(March, 2003 POL)
Text: Galatians 5:4-6

“Help!” the man cried as he dangled helplessly at the edge of a cliff, clutching on the loose shale for all he was worth.

Again, he screamed. “Can anyone up there help me?”

“Yes,” answered the heavenly voice of God. “I’ll help you. But first you must let go.”

“Let go?” gasped the man. “But then I’d fall!”

“I’ll catch you,” replied the voice.

Then there was a long pause and the man cried out again, “Can anyone else up there help me?”

Pretend you have never heard that story before. Right now apply it to yourself.

Paul, in these early verses of Galatians 5 gives a severe warning to us who tend to think that we know better than God. There we are, dangling from the cliff, desperately trying to hold on to life, trying to make it on our own energy, willpower and strength. Somehow we can’t bring ourselves to let go and simply trust in Jesus Christ alone. No matter how often we have heard the Gospel, and even received it, we cling to our own self-righteousness, trying to help God do the things to save us that only God himself can do and has already done.

We now come to a transition point in which Paul turns from the doctrinal arguments of Galatians 3Galatians 4 to a practical application. He begins this by reminding us that we are no longer under bondage to the Law, works righteousness, but set free by Grace, justification through faith. He opens these final two chapters of practical application by urging us to “let go and let God.”

Although he concludes his letter in very positive, affirming words, he begins this practical section by giving some severe warnings, reminding the Galatians then, and us today, of how important it is to put our trust in Jesus Christ alone, staking our confidence in God’s Grace, not our own accomplishments, as important as those accomplishments may be.

You and I must choose between works righteousness and God’s righteousness, between Law or Grace.

Warning One: Salvation by works only demands more works.

Paul writes: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law” (Galatians 5:1-3).

Paul introduces a new image, that of the yoke. A yoke usually represents slavery, control by someone else over your life. The Egyptians put a back-breaking yoke on the Jews during their slavery prior to the Exodus. When a farmer puts a yoke on oxen, it is to force them to do what they would not be willing to do voluntarily.

When the believers of Galatia initially put their trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, they lost the yoke of slavery to sin and, in its place, put on the yoke of Christ, which Jesus describes in these terms in Matthew 11:28-30: “‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.'” That word in the Greek translated “easy” really means “kind, gracious.” The yoke of Jesus liberates us; whereas the yoke of the Law enslaves us.

When we decide that we can earn our way into God’s favor, we can’t be selective about how we earn it. We have to obey the letter of the law as well as the spirit of the law. Law is a hard taskmaster. Our inclination is to selectively go through and pick out those things that we think are important, and do them or not do them, in obedience to the law, setting up our own personal list of “dos” and “don’ts.” Sort of like the old cliche, “I don’t smoke and I don’t chew, and I don’t go with girls that do.” We set our own standards and feel pretty good about them.

Gentile believers in Galatia who had come to faith in Jesus Christ now have been convinced by a group of troublemakers that they had to be circumcised. Somehow that would elevate their status with God. They assumed they could do something to earn merit with God. Paul says, “You have come to this and then you have got to obey all the rest of the law.”

As a pastor, I have done hundreds of memorial services. The first three I did were in the last week of my ministry as a summer assistant at the Presbyterian Church in Palmdale, California. I had served there for the summer prior to my last year at Princeton Theological Seminary. They released me from my work for five days to marry Anne and have a brief honeymoon. The final six weeks of the summer, the senior minister, Jack Springer, trusted in my leadership while he was on vacation and leading a conference for some of the youth. In that last week, three people died. One was a godly senior citizen of that church, a woman of faith. One was the chairman of the education committee of that church, an elder, approximately 40 years old, who died of a heart attack and left a wife and young family. And one was a derelict off the streets of Palmdale, a man whose life had spiraled downward in alcohol addiction.

I learned quickly what every faithful pastor ultimately learns. As a pastor, we dare not play God. If a person is clear in their declaration of faith in Jesus Christ alone for salvation and their life has shown the evidences of the work of the Holy Spirit, we certainly bear testimony to their witness for Christ and give the assurance that they are now in the presence of Jesus Christ. But, ultimately, God is the only One who truly knows the heart. God is the only One who can see the total picture of that elderly saint, that middle-aged elder, that tragic derelict.

Let me tell you what I have never said at a memorial service, from those first three and the hundreds that have followed, right down to one I did this last Friday. I do not conclude with a committal that says, “We commit our brother/sister departed to a final accounting in which God adds up all the negatives and all the positives in the hope that the ledger comes out with the balance on the positive side and that this person has earned their way into the presence of God in heaven for eternity.” Now that’s what you would pray if the service were for one who had put their trust into their own efforts to win their way into God’s salvation. No, what we pray is, “We commit our brother/sister departed unto the mercy of Almighty God in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through Jesus Christ, our Lord.”

