Bible Study with Jairus – Galatians
This evening we are going to quickly go through several chapters of Galatians. This morning when I attended an American Evangelical Community Church, the pastor used a term called SBNR which means spiritual but not religious. This pastor was criticizing people who don’t participate in church activities and are not willing to have any commitment. He stated that there were Christians in the United States adopting this slogan. These people are dissatisfied with the church as an institution and use the slogan as an excuse for laziness. He said that admittedly, there’s nothing wrong with being SBNR, but it shouldn’t be an excuse for laziness. They refuse to pursue spiritual growth and be built together with others. He said that God’s intention for Christians is to love and interact with each other in a community so that we can learn and edify each other.
When I got home and opened Facebook I saw one of my teachers, a Charismatic pastor at the Randy Clark Scholars, a Doctor of Ministry program at the United Theological Seminary, preaching through live streaming. He was talking about the same topic, that Christians should be rooted in the community and grow more in one’s spiritual life through interacting with each other. We shouldn’t use avoiding religion and pursuing spirituality as an excuse to escape building each other up.
Then I felt inspired by the Holy Spirit about the message I will be sharing tonight. Today, the Holy Spirit seems to have a theme – the issue of abusing grace and the relationship between grace and the law. Since we were already planning to study Galatians which deals with the law, we will explore this topic tonight.
I heard that there was a dispute in China over the propagation of the so called “Grace Gospel.” A pastor in Singapore prefers to impart truth by teaching God’s grace and therefore was labeled
as the “Grace Gospel.” I read an article in a charismatic magazine by an American pastor who believed that this pastor in Singapore overemphasized God’s grace and neglected God’s discipline which in turn caused people to abuse God’s grace. These two pastors agreed to meet and discuss the topic in the Lord’s love. I even saw pictures of the meeting. As a result of this meeting even the American pastor was criticized by those who opposed the “Grace Gospel. Apparently many people in the United States disagree with that teaching.
When I used to have my own audio program on the Chinese online platform, some of the audience in China often interacted with me. One of them was a follower of this so-called Grace Gospel. He chatted with me and asked me how I felt about the Grace Gospel. I know that he wanted me to affirm this teaching, but to be honest, I don’t know much about the Grace Gospel in China or why people criticize it so I couldn’t support him. He and I didn’t have any further communication after that.
I still hold this point of view. I don’t make any comments on the so-called “Grace Gospel” because my understanding is limited. But I have heard that many churches have split because of their attitude towards the “Grace Gospel. There are also a lot of disputes on the Internet. The purpose of my analysis here is not to judge other believers. Rather, I will talk about my understanding of grace and the law from a general perspective.
I think this topic is directly related to the contents of Galatians.
I came into contact with some people who had background in some traditional American Christian churches. They told me that they don’t like the legalism in the church. An American Christian lady told me that she was from a very legalistic church. When she came to the small Charismatic church, she said that she had absolutely never felt the freedom and release like this before. She described a variety of legalistic situations in her original church which really surprised me.
I met another American Christian man on the train. He asked if we could use instruments at our church. I said of course we can. He told me that his church doesn’t allow any instruments. They believe that instruments are all from Satan.
I also heard from a preacher that there was a teenager (who grew up in the church but wasn’t baptized yet) who accidentally ate the bread of the church’s Sunday worship without realizing it, and was reprimanded, causing the teenager to stumble.
I just cited a few examples as there are too many examples of legalism in the church. I suppose that there are a variety of these experiences. For example, some churches don’t allow women to wear makeup or jewelry, which may cause people to stumble. Some parents force their teenagers to go to church and when they are 18, they leave the church for good not even having experienced God. The list goes on.
Legalism really exists in churches. There are usually three outcomes of legalism. The first result is to stumble, which I’ve already said above.
The second outcome is people who develop a sense of pretense and hypocrisy. On the surface, they don’t violate the rules and regulations, but they don’t really embrace them in their heart. This is the case with Peter in Galatians 2:12 where it says: for before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but after they arrived, he pretended not to eat with the Gentiles. Even Barnabas was led astray. In the end, Paul stood and reprimanded Peter. In the modern church, in the face of the overflow of legalism, many people are like this. They don’t violate the law; they oppress themselves and they pretend. Why? Because of fear. Fear made Peter pretentious because eating with the Gentiles may not have been accepted by the people of Jerusalem and he still had to go back to Jerusalem. If they accused him in the meeting, it would be very shameful for Peter. I mentioned in our study that fear is the main tool of the religious spirit to control people. Everything that is done out of fear is usually not from the Lord, but from Satan. For the Spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline (NIV, 2 Timothy 1:7).
