How radically freeing is the gospel? When Jesus fulfilled the law, what did he do on our behalf? How do we get the benefits of Christ’s work in our life? These questions lay behind Paul’s purpose in the book of Galatians. Those who’ve been set free by Christ have been set free from all the punishment the law can muster. They have been released to live for Christ, and for him alone. The law brought death. Jesus brings life. Why, then, is it so hard to stay away from the law?
1 I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, 2 but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. 3 In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. 4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.
Imagine God sitting you down at the beginning of your life. You somehow have the capacity to reason and understand all his words. He says to you, “I’m going to give you some rules to live by because in your immaturity and ignorance you’re going to need them. Without them, you’ll go down the wrong path. But you won’t be under these rules forever, only for a portion of your life. They will serve you and prepare you for the gift I’m giving you when you reach the proper age. When that time comes, the rules will not stand as walls to keep you inside, I will write them on your heart to go with you wherever I send you, and you can walk into the freedom you will have wished you had all your life. Will you trust me? Will you follow me all the way to maturity, allowing me to set the rules both now and then? Living under these rules for so long may make it hard for you to come out from under them when you reach maturity, but will you trust me then just as you’ve trusted me all along? Listen to me now—you have a great promise, but first, you must be trained. When you receive the promised gift, don’t despise the training, and don’t act as if the training is the purpose of your life. The inheritance is worth the wait.”
That is, in essence, what God said to his elect nation of Israel when he brought them out of slavery and gave the law on Mt. Siani. He made a promise to their father, Abraham, that through him a seed would come that would be a blessing to the whole world. They are his offspring, awaiting to promised seed. And God gives his people Moses to liberate from Egypt and enslave to God. Though it has been difficult in slavery to the Egyptians, and though it will be difficult now to be a slave to the law of God, they must hold on to God’s promise, trusting that one day the Seed is coming. The promise is on its way to fulfillment.
All throughout the Old Testament, God reminds his people of his promise. His law stands, as strong as ever, as the world races towards the fullness of time. But when the fullness of time comes, and God sends his Son and his Spirit into the world, the Galatians falter on their journey at the hand of the Jews who had received the promise. They listened to the sirens along the path, following them into slavery when God was calling them into freedom. The false teachers couldn’t understand God’s purposes. They couldn’t get beyond the law. They couldn’t see how God could grant them righteousness apart from their merit. What they didn’t understand is what Paul understood so clearly because, for Paul, it was not a new message. It was the old message, spoken by God at the very beginning. “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” (Genesis 1:26)
God is under no slavery to the law. He is free to himself. His intention for his children is no less. Paul doesn’t disparage God’s law, as the false teachers accuse. He understands the proper place of the law for the Christian. The law was a guardian, keeping God’s people until the fulfillment of the promise in Jesus. In light of the fulfillment, Paul was in a hurry to move into the land of promise. Why go back to slavery when the kingdom of God is at hand?
We are too often tempted to sell our sonship for slavery. That’s where our heart leads when we forget the gospel. It’s all part of Satan’s scheme to ruin God’s plan. He knows our pride. Though we have received the gift of righteousness apart from the law, he aims to convince us the law will only add to God’s love for us. In doing this, he’s twisting God’s word, as he always has. When we believe him, and begin adding our works to Christ’s, we tear down Christ’s work for us and prop up our work for him. Satan doesn’t mind our obedience to the law of God—though he is against it—if it means we abandon faithfulness to Jesus.
And if we won’t use the law as a ladder to God, Satan will use God’s law, not as a provocation toward wanting God’s righteousness, as God intends, but as a gun to shoot his fiery darts of damnation. What God designed to be used to drive us to see our need for a Savior, Satan will use to convince we’re too evil to be saved. Whatever he needs to do, he will endeavor to ruin Christ’s name. He seeks to minimize the cross. But God aims to highlight it. That’s why, in the fullness of time, God gave us two gifts: his Son and his Spirit.
Jesus entered the world just as we all have: born of a woman. He didn’t skate around the law; he was born under the law to redeem all who were under it. Satan did his best to lead Jesus into temptation, but where we failed in following God, Jesus succeeded to the very end. This is the gospel—that Jesus entered our world, lived the perfect life on our behalf, and gave his life as a ransom for many. John Stott summarizes.