Any hope we have is not in our human effort. If it were our human effort, Christ would be of no value. You and I would be obligated to obey the letter of the Law.

Warning Two: Salvation by works alienates you from Jesus.

Works don’t win God’s salvation. Even sincerity does not impress God for salvation.

The fact is, I can be very sincere but sincerely wrong! I can convince myself that I have the capacity to fly. Therefore, I jump from a 50-story building and plunge to my death.

If you try to win God’s favor by self-righteousness, you do nothing but alienate yourself from Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4).

This doesn’t mean they have lost their salvation. It simply means that they have fallen from the sphere of God’s grace. You can’t mix Grace and Law. You are either living in one sphere or the other. If you are living under Law, you are alienating yourself from Jesus.

Do you remember sometime ago when the national press quoted Bill Gates as saying that there were many better ways he could spend his time on Sunday mornings than being in church. A blanket statement of human autonomy, made by a very bright and successful man. Gates dismissed the significance of worship and the gathered community of the Church of Jesus Christ. Garrison Keilor, in his own whimsical way, wrote a parable titled “What would God have to do to get Bill Gates’ attention?” It reads:

Bill Gates was the richest person in America, and after he gained a good deal of the world’s resources, God sent Gates an e-mail: “Bill, I saw how you allocated your time last Sunday morning, and frankly, I was unimpressed. Riding a stationary bike while watching people on the Men’s Channel talk about triglycerides and PSA counts isn’t very satisfying. Bill, let me give you three words of advice: Love your neighbor. Ever hear what happened to the rich man who stiff-armed the beggar Lazarus: It caused a general protection fall and he’s been offline for centuries. If there’s anything you’d like to talk about, I’m here. Your Creator, God.”

Gates typed back a reply: “Dear God, Wow. Omniscience–cool. But how do I know you’re omnipotent too? Gates.” The moment Gates clicked on “send,” the entire Microsoft campus in Redmond, Washington, went into a great darkness. The air conditioning system shuttered to a halt. Gates’ office was filled with creeping things and birds of the air. His websites were burning after a multitude of hits by Hittites. A herd of crazed swine trotted down the hall by his office, their little pink eyes aglow. Out in the hall a beggar began begging for alms. When Gates gave him a nickel, the power went back on.

Back in his office, Gates found a message on his computer screen, which said, “Hey, Bill, that was only the screen saver. There’s more where that came from. Obey my commandments or the information age could come to a halt through a virus in the system. I did a flood once, and behold, I can do viruses. Once people tried to reach heaven by building a tower, so I made their formats incompatible, I can do this again. P.S.: Gates, it’s your move.”

We think we are so smart, don’t we? We think we know a better way. The economy of God’s Kingdom is so different from the economy of this world. This world knows little of Grace. Success comes through hard work, efficient use of time, human initiative, and the survival of the fittest. Take that into the spiritual realm and systems crash. The old Gospel hymn expresses it with precision: “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness!”

Warning Three: What counts is faith expressed through love.

Take some time today to read Hebrews 11. It begins with these words, “Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. This is what the ancients were commended for” (Hebrews 11:1-2). Then there comes a list, all the way from Abel, son of Adam and Eve, down to the first century. The chapter concludes with these words: “These were all commended for their faith, yet none of them received what had been promised. God had planned something better for us so that only together with us would they be made perfect” (Hebrews 11:39-40).

Faith does not function in a vacuum. Faith functions in a delicate oscillation with love. That’s what Paul is getting at when he writes to the Corinthians those magnificent words of 1 Corinthians 13, what we refer to as the love chapter of the Bible. It starts out declaring, “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Then he goes on to describe love, leading to the concluding statement of the chapter, “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13).

Someone who has been listening carefully to this series in Galatians raised a serious question. Perhaps in some form it is one you, too, have raised. Up until now, she had thought that salvation came from obeying the Ten Commandments and the other teachings of the Bible. If this is not the case, why should she not simply go out and commit adultery? What would be wrong with that? What her question uncovers for us is the fact that some of us are Christians out of fear. The fear of hell. We are afraid of stepping across a line that violates the law of God, and, as a result, being crushed by God for stepping across that line. The fact is, all of us have already stepped across that line. We have crushed ourselves by violating the law of God. This is where Grace comes in. We are to trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, and our faith is to be one that ultimately is evidenced by a personal, loving relationship with God. We do not avoid adultery to earn God’s favor. We do not avoid robbing banks to keep from going to hell. We do not avoid lying for fear of divine condemnation. No, a loving, faithful relationship with God helps us trust Him to tell us the smart way to live. We believe in Him as a loving parent who knows what is best for us, his sons, his daughters, and He helps us to love other people the way He loves us. And He helps us to love ourselves the way He loves us.