For example, the teenager that I mentioned who had not experienced the Lord in a subjective way in the church may have two attitudes. He may be the type that refuses to go to church saying he’d rather be an unbeliever than a hypocrite. On the other hand, he could pretend to go along with everything to please his parents and live the opposite when they aren’t looking.
The third outcome is a person who finds grace in the law. I likened this type of person to a salmon. Salmon swim and spawn upstream. For them, the environment is like the law. It is against them. They are swimming against the current, but they insist on swimming upstream. Upon reaching their destination, they spawn and they continue to multiply. There are many Christians who are like this, whether in church history or now.
I’ve recently been reading a biography of an African American Christian named Samuel DeWitt Proctor. He had served for several US presidents and had held important positions in the field of education. He was a visiting professor at the United Theological Seminary, where I’m taking classes. In the biography, he mentioned that the arduous history of discrimination of the United States against African American people has caused some African American people to give up on themselves. On the other hand, it has also caused some African American people like him to become even firmer in their faith in God and become useful citizens in American society. If American society’s discrimination against the African American people is likened to legalism, then some people have indeed overcome these laws and found God’s grace in them.
So, what is the relationship between the law and grace?
Galatians chapter 4 has used personification as an approach. It likened Hagar (Abraham’s wife) to the Old Testament, and a person who bears children into slavery. In Galatians 4:25-26, Paul compared Hagar to Mount Sinai, and Sarah to Jerusalem which is the mother of us all. So, Abraham and his two wives have very interesting interactions. Abraham is not just comprised of one person. There are two people in him. One is the new man who lived by faith, and the other is the old man who lived by flesh. Therefore, the intertwined relationship between Abraham’s new man and old man and his two wives is the best illustration to explain the relationship between grace and the law.
Paul also had a good analogy in Romans 7:1 which says, “Do you not know, brothers and sisters–for I am speaking to those who know the law–that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives?” The “person” here refers to a woman’s husband. Here, Paul is hinting that the old man died because of being crucified with Christ. In other words, the law kills. Paul says, “The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life!” (2 Corinthians 3:6). It’s not because of the law or the letter that kills. Rather, it’s because your old man played a role there. As Paul said in Romans 7:7 (NIV), “Is the law sinful? Certainly not! Nevertheless, I would not have known what sin was had it not been for the law. For I would not have known what coveting really was if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” In other words, Paul found that it’s not totally because of the law that convicted and killed him. Rather, it’s because he has the sin of greed in him. He was convicted when he ran into the law. The main reason why the law, the ministry of conviction, has played a role is not because the law stipulates that you must not steal or covet. The fundamental reason is that your fallen sinful nature has caused you to steal or covet.
Let’s look at the example of Abraham. As a woman, Hagar is already unfortunate enough to be born an Egyptian. What is more unfortunate is that she became a slave girl to Sarah afterwards. Life was already difficult for her and she hoped to have the opportunity to move up the social ladder by getting pregnant from her master. Instead of this bringing her respect, she was driven away by Sarah. Abraham was powerless to do anything. From the perspective of modern women, her demands were not too much. Why aren’t her demands met? In Galatians 4, Paul compares Hagar to the law and the Old Testament. Why is it that when the law (Hagar) asks Abraham to love her back or fulfill the requirements of the law to love, he can’t do it? Is it because the requirements of the law are wrong? No. It was Abraham’s old man who had a problem. Since Abraham married Hagar according to the flesh and didn’t ask counsel from God, thus the result of his flesh could not bring the fruit of the Spirit.
Why do you think God comforted Abraham in his distress and told him to listen to Sarah and allow Hagar and Ishmael to be driven away? It’s important to know that after Ishmael (the son of Abraham) was born according to the flesh, God did not appear to Abraham for thirteen years. Abraham was already ninety-nine years old before the Lord appeared to him and promised the birth of Isaac. It took God thirteen years to deal with Abraham’s flesh. When Isaac was born, Abraham circumcised himself, Isaac and Ishmael as God commanded him. This represents the results of him dealing with the flesh. Therefore, it wasn’t Sarah who wanted to drive Hagar away, but it’s because Abraham’s old man died. According to Paul’s analysis in Romans 7, once her old man dies, the law no longer has any jurisdiction over her. Paul was referring to the fact that the wife was no longer bound by the dead husband. But we are twisting it around here to say the new husband is no longer bound in the way the old man and his wife were bound. Actually, it’s not that Hagar was driven away, but rather Hagar was able to get freedom from her status as slave. This is why many people don’t understand why God appeared and blessed Hagar and Ishmael when they were crying in the wilderness. If God didn’t like them and wanted to drive them away, why would He appear and bless them?
