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"From Legalistic Bondage to Spirit-living Freedom"

Gal.2:17-21; 4:1-7 (5:16-26; 6:7-10) - Sept.27/15


As humans, we have an innate craving for structure, routine, knowing where the boundaries are. If you get a new puppy, it's a good idea to walk it around the property line so it knows where the limits are. Often counselors at a summer camp would do that with the campers the first day, to let them know where the boundaries were. When you sit down with a friend to play a game, it helps to be agreed on the rules: whether "ordering your partner up" means you have to "go alone", for example, or whether you're playing with jokers (in the deck I mean, not your companions!). In sports, you've got to know how the game is played. It wouldn't do for the Blue Jays to make it to the World Series and suddenly find out they were to play by the rules of cricket instead of baseball.

Religions are big on rules. Priests and imams and theologians devote their whole lives to understanding the principles set forth in their related holy books. The secular mindset rejects the assumption that there are supreme principles to which everyone ought to be accountable. "What makes you think you have the right to start making value judgments?" one might hear. Church folk are often accused of being judgmental, moralizing, legalistic, as well as hypocritical.

Yet religious people like knowing what's what, the definition of right and wrong, what's in line with correct doctrine. Knowing where the boundary lines are helps us have a sense of meaning, value, when we've transgressed and need to ask forgiveness OR when others have transgressed and need to be corrected. When someone comes along and challenges our assumptions, our traditional laws, that's very unsettling.

This month we've been tracing the theme, "Christ in you, the hope of glory." This was prompted by Andrew Farley's talk at Kingdom Bound based on his book The Naked Gospel. Finishing off his book this week, I was challenged again by the endnotes. Farley writes:

"Taking the Ten Commandments away from a believer can be spiritually akin to taking a safety blanket away from a child. The child may feel insecure, but removing the crutch is essential to helping them become mature. It's natural for adults to feel insecure when something we've seen as a foundation for our lives is figuratively yanked from us. But realizing our release from the law is an essential step toward Christian maturity. The apostle Paul minces no words in making freedom clear to the first-century church and to us today.

"The law was never intended to serve as a foundation for the Christian life. We have no right or scriptural basis by which to select portions of the Mosaic law and claim that these should supervise believers. Paul teaches that believers are led by the Spirit and are not under the law. Thus, even the Ten Commandments are not designed to guide our daily living. The Ten Commandments are described as a ministry of condemnation that brings death. Who wants that in their life? We're also informed that sin gains an opportunity through commandments, including the 'Big Ten.' The law causes sin to increase, not decrease. Therefore, we can expect more struggle and more sinning if we adopt the law as our guide for living. Conversely, our release from the law directly results in a release from sin's power. Apart from law, sin is dead."

What?! We're not even to go by the Ten Commandments as guidelines for daily living? Who suddenly threw the rule-book out the window?!

We're aware that Jesus criticized the Pharisees for tithing herbs while ignoring the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy, and faithfulness (Mt 23:23). We are thankful the Jerusalem Council rejected the demands of some Pharisees who insisted in Acts 15:5, "The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses." We like to be able to enjoy our bacon and pork chops! But isn't Farley taking it too far to rule out even the Ten Commandments?


To what degree believers in Christ ought to follow Old Testament teaching was a hot topic in the early church. The Apostle Paul reprimanded the church at Galatia for deserting the gospel he had preached to them in favour of legalistic clap-trap brought later by Judaizers, the so-called "circumcision party". Gal 1:6f "I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel-- which is really no gospel at all." He rehearses for them the story of his own conversion and appointment to apostleship, not only by the risen Christ himself, but also by the reputed "pillars" of the early church - James, Peter, and John (Gal 2:9). Then in the last half of chapter 2 he recounts how Peter ("The Rock") reneged when he visited Antioch, the first truly Gentile Christian church: Gal 2:12f "Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray."

Peter was caving in under pressure, drawing in even Barnabas, Paul's co-worker! Were Gentiles who didn't follow the law of Moses second-class Christians? Did they have to be circumcised to be truly saved? The Gospel was on the line.

Paul bravely stood and reprimanded Peter in front of the whole group. Gal 2:16 "...we...have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified."

