“The story is not so much about how to simply clean up the mess, but how creative you can get with the mess you have. This is what God seems to be up to — creating good, mysterious things out of messes.” ~Curt Thompson, Anatomy of the Soul
“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” ~Galatians 5:6
There’s only one thing that matters; don’t mess it up. There’s only one thing that’s important; don’t miss it. Our forgiveness, formation, and eternal life, our righteous relationships with God and with all people hang on just one thing; pay attention to it. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
Circumcision? Doesn’t count! Uncircumcision? Who cares? In Christ, none of that stuff has any force. It doesn’t exercise any power. It’s got nothing. Christ Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, has all power and all authority. He alone saves. So our faith, focus, and attention is only and always on him.
“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” ~Romans 8:1-4
God in Christ has fulfilled the entirety of the law’s purpose on our behalf. Not individual commands — not circumcision, not the Ten Commandments, not purity rituals, not feast schedules — the singular requirement, the whole point of the law is fulfilled for us by Jesus. That’s the whole point of Jesus.
Do we trust that or not?
The perfect Son of God, the only one who’s never broken the law, became sin for us. He became your sin. He took on your sin. He took your transgressions with him to the cross. And when your sin is condemned in him, you become in God’s eyes as if you’ve never sinned. Jesus intervened to do what you can’t do. Christ became what you are so you can become what he is. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice and he has taken care of absolutely everything to set you totally free from sin and death. Now, is your faith in that, or is it in something else? The only thing that counts if faith. That’s the only thing we need to be concerned with. That’s the freedom for which Christ sets us free.
But for some reason, we feel more comfortable in the chains. We have a very difficult time with the only thing that counts. We’ve got a whole list of things that count! We’ve got dozens and dozens of things that count!
It’s not circumcision; it’s acappella. It’s not food laws; it’s weekly Lord’s Supper. It’s not feast days; it’s Wednesday nights. It’s not you must become a Jew; it’s “Is he a member of ‘The Church?'” And it’s baptism by immersion and women’s roles and bishops and kitchens and KJV and crosses in the sanctuary, um, I mean, “auditorium.”
We judge people and we draw lines and label others and decide who we’re calling brothers and sisters and who we’re not when there’s only one thing that counts! We’re paying too much attention and spending too much energy on the things that don’t count!
We are freed from all that. We don’t have to worry about those things. Having the same worship styles and the same church structures and the same name on the building is not how we’re united. Or saved. That’s not what makes us brothers and sisters. We are united in Christ alone! We are made one in Christ alone!
The Bible says there is one body, not just one expression of that body. There is one faith, but not just one expression of that faith. There is one baptism, yes, but not just one expression of that baptism. These are the very things they’re discussing in Jerusalem in Acts 15 and the decision is “We should not make it difficult for the people who are turning to God.”
We spend valuable energy debating worship styles and doctrinal positions and denominational differences, but there’s only one thing that matters. We fuss and divide over methods and traditions and structures and rules, but there’s only one thing that’s important. We get worked up over interpretations and translations and obligations, but only one thing counts: faith expressing itself through love.
That’s true freedom. When we give ourselves completely to the fact that our salvation has already been secured, that there’s nothing left to do, it’s all been done, when we embrace that in faith, then we’re living in freedom. We’re free from our sins and anything that’s ever happened in our pasts. We’re free to stop worrying about ourselves and our rights and our honor to serve other people so that walls are torn down and wounds are healed. You’re not anxiously fretting about your standing with God. You’re not looking for physical signs or proof of who’s in and who’s out. You are free to become what God created you to be, what you always wanted to be — you just didn’t know what it was!
And whatever rules there are, whatever obligations remain, we’re free to live above them and through them. We don’t worry about any of that because our faith in Christ has us loving others.
The Gospel truth that you are righteous because Jesus Christ has become for you your righteousness, holiness, and peace compels you to love God and others. It moves you to defend the weak and stand with the accused and speak up for the oppressed. It motivates you to give and forgive. It empowers you to let go and live the way God lives, erring on the side of grace and giving everybody the benefit of the doubt.
Whatever you do, don’t mess it up. It’s the only thing that counts.
I love Whataburger. I could eat at Whataburger twice a day every day for weeks. I think I’ve done that a couple of times. They know me when I walk in. They know my order: Number One with cheese and everything on it and extra onions. Hot french fries and spicy ketchup. A big booth with my Texas Monthly or Sports Illustrated. That’s my happy place. It makes me feel good.
