Today I will discuss Paul’s letter to the believers in the province of Galatia. Will I address all the “law” issues raised in this letter? Yes! So, let’s get started by putting something into proper perspective.
Can I be a permanent member of this family?
Imagine with me for a moment, that you are the parent of a 10-year-old boy. One day, your son comes to you, and with all seriousness asks the following question: “Would you let me be a permanent part of this family if I wash the dishes every night, keep my room neat and organized and do all my homework?”
How would you feel about that? Would you be heart-broken to discover that your own son doesn’t already feel and know he is a permanent part of your family? How would you respond?
Wouldn’t you say something like “Son, you became a permanent part of our family the day you were born. There’s nothing you can do now, or could have done then, to earn it! In fact, you will always be part of this family.” Now, hold that thought.
The Main Topic
What’s the subject of Paul’s letter to the Galatians? Well, let’s start with chapter 1 where he draws attention to the fact that some people are trying to pervert the gospel. The gospel is good news. Good news for who? For the lost. Why? Because it shows that there IS a way to be justified before God.
In chapter 2 we read that “a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ”. In chapter 3 we read that “The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith.” We also read that “Clearly, no one is justified before God by the law . . ” In chapter 4 we read that God sent His son “to redeem those under law, that we might receive full rights of sons.” In this chapter, Paul also compares the births of two sons.
In chapter 5 we read that what is bothering Paul are “agitators” who claim that justification by faith alone, is not enough. In chapter 6, the final chapter, Paul ends with some practical advice and a summary of the justification issue that prompted his letter in the first place.
From this, we see that this entire letter is about one topic: justification. Well, almost. Paul does take the last half of chapter 5 to talk about sanctification rather than justification. We’ll talk about that in a bit.
What and what?
Normally, I would assume that any reader who has made it this far, is familiar with the terms “justification” and “sanctification.” In my old age however, I realize it’s not wise to assume anything, so here are some definitions.
Justification is defined by theologians as “a legal declaration by God that a person is righteous (that is, not guilty) before him.” This declaration is triggered by an act of faith on the part of a sinner and is effective because the righteousness of God’s own son is imputed to the one who truly believes. (I don’t want to get too deep into the theological “weeds”, but technically, the process is really triggered by “regeneration” which is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the ungodly – which then leads to faith. But this is going deeper than we need to go at this point.) Just note that this declaration takes place at the point of belief. (See Rom 4:3 and Gen 15:6 “Abraham believed God, and it was credited (or reckoned) to him as righteousness.”)
Sanctification on the other hand, is the progressive work of God in the human life in which he makes the justified person more like His son – in daily experience. It takes us from imputed righteousness alone, to a life of increasing, experiential righteousness. This process starts at regeneration but is never completed during our lifetime. Technically, it means we become increasingly set apart for what we were designed to be. I do not sanctify my glasses by using then to stir my coffee but by using them to see. This daily “rightness” we live out is determined by the degree to which we accept and follow God’s standards for behavior, also called commandments. The questions then, is this: Did Paul believe these standards started with all God wrote and gave to Moses to pass on to us? Let’s see.
What day are we talking about?
It’s time for a simple question: On what day of our spiritual lives are we justified? Aren’t we talking about spiritual birth here? Aren’t we justified before God on the very day we accept the pardon offered us by the judge himself? This happens on “day one” of our spiritual life, right?
Now, let’s think back to our 10-year-old son and his question. Was there anything he could have done personally at the time of his birth (like washing dishes, doing homework) that would have aided his birth? Of course not. Ridiculous, right? He was too young and too helpless to do anything to determine the outcome of his own birth.
That my friend, is precisely Paul’s point. On day one of our spiritual lives, we simply accept a pardon which is handed to us along with a declaration that we are no longer guilty as charged. Anything else we could have done (such as a ritual baptism for example), contributes nothing to the decision of the judge holding the pardon.
Why is Paul hammering this point?
Time for a brief history lesson. (Tip: You can skip this part if you already know the background.) There’s a reason Paul is making this point: He and his ministry were under attack. So, who’s attacking him? Answer: A group of Jewish believers, likely from Jerusalem. Why? Because Paul is not requiring something of his new disciples. What is he not demanding? He’s not requiring that his disciples go through the four-step protocol for proselyte conversion to Judaism. Where did those requirements come from? Answer: The oral traditions, which are not found in the written law, or Torah, as it is called in Hebrew.
So, what’s the big deal? The accusation was that his gentile disciples were not really saved – they never completed the conversion process!! Among Jewish people at the time, these rules were mandatory for any gentile who wanted to become a full-fledged member of Jewish society.
I’m not exactly sure how Paul concluded that Gentile conversion to faith in the Messiah didn’t require any rituals. We might conclude it happened during the 3 years in Damascus and Arabia before Paul went up to Jerusalem. Perhaps the disciples told him that Jesus never demanded these rules of his gentile converts. What we do know though, is that Paul, by virtue of his training, was in a unique position to understand the difference between the Torah and the oral code – both of which were considered “the law” by the religious leaders of his day. Paul obviously recognized that mixing rituals with faith (at the point of gentile conversion) would set a confusing precedent for the early church.
It was imperative then, that Paul respond firmly and clearly – and so he did. Salvation is by grace alone. All it requires from any of us is faith. Justification is not, and will never be, dependent on obedience to regulations.
What about the other days?
Paul was a scholar – a trained academic. He knew how to stay focused in his writing and seldom wandered off topic. In this letter, Paul stays on focus all the way into chapter 5, at which point, he can’t help himself and shares a little bit about what happens on days 2 through 27,375 (assuming we live to be 75 years old).
