THE PATH OF SELF-EFFORT, OR THE PATH OF GRACE?

GODS-GRACE

The problem we often have with grace, is that when we depend upon it, we aren’t in control anymore. But when we embrace it, grace brings tremendous freedom and joy, precisely because we don’t have to be in control any more.

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Download Galatians Part 13

GALATIANS #13

GALATIANS 4:17-31

At the beginning of the letter, Paul says, “There are some who are troubling you and want to change the good news” (1:7). In 3:1, he writes, “Who has hypnotized you?” We are reading between the lines here, but it seems apparent that in the Galatian churches were some folks who claimed to be leaders or apostles, and were leading the people astray; specifically, they were trying to make the people conform to Jewish law in order to be saved. Paul must have some information that these people were very convincing and charismatic, saying how much they cared about the Galatians. They appeared to be “zealous” for the Galatians. But Paul says that the zeal of these false teachers has a purpose: they want to isolate the Galatians.

I want to pause here and echo something Paul said in the first chapter. There is only one message of salvation, and it does not come from human beings. Paul says, “These folks want to isolate you from the truth. Don’t believe them. They are not helping you.” We talked about all that, earlier in the series. If you hear anyone – including me – preaching a different message, do not listen to it, don’t fear it, don’t follow it. This is one reason why it is so important for each one of you to know the bible for yourself. If you know what the bible actually says, you will not easily be led astray.

Let me be very direct. I have seen many posts on Facebook, and in blogs, and in internet forums, that demonstrate a HUGE ignorance of what the bible actually says, while claiming that they are getting their thoughts from the bible. You can’t get your information exclusively from internet. Even if you follow this blog, understand, I am not the authority. The Bible is. Don’t just take my word for your spiritual information – read the bible for yourself. Don’t ever assume you know much about it, unless you have actually read the bible yourself.

If you rely on me, or any other human, for your spiritual information, you are putting yourself at risk. What if I’m wrong? What if those others are wrong? Even worse, what if some supposed “bible teacher” is deliberately leading you astray? Go to the source.

Now, of course, I believe there is a use for those who teach and preach biblical truth. The Holy Spirit calls, gives talents to, and empowers, all kinds of different people, for all kinds of work. Teaching the bible is one of those callings. We teachers can point out insights that the Holy Spirit has given us. The good bible teachers have spent the time to understand the background, culture and language – things that are not contained in the text itself. Since I know the bible well, I can often point out other parts of it that help us dig deeper into whichever passage we are studying. All that knowledge is very useful when we want to understand certain parts of the bible. The working of the Holy Spirit through teachers and preachers he has called can be a powerful thing We can point you in the right direction when you have spiritual questions. But ultimately, we are only here to help you and encourage you to know Jesus better for yourself. The final authority is the Word of God itself, not what we say about it.

Next, Paul uses an illustration from the Old Testament. Just to refresh your memory, I’ll summarize what he is talking about. When God first called Abraham, he was childless. God promised, among other things, that He would give Abraham, and his wife Sarah, many descendants. Abraham and Sarah followed God, and did what he asked, and generally lived a life of faith. But God didn’t give them any children. Years went by. Abraham got older. Sarah went through menopause. Now it was too late. There would be no children, so they thought. They gave up on God’s promise. They stopped believing that he would really do it for them.

Now, they didn’t entirely abandon God – they just began to believe that it was up to them to take care of things, up to them to make sure God’s promise was fulfilled. Does this sound familiar?

So they found a solution. Sarah had a slave girl named Hagar. She told Abraham to sleep with Hagar, and have a child with her. Then, Abraham and Sarah would consider that child theirs; Hagar’s child would be their heir. They took matters into their own hands, and did this. The son that was born to Hagar was called Ishmael.

Ishmael was the result of their planning and effort to make things happen. But he wasn’t God’s plan. When Ishmael was fourteen years old, when Sarah was ninety, Abraham and Sarah conceived, and she had Isaac. Isaac was the child that God had promised. He came in God’s timing, not in response to their efforts.