The divinity of Christ, the humanity of Christ and the righteousness of Christ uniquely qualified him to be man’s redeemer. If he had not been man, he could not have redeemed man. If he had not been a righteous man, he could not have redeemed unrighteous man. And if he had not been God’s Son, he could not have redeemed men for God or made them the sons of God.
In his work of redemption, Jesus made us children of God. As Tim Keller says, “The only person who dares wake up a king at 3:00 AM for a glass of water is a child. We have that kind of access.” How do we use our access? God sends the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, giving us his own voice. He provides us with a part of himself, so that when we need him, we have him calling out on our behalf, and he can never deny himself.
Only a fool would leave God’s house to build a shack to impress him.
8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9 But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10 You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11 I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.
The hardest question to answer about anything is “why?” It gets to the heart of every matter. It is the question to diagnose every ill. It is the starting point for every remedy. And that’s Paul’s question to the Galatians (and to us). Why would you turn back on God? Why trade your sonship for slavery?
The problem, as with most problems, is the Galatians don’t see it as being all that dramatic. They’re likely saying, “Come on, Paul! You’re making way too big of a deal about this. We’re just trying to be good Christians! Why would you prevent us from obeying God’s law? Isn’t that what he wants? What’s the harm?” The harm, as Paul has already pointed out, is that to use the law as a ladder to God is to cut the power cord of grace flowing from the risen Christ. We are saying, in effect, “I know what you did, Lord, but can’t you see what I’ve done? Look at my achievements! Love me for them!” To say that is to deny grace. It is to turn God’s gift into our wages. But the only wages we ever earned are death (Romans 6:23).
We like to think of ourselves as law-abiding people. We feel good about ourselves the more we obey. But we can easily turn our obedience into a platform from which we demand God’s grace instead of seeing our disobedience as a need for God’s grace. We climb the platform thinking our good works gained us the spotlight only to realize that guillotine awaits. We deserve death, not life. Jesus deserved life but got death. Jesus made a terrible trade deal that worked to our benefit. Do we want to make a worse deal by spurning his offer?
The biggest “Why?” question we must answer is this. Why are we reluctant to rest in God’s finished work? Why do we insist that we have our hand in our salvation? Why would we, who have never succeeded fully at anything in our lives, want to put our dirty hand into the purifying work of God?
Paul feared he labored over the Galatians in vain. He feared his work of gospel preaching led only to law pursuit. He was astonished they left the gospel of freedom for the law of slavery. And it’s the same for every pastor since Paul. There is always the danger of a church turning from grace to law, and it can happen in an instant. When it does, not only have they abandoned Jesus, they turn on one another, biting and devouring, stepping on one another as they make their way toward God. That’s why, often, the first sign that a church is losing its first love is the way they treat one another. Here in Galatia, they’re treating Paul as a nuisance instead of giving him the honor he is due. He’s the one who first shared the gospel with them, bringing the news of salvation, but you’d think he brought a brood of vipers instead. They’re saying, “Come on, Paul. Leave us alone. Quit talking about Jesus so much.”
Paul labored on anyway, shepherding from afar, worried he labored over them in vain, but having enough faith to write to them still. After all, it’s not man’s gospel, it’s God’s, and if God’s, then it’s always the most practical thing in the world, the most urgent thing, the only thing.
12 Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are. You did me no wrong. 13 You know it was because of a bodily ailment that I preached the gospel to you at first, 14 and though my condition was a trial to you, you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus. 15 What then has become of your blessedness? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. 16 Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? 17 They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. 18 It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, 19 my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! 20 I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.
You can sense Paul’s love for the Galatians in this passage. Whatever righteous anger boiled inside, it was because of love. Paul feared he labored over them in vain, and he wasn’t going to let them slide away. He was going after their hearts, even if they’d never give it to him. Paul refers to the Galatians as brothers and children—tender words from a loving father. Paul loves them enough to say hard things, but also to tell them of his love for them. It takes both. Hard words without loving words are oppressive. Loving words without hard words are baseless. Both together are biblical.
What bothered Paul was not a nameless, faceless group of people that had abandoned the gospel. It wasn’t “that church over there.” What bothered Paul was the individuals he knew and loved that had abandoned the gospel. It was “these people that I pastored.” He wasn’t a distant theologian but a caring pastor. He pleads with them to become as he is, for he also has become as they are. He’s said the hard things he needs to say. Now, it’s time to plead with them to repent. He aims to make them feel his love. All of this should cause us pause. Do our friends and family with whom we discuss the gospel know we love them, and that’s why we boldly speak into their lives? Do our words match Paul’s both in fatherly firmness and fatherly tenderness?
