A message on Galatians 5:1-6 delivered at Large Group to the Fellowship in Christ at Stanford.
It’s funny how Friday the thirteenth falls on a Saturday this month. So anyway…
Good evening everyone, and welcome to large group. It’s nearing the end of the quarter already. I cannot believe that. The last time I spoke was at the first large group of the quarter, the week before Welcome Night, and now with Pastor Ryan away for this week, I’m speaking again, and it doesn’t seem like much time has passed. But it has.
Having been an undergrad here, I know now’s about the time when final projects start (or maybe they are already under way); when some classes have their third midterm; and in general things are busy. Seriously, when is it not busy? You ask someone, “How’s it going?” and the most likely response is going to be “Fine,” or “Good,” or “I’ve been busy.” Oh yeah? With what? “Stuff.” “School.” Occasionally, “Church.” It’s how I would respond.
But in the midst of all this busyness, a spiritual battle is going on. How many of you find it harder to keep up with reading the Bible, or meditating, or praying, or going to small group, or even waking up early to go to church?
You can be honest. Maybe it’s just hard to do those things anyway, even without this busyness. Maybe the difficulty in doing those things is a sign that we don’t really desire to do those things—we want to, because we know it’s good and it’s the “right” thing to do—but we don’t desire to.
There’s a spiritual battle going on, and I want to address this spiritual battle using a passage from Galatians. If you don’t know where that is in the Bible, it’s right after 2 Corinthians, before Ephesians. Whenever I forget the order of Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, I just remember the mnemonic, “General Electric Power Company.” Pretty good, huh? Mickey taught it to me.
Anyway, to give some context—remember that? First rule of examining Scripture: figure out the context—Galatians is a letter that Paul wrote to, well, the Galatians, to address a very serious problem. Unlike some of his other letters, Paul really focuses on a few, but important, topics. It’s as if everything else isn’t important when compared to what he has to say here.
You see, false brothers have been propagating this notion that you must be circumcised to be saved. When God made a covenant with Abraham about blessing him with nations and kings, he commanded all of Abraham’s descendants to be circumcised on the eighth day after their birth, as a sign of the covenant (Genesis 17). To the Jews, this sign became a sign of being part of God’s people, because they were the sons of Abraham.
When the Gentiles were beginning to be included in the people of God via Apostle Peter and Paul, some former Jews wanted the Gentiles also to be circumcised. That’s what aliens had to do in the Old Testament to be part of the covenant of God with Abraham.
And these Jewish agitators seemed to want to keep separate the Jewish culture from the Gentiles. Perhaps that was whey they spread these teachings to churches. You see them appearing in Jerusalem in Galatians 2:4 and in Antioch, where even Peter and Barnabas were led astray (Galatians 2:11; also in Acts 15). You also see Paul rebuking a Jew in Romans 2:28 pertaining to circumcision. That these Jews were preaching that one must be circumcised to be saved was a widespread problem.
And the problem with the Galatians is that they were falling into the trap of thinking that they had to add on top of their faith this work of circumcision to be truly considered God’s people.
Paul’s response is this in chapter 1, verse 8, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” In other words, “Let him go to hell.” Why? Because it takes away the glory of the cross, the glory of the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, when a false gospel is preached. The gospel ascribes all glory to God. There is no room for man’s glory. So when people are preaching a salvation that depends on man, it’s like trying to cover up the blazing glory of the sun with… toilet paper. “No, don’t look at that bright light. Here’s some toilet paper instead.” It’s absurd, right?
And so the first 80% of the letter is Paul trying to regain his credibility because these Jews were trying to discredit him, as well as hammering the Galatians about their idiocy in following these guys, and Paul trying to prove to them once again the concept of justification by faith. So it is in this context that we get to our passage in Galatians 5:1-6:
1For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
2Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. 3I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. 4You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. 5For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
Now the first half of the first verse is kind of obvious. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” It seems tautological. Well, duh! Of course, when you are set free, you are free!
But “foolish Galatians! Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” Obviously, they still needed to have this statement iterated, for the once joyful reception of the message of the cross, of the sufficiency of the atonement of Christ, has now become an uncertainty perhaps, or a belief that faith wasn’t enough. Perhaps they still needed the Jewish law. You can’t just throw out the Old Testament, right? And this is what Paul is referring to as the “yoke of slavery.”
We cannot neglect that Paul is specifically talking about circumcision here. When he talks about being persecuted, it’s because he has antagonized the people who believed in circumcision. When he talks about circumcision in the book of Romans, he talks about circumcision of the heart vs. circumcision of the flesh. And circumcision was after all the sign of the Abrahamic covenant. So circumcision has special meaning. One can’t just arbitrarily extend circumcision to every kind of work.
