The Christian life continues in the same way as Christian salvation. We keep coming to Jesus with all our inner emptiness, with all our desire for sin, all our hypocrisy, our lack of will-power. He takes us each moment, as we truly are, and his presence, through the Holy Spirit, does the work of forming the character of Jesus within us.
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Galatians #8 . Chapter 3
You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? Did you suffer so much for nothing — if in fact it was for nothing? So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? (Gal 3:1-5, HCSB)
In many ways, the things we spoke about last week are also applicable here. Paul is continuing on his theme of living by faith. But here, he makes a clear parallel between being saved by faith, and living by faith. Most protestant Christians understand that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. With our minds at least, we believe that there is nothing we can do to earn God’s forgiveness. We recognize (to some degree) that we can’t address the holiness problem, and Jesus did that for us.
But far too many Christians proceed from there like the Galatians. The Galatians seem to have had some vague idea that it was necessary to believe in Jesus Christ for salvation, but that they had to continue on afterwards by obeying the Jewish law. The idea was this: “OK, Christ gives us salvation. But now that we are part of God’s people, we must act like it by obeying the Jewish law.” In other words: salvation is up to Jesus. Holy living afterwards is up to us.” Many Christians still think this way. Most do not think we need to obey the Jewish law. But there is a moral code, given in the Old Testament and reiterated in the New Testament. It is true that our lives should reflect the moral standards of God’s character. But, too often, we think it is up to us. We think we can get our lives to conform to those standards by our own efforts. We some kind of vague idea that Jesus’ part was to save us from hell, in and in return, our part is to put for the effort to become holy.
Brothers and sisters, that is lie from the pit of hell. I say it is from hell because it leads to the destruction of many lives, and even the destruction of faith. What happens when we believe this depends on the person.
Some people come from a relatively healthy home and are born with a strong will. These folks can push along for quite some time without screwing up in a major way. They don’t have affairs. They don’t get drunk or cheat their employers. They live productive, even giving, lives. Truly, it is better to live this way than not. A good, upright life generally leads to stable, loving relationships and benefits society as a whole. But this is far short of the real holiness that is necessary to stay in the presence of God. Those who do not realize how far short of holiness they still are, tend to become superior and legalistic. They may use their “success” at religion to put others down, and even control them. They put pressure on others to “just do it.” But even when you seem to be able to do it, it is a lot of work and a lot of pressure to feel that it is all up to you to keep on this way. These people are never at peace, never at rest. The closest they come to peace is a kind of smugness.
Other folks seem to screw up a lot more. In despair, they feel like they are poor excuses for Christians. Some of these people pretend they have it together. Then, when they are found out, non-Christians accuse them of being the worst kind of hypocrites.
Sometimes a person who fails at lot at living a holy, Christian, life ends up just giving up altogether. She might say, “Christianity isn’t for me – I just can’t seem to do it. It doesn’t work for me.”
Another person who often fails might say, “Well, I guess I’ll just squeak into heaven by the skin of my teeth. I’m just a dirty rotten sinner, and that’s all I’ll ever be until I get to heaven.” Then that person decides to go ahead and get drunk (or whatever his area of failure is), because he knows he’ll do it sooner or later anyway. He has no hope of seeing the character of Christ formed inside of him during this mortal life.
But all of these people have one thing in common: they are trying to live the Christian life by their own effort. In effect, having been saved by grace, they are now trying to live by law and works. That’s exactly what the Galatians were doing. Paul calls them foolish. He says:
After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh?
In salvation, we come to God as we are: snotty nosed, selfish, dirty and smelling of rotten garbage; unable to clean ourselves up. We come, and he takes us in his arms, snot and smell and all, and we realize that through Jesus, he has transformed us into clean, beautiful children. The Christian life continues in the same way. We keep coming to him with all our inner emptiness, with all our desire for sin, all our hypocrisy, our lack of will-power. He takes us each moment, as we truly are, and his presence, through the Holy Spirit, does the work of forming his moral character within us.
The reason so many Christians struggle to live the Christian life, is because they are still struggling to live the Christian life. What I mean is, they still think they can pull it off. They can’t. You can’t. You live the Christian life the same way you got salvation – through trusting in Jesus. As Paul says, it happens when you hear the word of God, and trust it (Galatians 3:5).
Now, shouldn’t we do the right thing? There are a lot of verses in the New Testament telling us to avoid sins, and to practice good works. But the question isn’t whether we should do them. The question is how. Do we live the Christian life by our own effort (which Paul calls “flesh” in the passage) or do we do we trust Jesus to live his life through us?
This is important, so please pay attention. A lot of folks feel that Christian faith ends up being just another set of requirements that we follow imperfectly at best. It’s true that we Christians aren’t perfect. But the Christian life isn’t about following a set of requirements. It is entirely about trusting a person: Jesus Christ.
We need to admit that we are powerless to manifest the character of God and his holiness. Even after salvation, we are powerless to do this. Then we need to trust God to do it for us, to turn it over to him, and rely upon him daily to live his life through us.
