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.