Peace (To Those On Whom God's Favor Rests)


“Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace to those on whom His favor rests.”  (Luke 2:14)

 When the angels appeared to the shepherds, they proclaimed a message of peace - but not peace to the whole world. This is very specific: peace to those who have God’s favor. So what is this favor? And what is this peace?

The shepherds were probably watching a temple flock as they watched them from a tower called the Midgal Eder, the 'watchtower of the flock,' a lookout and a place of refuge close to Bethlehem for their flocks in case of attack.  The priests maintained ceremonially clean stalls, and they carefully oversaw the birth of each lamb. The shepherds probably thought this angelic 'favor' was connected to their observance of the Law. Unfortunately, being ‘favored’  had not brought them the peace they were expecting.  There was hardly a more obvious reminder than the palace that cast a shadow over their tower.

Herod’s mountain fortress, the Herodian, overlooked the town of Bethlehem. According to Josephus, there were originally two hills standing next to each other. Herod paid thousands of workers to demolish one of the hills and level off the other.  He dug his palace into the top of the remaining hill. It contained a garden, reception hall, Roman baths, countless apartments,  an enormous pool, and a 600-foot-long terrace. Its buildings covered forty-five acres of land and were surrounded by nearly two hundred acres of palace grounds. The Herodion literally overshadowed the surrounding villages.

Keep in mind what this represented to the Jewish people.  Herod made his name when he smoked out Jewish refugees hiding in cliffside caves, pulled them out with long, hooked poles and dropped them down a cliff. When he laid siege to Jerusalem, his soldiers raped and slaughtered the women and children and chopped the soldiers to pieces.   When he saw that his death was near, he commanded his troops to execute other public figures when he died so people would mourn even if they did not mourn for him. 

It’s in this context that the angels proclaimed peace on earth to those on whom God’s favor rests. So the Jewish people were certain they were favored, but they sure hadn’t found peace. So what is this favor?  Where is the promised peace?

The proclamation clearly did not mean that peace would occur when Herod was dethroned or the Jewish people agreed on who the King of the Jews really was. It did not meant that schools were exempt from tragedy, hurricanes would disappear, or cancer would be cured. They announced a peace that could be found not around those who have God’s favor (though that happens too) but within those who have God’s favor. This ‘peace’ in Greek has the idea of wholeness, of having all the parts knit together. It's when heart, soul, mind and strength all love God. It's when our skin and soul are unified in purposeful, godly living.

This is not a promise of external calm. This is promise of internal stability. The Jewish people were expecting something to change in their political, religious or financial realities. But that was their definition. No wonder they were disillusioned and disappointed time and again.


Skip ahead about seventy years after the birth of Christ. Paul was writing letters to the start-up churches helping them to better understand the true message of the gospel. When he wrote to the church in Ephesus, he was writing to a largely Gentile (pagan) audience. They were having trouble forming a church community with the Jewish converts. Paul lets them know that God has broken down the divide between God’s “chosen” people and the “unchosen” Gentiles. Here we begin to see an even clearer explanation of peace: 

 “Remember that at that time you (Gentiles) were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.  For he himself is our peace…. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.“ (Ephesians 2:12-17)

What is peace?  Reconciliation with God through Christ, empowered by His Spirit.* 

In this case, it should end hostility between the Jewish and Gentile converts – but that’s the fruit of peace, not peace itself. That’s what peace looks like when it’s embodied, but it didn’t start there. It started at the cross, and moved inside. Only people full of peace within them can truly bring about peace around them.  We think of peace as the end of hostility, so we often start there: “Everybody stop fighting!”  That’s good…but it’s the veneer of peace. Peace begins within. When writing to the church in Galatia, Paul had more to say about peace:

“Those who want to impress people by means of the flesh are trying to compel you to be circumcised… May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation. Peace and mercy to all who live by this principle—they are the Israel (the chosen people) of God.” (Galatians 6:13-16)

Because Christ died, Paul has been made part of this new humanity. Anything good in him is because of the person and work of Christ. There are no “works” that can save him or give him worth. He understood God’s peace – he’d been reconciled with God through Christ and empowered by His Spirit, and now he had unshakeable identity. He understood mercy – a covenantal, compassionate love for others. Paul had been given much by grace; he would extend this principle to others. You can have this too (says Paul) if you live by this principle.

All that matters is that, through Christ crucified, we are made a “new creation.” That is what knits us together inside and makes us whole. That is the source of meaning, worth, and self-image.  Peace begins in us, not around us when we are in right relationship with Christ. Here’s how this looks practically.

  •     "You look like you are putting on weight!”  My body grows older. My boast is in Christ.
  •      “Where did you buy that!?”  My fashion taste is lousy. My boast is in Christ.
  •     “You have a dead-end job! Wow, you really wasted your Saturday!” My accomplishments are straw. My boast is in Christ.
  •     “How could you have forgotten that thing? How could you overlook that person?” I am not perfect. My boast is in Christ.
  •     “I can’t believe you haven’t heard of Mr. X or the latest international event!” I don’t know everything. My boast is in Christ.
  •      “You haven't gone anywhere cool, have you?” I don’t have much money. My boast is in Christ.
  •     “People are gossiping about you.” Let them. My boast is in Christ. 

There is great peace in being able to say, I am nothing on my own, but I am reconciled with God through Christ and empowered by His Spirit.  I will not fear my failures or worship my successes. He must increase and I must decrease. My boast is in Christ.”

Peace and mercy to all who live by this principle – they are the blessed children of God.


* "New Testament The Greek word eirene corresponds to the Hebrew shalom expressing the idea of peace, well-being, restoration, reconciliation with God, and salvation in the fullest sense. God is “the God of peace” ( Romans 15:33 ; Philippians 4:9 ; 1 Thessalonians 5:23 ;Hebrews 13:20 ). The Gospel is “the good news of peace” (Ephesians 6:15 ; Acts 10:36 ) because it announces the reconciliation of believers to God and to one another (Ephesians 2:12-18 ). God has made this peace a reality in Jesus Christ, who is “our peace.” We are justified through Him (Romans 5:1 ), reconciled through the blood of His cross (Colossians 1:20 ), and made one in Him (Ephesians 2:14 ). In Him we discover that ultimate peace which only God can give (John 14:27 ). This peace is experienced as an inner spiritual peace by the individual believer (Philippians 4:7 ; Colossians 3:15 ; Romans 15:13 ). It is associated with receptiveness to God's salvation (Matthew 10:13 ), freedom from distress and fear (John 14:27 ; John 16:33 ), security (1 Thessalonians 5:9-10 ), mercy (Galatians 6:16 ; 1 Timothy 1:2 ), joy (Romans 14:17 ; Romans 15:13 ), grace (Philippians 1:2 ; Revelation 1:4 ), love (2 Corinthians 13:11 ;Jude 1:2 ), life (Romans 8:6 ), and righteousness (Romans 14:17 ; Hebrews 12:11 ; James 3:18 ). Such peace is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22 ) that forms part of the “whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:11,Ephesians 6:11,6:13 ), enabling the Christian to withstand the attacks of the forces of evil. Thus, the New Testament gives more attention to the understanding of spiritual peace as an inner experience of the individual believer than does the Old Testament. In both the Old and the New Testament, spiritual peace is realized in being rightly related—rightly related to God and rightly related to one another."



From the Holman Bible Dictionary. “Peace, Spiritual.”