If we commit adultery, we are not only going to break His heart, but the heart of our spouse and, ultimately, our own heart. If we rob a bank, its dysfunctional, anti-social behavior. It’s the unloving thing to do. To tell that lie is only to provide an environment of untruth in which we do not take others seriously, nor will they ultimately take us seriously. We become unbelievable. The list goes on.

Warning Four: Finishing the race is key.

Paul writes, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough'” (Galatians 5:7-9).

Paul frequently illustrates the Christian life with references to first-century athletic events. He talks about “fighting the good fight.” He refers to himself as one who has “run the race” and is close to finishing the course. He lived in the world of chariot racing, boxing matches, even gladiatorial fights. He knew what was involved in the Olympic Games. He was familiar with the long-distance run of the marathon. He never uses the image of the race to tell people how to be saved. Instead, he uses the athletic analogy to encourage Christians as to how to live the Christian life. In order to be a contestant in the Greek games, one had to be a citizen before he could compete. A citizen of heaven, through our faith in Jesus Christ, we are set on our course, and we run to win the prize of the upward calling of God in Christ Jesus. We are not running in order to be saved. We run because we are already saved.

Paul’s analogy is not only that of the long-distance marathon, it is also referring to the shorter races within the arena, in which each runner was to stay in his assigned lane. Occasionally, runners would cut in on their competitors to try to get them off course. He refers to the Judaizers as those who were “cutting in” on them in the process of the race, trying to throw them off, to keep them from finishing strong. He told them to not let anyone sidetrack them.

Then he shifts analogies to the culinary world. He refers to yeast. Throughout the Old Testament, yeast is used as a symbol of evil. A little bit of yeast grows and ultimately takes over, in a positive way, the baking of certain kinds of bread. Passover bread was to be unleavened, no yeast. What Paul was saying here is that a little bit of wickedness can grow so quickly. Don’t get pushed off course by those who would tell you you need to earn your salvation. Don’t let a little bit of untruth become like yeast to the point that it ultimately crowds out the most important truths of God’s Word.

Warning Five: Those throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty.

That’s what happens at athletic events. You and I have seen it numerous times in both the summer and winter athletics. We have in our minds classic situations in which a skater is disqualified for cutting off another skater, a runner is disqualified for getting into the wrong lane and cutting off another runner.

Paul is urging the Galatians to run the race of faith as did those veterans of the faith listed throughout the Old Testament Scriptures and so beautifully portrayed for us in Hebrews 11. Let God do the judgment on those who do the confusing. He will take care of the Judaizers. He will take care of those who would trip us up and mislead us, will try to cut us off at the turn. These words of Hebrews 12:1-3 give encouragement and inspiration to us: “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”

Warning Six: To preach circumcision is to abolish the offense of the Cross.

Paul writes, “Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished” (Galatians 5:11).

It is now that Paul brings to conclusion the severity of his warnings. He makes it clear that he preached circumcision, adherence to the Law, salvation by works, and he tried to crush the early followers of Jesus who believed in salvation by the Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He was a popular man. He was upholding the Old Covenant, with many human-made elaborations on that covenant, when he himself was radically converted, born again by the Spirit of God. His life was changed. He went from preaching Law to preaching Grace, and, as a result, he was persecuted. He was not about to let a little bit of yeast, self-righteousness and legalism creep into the Church of Jesus Christ. He was not about to let his detractors demand Gentile believers become Jewish proselytes, circumcised and obeying the laws of the Old Covenant. He is willing to be persecuted for his preaching against circumcision because he knows that if salvation by works should prevail, it abolishes the necessity of the Cross. Go back to the sacrificing of animals and you need no Jesus, Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world. Go back, putting your trust in religious observances, such as circumcision, and these outward observances will begin to eclipse the necessity of the circumcision of the heart. That drastic spiritual surgery accomplished on the Cross enables us to be transformed by the Holy Sprit of God. What he is saying is that it is possible to look good on the outside and be, as Jesus described it, “a whitened sepulcher,” a tomb, painted white and beautifully landscaped to cover up the reality that inside there is a rotting, maggot-infested corpse. That’s what legalistic religion is.

Or, to put it another way, you and I are tempted by the ultimate Judaizer, Satan, to believe we don’t need the Cross of Jesus Christ. After all, we have never done anything that bad. We’ve been pretty good at obeying the Ten Commandments. We’ve followed the Golden Rule, most of the time. We don’t like the idea of seeing ourselves as sinners.

