The apostle Paul’s urgent appeal to the Galatians highlights the folly of moving away from a position of grace in Christ to a bondage to the weaker elements of Law. The writer’s exhortation uses the warning to the Galatians to alert us to the insidious drift we can experience in losing our initial enthusiasm for the Truth. As a comparatively young brother, Jason’s observations are well made and more than appropriate to our Feature theme of “Remembering the Days of Old.” They remind us to mark our early joy of service in former days and to undergo any remedial re-vitalisation of spirit.
The Epistle to the Galatians has been described as the “Magna Carta of liberty in Christ”. The central theme of the epistle revolves around salvation through faith and grace, not by the Law or by works. This particular problem gave rise to what we call the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15) where Paul and Barnabas strongly refuted the assertion that salvation was dependent upon being circumcised after the manner of Moses. We note from verse 5 that the insistence on circumcision was really just the ‘foot in the door’ to force compliance with the whole Law! After some heated debate and Peter’s account of the events surrounding the conversion of Cornelius, the gathering recognised the earlier evidence that “God has also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life” (Acts 11:18). Peter added his own conviction that neither they nor any of their ancestors had been able to keep the Law and, more particularly, “we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they.” This was to be a problem that would linger for a long while to come—it didn’t go away after the Jerusalem conference, as the more in-depth analysis of this issue in the letter to the Hebrews illustrates.
Drifting in the Truth
We should take heed to the warning that the Apostle Paul gave to the Galatian ecclesias about the danger of slipping back into old ways and habits under the Law of Moses. This is not a danger for us today but after our transformation into sons and daughters of the living God at our baptism, our spiritual life tends to go through periods of highs and occasional lows as well. There are times when there is a need for some “reformation”—which is essentially an attempt to retrace our steps back to regain or recapture the spiritual high point we experienced when we were transformed. The means or cause by which we stray can happen in different ways. Firstly, we can be affected by an outside influence which convinces us to change our mind or approach on an issue, which could happen fairly rapidly. Secondly, as happens perhaps more frequently, it’s a process of slow and gradual drifting and decline. We simply lose enthusiasm or focus and only a careful examination of two points in time (‘then’ and ‘now’) highlights just how far we may have drifted, usually without even realising it! It’s like when we go swimming at the beach and without our even realising it, the tide is pulling us and carrying us further down the beach; and only when we look up after some period of time and notice that our towels and beach shade are back along the beach do we realise just how far we may have drifted.
With the Galatians it wasn’t so much a case of a long, slow and gradual drifting from a correct understanding of the Truth—this had in fact been a very sudden change of mind and attitude. Paul marvelled that, “Ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel” (1:6). Having only recently embraced the saving hope of redemption through Christ, Paul finds that instead of progressing in the Truth there had been a serious move backwards. This development was extremely worrisome to Paul (eg 3:4; 4:11–12). It greatly distressed Paul to think that, having made such a good start in their spiritual development, they were now in danger of jeopardising all of that by returning to bondage to the weak and beggarly elements of the Law.
We must not underestimate the intense and sustained pressure being brought to bear upon them. This is illustrated by the pressure applied upon the apostle Peter. He had also undergone an amazing transformation in his life—the events of the trial and crucifixion of his Lord, including his denials, then the resurrection and meeting again with his Lord—all of these had changed his life. Yet even a man like Peter, who was recognised as one of the “pillars” of the early ecclesia—even a man such as this, when placed under this intense pressure, was susceptible to slipping back into his previous ways of thinking. Paul had had to publicly rebuke Peter for avoiding social contact with Gentile believers, yet we know Peter had earlier understood that God “should not call any man common or unclean”, and later, “God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation, he that feareth Him and worketh righteousness, is accepted with Him” (Acts 10:28, 34–35). If a man like Peter can slip back into his old way of thinking, then it is certainly a possibility for us as well.