As it turns out, God blessed Ishmael, their mistake, because God is a gracious and loving God. But he chose Isaac, before he was even born, and it was through Isaac that the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, came into being. It was through Isaac that Jesus came, and therefore through Isaac, the child of God’s promise, that all people of the world were blessed. So, Ishmael, though he was also blessed by God, was sent away from Abraham, and he was not considered part of God’s specially chosen people.

Now Paul is using this story from Genesis as a picture. The Galatians want to be thought of as Jews – particularly, Abraham’s descendants. “Well,” says Paul, “Abraham has two kinds of descendants: a child of slavery to self-effort, or a child of trust in God’s goodness and his promise. One of them was born was born to a slave, and was the result of self-effort, work, and lack of trust in God. One was born out of God’s goodness and grace.” Paul says that Ishmael was a child born “according to the flesh,” and Isaac born “according to the Spirit” (v 29). The path of self-effort, self-reliance, work and pressure, is the path of the flesh. The path of trust and waiting for God is the path of the Holy Spirit. Ishmael came about because Abraham, Sarah and Hagar tried to make the promise appear by their own efforts. Isaac came about because God made him happen.

Paul says that the Jews of his time, regardless of the fact that they physically came from Isaac, are living like the children of Ishmael. Trying to be justified with God by obeying the Jewish law is the path of self-effort and slavery; the path of the flesh. He says to the Galatians:

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. (Gal 4:28, HCSB)

The Galatians had two paths in front of them. They became believers through God’s choice, through God’s grace, not through their own efforts and goodness. But these false teachers were trying to lead them in a different direction. They suggested instead, that the Galatians should make their own plans for getting God’s promised blessings. They taught that people need to work and earn God’s favor and goodness.

I think most Christians are aware of the obvious trap of thinking we can earn God’s favor for salvation. But far too many of us, once we are saved, act like we must take matters into our own hands in order to live the Christian life or get the Blessings that God has promised.

Just think of this for a moment. Abraham and Sarah longed desperately for a child. They felt like life could not possibly be complete without a son. But they couldn’t make it happen. God did not seem to make it happen for them either. Their only choice was to sin, in order to get what they longed for. So they tried that. Even though the Lord took care of their mistake and blessed the child that resulted, it still did not get them what they really wanted. They had to trust the Lord and his gracious timing and provision.

I want to point out one more thing. Paul says: “the child born according to the flesh persecuted the child born according to the spirit, and so also now.” This is true in several ways, more ways than Paul even knew. The descendants of Ishmael are the people that today we call Arabs. Even as we speak, those descendants are enemies of Isaac’s descendants, modern-day Jews. So Abraham’s reliance on the flesh to bring about the work of God has had extremely long term and far-reaching consequences.

Paul of course, has something more spiritual in mind. Those who live by self-effort and works of the flesh typically do not appreciate those who live by grace. Grace is outrageous, offensive at times. A drug addicted prostitute can come to Jesus just as she is and be forgiven and accepted, while the hard-working pillar of the community who is too proud to admit her fundamental need for Jesus cannot come to feast unless she admits her need and turns her life over to the control of Jesus. Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 proclaiming honor and blessing for a childless woman. In those days, childlessness was a big deal, even seen as a curse and a mark of shame. Paul is reminding them of the grace of God, that can give such a woman honor.

The other problem we often have with grace, is that when we depend upon it, we aren’t in control anymore. We don’t get to demand what we want, when we want it. And we can’t control others either. We are all on equal ground, standing a place of need and dependence upon God. But when we embrace it, grace brings tremendous freedom and joy, precisely because we don’t have to be in control any more. It doesn’t have to be up to you. You don’t have to deserve it. In fact, you don’t deserve it, and you can’t make yourself good enough to. You can only surrender and receive.

HOW DO WE LIVE BY THE PROMISE?

lighthouse

The law is still right. It is still good. It still reflects the character of God. But it is no longer something external to us. When we trust Jesus, The character of Jesus is being formed inside us. We learn to rely on the Spirit within us to guide us; we learn to listen and respond obediently to his prompting. We no longer consult a rule-book. We consult a person.

