Over the years I’ve had a number of Christians say to me, “Ray, when I came to Christ, it was only by the grace of the cross. I was free and filled with joy. But before too long, the freedom of grace was replaced by the burdens of the law of God.”
There may be a few reasons for this. Some of you were not told that Christ must be your saviour as well as your Lord. Becoming a Christian is a personal relationship with Christ, but it is on his terms. Misunderstanding this leads to what one person said to me: “It feels as if the rules have changed halfway through the game. It feels like you come in by faith, but you have to stay in by works.” And the result of this is that the joy of salvation is replaced by the burden of being a failure.
My friend was home one day and walked past the toilet. He heard his Christian wife punishing herself with the words, “Failure!” F.A.I.L.U.R.E.
That is what was happening to the Galatian Christians. They came to Christ by trusting Jesus’ death. Then the false teachers urged them to live their lives trusting the law of God. The pointy end of that law was circumcision for the men. And the word for them and us is, “You idiots!” Galatians 3:1, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” Or Galatians 3:3, “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” (NIV)
It’s as if the Galatians didn’t realize they were putting a gun to their own heads, and Paul was saying, “Stop!” And then Paul takes them back to the beginning of their Christian lives, Galatians 3:2:
I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? (NIV)
Along with justification, the Spirit is one of God’s great blessings for God’s people. How did the Galatians receive the Spirit of God? Was it by keeping the law, and getting circumcised, or by taking God at his word? They received the Spirit by hearing the gospel with faith, not by keeping the law. The Spirit enabled them to call God “Father”. The Spirit gave them newfound desires. The Spirit worked miracles among them. And so Paul reminds them that they received the blessings of the Spirit by trusting the word of God.
By the way, believing in God does not save you—only believing in the God who makes promises saves you. True faith takes God at his word. It is true faith that justifies, and that is what triggers the gift of the Spirit. Specifically, trusting in Jesus Christ and him crucified links us to Jesus Christ, and brings to us the gift of the Spirit.
When my son James was young, we were watching a children’s show on TV and someone said, “God helps those who help themselves”. James asked me, “Is that true, Dad?” I said, “No!” But what I should have said, “God helps those who give up on themselves and trust Jesus.”
If you did not receive the Spirit by observing the law, what makes you think you are going to keep the Spirit by observing the law? It’s like being given a fuelled-up BMW for your birthday, and you then drive around the block. But then the next day you open the door and start pushing the car to make it go. The rules don’t change once you become a Christian.
It’s worth reflecting a little more on why it is that we start off under grace but end up under law—or at least we feel like we are under law. I think this happens for a range of reasons. Young Christians are impressed by passionate but legalistic teachers who quote lots of Old Testament law. They might appeal to their love for God. And in the Galatians’ case, they might try to influence them by saying, “What? Don’t you want to glorify God? If Abraham, Moses, David, and even Jesus were all circumcised, what makes you better?"
We might also feel like we are under law rather than grace because at the very time the Spirit brings you joy in saving you, he is convicting you of sin. We confuse the conviction of sin by the Spirit with the condemnation of Satan. And sometimes the church doesn’t help—when the saints respond to your failure with the stiff arm of truth and judgment. And sometimes we choose to place ourselves under law and out of sheer pride.
What Paul says is not new. He uses Abraham as a test case. You are justified by faith and you stay justified by faith. You come in by grace and you stay in by grace. Paul goes back to the beginning of Israel’s life. As a Jew, if you want to win the argument, you go the Father of the Jews, Abraham. Galatians 3:6:
So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. (NIV)
How was Abraham justified or seen as righteous? By trusting in God’s word. Here is the backstory: Abraham was given a promise in Genesis 12, that he would be the father of a great nation, and through him the world would be blessed. The only problem was that both he and his wife were very old, and his wife Sarah was infertile. Years passed, and still they had no kids. So God gets Abraham to take a long look at the stars of the sky. God makes the promise that Abraham is going to have as many kids as those stars. Then we are told in Genesis 15:6, that Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness” (NIV).
Unrighteous Abraham was reckoned or counted as righteous because he believed. How was he reckoned righteous? By taking God at his word. And Abraham was justified in the same way that you are justified. Importantly, Abraham was justified way, way, way before he was circumcised. It’s always been this way. The rules did not change once you became a Christian.
