Here’s the challenge: collapse the whole book of Galatians into one bite-sized sentence. How would you go about it? A lot of people (especially Seventh-day Adventists) steer clear of this book for various reasons, not least of which would be the disparaging comments it makes about the Law. What are we ever to do with a book that describes law as a prison when we have expended much time and effort memorising the Ten Commandments of Exodus 20? It is hardly surprising that most of the hullabaloo over this book swirls around the Ten Commandments. Here is my diffident attempt:
“It is easier to ban miniskirts than it is to be a faithful husband but God makes it possible.”
“Pride picks penance over the privilege of promised righteousness but God moulds the princes he pines for.”
“You can’t pedal your way to perfection, yours is to choose to stay in the perfect bus God has provided.”
“The hired help washes dishes for pay but the child does so because they’ll be his one day.”
As difficult as that challenge is, there are tougher ones like explaining why the Law wasn’t unequivocally stated before Sinai and why God didn’t use the word “sin” before speaking to Cain after ignoring his sacrifice. Perhaps the difficulty arises not from the Scriptures but from our understanding of God, law and redemption. It is this understanding that Paul tackles in his letter to the Galatians.
Righteousness is not good deeds and neither can it be arrived at by doing good things. Rather, nonstop pure good deeds are a result of righteousness. Make no mistake about it, heaven is for the righteous but our best attempts at righteousness are not much better than an elephant trying to look like a mouse. Righteousness is a nature, a character promised by God and only received by accepting Jesus. Hopelessly unable to be righteous, we can only look to God, who took upon Himself the unenviable responsibility of turning enemies into friends; slaves into heirs. Righteousness is not a trophy but a gift. God didn’t put it in our job description, He offers to inscribe it in our minds.
This is not to ignore Sinai but to put it in its right place. Sinai was a special class for those who were struggling to come to grips with it all, those who were more comfortable dancing around a golden calf than living in awe of a God who had broken their shackles and filled their bellies with manna. They simply couldn’t handle freedom – they lacked the character. Like the smoker who’s quit for the tenth time in a day, they certainly had the right intention but were powerless, impotent without Divine enabling. Without the story of the Gospels, Sinai is a resounding failure. The Old Testament is a narrative showing how God’s law doesn’t achieve much on cold stone unless it is taken to heart.
In a word, God’s law is far more effective as a mindset than it is as a whip. Only God can give us this mindset. Only God has offered this mindset.
The reluctance to this offer that has been felt from Cain to our time can be ascribed to one cause: Pride. It is really difficult for proud sinners such as ourselves to admit that we don’t have it made. Sadly, too often, church enables this by pushing rules instead of repentance. Too many sermons point out the desired outcomes without pointing to the true Source and so many church members either give up or shift the focus to deeds of penance: singing in the choir, extortion disguised as offering and witch hunts disguised as “protecting the church”.
Is there no effort involved? Of course there is:
Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.
Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.
(Galatians 5:23-26 The Message)
There’s no doubt about it, good deeds are desirable. Just don’t try to do it on your own. Instead, accept the Holy Spirit.
photo credit: Pascal Volk Brown haired green kiwifruit via photopin (license)