What's Galatians Really About?
Here are two diagnostic questions for Christians that need very honest answers. Here’s the first: if you go to church and also are in a Bible study and prayer group, do they complement each other, so that you get something from one that you don’t from the other? What, specifically?
Here’s the other: you’ll be preaching a sermon this coming Sunday and you have eight hours to prepare. How many hours will you spend in the exegesis part, doing the Hebrew, comparing parallel passages, seeing how this fits into the entire teaching of the Bible? Then, how many hours will you work to get straight on where your people are, where they’re battling Satan and what do they most need to know next Sunday?
Look at it this way: we need to know both what the Bible teaches and how that helps us personally right now, how God’s truth and the Spirit’s application fit us out for his glory and our joy?
Those were questions the Lutheran Pietists asked. They weren’t well received since they seemed to be undermining their pastors, asking for a lot more than they were giving. The Puritans had been doing it better all along. Calvin began his INSTITUTES by reminding us that we need to know both God and ourselves. Puritans knew What we should be doing, but believed we needed help on the How—that was their Reformed way. A good solution was in the Scottish “prophesyings,’ when the pastor suggested ways of implementing the truth he was preaching, then in their midweek small-group meetings with elders in charge the people shared their own personal ‘hows,’ and finally the elders talked it over with the pastor, and asked did he need to make it even clearer, to all that God was calling us to believe and do?
In the USA there were many Reformed slave-owners. Their biblical study of slavery had been superficial and they resisted further study, convinced that church ministry should be exclusively ‘spiritual.’ That opened the door to others with feeble biblical commitment to bring the leadership in rejecting black slavery. So it turned out that Bible-believing Christians were indifferent to biblical teaching while weak believers showed the way ahead! ‘Premillennialism’ came to be encouraged: not until Jesus comes back will society get better, never before. It began to be taken for granted that all ‘application’ of biblical teaching was out of bounds, as opening the way to extra-biblical Modernism. So while the Christian faith was seen as true, looking for its relevance had become very questionable.
Slavery is dead and gone but there are still many hard issues in our world today. Take ’same-sex’ marriage and same-sex sexual activity in general. To many of us the biblical teaching against seems very clear but we are still very weak in our teaching on how to deal with it. Are there other issues that we could learn from? So we could we do better than just proclaim, don’t do that? We know how we are all called to share our faith with those not-yet believers—but few of us do it, and hardly anyone talks about it. Couldn’t we work together to find godly ‘hows’ on that one, so that could then help us on same-sex? Try out this one: we know we are called very clearly to care for the poor, but with our own declining Social Security how could we possibly do that? Can we teach each other the “hows” on that one too? Wouldn’t we then be more godly equipped to help same-sex people battle their temptations, from what we “silent” and “stingyes’ have been learning ourselves?
There is that ‘role of women’ issue. Our daughters are outnumbering our sons in college graduation, women are doing very well in business and political leadership, Angela Merkel leads Europe better than those men, does all that mean nothing to us? We all finally know that it’s not general effectiveness and leadership skills that qualify some men for ordination to the gospel ministry, since many ‘unqualified’ women have all that. It must then be skills and heart attitude that we have barely looked at, and that our seminaries have not bothered teaching—what can they be? That will take our careful and prayerful work, and it’s time!
Those issues show us that ‘application’ is a very serious endeavor that will require our closest attention and hardest work—and major respect for each other. We already have wrestled with learning Hebrew and the like—but now ‘application’ is more than ever on our platter as neglected challenge and opportunity.
That challenge is the colossal both/and of the gospel. Christ is risen, the Spirit has been given, we have all we need for life and godliness! There’s the glorious and heart-cheering reality that we have now in Jesus. Can we ask with all our hearts, now what else? Not the way those liberals did it, radical relevance with no room for Christ’s atonement for our deep sin. Not the reacting way our revered teachers have done it, protecting the truth by leaving out the relevance. Yes, do Calvin, let’s look at God’s Word as we look at ourselves!
Martin Luther really found the gospel in Galatians—it’s not our obedience, it’s not our brownie points for trying harder—it’s not getting credit for ourselves, it’s all about our God’s love to us in Jesus, who died in our place and is now at our side forever. That’s the Galatians we know, that we love and thank God for.
But with all our gospel joy, now let’s look more closely at why Paul said that, when the issue was, how can circumcised Jews with their commitment to God’s law ever get along with those uncircumcised lawless Gentile believers? Paul’s concern will enable us to love those believers that we just don’t respect, that’s where we are. Remember the one thing they could all agree on, ‘all they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do,’ in 2:10. And then this, ‘you, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature, rather, serve one another in love,’ in 5:13, and ‘those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature, with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other,’ in 5:24-26.
When we know the really big picture of our Father’s powerful love for us, it’s totally about his grand unending love, don’t those climaxes make sense? How else can we respond to our Father’s love except by displaying it in our hearts for others? For others who aren’t as ‘successful’ in life as we have been? How could that even be in our thinking? Not foolish add-on, but just right.
The grand climax of all that our merciful God does for us is, ‘Christ is risen!’ But after that comes, ‘Be one as I and my Father are.’
That’s not boring anticlimax is it? How could it be? It’s who we are now, blessed and blessed again by our kind Father and his Beloved and loving-us Son and Spirit working again and again within us so we keep on seeing Jesus.
You Baptists, it’s doubtful you’ll ever get it to baptize your God-given babies—let’s talk about how God enables us to love our rebellious teens. You Pentecostals, we’ll never get why falling backwards is so wonderful—teach us about boldness in our witness, we need that. You mega-church folks, we don’t see how guitars beat pianos and why songs should keep repeating themselves—but tell us what it’s like to change a community, we need that encouragement.
We hope and pray for genuine conversations with those who doubt the virgin birth, can we talk about the total humanity of Jesus, how he humbled himself that much? Then you could listen to us as we feast on his humanity too, with that birth.
Talking about same-sex will be hard, but we love you, we do. We know those amazing women with their deep grasp of the Word and how they teach us so well, and we rejoice in what you can give us from the ‘more than that’ in our God-given male leaders.
That dark memory of slavery is in all of our minds. Those slave-owners were godly in so many ways—yes they were. Those Modernist abolitionists were touched by your love—they were too. So as we move ahead now we desire with all our hearts much more than either/or, but always that great both/and, serious submission to God’s holy Word, and genuine ‘let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.’