I don’t often speak personally (you didn’t come to church to hear about my life), but this morning I do feel compelled to tell you that this Outlaw Church study of grace has been rocking my world! I don’t know if you can sympathize, but while I thought I had my brain wrapped around the doctrine and implications of grace I was simply scratching the surface.
What has been in many ways unexpected was that gaining a deeper understanding as to the nature of grace has highlighted how many aspects of my life revert to law instead of Gospel.
When we think of legalism more often than not we place the concept in context to the restriction of Christian liberty, but the reality is that the main aim of legalism is in actuality the warping our spiritual lives.
For example… How often do we pray, “God, give me the strength to endure this situation”? And while this sounds completely normal, understand this perspective is the product of legalistic warping. Instead of asking God to “give me the strength” if I fully understand the Gospel my prayer should be, “God, may Your strength carry me through this situation.” Do you see the difference? Legalism has me petition God to give me something I need, whereas the Gospel reminds me I’ve already been given everything I need in Christ Jesus.
Most sing songs under the pretense that worship centers on pleasing God. Which once again sounds right, but sadly is also a view warped by the subtle nature of legalism. Instead of “God be pleased by the songs I sing” if I fully understand the Gospel I’m no longer worshipping to please God - I worship because He’s already pleased with me! Once again legalism subtly connects my activities to God’s pleasure, whereas the Gospel reminds me that my life simply flows from the pleasure I already have… God’s Grace!
I recently ran across an article posted on ChristianityToday.com titled, “Confessions of a Burned-Out Minister.” After describing how draining the ministry had become, the author then proceeded to list out “10 Things I did to recover and rediscover my calling.” Here’s the list… 1. Maintain an active prayer life. 2. Remember for who you are working. 3. Surround yourself with co-laborers. 4. Do not forget your first love. 5. Keep devoted times a priority. 6. Learn to say no. 7. Handle criticism with grace. 8. Take time to celebrate victories. 9. Maintain an attitude of humility. 10. Do not give in to grumbling or complaining.
The article concludes, “After confessing my sin and accepting God's forgiveness, I began to develop a discipline in order to avoid burnout in the future by applying the biblical principles I had learned to my everyday life. I realized that ultimately God wanted my affection and devotion above all else. This became my first priority.”
While on the surface it might be easy to see the merit in this perspective, understanding the Gospel of Grace accentuates how much legalism this approach actually oozes. Notice the revealing phrases that literally followed a list of Ten Commandments, “I began to develop a discipline… God wanted my affection and devotion above all else…”
The remedy to a problem we refer to as “burn out” was a list of things this person needed to do in order to develop a discipline to please and demonstrate their devotion to God.
Here’s why a list like this is so dangerous - It fails, because it doesn't address the problem. If you’re burned out the only remedy is the Gospel… The reality that God is already pleased with you and He’s more interested in you enjoying His affection than receiving yours!
Sadly, this person will join the 90% of others who ultimately drop out of the ministry (true stat) because legalism will always rob you of the joy God’s grace is designed to provide! This is what was happening in Galatia. Not only had they begun the slide from Grace into legalism, but this mindset was already beginning to yields its tragic effects.
In Galatians 4:15 Paul asks a very telling and insightful question, “What then was the blessing you enjoyed?” or literally “Where has your blessedness gone?” Paul is pointing out their lack of joy should have been evidence something was terribly wrong.
Understand… “Burn out” only occurs in our flesh and can never be attributed to God’s Spirit. In actuality “getting burned out” can be a good thing because it’s God’s way of revealing your reliance for all things spiritual has been in your flesh and not God’s Spirit. Burn out and the lack of joy that should be characteristic of the indwelling Spirit of God is evidence you’ve fallen into legalism and are no longer living in the Gospel.
Galatians 4:21, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law?”
To be “under the law” is Paul’s way of describing someone under the authority of the law who is therefore dependent upon the law. In this case Paul is referring to the person who sees the law (things we do and don’t do) as the basis for not only their justification (being right with God) but also their sanctification (moral living).
Paul concedes the reality that there were people in Galatia who were in actuality “desiring” this particular arrangement as opposed to one founded upon God’s grace!
So in addressing these people Paul challenges the silliness of this desire by asking… “Do you not hear the law?” The law itself clearly stated that it was powerless to save! It’s like Paul is asking, “Did you not read the disclosures written at the bottom of the page?”
And it’s in line with this point that I want to develop an idea that’ll set the stage for the rest of Galatians… While Grace is undoubtedly free for the receiver, is costly to the Giver, and indeed comes “No Strings Attached,” most misconceptions concerning Grace can be traced back to one detail often overlooked… The condition of the receiver!
Let me explain… Some reason that people resist receiving God’s grace out of a fundamental inability to admit their need for help. Pastors plead, “You can’t live this life on your own. Jesus is ready to help. He’s more than able to help you clean up your mess. When you’re weak He can make you strong. With Christ you can do all things!”