Here’s the point: Justification is all about “day one”. Does anyone ever need to be justified twice? Of course not. To use a biblical example, in order for Noah and his family to be saved, how many times did they have to walk through the door into the ark? Sanctification on the other hand, is about days 2 thru 27,375.
So where does the law come in?
You had your talk with your son and he now knows he is a permanent part of the family. When you got done with that part, did you remember to say: “Because we (your parents) love you SO much, we just want to make it clear that you no longer need to listen to us or pay any attention to what we’ve said in the past. If you feel the need to slap your baby sister, go right ahead. We don’t want to restrict your freedom. If you want to punch, bite and kick your brother, do what you think is necessary. As for looking both ways before you cross the street, that no longer applies to you.” You didn’t? Why not?
I think we can agree with Paul that family rules don’t aid the birth of a child on day one. However, we didn’t toss our family rules just because they weren’t needed at birth. These are intended for later days, when the child matures a little and becomes a contributing member of the family. At that point, he is expected to pull his own weight and demonstrate that he cares for the family by following the family rules (aka, the law).
Paul shifts gears
When Paul gets halfway through chapter 5, he shifts gears from justification to sanctification. Instead of talking about birth, he talks about becoming a contributing member of God’s family.
What does he say? Does he tell his listeners to “forget the law?” Just the opposite – he appeals to the law. He writes “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” (Galatians 5:13-15 NIV) The passage Paul quoted by the way, is found in Leviticus 19:18 – smack in the middle of the law of Jesus.
That my friends, is what many Christians have failed to see for so many years. I was one of them. I plead guilty. For a long time, I missed the point that while regulations contribute nothing to spiritual birth, they are essential to defining righteous living. Without the law, we have no divine standard for righteous behavior. As we just saw with Paul, the moment we start to talk about how to live as a believer, we have to appeal to the law.
Do you still think Paul is anti-law?
Over the balance of chapter 5 Paul describes things condemned in the law: idolatry, sexual immorality, witchcraft, etc. He then talks about the role of the Holy Spirit. Who does the Holy Spirit always take us to? To the Son, our Messiah, right? More often than not, where does the Son of God take us? He takes us to his Word, to those things he has already told us.
Because of things Paul wrote in other letters, people often think Paul pits “grace” against “law.” For example, in Romans 6:14 Paul wrote “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law, but under grace.” We are tempted to say “See, it’s right there! Paul has pit grace against law. Because we are now under grace, the law is no longer needed.”
Think about that for a moment. Consider a country where there are no laws. Does anyone living in that country ever need grace? If you can never break a law (because there aren’t any), why would you ever need grace? This is a red herring, a straw man, a false argument. It is illogical. We only need grace when there are laws that can be violated – and we violate them. Now, if we start talking about how laws relate to spiritual birth – well, that’s a different story.
What did Paul himself say about this? In Romans 5:20 he squashed this crazy notion with these words “But where sin abounded, grace abounded much more.” For there to be sin, there must be a law to violate. There’s no way around it.
Perhaps we need another example
Let’s wander back to that biblical example of the Noah and the ark. Let’s pretend for a moment that Noah and his family did what many Christians do when they conclude that the “New Testament” is against the law. It might go like this:
Noah and his wife, his three sons and their wives pull out their wood and camel-skin lawn chairs and head up to deck #2. There they relax on the swaying deck and tell stories of the fun they had building the ark. They sip on some banana and mango kombuchas as they pass the days away, grateful that they are inside the ark, not caught in the flood. In the meantime, some of the animals starve to death. Others, die from dehydration. By the time the ark comes to rest on solid ground, the only animals still alive are the rats who gnawed their way out of their cages and into the grain storage bins. There are now thousands of them. The door opens and the rats rush out to repopulate the world.
Time to wrap up
I confess – it was a silly example. Can we agree that the work isn’t over just because we made it through the door?
There is nothing humorous however, about dismissing more than three quarters (77.15%) of the Bible because some man added the label “Old” to it. Again, we need to be alert to the labels affixed by man. The Greek Scriptures never refer to the Hebrew Scriptures as “old”. They refer to them as “scripture” or the “holy scriptures”. (Some will quote 2 Cor 3:14 where it refers to the Mosaic covenant as the “old testament” in some translations. This is not referring to the books in the Tanakh.) The adjective “old”, whether intended or not, is pejorative. This is a human label. In our current culture, it is a word loaded with implications like feeble, washed up, antique and ready for replacement. We just need to remain aware that this is some man’s viewpoint, not God’s. Enough said.
Remember that when Paul wrote to Timothy (2 Tim 3:16-17 NIV) and said “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”, he (Paul) was referring to the Hebrew scriptures, only. How do I know? The New Testament hadn’t yet been written, so he definitely wasn’t referring to the Bible we know. Timothy understood Paul to be saying that all of the Tanakh (the Hebrew scriptures) are useful for these things and get this, they thoroughly equip the man of God for every good work. Moreover, he was telling this to a follower of Jesus, not a follower of Moses!
Do we want to be thoroughly equipped to do what is right? Then we should listen to Paul and read, study and apply the law of Jesus (aka “the law of Moses”) along with the prophets and the writings. (see Luke 24:44) Our motivation has nothing to do with being saved. That happened a long time ago, on day one. No, our only motivation is love – love for our Master, the humble rabbi who showed us how we should interpret His laws. He said, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”
Now, let’s go back and read through Galatians one more time – this time, with our tinted glasses removed.
TIP: In any place where Paul appears to be anti-law, check the context. Is he writing about justification? If so, then there is naturally no place for the law in that topic. At the same time, we would be wise to refrain from jumping to the conclusion that this also applies to sanctification.