Bearing the Mark of Christ (Galatians 6:17)

All scars tell a story. Some people are proud to display them; others want to cover them up. Either way, they tell a story – and it often goes deeper than the skin, and sometimes doesn’t show up on the skin at all. This is more along the lines of relationships, commitments, and ”bearing burdens.”  It's the hidden hardships, wounds, and brokenness that leave very real scars that nobody sees. John Connolly wrote of one character in The Reapers:  “He was the kind who didn't like to turn away from another's pain, the kind who couldn't put a pillow over his ears to drown out the cries of strangers. Those scars he had were badges of courage, and Willie knew that there were others hidden beneath his clothes, and still more deep inside, right beneath the skin and down to the soul.”

So what do we do with our scars both seen and unseen? Show ‘em off or hide em? Are they symbols of failure or reminders of healing? More importantly, what does Christianity teach about our moral and spiritual scars? Are they shameful reminders of failure or abuse or tragedy? What does God think of them? Is he embarrassed? Does God hate our scars? (Because if he does, He probably hates us).

 When Jesus reappeared to the disciples after his Crucifixion and Resurrection, we read that "he (Jesus) showed them his hands and his feet." (Luke 24:40) Why would Jesus do this? He is in his resurrection body, right? He has been raised from the dead! Why were these particular scars worth showing off?

1) Identity. It proved He was the same Jesus whom they had followed. Jesus was not a new or replacement God. He wasn’t a ghost. He was Jesus who was born in Bethlehem, son of Mary, crucified messiah, and now risen Lord.

2) Empathy.  There is hardly a more obvious place than our hands on which to carry our scars. We reach out with our hands to help, heal, discipline, and 'high five'. When you have scars on your hand, everyone sees them. Jesus’ scars send a clear message: “I have suffered, too.”

3) Hope. If Christ has wounds, we should expect to have wounds too. That may not sound hopeful, but if we want to share in the power of His resurrection, we will have to share in the fellowship of his suffering. There are no biblical alternatives.

“We a pressed on every side by troubles, but not crushed. We are perplexed, but not driven to despair. We are hunted down, but never abandoned by God. We get knocked down, but are never destroyed. Through suffering, our bodies continue to share in the death of Jesus so that the life of Jesus may also be seen in our bodies.” 2 Corinthians 4: 8-10

Christ did not leave even his wounds behind him in his resurrected body. We needed to see that He has healed wounds, not running sores. He was the Savior who suffered as well as the God who heals, and he will always be both. A wound that kills does not leave a scar. Dead people do not form scars. Our scars remind us that we are still in the land of the living.

4) Glory. A Savior who does not love enough to suffer does not love enough to care. A Savior who is ashamed of his suffering has something to hide. A Savior who proudly loves us enough to suffer and die and who can by that suffering claim his power of sin and death – that’s a God of power and might. As novelist Dean Koontz has noted: “A scar is not always a flaw. Sometimes a scar may be redemption inscribed in the flesh.”

When we get to the end of Galatians, we read an interesting statement from Paul:“ I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.” Paul’s scars tell a story.  In Lystra, he was stoned, dragged from the city, and left for dead (Acts 14:19). He received five beatings by the Jews of 39 stripes - 195 stripes from these five beatings alone. Three times he was whipped with “rods,” a Roman punishment, and the Romans didn’t limit the number.

Paul said, “I bear on my body the marks (stigmata) of Jesus.” They clearly told a physical story. But a stigmata meant more than that. A slave could go to the temple of Heracles, take a stigmata, and receive sanctuary. No on could touch him. The god owned him. In the Roman army, new recruits would get a stigmata when they had proven themselves. Soldiers might tattoo on their arm or hand the name of a favorite general or particular god.

By claiming his physical scars as the stigmata of Christ, Paul was declaring both allegiance and spiritual sanctuary. God owned him, not anyone else. He was safe in all the ways that mattered. His suffering marked him as one being brought from death to life by the One who would one day give him the fullness of life eternal. Paul understood the connection between scarring and glory.

So what does God think of our scars?

Our scars of sin can be transformed into a symbols of hope. We read in Isaiah,“He was wounded for our rebellion and crushed for our sins, his punishment brings us peace, and by his strips we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:5) This isn’t a commentary on sickness; this is a window into how God handles the wounds of our sin. Jesus took physical wounds upon himself that the wounds of our sin could be healed. What do you get when a wound heals? Scars.

  • It’s the wound of addiction that has healed into a scar of “clean and sober.”
  • It’s the wound of prison that has healed into a scar of freedom. Our liberty reminds us that a God of Grace is a God of second chances.
  • It’s the wound of divorce that has healed into a scar made up of repentance, humility and forgiveness.
  • It’s the wound of pornography that has healed into a scar of virtue and genuine love.
  • It’s the wound of hypocrisy that has healed into a scar of transparency and honesty.
  • It’s the wounds of the many ways we punish, harm and exploit ourselves that has healed into a glorious scar of worth, peace, and identity found only in a God of grace and relentless, beautiful covenantal love.

If this is your wound, give it to Jesus. You will be scarred, but only the living form scars. And the scarred can be beautiful. The scarred have been healed by a God of love. But Paul is talking about scars of commitment, those wounds received when he was persecuted for the cause of Christ. This is not the wages of sin; this is “the fellowship of His suffering.”  This is stepping out for the cause of Christ knowing we will be hurt.

  •      Health and life (depending where you live)
  •       Reputation (when we take a stand for truth and we are insulted or dismissed)
  •      Jobs (when we can’t do things that would compromise our commitment to Christ)
  •      Friends (when we have to put boundaries in place so that our faith can stay pure)
  •      Budget (when the cause of Christ trumps our personal pleasure)
  •      Emotional Life (as we are ‘broken and spilled out” for others)

Do not be afraid to bear the wounds of Christ. Be broken and poured out for the sake of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.  Love sacrificially. Give sacrificially. Defend your faith boldly even in the middle of opposition.  It will mark you. It will wound you. But you are among the living, and it will only leave a scar. And it will be glorious.

Backpacks, Burdens and Blessings (Galatians 6:1-10)

"If someone is caught in a sin, you who live in step with the Spirit should restore that person gently instead of ignoring or shaming them. But watch yourselves; you could get too close to the sin and be drawn in, or you could begin to feel superior and become proud. If either one happens, you will not be able to effectively bear the burdens of those around you. This is crucial, because it’s in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. This is fruit-bearing faith expressed in love." * Christians are called to challenge people caught in sin with the goal of gentle restoration. We need to walk with the Spirit toward them…and then with them.  The burdened might not like the help at first. The Greek word here is a term to describe setting a dislocated bone back into place. To put a bone back in place will inevitably inflict pain, but it is a healing pain. It’s crucial that we are gentle and clear about what we are doing. We must listen, understand, empathize, care, and speak truth boldly and carefully.

If the sin becomes compelling, we need some distance. If we become proud because of how spiritual we are, we need to repent and take a good honest look at ourselves.

If anyone of you smugly thinks you are too spiritually pure or important to get involved, you are deceiving yourself. If you are tempted toward pride, refocus on your own life. If you are living well in the midst of trials and temptations, take satisfaction in your personal integrity.  Don't worry about comparing yourself to others. If you are honest, you will see that the load of your own life – circumstances, gifts, weaknesses, struggles –  is challenging enough. You might not have the burden your neighbor has, but your backpack has enough to keep you humble and gentle with others.  You don’t know what God has given others to carry. They may have more or less than you. Don’t judge; worry about yourself - but don’t live in isolation."

