Galatians 5:16 – The War is On.

Now we get into the nitty-gritty of living practically the realities of what Paul has been teaching.  Since we have, in deed, been justified by faith and not by works, since we have obtained righteousness through the work of Christ and not though our own effort, how are we to live in that truth and how are to love our neighbor as Paul encouraged us to do in the previous verses?  These next two verses set the stage for us to understand and live the truth of the gospel.  Here Paul points to the reality of our struggle with the old sinful nature and he gives us the key to gain the upper hand in this struggle.  Once we understand these two verses the rest of the chapter becomes clear.  In this post I will briefly touch on the struggle.  Next week I will explore Paul’s instruction to “walk by the Spirit.”

But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. (Gal 5:16, 17)

Even as new creations in Christ, as born again persons, we still carry remnants of the old sinful nature, the flesh that sought to be independent of God and opposed to Him.  And yet the Holy Spirit still fills us, instructs us and leads us.  It is this paradox that we live in and which Paul addresses here.  The flesh still wants to exercise control over our lives.  We are tempted to go back to what was comfortable, to what seemed to make us happy, or at least, gave us a sense of control over our lives, but that is the opposite of what the Spirit does.  He wants to take control of our lives and decisions, to bring us into true peace and comfort, to show us what true happiness is.  But, we think, what if what the Spirit says is hard or uncomfortable or brings us pain? Or what if He is messing with us?  We hold back a little.  We try to have it both ways – a little flesh and a little Spirit.  And we are neither fulfilled nor happy in either world.  It feels like a “two steps forward and one step back” life, or more often “one step forward and two back.”  So we beat ourselves up and promise to try harder, only to face the same conflict.

And yet that same conflict is the evidence that the Spirit really is in our lives, speaking to us and guiding us.  If it were not true, there would be no conflict, no war of Spirit and flesh.  We would simply live by the desires of the flesh without regard to the things of the Spirit. But that is not what we do, we don’t easily yield to the flesh.  We struggle against it by the Spirit.  The war is on.  One of the schemes of the devil is to convince us that the battle is lost because we are tempted, because we see the desires of the flesh rise up.  That is not true and we need to reject that thought immediately.

I may be distressed by the battle I see going on in my life and sometimes I see more defeats than victories, the point is that the war is on and I am an active participant in that war.  John Calvin wrote, “… though the sons of God, so long as they groan under the burden of the flesh, are liable to commit sin, they are not its subjects or slaves, but make habitual opposition to its power. The spiritual man may be frequently assaulted by the lusts of the flesh, but fulfill them, — he does not permit them to reign over him.”

We should not be surprised, distraught or discouraged when we see sin rise up in us.  It is part of our current reality – the Kingdom of God is now and not yet, it is here but still coming in its fullness.   The hope and encouragement is that we are not stuck in our old sinful nature.  The promise stands that we are now able by the freedom we have in Christ to live in the fullness of the Spirit-led life and do battle with our old nature.  The hope is that there IS hope.

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Galatians 5:13-14 – The Focus of our Freedom

There is a danger in doing what I am doing.  By focusing each week on a few verses at a time, I risk losing the big picture – the message of this entire letter.  We look so closely at the bark on the tree that we forget we are surrounded by a beautiful, expansive forest.  This is especially true as we launch into the remainder of this letter.  Starting here we get a very practical application of the truths Paul has been explaining previously.  The freedom Christ won for us is now put to the test in our daily lives and it starts with understanding the bigger picture of God’s purposes.  God has always focused on building a People, a Church, not just a bunch of individuals.  So we need to keep this in mind as we move forward.

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal 5:13,14)

Remember that the definition of freedom I am using is freedom from a guilt-ridden conscience (see my previous post Freedom from Guilt).  In other words, because we are free from the curse of the law we no longer have to fret over our inability to meet God’s demands or be “good enough” for Him.  When we do sin, we don’t have to try to make it up to Him or vow to try harder but we rest on Christ’s sacrifice that makes us clean, whole and accepted.  But, Paul implies, can’t that lead us not to try at all!  Since we are righteous in God’s eyes through Jesus and we can add nothing to it, then couldn’t we do whatever we want without fear of losing our salvation?  Can’t we sin with impunity?