And while this all sounds nice there is one large problem… While religion is more than willing to help you, grace has no such interest! I know this will sound weird, but grace is not interested in helping you cross the finish line. It’s not interested in giving you strength.
Whereas legalism will jump at the chance to help you out and in most instance will even use Jesus to accomplish its aim, grace isn’t interested in helping you do anything! Instead, grace is more interested in fundamentally transforming your internal constitution!
And since transformation is the goal of grace it requires a condition in the receiver much deeper than simply admitting a need for help! You see grace is only useful to the person who’s given up and thrown it the towel. The person at the end of their rope!
Because grace is a spiritual life birthed following the death of self, grace can only be received once self can no longer be helped - on account that it’s been reckoned dead.
In much the same way that a caterpillar must first die before it can transform into a butterfly, while the Gospel possess the incredible power to transform, it’s life-giving power can only be initiated when a person first lays down and dies. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity… “Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead.”
Grace doesn’t demand the receiver admit their need for help - which is a ploy of legalism. Grace demands the receiver cry out to God for life! Realize… You don’t need help. You need a Savior. You need the Spirit of God to live through you. Not your sufficiency through Jesus, but His sufficiency and strength in place of yours.
And there are two implications of this reality… First, as we’ve noted, because the Gospel isn’t interested in helping you and demands the death of the receiver, many prefer the law and gravitate towards legalism. Sadly, because of this demand, it’s true what Thomas Watson said, “Christ went more willingly to the cross than we do to the throne of grace.” In regards to the second implication of this reality let’s dive back into our text…
Galatians 4:22-24, “For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the freewoman through promise, which things are symbolic.”
Before we get into the particulars of our text (which you should know in advance are some of the most complex in the entire New Testament), it’ll be helpful if we begin by clearly stating the central point Paul is making in this passage (second implication of this reality). Note: Not only is Paul introducing a new concept he’ll build upon throughout the remainder of Galatians, but this concept is essential to the battle against legalism in our spiritual lives!
If death to self is central to receiving God’s grace then it’s impossible for my-self to then coexist with His-Spirit! Self (my efforts in my flesh to fulfill God’s purposes using the law) cannot coexist with the Spirit (God fulfilling His purposes supernaturally though grace)!
When it comes to being a righteous person and doing the right things I can either rely on my-self (I don’t need God’s help) and fall prey to a legalistic rut, or rely on His-Spirit (He doesn’t need mine), but I cannot rely on both! To make this point Paul is going to take his readers back to Genesis and take another look at the life of Abraham.
Note: Though Paul said, “For it is written…” only to later affirm these “things are symbolic” he is not saying the story he recounts from Genesis didn’t actually take place. What Paul is rather saying is that these actual, historical events concerning Abraham and his life present a picture of a powerful and profound spiritual truth.
Paul begins… “Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman.” It’s important to point out in the Greek “bondwoman” and “freewoman” can be translated as “out of bondage” or “out of freedom.” The reason we have the English word “women” added to them is that these two Greek words are presented in the feminine tense.
Recount the story of Abraham, Sarah, Hagar, Ishmael, and Isaac.
In defining the symbolic nature of these events Paul contrasts Abraham’s son Ishmael “who was of the bondwoman” (Hagar) “born according to the flesh” (his efforts) with Isaac “who was of the freewoman” (Sarah) “born through promise” (God’s involvement).
His point is to highlight the symbolic nature of each boy… Ishmael was “born according to the flesh” or Abraham’s desire to take matters into his own hands when it came to fulfilling the promises of God. Whereas Isaac’s birth could only be attributed as nothing more than God supernaturally fulfilling His promise to Abraham… “born through promise.”
Galatians 4:24-25, “For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar - for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children…”
While Ishmael and Isaac were the result of two different approaches Abraham made when it came to fulfilling the promises of God, Paul continues by explaining these two approaches were symbolic of “two covenants.”
First, you have “Hagar” whom Abraham laid with to produce Ishmael! While Ishmael represented the result of Abraham’s flesh (his attempt to accomplish God’s work apart from God), Hagar was the mechanism that made this result possible. She represented the law.
Paul says, “Hagar is Mount Sinai” which no doubt referred to the location where the law originated and “corresponds to Jerusalem which now is.” This word “corresponds” literally means “to march in the same row with.” His point - It’s where the law marches forth now.
This covenant of the law was a basic agreement between God and man… “As long as you obey me I will be your God and you can enjoy favor as my people.” God’s favor was dependent upon man’s performance for one very specific purpose…
As we’ve noted before, the law existed to accentuates man’s inability to earn God’s favor and fundamental need for a Savior - God’s grace. The Law was an agreement made to be broken which is why it came with a sacrificial system aimed at atonement.