God has given each of us a different set of difficulties and opportunities, a different set of weaknesses and gifts: personalities, family of origin, economic reality, skill sets, right brain/left brain, introvert/extrovert, broken home/intact home, /math/sports/music, pride/low self-image, a particular area of sin that is a temptation…

We carry this personal load by ourselves. We shouldn’t compare ourselves with someone who has done less than us (and feel conceited) or someone who has done more (and feel envy). If we see life this way, we keep our attitudes in check. We don’t know what their load is, or how well they are actually carrying it.

"I’ve already talked about those whose burdens come from sin and failure, but people can also become weary as they live well for Christ. That’s why you need to be generous with those who are instructing you in the Word of God.  Don’t be a consumer who takes and never gives. You can bless others by sharing of resources, friendship, and service. In this way, we share our mutual gifts from God as an act of deeply committed fellowship."

We also see the necessity of looking to helping those who are weary. Ministry is costly no matter who does it or where it is done. People burn out. In true Christian community, we should look for ways to ease that kind of burden too.

"There is a spiritual principle at work here.  Don’t be deceived: God cannot be mocked. Just like a farmer, you harvest what you plant. Whoever plants a crop of self-centered gratification, personal pleasure, and arrogant pride will harvest rottenness, corruption, disillusionment. Whoever plants a crop of self-sacrifice, humility, gentleness and love will be walking in step with the Spirit of God, and from the Spirit of God will harvest an eternally enduring life. This is life indeed."

God’s moral universe has processes. Sin makes things fall apart. If you eat bad foods, you harvest poor health. If you give in to your sinful nature, you reap spiritual breakdown and destruction. Dishonesty produces distrust; honesty produces trust. Jealousy produces bitterness; contentment produces affirmation of the success of others. Harshness produces anger; gentleness produces vulnerability.

"This is a sacrificial life, but don't become weary; you will inspire others. When God decides the time is right, we will have a harvest full of blessings if we do not give up. Therefore, as we see the opportunity, we should do good to everyone around us - but especially to those who belong to the family of believers.”

We should do good to all “as we have opportunity.” We can’t personally meet all the needs of all people all the time. Opportunity and ability must work together.  Sometimes, we are not able to step up because carrying our own load is taking all we’ve got. Other times, our load feels light, and we look around for ways to match opportunity with ability.

This is the lifestyle from which, “if we do not give up,” we “will reap a harvest”—real, fulfilling, lasting life.


* I have drawn from numerous commentaries and translations for this presentation of Paul's writing in Galatians. Think of it as a commentary.

The Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-26)

In Galatians 5, Paul shows very clearly what happens when we are motivated by selfishness, greed, and power: 

“Sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin.” (Galatians 5:19-21)

Paul said that when we “indulge the flesh” (v. 13) in this way, it’s as if we “bite,” “devour” and “destroy” each other (v.15). We treat other people like commodities that exist only to meet our sexual, emotional, financial, and relational needs.  If you have ever been treated as if you were disposable, you know the devastating impact of sin. Paul follows up this daunting list with a very sharp contrast:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:22-26)

When we are "in step with the Spirit" of God, we will have the passions and desire of God – and God is not a consumer of disposable people. Our lives will reflect the heart of God as we serve each other in love (v.13). Though there are many ways this can be seen, Paul lists nine specific ways that our lives bear this spiritual fruit.*

  • Love (agape) is serving people for their intrinsic worth, not for how they make us feel. I need to do the dishes, and leave notes, and plan dates for my wife not because I always feel like it, but because she is worthy of it.
  • Joy is a delight that comes from focusing on Jesus. It is independent of our circumstances or His gifts . Joy does not come from personal comfort or emotional highs. It only comes as a response to the person of Christ.
  • Peace is a confidence and rest in the wisdom and control of God rather than ourselves. Peace is not controlling the storm; it’s offering your situation to Christ in the midst of it.
  • Patience is persistently enduring without blowing up, giving up or lashing out. You find your stability in knowing that God is sovereign in both circumstances and timing.
  • Kindness is the ability to serve others practically, often in ways which are costly or make us vulnerable. Our hearts are broken by the things that break the heart of God, and we do something about it. It’s active empathy.
  • Goodness has to do with personal integrity. We speak truth boldly and live consistently no matter where we are or who is around us. Our thoughts, words and deeds align.
  • Faithfulness is courageous loyalty. It’s being reliable, dependable and honest even if it’s difficult.
  • Gentleness is the humble, healing use of power
  • Self-control is purposeful living. It’s the ability to pursue the important over the urgent. We understand when it’s time to relax vs. work, or spend time with the family instead vs. buddies.

 This is what “faith expressed in love” looks like when we walk in step with the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. We bear beautiful, nourishing fruit. Unfortunately, each of these fruits has a counterfeit  that can subtly work its way into our life, distorting our view of God and harming our relationship with others. 

  • The counterfeit of agape love is selfish love, where you care for others because of how they make you feel about yourself. You feel like you would do anything for that spouse or friend – but really, it’s only for as long as they please you. If they don’t, you move on or withdraw.
  • The counterfeit of joy is happiness or elation. You feel good as long as you have money, health, affirmation, success, and a schedule that’s just like you want it. It’s a feeling based on the gift instead of the Giver. It’s not liking your spouse’s attempt at showing love because it’s not how you wanted it to be, or being angry at a good friend because they forget your birthday. 
  • The counterfeit of peace is indifference or apathy. People think you are calm; really, you have just stopped caring.  You look like you can handle family issues with a spouse, kids or friends well – but it’s only because you’ve stopped investing any emotion in them.
  • The counterfeit of patience is cynicism. You don’t blow up, lash out, or quit because you expected the worst anyway. People say, “You are so understanding and patient with your kids. I don't know you are able to let them learn the hard way and love them anyway.” You know – you just assume the worst, so anything good that happens is a pleasant surprise.
  • The counterfeit of kindness is manipulation. You do good things to be noticed and given something in return. People say, “Wow, you are generous with your time (or money).”  But you did it so they would say that. If nobody noticed, you would probably stop doing it.
  • The counterfeit of goodness is obnoxiousness. It’s being truthful but not loving. You might not be a hypocrite, but you’re a jerk. Nobody seems like nobody seems to love it like you do.  Maybe they do like truth but they just … don’t… like … you.
  • The counterfeit of faithfulness is enablement. You are loving but not truthful. You might be loyal but not bold, and as your friends implode you never challenge, you just love them for who they are.
  • The counterfeit of gentleness is patronization. You help, but it's a kindness that reminds the recipient and others that they are lucky they have a powerful person like you around.  You feel good about yourself, but others leave diminished and ashamed. 
  • The counterfeit of self-control is willpower. Self-control is purposeful prioritization for the sake of others. Willpower is selfish control so you can boast about yourself or judge others more successfully.

This counterfeit fruit can feel very real. It can at times move us emotionally, make us feel close to God and others, and even temporarily provide the solace we seek. But it’s ultimately empty and frustrating. So what was the solution? How do any of us move from counterfeit to real? 

In Galatians, Paul has laid out an understanding of how a God of grace works with us. God offers us a covenant (of salvation); Christ pays our penalty for breaking it (forgiveness); God adopts us into His family (giving us righteousness, or right standing); His indwelling Spirit begins to changes us (sanctification); and our lives bear new spiritual fruit. These things have nothing to do with our effortThese are all in a sense passive. 