But it’s not good for me. In fact, it’s probably killing me. I know it. My doctor knows it. My whole family knows it. Whataburger is bad for me.
So Carrie-Anne lays down this law: No more Whataburger. Eat at Subway. Get a six-inch Black Forest Ham, no cheese and no chips. Get the apple slices. Now, that’s a good rule. That’s a good law. That commandment is holy, righteous, and good. If I eat at Subway, it’ll benefit me greatly. I’ll enjoy greater peace with my body and the freedom to tuck in more of my shirts.
But I’m here in the office and I’m doing meetings and I’m on the phone and answering emails and reading and planning and studying and it’s 12:30 and I’m starving. And I get in my truck and I drive south. When I get to the red light at Washington and I-40, I can go straight and Subway is right there on my left — I can see it from the light. Or I can turn right and Whataburger’s on Georgia Street.
If the light is green, I’ve got a better chance.
If the light is red…
“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do; but what I hate, I do! I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing! So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” ~Romans 7:15-21
I can’t keep the law because I’m human and because I’m hungry. That doesn’t mean the law is bad. It’s a good law! It means I’m bad and weak and faulty. And Carrie-Anne’s going to look it up online and see my Whataburger receipt before I can even get back to church. I know all this, but I do it anyway. The law is not bad — it’s just that the law cannot save me. No matter how good and righteous and holy the rules are, the rules can never save me.
“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!” ~Romans 7:24-25
Christ Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. This is the only way that works. And this is a big deal.
In Galatians 5, Paul says, “In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.” Well, if it doesn’t matter, why’s he making such a big deal about it? It’s the reason for the circumcision. If the Galatians go ahead with circumcision because of the pressure from the Judaizers, then they’ll be confessing by submitting to this ritual that Christ alone isn’t enough. They’ll be saying, yes, you have to become a Jew if you want to be a child of God. Circumcised Christians are better than uncircumcised Christians. They’re more right, they’re more saved. They’re a “cut” above the rest (sorry-bad Scot McKnight joke).
So Paul lays it out: This is the only way that works. If you allow yourself to be circumcised, “Christ will be of no value to you at all.” You’re severed from Christ, you’re alienated, separated from Christ, you have fallen from grace!
This isn’t just a minor ritual requirement that you do right alongside your trust in Jesus. This isn’t a both/and. This is a definite either/or. If you get circumcised as a way to salvation or even as part of the way of salvation, you’re committing yourself to that whole way. You’re putting your trust in that whole temple/synagogue system with the sacrifices and food laws and cleanliness codes — the whole way. Paul illustrates by reminding us that a little yeast, a little leaven, goes all the way through.
You give in on this one extra requirement, you add this one extra ritual as necessary, and you’ve added the whole way of works-based religion, the whole way of law-based salvation. And that way does not save. Christ alone is the only way that works.
I am a recovering legalist. A lot of us are recovering legalists. I was raised a certain way in Churches of Christ and I behaved a certain way for more than half my life.
Less than 20 years ago I was arguing with my friends against small groups. You can’t meet in homes on Sunday nights, that’s dividing the body. Seriously.
We were at a church years ago that was looking to hire its first-ever children’s minister and they put me on the search committee. At our very first meeting, the chairman said, “We need to talk about whether we’re going to consider female candidates.” I said, “Why do we need to talk about that?” He said to me, “Do you think we should consider a woman?” I answered, “Absolutely not — not for a paid ministry position!” He asked the guy next to me, “Do you think we should consider a woman for the children’s minister position?” He answered, “I think it has to be a woman!” And the chairman turned back to me and said, “That’s why we need to talk about it.”
Fifteen years ago we were at the Tulsa Workshop and they were doing some unity stuff with the Christian Churches and the Disciples of Christ. The speakers were dynamic, the worship was inspiring, people were being baptized, and we were standing together and singing on the floor of that huge coliseum. A guy behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Man, isn’t this great?” And I replied, “Yeah, but I’m not sure about letting these denominations in here with us.”
That was me. I said those things. I believed those things. I behaved that way. Because I thought that’s what saved me! To paraphrase Paul in Galatians 1: I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. I thought my salvation and my righteous standing with God was connected to all that. But it’s not! Praise God! And we know that! We understand that! We’ve been freed from all that! Christ alone is the only way that works!
