Galatians 3:1-22 (AD 48)
What’s the problem with the law of God?
It shows is that we are hopeless, doomed, incapable of pleasing God.
So why was the law given?
To show that we are hopeless, doomed, incapable of pleasing God…
…and thus entirely reliant on God’s grace, given because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
But humans are humans, and where God offers grace, we instinctively reply, ‘Yes, but tell me how I can earn it’. And when people find – in the law – an objective standard of what godliness looks like, many pursue it, only to fall hopelessly short. They trade in a life of peace, joy and security for one of forced optimism, guilt and growing inadequacy. That’s what many of the Galatians did. They heard and accepted the grace of God as communicated by Paul, but then they fell prey to self-harming heresy.
This is what the heretical Judaisers were saying: Jesus died for your sins, and you must believe in him. But also, in order to be forgiven, you must (if you are a man) be circumcised. Then you will be saved by grace.
Except of course, in that scenario forgiveness is not through grace alone. Grace plus a single righteous work is no more like grace than perfection plus a single sin is like perfection, or like virginity with only one sexual encounter is like virginity. It’s either grace alone, or it isn’t.
It is absurd and frustrating that humans should be so fooled, and yet religion is a beguiling thing. We want to earn what we are given, else what we are given feels like it is of less value. Paul used strong words to dismiss the notion, calling the Galatians ‘anoētos’ (foolish, senseless), and what happened to them as alike to being cast under a spell. Why else would people trade glory for hopelessness?
Many perceive God as making impossible demands of obedience on the one hand, and his offer of free forgiveness on the other. They can only conceive of obedience in the context of work: an attempt to earn a reward based on moral services rendered. And they can only conceive of grace in a vacuum and without a relationship – ‘Here, have a nice thing, now go away’. So they pick one: obedience (in which is only hopelessness and despair) or grace (in which is moral licence).
But what God offers us is both forgiveness and a new self, with obedience rendered in response to forgiveness already granted.
It’s how marriage, that great picture of divine love, is supposed to work. We love and are loved, inclining ourselves to pleasing our other, because we know we are loved and the happiness of our spouse brings us happiness. We deliberately mould ourselves into the likeness of the other, not in fear of rejection or denial of self, but in celebration of unity.