But Paul has more to say. Christ was crucified for us; we crucify the flesh (v.23); the Holy Spirit indwells us; we must walk in step with the Spirit (v.25); God grants us righteousness; we have to avoid becoming conceited (v.26). This is an active, ongoing process on our end. This is very different from how Paul talks about the gifts of the Spirit in his letters to the Corinthian church. The gifts are given as God sees fit. God gives some to some and others to others, and there is not indication in Scripture that it has anything to do with our actions or spiritual maturity.

The fruit, however, is meant for everybody, and experience and expression of the fruit of the Spirit is in some way connected to our commitment to “walk in step.” So what does our contribution look like when it comes to bearing fruit? I believe it can be summarized in three general categories: 

  • Praying (for the freedom of God’s Spirit)
  • Studying Scripture (for the ‘steps’ of the Spirit)
  • Stepping (because we reap what we sow)

For example, if you want to experience genuine, selfless love, pray for the Spirit’s influence, study the Scripture, and look for opportunities to serve people for their good, not yours.  If you want to experience genuine joy,  pray for the Spirit’s influence, study the Scripture, and continually re-focus on the person of Christ in the midst of all your circumstances. If you want to experience genuine gentleness, pray for the Spirit’s influence, study the Scripture, and continually looks for ways to use your influence with humility.

The more we step with the Spirit purposefully, the more we will step with the Spirit naturally.


* I am deeply indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for my understanding of Galatians. The explanations of the fruit and their counterfeits are largely his, with some changes and additions of my own. 

Inheriting the Kingdom of God (Galatians 5:13-21)

Maps do several important things.

First, they show you where you are at the moment.  Being in the center of the Sahara Desert is different than being in the center of New York City. Knowing where you are affects your planning and decision-making.

Second, they will help you accomplish a goal.  If, for example, you are in New York City and you need to be in Charleston, South Carolina, the map will help by showing you that you must travel in a southwesterly direction.

Third, they will help you to identify obstacles such as mountain ranges and major congested cities.  A good map will also help you maximize advantages such as timesaving freeways and bypasses around bottleneck areas. In both cases, knowing these things will impact your travel. 

Paul writes in Galatians in 5:17, “For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature.”  There are only two natures descriptive of mankind – the first is our fallen, sinful nature and the second is a regenerated, Spirit-led nature. We are all born into the first category and remain there unless we humbly repent of our sinfulness, accept the forgiveness provided by Christ’s death on the cross, are reconciled to God, and receive His Holy Spirit within in us as a guiding influence.  

 Now, it would be nice if, at the moment that this happens, our old nature would just curl up and die.  But that does not happen. What happens, scripturally speaking, is that we now have options.  Now we need a map, because (as Yogi Berra noted),  if we don't know where we're going, we might end up somewhere else. 

 Prior to salvation and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, our old nature was ruling our lives unopposed. This is what Paul says is true of all of us until we are 'born again' and the given the gift of the Holy Spirit. This is the freedom for freedom that Christ has set us free (Galatians 5:1). This is good news, but we’d better understand what freedom means before we go too far. 

Freedom does not mean permission to be a jerk!  It does not mean I get to live my life any way I want, destroying myself and the lives of those around me with my selfish actions.  Freedom doesn’t mean that I get a free pass on sin with a promise that “it’ll all work out in the end.”

No, freedom means that we are no longer imprisoned by our old sinful nature. “Freedom” means that once we place our trust in the person and work of Christ we now have options. God’s Holy Spirit indwells us and will offer to lead us in the way that we should go. 

How do we get to the goal of experiencing true Christian freedom?  What does that freedom look like?  And how does God lead and guide us?

Like a navigation system in a car, the Holy Spirit is able to lead, guide, and empower, but He will not overpower!  He won’t force us to live righteously.  He will however, make righteous living a genuine possibility in our life. We were stuck in sinful self-direction. Now we can travel in the direction God has in mind.  

“For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.  For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”  (Galatians 5:13, 14)

The goal of God’s restoration process in each and every one of us is that we set aside our self-serving lives and live in love and service of our fellow man. The Law is meant to show us what true righteousness looks like in practical, day-to-day life.

But if instead of showing love among yourselves you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another. So I advise you to live according to your new life in the Holy Spirit. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves. 

The old sinful nature loves to do evil, which is just opposite from what the Holy Spirit wants. And the Spirit gives us desires that are opposite from what the sinful nature desires. These two forces are constantly fighting each other, and your choices are never free from this conflict. But when you are directed by the Holy Spirit, you are no longer subject to the law.

When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, your lives will produce these evil results: sexual immorality, impure thoughts, eagerness for lustful pleasure, idolatry, participation in demonic activities, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, divisions, the feeling that everyone is wrong except those in your own little group, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other kinds of sin. Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:15-21)

So, what are we to do with a list like this?  It’s pretty intimidating, especially given the fact that we all fit on this list somewhere! In the last part of verse 21, Paul says, “… anyone living that sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God.”  That’s pretty strong language.

These “deeds” are the unavoidable traits or manifestations of the core problem: living a self-directed life that neither acknowledges the Lordship of Jesus Christ nor allows the guidance of His Holy Spirit in our life. If these deeds are a fair description of your ongoing acceptance of a life characterized by habitual sin, then you have cause to question if you are following Christ at all.

Please note: If you are following Christ, temptation, and even momentary failure enters our lives.  This is the residue of our sinful nature that still wages war within us.  But as that temptation presents itself, there ought to be an ongoing struggle in your inner being when it comes to these “deeds of the flesh.”Paul is not saying that anyone who has been guilty or at a future time will be guilty of one or more of these deeds is outside of the kingdom! The Christian life does not demand perfection, but it does call for an unwavering devotion to the person of Jesus Christ.  

We’re told over and over in the New Testament that we are to be changed into His image. The distinguishing feature of this image change throughout the entire New Testament is love - an undeserved, unconditional, and almost unbelievable love.  

It is because of our new spiritual freedom that we are able to love and serve in a way that reflects the character and love of Christ. Conversely, it’s in the midst of loving and serving in this way that we find our freedom.  

The Only Thing That Counts (Galatians 5:1-8)

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you.” (Galatians 5: 1-8)


We live in a consumer culture. We basically say, “If you please me, I will reward you.” If my garbage doesn’t get picked up, I’m getting a new collector.  If another phone company is cheaper and better, I’m switching.  It's just business. It’s entirely conditional.  If I don't like the product, I move on. This is what we know – and in America we are very good at it.

This is not necessarily bad, but it becomes bad when we begin to treat people from a consumer perspective. We say to our friends, family or spouses:“If you please me, I will reward you. I’ll be good only if you provide something good.” It’s a consumer approach to relationships.  It’s entirely conditional. If people don’t give us what we want, we dump them and move on.  

The Gentiles were coming from a religious system in which their gods were consumer gods. They basically said,  “If you please me, I will reward you.” They had to impress their gods constantly so that the product – in this case, the worshipers – pleased them. If Zeus tired of them sufficiently, he would dump them and move on. Even worse, they weren’t entirely sure what pleased the gods, so there was the tremendous insecurity, which lead to desperate work to please as many gods in as many ways as possible so that they would be rewarded.

Paul had told them that God does not relate to us as a consumer God. We are not obligated to earn God’s blessing. Unfortunately, the teaching of the Judaizers was leading them back to their old way of thinking about God. Apparently, something about their understanding of God was flawed as well even though they were pulling from the Old Testament. To correct this misunderstanding with both parties, Paul needed them to understand what it means that God is a covenant God.