“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
We are a free people. Our freedom is a done deal, it is our reality. And that freedom we enjoyed is delivered by Christ Jesus. Christ has set us free. Christ has set you free. We are free. You are free. Because of Christ and Christ alone. Jesus is the only one who frees.
And we do enjoy our freedoms, don’t we?
Freedom means a lot of different things depending on who you talk to and where and when you talk to them. Freedom means being able to vote in a democratic election. It means being able to read a newspaper the government’s not controlling. It’s being able to choose your own profession or your spouse or your religion. Freedom can also be the absence of oppression — social or economic or political. When a tyrannical dictator is overthrown or an unjust law is overturned, that’s freedom. A driver license and a set of car keys is freedom. We can be freed in a psychological sense by being healed of past wounds or by breaking through emotional barriers. Freedom is what all people aspire to and value. It’s something all humans have in common whether we’re talking about freedom from a cruel government or freedom from shopper stalkers in the furniture store.
When the Bible talks about being set free or freedom as a state of reality, it’s about freedom from our slavery to sin and our slavery to self and our slavery to the world.
“Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.” ~Galatians 1:3-4
Our sins – this is about us. Present evil age – this is about the structures and values and ways of this fallen world. We are in bondage to these things and Jesus is the only one who sets us free.
“We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin — because anyone who has died has been freed from sin.” ~Romans 6:6-7
“Thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin!” ~Romans 6:17-18
“Now that you have been set free from sin… the benefit you reap leads to holiness and the result is eternal life.” ~Romans 6:22
“There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free!” ~Romans 8:1-2
In Christ. By Christ. Through Christ. Because of Christ. Jesus Christ is the only one who frees. So for all who are in Christ, we are free indeed! We are free from sin, free from guilt, free from condemnation, free from punishment. We’re also set free from the grip this world has on us and we’re freed from the clutches of the devil himself.
The Bible talks about the worldly powers and the rulers of hell being stripped of their clothes and weapons — they’re humiliated by Christ’s work on the cross. We are freed from the kingdom of darkness to walk eternally in newness of life. We were lost, but now we’re found. We were dead and gone, but now we’re alive forever. We were in chains to sin and to self and to the world, but now we are free!
In Christ Jesus it is already accomplished. In Christ Jesus it is already done. No matter what things look like or feel like around you, this is your reality. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
“Now that you know God — or rather are known by God…” ~Galatians 4:9
The apostle Paul corrects himself here. He realizes the salvation emphasis should not be on you knowing God but rather, or more importantly, on God knowing you. He’s got it backwards, so he fixes it. Salvation is not found in knowing God.
But I feel like that’s the way I was raised. A lot of us were. I needed to know God and know things about God in order to be saved. But somewhere along the way it turned into knowing things about God in order to be right. Or to be better. That’s probably to be expected in the world and time in which we live. But knowing became the most important thing. And what we knew made us right. And saved. We were right about church, right about God’s will, right about baptism, right about worship, and right about who’s going to heaven and who’s not based on what we thought we knew about God.
We failed to realize that this desire to know in order to be right kept us from being truly known. It kept us from being truly loved.
We think we know everything about God, but it’s only the God we believe him to be or want him to be. The mystery’s gone and so is the need to trust. The more I know and the more I’m right, the less faith I need. When my relationship with God is based on the facts I know about God, I can also get really judgmental about others. While that may make me feel safe and protected, it can also separate me from others and increase my isolation.
So, I know a lot of things but I don’t allow myself to be known in ways that make me feel truly understood and forgiven and encouraged. By other people or by God.
And we keep hoping for God’s magic wand to change us, to just sweep over us and transform us and take away our sin and guilt and fix our broken relationships and heal our psychological wounds. But that won’t happen as long as you make knowing God and knowing facts and knowing doctrine and knowing what’s right and correct more important than surrendering to the Lord who knows you — the God in Christ who chooses you and understands you and brings you to himself to belong to him forever.
“We know that we all possess knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. The one who thinks he knows something does not yet know as he ought to know. But the one who loves God is known by God.” ~1 Corinthians 8:1-3
This is a major part of the problem in Corinth and Galatia and it’s one of the major things that’s hurting us today. These Christians in Galatia are not going back to their pagan gods, they’re not returning to idol worship. But they are going to observing the law as their ticket to salvation. Paul sees observing the law of Moses in order to be saved as the same thing as being enslaved by idols. That’s a radical thing Paul is saying here: Judaism and paganism are the same thing! Paul says whatever leads you away from a sole reliance on Christ alone, adding anything to faith in Christ alone whether it’s by good intentions or depraved desires, is not Christian and it’s not the Gospel.
