You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?
In his epistle to the churches in Galatia, Paul admonished Jewish Christians who were teaching that converts, including Gentiles, must adhere to certain Jewish customs under the Law of Moses, such as circumcision and observance of special days, months, seasons and years. By placing the yoke of the Law upon the necks of believers, the Jewish Christians rejected the freedom of Christ through faith. Just as the Old Testament Jews stumbled over the stumbling stone (that is, Christ) by focusing on righteousness through works, the Galatian Jews were stumbling over Christ by reverting to legalism.
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the stumbling stone. As it is written: “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”
Paul explained that Christians are saved by grace alone, through faith, and that righteousness could not be obtained by works or by following the Law. Righteousness though the Law came only from perfect obedience to the Law, which was beyond the ability of man, and failing to obey one aspect of the Law brought death. This insurmountable obstacle to works righteousness was why Christ paid the ultimate penalty of death. And His death fulfilled the promise made to Abraham that believers would be saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul’s epistle to the Galatians comes to mind as I reflect on the decline of the Church’s influence in America, which presses upon my heart during this tumultuous political season. “Where have Christians gone wrong?” I wonder, as the decay of our Country’s morality and spirituality leap from TV, computer, and mobile screens. And then there is the frequent criticism that Christians are hypocritical and judgmental and that churches are unwelcoming. Church rolls are falling, and denominations are floundering as they bicker over rules and regulations and even doctrine. Instead of building God’s Kingdom, Christians have erected barriers between Christ and the world, to the point where Christians are viewed as an angry fringe group as opposed to the historic bedrock and moral compass of our Country.
This decline is evident from Christians being known more for what they are against than for what they are for. Christians seem to be better equipped to tell the world what it’s doing wrong than about the love of Christ. Christians are heard more loudly condemning abortion, homosexuality, divorce, the lazy poor, and Islam, for examples, than they are heard sharing the Gospel.
I can almost hear Paul’s reprimand of American churches leaping from the tear-stained parchment of one of his eloquent epistles. It might go something like this . . .*
You foolish Americans! Who has bewitched you? I am astonished that you have deserted life under the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. You pervert the gospel of Christ by rejecting the freedom He gave us through grace to receive righteousness by faith alone instead of by works. You are Gentiles, yet you live like Jews. And though you live like Jews, you don’t obey the entirety of the Law as required by the Law, thereby justifying death. And though you do not fully comply with the Law, you place the yoke of the Law upon the shoulders of those that are being called. Are you so foolish? Did Christ die for nothing?
Do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing. In Christ Jesus believers are all children of God through faith. But now that you know God—or rather are known by God—how is it that you wish to be enslaved by the Law all over again? If you let yourselves be yoked again by the Law, Christ will be of no value to you.
Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? You should be rejoicing in your freedom and welcoming those who are being renewed by faith. Instead, you do not love each other as you ought. Neither do you carry your neighbor’s burden. You compare yourselves to others and take pride in the flesh, in your imperfect obedience to laws that only enslave you. You judge those who should be coming to Christ for healing, and, in doing so, drive them away. Instead of allowing them to carry their own load before God, you heap more burdens upon them, breaking their backs. Don’t you know that you are builders on the foundation of Christ? Instead, you take hammers to the foundation and bring down its walls.
Christ came to heal the sick, not the healthy, and I tell you, no one is healthy apart from Christ. Walk along with those who are sinning, gently shepherding them along the path of righteousness. Do not bite and devour each other as dogs for food, lest you destroy one another. It is by grace you have been saved, through faith, and this not of yourselves but it is a gift from God. Do not beat your chest proudly, but humble yourself before God, for His gift came at a price, which was the blood of Christ. Do not consider yourself better than you ought; rather be thankful for the Spirit with which God so graciously opened your eyes and is renewing your heart and mind. Do not be a stumbling block for your neighbor, but instead be a lamp to his feet.
Abandon your bent to the Law and human conditions, for salvation does not depend on human desire or effort, but on God’s mercy. You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free, so live this freedom by the Spirit and serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
*Modeled after Galatians.
When Christians focus on what others are doing wrong and are louder about rules and regulations than they are about the love of Christ, to the point where their condemnation is what defines them, they succumb to legalism, which not only condemns Christians by enslaving them to works righteousness but also drives away those in need of healing. Instead, Christians should rejoice in their freedom from the Law and enthusiastically demonstrate the love of Christ to the world. The Church should never be defined by what it is against; rather, the Church should be known for its love. The Church should be welcoming, ready and willing to serve the poor, the sick, and the lame, and should not be judgmental to the world.
What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? . . . God will judge those outside.
1 Corinthians 5:12-13.
By this, I do not mean to marginalize absolute truth and sound doctrine. The love of Christ is not in lieu of truth or doctrine; rather it is the fulfillment of them. Truth and sound doctrine are vital to the health of the Church and believers. But in defending truth and doctrine, the Christian must guard against legalism and a judgmental spirit. Disputes over laws and doctrine are not where salvation lies; rather faith in Christ alone is our salvation.
Christians need to shift their focus from forced morality to growing God’s Kingdom, which is accomplished by the Spirit’s work in the heart, not by works or by laws. Christians should be focused on planting and watering so that God can make things grow, preparing the field for the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of unbelievers.
So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God, who makes things grow.
1 Corinthians 3:7.
I can already hear the objection that I am advocating condonation of sin and surrender of government to secularism. But I am not advocating condonation or surrender. What I am advocating is replacing the image of a judgmental and unforgiving Christ with the image of freedom and grace. The believer coming to Christ must bear his own sin, his own Cross. Christians should walk beside the sinner and lighten his load, not spit in his face or increase his burden. Christians must evaluate everything they do in light of Kingdom building.
I do not mean that Christians should abandon shaping the laws of our Country according to Biblical principles. My concern is that certain political positions championed by Christians have led to the Church being labeled as judgmental. The Christian must always ask himself what he is fighting for. Is he fighting for behavior? Or is he fighting for the heart? The ultimate test should be whether the fight is effective for Kingdom building. Otherwise, the fight can be little more than disguised legalism.
Further, I am not condoning sin or saying that there is not a time to teach about sin. To the contrary, the Bible is clear that Christians must flee from their former sinful ways. In order to do so, Christians must understand what constitutes sin and often need a believer to walk beside them to overcome certain sins. What I am saying is that condemning people for sin before they have a heart for God and imposing legal requirements on believers and nonbelievers apart from faith is the very legalism Paul condemned. Such legalism is counterproductive to Kingdom building and leads to the decline of Church influence we are seeing today.
When Christians live the love of Christ, they are known for freedom, love, mercy and grace, not judgment, hypocrisy and hate. “[T]he fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23. This fruit should be the face of Christ, not legalism. “Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:23.
Whether or not the world approved of her faith in God, the world respected Mother Teressa for her love of and dedication to serving the poor, sick, needy and crippled. She lived out the love of Christ, and the world respected and embraced her. She did not judge and condemn; rather, she loved and served. And in her people saw Christ, whether they knew Him or not. She wasn’t defined by what she was against; rather she was defined by what she was for.
Christians need to heed Paul’s warning and abandon legalism and judgment and in their place substitute the love of Christ. If Christians truly served the world as Mother Teressa did as opposed to condemning and judging it, the influence of the Church would be like a tsunami. As I watch the political drama playing out on TV, America is in dire need of Christians equipped to love and to serve.