God always relates to people through covenants. In the Old Testament we see a suzerain covenant in which the stronger party – the suzerain - initiated the covenant with the weaker party. Multiple records exist that show a common format in the nations of that time. In every other nation, lords or kinds made suzerain covenants with ordinary folk. In this case, God made a covenant with His people.

  •  Identify the suzerain
  • Historical prologue
  • Stipulations  (tributes, obligations, etc.)
  • Public readings
  • List of witnesses
  • List of blessings and cursings
  • Ceremony of agreement
  • Sealing the Oath. A covenant was sealed with a ceremony (the weaker party walking through the parts) as a way of saying, “If I break this covenant, may this be done to me.”

We read in Deuteronomy a reference to the ceremony when the Children of Israel entered into Covenant with God through the Mosaic Law. 

You are standing here in order to enter into a covenant with the Lord your God, a covenant the Lord is making with you this day and sealing with an oath, to confirm you this day as his people, that he may be your God as he promised you and as he swore to your fathers, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” (Deuteronomy 29:12-13)

The stipulations (or laws) were written in Deuteronomy already, but so we read the “blessings and cursings” next:

“Keep the words of this covenant and do them so that you may prosper in all you do…When such a person hears the words of this oath and they invoke a blessing on themselves, thinking, ‘I will be safe, even though I persist in going my own way,’ they will bring disaster on the watered land as well as the dry.  The Lord will never be willing to forgive them; his wrath and zeal will burn against them.” (Deuteronomy 29:9, 19-20) 

In other words, God will uphold his end of the covenant. But you must continue to choose to be the kind of person you said you would be in the covenant if you want to live under the blessing. If you don’t, you will live under the curse. This is the essence of the Mosaic Covenant that the Judaizers were looking to for their salvation and righteousness. When the Judaizers read this, what stayed with them was the fact that they could screw up so badly that God would never forgive them. 

It was good to have a God who wanted to covenant with you, who wanted to bless you.  It was good to know the terms and conditions. But if they failed, the cursings (or the punishment) were overwhelming. No wonder obeying the law was a big deal to the Jewish converts. And yet there was more – they were building an understanding of God based on only part of the text. 

Then Moses summoned Joshua and said to him in the presence of all Israel, “Be strong and courageous, for you must go with this people into the land that the Lord swore to their ancestors to give them, and you must divide it among them as their inheritance. The Lord himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.” (Deuteronomy 30:7-8)

Here we read that God will never break the covenant even if the Israelites don’t live up to their end of the deal.  No matter what they do, God will in a sense overlook it. God will not enforce the very consequences that he said just a couple chapters earlier. Do you see the tension here? How are we supposed to view God?

On the one hand, God cannot bless disobedient people. Justice can’t simply overlook guilt. But if God just punished them and walked away, then He was not a faithful God. So they had to work as hard as they could to please God. On the other hand, God said He would never leave, never give up, and never forsake them. But if God just gave in and accepted everything they did without consequence, then He was not a holy God.

What are we to think when it comes to a question of our relationship to God today? The Bible lets this tension hang all throughout the Old Testament. In order to resolve this, we have to look more closely at God’s covenant with Abraham. 

When God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15 (and following), He used the standard form of suzerain covenant-making I mentioned earlier. Abraham killed some animals, cut them in pieces, and arranged them to walk through.  But then God, the stronger party, passed through (as a fiery pillar) – but never made Abraham, the weaker party, do the same.

By passing through the slaughtered animal, God was saying that if He didn’t bless Abraham and honor the covenant, God – the stronger, initiating party - would have to pay the penalty. That alone would be unusual, but that wasn’t the most incredible point. God was saying that if Abraham doesn’t keep the covenant, God would pay the penalty for Abraham.

This was unprecedented. God was clearly not a consumer god, paying attention and blessing us because we made him happy.  God was a covenant god, but completely different from the wealthy, powerful lords of earth. He gave the rules, established the penalty of rule-breaking, then committed to paying that penalty for everybody.

What kind of God would do that? A God who arrives in the person of Jesus Christ. On the cross, Jesus fulfilled the conditions of the covenant by paying Abraham’s penalty. We commemorate this every time we partake in communion – His body broken, His blood spilled. The covenant must be honored. Someone must pay for breaking the agreement.

Jesus’ death and resurrection paid the penalty of  covenant breakers so that God could see them as covenant keepers.

If we break the law, we deserve punishment. We have to take the law as seriously as God does, and He thought it was so serious that death was the appropriate punishment. Fortunately for us, the One who kept it perfectly paid for those who couldn’t.

“Christ redeemed us from the curse by becoming the curse so the blessing of Abraham could come to us all by Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 3:13)  

God himself paid the penalty of our broken covenant. God’s love is a love that is offered freely to us in spite of who we are, not in response to us because of what we bring to the table. “We love Him because He first loved us.” (1 John 4:19)  Obedience to the law is not what we offer to impress God; it's what we are free do to express our faith through love (Galatians 5:6).

The law is not our savior; it is a gift from our Savior.

The law is not our lord; it is a gift from our Lord.

The law does not set us free; it shows us how to live freely.

The more we grasp the beauty of God’s covenant, the more we are driven by love and gratitude to do good for the privilege of delighting God and loving. The law is not a roadmap for earning salvation or righteousness, but it is a manual for how to properly express love for God and others.


 Recommended Resources

"Slaves, Students and Sons" (from Galatians 3)

"Substitute Saviors" (Galatians 2-3)

"Living In Freedom" (Galatians 4:8-5:1)

Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You , as well as his podcast on "Covenant Relationship" to which I am highly indebted for helping me to think more clearly about Galatians.

Living In Freedom (Galatians 4:8-5:1)

Like most Greeks and Roman citizens, the Galatians  grew up worshiping the gods of the local pantheon. Three aspects of their worship provided a foundation from which they built an understanding about how people were supposed to relate to the divine. 

  • Votive offerings. The people gave gifts to the gods who then gave them gifts. The fundamental idea was that if you were nice to the god, the god was nice to you. God was a cosmic slot machine: you put your spiritual money in, pulled the lever, and hoped you won.
  • Competitions. These were the first Olympic Games. Nothing mattered but first place. To win, of course, you had to compete with everyone else. The gods would both notice and favor the winners, while the other competitors dropped of the radar of the divine until they did something to get noticed again.
  • Processions. These parades for the gods involved a lot of pomp and pageantry. People showed off how much they were willing to give, how far they were willing to walk, etc. Everyone around them could see how much the gods must love them.

In Galatians 4, Paul reminds the new Christian converts what they had put behind them - but not completely:

“Formerly, when you did not know God, you were slaves to those who by nature are not gods. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable spiritual principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” (Galatians 4:8-9)

While it is easy to equate idolatry with idols, idolatry is far more complicated than merely the statues to which people bowed. It’s the “weak and miserable spiritual principles” that live in the heart of idolatry. It's the worship of something other than God  - the giving of ourselves completely in the service or slavery of a particular thing that we think can fulfill our deepest longings or ease our greatest fears.

We worship that to which we give our heart, soul, mind and strength. It doesn't have to be a god from a classic pantheon. It can be the very Western idols of Approval, Comfort, Control, Independence, Achievement, Ideology, or  Image. When these are the things we trust to meet our deepest longings and desires, they will destroy us in some fashion. Idolatry is a hard taskmaster.