Keep in mind in this culture your positional and practical standing came not from your father, but through your mother. Ishmael represented bondage because he was born of a slave. Paul is saying if you, as Abraham, seek to accomplish God’s will in your life through Hagar (human works to fulfill God’s purposes) it will only result in producing bondage.
Galatians 4:26-27, “But the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: “Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.”
In order to explain what Paul means in these two verses I find it interesting that while he defines the first of these “two covenants” specifically connecting the “bondwoman” as being “Hagar” he does not make a direct link between the “freewoman” and “Sarah” - though we know she was the mother of Isaac. Let me explain why this is the case…
Though Hagar played a specific role in facilitating Abraham’s desire to accomplish God’s work in his life apart from God’s direct involvement, the same cannot be said for Sarah. Not only was she beyond child-bearing years, but their inability to have a child was a result of her barrenness. Note: Abraham was able to yield a natural son through Hagar!
It would appear Paul instead contrasts Hagar with “the Jerusalem above” which he says “is free” and “the mother of us all.” In referring to heaven or “the Jerusalem above” Paul is stating the promised life born to us all as illustrated by Isaac (what he means by “the mother of us all”) is a work brought forth only through God’s direct and specific involvement.
This would explain why Paul then quotes from Isaiah 54:1, “Rejoice, O barren, you who do not bear! Break forth and shout, you who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband.” In this passage Isaiah the prophet is reminding a group of dispersed Jews that even when you have no chance of baring life and all seems lost (similar to the plight of Sarah) God still has the ability to bring forth life anyway.
Before we continue let me quickly recap: Abraham uses Hagar which resulted in Ishmael (God’s promises are not fulfilled by the flesh and the law only yields bondage). God conceives a child for Abraham using Sarah which results in Isaac (God’s promises are fulfilled supernaturally by grace and only yields freedom).
Galatians 4:28-29, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now.”
“Now we…” Paul is clearly transitioning to the application of all of this symbolism. He first affirms “as Isaac was” we “are children of promise… born according to the Spirit.” What Paul means by this is that our spiritual birth, like Isaac’s physical one, was entirely miraculous - a work of God’s Spirit in our lives - independent of our involvement - and one that only requires barrenness (death) in the receiver (illustrated by Sarah).
Notice what Paul says next (and this is where he starts bringing everything together)… “But, as he was born according to the flesh (Ishmael) then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit (Isaac), even so it is now.” Here’s Paul’s point…
The flesh (what is born in our lives through the law) will never get along with the Spirit (what is born in our lives through God’s grace). Understand, there are two ways to apply what Paul’s saying: One corporately and the other personally.
It’s as true in Paul’s day as it is in ours that religious people don’t get along with those who are walking in the freedom of God’s grace. It’s simply a truth that favor over performance makes any performer furious and hostile towards the favored. In this instance Paul is clear that Ishmael (what the flesh produces) was hostile towards Isaac (what the spirit gave).
And yet, there is a more apt application that should hit each of us personally… Your flesh (your attempts to fulfill God’s work in your life) will be in constant tension with God’s Spirit (God supernaturally fulfilling His work in your life). You see Paul is waging a war against legalism because he knows it feeds our flesh leaving no room for God’s Spirit.
Galatians 4:30-31, “Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? ‘Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman.’ So then, we are not children of the bondwoman but of the free.”
Explain the story behind Genesis 21:10…
Paul says these things represent the reality that because Ishmael and Isaac, law and grace, flesh and spirit cannot coexist without strife and constant tension we must “cast out the bondwoman and her son.” As soon as Isaac was born it was essential Ishmael be “cast out.”
Please understand… If you’re feeling “burned out” or your Christian experience lacks joy, the problem is that you’ve slipped into a form of legalism and aren’t walking in God’s grace!
Instead of dying to self and trusting that God will work His plan in your life supernaturally through His Spirit by His grace, like these Galatians, you’ve stepped out in your flesh by looking for a natural remedy to yield the same spiritual result.
And yet, what makes this experience so frustrating is that, as Abraham illustrates, the flesh can only birth the flesh, the natural more natural, sin what is sinful, bondage further bondage.
Friend, you need to know this morning that it is only through the Spirit that the spirit can be born anew… Only an eternal being can bring forth eternal life… It is only via a supernatural mechanism that a supernatural result can be attained… Only God can birth Godliness… Only those born into freedom can truly be free!
Today, many find themselves frustrated because legalism not only births an imitation of the life God has promised, but that this imitation leaves no room for the genuine. When it comes to being a righteous person and doing the right things you can either rely on self (you don’t need God’s help) or rely on His-Spirit (He doesn’t need mine), but you cannot rely on both!
Understand, the product of God’s grace cannot live with the product of your flesh. If you attempt to manage this unholy union you will burn out in a hurry! The flesh and God’s Spirit cannot occupy the same heart. One must go for the other to flourish. Now the question remains… How do we “cast out” the flesh? Paul will answer this question in chapter 5.
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