But never forget, even the non-believing world doesn’t accept that “anything goes.” The terrorist is condemned. The world demands the death of the snipers. In some parts of the world they still stone the adulterer, cut off the hands of the thief and throw in jail the drug-pusher or businessman guilty of embezzlement. Even the person who argues against the Bible statement that “all have sinned and come short of the glory of God” will agree that some have sinned and fallen short. Even if they think they have done enough good to get into heaven, they don’t expect to see Hitler in heaven. And they recoil at the possibility that Jeffrey Dahmer could possibly be saved.

When I am pulled over by a policeman and asked to show my driver’s license, if I say, “Officer, I know I ran that red light. Please, take into account, I have never committed adultery, I have never cheated on my income tax, I have never robbed anybody and I have never committed murder.” What do you think he would say? He’s not going to quit writing the ticket. As Warren Wiersbe stated so beautifully: “The policeman smiles as he writes out the ticket, because he knows that no amount of obedience can make up for one act of disobedience.”

Max Lucado, in his book In The Grip of Grace, has a chapter titled “Godless Judging.” In it, he raises the question, “You know what disturbs me most about Jeffrey Dahmer?” He declares that what disturbs him most are not his acts– seventeen ugly murders with eleven corpses found in his apartment– the fact that he cut off arms and ate body parts, kept skulls in his refrigerator and hoarded a human heart. Dahmer redefined the boundary for brutality. He goes on to write that it was not even his trial, disturbing as it was with all those pictures of him sitting serenely in court, face frozen and motionless. It was not even the fact that his punishment, life without parole, was hardly a just exchange for his actions. How many years would satisfy justice? A lifetime in jail for every life he took?

Lucado stops and declares what really troubles him about Jeffrey Dahmer was his conversion. Months before an inmate murdered him, Jeffrey Dahmer became a Christian. He repented of his sin. He declared he was sorry for what he did, profoundly sorry. He put his faith in Jesus Christ. He was baptized. He started life all over. He began reading books and attending chapel.

Lucado writes:

Sins washed. Soul cleansed. Past forgiven.

That troubles me. It shouldn’t, but it does. Grace for a cannibal?

Maybe you have the same reservations. If not about Dahmer perhaps about someone else. Ever wrestled with the deathbed conversion of a rapist or the eleventh-hour conversion of a child molester? We’ve sentenced them, maybe not in court, but in our hearts. We’ve put them behind bars and locked the door. They are forever imprisoned by our disgust. And then, the impossible happens. They repent.

Our response. (Dare we say it?) We cross our arms and furrow our brows and we say, “God won’t let you off that easy. Not after what you did. God is kind, but no wimp. Grace is for average sinners like me, not deviants like you.”

When we do that, we are relativizing sin. We are declaring that the ground is not level at the foot of the Cross. We are declaring that I am better than that person. I deserve salvation. I have earned it. And when we do that, we abolish the offense of the Cross. The offense of the Cross is that Jesus Christ died for all sinners, calling all to repentance and trust in him alone for salvation. I don’t want to be listed with Hitler and Dahmer and Saddam Hussein. The Scriptures make clear that without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin. Blessed be the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world.

Paul concludes with what may be one of the most outrageous statements you will read in the Bible: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” (Galatians 5:12).

It sounds a bit like Russian President Vladimir Putin who, this week, lashed out at a reporter who questioned the Kremlin’s war in Chechnya. He challenged the journalist to convert to Islam and come to Moscow for circumcision. He said, “If you want to become an Islamic radical and have yourself circumcised, I invite you to come to Moscow. I would recommend that he who does the surgery does it so you’ll have nothing growing back afterward.” Obviously he was angry at those Chechnyan terrorists who had taken hostage those Russian theater-goers and was letting the world know what he thought of them by making reference to the Islamic tradition of circumcision. Isn’t it ironic that he, this week, in the twenty-first century, in his anger, would make a statement not dissimilar to that of the Apostle Paul some two thousand years ago.

Paul, in his anger against those who would minimize the necessity of the Cross, arguing salvation by works, even demanding circumcision of the Gentiles, with an exclamation mark declares how serious this issue is. He knew this legalistic movement, which may not have gone very far yet, ultimately, could destroy the emerging Christian faith. It had to be dealt with emphatically. He used a crude expression to make his point. Believers at Galatia knew that in nearby Phrygia was the pagan worship of Cybele. The practice of those priests and really devout worshipers of Cybele was to mutilate themselves by castration. Priests of Cybele were eunuchs. Paul was saying, “If you go on the way you are tempted to go, of which circumcision is the beginning, you might as well go all the way as do those heathen priests and castrate yourselves.”

Physical circumcision will not do it. Good works do not give access to the righteous and Holy God. It is His sacrifice, His atoning work on the Cross, His offer of love and forgiveness through the work of Jesus Christ that offers salvation and nothing else. Let’s never forget that!

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