The late writer David Foster Wallace captured this concept of slavery well. He was not a Christian, but he seems to have understood the tyranny of idolatry: 

“There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship… is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough… Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you.” 

 When we give ourselves to the worship and service of Christ, we are freed from the destructive, never-ending tyranny of desiring false gods. The Galatian Gentiles had converted from following false gods to following the true God, but they had not yet learned how their worship needed to change. To understand why this disconnect existed, we have to go with Paul back to Genesis.

God had promised that He would provide Abraham with an heir to live in a land of promise (Genesis 12:1-4; 15:4-5), and his descendants would be the line through which salvation was brought to the world. 

Abraham was old and his wife Sarah was barren. The fulfillment of the promise seemed improbable ad best. So Sarah suggested that Abraham sleep with her maidservant, Hagar, so they could “build a family through her” (Genesis 16). This was a customary and legal (though not good) practice.  Abraham decided not to wait for God to enact the promise. Instead, he decided to get a son of promise through his own effort. Hagar conceived  and Ishmael was born. Fourteen years later, Sarah miraculously became pregnant, and Isaac was born (Genesis 21:1-3).

The Jewish people knew that they were the biologically the children of Abraham, descended from him through Isaac. They also believed they were heirs of God’s promise in the line of Isaac.  So certainly agreed when Paul wrote this:

“Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. His son by the slave woman [Ishmael] was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman [Isaac] was born as the result of a divine promise.” (Galatians 4:22-23)

So far, so good. The Jewish converts are tracking with him. Unfortunately, what Paul had to say next was not going to make them as happy:

These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother…Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise… (Galatians 4:24-28).

WHAT!?!? Paul just said that the traditional Jewish understanding of what it meant to live in the line of promise was entirely wrong. Apparently, when the Galatians were becoming followers of Christ, they were being told that in order to enter into the line of promise (Isaac) they had to adopt all the Old Testament Mosaic law, because Moses was clearly part of the line too.

By conceiving a child with Hagar, Abraham was choosing to rely on his own capabilities to make God’s promises come to pass. So all the Jewish people who were relying on their own effort to gain the promise of salvation were actually in the tradition of Ishmael, not Isaac.

God chose to save the world through His promise not our power. When we look to something within our power, something we can manipulate, to meet our deepest longings, it’s idolatry. When we look to something within our power, something we can manipulate, to bring us salvation or righteousness, it is still idolatry.

“But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable forces? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you. I plead with you, brothers and sisters, become like me, for I became like you…” (Galatians 4:9-12)

The Galatian converts had left their Greek idols that enslaved them, but looking to God's law to save them brought them right back into slavery. In fact, their new religious life looked a lot like their old religious life.

  • Christian votive offerings.  Remember - if we are nice to God, God will be nice to us.  We have more devotional time, tithe more, we volunteer more in hopes that we can force God’s hand.  Moral living, family, church attendance, Bible-reading, prayer — these can all become attempts to earn a response from Go
  • Christian Competitions. When something in our life falls apart we assume God is punishing us, and when it flourishes He is rewarding us. And we begin to assume the same of others, then wonder what they did or didn’t do to force God’s hand. If that is how we view God, then it becomes very important to know who is the most rigorous in obeying the Law. After all, it should be clear who is winning, right? The one who is most obviously, outwardly successful – by our measure of success – must be the one whom God favors.
  • Christian Processions. When we do “win,” we let everyone know. Apparently, our success means we’ve found the code. We have prayed a particular way, or read the Bible just right, or finally spent enough time doing some good deed… and God responded.

If you think God’s promise will only be achieved when you do those things to an acceptable level, you have placed something else in the position of telling God when He is free to extend His promise of salvation and righteousness.

That’s idolatry. Can you see how experiencing “freedom” and “life more abundant” will seem baffling in this context? This is why Paul is in “fear for” the Galatians. They were being pulled away from a God of grace and into a religion of works. It was not freeing them from idolatry. They were never going to understand or communicate a gospel ofpromise and grace. That's why Paul says:

“Those [false teachers] are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may have zeal for them. It is fine to be zealous, provided the purpose is good…Christ is formed in you.” (Galatians 4:17-19)

Paul wants them to be full of excitement and commitment when it came to their new faith in Christ. But it had to be genuine, and to be genuine it had to embody the gospel of grace.

God is not a votive God. He isn’t waiting for a gift from me before He lets me experience life as his child.“God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ— by grace you have been saved—“ (Ephesians 2:4-5). Living well has its own reward – if I spend time in the Bible, I am absorbing God’s truth. If I spend time in focused prayer, I am purposefully humbling myself to God’s will and power. If I volunteer and help others and watch every word I say and give my money freely – good things happen all around me and within me. But I don’t want to be zealous to earn God’s favor be noticed by others. I want to be zealous because I want to participate in the character of Christ and the Kingdom of God.

There are no Olympian Games in which I have to outperform others for God to love me. I don't have to constantly compare myself to others.  God is not arbitrarily cutting off the number of people who can come into His family.  Paul says other places that he runs his spiritual race with endurance (Hebrews 12:1) and care (1 Corinthians 9:27) while still recognizing that Jesus is the “author and finisher of our faith.” (Hebrews 12:2). But that is so he can fully appreciate the life of grace and freedom God offers and spread the good news of the gospel without detracting from it (Colossians 1:29).

 I don’t need a processional. I don’t have to impress others by displaying my blessings or successes. There is no Mr. or Mrs. Kingdom of Heaven contest. I don’t have to impress a panel of earthly judges in order to be righteous before God. I am free to live without the need to self-promote because my identity comes from Christ. By the grace of God, I am what I am. (1 Corinthians 15:10). I am free to relax because Christ in me is the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27)

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourself be burdened again by the bondage of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1)


I am indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for helping me to think - and write - more clearly about Galatians.

Slaves, Servants and Sons (Galatians 3:15-4:7)

In the beginning of Galatians, Paul makes clear that we are saved and made righteous because of the work of God, not our own effort. Our merit is insufficient to ever make us good enough. How, then, do we best understand the existence of the Law? Paul said he "died" to it – all those rules and regulations were not where the spiritual action is. Paul "came alive" in Christ when he was filled with the Spirit.  That sure sounds (on the surface) like the Law is no longer part of the discussion at all.

On the other hand, Jesus himself said that he came to fulfill the law, not destroy it. Jesus clearly was not anti-law. He was, however, opposed to the way in which His people had misunderstood and distorted its purpose and use.

So were Paul and Jesus contradicting each other?  Do we have to worry about trying to be good? Is the law of no use? In Galatians 3 and 4, Paul talks about three ways we can experience the law: a slave to a Law that feels like a jailer; a student to a Law that feels like a tutor; a son to the Lawgiver Himself.


Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until [Christ] had come…  But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin...  Before the coming of this faith, we were held in custody under the law, locked up until the faith that was to come would be revealed. So the law was our guardian until Christ came that we might be justified by faith. (Galatians 3:19-24)

The Greek words denotes people are “held prisoners” and “locked up” by military guards.  They are forced to adhere, to go through the motions, because they have a harsh, controlling master. In this scenario, the law enslaves us to an unreachable standard. There is no way anybody could do it right.

My dad was a really good piano player. When I was a kid, he asked me if I wanted to learn to play piano like that, and I said, “Sure!”