To listen to the sermon, click the play button:

To download, right click on the link (or do whatever you do on a Mac) and save it to your computer: Download Galatians Part 9

GALATIANS #9

The Law shows the absolute necessity of the promise. The law shows us our need for the promise. If we didn’t have the law, we wouldn’t understand the holy character of God. If we didn’t have the law, we would not realize that sin is a problem, and one we cannot overcome. The Law isn’t wrong. The problem is, we can’t do it.

The Law is not in contradiction to the promise. It was given as complement, to show that the promise was needed. God gave the promise first, to invite his people to live by faith. But he gave the law later, to help them understand why they needed to live by faith.

In Galatians 3:24 it says that the law was our guardian. Although the Greek word sounds like “pedagogue,” (which in English means “instructor of children,” or “teacher”) it has a different meaning here. The best English translation might be chaperone.

In the culture of New Testament times, the guardian, or chaperone, was there to make sure that boys who were intended to be great and noble did not “go bad.” They were there to keep them from making stupid mistakes, or compromising moral character. They protected them from both physical harm and moral harm.

That was the purpose of the law, and in some ways, is the continuing purpose of the law. Sometimes we view the law as a restriction – it seems to be a fence, keeping us in, restricting our freedom. But what there is a cliff on the other side? What if the wall is actually preventing us from great harm?

We considered the first commandment last time. Let’s look at it again. “You shall have no other Gods besides me.” This means that God is supposed to be the most important thing in our lives. He is to be number one, to have precedence over everything. Now, we could look at this and say, “Hey, that’s not fair. What if I want to make sports my number one priority – at least for a period of time? What if I want to make money, or my career or my spouse or my pleasure to be first priority? What’s wrong with going for it? Didn’t God make me with certain desires? Why shouldn’t I embrace them to the fullest?”

All right, let’s say you did make sports your number one priority. What happens when you get too old to compete with younger, fitter people? Your whole life crumbles. You are still alive, but you can’t live for sports anymore. The command protects you from this.

Suppose I decide that being a pastor should be the most important thing for me. That sounds good and reasonable, doesn’t it? But if I put that in front of my relationship with God, look at what happens. If the church does well, I am doing well. But if someone complains, or people start leaving, it destroys my whole world. I have nothing left if I can’t succeed as a pastor. The first commandment protects me from that. If God is the first thing, the most important thing, than no matter what else in the world crumbles, I am ultimately OK.

The other commandments protect us in similar ways. I am sure that adultery must be pleasurable and exciting. But ultimately it destroys marriages, it handicaps the lives of the children conceived by it, and the lives of the children whose parents divorce because of it. It often spreads diseases. Eventually, it destroys society as a whole, and we are even now starting to see the unraveling of Western culture because so many people have run away from the protection of the commandment against adultery. Now, let’s be clear that God forgives it, and works in the lives of those who have failed to obey it, and brings healing and redemption. But my point is that the commandment is to protect us, not to spoil our fun.

So Paul says, the law was a chaperone, a protector. In Greek and Roman culture, the chaperone’s job ended when the child became a man. The idea was that by that time, the young man had internalized good moral character. He knew right from wrong, and was willing to do right. He was strong enough to protect himself from physical harm also. It isn’t that he should no longer live morally or safely. The idea was that now those attitudes were inside of him; he would behave that way because of the character that been formed in him.

