Growing in Christ
"He opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures." Luke 24:45
Martin Luther re-discovered and risked his life to champion the truth that the "just shall live by faith" (Galatians 2:16; 3:11)
Practical and Pastoral Observations on the Letter to the Galatians (please read each chapter slowly and meditatively before reading observations below):
God alone gives Grace, God alone defines the Gospel (v.1). Humanity, fallen and sinful, cannot simply "forgive himself" and thereby decide to be forgiven. Humanity cannot by that means create grace towards himself. We can rather only receive grace from God through the cross. and hopefully carry grace from the cross to others, thereby representing and extending the ministry of Christ. For this reason also no man also can make up or define a "gospel" of his own choosing (vs. 11-12). Both grace ("free, unmerited favour") and the Gospel ("the good news of God's grace") are from God alone. There is no "different gospel" (vs. 6-7). Anything other than than given by Christ on the cross is not the Gospel.
God's Love and Rescue Mission: The grace of God is that Christ "gave Himself for our sins so that He might rescue us from this present evil age." (v.4). In our desire to maintain mental health we often turn our faces from evil, trying to ignore as much as possible of it or at least to reduce our exposure to it. The "present evil age" however is evil and to look away from it because we in ourselves have no power against it, is to allow it free reign. To appreciate the Gospel we must honestly recognize the evil in God's world and in our own hearts, our powerlessness over it, and that the heart of the Gospel is the power and grace to rescue us from it. "The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the work of the Devil." (I John 3:18) To see Jesus at work at this task cf. Matthew 9.
Our Love and Rescue Mission: Paul emphasizes that his calling is from God (v. 1, 11-12, 15-16a). Our calling comes from no other source as we share the Gospel, helping rescue others also from "this present evil age" (v. 4), in co-mission with Christ (cf. John 20:21). Our mission then is an extension or expression of God's rescue mission. We are following Christ in His love and rescue mission and watch with open eyes and hearts for those in need of His grace, unafraid to engage them at that very point in the context of evil. The Gospel we share is from God, the power to walk with Christ in the Gospel is from Him, and I, as "rescuer," can never forget that I too have been rescued and need continually to be rescued. For these critical reasons I must stay engrafted, to be a fruitful branch, in the Vine (John 15).
My Prayer: "Father, strengthen me I pray, in the power of the resurrection of the Lord Jesus, against the forces of darkness. I am weak and needy, You are strong and sufficient. I need you desperately today and every day. Forgive me for those moments in which I don't stay close to You and rely on myself. In Jesus' name.
The truth of the Gospel cannot be compromised: Because "man is not justified by the works of the Law, but though faith in Christ Jesus" (v.16), a person's motivation for circumcision (or any other expression of the Law) must not be in order by that means to be justified before God, for "if righteousness comes through (keeping) the Law, then Christ died needlessly" (v. 21). When Peter refrained from eating with Gentiles (consistent with the Jewish principle of separation from unclean persons, Paul confronted Peter with his compromise of the Gospel (v. 12). To rely on the keeping the Law places our dependence for salvation wrongly on ourselves doing something no one can in fact do and therefore something which cannot save, rather than Christ who alone saves.
The truth of the Gospel is more radical: v.20: "I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me." The Gospel of "Christ in us" (cf. Colossians 1:27), as we make room for Him by accepting the crucifixion of our egos with Him, is more radical than reliance on keeping the Law.
A Prayer: "Father, how slow the world is to receive the freedom of the grace of the cross. Lord, live your life in me; let me show your sacrificial love and grace to the world. Thank you for the demonstration in the Trinity of 'love in community.' In Jesus name."
Justification by Faith: Paul addresses the central uniqueness of the message of Christianity - the question of how man comes to rightly relate to God. This chapter make clear that the message of the New Testament is the good news ("Gospel") of the faithfulness of God's promise of righteousness (right relationship with God) in Christ. Galatians 3 contrasts this with Judaism and the religions of the world, which vary only in the "things-you-must-achieve" or "techniques-you-must-master-to-merit-or-achieve-salvation."[i]
The gift of Christ involves turning (repentance) but this turning is not an achievement to merit grace but simply the decision to receive this new relationship. The gift was promised to Abraham (v.8) as an inheritance (v.18) based on God's covenant (v.17) which is not earned - but simply received - by childlike faith with thanksgiving.
What then is the Role of the Law? The Law was given by God many years after His promise to Abraham (v.17) not as a replacement of the promised gift or as a means of earning the gift. Rather the law was given to tend and keep God's people safe - as children need a tutor or guardian (v.24) - while they were growing in maturity and understanding, to prepare them to receive Christ, the promised gift of God.