Since Abraham’s flesh died, his new man began to come to the stage. At this time, the law that convicts and kills us became the law that perfected us. In other words, Hagar exited the stage and Sarah came to the stage. The Old Testament exited the stage, and the New Testament came to the stage. The law and grace have become mutually reinforcing relationships. It’s no longer because the law killed me and I can’t obey the law. At this time our new man (the life of Christ) was able to repeatedly live out the requirements of the law (the wife). As Jesus said, “I have not come to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it.” (NIV, Matthew 5:17). Not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law (Matthew 5:18), but the new life of Jesus Christ in us has fulfilled these laws. The convicting ministry of Moses in the Old Testament became the ministry of the grace of the Lord Jesus in the New Testament.
This is the relationship between the law and grace. They are interactive. In other words, now we have the life of the old man, and also the new man. Besides this, there’s also Hagar (who represents the law) and Sarah (who represents grace) as our wife inside of us. Our life is very complicated. But it is also easy if you make it simple. If you die completely to the flesh and circumcise your flesh, Hagar (the law) will become ineffective in your life. You are a person who lives in the spirit and who marries Sarah. Sarah is Jerusalem, the mother of spiritual life.
In other words, if you die to your old man, you won’t stumble by the law. You stumble by the law not because the requirements of the law are unreasonable but because of your flesh. The requirements of the law are often difficult for our flesh to adhere to. Whether God has given the Israelites the Sabbath, or your church doesn’t allow you to wear jewelry, sometimes it just doesn’t make any sense. Why? For example, it is clear that Jehovah wanted the Israelites to keep the Sabbath. But in the end, Jesus, the Son of God, came and didn’t keep the Sabbath in certain situations. Isn’t this contradictory? No. God allows the law, and even the existence of legalism. The purpose is not just to keep the law, but to see if you will obey it. If you don’t have a spirit of rebellion, but rather obey everything in the Lord, can you stumble? So people who stumble usually have problems inside themselves. This would be like the prodigal son in Luke 15. His rebellious nature led him to commit a sin and wander. In the end, he found a way to enjoy grace by repenting and confessing his sin of rebellion. This is the first R I’d like to mention– rebellion. I said in the beginning that the American pastor said that many people pursue the SBNR slogan and don’t participate in church activities. Actually, they may be living in rebellion of God and are prodigal sons. This is the current state of many churches and Christians. It is also the state of many prodigal sons in the world.
The next R, which is religion is represented by the eldest son in Luke 15. He works very hard. He has the presence of the Father outside, but he has no real intimacy with the father. He is even envious of the prodigal son who repented. This type of mentality is the religious spirit. This person represents the second type of person I’ve talked about. They are pretentious. They are often bound by the religious spirit. They initiate legalism just like the Pharisees in the time of Jesus. They often persecute the prodigal son, who represents the relatively weaker people. After being persecuted by legalism and the religious spirit, the prodigal son often goes to the opposite/other extreme, which is rebellion. The prodigal son is often influenced and controlled by the “spirit of rebellion”. These two spirits both come from Satan.
The story of Luke 15 is a very good metaphor. Have you ever thought about the possibility that the prodigal son may have suffered persecution from his older brother way before he decided to leave his house? I read a sermon by Charles Spurgeon. If I remember correctly, he said that Cain’s persecution of Abel didn’t begin on the day he killed him, but rather it was ongoing because of their different understanding of what an acceptable sacrifice was. The persecution had already existed from the beginning. Similarly, it is very likely that the eldest son in Luke 15 disliked his younger brother from the beginning, and persecuted him through a religious spirit of legalism until he couldn’t take it anymore and left home. Of course, after dealing with the environment, the prodigal son dealt with the spirit of rebellion. He returned to his father’s house and found the love of God, allowing him to overcome the persecution of the religious spirit and legalism. But in the end of the gospel of Luke the author did not tell us that the elder brother overcame his religious spirit.
