How did you first become a Christian (if you are one)? Remind yourself of the story. Now ask yourself this: did I become a Christian after I’d sorted my life out, or by putting my faith in Christ? That’s Paul’s challenge to the Galatians in 3:2–3:
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? Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?
We all have different conversion stories. Some are dramatic, some gradual. Many of us struggle to name a date. But common to them all is faith in Christ. Salvation is not something we achieved. All we did was reach out to receive it as a gift from God.
Our problem is that we all too easily forget this. We forget that we received the Spirit through faith and not as a reward for our works. We forget that left to ourselves, we were powerless to change. And so we go back to our old ways. We start trying to live the Christian life ‘my way.’
We try to be acceptable Christians by keeping a law. We think what makes us righteous is attending the prayer meeting, being able to quote Bible verses, leading a moral life or responding emotionally in corporate worship. Our prayers or our tears, we think, make us acceptable Christians. Then we look down on people who don’t measure up to our standards. Or we become anxious when we don’t measure up. We live like slaves instead of sons.
The Galatians are returning to legalism and losing their joy. So this is an invitation to rediscover joy. If your life lacks joy, then this is for you. I don’t mean being happy all the time–sometimes life is painful. But even in those moments we will find comfort in God. If you can’t find that comfort or if you’ve lost your fizz, then listen up. Here’s a diagnostic for a lack of spiritual zest.
1. We lose our joy when we use religious duty to impress others.
It’s not clear whether Peter agreed with those who said that Gentiles should be circumcised. But either way, he went along with them ‘because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group’ (Gal. 2:12). He wanted to be with the in-crowd. And this was also what was happening in Galatia. The Gentile Christians were being forced to return to religion to fit in.
I wonder what you do, not because it’s the right thing to do or because you want to please God, but because you fear the disapproval of other people.
This is why some people have a low capacity for service. It’s because service has become a burden, and none of us can carry a burden for long. Sooner or later we need to stop and recover. But Jesus says, ‘My yoke is easy and my burden is light’ (Matthew 11:30). If the burden of serving Christ feels heavy, then something is wrong. The chances are you’re trying to prove yourself or impress others.
2. We lose our joy when we use religious duty to control sin.
‘Yes, we all agree we’re justified by faith. But we need religious duties to grow as Christians.’ That’s the objection Paul anticipates in 2:17. This is how he puts it: ‘But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin?’ First-century Jews divided the world into righteous Jews and Gentile sinners. If Christians weren’t among the righteous Jews as defined by circumcision, then they must be among the sinners. And if not now, then surely that’s where they’d end up without the law to keep them on track. It’s a powerful argument. When Christians struggle with sin, they’re tempted to revert to a law. Or when we see other people sinning, we’re tempted to impose a law on them.
But Paul will have none of it. ‘Absolutely not!’ he says (2:17). That’s because the law can only expose sin. It can’t stop it or cure it. We shouldn’t rebuild what we tore down (2:18). In other words, we shouldn’t reintroduce religious duty as a way of life, having rejected it as a way of conversion. If you reimpose the law, then all you’ll do is turn people into law-breakers. The law was supposed to point us to Christ. You undermine that purpose if, having found Christ, you then walk away from him and back to it. Indeed, in an unexpected twist, that actually makes you the ultimate law-breaker, because you act contrary to the law’s true purpose (2:18). For you’re walking away from Christ rather than towards him. Luther says,
Although the law discloses and increases sin, it is not against the promises of God but for them. The reason for this is that it humbles us and prepares us to seek for grace . . . When the law forces us to acknowledge and confess our sins in this way it has fulfilled its function and is no longer needed, because the moment for grace has come.1
It was only when I gave up trying to earn God’s approval that I could receive God’s approval by faith (2:19). When I was trying to earn approval, my motives were confused. I was trying to please God, but what I really cared about was my salvation. Only when I received salvation as a gift could I truly make pleasing God my focus.
So What Happens Next?
If it’s not by law, then how do we live and grow as Christians? We need to realize that becoming a Christian is not just a change of opinion or a lifestyle choice. It’s a death and resurrection. You die to your old life and you live a new life. At this point you might be saying, ‘Hang on a moment. I think I would have noticed if I’d died!’ But Paul says we died and rose in Christ when Christ was crucified and resurrected: ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me’ (2:20). Before Christ we had no innate desire or ability to please God. But now we’ve been remade. Now what’s innate is Christ! ‘Christ lives in me.’ Calvin says, ‘Engrafted into the death of Christ, we derive a secret energy from it, as the shoot does from the root.’2
What does this look like in practice? Verse 20 continues: ‘The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’ What now motivates us is ‘faith in the Son of God’. This is our drive, our passion, our enthusiasm. It’s not just faith in some abstract truth or theological dogma; it’s much more personal. It’s faith in the One ‘who loved me and gave himself for me’. His love leads to our love. His sacrifice leads to our sacrifice.
Paul says, ‘Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified’ (3:1). He’s saying, ‘We proclaimed Christ so clearly, it was as if you could see him for yourselves.’ That’s how we help one another–not by imposing a set of rules, but by portraying Christ crucified. Our mantra is: ‘The Son of God loved you and gave himself for you.’ And that produces lives characterized by drive, passion and enthusiasm. Even in the midst of service and sacrifice, it creates lives of joy.
Luther, ‘Second Lectures on Galatians’, p. 119.
John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries: The Epistles of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians and Colossians, trans. T. H. L. Parker (St Andrew’s Press, 1965), p. 42.
This article is adapted from Reforming Joy: Paul, the Reformers, and the Church Today by Tim Chester.
Tim Chester (PhD, University of Wales) is a faculty member of Crosslands and a pastor with Grace Church, Boroughbridge, North Yorkshire. He is an author or coauthor of over thirty books, including A Meal with Jesus; Reforming Joy; and, with Michael Reeves, Why the Reformation Still Matters. This article was found here at crossway.org.