This attitude Paul addresses directly in verses 13 and 14.  God’s plan all along was to set us free, to allow us to breathe deeply his joy and mercy and grace.  Just as we say that we are “called to ministry” or “called to salvation”, so we are called to freedom.  It is an expression of God’s will for our lives.  It is part of the package deal.  But God has a greater plan for our freedom.  Just like everything else He does, His plan is not about me, it is not centered on me or designed simply to make us feel good about ourselves.  God always has a grander vision for us and for His Church.  He intended our freedom to be about loving and serving one another so that the Church, collectively, will be built up and can be the spotless, mature, glorious People that is given to Jesus as a wedding gift.  He will say, as Adam said, “this is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh.”  So the freedom we receive and enjoy is not intended for self-gratification and self-indulgence, but it is freedom to find ways to build that glorious Church.  Because we know that we are ok with God, it allows us the space to focus outside of ourselves and bring others into that experience of freedom.

It’s easy to deceive ourselves that we are loving God, but loving your neighbor necessitates thinking outside ourselves and actually demonstrating our love for God through our love for others.  It means embracing our freedom to serve others.  It means expressing our gratitude to God by loving our neighbors.  True faith reaches both upward to God and outward to others in love.  If we think that we can have “faith” then live however we want is to miss the point and to demonstrate that we don’t have real faith at all.  It is like a married man saying, “I love my wife, but I also want to have adulterous affairs” and not see a problem with that.  We would say to that man, “Clearly you don’t love your wife like you claim.”

The freedom we have is bounded by our expression of love for Christ’s Church, for His people.  We may have freedom but love constrains us to live in a way that does not hurt or do damage to the faith of others.  Jesus the Master was also Jesus the Servant.  So also we must become servants to others to ensure their growth, maturity and freedom in Christ.

Galatians 5:7 – Running Unhindered

Last summer the road in front of our church was being torn up by the city to install a new sewer line.  And when I mean torn up, I mean that there was no road; large holes ready to swallow my car whole; mountains of dirty; a narrow, one-car winding lane around those obstacles provided tortured access to our church entrance.  Sometimes the road was closed from the south and we had to come in from the north.  Sometimes vice versa.  We received weekly updates on how to get to church.  To say that we were hindered would be an understatement.  I had this experience in mind as I read this comment Paul made to the Galatians.

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth?  (Gal 5:7)

Paul casts the Galatian’s Christian journey as running a race and he poses a rhetorical question, “who hindered you?”  Paul was not the one hindering them. Certainly, the God who called them was not the one in the way of the disciple’s pursuit of Him.   It was the false teachers, they were the ones hindering them from running well, throwing road blocks in the way, slowing them down, weighing them down.  How? By distracting the disciples from the truth of salvation by faith alone; by adding rules, regulations and laws to the simplicity of the Cross; by burdening them with requirements that no one is able to keep; by taking their eyes off the finished work of Christ and turning them to their own accomplishments.

We often face the same challenge as these Galatian disciples.  We are running along the path of Freedom in Christ and bump into folks that say to us, “You’re not doing it right,” or “You need to have more faith,” or “you need to do ‘X’ to prove you love Jesus.”   We are made to feel that our simple faith in Jesus is not enough.  We need that “secret sauce” – some book, some practice, some rule or some teaching – to get to the next level.  Let me assure you, there will always be someone who will try to hinder your Christian walk, perhaps not deliberately or maliciously, but who will, all the same, place roadblocks in your way.   Instead of encouraging us to rest in the finished work of Christ, instead of pointing to the unfathomable grace of the Father, instead of depending on the indwelling Holy Spirit, we are told to “Try harder.”

But it isn’t always others who hinder us in our race.  Is it possible that our own sins, our own doubts, our own unforgiveness act as weights that tie us down and encumber us so that we are thrown off our game?  Do we sabotage ourselves?  If something or someone serves to hinder our race, we can be sure it is not God nor is it a test from God.  If it impedes our progress, if it burdens us with guilt, it is not the freedom which Christ gained for us.