God often allows legalism and even a religious spirit to be in the environment in order to test whether or not we are obedient. I’ve heard that one of the reasons why the teaching on the Grace Gospel is very popular is that many believers have been hurt too much by the church’s legalism. This analysis is correct. But we can’t be biased. If there is no flesh or rebellion in us, the spirit of legalism and religion can’t hurt us. The real reason why legalism or a religious spirit hurts us is because our old man has not truly died and still perhaps possesses a rebellious nature. Christians who are deeply persecuted by legalism and religion often go to the other extreme of what they consider to be freedom and grace but in actuality they are often bound by the spirit of rebellion.
This is like driving a car. If you turn to the left, you’ll fall into the trap of religious spirit and legalism. If you turn to the right, you’ll fall into the trap of the spirit of rebellion. The prodigal son’s attitude before repentance and his brother’s religious spirit can be likened to the two extremes that the church often goes to. This is not God’s intention.
God’s intention is for us to become like the salmon I mentioned earlier. No matter how difficult it is, the salmon would swim upstream and multiply. Although there are all kinds of difficulties in the environment, our hearts should be like Paul, a person who exemplifies Christ in every situation. God’s intention is to let us bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit through these different and even difficult circumstances. Galatians 5:22-23 (NIV) says, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” People usually pay attention to the first half of verses 22 and 23, but often ignore what the second half of verse 23 says, “Against such things there is no law.” If we live out the fruit of the Holy Spirit, the religious spirit or legalism won’t harm you. On the contrary, we need to understand that whether it’s a religious spirit causing legalism or a spirit of rebellion abusing grace, they are both from the flesh.
Therefore, the reason why I don’t want to criticize the so called Grace Gospel is because on the one hand, I am not familiar with it. On the other hand, I know that if we use legalism and a religious spirit to criticize the supporters of the Grace Gospel, not only will it have no effect, but it will cause dissention in the body of Christ. Because legalism and a religious spirit is a reaction of the flesh, and the abuse of grace and the spirit of rebellion is also from the flesh, the flesh is waring against the flesh nullifying any good effect.
It’s important to obey God’s discipline in our lives. Although many times the circumstances of our environment are difficult or others wrong us unfairly, we need to understand that nothing comes to us without God’s permission. We learn through experience to obey his discipline because the more we turn away from it the heavier His hand of discipline will be and our circumstances will get increasingly worse.
The reason that people abuse grace and freedom is largely due to opposing the religious spirit and legalism. The danger here is the tendency to fall into self-indulgence and rebellion which abuses freedom and God’s grace. I’ve observed that churches tend to be at one extreme or the other in this area. This is not God’s intention for His people. He wants us to live by the fruit of the Holy Spirit in every situation and says that against these there is no law.
In other words, when we face an overabundance of legalism and a religious spirit in the church, the correct response is not to go to the opposite extreme (abusing the grace and indulging in rebellion), but to deal with our flesh and grow up spiritually If we do this, legalism is no longer negative or a stumbling block. Instead, all things will work together for good, which let us grow in our spiritual lives and fulfill God’s will for us.
In Galatians 3:3 (NIV), Paul blames the Galatians, “Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?” This corresponds to what Paul said in Galatians 1:6 (NIV), “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” Paul continues to say in Galatians 6:8 (NIV), “Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”
These words should be alarming. They should be a solemn warning for us not to live and act according to the flesh. The legalism and rebellious spirit that is pervasive in today’s church is actually just two different kinds of living in the flesh. If we don’t live in the flesh, Satan is unable to raise a religious spirit, legalism or the spirit of rebellion to harm the church. As the Lord Jesus said, the evil one has no place in Him.
Paul’s expectation for the church is what he said in Galatians 2:20 (NIV), “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
This is the way a Christian should live. If a majority of Christians in the church would live like this, the flesh would be dealt with, and legalism and religious spirit wouldn’t be rooted in the soil. The spiritual stature of the church would then greatly improve; the light of the church will also be brighter; more prodigal sons from the outside world would return to the household of God, and the church would grow stronger. On the contrary, because there are many churches with believers who live according to the flesh, the prevalence of legalism is high and causes weaker believers to stumble and often leave the church completely. Those who aren’t willing to leave the church reject any law, regulations or discipline which ultimately affects the growth of the church.
Although we are reading through Galatians rather quickly, our hope is that you have a general introduction and understanding to this rich and valuable book. There are a multitude of verses worth praying and meditating on. God bless you as you focus and meditate on His word.