Yesterday, I posted my review of the first volume in the Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament series: Galatians, by J.V. Fesko. Today we have the privilege of interacting with Dr. Fesko, Academic Dean and Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Seminary California. Dr. Fesko kindly took time to answer a few questions about some of the major themes in the letter to the Galatians and his commentary.
KF: How would you summarize Paul’s main concern as he writes to the churches of Galatia?
JVF: Paul wanted the Galatian churches to know that Christ, alone, is the foundation for our salvation and that we cannot contribute any of our good works to that foundation. Paul’s concern is evident in his spine-chilling warning that anyone who teaches another gospel, even an angel from heaven, is liable to God’s curse (Gal. 1:8-9).
KF: What were the circumstances that led to the drift from the true, biblical gospel among the Galatian churches? Can you cite any examples of modern false gospels that are prevalent in the church? How can we avoid such error?
JVF: The false teachers taught the Galatians that circumcision was necessary for salvation in addition to believing in Christ. The false teachers taught a faith + works = salvation view of things. In the case of the Galatians it was circumcision but in our own context we bring different things to the table, such as our own sense of self-worth or even something that is biblical, but misused, such as good works. A person can think, “I’m saved by grace, but I know that since my doctrine is orthodox, this commends me more than the person next to me who has incorrect doctrine.” This is an inflated sense of self-worth. We can also think, “God will look upon me more favorably because I try to love my neighbor.” We are commanded to love our neighbor, but not as the means by which we curry God’s favor but rather as the fruit of the salvation we have already received in Christ.
How do we avoid such errors? We must constantly seek Christ—in Christ alone we find redemption. As we read of the law’s condemnation of sin and behold ourselves in the mirror of the law, we can see how frequently we fall short and how desperately we need Christ. We can flee to Christ by faith, not only for our entry-point to salvation but also throughout the entirety of the Christian life—until we die or Christ returns. In so doing we realize that who we are in Christ, and the benefits that we receive in him, chiefly justification and sanctification, among other benefits, we find redemption and a safe haven from false idols. As the Westminster Confession states, “The principal acts of saving faith are accepting, receiving, and resting upon Christ alone for justification, sanctification, and eternal life, by virtue of the covenant of grace” (WCF XIV.ii). And we seek Christ through his appointed means, Word and sacrament. That is, we find the grace of the gospel in the preached Word, either audibly to our ears, or to our other senses through the sacraments—through water, bread, and wine.
KF: How important is the Old Testament to Paul’s discourse as he writes this letter? Would you briefly touch on some of the more prevalent OT motifs that Paul incorporates, and how they enrich our understanding of the redemptive work God has done for us in Christ?
JVF: Paul’s Bible was his Old Testament. If you were to ask him to quote the Bible, he would have undoubtedly quoted the Old Testament. If you pricked his finger, he bled Old Testament Scripture, themes, and its narratives. At a number of points Paul cites a series of Old Testament texts in his discussion of justification by faith alone, such as Deuteronomy 27:26, Psalm 143:1, Habakkuk 2:4, Leviticus 18:5, Deuteronomy 21:23, Genesis 12, 15, 17, 22, Joel 2:28, and Isaiah 32:15 (Gal. 3:10-14). He cites at least seven different Old Testament texts, if not more, in the span of five verses. Paul also refers to the Genesis narrative with his appeal to Hagar and Sarah as types that represent Mt. Sinai and Zion (the Jerusalem above) (Gal. 4:21-31). And at key points Paul employs language that is evocative of Israel’s Old Testament exodus and wilderness wanderings when he characterizes the law as something that held Israel in captivity and bondage (e.g., Gal. 4:8ff), but through Christ they have been set free to “walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16ff). In a word, the reader of Galatians really has to know his Old Testament to appreciate fully Paul’s epistle.
KF: You cite, on several occasions, that our faith is “extraspective” in nature. Can you explain what is meant by that term?
JVF: I believe John Murray coined the term, but extraspective is the antonym to introspective. When we are introspective we look within but when we are extraspective we look without, outside of ourselves. Far too many are introspective when it comes to their salvation—they seek salvation by themselves—looking within to something they themselves can do to somehow scale the heights of heaven. But Paul, by contrast, presents salvation as an extraspective reality—we must look outside of ourselves to what Christ has done on our behalf. Hence, faith is extraspective because it looks outside of a person to Christ as the author and finisher of our salvation.
KF: One of the emphases that may set this commentary apart is your discussion of the new creation motif within the letter. Why is this theme of new creation so important to Paul as he addresses the Galatians?
