul, preaching Christ is preaching justification (1:4; 2:16). Luther, on the basis of the Textus Receptus which adds the words, "among you," suggests that because of their apostasy Christ was being crucified anew among the Galatians (cf. 1535 Commentary on 3:1). 6 Paul's words are sharp, but he still has confidence that the Galatian Christians will escape what Luther calls the delusional magic of false teaching (cf. 5:7-8; also 6:18 where Paul addresses the Galatians in benediction as brothers). CONCORDIA JOURNAL/JULY 1993 235

grace to them! The opponents have deceived them to consider Law to be means of justification. They are to examine their own experience. Did you receive the (Holy) Spirit on the basis of works of Law? Or did you receive the Spirit on the basis of the hearing of faith?7 Again their answer must be obvious. They experienced the Holy Spirit by means of the Gospel, quite apart from Law. Paul drives his point home. How then can you be so foolish? Having begun in Spirit, do you finish up in the realm of flesh? Has your experience been in vain? Then Paul poses the crucial question. Does God who gifts you with the Spirit and who works miracles among you do so by works of Law or by the proclamation of faith? (3:5). Again the answer is clear. God gave them the Spirit of His Son (4:6) by means of Gospel. Gospel, not Torah, is the divine means of justification coram Deo. II This raises the issue we desire to probe. Does this argument from experience, with its reference to working of miracles, provide insights as we seek to relate special charismatic phenomena to the proclamation of the Gospel of justification? In the churches of Galatia, the occurrence of miracles (3:5) is a sign of the Spirit's working in their midst.8 A number of questions surface. Like Paul's rhetorical questions they readily admit of their own answers. The churches in Corinth and Rome were gifted by the Spirit with a rich variety of special charismata. Was working of miracles the only special charisma experienced by the churches of Galatia? Apparently so. Would Paul's case for a truly genuine experience of the Spirit by the Galatian believers have been considerably strengthened by the presence of additional special charismata! Apparently not. Was the Spirit fully at work in the Galatian churches even though special charismata were limited to miracles? Apparently so. For Paul unrestrictedly names the Galatian Christians pneumatics, i.e., people endowed with the Spirit (6:1). Was the real problem in Galatia a lack of special charismata rather than confusion about grace and freedom in Christ (5:1)? Apparently not. Careful examination of the argument from experience discloses that working of miracles is almost tangential to Paul's case.

7 Hearing implies proclamation. The Gospel creates faith in Christ because it is God's power to save and bestow the Holy Spirit (cf. Rom. 1:16; 1 Cor. 1:18; 2:4ff.). 8 Paul does not stipulate what kind of miracles are being worked. Some believe they may have been exorcisms, but this is mere speculation (cf. 1 Cor. 12:10).


The fact of the matter is that God had sent the Spirit of Christ into their hearts (4:6).9 They had experienced God's adoptive love in their redemption by Christ (4:4f.), their baptism into Christ (3:26ff.), and their Spirit-wrought faith in Christ (3:1-3). Their status before God was patently not conditioned by consideration of special charismata. Ill In a parenetic section which concludes the letter (5:1-6:10), Paul provides ample evidence of the dynamic presence of the Spirit in the Christian communities of Galatia. Believers10 are eagerly awaiting the hope of righteousness, i.e., their eschatological justification. They are exhorted to walk by Spirit so they will not carry out desires of the flesh (5:16). They are being carried away by the Spirit and not under Law (5:18; cf. 3:23; Rom. 8:14). In the struggle between Spirit and flesh which characterizes existence in Christ, they are empowered to bear the fruit of the Spirit as He leads them in their course of life (5:6, 2225). Because they are pneumatics, they are to restore transgressors within the community in a spirit of gentleness (6:l). n In sum, for Paul, those who have the Spirit of Christ are a new creation (6:13-15). For such, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision (and, we might add, special charismata) are anything of which to boast. Spirit-wrought, justifying faith works by love. That appears to be much more important than the working of miracles or the presence of other special charismata. Surely the Gospel and justification by grace are at stake in Galatia. A sound ecclesiology (or pneumatology) is also at issue. If Gentile Christians submit to the Torah and circumcision they forfeit grace (5:2-4). In so doing they separate from the church.12 Paul's argument from experience serves to remind the church of every age of the proper relationship between proclamation of Gospel and bestowal of special charismata by the Holy Spirit upon the church.

Cf. Rom. 8:14-17, 26f. for a close parallel. Note the words: "by () faith; by Spirit," 5:5 (cf. 2:16; 3:2, 5, 7ff.). 11 This will mark them as true pneumatics. If they deal differently they deceive themselves into imagining they are truly Spirit-filled (6:3). Might this also speak of the self-delusion of those who claim to have charismata of tongues and healing while lacking the fruit of love? Of the charismata evident in the Corinthian community Paul selects love as the one to be sought with zeal (cf. 1 Cor. 12:3If.). 12 They come under the curse pronounced in l:8f. The conditional curse of 6:16 must probably be understood in light of 6:12-15.



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