I endured lessons for a year or two. I resented it. I played incredibly basic things because I had to.  It was hard to do anything right. During this time, my dad would have me play whole notes for a while, then maybe half notes, then maybe a scale if I was groovin’.  On good days, I could play “Chopsticks,” but even then I was forced to use one hand instead of the obviously necessary two.

I would be bored the whole time, complaining. Dad would say, "Do you want to play piano?” Sigh…yes… then back to the drudgery of those little notes inside those little lines. I liked the idea of being a really good piano player, but I just wasn't feeling it. Every day, the structure of music just showed me what I wasn’t good at doing.

 When it comes to our ability to "play life well" – follow the notes and stay within the moral lines – the law will do is highlight our insufficiency. If this is how we experience the law, we may obey it, but we will learn to hate it. We will resent the success of others, minimize our insufficiencies, and probably conclude that moral living is overrated. We may begrudgingly adhere to the law, but we will never love it. 


"As long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. The heir is subject to guardians and trustees (tutors) until the time set by his father." (Galatians 4:1)

A Greek tutor was hired by a father to prepare his children for life as an adult, as knowledgeable, healthy, free persons.  If all went well, the adult child will not have to be coerced into following the teaching of his father, but would instead willingly choose to pattern his life after his father.

As we begin to understand salvation and grace, the Law no longer forces begrudging obedience through coercion and fear. The Law no longer feels like a jailer. The Law begins to make more sense, and we increasingly appreciate why God found certain moral guidelines to be important.

When I was a kid, I eventually began to understand how chords and scales worked. I started to play piano on my own. While this was an improvement, it was just knowledge at this point. It didn’t mean that the art of playing a keyboard was becoming ingrained in my life. I just learned more and it was easier to do.  Practice no longer felt like prison. I played sometimes in my free time and when I was bored.

People no longer covered their ears when I sat down on the piano stool, but I was far from amazing. My increasing knowledge and ability was helpful and good, and I was beginning to understand why my own father was excited about this piano thing, but it wasn't yet me. It felt good and seemed important in some way, but it still wasn't clicking.

When we see God's law as a tutor, there is at least a comprehension of what the law is trying to accomplish. There is understanding and perhaps even appreciation (“Oh! Hey! If I play these keys together in this progression - if I make these good choices - cool! That wasn’t bad!”).

We no longer obey God for our sake or to get the “jailer” off our back. We use adherence to the law to purposefully live well, and to please and maybe even to bring glory to God. That’s far better than the first level of understanding law, but it’s still not what the law was made to do.

The Law can guide me just like a musical score – I can learn to play precisely or live morally – but that doesn’t mean that I can make music or life come alive.  Being capable is not the same as loving the music or the composer or the God to whom I have given my allegiance. And honestly, I am probably hoping people notice me more than anything else.


“God sent his Son, born of a woman -  born under the law - to redeem those  under the law, that we might  receive adoption to sonship. Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.” (Galatians 4:1-3)

 Paul uses the illustration of a young child who is the heir of a great estate. In most ancient cultures, daughters could not inherit property. Therefore, “son” meant “legal heir,” which was a status forbidden to women. Paul even adds another layer that broadens this message of hope. In the Greco-Roman world, a childless, wealthy man could adopt a servant. This servant immediately received all the financial and legal privileges due to a son and heir. Though by birth he was a slave without status or relationship with the father, he was now a son with a new life of privilege.

 This is the heart of the Christian life:  There is no slave or free, male or female, Jew or Gentile in Christ (Galatians 3:28). Now, we can all be adopted into God's family and become equal heirs to the promises and privileges that come with being part of the family.

 The piano "tutoring" bore some fruit – even though I never really went anywhere with the piano, I practiced other instruments and eventually picked up a bass. I learned to sing 8-part classical music. I increasingly saw the worth of musical knowledge and ability, and I started to enjoy it more. But I never followed up on the piano. Why?

Because my earthly father couldn't give me his spirit.

 My dad gave me the privilege of being “son.” No matter what I did or didn’t do on a piano, I was his son.  It didn’t hang on my ability. But Dad was human, and he had no way of putting his musical spirit in me.

That's the beauty of what Paul says about what happens when we become sons of God. The sense of coercion to the Law is gone. Even knowing and understanding it is no longer enough. Now, God's moral code becomes part of who we are because it’s part of who we want to be. We call out, “Abba, Father,” in a voice of awe, not fear.

The Law as Guard controlled our actions no matter how the we felt. The Law as Tutor instructed us with the hope that we would at least understand the ways of God (the Father) so that we would live holy lives not out of coercion, but out of admiration and appreciation. But when we are adopted into a family in which we grow to love the one in whom the Law is grounded, we inherit the moral nature of our spiritual father.

Notice that the Law is not gone; it’s very much still there. In fact, one way we can be sure we are living by the Spirit is if we in conformity with the Law. It helps us make sure we are experiencing God’s spirit within us accurately.  True musicians play particular notes in particular scales in particular ways. The laws of music are not suspended just because great musicians hardly think about them; the structure is just so deeply ingrained in them that mastery of the score flows out of them.

In the same way, the Word and the Spirit are deeply intertwined. Without the Spirit, the Word is just ink on paper, the musical notes we follow without soul. Without the Word, the Spirit can be misunderstood, like a musician who takes off on a solo in the wrong key.

The law may keep us from going astray no matter how much we want to; it may tutor us in a healthy way, but that was never going to be enough. Through the work of the Spirit within, we can experience the certainty that God has embraced us into his family, and from that place of… privilege…we naturally play/ live in a way that points to the one who loved us, saved us, and made us His own.

 It is then that the song of the redeemed plays most beautifully.


 I am indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for helping me to think - and write - more clearly about Galatians.

“Substitute Saviors” (Galatians 2:11 – 3:14)

Peter began a ministry to the Gentiles after God had sent a vision showing him why the Old Testament ceremonial law was finished. This vision revealed that animals formerly off limits for being unclean were now clean: “Kill and eat … Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 11:7, 9). Peter realized that this was not just a message about animals: “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him” (Acts 10:34-35). 

He ate with the Gentiles despite criticism from the formerly Jewish Christians (Acts11:2); he defended the Gentiles as being “purified [made clean] by faith.” (Acts 15:7-9).  God had called him to minister to a particular group of people that had been considered (in a sense) unclean, and Peter was effectively ministering in a way that was God-ordained. It just wan't  necessarily approved of by others.

In Galatians 2, we read Paul's opinion on a new development: because of pressure from his Jewish peers, Peter had changed his stance on how he should interact with Gentiles. Not only was he drawing back, but he claiming that they needed to undergo circumcision in order to be "clean" and acceptable to God.  Paul realized that a lot was at stake:

When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because what he did was wrong. For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Galatians 2)

In Judaism, circumcision symbolized the covenant between God and Abraham and God and the Jews. It also showed that a man had become a member of the Jewish community. Spiritual and communal identity were on the line. But Peter had received a clear message – the people who you thought were outsiders to God are tied to Him now the same way you are. One does not have to be a Jew to be one of God’s children. In spite of a specific calling God placed on Peter, he was willing to hinder the advancement of the Kingdom because of the petty opinion of others who thought that being a Christian meant meeting their non-essential standard of holiness and becoming specifically part of their group.

The Jewish converts were claiming to be religious purists, but it was a cover for judging other Christians who they thought had an inferior understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Christ just because they didn’t conform.

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you now trying to make these Gentiles follow the Jewish traditions?”