JVF: Paul explains that Christ suffered the curse of the law so that the blessings of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, “So that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14). The Old Testament promised that the Spirit would be poured forth and would renew the creation—the Spirit would bring forth the new heavens and earth and it would be abundantly filled with fruit. But literal fruit was not in view, rather Isaiah was prophesying about the fruit of righteousness filling the earth (e.g., Isa. 32:14-17). So when Paul unpacks the fruit of the Spirit, he has in view the long-promised work of the Spirit. In other words, with the advent of Christ the clock of redemptive history has been irreversibly pushed forward—the new creation has dawned with the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and he has poured out the Spirit upon the church (e.g., Acts 2:33). This means that the fruit of the Spirit that believers manifest (Gal. 5:22-24) is evidence that the new creation has dawned. The hour-hand has advanced and now reads, “the time of the new creation.”
I think far too many believers look at the fruit of the Spirit merely as a part of their own sanctification rather than as one smaller part in the greater whole of the unfolding narrative of redemptive history. Hence, believers should not only ask, “Who am I in Christ?,” to which we should answer, “A new creature.” But we should also ask, “What time is it?,” to which we should answer, “It is nearly the end of all things as Christ has inaugurated the new heavens and earth in his ministry.”
KF: You note, concerning the fruit of the Spirit in the life of the believer, that some may think that, having been justified by Christ, this fruit is now produced simply through concentrated moral effort. Would you explain what Paul considers to be the source of this Spirit-wrought fruit?
JVF: I have addressed this question in my previous answer, but I can restate my answer in these terms, which hopefully give another view upon this vital issue. All too many Reformed Christians believe that there is a distinct Reformed doctrine of justification but that everyone agrees on the doctrine of sanctification. But such an idea is not true—there is a Reformed doctrine of sanctification as well. In other words, people can have unbiblical ideas about the doctrine of sanctification.
If we are saved by grace through faith in Christ (e.g., Eph. 2:8-10), then the grace of the gospel is not only vital for our entry-point into salvation (such as with our justification) but also for the entirety of the Christian life (in my sanctification). There is no point in the Christian life where we are not totally and utterly dependent upon Christ’s gospel. The way in which we will manifest the fruit of the Spirit, therefore, is not through concentrated moral effort but rather through drawing near to Christ through the means of grace. And in drawing near to Christ, we become like the one we worship. Like Moses’ face aglow with the glory of God merely by being in God’s presence, so we are transformed more and more into the holy and righteous image of Christ as we draw near to him in worship. In drawing near to him, then, we are transformed and enabled and equipped to manifest the fruit of the Spirit, grow in our sanctification, and feed our faith so that it might work through love (Gal. 5:6).
KF: As a pastor, professor, scholar, and one who has rigorously studied the letter to the Galatians, and many of Paul’s motifs therein, how did this particular sermon series and the writing of this commentary most impact your life, ministry, and understanding of the gospel?
JVF: I think it has reminded me to two chief things, among many others. First, how desperately we, individually and corporately, need Christ and his gospel. There is no hope without it. And second, it struck me how quickly the Galatian churches abandoned the gospel even though Paul himself planted these churches. It gave me solace to know that Paul faced false teaching and so the false gospels we see in our own day are nothing new. It was also a reminder that the greatest threat to the gospel comes, not from without the church, but within. The Judaizers were wolves in sheep’s clothing. False teaching comes dressed as light, not as the darkness it truly is. I think that far too many think greater threats to the church’s well-being lie outside the church. This is a constant reminder to me in my own ministry to pray that Christ would keep me close and in his grip so that I would not spread false teaching. But it also causes me to pray the same for the church—that we would collectively pray for fidelity to Christ and his gospel.
My sincere thanks to Dr. Fesko for taking the time for this interview. I trust it’s been as insightful and edifying for you as it has been for me. If you haven’t already done so, take time to check out my interview with Dr. Jon D. Payne, the series editor of the Lectio Continua commentary. Great stuff there as well!
Lastly, for more information regarding Dr. Fesko’s commentary on Galatians, and to pick up a copy for yourself or your pastor, CLICK HERE.
OTHER RESOURCES BY J.V. FESKO
The Fruit of the Spirit is… (Evangelical Press, 2011)
Word, Water, and Spirit: A Reformed Perspective on Baptism (Reformation Heritage, 2010)
Last Things First: Unlocking Genesis 1-3 with the Christ of Eschatology (Christian Focus/Mentor, 2007)