February 12, 2017
Last week, I asked a question, somewhat tongue in cheek: What makes us so righteous? Can someone briefly describe the answer?
Right. Our righteousness comes from Christ. We are clothed in Him. And being clothed in Christ means that we should look and act like Him.
But the life of someone who is seeking to be Christlike is not an easy one. Jesus said, in Matthew, Chapter 7: “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the way that leads to life, and only a few find it.”
And then he went on to warn about false teachers, but we’ll hold off on that thought for a few minutes.
I want to talk about that narrow way for a few minutes, but first let’s have a little fun with this game that I’ll call, “There oughtta be a law….”
If I were king, I could make whatever laws I wanted to make. Here’s one: “There oughtta be a law that people have to read their local newspapers EVERY DAY!”
How about this? “There oughtta be a law that all meals come with a generous side portion of bacon.” Or this: “There oughtta be a law that Fridays are holidays.”
Those are great. It’s good to be the king, am I right?
But wait. Some of these laws might cause some problems. Not the bacon one, of course. Call your congressman about that today.
An interesting aspect of human nature is that we often want maximum freedom for ourselves, while wanting maximum control over others. Life, however, doesn’t work that way. We have to choose to sacrifice some of our freedom for security. But when does freedom become anarchy or order become bondage?
To me, that question cuts to the very essence of Jesus’ statement about the narrow way.
Our liberty in Christ must not devolve into a libertine way of life, and our work toward godliness must not lead us back into the slavery of doing as a way to earn God’s grace or favor.
It’s the second part of that warning that Paul sought to address with the church in Galatia in the letter we’ve been examining.
Turn to Galatians 4, and let’s pick up at verse 8.
The issue Paul was addressing in this passage was the false teaching that had come up in the church soon after he had had left. Judaizers had come into the church and were convincing the new believers that they weren’t doing enough for God. They were instilling a performance mindset in the church, exemplified most directly by the lie that the new Christians had to be circumcised in order for their salvation to be complete.
This frustrated Paul, and he rightly worried about the prospect of his children in the faith being lured off the narrow way of true faith.
In previous verses, Paul had called the Law — not the moral Law (don’t murder, don’t steal, don’t commit adultery and so forth), but the civil or ceremonial law — “weak and miserable principles” in that the law had no power to save. Here, he puts the Gentiles’ former pagan worship and the ceremonial laws in the same category of “things followed in the past but now to be set aside for the Good News of Jesus.”
Here’s what Warren Wiersby wrote about the law: “The law was not God’s final revelation; it was but the preparation for the final revelation in Christ. It is important that a person know his ABCs, because they are the foundation for understanding all of the language. But the man who sits in a library and recites the ABCs, instead of reading the great literature that is around him is showing that he is immature and ignorant, not mature and wise.”
So for the Gentiles to add circumcision — or, perhaps, attending Wednesday night services — to the requirements for salvation was for them to throw off their liberty and put back on the chains of slavery. It showed that they were immature in the faith.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I think Wednesday night services are great, and I wish my own job would allow me to be at them. But if we’re attending these or any other services thinking we’re scoring points with God, we’re doing it all wrong. In fact, if we do ANYTHING — including teaching a Sunday School class — thinking that, then we make a mockery of God’s grace, and if we think attending any service makes us automatically grow in grace, we are guilty of legalism. Such an attitude feeds the flesh, and it leads to pride and, as Wiersby writes, “makes the outward event a substitute for the inward experience.”
God’s grace does it all. Saves us. Sanctifies us. Empowers us. Sustains us. And any of our good works are done only THROUGH that grace.
But the way is narrow, and we are a wandering people.
Remember when the Jewish people began to face hardship in the wilderness after having been delivered from slavery in Egypt? What did they go to Moses and say they wanted?
They wanted to return to Egypt, even into slavery.
We shake our heads at the thought of it, but then we make our own rules about what a good Christian should or should not do, and we put the chains back on ourselves and other believers.
Before we move on, let’s take a look at Verse 10 again. Paul was referring to the Jewish laws about the ritual calendar. Here’s something to think about as we look at how this applies in our own church. What sort of rituals do we keep in the church? Are our Mother’s Day, Independence Day and other special programs opportunities to glorify God, or do they build stumbling blocks to faith? Are there things we do here because that’s what we’ve always done, but they have become rituals instead of true worship?
Lets look at the next few verses.
There’s a lesson in evangelizing here that we don’t have a lot of time to get into, but it meshes with what we talked about last week. Paul stepped into the shoes of the Galatians while he was with them. He showed a genuine interest in them and then used the receptivity created by the relationship to tell them the Good News of the Gospel. He didn’t just smack them with a Bible and tell them they were going to hell if they didn’t repent. He loved them and allowed them to love him and built a relationship that gave him the credibility to tell them the Truth.
And then he left, and the Judaizers — the false teachers — came in and messed everything up.
Back to Wiersby for a minute: The Galatians “had not lost the experience of salvation — they were still Christians, but they were losing the enjoyment of their salvation and finding satisfaction in their works, instead. They thought they were becoming better Christians by substituting law for grace, and the religious deeds of the flesh for the fruit of the Spirit.”
And all this because of a few zealous false teachers, who sought their own glory rather than God’s glory.
Paul knew a thing or two about being zealous. He had zealously persecuted Christians before Christ met him on the road to Damascus.
But he also knew that adding circumcision — or anything other than the grace of God in Christ — to the salvation equation is to reject the sufficiency of Christ as the one who reconciles us to God.
Once again, the way is narrow, and it’s easy to be distracted and step off the path. We do that with our spiritual checklists, the things we do because we believe they make us “devout Christians.”
I hate the term “devout Christian.” It’s so prideful. Be a “committed Christian.” Be committed to following Christ, to growing in the faith through spiritual disciplines and to praising the Lord — Hallelujah! — for His immeasurable grace that makes all of it possible. We bring nothing to the salvation equation. It’s all done on the cross.
Let us pray: Father, may we depend utterly on what your Son has done to free us from sin. Teach us to rely on Him alone. We pray this in his name. Amen.