The law was needed to constrain ("keep in custody" v.23) the powerful self-centered tendencies in us all - until Christ comes as the One more effective than the law (Hebrews 7:28) came to fulfill God's promise to Abraham's descendants, heirs of the promise of God to him (v.29)
The Gift of the Holy Spirit: Christ in us through His Holy Spirit is much stronger in His ability to turn us from self-centeredness to love than is the law. The Holy Spirit produces changed character, the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), gifts of the Spirit for our ministry in the world (e.g. I Corinthians 11:7-11; Romans 12 etc.), expressed on occasion as miracles (Galatians 3:5)
God's Gift of Salvation: This gift of God's grace has wonderful consequences also for eternity which our weak efforts to accomplish the "things-you-must-achieve" or "techniques-you-must-master-to-achieve-salvation" can never do bring about. Rather than depend, in a self-trusting or self-righteous way, on our own abilities to lift ourselves to heaven by such efforts, we can joyously be released of the thankless weighty burden of such an illusion and embrace Christ, who reaches out to embrace us, as God's matchless grace to us.
The World Holds it's Possessions in Bondage: the sad "normal" state of humanity in history is bondage to what the Bible calls the world's "elemental principles or powers." This is experienced in physical or emotional control of powers without compassion: ruling armies, in many corrupt nations local war lords or power brokers, the demands of man-made religious systems, and sometimes even our own families of origin. Behind all compassionless control is Satan's desire to rule the universe in the place of the True Living God who made it, who loves us and who desires us to flourish in His care. Resistance against God's rightful rule and care is broad and deep in the world however, running frequently even to the depths of our own hearts.
Christ sets us Free from the Bondage of "Religion": Man-made religions, of whatever stripe, place requirements on their adherents because they assume we have the ability to sway God's heart or to ward off evil's power by our own efforts or techniques of various kinds. Religions' unattainable requirements in this pursuit however result in bondage. Christ's gift in contrast, purchased for us on the cross, is freedom from the bondage of man-made religious requirements. Religion is bondage - Christ is freedom.[ii]
In Christ we are turned from Slaves to Heirs: The difference between a controlled slave and a beloved child is highlighted in vs. 22-23. The slave receives nothing; the heir everything. God has made us His children, free from bondage and heirs of his grace. Cf. vs. 4-5: "God sent His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive adoption as sons/children." And verse 7: "Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God." This difference cannot be overstated; it can only elicit joy and celebration (cf. Luke 15)!
The children of bondage frequently persecute the children of freedom: Those who have come to find the bondage of the world familiar to the point of being "normal" in their experience may strongly resist Christ's overturning of the familiar order. In addition, some holding power and benefiting from "cheap labour" (e.g. historic caste system of India; other forms of classism) feel greatly threatened by the proclamation of the dignity of those they have exploited. Verse 29 is striking: Ishmael persecuted Isaac, Jews insisting on obedience to the Law persecuted followers of Christ, Muslims persecute Christians; in fact it may be said that those who are free in Christ may come to expect persecution by law and power-based worldviews.
Astonishingly, God has given us freedom to Leave our freedom in Christ and Return to the bondage of the World: this is the amazing respect God gives the human dignity He created and gave us: i.e. our freedom to choose for or against His grace. He gave this freedom in the Garden of Eden when those who first received it chose to use it against God and live with the consequences. Verses 1-4 make clear this freedom extends also to rejecting Christ our liberator. Paul speaks harshly to regarding those who challenged this young church to return to the requirement of circumcision and other Jewish laws (v.12); so much is at stake.
The "Stumbling Block" of the Cross: Why is the sufficiency of the cross for salvation so hard to accept for many? That a man or woman can be saved only by Christ's giving of Himself for us on the cross and faith in Christ is an offence to his or her pride. Because our pride insists on being capable of saving itself the cross becomes a "stumbling block" to our pride, thereby keeping many from God's gift. If you've not done so, turn from your pride and receive Christ in simple humility which is honored by God with tenderness. Accept the cross, do not stumble over it.
Our Flesh is Bondage, the Lord's Spirit is Freedom: The "flesh" is an important concept in scripture easily misunderstood in the contemporary world. The "flesh" in the New Testament refers not to our physical body but to a spiritual reality: our human nature ruled by pride. The "flesh" as such in the Bible is not restrained from it's controlling ways by our physical effort but through repentance, turning to Christ and submitting to God's Holy Spirit (e.g. Galatians 5:16-25). Strength for living free in Christ cannot come from my sinful fresh (which cannot reconcile itself to God by its own effort, only by the Cross) or from my efforts to keep the Law (which my sinful flesh also cannot do) but from the Cross of Christ and His Spirit poured out on those who rely on Him.
