Imagine a pastor comes along who does not understand the Gospel, but still gets invited to speak anyways. What would happen? How would you confront the person? What, exactly, about the Gospel do you think they have wrong, and are you sure that you are right about that?
This was the situation in Galatia when Paul wrote their church a letter. Word had gotten back to Paul that the church was divided between the Jewish and non-Jewish Christians. A new group of pastors had come into town teaching that non-Jews had to be circumcised to enter Christianity. (Circumcision was a ritual practice marking a boy as Jewish; in other words, non-Jews had to become Jewish first before they could become Christians). As this division grew, the Jewish Christian believers stopped eating with and then associating with the non-Jewish Christians.
Grasping his flowing white beard and preparing his long quill pen, Paul looks at the situation and concludes, clearly, you don’t understand the Gospel.
What about the Gospel did they not understand? I’ll tell you what they didn’t get wrong. They didn’t mistake who was at the center of it. That would be Jesus. They didn’t mistake what happened next. That would be the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. They didn’t mistake who can be included in it. That would be everyone.
The mistake was how deep the Gospel goes. And to explain this, I will have to go into some depth.
How does Life in Christ work?
The wrong way to understand life in Christ is “God made the rules, and now we have to follow them.” Of course, these rules are the bedrock of most religions. Islam has lots of them. Way back to Hammurabi. Judaism definitely did. The idea is that God has set them down, and now we are morally obligated to follow them.
But the weird thing about these commandments is that just being given them doesn’t make you any better at following them. Actually, because there is a dark energy inside us called “The Power of Sin,” we tend to do worse once we are given the commandment. Ironic, but true. When you give The Power of Sin a law, it schemes to break the law (or keep the law only when convenient). Shouldn’t knowing the rules make us more moral? Only if we start out at neutral. But we start out with The Power of Sin inside. The human condition cannot be solved by education; only transformation.
God, by the way, is pissed. Livid. Full of wrath because he is full of justice and must punish anyone who breaks the moral law. He must destroy them — or worse, leave them alive yet suffering forever. This is the natural consequence of upsetting Justice: It comes back to bite you. God will not be mocked. A man reaps what he sows.
Nobody could actually meet his moral standards. God knew how far short we fall, and so he sent himself as Jesus to do meet the standards. Jesus lived perfectly, never breaking the Law. In his whole time on earth, facing all the temptation Satan could lob at him, he never sinned. Not once. (This sinlessness is what just happens when The Power of Sin is not alive in you).
Now — and this is what I’m building towards — Jesus’s death has satisfied the wrath of God. A man reaps what he sows, yes, but in this case, Jesus reaped what we sowed. God will not be mocked, yes, but God punished someone else for our mockery. God has to destroy sinners, yes, but Jesus chose to be destroyed on our behalf. He was destroyed in a way that was somehow more excruciating than eternal conscious torment in Hell.
As a result, God’s wrath being satisfied, only God’s love remains. This is true for everyone who participates in Jesus by faith. If you have nothing to do with Jesus, the wrath remains. But if you have faith in Jesus to have satisfied the wrath of God for you, you “participate” in Jesus. This is the great irony, the great switcheroo of Christianity. Jesus was perfect and we were sinful, yet Jesus received God’s wrath and we receive God’s love. Now that God’s wrath has been satisfied for us, we can have a relationship with God.
The result of this newfound participation in Jesus by faith is that The Power of Sin is gradually being put to death. A new power is now gradually growing within us, The Power of the Spirit. If you are living in this new power, your default life will be marked with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And since there are no anti-love laws in the Bible, no anti-joy laws, no anti-peace laws, by living in The Power of the Spirit you will not break any laws. So you will just, by default, follow the Law.
But the key is the order. You have to become right in God’s sight, and now you follow the law. The order is not: following the law to become right in God’s sight. Such was the error of the new pastors in Galatia, who thought that to become a full Christian, you had to follow the Laws. Not only was the circumcision law not a true moral law — it was just a cultural identifier — it was a commandment, and so it could not be the basis for salvation.
I feel like I have to reexplain all this every time I talk about anything in Christianity because so many people don’t get it. Or they get it, but they don’t live like they get it. The Apostle Paul confronted Peter because Peter “was not acting in line with the truth of the Gospel” (2:14). People so often understand the truth of the Gospel but they then go back to the Law – Obedience method. If you would live according to the truth, you would go to the New Life – Fruit method.