But circumcision is just the tip of the iceberg of the law. See in v. 3, “every man who lets himself be circumcised is obligated to obey the whole law.” Whole law implies something more. There’s more to the law than just circumcision. There’s the whole Ten Commandments, the rituals in Leviticus, the commandments in Deuteronomy. Paul is saying, “If you want to go back to the old system, you better be sure you follow the old system to its entirety.”
For us Gentiles, we didn’t start with the Jewish law. We live in a culture where circumcision doesn’t have any value in salvation. But if you look at the false beliefs of this world, you easily see the meritocratic “salvation” that it espouses. If you are a good person, they say it would be unjust for God to punish you, if they believed in a God at all. What does the world say about hell? “It’s unfair.” And what is good? Fulfilling their own law of what is right and what is wrong. Be like Ghandi and advocate nonviolence. Granted, many of the right and wrong things they believe in are taken from the Bible, and the Bible is good. But they believe that following this moral code makes you good. Be nice to people in general, and you are good. You are justified based on your behavior. You are justified by abiding the law—maybe not the Jewish law, but at least the moral law.
And that’s where the problems appear. The moral code is in the law and the moral code is good, but it wasn’t designed for justifying. When we try to justify ourselves based on our performance in the law, it is disgusting to God. In fact, in v. 4, when we try to justify ourselves with the law, we are considered alienated from Christ; we have fallen away from grace. Now this is important to remember. The law isn’t bad in itself. It is good. In fact, if you’ve ever read Psalm 19 past “The heavens declare the glory of God and the skies proclaim the work of his hands,” David speaks of the law as “perfect, reviving the soul,” “trustworthy,” “right, giving joy to the heart,” “radiant, giving light to the eyes,” and so on. But it was not intended to save.
Nowadays, we as Christians have replaced this “law” with other things, things that were also meant to be good, just like the Old Testament law was meant to be good (Romans 7:16). We’ve replaced it with things like reading the Bible, quiet times, tithing—now bear with me—trying to share the gospel with fellow students, trying to meet up for meals, prayer meeting, going to church, going to small group. And if you don’t feel the pressure to do all these things now, I assure you, you will feel it.
The pressure isn’t bad until the pressure is premised upon the belief that merely improving these things will make you a “better” Christian, if there is such a thing. No, these are definitely not bad things. These are definitely good things, that God has given us, “means of grace,” means to allow us to grow in the faith. But quoting Pirates of the Caribbean, “Even a good decision if made for the wrong reasons can be a wrong decision.”
Our righteous acts are filthy rags, not because of the acts themselves, but because we use them as credit. We bargain with God, “Lord, if I do this, will you do this for me?” Or, “God, I’ve done bad, but look here, I’ve done some good as well.” The righteous acts that are as filthy rags are filthy when we use them to try to cover up the sin in the rest of our lives.
There is certainly a thing as righteous acts. There is; the Bible talks about them. God desires mercy, not sacrifice. Mercy is a righteous act. But in the context of Isaiah 64:5-7, “Behold, You were angry, for we sinned; We continued in them a long time; And shall we be saved? For all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy garment… You have hidden Your face from us And have delivered us into the power of our iniquities.”
In the presence of all of our sin, is our righteous acts even worth looking at? There’s a true and false kind of fasting that’s explained in Isaiah 58. It’s the false kind of fasting that’s the “righteous” act that is unclean, and our works are kind of like those.
In the words of Jesus, those who sin but try to cover themselves up are hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, who look good on the outside, but remain unclean on the inside. They see the speck in the eyes of others, without seeing the plank in their own eye. And they are us.
If we try to be hypocritical and point at others for their inability to keep up with all these church activities, we’re deceiving ourselves that we love God. Paul says in 6:3, “If anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” For if we really love God, then we know the depth from which we’ve been saved, and how we needed to be saved. There is no room for pride.
And even if you want to be prideful of your spiritual life, would you be content with what you have? Do you fast? Do you give money to the poor? Do you visiting those in prison? Do you clothe the needy? Do you provide for widows and orphans? Do you preach the gospel like Peter, like Philip the evangelist? How many of you do all these things? And what’s more, can you abstain from sin? Stop worrying? Stop lusting? Stop being boastful about your knowledge? Can you do any of these things perfectly? Or even well? Let alone all of them?
Friends, we cannot improve our standing before God by these methods. Paul calls this practice being “enslaved to the elementary principles of the world” (Galatians 4:3). You see, the law was a guardian until Christ came. Through the law, we become conscious of sin (Romans 3:20). The guardian tells us, “This is wrong, that is wrong,” hoping to teach us of the precepts of our heavenly Father. Though we realize our wrongness, the guardian cannot pardon our sin. At most, the guardian can punish us. But the fact that we did wrong isn’t erased. Only God can say, “I forgive you.”