Take a moment and ask yourself whether there is something you believe you have to do to earn God’s love. Think about those things you are doing or believing that seem like a heavy weight on your soul.  Reflect on the things that make you restless and rob you of peace.  Those are the hindrances that are keeping you from running into Jesus’ welcoming arms.  Cast them off!  Say no! Focus solely on Jesus crucified and nothing else.  Then run like the wind.

Galatians 5:4 – Cut off from Grace

The word brings up images from a horror movie – SEVERED!  It is so violent, so vicious.  But the Greek word behind the word “severed” is even more disturbing to the discerning Christian: “to render idle, inactivate, inoperative; to cause a person or thing to have no further efficiency.” This is the word Paul uses to describe what would happen to the Galatians if they continued to pursue the mistaken course they were on.  It’s also a fair warning to us.  Let’s look at that more closely.

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal 5:4)

Let’s remember the context here.  Paul had just brilliantly declared that Christ freed us from the demands the Law and the need for us to earn God’s acceptance through self-effort.  Now he warns those who would try to return to a rule-keeping, legalistic religious effort that they are in grave danger of a being cut off from the true means of salvation – grace.

The Galatians had bought into the idea that they needed to keep the Jewish Law in order to ensure that they were wholly saved and it started with accepting circumcision.  But it wasn’t the act of circumcision itself that Paul was concerned about, but what it represented.  Accepting circumcision meant accepting the entirety of the Law.  It meant returning to the conditional system of meriting God’s favor through the keeping of the rules.  It meant rejecting Christ and His sacrifice.  Paul is trying to point out that it’s not what we do to be saved but what Jesus did.  Anything else results in servitude and death

Circumcision represents slavish devotion to self-effort, self-righteousness and legalism. It has nothing to do with Christ.  On the other hand, the Cross is offensive to our human, fallen nature because it takes the power of self-determination and independence away from us.  It means that I can’t do anything to merit God’s favor or add to Christ’s work.  I am left completely dependent on Jesus for everything.  Our flesh screams in rebellion to such a suggestion. As David Guzik says in his commentary, “Legalism can’t handle the offense of the cross… When we trust in legalism, we believe that we can, at least in part, save ourselves. This takes away the offense of the cross, which should always offend the nature of fallen man.”

I don’t see this verse as referring to a loss of salvation.  Paul is talking to those who seek to justify themselves through the law, those who believe that Christ’s sacrifice isn’t enough.  Instead Paul is warning them that those who go down this path have literally cut themselves off from the only means of true salvation and have no access to the grace offered in the Cross.  This is not talking about whether a Christian sins or not, or what happens when a Christian does sin.  Paul here is referring to how we seek to be saved or made righteous before God.  Is it through our effort in obeying rules or is it through faith in Christ?

Let’s do a sanity check.  When we say to ourselves, “I believe Jesus died for my sin, but now I HAVE TO…” that “but” is deadly; that turn from the sufficiency of Jesus’ sacrifice to any additional effort on our part is a rejection of Christ.  Don’t fall for it.  It’s a trap!  So if that “but I…” thought pops into your head, reject it, run from it and instead run into His grace with worship and thanksgiving.

Galatians 5:1-3 – Standing Firm in our Freedom

I’m sure you’ve seen those TV ads for cookware, tools, cleaning products or some other product that always ends with, “but wait there’s more…”  Well, today we are going to look again at Galatians 5:1 (plus verses 2-3) because…THERE’S MORE!   So here is the verse again, this time in the King James Version and English Standard Version.  Each brings unique twist to the text.

Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.  Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.  For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. (Gal 5:1-3 KJV)

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.  I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. (Gal 5:1-3 ESV)

Remember from my last post that freedom refers to being “free from the dictates of the law, from the curse of the law and from servitude to the law, which means we are also free from the guilt, shame and condemnation that comes from failing to keep the law as a means to earn our righteousness before God.” But here Paul encourages us to “stand firm” in that freedom and not revert back to a state of slavery or bondage to the law.  I love the way the King James says, “entangled again.”  It reminds me of being caught up in a bunch of vines that are wrapped around legs and arms restricting my movements.  This is what being subject to law does.

