Paul asks and answers one big question in Galatians: If you want to become a Christian, do you first have to become a Jew? If you want to be saved, must you work hard at being good or simply rest in the perfect work of Christ on the cross?
When was the last time you found a hand-written letter in your mailbox? I still keep and treasure the letter my grandmother wrote me just before she died, 90 years of age. The fragile lettering betrays her age but her deep love, embedded in wise words, tells me what a good and loving grandmother I had. She showed great interest in my life and deep concern for my future.
A fact often forgotten: Before they were ever printed, the Bible’s letters were written by hand. They are personal letters. Real people wrote them because they cared deeply about those to whom they wrote, about their lives and their future. Paul wrote Galatians in his own hand to the believers in the Galatian churches. His wisdom and love are evident in his lettering: “See what large letters I use as I write to you with my own hand!” (TNIV) The letter is packed with life-changing truths that down the ages have given men and women courage to fight for the freedom, which Christ gives all who believe in him.
The Message: Only Jesus Saves
The main message in Galatians is simple: Only Jesus can save us. At that time some Christian Jews, who had gotten their God-given tradition all wrong, insisted that keeping religious rules was necessary for all who wanted to trust Jesus. In order to be saved, it was not enough to trust in Christ’s death, one also had to keep the Jewish law.
The question Paul asks and answers in Galatians is: Must you become a Jew in order to become a Christian? Must you work hard at keeping some good religious rules to be saved or can you simply rest in Christ’s perfect work on the cross? You must opt for one of two answers: Convince God with your good works that you deserve salvation or rest in the grace God gives those who believe in Christ. For Paul there really is only one option, the second one. Keeping religious rules, even if it is the law God gave Israel, is not to be mixed with the Christian message. It is Jesus plus nothing!
How quickly Christians forget this. Before they know it, they pile up rules and lists. They strive to keep them and fight to defend them, all in order to win God’s affection. No, says Paul, not in our own strength but only in the power of the Holy Spirit can we live spiritual lives. This is the heart of Galatians.
Imagine: You, a Church Planter
If that is the point, why then write a long letter? Why does Paul write page up and page down to make his point? Imagine you are planting a new church in town. Planting a church is like having a child. I know, I have tried it! 12 years ago, I, together with others, started a church in my native country, the Faroe Islands. The time, energy and resources spent in planting a church simply cannot be measured. And the love, commitment and dreams cannot be put into words.
Now imagine that some time has passed since you planted a church. It is established and has begun to live its own life. Your time to leave has come and you pass the baton on to others. But you are still in touch with the church and support it. After a few years you begin to hear unsettling rumours that prove true. Some new folks have arrived and have started to teach exactly the opposite of what you taught. They question your authority and integrity. Suddenly, you feel robbed of your hard labour, your great investment is blown to the wind and church members are scattering in all directions.
A new message is being pushed in the church you love, a message that denies that Jesus is enough for our salvation. It is no longer enough to believe in Jesus, now people are told they must also follow certain laws to win God’s favour. In the spiritual life more than the Spirit’s guidance and power is needed, set rules and commandments must also be kept. If this happened to you and to the church you planted, what would you do?
This is precisely what happened to Paul and the churches in Galatia. I hope you would have done what Paul did, sent the church a heartfelt but honest letter, where you pointedly show what they have turned away from. You urge them to turn their back to the slavery of religious observances and return to the message of freedom. With great love and in clear words, you remind them who you are and with what authority you taught them in the beginning. And you remind them that the power to live the spiritual life is in the Holy Spirit and not in being a slave to the works of a law. At the same time you do not flinch in using pointed and hard words to silence these Jesus-plus-religious-rules teachers, who have entered the church to lead it into bondage.
The Challenge: What Matters to You?
So, here is the test: What will you do, when your character and integrity is questioned? ...when others snare those you have taught to embrace freedom back into chains of rules and regulations? If you put pen to paper, what will you spill ink over? Defend yourself? Or would the people and the freedom message be your first concern?
Paul spent only a few lines to defend himself, and did so only because you cannot separate the message and the messenger. The rest is a defence of the freedom message and a warning against returning to slavery. For Paul it was not his own personal agenda that mattered but the gospel and the freedom that comes with the gospel.
And this is still our challenge today. We are afraid that people will question us, that they won’t trust us. And then it becomes easy to defend our own reputation at all costs, even if it means sacrificing the freedom message and the wellbeing of those dear to us.
If only the same heart would pulsate through our message as flowed through the words my grandmother wrote to me before she died. If only a deep love, embedded in our words, would show how we care for others and Jesus’ freedom message.