Moderator's Comments - Posted 16 June 2015
Our exit parish, after Moore College, was Wee Waa, in the North West on the black soil plains of NSW. Wee Waa at that time was the cotton centre of Australia and the local landscape was criss-crossed by irrigation channels. Visiting at night could be precarious if the channels were full of water, the driver had to carefully navigate the narrow lane so as not to slide off into the water-filled ditch.
In Galatians, Paul warns of two destructive ditches for the believer as he or she negotiates the narrow path.
The first is the ditch of legalism in Galatians 5:1 – 12. He says, don’t let yourself be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
He uses three pictures of legalism: it is like cutting in on the athlete as he strives for the finish line (v7 – 8); it is like yeast spreading through the church (v 9); it is a serious matter and the legalist will pay a penalty for it before God (v10).
The second ditch is license. Galatians 5:13 – 26 calls on the church to resist the indulgence of the sinful nature by living by the Spirit (v16); being led by the Spirit (v 18); and keeping in step with the Spirit (v25).
The Spirit’s ministry is to drive us back to Christ, so that the Cross of Jesus becomes the regulating feature of the believer’s life. Paul speaks of being crucified with Christ (2:20) and of himself as being crucified to the world and “the world crucified to me” (6:14).
The crucifixion, the putting to death of the sinful nature, is the Spirit filled Christian’s daily experience (5:25) and thereby the fruit of the Spirit is borne in us (5:22 – 23), this fruit is none other than the portrait of Christ himself being formed in us (4:19).
Much is made of the danger of license and often those who make much of this danger import God’s law, to safeguard against such indulgence. However, in the face of the danger of license, Paul directs attention not to the law, but to the work of the Spirit.
In my experience as a pastor, legalism is a far more immediate and persistent danger than is license, partly due to this importing of law by preachers. I think people in our churches have at least a sense of that which God approves and disapproves and so they do not regularly lapse into the ditch of license, deliberately taking advantage of justification as a free passage to sin.
However, they also mistakenly think that their relationship with God is like their relationship with everyone else, it is being conditioned by good behaviour, so with such thinking it is easy to lapse into trusting our good behaviour rather than trusting in Christ and his work. Rules, regulations and disciplines now supplant the work of Christ as the ground of my relationship with God.
Legalism is an ever present, destructive ditch which ruins God glorifying assurance and reduces the gospel to a pale imitation of that which God has revealed to us.
Be careful of the ditches on either side of the narrow path which leads to life, but especially be careful of the ditch which seems so right, to make God’s law, the foundation of one’s relationship with God. We understand God’s law through the filter of Jesus Christ, Jesus is the goal of the law, he obeys it and authoritatively interprets it. In the power of the Spirit we are to live in obedience to the law of Christ and this “law”, defined for us in Galatians 6:2, frees us from both legalism and license.
The Gentile believers in Galatia were being encouraged to include obedience to God’s law as part of their Christian experience, that is why Paul writes as he does in Galatians. J B Phillips, the English translator, translates Galatians 3:1 as: “O you dear idiots of Galatia!”, some statement for a conservative Englishman, but closer to what Paul said than the NIV’s, “you foolish Galatians!”.
Beware of the brash spiritual idiocy of license and the more subtle and common idiocy of legalism.
Remember there is only one gospel, it is God’s and it is all about what Jesus has done.