Does that sound a little vague? A little like hocus-pocus religious crap? Tell that to the hundreds of millions of people who have overcome drug and alcohol addictions in exactly this way. I just gave you the first three steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) twelve step program. Not coincidentally, AA was created by a Christian, and the twelve steps came directly from the bible. Alcoholics in AA don’t say, “Well I’m powerless to change on my own, so I might as well just keep drinking.” No, recognizing that they can’t control it, and say, “therefore, I will trust God, rather than my own efforts.”
You see, when you give up hope of doing it yourself and put your trust in Jesus, he can, and he will change your life. Giving up, when combined with trust in God, does not lead to despair or dissolution. It doesn’t lead to more sin and failure. It leads to healing and wholeness, to recovery. It is self-effort and moral self-reliance that leads to failure.
The wonderful thing too, is that in giving up on our own resources and efforts, we can experience tremendous freedom. The burden is lifted. The pressure is off. It isn’t up to you to do it. It is up to you only to trust Jesus to do it.
Just in case, you aren’t convinced, let’s follow Paul’s argument a little further. Remember, the Galatians were kind of wanna-be Jews. They thought you had to be Jewish to be a Christian. Now, one definition of a Jew was “descendant of Abraham.” So Paul says, “Do you want to be connected with Abraham? Do you want to be counted as one of his descendants? The understand, the only way for that to happen is through faith.”
Paul quotes Genesis 15:6, which says that God considered Abraham to be righteous, not because Abraham always behaved well, but because he trusted God. So, all those who have faith in Jesus are the true spiritual descendants of Abraham. They are the “true Jews.” I’m not trying to be offensive to any Jewish people. Paul is pointing out the spiritual heritage of being a descendant of Abraham is not about physical ethnicity, but about trusting God. It isn’t about observing certain rules or rites, it is about trusting God. In verse 11, Paul quotes from Habakkuk 2:4 – the “righteous shall live by faith.” What makes them righteous? What they do? No: they are righteous because of whom they trust.
By contrast, if you want to live by the law, you must live by the whole law. A lot of people don’t realize what this means. They say, “well, I’ve never committed adultery. I’ve never stolen anything. I’ve never lied or murdered.” Come on, people, those are the easy ones. How about this: has anything in your life ever been more important to you than God? If so, you’ve blown the very first commandment, and you are already out of the race. Jesus pointed this out to a man whom we call “the rich young ruler.” This guy came to Jesus and said, “Look, I’ve kept the commandments. I haven’t stolen, I’ve honored my parents, I haven’t lied, murdered or committed adultery.” Jesus said, “Good. Now, how about the first commandment? God in the flesh is standing before you. Put me first. Sell everything you have, and have only me instead.” Jesus was referring to the first commandment, of course. And the young man failed. He couldn’t put Jesus before his money (Paraphrase of Luke 18:19-23). If you’ve ever put anything in front of Jesus, you’ve already failed to keep the law.
So you’ve never stolen. That’s good. But have you ever wanted something that someone else had? If so, you’ve failed to keep the tenth commandment, and you are already out of the race. Folks, if you want credit with God for what you do (that is, for works) you have to do it all, without ever failing once. It’s an all-or-nothing proposition. You have a choice. If you want to be self-righteous, then you need to be nothing less than perfect. Or, you can admit your problem, admit your inability to fix it, and trust Jesus to take care of it as you surrender your life to him.
I’m not talking about despair. I am not talking about using our inability to be good as an excuse to be bad. I am talking about giving up hope in ourselves, while at the same time, putting hope and trust in Jesus, who can and will transform you by his power, not your effort.
Recently, a family from our town moved to Florida. I did not know this family, but several friends of mine knew them well. The wife of the family was pregnant with their fifth child. She gave birth shortly after they moved to Florida – just a couple weeks ago. There were complications, and for the past week she has been in a coma, fighting for her life. Just a few days ago, she died. A friend posted this heartbreaking picture of the newborn baby with the mama she will never know. The family did all the right things. Thousands of people prayed. They trusted the Lord. But nothing they could do saved this woman from death. We live by trusting, not doing. Yesterday, the husband wrote this note:
Two days ago I spent some time next to the shell of my best friend as she lay in the hospital. While I was devastated, my last words to her were “I will see you in heaven.” These have been the most difficult days of my life and I am facing a huge void that has been created. I wake up in the morning and realize that it is not a dream. Many of you have shared tragedies that have occurred in your life: The loss of a child, parent or a spouse; a painful divorce, or a battle with depression. These things we are going through are all things that as humans we are guaranteed to experience. I will be the first to admit that in the past when I have faced difficult circumstances I have many times tried to shoulder them on my own, or maybe question God and why he would let these things happen. The fact is we live in a fallen and broken world. I want to tell you that I have felt God’s presence in my life that passes my understanding. While I have my moments where I come apart, the presence of the Lord comforts me, putting me back together and assures me that a level path lies ahead.
These are not the words of a man who just happens to be very emotionally strong. These are words from someone who trusts Jesus, who is allowing Jesus to transform him and comfort him. That, my friends, is living by faith.