What does the New Life – Fruit method look like? What does it look like to “live in step with the Spirit” (5:25)? Instead of describing this in general terms, let’s look at specific example.
An Example from Purity
Suppose a pastor comes along who does not understand the Gospel, but still gets invited to speak anyways. (This is the scenario I was imagining at the beginning). And that pastor preaches a whole message about Purity, which boiled down to: God has commanded you to be sexually pure, and by extension, God has commanded you to wear modest clothing and not wear makeup. Also, you should feel guilt and shame if you do not do this.
This message gets wrong exactly everything about the Gospel. The Gospel does not work like this. Law (modest clothing) and Obedience (so you can avoid feeling bad about yourself) — full stop — is as antithetical to the Gospel as requiring non-Jews to be circumcised to become Christians. Paul would throw a fit at someone teaching like this. Even if they know the Gospel deep down, clearly their knowledge has nothing to do with their message.
We are looking for a true and better message on sexual purity, one informed at its core by Jesus’s righteousness, given as a free gift instead of an earned reward. What does that purity message sound like? I will hazard something like this.
We are not, on our own, able to keep the commands of sexual purity. Even if you’ve never “done anything,” Jesus raised the ante by saying that even looking at someone with lust is just as sinful as “doing something” about it. Surely, from puberty onward, there is nobody who escapes this law. For this the wrath of God is coming; God has commanded you otherwise, and he will not be mocked.
So God sent Jesus to live a life of perfect sexual purity. He was single the whole time and never sinned in this way. He was tempted, for sure, but since he was never beholden to The Power of Sin, he brushed past the temptation. Then, Jesus took the punishment for our sin (in this case, sexual sin) by dying in our place.
We must now give up the futile game of working to earn our own satisfaction of God’s wrath. To continue playing that game is to reject what God as Jesus has sacrificed for us. God looks at those who have faith and sees not their sexual sin but the sexual righteousness of Jesus.
The Power of Sin to control us to break sexual commandments is now being gradually put to death in us, while The Power of the Spirit to live a life of patience, faithfulness, and self-control is gradually growing.
The clear result is that guilt and shame have no place. Guilt and shame are what happen when we are commanded to do something and fail. (Which is true in this case; God has commanded it, and we’ve failed). But if we participate in Jesus by faith, God only sees Jesus’s success, not our failure. So instead of guilt and shame, we move on. We repent. We seek new ways to solve the problem. Isolate the temptation. See the joy it pretends to give us, and then recognize the true joy available in the life God has designed for us. Continue to abide with God even when we recoil against God at our own sin, because by continuing to participate in Jesus The Power of Sin gets put to death just a little bit more. Get practical and find ways to eliminate that particular sin. Look for guidance given by the Bible, which was written by people who have gone through all this before (including God). See the community of Christians around you as people going through the same things, and see that God has put you all together for that reason. And on. And on.
Don’t just wallow in guilt and shame because you cannot, on your own, follow God’s commandments about sexual purity. Keep participating in your relationship with Jesus and watch the sin die from the inside out. Also, get a filter for your devices. Delete snapchat, and probably twitter too. Unfollow the meme pages you know have become problematic. Learn to bounce your eyes when someone is wearing revealing clothes (without shaming them). Break up with the boyfriend or girlfriend who is leading you away from God’s calling for you to be single in this stage of your life. Better yet, next time around, just don’t date someone who isn’t a Christian. Not because you should be ashamed, but because it is the most practical, realistic thing to do to live out the New Creation you are in Christ. Get open enough to talk to other Christians about your struggles with sexual purity, and join with them as you all seek to submit this domain of your life to Jesus’s authority. And on. And on.
This is the difference between working hard to satisfy the wrath of God, and trusting Jesus that he has already done so. The new pastors in Galatia did not understand this — nor does our hypothetical Purity Slam pastor — but Paul did. This is the message of Galatians as clearly as I can summarize it. No matter what topic you are considering, from sexual purity to greed, from anger to gossip. This message is also the only mindset that should seep into our self-worth, into our encouragement for other Christians, and into our messages from the stage. Or, in addition to pointing everyone away from Jesus, you may have someone like Paul screaming from the audience, Anathema! Anathema!