We’re not Boy Scouts trying to make Eagle Scout. We’re not trying to earn 27 merit badges and getting people to evaluate and sign off on what I know and what I can do. We’re not checking off a list or climbing a ladder. We’re not Boy Scouts! We are the redeemed sons and daughters of God! We are chosen by God, we belong to God, and we are heirs of God’s faithful promises! Why? Not because we know God, but rather because we are known by God!
Maybe you’re not known by your boss and you’re invisible to your colleagues. Maybe your spouse doesn’t understand you. Maybe you feel like an outsider in your own family. Or your church. Maybe you don’t even know what you know about yourself. What you know about your thoughts doesn’t match up with your actions. What you know in your head is not what you feel in your heart. Maybe you can’t make sense of the continuing sin or the nagging doubts or the undefined guilt or the insecurity. Maybe you just feel stuck. And maybe nobody knows any of this stuff. You’re the only one who knows what’s really going on with you and how it all makes you feel.
Well — you and God. God knows you fully and perfectly.
He knows all the stuff swirling around in your head and your heart that you don’t even know how to say. He knows you. And he knows exactly what kind of forgiveness you need. He knows exactly what kind of love you need and what kind of assurance you need. He knows where to place you and how to bring you along. He knows how to care for you. You are known by God.
All the add-ons and extras are being ripped down on the west side of our church building at Central, preparing for the construction of the new façade and entrance. The stairs and foyer and overhang in front of the offices are gone and the porch and foyer in front of the Gathering Place exist no more. It’s loud and there’s a lot of dirt. The whole building shakes with every blow of the heavy equipment against the concrete foundation. The daily changes are noticeable around here now — on the outside and the inside. Things are falling off the walls in Vickie’s and Gail’s offices.
“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed.” ~Galatians 3:16
“I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing… and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” ~Genesis 12:2-3
This promise reveals and establishes God’s universal intent and plan for salvation: all peoples on earth will be blessed through Abraham. It’s universal. It’s for the whole world. God calls Abraham out of the blue and says, “I will bless you and you will be a blessing. All peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” Paul says Abraham believed that promise and it was credited to him as righteousness. Abraham was saved by believing in God’s promise, by trusting in God’s Word. That’s how the covenant was established.
Abraham didn’t make a covenant with God; God made a covenant with Abraham. God did not lay down any conditions for Abraham to meet. In fact — you can look it up! — when God ratifies the covenant in Genesis 15, Abraham is sound asleep. It’s a covenant of pure grace.
God’s people are chosen by grace. God establishes the relationship by his own initiative apart from any law. They’re his people before there is such a thing as the law. The promise came first. The relationship came first. God’s people never obeyed the law in order to be saved. God had already saved them by his promise. There’s a big difference between “Do this and I’ll save you” and “I’ll save you so you can do this.”
Salvation is founded on God’s promise. And that promise is unchangeable.
What God promised Abraham is eternal. It’s irrevocable. God’s promise can’t be nullified, modified, or altered in any way — not by anybody’s personal preferences, not by any group’s cultural or national agendas, not even the Law of Moses can change God’s promise.
“The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.” ~Galatians 3:17-18
The law is really a latecomer to the salvation scene. The law doesn’t change the eternal arrangement God made with Abraham and his descendants. The promise is unchangeable. So the way we relate to God today is the same was it’s always been and always will be: through faith, not through works of the law. God saves people when they trust his Word, when they believe his promise, not when they keep all the details of the law.
The law is not God’s most important revelation. It’s the promise. God’s eternal promise and our faith in that promise to save is the basis of everything God has planned for us and his creation. Faith, not works, is the foundation of our righteous relationship with God and with each other.
In Romans 7, Paul says the law is holy, righteous, and good. But we are unholy, unrighteous, and not good. The law doesn’t make us sinners; it reveals to us that we are sinners. The law is a holy mirror that shows us we have dirty faces. But you don’t wash your face with a mirror. We are cleansed, we are made holy and righteous, and good, by the faith of Christ and our faith in Christ — the fulfillment of God’s great promise.