Tag Archives: Faith

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.

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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.

Galatians 4:13-20 – The Human Paul

When you think of the Apostle Paul, what comes to mind? A tough authoritarian?  A genius scholar and eloquent preacher?  Perhaps a powerful warrior against demons and death?  I think many of us would conjure up an image of a man capable of withstanding the harshest treatment with super-human abilities which we could never match or imitate.  He is just too superior to us.  But what about Paul the man?  A sensitive, humble, stammering guy just trying to live out the call Jesus gave him.  A man whose heart was broken with worry for his spiritual children.   A man who could get hurt by the words and actions of those he gave his life to.  This is the Paul we meet in this next section of his letter to his Galatian children.

Surely you remember that I was sick when I first brought you the Good News. But even though my condition tempted you to reject me, you did not despise me or turn me away. No, you took me in and cared for me as though I were an angel from God or even Christ Jesus himself. Where is that joyful and grateful spirit you felt then? I am sure you would have taken out your own eyes and given them to me if it had been possible.  Have I now become your enemy because I am telling you the truth…Oh, my dear children! I feel as if I’m going through labor pains for you again, and they will continue until Christ is fully developed in your lives.  I wish I were with you right now so I could change my tone. But at this distance I don’t know how else to help you. (Gal 4:13-16, 19-20   New Living Translation)

I like the way the English Standard Version translates verse 19:  “my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you!”

We know that Paul was physically ill or had some ailment that forced him to land in the Galatian region, perhaps he had not intended to travel there but he did and so preached the gospel there.  We know that the Galatians received him and his message as coming from Jesus Himself.  We know that the Galatians loved Paul enough to want to see him physically well and would have done anything possible to see that happen.  But now we see how he is anguished for them.  He is confused, perplexed, worried, tormented that the Galatians would throw away their freedom in Christ and turn again to rule-keeping.  He turns from the authority figure of the earlier sections of his letter to a tenderhearted, almost brokenhearted father worried about his kids.  It almost brought me to tears; I have experienced something like this towards people I love very much.

Here’s what I took away from this passage: Paul preached to the Galatians in spite of weakness, sickness and inadequacy.  He didn’t come to them with an attitude of superiority but he preached the truth in spite of his physical condition.  You see, the truth of the gospel isn’t based on our ability, wisdom or strength.  It stands alone because it is true.  Paul says something similar in his first letter to the Corinthians

And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.  For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.  And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. (1 Cor. 2:1-5  ESV)

So often we think of ourselves as inadequate to really “serve God.”  We think we are not smart enough or wise enough or eloquent enough or holy enough.  All those are just lies.  We don’t need more skills or knowledge, we simply need to know Jesus and share what we know with others.  We need to have the same tender heart towards those who are struggling, who go astray, who aren’t where they want to be and let them know that there is One who can rescue them.  We labor in love and prayer to see Christ formed in them knowing that it is a long process full of joys and sorrows.

We overcomplicate what we think “ministry” is and set all kinds of conditions before we think we can do “ministry.”  What I’ve come to realize is that I can’t use my physical infirmity, my lack of training, my lack of time or money as an excuse for not loving people right now, right here.  I can simply be myself, weak as that may be, and be Jesus to those around me until Jesus is formed in them.

Galatians 4:8-11 – Elementary principles

We send our kids to pre-school or kindergarten to learn the basics: the ABCs, 123s and colors.  Later in elementary school they learn the basics of math, writing and reading.  These are all good things to know but there are some “elementary principles” that are a hindrance to our relationship with God.  This is what Paul tackles next.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.  But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. (Gal 4:8-11)

Last week we looked at the mind-blowing idea that we have been made children of God and that the Holy Spirit living within us teaches us that we can call God our “Dad.”   This is the freedom that Christ won for us on the Cross, freedom from the craven fear that comes from seeing God as a taskmaster, the fear of incurring His anger by stepping outside “the line” or breaking some rule.  The Galatian Christians had experienced this freedom when they first believed in Jesus, but had now bought into the lie that they once again had to enslave themselves to a rule-keeping mentality.  Paul calls this mindset the “elementary principles of the world.”  What does that mean?  What at first was a phrase that meant the basic building blocks of writing or speech or the materials of the universe, over time took on the meaning of the basic rules of religion necessary to please a god.  In other words, what rules, rituals, practices or efforts does someone have to make, whether Jewish or pagan, to achieve some sort of salvation?

This is the backdrop for Paul’s arguments.  In verse 3, Paul is referring to himself and his fellow Jews.  For them the elementary principles were the Law of Moses or better yet, the man-made additions to the Law which they struggled to keep purely and completely.  In verses 8-11, Paul is referring to the idol worshipping Gentiles.  In that case Paul characterizes the idols as the worthless and weak elementary principles.  In their attempt to appease these idols they were held in bondage to man-made rule keeping.  Thus both groups were not free to live life free from these constraints.

Elementary principles cannot save us, they only burden us with impossible requirements for righteousness.  They had escaped from the worthless idol worship, so why, Paul ponders, would these Galatian Christians fall for the false teachings that they have to submit once again to the impossible demands of the Jewish law?  Why would they once again place themselves in bondage to a different kind of “elementary principle”, this time to Jewish rules instead of pagan rules?  It seems to me that the Galatians thought that following ancient Jewish laws seemed reasonable, after all, the Law of Moses was hundreds of years old and was given by God.  Why wouldn’t it make sense to continue in that tradition?  It’s a safe bet.  It errs to the conservative side.  It is easier, cleaner to follow some rules than try to figure out this relational freedom thing with God.

It seems to be human nature to go the route that gives us the most control of our lives and our own destiny.  If I can follow a few rules however difficult it may be then, at least, I am trying something.  My fate is in my own hands, instead of having to depend on “faith.”  Faith seems more uncertain and places our salvation and our righteousness out of our hands.  This seems to unnerve some people.

So what is my “comfort place?”  What are the elementary principles that I turn to?  Where do I turn to try to take back some sense of control over my fate or my righteousness?  It may not be Jewish law or pagan idols, but what is it? It is easy to substitute Jewish rules for Christian rules like read your Bible or pray x minutes a day.  Go to church EVERY Sunday no matter what.  Don’t drink.  Don’t smoke.  Don’t play cards.  Don’t associate with THOSE people.  Dress a certain way.  Try harder to be good.  Use good religious sounding language.  Make sure people know how much God listens to your prayers or what He did in your life this week to demonstrate your closeness to Him.

The point is not that we shouldn’t pray, read, go, etc., but to what purpose.  Are we doing these things to feel better about ourselves or convince God that we really are worthy of His attention or is it because we find intimacy, peace and life in those things?  Are we twisting His arm or resting in His arms?

What would life look like if we focus on the promise, on the freedom from self-effort and self-reliance that Jesus’ life and death bought for us?  Let’s give up our own elementary principles and focus on the powerful source of joy and strength that comes from the absolute certainty we belong to God, that we are truly and completely His son or daughter.  There is only one elementary principle I want to hold to: that our acceptance by God is not something we earn but something we receive.