The law is still right. It is still good. It still reflects the character of God. Our lives should still look more and more like the character of God as shown in the law. But it is no longer something external to us. When we trust Jesus, The character of Jesus is being formed inside us. We learn to rely on the Spirit within us to guide us; we learn to listen and respond obediently to his prompting. We no longer consult a rule-book. We consult a person. The prophet Jeremiah prophesied about this new relationship to the law:

“Look, the days are coming” — this is the LORD’s declaration — “when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah. This one will not be like the covenant I made with their ancestors when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt — a covenant they broke even though I had married them” — the LORD’s declaration. “Instead, this is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after those days” — the LORD’s declaration. “I will put My teaching within them and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be My people. No longer will one teach his neighbor or his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they will all know Me, from the least to the greatest of them” — this is the LORD’s declaration. “For I will forgive their wrongdoing and never again remember their sin.” (Jer 31:31-34, HCSB)

In the case of the noble Greek and Roman families, the chaperone/guardian did not take a child and turn him into a nobleman. No, the child was born a nobleman. They did not become noble by following the guidance of the guardian; rather, they were made noble by their birth. Something preceded the guardian, and that was noble birth.

So with Christians, following the guardian (that is, the law) is not what makes us Christians. It is our spiritual re-birth into Jesus –what we call “being born again.” We are born according to God’s promise to save and transform all who trust in Jesus Christ. The law is good and right. But the promise is greater. The law serves the promise, not vice versa.

Paul puts it this way:

The law, then, was our guardian until Christ, so that we could be justified by faith. But since that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ like a garment. There is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, heirs according to the promise. (Gal 3:24-29, HCSB)

In the Greco-Roman culture of the Galatians, the sons in the family were the ones who inherited everything and carried the family name. But they did not have the rights and privileges of sons until they reached adulthood Until then, they were still under the authority of their chaperone. So Paul says – we are all “sons.” I think he means sons who have come into adulthood. We are no longer under the chaperone of the law, but in the trust-relationship of the promise. When he says were are “sons,” he doesn’t mean we are all male, he means that all of us – whether male or female, Jewish or not, slave or free – are inheriting the grace of God through Jesus Christ. We are all counted as legitimate and free, we all carry God’s family name, through faith in Jesus Christ. The Jews in Galatia have been telling the Christians that being Jewish is necessary and important, that anyone who is not Jewish is, in a sense, “illegitimate.” But Paul says, “No. We are all the same in Jesus Christ. We are all legitimate in Jesus Christ. Jews aren’t better than Gentiles. Free people aren’t better than slaves. Men aren’t better than women. The only thing that counts is Jesus Christ. In him, we are all legitimate inheritors, legitimate bearers of the family name of God.”

Paul wraps it up by saying that if you are in Christ (that is, if you trust Jesus) you are a true Jew – you are a “descendant” of Abraham. You stand in the true tradition of Abraham, which is salvation by trust in God’s promises, especially trust in the promises that were fulfilled in Jesus.

So, what does this mean for all of us today?

First, it is important to realize that the law is good and right. But we don’t become righteous through it, because we cannot do it all, or consistently. We don’t live by a set of rules. We live by a relationship of trust in Jesus, and reliance upon the Holy Spirit. He has already fulfilled the law for us. We are already completely righteous through him. He will guide us so that our lives do reflect the character of God as expressed in the law. But that character and that behavior forms in us not through our strenuous efforts, but through listening to the Holy Spirit and obeying his guidance.

How does this work? Some things are quite obvious. It’s silly to pray, “Jesus, do you want me to commit adultery?” Of course he does not. Although the law can’t save us, it is still true and right and good. A better prayer might be “Jesus, prevent me from even having the opportunity to commit adultery.” Or, “Jesus I give you my will and my body, to use as you want. Keep me from sinning.” Remember and recognize that through Jesus, you are already holy in spirit. Keep up that conversational prayer. It’s hard to be talking to Jesus, while at the very same time you are doing something unrighteous and unholy. His character within you doesn’t want to do it. If you feel a strong desire to sin, be honest with him about that, and keep up that conversational prayer.

Second, as I read these verses, I have a strong sense that some of you need to hear this: you are legitimate. You aren’t second class. You are a full heir of God, you carry His family name. No one who trusts Jesus is any worse – or any better – than you. There are no second-class citizens in the kingdom of God. Your failures are irrelevant. Your socio-economic position is irrelevant. Your gender is irrelevant. Your ethnicity is irrelevant. Through Jesus, you have become one of God’s Chosen Ones.