We Gentiles can be very thankful Paul spared believers the onerous obligations of the very specific and detailed dietary and other restrictions God set forth for the Jewish nation under Moses. But, where does that leave us? Does that mean even the Ten Commandments are excluded, as Andrew Farley suggests? In each of his letters, Paul includes a section "exhorting" the church on how to behave and live as Christians; what positive basis for ANY moral and ethical teaching is left if the Old Testament law no longer applies?


One of the problems with a legalistic approach to religion is that people can smell it coming a mile away. No matter how carefully we express our well-meaning correction, it can come across as judgmental; the person corrected feels like they're being put down, demeaned, criticized - and that perhaps this is happening because the person doing the correcting thinks they're superior, better-than-you. Especially if the 'corrector' has no obvious moral office for doing so: "What gives YOU the right to point out MY flaws? You goody-two-shoes!"

According to Paul, those who trust in Christ must die to the law, give up all their yardsticks and measuring rods they might use to judge themselves as superior to other folks who've obviously messed up. 2:19 "For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God." We must repent, admit we've fallen short of God's glory, we've blown it ethically and have not a smidgen of right to boast about our own moral accomplishments over anyone else. Repentance involves destruction of any pride we might have in "measuring up" ourselves, no matter how "good" a life we might have lived relatively speaking. Paul knew from personal experience that living a law even perfectly attuned to the Torah does not get a person right standing before God; and it won't work for you, either!

That leads in to what's probably my favourite verse in the Bible - and perhaps the hardest! We can only die to the law by being CRUCIFIED with Christ. The "old self" / "old man" has GOT to die. 2:20 "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." It's a death - yes - but a being sunk into One who "loved me and gave Himself for me" - poured out His own life that I might be His forever.

Along with dying to the law comes crucifying the flesh. 5:24 "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature [Gk: sarx=flesh] with its passions and desires." Flesh is more than just the molecules of physical meat; as the lexicon notes, "the flesh, denotes mere human nature, the earthly nature of man apart from divine influence, and therefore prone to sin and opposed to God". Thus your mind, your attitude, your pride - the whole "you" as you came forth from your mother's womb with a fallen heart inclined toward sin and selfishness - that whole human package has to be crucified, let go, put to death metaphorically, along with the appetites, passions, and desires that come so naturally to it. For those flesh-desires, v17, are "contrary to the Spirit"; flesh and the Holy Spirit "are in conflict with each other".

When we give rein to the flesh's appetites, what results is the list of sorry outcomes in 5:19-21: "The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like." Paul warns those who live this way will, at the last judgment, find themselves DIS-possessed of the Kingdom of God: 5:21B "I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God."

According to Paul, the keynote of the Christian life is NOT keeping a list of rules - not even so venerable a list as the Jewish regulations set forth by Moses - but becoming a totally new creature. 6:14f "May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is a new creation." A radical new beginning fashioned by God's Spirit, starting fresh from the inside-out. Sometimes such a radical break from our former lifestyle that people are left shaking their heads saying, "I don't know what's got into him/her."


If we must die with determination, we're also to live with the Lord. 2:19 "through the law I died to the law so that [purpose clause] I might live for God." Physical birth finds us most naturally living for OURSELVES; new birth in Christ brings us around to live FOR GOD. New purpose, new direction, a sense of belonging to Him / "I'm all Yours". 2:20 "I no longer live" - sorry ego, you're 'out of the chairman's chair'! - "but Christ lives in me.The life I live in the body, I live [how?] BY FAITH IN THE SON OF GOD..." Each step an exercise in trusting Jesus to lead, each pace a commitment in discipleship, following Him who loved me so, who bought me, paid for my ransom at such a dear price.

Last week we were looking at John 14&15; Jesus was making it very clear He was going away so that the disciples could experience a new Counselor or Helper within them, the "Paraclete" or Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the agent by which God's guidance becomes effective in our lives as we listen to Him. 5:25 "Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit." The verb means "to proceed in a row as the march of a soldier". When drilling at Camp Borden for my Basic Army Officer (Specialist) course, you learned very quickly to slip in a quick little half-step if you found yourself out of pace with the rest of the troops! Are you "keeping time with" the Holy Spirit, or have you "broken ranks" in your life as it were?

