The gospel, good news, is liberating
Religion tells us that we need to prove ourselves to God.
We need to make ourselves acceptable to him.
And we do that by following certain rules, laws.
If we keep them then we are OK.
But the gospel is very different.
It sets us free from the need to prove ourselves to God.
It sets us free from trying to make ourselves acceptable to him.
And that is great news, because we could never prove ourselves to God, and we could never make ourselves acceptable to him.
Alongside the good that we see in each of us, there is also deep corruption, deep rottenness in each one of us. And we find that we are trapped.
Thomas Costain tells the story of a 14th-century duke in what is now Belgium known as Raynald III. Raynald was grossly overweight, and was commonly called by his Latin nickname, Crassus, which means fat.
After a violent quarrel, Raynald's younger brother Edward led a successful revolt against him. Edward captured Raynald, but did not kill him. Instead, he built a room around Raynald in the Nieuwkerk castle and promised him he could regain his title and property as soon as he was able to leave the room. This would not have been difficult for most people, since the room had several windows and a door of near-normal size—none of which were locked or barred. The problem was Raynald's size. To regain his freedom, he needed to lose weight.
But Edward knew his older brother. Each day he sent a variety of delicious foods into the room. Instead of dieting his way out of prison, Raynald grew fatter. When Duke Edward was accused of cruelty, he had a ready answer: "My brother is not a prisoner. He may leave when he so wills." Raynald stayed in that room for 10 years and wasn't released until after Edward died in battle. By then his health was so ruined that he died within a year—a prisoner of his own appetite. [Illustration from PreachingToday]
We may not have that particular issue. But we will have our own battles. Gossip. Pornography or sexual immorality. Alcohol. Desperate need to prove ourselves or to please people. Spending more than we have got. It might be anger, or an inability to forgive.
And we are trapped in our room.
But God in his love sent Jesus, and when he died on the cross, he didn’t simply forgive you, or make the doors a little bigger and tell you to try harder. He knocked down the wall, and he came to you where you are.
And God offers us his love, he offers us his forgiveness, he offers us his Holy Spirit so that we can begin to want to change. Our passage speaks of 'the hope of righteousness' (5.5).
And it is all gift
You don't need to make yourself acceptable to God before you receive this gift.
You don't need to become good enough.
You don't need to know enough.
You don't need to be religious enough.
All you need to do is believe God, to trust him that when Jesus died he knocked down the wall, that he is here with us, and that he has given us his Holy Spirit to live in us
That is what these Galatian Christians had realised.
And it was so liberating.
But now people were coming along and telling them that if they really want to be acceptable to God, if they really want to be full and proper and power filled Christians, then they need to keep the law. They spoke specifically about circumcision, but that was only the start. There were a further 247 demands and 365 prohibitions in the Old Testament law.
And Paul is saying three things to them
1. You are becoming slaves again. 'Don't you realise, if you accept this false teaching that you must be circumcised, then you must accept all the other laws of the Old Testament|? It is the camel's nose. Why just that one? "I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law" (5.3)
2. If you do that, and think that God will only be really pleased with you if you keep the law, why did Jesus die? You've stopped putting your trust in what Jesus has done for you and you have started to put your trust in your own ability to keep the law. 'You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace' (5.4)
3. Why am I going round - getting mocked, arrested, beaten, even stoned - telling people about the death of Jesus on the cross, and getting persecuted for it, if I could tell people that they could get right with God by obeying the law and being good people? People can cope with that message because it means they think they are in control. God becomes the genii in the bottle. If you rub the bottle in the right way, and say the right words, then God gives you what they want. 'Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished' (5.11)
Paul is really quite angry about this.
He is angry because he is being misrepresented. It appears that the false teachers are saying that he himself is telling people they need to be circumcised.
But he is even more angry because it is turning people back into slaves - slaves to the law. So he comes out with this rather undiplomatic language: I wish those who were preaching circumcision would take the knife and castrate themselves (5.12)
How does this apply to us?
It is very easy for us to discover the amazing freedom that Jesus brings, and then slip back into old ways
We have become a Christian. We have received the free gift of forgiveness, of the Holy Spirit. We were trapped in the room, and God knocked the wall down. We’re still just as large, we still have the battle to fight, but now we have realised that we don’t need to try and squeeze through the door to get to Jesus – but that he has come to us.
But, perhaps we go through a sticky patch. We mess up badly, or Jesus seems distant, and then people – like these false teachers in Galatia – come along.
And so we start to think: surely I have got to do something to make God really love me? He can’t love me as I am.
God will only really bless me if I pray in a particular way, or if I fast, or if I work hard enough, or if I tithe, or if I'm baptised as an adult, or if I speak in tongues, or if I please certain people, or if I have a half night or full night of prayer. God will only really bless me if I worship right in the right church in the right way.
I think I have spoken of the time when as a young curate, having experienced the pit and found myself unable to pray (whenever I did pray my head went all whizzy) I suddenly realised that if I never prayed another prayer in my life, God would still love me and would still bless the work. It was so liberating. I had turned prayer into a work. It set me free from this deep burden that I had placed on myself- a burden that was so great it had caused me to crash.
BUT, and there is a big but.
It was the charge that the opponents of Paul were levelling against him:
If you are saying that we are free from the law - then you are encouraging people to live self-centred lives.
Our chap in the room. If Jesus is with him, then why shouldn’t he just continue to eat and eat?
To which Paul's answer in 5.13-15 is that when you welcome Jesus, and he comes to you, God gives you his Holy Spirit.
And the Holy Spirit will begin to change you – from the inside. He will prompt you to live in a new way.
The Holy Spirit will put God’s law into you, so that you will begin to want to live in a new way.
The Holy Spirit will begin to work in you so that you begin to see other people in a new way. And you will want to love and you will begin to love: not in the shallow way that the world loves, but in the deep way of God.
And I have seen that so often.
A person becomes a believer, they put their trust in Jesus, and they begin to change. They have a hunger for God’s word – that wasn’t there before.
Their language, for instance, begins to change.
They begin to want to do something about the deeply ingrained rubbish that is in them. They are probably not going to become perfect overnight – and it may continue to be a struggle for the rest of their lives – but now they want to get involved in the struggle.
They want to meet with God’s people and to worship
Paul writes, ‘Do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ (5.14)
And so we begin to love not as a way of making God love us, forgive us or bless us, but as a response to the God who has forgiven us, does love us, who has come to us and who has already blessed us.
And even when the desire is not there, yes we do try to do the right thing as duty, but not in order to make God love us, but because we know that God does love us. And yes, it can be a battle and a struggle – but Paul deals with that in the next few verses
So my brothers and sisters in Christ, we are free. The wall of our prison has been broken down and Jesus has come to us. We are children of God. We don’t need to keep any law (whether it is moral, legal or religious) to get God to love us more. But because we know the love of God, we will want to change and we will want to begin to love.
We are free! Free from the outer law, a law that is imposed on us. Free from the need to prove ourselves to ourselves or to God.
But we are not free from the inner law, the law that God has put in our hearts, and that is the law to love.