I seek therefore to be led by the Spirit of God, poured out on me from heaven after Christ ascended, whose infusion brings rise to the Fruit of the Spirit (vs.22-23) overcoming the Deeds of the Flesh (vs. 19-21).
A prayer: "Father, the law, unempowered by the Holy Spirit, is no match for my sinful nature. Yet Christ gives me a righteousness from the cross which, as we turn and receive it, gives also your Holy Spirit who moves me to a manifest righteousness (from the cross) which the keeping of the law, even empowered by the Spirit, does not accomplish. But love empowered by the Spirit does.
Our Flesh is crucified with Christ: As we leave our pride and come to the Cross we are so identified with Christ that our prideful human nature is overcome on the Cross with Christ in a way that we can never overcome our "flesh" ourselves. (cf. v. 24) The God makes possible - as we are "crucified with Christ" (v.24) and "led by the Spirit" (v.18) - a higher righteousness than can be achieved by keeping the Law even if we were capable to keeping it (which we recognize we cannot do in any case).
God's Gift of Righteousness is a Process: We receive God's righteousness a) at the cross (Rom 5:9-11; 10:10), b) in an ongoing way through the work of the Holy Spirit in our sanctification (Rom 8:1-14), and c) fully at our resurrection when Christ returns (Rom 8:18-30). Only God's grace and power provides righteousness on the Cross and fulfills God's promise of the power of His Spirit (Galatians 3:13-14).
The Journey of Grace is made Together - in Community: each helping the other (vs. 1-5). Sometimes I am weak, sometimes a brother or sister stumbles - the need is always for grace. As we help others enter and walk the path of grace opened by the cross, we do so humbly and gently, aware of our own weakness and need for help also. The word "restore" (v. 1) is a wonderfully strong one used of setting broken bones and mending fishing nets, i.e. returning to useful service. It is worth noting also that the burden we share with others (v. 2) and the burden we carry alone (v. 5) use distinct words in Greek; the first referring to burdens too much for us, the second to the normal responsibilities of life. The line between the two is not always easy to discern so we need to be willing to help were we can but not be unwilling to make the distinction when necessary.
Sowing and Reaping: nothing we do is without consequence; everything we do has eternal outcomes. Investing in our own passions ultimately results in corruption (lit: "decay, leading to ruin") since our bodies will decay. Investing in following and reflecting the purposes of God's Holy Spirit will lead to eternal life. Doing the former is easy, the latter more difficult but infinitely better.
Doing good without losing heart: Because of the evil in the world the needs for those who will do good are almost limitless. The result is sometimes termed "compassion fatigue." Yet though the journey be difficult, Paul encourages us not to grow weary or lose heart (v.9) but to continue to do good to all as able (v.10). Priority should be given but certainly not limited to those who are already following Christ. Doing good should be without strings attached.
Crucified to the world, separated to Christ - On the cross, Christ has separated me from sin and the fallen world system to Himself alone (v.14). The Gospel is utterly radical. First, the cross cuts between the new creation in Christ (v. 15) and the world system without middle ground. We are in the world but never of the world. Secondly, from this place we continually extend grace - across the divide - to others, as well as grace to those already walking with us. This grace is drawn always from Christ alone.
A prayer: "Father, thank you for the strength you give in Christ and His blood on the cross to move against the stream of the world system. Thank you for the Holy Spirit empowering us to speak the truth of Christ's victory in the dark places. Grant each day, Lord, a fresh measure of the peace and mercy of Your new creation (v.15-16), for we are in desperate need of You and Your constant grace. In Jesus alone, Amen."
"Justified" = declared righteous in God's sight, vindicated of any charge of failure to keep God's law, therefore free for unencumbered relationship with God. A simple though not literal summary of the meaning of the term "justified" is that God in Christ makes our status before Him "just as if I have never sinned." Free. Forgiven.
[ii] Those who claim "all religions are the same" are correct only in as far as all religions ask the same basic question - i.e. "how do I relate to God and how does God relate to me?" - but not correct in their answer to that question. Every religion answers this foundational question differently and is by that means different from each other religion. Non-Christian religions have one thing in common however: the belief that salvation comes to us based on our efforts or achievements. Christianity instead proclaims grace: salvation as God's unmerited gift to those who receive Christ.
[iii] Spiritual disciplines (e.g. meditation on scripture, prayer, worship) are never to be confused with the bondage of legalism which claims to give salvation in exchange for disciplined obedience. Rather Christ gives salvation freely. Spiritual disciplines are rather a means of growing into the image of Christ who gave Himself for us.