Being successful in our Christian walk is all about understanding. Sometimes it can be difficult to reconcile the truth of God’s word with the reality we see in our own lives. We might read about the way we are commanded to live and really try to get there but ultimately fail over and over. The truth is that sanctification is a process, and its habits must be learned. That all starts with understanding how this Gospel works in our lives to bring the freedom we know is available for the taking. We also must understand common pitfalls and wrong thinking that can serve as stumbling blocks along this journey of liberty. Paul addresses some valuable pieces of this puzzle in his letter to the Galatian church, and we would be well-served to review these fundamental yet often forgotten or misapplied truths. If our success rests on walking in freedom, then we must understand how we get there and stay there.
I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.
There are many false gospel messages in the world today. If you ever have heard the phrase “don’t drink the Kool-Aid”, then you probably are aware of the Jonestown tragedy which occurred just over thirty years ago. The leader of that church group was a rather charismatic man. All accounts indicate that he began his ministry by preaching the true word of God. Over time, the good news he shared with his congregation started to change a little here and a little there. Instead of pointing his flock to Jesus as their Savior, he began to point to himself instead. For those who were captivated by his presence, this man really convinced people that he was the one they should be following at the cost of straying from Jesus Christ. It would lead to a catastrophe of great proportions as hundreds of lives would be lost while under the misguided control of that false prophet.
Paul’s instructions here are pretty severe. He tells the church in Galatia that the truth they seek can come from only one source and in only one form. He tells them that even angels in heaven do not have the authority to change the message of the gospel. If such a creature were to come down and teach them anything other than that gospel message, they are not to believe it. These words really speak to the fact that we cannot take a teacher’s or a preacher’s word for granted simply because of that person’s position or title. The way we measure the message we receive is by comparing it to the word of God itself. The gospel message is clear; there is only one way. That one way cannot be divided into multiple similar ways which will get you the same result but just a little differently. That one way is constant and does not change. The burden which falls on one who brings his or her own message and attempts to deceive is heavy. Those who preach false gospel messages place a curse upon themselves by their very deception.
But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not! For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 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 for me. I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.
It is not uncommon for the Christian to have misplaced resentment or anger toward the Lord for the things in life which do not seem to change once we become saved. There can be an inaccurate expectation that everything will be roses, temptation will disappear, and sin simply will be a thing of the past because justification has come. The truth is that justification is the first step of the process, but sanctification must follow. For those who seem to have a monkey on their backs and cannot defeat the temptation which comes their way in one form or another, they may feel as though Christ is not doing the work of setting them free that He has promised. We know, however, that He fulfills every promise He makes. Since that is the case, we know that He is not the one who keeps sin active in our lives. The one who exists to set us free from that bondage cannot be the one who keeps us bound to it. There must be accountability on our part.
When Paul uses the words “if I build again”, he is assuming responsibility for his giving in to sin. He is indicating that his continued transgressions after justification are not the work of his Savior. Those transgressions are his own work because he continues to build monuments to sin in his life when he should be tearing them down. Christ gives us the opportunity to live completely free from sin. He gives us every avenue necessary to be victorious every time we are tempted. His work has the aim of liberty, but the question remains whether our work has the same aim. Picture Jesus entering a prison and opening all the cells for the prisoners to leave. A sane and reasonably intelligent person would expect those prisoners to run for the hills and never look back. That is the expectation when our Savior sets us free from the power and authority of sin in our lives. We should be running for the hills and not looking back, and we have the opportunity to do that. We need only pursue that victory because it is at hand. How foolish we are when we return to that confinement time and time again!
Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore, the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
The expectation was never for mankind to be saved by a law which cannot be fulfilled by any sinful person. No one can measure himself or herself against it and be found good or just in any way. We might look at the law as that which we aspire to be and have. One who is able to fulfill that law, such as Jesus Christ, the only one who was able to do so, would be a perfect person. This is one who has every characteristic we would want to have and would want to find in others. The law illustrates for us the character of God which is unattainable by mere mortals yet which sits there as our aspiration. It might seem like a paradox and a cruel trick, but the law which can only condemn us in our sinful nature is actually a very beautiful work of foreshadowing what we can receive through the Lord. Not only can holiness and righteousness be imputed to us through him, but the Spirit can train us up in the ways of the law which He embodies.