How many of us measure our spiritual state, or spiritual maturity, based on our consistency in attending church, or our consistency in reading the Bible, or our consistency in prayer? These are good things, but they are only signs. When we pray to gain these things, is it so we can have a greater measure of the means of grace, or is it so we can feel less guilty about our personal sins?
We’re always paddling to stay afloat here at Stanford. It’s called the Duck Syndrome. On the surface, we look calm and collected; but underneath the water, we’re busy paddling to stay afloat, not to be drowned in our problems and responsibilities.
When I was referring to the spiritual battle in times of busyness, I wasn’t talking about the spiritual battle to be disciplined. I was talking about the spiritual battle against the disciplines’ tendency to make us focus on our performance, rather than the source of our salvation. The spiritual disciplines aren’t our problem. Our problem is not having enough faith. Not having enough love for God.
Being busy with church will not buy us life. Slavish obedience will not buy us life, because the law does not impart life to us (Galatians 3:21). In fact, as v. 5:4 points out, it is a sign that we have fallen away from grace. We are severed from Christ. Think about the seriousness of that statement.
And let us definitely not be like the Jews who are promulgating falsehood. Take a look at chapter 6, verse 12. Are we those who want to make a good impression outwardly? We tell people, “Come to church!” so we have something to show in the flesh, so that we who say “come to church” may be viewed as doing good outreach. Do we say it so that we can boast in how many people we’ve been able to cause to join our fellowship? Or do we boast only in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ as Paul says in Galatians 6:14, and we are eager to share this cross with others?
I apologize if the message is uncomfortable, but grace preached without pointing out sin is cheap grace. We don’t know the value of justification until we really struggle with works. And as we continue in our sanctification, our daily being made holy, we see more and more why we need grace.
In light of all the things about the law that Paul writes then, how can he say in v. 19-21, “Now the works of the flesh are evident… that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”? I thought it wasn’t about works! Yet in the same chapter, Paul talks about how the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself,” talks about walking by the Spirit. Clearly, obedience is expected, even in the context of justification by faith alone.
So how does that work? How do you “obey” the gospel? Did you think that all you had to do was to bask in its glory? Yes! Because nothing you do is going to contribute to your salvation. At all. Anything that you bring to the table, will make Christ be of no advantage to you. If you say to God, “I have something that might be of value,” God’s going to stare you down, and say, “Who do you think you are that you have something to offer? Who do you think you’re speaking to? Do I judge by man’s standards?” So, yes, you just need to believe in Christ.
We are justified by grace through faith that’s not of ourselves (Ephesians 2:8). We are clothed with a righteousness that comes from Jesus. And Paul grasps this fact in verse 5, “By faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.” If we’re eagerly awaiting it, then we have not yet fully received it. We have the promise of the righteousness that will be fully revealed to us in the end times, but we have not yet fully received it, so we eagerly wait for it. The promise is there. The hope is there. We only know of it and believe in it by faith.
Now Paul says something very interesting in v. 6: one thing does matter; one thing does count. And that is this faith expressing itself through love.
We have to be careful here, again, not to put the cart before the horse. If you have faith, it needs to be expressed. And the way to do that is love. Now the funny thing about love is that you can’t fake it. You cannot pretend to love. Love doesn’t come from your own will. Lest you think this is a statement of work (faith expressing itself through love), it isn’t. It is a statement of fact. It tells us something about the condition that is correlated with being justified by God. If we have faith expressing itself through love, then we have something of value. But according to Ephesians (remember it’s the same guy who wrote the book of Ephesians and Galatians),
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—9not by works, so that no one can boast. 10For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
So how does faith expressing itself through love look like? I think it looks like this:
I have received eternal salvation. I have received promise that I will not be destroyed in the body and eternally tormented in the soul. I have received the promise that I will see God face to face, to be with Him, in his presence, in His comfort, in His joy. I will be with God, accepted by the most powerful, and most important being in the universe. And He knows me. He knows who I am, knows my name, knows everything about me, all the sins I’ve committed and will commit, all the attempts at good deeds, all the acts of righteousness with which I’ve tried to cover myself.
He cared enough that He was willing to endure the cross. Now if you didn’t hear Pastor Julius’ message on Sunday, I highly recommend you listen to his recording. But the thing that struck me the most was his description of the crucifixion, the gruesome, painful, details of the physical torture of being hung on the cross. When I listened to the message, I imagined the life of suffering that Jesus must have endured knowing that He had to spend hours nailed on the cross, His flesh torn, His blood slowly draining from His body, and He had to slowly die of asphyxiation.