Verses 2 and 3 clarify Paul’s point.  Paul is concerned that if the Galatians accept circumcision (as a symbol of their submission to Jewish law) then grace and faith in Christ’s work alone is nullified.  They lose all the benefit of Christ’s work and are once again subject to ALL of requirements of the Jewish Law and the idea of salvation by self-effort.  For us, the slavery we are talking about here is slavery to earning our own righteousness, to the burden of maintaining our own salvation through keeping rules and regulations.  It is a slavery to self that only leads to self-condemnation, guilt, shame, isolation from others and, ultimately, isolation from God.  We fall into this slavish life when we turn our focus from Jesus to ourselves.  It doesn’t matter what form it takes it is all essentially the same thing – Law.

The lure of “doing something” to merit salvation or to earn God’s favor is strong in us.  It is tempting to believe that if we keep certain rules or try to be “good” people we can achieve salvation for ourselves. We want to be independent of God.  That’s what sin does.  We don’t see the law as slavery but as a means to save ourselves.  It satisfies the sin nature.  So we place ourselves in subjection to rules, traditions, practices, values that we can do ourselves.  Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians, and us, is to say “no”.  We must depend on Christ alone and not fall for the “Christ and…” fallacy.  The danger is that once we start down that road there is no end.  We have to keep striving and working and wondering if it is enough.  We know that we need to “keep the whole law” but we don’t really know what the whole law is.  Thus Paul’s warning to stand firm.  The gospel of freedom is too important to let slip away.  If we go back to the law then there is no redemption, there is no hope for our salvation and there is no way to build an effective Church.

So let me paraphrase this verse this way, “Don’t give in to the tyranny of the shoulds.” When we start thinking, “I should read my Bible more, I should be a better Christian, I should pray more, I should…” and all those “shoulds” come at us like a hammer that beats us down – that is slavery; that is self-effort and self-righteousness; that is legalism; that is “law” talking to you.  There is nothing wrong with wanting to grow and mature, but to what end?  Is it to earn God’s favor or is it to learn to love Him back.

Stand firm therefore.  Say to the devil or to your own condemning thoughts, “Jesus loves me and because He died to the Law so did I.  Go away!”

It is for freedom that Christ set you free.

Galatians 5:1 – Freedom from Guilt

Oftentimes people will start reading Galatians from Chapter 5, after all it seems the most practical and it’s got that great Fruit of the Spirit verse.  But to skip or minimize the preceding four chapters is to miss the whole point of chapter five and, indeed, the whole letter.  Paul has been meticulously building, layer by layer, his argument of freedom from works-based righteousness and righteousness based on faith alone.  Here in chapter five he builds to his great conclusion and shows us what it means to be free in Christ.

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (Gal 5:1) 

First let’s put this in context. Paul just finished using the example of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar as an allegory of freedom in the Promise or slavery to self-effort.  He makes the point that we, who have accepted the work of Christ by faith, are children of the Promise.  So saying, “For freedom Christ has set us free” ties back to the previous verse, “we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.”   Paul is saying that we have a birthright that comes from being recipients of the promise of God in Christ.  Jesus won for us freedom from the law.  Jesus did not die just to submit us again to the demands of the Law.  So there was a purpose, a benefit, an inheritance, a promise in the Cross that we can and need to claim.

But what does freedom mean?  In his comments on this verse John Stott says, “The freedom described in vs 1 is not primarily a freedom from sin, but rather from the law.  What Christ has done in liberating us is not so much to set our will free from the bondage of sin as to set our conscience free from the guilt of sin.”  We are free from the dictates of the law, from the curse of the law and from servitude to the law, which means we are also free from the guilt, shame and condemnation that comes from failing to keep the law as a means to earn our righteousness before God.

