The Liberty of Grace – and Why the Church is Persecuted (Galatians 5)
Last Sunday while we were holding our service, Islamist militants “slaughtered” some 30 churchgoers in north-eastern Nigeria. The Bishop of Yola told the BBC the insurgents had locked the church and “cut people’s throats” in Waga Chakawa village, Adamawa state. On the same day, militants also attacked Kawuri village in neighbouring Borno, killing 52 people. Both assaults were blamed on the Boko Haram group. The name means “Western education is forbidden” – is especially active in the north-east of the country. Boko Haram wants to impose a severe form of Islamic law, and has been blamed for thousands of deaths in Nigeria.
The Bishop of Yola, Mamza Dami Stephen, said parishioners described how the insurgents had arrived on trucks and locked the church “towards the end of the service”. “Some people tried to escape through the windows and the [attackers] shot at them,” the bishop said. The militants set off bombs, before burning houses and taking residents hostage during a four-hour siege. The bishop said locals were gripped by terror. “Everybody is living in fear,” he explained. “There is no protection. We cannot predict where and when they are going to attack. People can’t sleep with their eyes closed.” Open Doors asks us to pray for God’s comfort and grace to reach all affected by these tragic incidents and that there will be an end to this cruel war against the people of Nigeria, and Christians in particular. But what happened in Nigeria last Sunday should not surprise us. This is the Open Doors 2013 Watch List.
Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31-32). But the truth is dangerous for many in our world today. And Christians in the South and East, it seems, are willing to pay the price to stand for Jesus. Yet in the West, we have domesticated Him. We don’t necessarily see the link between truth and freedom. We probably don’t experience opposition to our faith on a daily basis. So we take freedom for granted and we are liable to compromise the truth. When was the last time you brought Jesus into a conversation at a dinner party or meal with friends or neighbours? Die for Jesus on the streets of Virginia Water? I don’t think so. Hard to imagine. In November each year, we pause for two minutes silence to remember the names of people from Virginia Water who gave their lives to preserve our freedoms and defend us from fascism and totalitarianism. Imagine if those lists were the names of Christian brothers and sisters from our church family who had given their lives in the service of Christ? Would we honour them differently? What of those Christ followers in Syria, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and many parts of the world, for whom the persecution Paul writes of in our passage today is the norm. Can we take it for granted that it won’t happen in our country?
Paul asks “Brothers and sisters… why am I still being persecuted?” (Galatians 5:11). That is the question we want to answer this evening. If the truth sets us free, why so much persecution? The reason is because the truth about God’s grace is dangerous. The gospel of grace is a threat to organised religion. It was in the First Century in Galatia. It is in the 21st Century in Surrey.
Because it is typically religious people who persecute Christ followers because they have the most to lose. Think about it. If I gave you a list of rules to keep, about what you could wear, what you could eat, what you could and could not do on a Sunday, who you could eat with, who you could marry, where you could work, what you should do with your money – you would know what was expected of you and it would be very easy for me to pastor you. Every time we met I’d just go through the checklist with you. Like the page you get when you take your car in for an MOT. Tick, tick, tick, cross, cross, oh dear…. If you let me impose that kind of legalism on you, I would be able to control you. I could intimidate you. I could manipulate you. You might even be fooled into thinking that if you kept the rules, God would be pleased with you. You would respect those who kept more rules than you and look down on those who kept less than you. It would lead to pride and arrogance, but it would also lead to guilt and fear, for there is no way out once you allow yourself to become a slave. That’s what most religions and cults demand of their followers – you don’t have to choose or think, just submit and behave. Yet legalism cannot change your inward nature only your outward behaviour. Only when we surrender our lives to Jesus Christ and experience his forgiveness and empowering can we be set free from bondage to sin and fear (Galatians 5:1-12).
Born again into his family we become adopted children of God. Filled with his Spirit, we become more and more like him (Galatians 5:13-26). Led by the Spirit, we desire to glorify God and share that liberty with others (Galatians 6). That is why Grace is dangerous – and a threat to organized religion. Because the truth sets you free. The religious systems of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, as well as some versions of Christianity found in Roman Catholicism, Greek & Russian Orthodoxy and even so-called Liberal Anglicanism, are based more on law and works rather than grace and faith. They do not want you to be free to choose, hence the ridicule, opposition and even persecution faced when someone wants to leave and follow Jesus. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” (Galatians 5:1), Paul promises. In the following verses, Paul highlights three ways to avoid persecution – but there is a price. If you are tempted to take the path of least resistance and avoid persecution, you need to know what it is going to cost you. Three things you will lose if you turn your back on the grace of God.
1. The Slave – You Lose your Liberty
“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” (Galatians 5:1)
Turn your back on grace and you become a slave again.
Jesus promised in Matthew 11: “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.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
The yoke of religion is a burden. The yoke of legalism enslaves. The yoke of Jesus is easy and light – because he carries it for you. The word for ‘easy’ means ‘gracious’. That is what grace means. Jesus Christ carries the burden so we don’t have to. He guides and strengthens us by His Spirit, so we don’t have to be enslaved again to legalism and works. The slave – you lose your liberty.