But it wasn’t just physical death. It was also being separated from the Father. All the punishment of every man’s every sin was compressed into those three days between His death and resurrection. Yes, God was willing to experience death and separation. He was as one eternally in the past, and is one eternally in the future, but at one point in time in history, the One is separated. It’s akin to God divorcing himself. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If you’ve every known loneliness before, you know how it tastes to have nobody to go to, nobody to comfort you. But you could cry out to God. This is worse, because the Father wasn’t there to answer Jesus’s cry.
All this, so that He can set me free by the truth. He can set me free from the law. I only have to believe that He’s done this and trust that it’s enough. That’s it. Am I now going to turn my back on Him, and ignore everything He’s told me? Am I now going to turn my back on this amazing work, and relish in my own feeble attempts? He liberated me from sin. And tells me not to go back there. Am I going to disobey now and go back there? Shall I return to my vomit? Shall I cause trouble for myself again, when it took so much to get me out of trouble? He’s liberated me from my guardian. God says, “He’s not your parent. I am your Father. Listen to me, because I love you.”
And if I truly believe that Jesus is the Son of God, which I do, then I am free from worrying about myself. My attention is no longer on my needs, because all my needs have been met. So I can focus on my brothers, and my neighbors.
Paul states in verses 13-14, “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” and later in 6:10, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”
This is the second kind of obedience, the obedience that God commands, and it isn’t burdensome. It’s described as free. When you’ve received assurance of salvation, you experience a kind of freedom that makes you want to live a good life. You realize how great the price was to secure this freedom, so you are now free to obey. I tell you, if you’ve experienced confinement before, coming out of it is liberating. But not only are you free to obey, but you will love to obey, because you love your master.
Let me tell you a story. I don’t do this often, because I’m not a great storyteller. I’m also not a great teller of jokes. But that’s beside the point.
A few years ago, I was taking this research class. I signed up for 5 units of research, which amounts to an expectation of 15-20 hours of work. The thing is, I signed up for a grade, and not just for credit. I kept telling myself that I’ll put in my hours. But I didn’t. On a good week, I spent 10 hours. On a bad week, maybe 2, because there were other classes that I was taking that were less flexible in nature. Every week, I kept telling myself I’ll do better the next week. Try harder. But by the end of the quarter, I realized I’m never going to make up the amount of hours I missed.
I went to my advisor, fearful of what he’ll say. So I just straight up asked him, “Hi Professor, I don’t think I did enough work to warrant a grade for research. Would you be able to give me an incomplete, and I can make it up next quarter?” Next quarter?! If I learned my lesson, I would know that wasn’t really going to happen. But I thought I could do it.
This is what my professor said (paraphrased), “You are here to do research. That is why you are here. All that grading stuff is a formality. At this level, grades don’t matter. I can give you an A, but your focus is on the research.”
I wasn’t about to argue with him. I just nodded and thanked him and left. I was just stupefied. And relieved. On my bike ride home, it hit me that this is what grace is. It gives us assurance, so that we can be free to focus on doing the work right, with the right attitude.
And that is what God’s grace to us is like. He saved us. And if we really believe him, then it frees us to actually love. It’s not a competition anymore to see who can be saved. It frees us to do the work right, with the right attitude. See how Paul applies freedom to faith working through love: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another” (v. 13). The rest of chapter 5 and the beginning of chapter 6 elaborates on this, and I encourage you to read through it on your own. Galatians is a short book.
Faith without works is dead, as James writes. But I am confident, my brothers and sisters, that our faith is not dead, because the same God who rescued us from the pit doesn’t leave us at the edge of the pit.
The end of the quarter is fast approaching. FiCS traditionally has manned Operation Hot Cocoa (OHC), a finals study break near the library, where we distribute food but also (hopefully) share the gospel with the campus. Over the years, I’ve seen FiCS members just chat amongst themselves and ignore the people coming for food. I wanted to yell at them, “Have you forgotten why you’re here?”
But now, I entreat you to whom God has given faith, let it be expressed in love!
Last week, there was an e-mail sent out about an overnight meeting for an honest discussion about people’s problems. There are people out there who are struggling with life, with not having peace, with failing or struggling to live up to others’ expectations. There are people dealing with failure, loneliness, depression, confusion, meaninglessness. There are people still under the yoke of sin, slavery, and morality, who are under the threat of judgment and wrath.
Share the treasure you’ve received, and share it abundantly. Let them see the joy in you, lest they get the impression that Christians live under a yoke of slavery to rules and regulations. For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm therefore.