Trusting in Christ, living with the Lord inside, means we've gone from PAWN to POSSESSOR, from slave to sonship (in the sense of full legal heir). 4:3 "So also, when we were children, we were in slavery under the basic principles of the world." (The basic elements of human religion, without knowledge of God's revelation.) SLAVERY! 4:5 But God sent His Son "to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons." The son, the legal heir, is so much better off than a slave. Heir of what? 5:22 talks in terms of inheriting "the Kingdom of God". 6:8 Those who sow to please the Spirit "will reap eternal life". As a son of God, a daughter of the Most High by faith in the One He sent, you can become an heir of His Kingdom, possessing eternal life.


In fairness to Andrew Farley, while downplaying the Ten Commandments, he does acknowledge the essential role of the Holy Spirit in a believer's life. He writes: "But we shouldn't ignore the purpose of the law today. The law is holy and perfect, and it has a particular use in the world today. It's designed to convict sinners of their depraved state. It shows the dirt on the face of humanity, but it can't offer a solution. Only Jesus Christ cleanses us from the sin that the law reveals.

"Although the law plays an important role in the world today, it has no place in the life of a believer. The Spirit living in us is God's superior replacement for the work of the law. In fact, what the law couldn't do in its inferiority, Christ has already done through placing us in perfect standing before God. Our calling is to break free from the law and cling to the Spirit alone as our guide for daily living."

The person living by legalism and rules will always find themselves checking their list, perhaps eying what's just the other side of the line. The emphasis is on restriction and containment, not liberty. Imagine a horse on a ranch just outside the barn in a corral; it's running around and around the perimeter of the corral, looking for an opening, wanting to get out perhaps for some greener grass, or perhaps it's a lusty stallion panting, "Gotta get me a mare! Gotta get me a mare!" They're not enjoying the space they have; their whole focus is on what's constraining them. The horse is a slave: bound by the fence, yes; but also drawn or pulled by their desire, their passion.

Across the yard lies an old dog, over on its side basking in the sun's rays, legs splayed apart carelessly. (I picture part Lab, part collie...Make it what you will!) The dog's water bowl and food dish are just outside the porch door. The dog's master is sitting in a swing on the porch reading the newspaper. There's no fence holding the dog in. It's not anxious to go running off far from home; maybe it'll go check out the back 40 to see if there are some rabbits or mice, but it always comes back up to the house. Why? Because everything it wants is right there. It HAS what satisfies it most. No fence needed.

There's no pleasing the horse, hence the fence. The fence is like the law. As soon as you tell someone they can't have something, THAT's what they want. Legalism prompts you to look for loopholes; the law itself awakens inferior desires. Romans 7:5 "For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death." What passions or desires will you choose to please? Gal 6:8A "The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction..." Feeding those passions plunges you into the downward spiral of the "deeds of the flesh" in 5:19-21.

BUT God has better things in store for those who come to Him, who seek and desire Him. 6:8B "the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life." Along with those "fruit of the Spirit" in 5:22f - things which, as Paul observes, "Against such things there is no law." What possible need could there be of a law against love, joy, peace, goodness, and so forth?

What are you sowing to please, to satisfy - the flesh, or the Spirit? What are you eager for, what's your keenest hope? Paul tells us what he's hoping for in 5:5, "But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope." It's a character thing, the RIGHTEOUSNESS Christ is producing in his life.

Are you like that stallion, anxiously pacing the inside perimeter of the fence, longing for something that's forbidden? Or are you like that dog who doesn't need a fence, satisfied in having his Master near, and what's already been provided?

Maybe Andrew Farley is right, we don't really need the Ten Commandments, the "Big Ten". Those who yield to Christ have the Spirit inside to guide, be that "Counselor" Jesus promised. Really there's not that many commands needed. Paul writes in Gal 6:2 "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." Carrying each other's burdens, eh? 5:6 "For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision [those picky Old Testament laws for Jews] has any value.The only thing that counts is [wait for it!] faith EXPRESSING ITSELF THROUGH LOVE."

Paul's yearning for believers is to realize they're not slaves to traditions and customs and "shoulds" and "shouldn'ts"; they're FREE when they receive Christ. Yet it's a freedom with a heart that cares. 5:13-14 "You, my brothers, were called to be free.But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature [or, flesh]; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself."" May we please God by finding pleasure in Him, and in loving one another. [DC SERVE examples] Let's pray.