This idea of the law being a tutor which prepared us for the arrival of the Lord can be looked at several different ways. In scholastic terms, a tutor is one who teaches a student to prepare him or her to learn and know certain material. I have had tutors in the past, and I have been a tutor myself, and all of those experiences lead me to think that the law was here partly to get us ready to be able to identify and accept perfection when we saw him. The law makes us crave to meet its standard. The character of God which shines through those commandments draws us. It is that same character which Christ himself carried. The law showed us a picture of God so that we would desire him and be ready to recognize him when He appeared. Once Christ appeared and offered a way for us to be justified in a manner by which the law could not justify us, the hope was that we would move toward that justification. Those who truly craved the law of righteousness and then saw it in the Lord would have desired to have him be their Lord and lead them in that way of righteousness.
Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore, you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
When I was in college, there was a very ridiculous but popular soap opera my friends on campus loved to watch. The show was more of a soap opera parody, and the storylines were as outlandish as possible. One of those storylines in particular involved a housekeeper’s daughter who falls in love with the son who lives in the house where her mother works. They endure the classic class struggle as she chases him and he indicates that he cannot have feelings for someone of her social status. As time goes on, they fall in love, but that creates much turmoil inside that home. This young lady wants to be with the man she loves, but she also wants to be in the position he and his family occupy. She wants to move from being a servant to being one of the masters. In that social construct, no one is going to give that to her without a fight. She must take the steps to invade that social circle and find a way to convince them to let her be a part of that world.
If we take Paul at his word here, we see that God is a master who does not resist the slave becoming a son. In fact, He gives his own Son in order to open the way for slaves to become his children. Not only that, God does not take us on as foster children who are less than his only begotten Son. He takes us on as heirs and adopts us and holds us in the position of being his natural children. There certainly is a difference between Jesus and us, but Jesus also makes a way for us to be a child of God the way He is a child of God. He accepts us as his brothers and sisters, and He shares his inheritance with us. The Master and his Son have taken the slaves into their home to partake of the food they eat and to live as they live. There is no reluctance here because He wants us to be elevated to that place. God makes the way for us to enter his royal priesthood as heirs to his kingdom because it gives him pleasure to put us there. It gives the Son equal pleasure to allow us to share in his inheritance.
Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage. Indeed I, Paul, say to you that if you become circumcised, Christ will profit you nothing. And I testify again to every man who becomes circumcised that he is a debtor to keep the whole law. You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace. For we through the Spirit eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness by faith. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but faith working through love.
If we can sum up the entire work of Jesus Christ and what it means for mankind, that word is “liberty.” The law that gives us a picture of the character of God and serves to lead us in anticipation to our Lord does not provide liberty. On its own, the law only condemns us, and we cannot be saved through it. Jesus came to give us freedom from that condemnation. He also came to give us freedom from the control of sin. That is a control which ultimately leads to eternal physical and spiritual death. Paul speaks elsewhere in scripture about the battle inside him between his flesh and his spirit. That is an illustration of our own natural desire to be free from the oppression under which we are born. Mankind wanders the earth for millennia screaming for liberty, and the Lord comes down to offer that very freedom to all who desire it. Yet, there are those who will try to free themselves. Even more, there are those who will taste of the liberty Christ offers and still try to free themselves.
Circumcision in the flesh means nothing now because what God wants us to circumcise is our hearts. The circumcised heart serves as a sign or symbol just as the circumcised flesh, but the message it sends is much different. Those who have allowed God to circumcise their hearts have adopted the doctrine of grace as their salvation. They understand that faith as evident through works becomes the clear symbol for all that a heart has truly changed. They do not seek to become righteous by following the law because that is futile. They seek the righteousness which is available through Jesus Christ. That is a brand of righteousness which is steadfast and secure. That is a brand of righteousness which is actually attainable and worthwhile to seek. Those who try to be justified by some form of righteousness they believe they can attain on their own have done nothing more but turn their backs on Christ and the faith they had in him. They have turned from living in the liberty He offers and returned to living under the bondage of condemnation for they cannot free themselves.
The true and correct gospel gives us freedom. Taking the necessary steps to walk out our sanctification as we are instructed by scripture allows us to live in the liberty Jesus makes available. Understanding the purpose of the law, its limitations, and its value should lead us to Jesus Christ as our Savior and liberator. That freedom takes us from being slaves in the house of God who gladly will serve righteousness, and it elevates us to the place reserved for his children. In fact, our Father planned for those who become slaves of righteousness to then become just as his Son. If we try to justify ourselves by any other means, then we forfeit that coveted place the Father has made for us and that brotherly relationship we share with the perfect Son. Jesus gives us freedom from all that works to destroy us, and we must be wise to appreciate that liberty and remain in it. He opens the door and gives us every resource available, but we must decide to stay free and not return to bondage.