Grace is guaranteed redemption at Christ’s expense. It is what makes possible my salvation. It is what makes possible my freedom. Because of the work of Christ on the cross I am a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17). My chains are gone.
And yet I pick them up and wear them still. After all, despite my redemption, despite my freedom, I am beyond the shadow of any doubt the greatest legalistic hack around. I am like the Pharisees of old who would square off against Jesus in the dusty villages of Galilee and Judea, threatened by his never-ceasing love and grace and willingness to hang with the sinners. I take the precious gospel of our great God and pervert it, molding it into some warped notion of self-righteousness and condescension. You may ask how this could be, and I can answer you vividly. You show up to church in a fancy suit and I’m all smiles while in my soul I’m berating you for being stiff and needing to chill out. You show up in jeans and an untucked shirt and I’m tempted to smile while privately ridiculing you for dressing down, being disrespectful in the house of God, and being generally immature, too concerned about being hip than anything else.
And don’t you dare tell me you don’t have the “right” political affiliation. You might not be a Christian.
And don’t you dare deviate from my theological party line. If you do I’ll believe you must have had terrible teachers and preachers and pastors while growing up; perhaps you came from a “broken home.” I will quickly question your interest in spiritual things, and wonder if y0u will ever grow.
And social justice? If you tell me you are not into social justice, that you believe it is nothing more than covert liberalism taking over the church, then I will tell you to read Radical and get over yourself and take up the Bible’s mandate to love orphans and widows. And if you love social justice causes, then I will believe you are young and inexperienced with the things of the real world and that someday you will wise-up, hopefully, to the reality that the poor and broken will always be with us and there are not enough resources to go around.
Of course, I will rarely actually tell you any of this. But I think these things, and the reason I do is because I am a legalistic prude, filled with self-righteousness. Jesus may have removed my chains. But I picked them back up and put them back on.
I define legalism this way: it is when I base or measure our spiritual success or maturity not on the work of Christ but on my own effort and expectations. And for me this is rooted in at least two very powerful forces. The first is pride, and the second is fear.
Regarding pride, I reject the sufficiency of Christ and his work so that I may elevate and amplify my own sufficiency. If I perceive him as being a bit deficient when it comes to salvation and spiritual vitality then there is a demand for me to step in and offer my help. This allows me at least some control, and makes me necessary to the process of redemption, which I must be lest I be seen as poor in spirit (contrast Matthew 5:3).
Regarding fear, I am determined I will not look weak or needy in front of you or God. Thus, I create deficiency in you so that I may create sufficiency in me. Like the quintessential bully in junior high who picks on everyone so as to make himself feel better, I knock you down spiritually so that I can win. If my effort and expectations are such that you always fail, falling short of whatever self-righteous standards I throw at you, then it elevates my status and allows me to feel better about myself.
Not only is this a sick dynamic, but it is wicked, and it is indeed a perversion of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Yet many, many Christians live this way day in and day out.
The Apostle Paul calls this out with boldness and fervency in the Book of Galatians, the book to which we at Bethel Church shall give ourselves in the months ahead. A few short years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, Paul planted a handful of churches in the southern tier of what is modern day Turkey, a region known in the ancient day as Galatia. He shared with these dear people the guaranteed redemption at Christ’s expense, and many admitted they were sinners, believed upon Jesus, and called upon him for salvation. But as the years passed and Paul moved on to other ventures, things went dramatically awry in Galatia. People had infiltrated the ranks of the Galatian Christians and sold them an awful bill of goods, one that stated that Christ’s work was valuable but not enough; that to truly have salvation one must also live by select rules and regulations. When the Apostle Paul found out he went absolutely nuclear. No small wonder Galatians is the only one of Paul’s New Testament writings that foregoes the usual niceties. He introduces himself as the author and sender of the letter and then goes straight for the Galatian jugular. “I am astonished,” he writes in Galatians 1:6-7, “that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.”
In the weeks ahead, Lord willing, we at Bethel Church will unpack just how the Apostle Paul dealt with this great crisis. In so doing all of us believers will watch as the chains that we have picked back up and draped around ourselves fall off for good. It will be a hard journey. Some who tune in will run away, as has happened before when I preached through the Book of Galatians back in the 1990s. Accusing me of preaching a license to sin, they simply refused to wait until we addressed the sweeping joy of Galatians 5 and the Holy Spirit’s work to mitigate sin in our lives.
Reading through the text will be of monumental help. Absorbing the rich allusions to the Old Testament, and processing the clarion call to freedom can be a delight. Moreover, rejecting the Enemy’s voice as he seeks to derail us all from the effort will be critical.
We who believe have guaranteed redemption at Christ’s expense. Our chains are gone. But if you, like me, have picked them back up and wrapped yourself in them again, then Galatians is for you.
I hope and pray you’ll join me, and we can journey together toward freedom.
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“Write This Down…” provides a restatement of selected points or observations from various teaching venues at which Pastor Matthew speaks. The preceding material is from Pastor Matthew’s message entitled, “And So They Ran”, part of the “Galatians: No Other Gospel” series, presented on the weekend of May 6, 2012, at Bethel Church.