It’s been said that one should never post on social media while angry (though this does not stop all that many from doing so). Imagine with me that instead of a Twitter post or a Facebook rant, you wrote a letter to a group of churches and you were spittin’ mad when you did so. Oh, and imagine the Holy Spirit inspired you to do this. While this would be generally inadvisable, that’s the letter to the churches in Galatia that Paul wrote. The entire letter is a long argument against their foolish attempt to embrace a non-gospel as the gospel of Jesus.
The problem they were facing is a group of folk had arrived in the region after Paul had planted a number of churches there. These believers were all Gentiles, and therefore had not been circumcised, had never observed Sabbath, and certainly did not eat “kosher” food. These newly arrived folk were telling them that they must do these things in order to be in right relationship with God. This is why Paul was furious: they were considering it.
Paul’s response, while at times quite heated, is a rather solid line of reasoning, with the presence and activity of the Spirit among the Galatians as his primary argument against the so-called “Judaizers” (those who were demanding that Gentiles “Judaize” or become Jewish in culture and practice). His argument can be summarized in this single verse:
Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?Galatians 3:2 ESV
In context, “works of the law” refers to the things required by the law that mark out Jewish folk as Jewish folk. These were primarily circumcision, Sabbath-observance, and the food laws. Paul asks if they had received the Holy Spirit of God by acting Jewish (the works of the law) or had they received the Holy Spirit by hearing with faith? The question is quite rhetorical: the Spirit had been present and active among them from the moment they believed the gospel Paul preached, long before the Judaizers had ever told them they must convert to Judaism in order to be right with God. The implication is obvious: if the Spirit is present and active among them, why do they need something more in order to be right with God? They don’t, which means they do not need to embrace Judaism in order to be right with God. They are in right relation with him through faith in Jesus.
One wonders why this would even be a temptation for them. They heard the gospel of Jesus and believed it. They received the sign of the new covenant, which is the presence and activity of God’s Spirit among them. They were in every sense God’s people. Why would they be tempted to turn away from faith alone to embrace a life of the works of the law? This is the temptation we each face still today. How does one measure faith in Jesus? How can one quantify it? How can I evaluate how well I am doing? (Notice the focus.) A checklist of dos and don’ts would make this much easier!
Whether one grew up with the law of Moses as a rule for living or some other set of rules and principles, we all long for a list to check to determine how righteous we are. Whether it’s circumcision, Sabbath-observance, and eating kosher, or it’s working hard, paying your taxes, and keeping your grass mowed, or it’s avoiding porn, not sleeping around, and not getting drunk, we all want a list. If we can do the things the list requires and avoid the things the list forbids, we’re okay, right? Consider Paul’s words to the Galatians.
I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.Galatians 4:1–7 ESV
In chapter 3 he wrote that those who belong to Jesus (through faith) are the offspring God promised to Abraham, heirs to his promises. In the above text he says that an heir, when he is a child, is really no different from a slave. It’s important to note that his point is quite narrow here: he only means that a slave is under the authority of others. So, too, a child who is the heir to his father’s estate is also under rules and the authority of others. He says we “were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world”. Every person is born under a system of rules and requirements, whether those “elementary principles” were the law of Moses or some other cultural requirements and demands of whatever people you were born into.
Paul says those requirements, those rules for living, belong to a previous time, to a time when we were children. Hear the good news: when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law. Why? To redeem those who were under the law, whether the law of Moses or some other set of culturally required behaviors and values, so that we might receive adoption as sons—no longer children, but grown sons, heirs of the father’s estate! The evidence that this is true is God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.
Imagine living in a world that tried to regulate what you ate, where you went, what clothes you wore, what sort of car you drove, where you vacationed. Imagine living in a world that tells you that you matter if and only if you embrace its political views and vote for the right party. Imagine living in a world that tells you unless you accept its view of sexuality you are evil and a hater of humanity. Imagine living in a world that tells you unless you [fill-in-the-blank] you are not a good person. The temptation to want to be able to check off things on the list would be strong! That is the very world you and I live in.
Hear the words of the apostle. God sent his Son so that he would redeem us from these works of the law, from these elementary principles of the world. Through faith in Jesus we are in right relationship with God and his Spirit is present and active among us. This is our hope. This is our salvation. Jesus is the one who saves. The Judaizers got it wrong when they thought that checking off things the law of Moses required would make one right with God. Today we also get it wrong when we think that checking off anything on our lists of rules makes us right with God. Jesus saves. Only Jesus saves. Let’s rest in him today. The time for childhood is over. Let’s move beyond childhood, of relying on the authority of the principles of this world. Let’s grow up and be mature, trusting in Christ and Christ alone.