2. The Debtor – You Lose your Wealth
“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. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:2-5)
Paul uses three phrases to describe the losses a person incurs when they turn from grace to law. “Christ will be of no value to you.” (5:2), you are “obligated to obey the whole law” (5:3) and you become “alienated from Christ.” (5:4). The word translated ‘obligated’ in verse 3 means a ‘debtor’ or one who owes. It is bad enough that legalism robs a believer of their freedom, but it is worse because legalism robs them of their wealth also. The wealth we have received by virtue of all Jesus has accomplished for us.
“In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding.” (Ephesians 1:7-8)
Why would anyone want to trade all that just to look good in the eyes of some legalistic Christians who judge you by what you wear, by what you drink, by where you live, by what you eat.
Where you shop, or what you drive? To gamble law for grace and lose all you have in Jesus, is foolishness. Because, says Paul, if you want to live by rules, you are obligated to keep the whole of the Law. This is the hypocrisy of legalism. Keeping some of the law won’t work. It is like being stopped by the police for driving at 100 mph and then boasting that you have never committed adultery, stolen anything or cheated on your tax return. It may make the policeman smile but it won’t get you off. The desire to judge one another by rules and regulations is like gambling with your family heirlooms. You’ll lose everything. But there’s worse – If you trade law for grace then Christ become of no value to you. You lose the credit Jesus gives. The person who chooses to live by rules and regulations becomes not just a slave but a bankrupt slave. The believer who chooses legalism robs themselves of their spiritual liberty and wealth. It is the path of bondage and bankruptcy. The legalist is like a slave – you lose your liberty. Is like a debtor – you lose your wealth. The third analogy Paul uses is of the athlete.
3. The Runner – You Lose your Direction
“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.” (Galatians 5:7-8)
Paul liked to use athletic illustrations to describe the Christian life. In this races, so popular in Roman times, each athlete was assigned a lane. But some runners would cheat and cut in on their competitors to try and put them off course. This is what the Judaizers were doing to the believers in Galatia. They cut in on them and were forcing them to change direction. They wanted these young believers in Galatia top be circumcised and keep the Mosaic law as well as believe in Jesus.
This is the third consequence of trading law for grace. It is not wrong to have standards, just wrong to believe we are saved by keeping them. As you may know, at Easter, we invite members of Christ Church to renew their commitment to Christ by endorsing our Membership Covenant. We take discipleship seriously.
It is a common tradition of the historic church to use Lent as a time to call Christ followers to a deeper commitment. It is not intended to add to the gospel, but helps us define what it means to be a Christ follower. It should be the norm for every believer to meet with God daily; to attend Church weekly; to be part of a small group bible study; to be using their God given gifts; to be stewarding their God given resources and to be active in sharing the love of Christ with others, in word and deed. This is what membership of Christ’s church has always meant. But the lesson this evening is that we must avoid the spirit of legalism. We must never imagine that keeping religious standards will save us. We are saved by grace and we are sustained by grace.
Now to illustrate the contrast between Law and Grace, the Apostle does something very provocative to the story of Abraham, Sarah and Hagar in 4:21-31.
“Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.
24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written:
“Be glad, barren woman,
you who never bore a child;
shout for joy and cry aloud,
you who were never in labor;
because more are the children of the desolate woman
than of her who has a husband.”
28 Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.” (Galatians 4:21-31)
|Hagar was a slave woman
|Sarah was a ‘free’ wife
|Ishmael was born of the flesh – a trademark of the legalizers
|Isaac was born through a promise (4:23) and the Spirit (4:29)
|Mount Sinai, Jerusalem of the Judaizers (4:25) is a symbol of slavery
|Mount Zion (4:26; Hebr 12:22) is a symbol of joyous freedom
|Ishmael is in slavery and opposes his brother
|Isaac is free and suffers persecution
|The Judaizers are the children of Hagar, the slave woman
|The Galatians are the children of Sarah, the free wife
|The Judaizers imposed their legalism claiming this was how to share Abraham’s inheritance
|The Galatians must expel the legalists as Sarah expelled Hagar. You cannot mix law and grace
That is why the Scriptures insist:
“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” (Galatians 3:29)
Three things you will lose if you turn your back on the grace of God. Slavery – you lose your liberty. Debt – you lose your wealth. Running – You lose your direction. The believer who abandons grace for law becomes a slave, a pauper and a runner who has lost their way, in fact lost their inheritance.
But if we live by God’s grace, we are free, we will stay in credit and we will reach our destination. But along the way we will also encounter persecution. For, as Paul explains to Timothy,
“everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted.” (2 Timothy 3:12). In the days to come, the temptation to compromise and settle for a nominal faith will grow stronger, especially as and when we in the West begin to experience the persecution so prevalent in other parts of the world today.
But if we hold on to grace, we will find like Paul, that God’s “grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Corinthians 12:9). For we are saved by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9). We serve by grace (1 Cor. 15:9-10). Grace motivates us to give (2 Cor. 8:7). Grace enables us to endure suffering (2 Cor. 12:9). Grace empowers us to share God’s love with others (Galatians 4:6). And grace will one day lead us home. Lets pray.
With thanks to Warren Wersbie (Galatians Be Free); John Stott (Only One Way) and Scott McKnight (The NIV Application Bible)