I’ve been a Christian for 38 years. I am right with God solely and only because I trust that Jesus died for me—nothing more and nothing less. You get saved in exactly the same way. Whether you lived 2000 years before Christ like Abraham, or 2000 years after Christ like us, the rules are the same. Whether in the Old Testament or the New Testament, this truth of justification by faith was not just for Abraham or just for the Jews—this blessing was for the world. Galatians 3:8-9:
Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (NIV)
Abraham was the agent of God’s blessing for the nations. The word ‘blessing’ is code for doing good. So what was the good that God had in mind for the world? It was this—when God said “all nations would be blessed through Abraham”, God had a vision and plan that was for all nations and cultures. The blessing was that anyone from any nation could be right with God if only they would take God at his word. The Spirit was given to everyone who trusts God’s promises concerning Jesus, so the rules have not changed. But if the blessings come to anyone who relies on Jesus, then the curses come upon anyone who relies on keeping the law. So Paul is saying to the Galatians, “Are you sure you want to put yourself under the law?” Paul tells them about the law’s pass mark, Galatians 3:10:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” (NIV)
The law of God is a perfectionist. It has to be, for God is holy. The pass mark is 100%. Notice that all people who rely on the law—whether they are Jews or non-Jews—are to keep all of the law—you can’t pick and choose—all of the time. That is unbelievable pressure. It is impossible for us sinful humans. How many times did Adam and Eve break God’s law before they were kicked out of the garden? 300,000? 30,000? 3000? 300? 30? 3? None of those--just one! One sin and Adam and Eve were deemed unfit to be in God’s presence. The law rides with death as it slams you to hell.
But rather than go to Christ to receive salvation and justification, people re-calibrate the law’s demands. We tell ourselves that there is a 60% pass mark for whatever law to which we go. We then play games by focusing on our success and ignore our failures.
In the movie ‘American Gangster’, Russell Crowe plays an honest cop who won’t take bribes, but he is unfaithful to his wife. His wife says to him, “You don't take money for one reason: to buy yourself the right to be dishonest about everything else. You think you’re going to heaven because you’re ‘honest’. You’re not. You’re going to the same hell as the crooked cops you can’t stand.”
We do the right thing in one area to buy ourselves the right to do the wrong thing in another area. But the law does not say, “Do the best that you can, I understand you’re only human. Two out of three aint bad.” It says, “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the book of the law.” The law has a self-destruct button strapped to its chest. If you come looking to justify yourself by the law, you will engage the button that will blow yourself up in the process.
It’s not that the law is bad, but that it was never meant to be used that way. The law was meant to demarcate God’s holy will that shows us what pleases and grieves God. The law was given to show us that we need a savior, and his name is Jesus.
But if the law only brings curses, how does faith in Christ reverse those curses? Galatians 3:13:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” (NIV)
In the Old Testament, if someone broke the law of God and committed adultery, then the wages of sin is death. The person was stoned to death. And after the person died the body was strapped to a tree until dark, left there as a reminder that the person was cursed by God and the community.
So who does God provide as a substitute to take our curse? It would make sense to choose the worst of the worst to pay for the sins for the rest—apart from the fact that it would not work. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Your judge has himself already been judged for your sin at the cross. God had his own Son executed and publicly shamed. God had the Messiah strapped on a cross, cursed by both God and man. That is why Jesus said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The answer is, “For you”.
So many cultures live in fear of curses—for example, pointing a bone, or the evil eye. They try to remove curses by spells and magic arts and witch doctors. They forget that every human is under a curse of hell and only Christ himself can and has taken that curse.
Have you while you are in Christ come under a spell by relying on the law and as a result feel condemned? The Galatians allowed themselves to be bewitched. Galatians 3:1:
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. (NIV)
So let me now break the spell for you: “Abra cadabra, abra caddoo, Jesus died just for you”. The spell is now broken, as you live your life now by trusting and keeping trusting the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you.
Don’t move from that spot. That was how you started your journey, and that is how you will continue. So when someone passes by the toilet door and hears you talking to yourself in a low point in your life, may they hear you saying to yourself, “Justified! I am justified by faith in Christ my saviour. God sees me just as if I never sinned.”