Have ever seen someone who has a compulsive obsession with being clean? They soap, and they scrub, and it is never good enough. They are clean, but they don’t realize how clean they are. There is a spiritual version of this: we soap and scrub (we do devotions, we pray, we tithe, we volunteer at church, we do missions, we only absorb Christian entertainment, we give to every noble cause) to make ourselves clean because we just sense we are never not dirty. And while all those things I listed are fine, they will never make us clean.
“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.
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.
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.
WHEN WE ARE SLAVES TO A JAILER
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.
WHEN WE ARE STUDENTS TO A TUTOR
"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.
WHEN WE ARE SONS OF A FATHER
“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.