John Stott said:
In seeking to win other people for Christ, our end is to make them like us, but the means to that end is to make ourselves like them. If they are to become one with us in Christian conviction and experience, we must first become one with them in Christian compassion.
Paul, a Jew of Jews, became like a Gentile, as one who doesn’t have the law, so that he could both share and show the gospel to them. Paul was a free man, despite the chains that often held him in prison. He knew at the deepest level his righteousness before God because of Jesus Christ, and this is the freedom of heart he desperately wanted for all of his sheep. He became like them so that they could become like him. He gave up some of who he was so he could give all that Jesus was. And it worked! They responded in faith. They did not scorn or despise him but received him as Christ Jesus. So what happened?
They once cared deeply about him, listening to his message despite his appearance due to an illness. We don’t know what the illness was, but it must have been significant. It perhaps altered his physical appearance and was a trial to the Galatians. But Paul’s message of grace prevailed. Jesus saved the Galatians through the weakness of his servant. Paul had many problems, but his gospel overcame all barriers to pierce the hearts of his hearers. What mattered most was not the messenger but the message.
So, Paul wants to know how these new messengers overshadowed God’s message. How can this turn of events take place so quickly? How could they ever outshine the beauty of God’s gospel? This man they once received so completely that they would have given their eye to him has now become their enemy because he persists in telling them the truth. What happened to their love?
Paul knows from where this contempt came. It was “those people,” the false teachers. They’ve ruined not only the message of the gospel but the hearts of the recipients as well. Whereas Paul came to them in weakness and infirmity, and instead of making them sick along with him, made them well in the gospel, these false teachers have come to them in strength and health, and instead of making them well in the gospel, have made them sick with the law. But Paul won’t give up. He knows the false teachers only want followers for themselves. He wants followers of Jesus. They want to use the Galatians. Paul wants Jesus to save the Galatians. He knows who will win in the end, that’s why he writes. He’s laboring for Christ to be formed in them. That’s the heart of a true pastor. He doesn’t want fame or fortune or followers for himself. The Spirit-led pastor cares only about Jesus and his glory.
None of us have empty hearts. All of us are accepting something, or someone, all the time. So, what, or who, is being formed in you? Paul writes and labors because he longs for it to be Jesus, but he fears it’s the false teacher’s message of self-sufficiency.
When we’re saved we are transferred from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of the Son of God. It’s instantaneous. There is no waiting period. It just happens. That’s our justification—our innocence before God. But our sanctification—our growth in Christ—is different. It’s not instantaneous. It’s life-long. We are becoming like Christ moment by moment, over the course of our life until we reach glorification. During that time, Christ is being formed in us. We are becoming less ourselves and more like Jesus, and when that happens, we actually become more like the person God intended for us to be. Our growth in Christ isn’t a threat to our individuality. It is the ultimate end of our individuality. When Christ is formed in us, we become who God wants us to be such that the particular God-created aspects of our personhood are highlighted in redemption to bring glory to Christ. We can die to ourselves now because doing so allows God to recreate us into who we’ve wanted to be all along.
When Christ is formed in us, God changes our desires. We become the kind of people who will lovingly accept an ugly, deformed man preaching the gospel of Christ over a put-together charlatan peddling the law as easy steps toward God. We become the kind of people joyfully willing to gouge out our own eyes to hand to another. We become the kind of people ready to die to ourselves so that others might hear the message of grace. We become the kind of people able to lay aside our preferences and become as others are so that they might become as we are. We become the kind of free people we long to be as we come under the rule of Christ over all our lives. We become God loving risk-takers willing to stake it all on Jesus.
When Christ is formed in us, God, who we never wanted, becomes the only purpose of our lives. When that happens, we place all our hope in the one person who will never let us down and we refuse any other message and any other person that would stand in the way of us gaining more of Christ. More than that, we become the kind of people who stand together as witnesses of the grace of Christ and our lives matter forever. We become the cloud of witnesses helping others run their faithful race of Christianity. In short, we become Christians, and everything changes inside us and Jesus uses us to change the world.