Rekindling the Enthusiasm of Former Days
Reformations need not be controversial or attentiongrabbing. It is possible on a smaller scale and in less obvious ways: the need to examine our own lives and to institute some changes aimed at getting us back to a position where we once were or to a former way of thinking or behaviour. It has been observed that the need for reformation arises from the basic fact that all human institutions are born to roll downhill—regardless of the nature of them. They all start with a flurry of idealism and high endeavour. Then, after a while the momentum begins to slacken. This goes on by imperceptible degrees. The burden of activity comes to be borne more and more by fewer and fewer, until at last it is only a handful of enthusiasts that keeps the concern going, helped by the less-effectual encouragement of a great number of sympathisers who are ‘leaners’ rather than ‘lifters’. We can also admit that where individual repentance or enthusiasm is concerned, the pattern is usually not dissimilar. One writer said that “maintaining a head of steam is not easy”! The need for reformation comes because inevitably it is hard to maintain the initial burst of enthusiasm. We can all recognise this from our own experience in the Truth. We can no doubt recall the overwhelming feeling of gratitude to our heavenly Father we each felt at the occasion of our baptism and the enthusiasm with which we initially embraced ecclesial life, seeking every opportunity to be involved and to serve our brethren and sisters. But how many years (perhaps even decades?) have passed since that time? Could it be said that our enthusiasm has tempered with the passing of time? We could probably say with a degree of confidence that our knowledge in the Truth has grown—after all, we hear so many exhortations and Bible studies every year—but has our increased knowledge been matched by a growth in our love for the Truth? Or is there a need to rekindle some of that passion toward the Truth that we felt in earlier times?
It is also true to say that the doctrinal decay in our community over the past 150 years has been negligible. However, whilst doctrinal purity has been defended vigorously, what is perhaps more worrisome is the apparent corrosion of spirit. If we looked at ourselves with absolute honesty, we would have to admit that a degree of apathy has crept in over time and replaced the single-minded enthusiasm we mentioned earlier. This is where we need a modernday Malachi to bring this to our attention—because this is exactly the same problem which people grappled with in his day. The people of Malachi’s time had become very apathetic and ambivalent about their ecclesial service, but the incredible thing was, they weren’t even aware of it! The prophet appealed to them to reverse the long process of decay in their service by personal reformation, to prepare themselves for the Messenger of the covenant who would suddenly come to his temple.
Brethren and sisters, surely we are in need of a similar reminder! Are there not areas where we need to examine and improve on in our personal lives before our Lord returns suddenly to his temple? It is a matter of exhortation for us to be vigilant and ensure we don’t let things slip. Either by process of decay (as in Malachi’s day), or indeed through being influenced by outside pressures.
Frustrating the Grace of God
The problem for the Galatians was the issue of salvation through faith and the inability of the Law to save. The crux of the matter was in “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ and not by the works of the Law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified” (2:16). The key issue is summed up again: “but that no man is justified by the Law in the sight of God it is evident; for the just shall live by faith” (3:11). It was a foundation Truth that they had received gladly when it was first preached to them, but under pressure from others some of them had changed their minds. They were “building again the things which (they) had destroyed” (2:18). The inconsistency of this with the sacrifice of Christ is brought out in the full force of the conclusion: “for if righteousness [and therefore salvation!] come by the Law, then Christ is dead in vain”(2:21). This is the obvious implication of what they were in effect saying. All Christ had achieved through his life and in particularly through his sacrifice—all of these things were pointless, because the only way to please God was to rigidly keep a checklist of rules and laws which actually were not possible to keep. Paul says that to take this attitude was to “frustrate the grace of God” (2:21).
Paul’s message to the Galatians (and to us), can be summarised neatly in the sentiments: “If I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the Law, am dead to the Law, that I might live unto God” (2:18–19). They were making a big mistake in trying to build again the things which had been destroyed. Those were part of their former way of life, and having passed through the waters of baptism those bridges should have been well and truly burned—there was nothing to be gained and everything to lose by seeking to revert back to that way of thinking and that way of life. The same holds true for us today—we were never under the Law, but we have certainly left behind us many things on the other side of those baptismal waters, things which we knew were incompatible with a life in Christ. It’s possible that in some ways we may have slipped back into the comfort and familiarity of these old habits or attitudes. If this is the case, then we have opportunity to examine ourselves, to make any necessary changes and to undertake our own personal reformation, attempting to make sure we don’t seek to rebuild what we destroyed—but rather seeking to recapture some of the zeal and enthusiasm that may have diminished in intensity with the passing of time.
The motivation for doing so? “I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:20). The reason we can no longer submit ourselves to the Law, or indeed to anything that had previously held us in bondage to sin, is because we have died to our old way of life and all that was associated with it. We are crucified with Christ, and whilst we live—it is in fact not us that is alive but Christ living in us. Christ is to be seen and portrayed in all of our thoughts and actions. The life that we now live, we live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us.
He lived a life of selflessness and died an agonising death—because he loved us and gave himself for us—for our salvation. Surely we can respond to that love and sacrifice.