In his letter to the Galatian believers, Paul included several powerful and thought-provoking questions for their serious consideration: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?… Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?”
One can easily identify the primary reason why Paul felt it imperative to spell things out this way. The issue at hand was so potent and dangerous he felt he had to respond immediately and drastically. The purity and clarity of the gospel itself was at stake, as was the individual and collective experience of believers in that region. Paul’s reply would, in many ways, determine the effectiveness of the gospel in his forthcoming evangelistic efforts to the Gentiles, and consequently, the implications of the gospel as it pertained to the importance of subsequent Christian discipleship.
The issue was a complex mixture of various Judaistic and Christian theological emphases, with its practical implications following close behind. However, the essential characteristic that shaped the overall doctrinal stance originated from within the confines of the ecclesiastical community. Paul commented that the “matter arose because some false brothers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.” These “false brothers” have since been described as Judaizers, that is, Jewish Christians who believed, among other things, that a number of the Old Testament ceremonial practices remained binding on the New Testament Church. They insisted that Gentile converts to Christianity abide by certain Old Testament rites, especially circumcision. Their ultimate purpose was based on the belief that justification through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, was insufficient. Therefore, in order for justification to take its proper course, one had to receive this action from God which, for Paul and the general New Testament witness, was entirely satisfactory, and combine it with old covenant traditions that no longer held binding power on those in Christ. Paul would have none of this.
He responded by highlighting repeatedly the absolute truth that humanity, individually and collectively, is justified by faith alone in the finished work of Jesus Christ – nothing less and nothing more. The same are sanctified, not through any form of legalistic additions to the gospel in a futile attempt to make it more theologically complete and socially acceptable, but by the obedience that comes from faith in God’s work through Jesus Christ, by the enablement of the Spirit. “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation,” that is, in Christ people undergo a transformation that results in an entirely new being. It is by grace through faith alone that humanity is justified, and they live out this new life in the freedom and power of the Spirit. For “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.”
Not much has changed since Paul’s day. We live in a different historical era, surrounded by many cultural and social distinctions, but the attempt by some within the Christian community, perhaps unintentionally, to subvert the sufficiency and purity of the gospel has remained. Anytime an individual or a group, regardless of age or Christian maturity, insists that additions to the gospel are necessary to make it complete and more socially palatable, legalism continues to raise its ugly head.
I don’t doubt their sincere attempt to keep the gospel and its adherents pure, for sanctification certainly entails a strong element of personal holiness. However, to say that legalistic additions to the essentials of the gospel are required as a means of authenticating the experience of the gospel in one’s life, is simply unacceptable and is, in Paul’s words, “really no gospel at all.”
It is true that in our daily Christian experience “acts” of love and compassion to and for others authenticate our faith, but it is likewise true that “acts” can never be perceived as a means to salvation, in addition to the grace found in God, through Christ, by the Spirit. In Paul’s day it was the observance of certain dietary laws and days, culminating in the necessity of circumcision. In our day, it is often evidenced through our relentless personal rigidity and pompous attempts to stifle the individuality of brothers and sisters in Christ who have found that a genuine relationship with God through Christ, in the magnificent power of the Spirit, is based in the glorious freedom found only in and through the glorified Christ. “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
Galatians 3:1-3; 2:4; 6:15; 5:1; 1:7; See 4:10; 5:1.
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