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Christian Sins and Paul’s Cure: Galatians 3:26–4:20

1 August, 2010

b picMore notes and observations on a sermon from Dominic Smart, available here, originally posted 13 May 2009.

A Christian can be ‘knocked out of the saddle’, so to speak, in one of two ways: either through sins of the flesh (blatant rebellion against the will of God),  or through the less obvious but no less dangerous sin of confidence in the flesh. The latter is what Paul has in his sights here, as so often in Galatians.

Again, what exactly is the legalism? It’s not the presence of rules and laws and boundaries; it’s the attempt in some way or to some extent to be acceptable before God by our own (or one anothers’) rule-keeping and law-keeping and boundary-observation. Therefore the opposite of legalism isn’t antinomianism, because it’s actually impossible to be lawless — God is still God, and if we proclaim anything else god — even arbitrary liberty —  we still make ourselves beholden to that. The opposite of legalism, of any variety, is the gospel. What opposes both legalism and libertinism is justification by imputed righteousness through  faith in Christ alone. Here is true freedom, across all divides both from God and one another. This is so important, because there’s something in us that wants to hedge grace around with law in order to ‘safeguard’ the Christian life of fruitfulness. Yet this is precisely what puts us back under the burden of unfruitful self-justification.

for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise. (Gal 3:26-29; see further John 1:12; Acts 8:16; Rom 3:30, 6:3, 8:14-17, 9:7, 13:14; 1 Cor 3:23, 11:11, 12:13; Gal 4:1, 5-7, 28, 5:6, 6:15; Eph 3:16; 2 Tim 1:1; Titus 1:2; Heb 9:5)

Paul again takes the Galatians back to what they were like before their redemption in Christ: they were accursed because they were law-breakers, and like children and slaves ruled by the Law in order to point out to them their need of Christ and his righteousness. Now in Christ, however, they have received the full rights of sons (heirs), fully in possession of their inheritance by the indwelling Spirit of sonship, though paradoxically with all its fullness yet to come (4:5ff.). We  have received the inheritance, because Christ was born of a woman, born under law, in his perfect humanity to redeem us from its curse and make us heirs together with him.

I mean that the heir, as long as he is a child, is no different from a slave, though he is the owner of everything, but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father. In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God. (Gal 4:1-6; see further Gen 3:15; Mark 1:15; Luke 2:21-22, 27; John 1:14; Acts 16:7; Rom 5:5, 8:15; 2 Cor 3:17; Gal 2:4, 3:13, 26, 29; Phil 2:7; 1 Tim 2:6, 15)

How did such a radical change come about? Paul doesn’t talk about what we’ve done as believers, but what God has done as the one in whom we trust.

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? (Gal 4:8-10)

If we can’t trust ourselves to get from A to B (i.e. from rebellion to redemption), then why should we invest any trust in our own contribution toward staying  at B?

What’s at stake here? According to Paul, our spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being, both personally and communally. Paul pinpoints the absence of joy, the life of burden and futility. Their witness was also at stake, both to the gospel they profess and proclaim, and to themselves as the messengers who carry that good news. Finally, nothing less important and imminently practical for the Christian life of fruitfulness than their worship and the object of their glorying was at stake. This caused Paul as much anguish as it was causing among them:

What then has become of the blessing you felt? For I testify to you that, if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me. Have I then become your enemy by telling you the truth? They make much of you, but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them. It is always good to be made much of for a good purpose, and not only when I am present with you, my little children, for whom I am again in the anguish of childbirth until Christ is formed in you! I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone, for I am perplexed about you.

Is there anything more pastorally relevant for sinning Christians (all Christians!) than free justification by faith in Christ the only Righteous One? The cure for sins of the flesh and the sin of confidence in the flesh is the same.

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