“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” –Gal. 5:1, NASB
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul was addressing an attempt of religious Jews to enforce the Law of Moses on the young Gentile Christians, including telling them they needed to be circumcised like the Jews. It wasn’t so much the act of circumcision that Paul was coming against–it was all the religious legalism that it represented. Paul was trying to reinforce the gospel of grace to these young believers.
The law versus grace discussion has been ongoing with the church for many years, and it’s too involved to break down into a few paragraphs. But the basic understanding is that without doing away with morality or giving us permission to sin, the gospel of Christ’s grace and His work on the cross has set us free to follow Him without the additional burden of trying to be “good enough.” His grace doesn’t just cover our sins and missteps; it deals with the root issues behind them. As a result, the law of His grace fulfills and supercedes the requirements of the Law of Moses.
But do you find it interesting how easy it is for us, in one way or another, to default back into a performance mentality? How often do we chide ourselves for not “measuring up” in one way or another? How much pressure do we still put on ourselves to act like “good” Christians? How often do we do good things with guilt as our primary motivation, or out of a sense of duty, rather than out of joy?
I’m not even talking about sin issues, really. Today the church has developed its own brand of legalism–its own set of expectations about how often to read the Bible, how long to pray, how often to show up at church gatherings, what to say, watch, listen to or buy. So many things we have imposed on ourselves (or allow to be imposed on us) that the Bible doesn’t address, and don’t really have anything to do with living a holy life or following Christ from the heart. It might not be as obvious as circumcision, but is it not still just as binding? Circumcision, after all, was just the symbol of all the legalism behind it.
You know, the paradox behind the freedom Jesus has given us is that we must fight to defend it–because it is obviously so easy for us to fall back into the old patterns of legalism. This may be why Paul told the Galatians to “keep standing firm.” In some ways, it’s easier to succumb to religious exercise than to walk in the freedom of a love relationship with Christ, because there are specific measurements that tell us we’re doing a good job. But every time we fall into that, as Paul said about circumcision, Christ becomes of no benefit to us. In other words, when we fall into the game of performing well, we miss the whole point of why Jesus did what He did. It wasn’t supposed to be about being good; it was about being family. It was about relationship.
Besides–we can’t be good enough. The Jews tried and failed for thousands of years to be good. If that’s what salvation depends on, we are all doomed, because Christ is of no benefit to us.
What Paul says here reminds me of the council at Jerusalem in Acts 15, when the elders were first talking about the new Gentile believers and trying to determine where they fit into the previous expectations of the Jewish law. Peter spoke up and asked, “Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?” (Acts 15:10)
Legalism, in any form, is a yoke; it is one that we are not supposed to wear. It isn’t that we just throw off all restraint; it’s that we need to avoid trying to keep scorecards on ourselves. It was for freedom that Christ set us free. The good we do should be out of joy and not out of guilt.