Notice how Paul doesn’t say it’s simply a matter of Peter enforcing uncomfortable social customs (though it was that too). Paul said the truth of the Gospel was on the line. Peter was compromising the Good News that salvation is an unearned gift from Christ. Being in right standing with God did not require people to conform to one particular groups customs or symbols. How is it possible to convey this message when Peter was telling the Gentiles that they needed to be circumcised even when they clearly did not?

“We who are Jews by birth and not “sinful Gentiles” know that a person is not made right by obeying law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by obedience to the law no one will be justified (given a verdict of approval) “For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law--I stopped trying to meet all its requirements--so that I might live for God. My old self has been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. I live in this earthly body by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness (right relationship) could be gained through keeping the law, there was no need for Christ to die!”

By adding this one extra hurdle – the gospel + something - Peter has set aside the grace of God. (Other places in Galatians Paul mentions holidays and other observances). That is living for the law, not for Christ.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ's death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. Are you so foolish? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect (be made complete) by your own human effort? (Galatians 3)

Foolish and Bewitched

Paul stresses in Galatians that we are justified (cleared of all charges of sin) by accepting what Christ has done through his death and resurrection, not by anything we do.  If we could wipe our ledger clean or get God’s approval by our own effort, than Christ died for nothing. Think about it: if someone gave their life for you and you didn’t need them to, they wouldn’t be heroic. They would be tragically mistaken.

Paul is not dismissing moral living (check out his letters to the Corinthians). The examples Paul uses in Galatians are things that are not necessarily wrong but can be wrong if we think they are necessary to save us or sustain us. Paul was no longer going to look to The Law as a savior, but he also wasn’t going to look at it as the means of gaining righteousness either. We don’t begin by faith and then proceed and grow through our works.

Well, we shouldn't. Let’s be honest - we are like that. It’s what we see all around us. Singers on American Idol have to earn the approval of the audience; athletes have to earn your admiration; politicians have to earn your vote; you have to earn the promotion at your job It’s what we know.

It’s probably no surprise that we tend to feel we have to do things to be acceptable for God’s salvation (which is a gift), then do things for our righteousness (which is also a gift). Do you ever feel obligated to do any of the following things because you think this will make you look better in God’s eyes,

  • have longer devotions
  • read more books on theology
  • only read/watch/listen to Christian entertainment
  • give money to Israel/ the pro-life movement/pro-family groups/any missionary organization
  • go to the right conferences
  • know something about certain bands/speakers/books
  • develop the right spiritual gifts
  • learn every aspect of apologetics
  • sing more vigorously at church
  • evangelize everyone compulsively
  • give money until It hurts
  • volunteer for everything

Now, are any of the things in the previous list bad? Not at all. Neither was circumcision. It’s not the activity that’s the problem. It’s the reason for the activity. We started our Christian journey when God’s spirit in us justified us (brings us approval in the eyes of God). We continue the journey because God’s spirit makes us righteous (right relationship). We will never be able by our actions and willpower to do anything that is sufficient to cause our salvation, maintain our righteousness, or ensure our reward. If we rely on working to earn or be worthy in the eyes of God, we will never understand grace, and if we preach this false gospel to others they will never understand grace either. It is a great formula for despair.

Substitue Saviors

The gospel + something is not the gospel. Really, it’s a form of idolatry. When we try to earn our place in Christ or in His church by adding a “work” to the Gospel, something has now become our functional savior in place of Jesus. Instead of believing that Christ alone is our hope for life and godliness, we look to something else that we can do to make us complete. Of course,  we can never be sure that we are living up to the standard that works require, and it messes us up.

We become overly sensitive to criticism. We do our best to make sure no one can ever fault us, and we become enslaved to the opinions of others. We will go to every function at church because we don’t want people to think we are not committed. If someone says, “I’m not sure your understanding the Bible properly here,” we are humiliated and defensive, as if we were supposed to have perfect knowledge.We don’t go to people who are far from Christ, because we might be seen in places where rumors could start.

We become envious and intimidated by others who outshine us. If we are asked to do something unnoticed, it seems like a waste of time because no one will know and other people are front and center. Being an “unsung hero” sounds really good until the un-song is about us.  When others flourish, we pick at them to try to bring them down to our level.

We become timid - and then boastful.  We only do things that make us comfortable, because we know we can knock them out of the park. So we don’t put ourselves in situation where we might fail, because we have to always win. We might witness by posting verses on Facebook, but we will never talk about our faith with someone at work, because posting on Facebook is an easy win, but we could fall on our face in front of someone we have to see every day. Then we talk about our wins over and over again so people know for sure that God approves of us.

We do our best to control our lives. We organize, and plan, and map out our day/week/month/year/life. We know where we want our education, family, job, church, marriage, friendships and health to go, and we know how we will get there. When anyone or anything crosses our radar that is not part of our plan, they have got to go. People might need money we have earmarked for something else or need someone to spend time with, but that would disrupt our plan. God might even be speaking to them in a way that feels utterly foreign to how we experience God, and we would not be able to manage the relationship or talk about faith on our own terms, so we don’t. • We demand that everything fits our template so, once again, we can win, so we can justify ourselves.

We become legalists. We elevate our preferences and experiences and comfort zone to the level of necessity – maybe even holiness.  We endlessly keep track of all the ways in which we have earned approval and other have not (as least that’s how we measure it).  When people don't prioritize things in the Christian life like we do, we think of them as uncommitted, second-class Christians who just aren’t as spiritual as we are. That is not life in the Spirit; that is life in the Law. That is spiritual bondage.

A Gospel of Grace

The result of believing the gospel of Christ is that we receive the Spirit. The Holy Spirit enters our life through belief in salvation by grace alone through Christ alone. We are given our new birth through the Spirit (John 3:5) and through the word of God (James 1:18). When grace saves us – and we really grasp this – we truly realize that beauty of Christ dying for us while we were sinners. Not after we were sinners. Not when we got it all together. Not when we were sufficiently capable of making good decisions. While we were yet sinners. We didn’t have to earn salvation then; we don’t have to earn righteousness now. These are gifts that only need to be embraced.

This is part of the "good news" of the Gospel: God embeds His living presence in us in spite of who we are. In the midst of our brokenness and sin, God moves in. It is His spirit, not our striving for perfection, that brings strength, renewal, hope, peace, and comfort. Now we are free from the obligation to earn anything from God or others. The bad news was that we could never do enough to become righteous. The good news is that we don’t have to.

God grants us His righteousness. We find our identity in Christ. Now it is no longer us, but Christ who lives in us. We don’t have to earn his attention; we don't have to prove anything to him. We do not begin with grace then continue “by human effort”, as though we must now earn ongoing blessings. That is “foolish.” God works from within so that we can be made right with him.

So how do we see all those things in the earlier list in such a way that our good deeds are not self-righteous works the cause us to rely on substitute saviors, but Spirit-motivated overflow of the righteousness God in his grace is working in us? If you are going to read more books on theology…sing more vigorously at church… get involved in causes… work on developing the right spiritual gifts…. learn every aspect of apologetics… volunteer for everything... don’t do it to impress others or earn approval from God; that’s foolish. Do it as God’s Spirit freely works His righteousness within you. Do it boldly without compelling others to be just like you.

 We are not called to create CLG’ers or Webers or Smiths or Norris’ or Mennonites or Charismatics or Reformed or non-denominationals. We are called to make disciples of Christ. Our message should never add to the gospel: “God so loved the world that He gave His son, and those who believe will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  That is sufficient. 


I am indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for helping me to think - and write - more clearly about Galatians.