Law or faith, trust or independence

Pentecost 3 2010


Marian Free

In the name of God who sets us free to live. Amen.

9 Charlton St

Hamilton 4007

13th June, 2010

Dear X,

I am writing to set you straight on a number of matters………

Yours sincerely (or should it be faithfully?),

Marian Free


When Paul writes a letter, he does just that. Just as we have (or have had) standard forms for writing different sorts of letters – job applications, wedding invitations and so on – so too the Greeks had standard forms of letter-writing. A letter usually consisted of three parts – an address, body (which included the major theme of the letter) and farewell. The address generally consisted of the sender, the addressees and a greeting. These would be followed by a Thanksgiving, which would create a favourable reception for the letter.

The letter to the Galatians follows this pattern. Paul begins, “Paul an apostle—sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead— 2and all the members of God’s family who are with me, To the churches of Galatia: 3 Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen.”

This tells us that Paul claims the authority of an apostle and that he is writing to more than one church. The greeting gives us a clue as to what is to follow. Our attention is drawn to the fact that his apostleship comes directly from God, not from human authorities – what he has to say has divine imprimatur. We might also suspect that the letter will have something to say about Christian freedom.

Most notable is the absence of a thanksgiving. Apparently Paul has nothing about which to be thankful. Instead of saying: “I give thanks to my God always for you because of the grace of God that has been given you in Christ Jesus,” as he does in the letter to the Corinthians, Paul moves straight into the language of censure: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ”. Paul is disappointed to the point of fury with the members of the community in Galatia.

It is difficult to reconstruct a situation that relates to such a distant past, but we surmise that Paul went to Galatia to preach a law-free gospel. Some time later, another teacher insisted that only those who submitted to the law (as well as Christ) coul be saved. This teaching so convinced the Galatians that they were considering the drastic step of circumcision – proof that they are willing to live under the law. Paul was livid. He was so angry that he wrote: “I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!” Paul’s depth of feeling is understandable; he was convinced that salvation was God’s free gift to those who believe. Circumcision implied faith in the law and not in God. Further, it was impossible to keep every aspect of the law. If a believer tried to keep the law they would fail. Worse still, the Galatians attempt to gain salvation by their own efforts would make a mockery of Jesus’ death which has achieved their salvation for them.

In both the letter to the Galatians and the letter to the Romans, Paul defends his conviction that those who believe in Jesus are justified by faith and not by anything that they do. The life of a believer is determined by the Holy Spirit and not by adherence to the law (which Paul associates with sin and death). This, Paul claims, is not a novel idea. In fact is as old as Abraham. Four hundred and thirty years before the law was given to Moses, Abraham was justified on the basis of his faith. This means, Paul tells us, that anyone who believes – Jew or Gentile – is made right with God. Abraham did not need the law in order to be justified, so the Galatians can be confident that their faith in God is sufficient for their salvation. Faith without the law leads to justification. The law, without faith, does not.

The gospel Paul preaches is a gospel of freedom – from the law, from sin and from death. “For freedom, Christ has set us free” (5:1), he exclaims. He cannot understand why when they have known the freedom he offered that the Galatians would submit themselves to slavery. The teachers who have followed Paul have unsettled the Galatians and undermined their confidence in the freedom Paul proclaimed.

It is easy to see how they could be seduced by the certainty and clarity of the law. Freedom is a difficult concept to grasp. Freedom doesn’t give guidelines on how to live; nor does it measure performance against some pre-determined guidelines. Freedom is too vague and illusive to be trusted. Like ourselves, the Galatians wanted to know what was right and what was wrong so that they had an assurance that they were doing what was right. Paul knows that this is a false assurance. Dependence on the law, leads to independence from God. The law is so far from being the answer that it crucified Jesus.

The cross shattered all the categories and definitions by which Paul had lived. He discovered that nothing was as he had thought it was. If the law, on which he had based his life and his behaviour, had led to the death of Jesus it could not be trusted. Paul was forced to place his trust solely in God rather than rely on human endeavour. He learned that, like Jesus, he had to submit his will to God’s – dying to self and allowing Christ to live in him. “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me”. Paul had to leave behind his self-assurance and his independence. He had to die to everything that was not of God and open the way for the Holy Spirit (not the law) to direct and lead him.

On its own law will never be able to make us truly holy or perfect. We simply cannot legislate for love, joy, peace, gentleness. Laws can stop us from being bad, but they cannot force us to be truly good. True goodness, like true beauty comes from deep within. True holiness is part or who we are, not a veneer which we can use to cover up our imperfections. We cannot achieve true godliness simply by avoiding ungodliness. True godliness is achieved when we hand our lives over to God and allow God to take control of our lives. True holiness is gained when we let go of our egos and allow the Holy Spirit to determine how we live. We become Christ-like when we die to ourselves so that Christ may live in us.

For many of us, just as for the Galatians freedom from the law is an absolutely terrifying precept. Like the Galatians, many of us find it easier to obey rules than to be ruled by the Spirit. We are tempted to try to earn our own salvation, to rely on our own efforts rather than to trust God’s love for us and to have confidence that faith (not works) is all that it takes.

Faith or law, trust or independence – we can try to find our own way to God, or believe that God has already found us. Our salvation depends on the choice we make.


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