Again, Martin Luther says it so well, “Our conscience is free and quiet because it no longer has to fear the wrath of God. This is real liberty, compared with which every other kind of liberty is not worth mentioning. Who can adequately express the boon that comes to a person when he has the heart-assurance that God will nevermore be angry with him, but will forever be merciful to him for Christ’s sake? This is indeed a marvelous liberty, to have the sovereign God for our Friend and Father who will defend, maintain, and save us in this life and in the life to come.”

For me this verse finally starts to put the rest of the letter in order and make sense out of it.  Paul comes back around to the idea of Christian liberty that he alluded to in Chapter 2 (see post Coming Attractions).  Freedom isn’t simply about freedom from sin, but freedom to pursue God without the fear of condemnation or guilt or the endless cycle of trying to be good enough by living up to some standard that others have set for us or, indeed, that we have set for ourselves.  We can experience and live in constant peace with God.  Nothing can assail our conscience. No sin or no devil can condemn us.  No fear of God’s rejection need overwhelm us.  That is all in the past.

So let us breathe freely the air of God’s favor.  Let us walk in the freedom Christ paid so dearly to obtain.  Let us enjoy, guilt free, our unrestricted access to the presence of the Father.  That is what we were meant for.  It is for freedom that Christ set us free.

Galatians 4:21-31 – I’ll Do It Myself

Every so often we come across a passage of Scripture that has us scratching our head and saying, “What does that have to do with anything?”    This is how I felt when I read this next section of Paul’s letter.  Seemingly, out of the blue, Paul starts talking about Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, and their allegorical significance.  Huh?  Let’s take a closer look and see how it all fits.

Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?  For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman.  But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise…So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. (Gal 4:21-23,31)

Paul has just expressed his tender father-heart towards his Galatian children and is perplexed and heartbroken that they have so easily accepted the false teaching of returning to the rule-keeping efforts required by the Jewish Law.  But he can’t leave this subject until he has explored every avenue to bring his beloved children back to the truth of the Gospel. He wants to make one last and clear explanation of the stark contrast between what they currently believe – justification by works – and what Paul taught them – justification by faith, hammering home the idea of slavery verses freedom.  He uses the Old Testament story of Isaac and Ishmael, Sarah and Hagar to make the point.

His basic premise is that Ishmael was conceived according to human plans. Sarah, Abraham’s wife, gives him Hagar, her slave-servant, trying in desperation to give Abraham a son.  And it worked.  Ishmael was conceived and born to Hagar.  He was the product of Sarah’s attempt at providing a son for Abraham. It was human planning and effort from the start.  However, that is not what God had promised.  He promised that SARAH would have a son.  Isaac was born to Sarah by God’s supernatural intervention by making both Abraham and Sarah’s bodies able to conceive and bear a child.  It was the result of God’s plan in God’s time.  So Ishmael represents slavery and human effort while Isaac represents God’s word and God’s promise.

So Paul in this passage is showing the relationship of earth-bound legalism to the heaven-sent promise and showing the Galatians that they are thinking about the Law all wrong.  It is another attempt by Paul to bring them back to the freedom and joy they experienced when they first believed the Gospel.

The point seems pretty obvious: Law, Hagar, Ishmael all point to human effort in trying to achieve God’s will or purpose on our own, outside of His plan or timing. This leads to the slavery of trying harder and harder and never knowing if we did enough.  Isaac represents resting on God’s timing.  Trusting that God will do what He said.  And trusting that what He does is, in fact, the fulfilment of His plan.  Paul suggests that we should live in promise and freedom, not in law and slavery.

This passage demonstrates what happens when we try to do God’s job for Him.  Sarah took matters into her own hands in trying to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham by using Hagar as the means.  I bet she was pretty proud of herself when Ishmael was born and things were going great until God showed up and did what He had promised in a most unexpected and miraculous way.  My takeaway from this passage is that our own efforts and our own rules and laws and plans and wisdom can never accomplish God’s will.  Only God can do that.  Hagar’s child, the child of self-effort, can only bring about more slavery to self-effort.  Paul’s point here is simply this:  If we think we can please God through our own works, think again.  It didn’t work out for Hagar and Ishmael and it won’t work out for us.  We need to trust God to do what He says.