Free From the Rules
Several years ago, one of my former students left our church to enter a cult. This cult claimed to be a group of Christians, but they claimed that the traditional church was not diligent enough with the “rules”. The leaders had written additional literature outlining how the member must behave. These rules were not found in scripture. They also claimed that committing certain sins would cost the follower his salvation and he would have to go and get it back again. Unfortunately, this twist of grace has been going on for centuries in the church. In the book of Galatians, Paul is writing to a church that was infiltrated by such a lie.
Paul claims that the Galatians have turned to “another gospel, which is no gospel at all.” It appears that the Christians in Galatia had been persuaded to add a required Jewish-ness to following Christ. This Jewish-ness included things like abstaining from certain meats and being circumcised. Interestingly, Jesus himself never speaks of the need to be circumcised in any of the Gospels. Paul describes these additions as “turning away from Christ.” Anything added to Christ alone for our salvation is a different message. Adding to grace alone was an alarming development because it undercut the core message of the gospel. If salvation could not be attained by embracing Judaism, then the death of Christ was unnecessary.
Adding to the message of grace by faith is subtracting from the power of the gospel, and it feeds our need to be in control of our own destiny. It tempts us to be our own little gods.
Before we start shaking our heads and pointing our fingers at the Galatians, let’s do a little introspection. Unfortunately, there are plenty of examples of this kind of erroneous teaching in our own western Christianity. We add lots of stuff to the gospel, like going to the right church, or baptism, or how much we are involved in serving. There are other things added to a moral category like smoking and drinking, having short hair, playing cards and gambling. We like to measure our worth against other people, so we set the bar slightly below our own behavior and judge others.
Don’t misunderstand, some of these actions can be an expression of the faith, but they are not the occasions for keeping relationship with God a reality. God alone does that. Look at Galatians 3:2; “I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh?” In other words, we received salvation by grace. We cannot lose it by doing anything wrong, and we cannot keep it by doing things that are right. It was a free gift. We can lay our heads down at night and rest in the fact that we are loved for Christ’s sake, not for measuring up. Let’s break our rulers.
Tips for Reading (Interpretation tip #3)
(Note: This section is help for Bible Reading in general. It has been building throughout the year under the topics of Observation (what the Scripture says), Interpretation (what it means) and Application (what it means to your life). Feel free to look back over past weeks to get the whole picture.
I was reminded this week as I was reading The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg, that an important part of interpretation is meditation, or inviting the Holy Spirit to help you interpret what’s going on in the text and in your heart. Don’t be afraid of the word meditation. I am not getting new age on you. It’s a process that saints have used for millenniums. As you read the passage for the day, highlight what jumps out to you. At the end of your reading take a few minutes and focus on one of the phrases you have highlighted. For example, this week I stopped at Galatians 4:9 and meditated on what it means to go back and be “enslaved again”. I thought about how I have been delivered, and I was thankful. I thought of my struggles, and I confessed them to God. I renewed my relationship with God, and resolved by His grace not get enslaved to those stupid things of the past. Consider adding a couple minutes to your quiet time reading to help you to slow down and let the Spirit interpret what you have been reading. Give it a try and see if it helps bridge the gap between the ancient world and your heart. Grace and Peace.
Notes from David's Journal
The book of Galatians is often called "Romans in miniature". It's a wonderful, theological treatise that encapsulates the Gospel of grace. You will see the sinfulness of humanity, proved by the existence of the Law. All of us fall short of obeying God's perfect moral standard. But you also see, in Chapter 4, how we are now adopted sons and daughters in God's family by grace, through faith. I especially enjoy Chapter 5. In it, you will see the continuing war that exists between the lusts of the flesh (vss. 19-21) and the gift of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (vss. 22, 23). Interestingly, Paul says the fruit of the Spirit cannot happen by trying to obey the Law, trying to make it happen. The fruit of the Holy Spirit simply happen, by grace, for someone whose life is properly rooted in Christ. You can't force an orange tree to produce oranges. It doesn't happen by yelling at the tree, demanding it try harder. It only happens when the tree is rightly rooted in the soil of grace, mercy and kindness.
God's fruit in our lives is essential. But we can't "make it" happen. It will happen, but only as we grow in deeper intimacy with Christ and his presence deep within. This relationship is the essence of the Christian faith. We are to be "in Christ". And He is to be "in us". Living the Christian life is people who live daily in this intimacy, by grace, through faith.
That's the essence of the book of Galatians...and Romans...and most all the New Testament books.
It's the essence of the Christian life.