TrinityCatchTheSpirit on X: "Galatians 5:6 The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. #hackettstown #faith #love #htmc #thursdaymorning #thursdayvibes" / X

If I could summarise the heart of the message of Galatians it would be with this sentence: Works don’t work, only faith works. It sounds counter-intuitive. It seems to contradict all common sense. Of course, works work. Otherwise they wouldn’t be called works. But that isn’t true. The works of the law don’t work, only faith works.

Let me explain. In his letter to the Galatians Paul has been fighting against the legalism of false teachers in Galatia. Basically these false teachers were saying that faith in Christ wasn’t enough to be saved, that Gentiles, people who weren’t born as Jews, had to obey the law in order to please God, in particular, by being circumcised.

But Paul denied it. In fact in Galatians chapter 5 Paul insisted that only faith works. Faith pleases God. Faith fulfils the true spirit of the law. Faith trusts God’s promise that he will make us perfect with his righteousness.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Faith works. It’s the only thing that counts. Not the size of your bank account. Not your family tree. Not the long list of your good deeds. Faith works. It works because it expresses itself through love. But works don’t. The works of the law don’t work. The person who submits to the law, who pledges themselves to keep the law, not trusting in God’s promise, not trusting in what God has done for us in Christ but in what they can do for God, that person doesn’t please God. In fact, they can’t.

Works don’t work. Only faith does.

The first reason that works don’t work is because legalism rejects the cross of Christ. I mean, it’s just impossible to give some people a gift. It’s like any gift you offer is an attack on their self-esteem. As if, when you give them something, you’re saying, “You’re not good enough. You need this thing I’m giving you.”

You order something for them from Melbourne, and they’ll complain that they could have got it cheaper from the shop in the main street. Or you’ll get them, a new TV, or a new sewing machine, or a new shovel, and they’ll say, “What’s wrong with the old one.” And they’ll hide your present in the back of the cupboard and keep using the old one till it breaks, and when it does break, they’ll go and buy a new one themselves without your help.

This is like the spirit of legalism that says to God, “Look, I appreciate the effort. The gift of the life of your Son is probably something that a lot of other people need. But I don’t need a new covenant. I like the old one. And what’s wrong with it anyway? You gave your law to Moses. You promised blessings in return for obedience. That kind of works for me. I’m pretty confident I can make it work. And if it doesn’t, at least I know I tried my best without anyone else’s help.” Salvation in Christ comes to them gift wrapped from God and they sign it “Return to Sender” without stopping to open it.

In Galatia this spirit of legalism was expressed as a desire to be circumcised. In our churches, in our community, that spirit of legalism can manifest itself in different ways. In being judgemental over the faults of others. In nursing grudges and an unforgiving heart. In picking fights over unimportant issues. The spirit of legalism spurns God’s gift and tries to do its best on its own and denies itself the benefits of the grace of God.

As Paul said in verse 2 and in verse 4,

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ, you have fallen away from grace.

Paul emphasised this point later in the passage in the starkest terms. He wrote in verse 11,

Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished.

I mean, you have to admit that the cross is offensive. As a means of execution it magnified the pain and the humiliation of the victim. In the polite circles of Roman society it was considered rude even to mention the word crucifixion. It was something that was fitting for the lowest of the low, for runaway slaves and for bandits and rebels, but was quite unsuitable for refined people to even think about.

But this is the gospel, this is the good news, that

God was in Christ – the Christ on the cross – reconciling the world to himself, not counting our sins against us, that God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him – and only in him – we might become the righteousness of God.

Many people took offence at Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” for its graphic portrayal of the violence and pain of that first Good Friday. And yet the truth is infinitely more horrible. How can a movie fully capture the sights and sounds and smells of such a vile execution? How can actors doing their best to remember their lines and to imitate the feelings of the real people, adequately convey the despair and horror of crucifixion?

And yet the Christian message is that this is the way that God has chosen, that that instrument of death and torture, that stark, ugly, brutal cross lies at the heart of his plan to save his lost world.

And that message is offensive. It is offensive because in the cross we see humanity at its worst. We see the evil and hate that lurks in the dark corners of the hearts of human beings, exposed for all to see. And in the cross we see God choose the role of the victim, the holy, eternal and all-powerful God embracing ugliness and despair and death. It is not what by nature we like to think of ourselves, nor is it what we like to think of God. The cross doesn’t fit with what we normally think of as good and true and noble and lovely.

And the cross is doubly offensive because it exposes the shallowness of our self-righteousness. Those who put their faith in keeping the law must remember that they used the law to condemn Jesus. Those who put their faith in organised religion must remember that it was the religious leaders who rejected him. Those who put their faith in government, must remember that it was the government who sentenced him to death. Those who put their faith in the will of the people must remember that it was the mob who demanded his death. Those who put their faith in zeal and passion for God must remember that it was Jesus’ most devoted disciples who ran away and abandoned him.

Through the cross of his Son, God says, “Put away all those things that you do to try and please me. Put them down. Throw them away. Come to me empty handed. I gave my son for you and there is no other way to receive my love for free, unearned, by my grace.” But the spirit of legalism tries to do away with the offence of the cross. It tries to pretend that the cross never happened, that God needs something from us, and that our eternal destiny is something we can earn.

That’s what Paul means when he says that if he was still preaching circumcision, that if he went back to his old life that rejected Jesus and exalted the law and the traditions of his people, he would have abolished the offence of the cross. The cross is offensive because it exposes what is offensive in us and challenges us to confront it, to repent of it, to forsake it, and to turn instead to the God of the cross in faith.

As Paul said in 1 Corinthians chapter 1,

Jews demand miraculous signs – they want to see power to prove the presence of God – and Greeks look for wisdom – for they crave knowledge and learning and understanding – but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, the Christ of the cross is the power and wisdom of God.

Works don’t work because the spirit of legalism turns its back on the Christ of the cross and denies itself its only hope of salvation and life.

And secondly, works don’t work, because the works of the law can’t please God. Paul says in verse 3,

I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law.

Which is the very thing that the spirit of legalism can’t do. For at the heart of legalism is pride, the idea that I have something that God wants so that he will do me some good thing in return. I will come to church, so that God will send rain on my farm.

I will give to charity, so that God will look after my family. I will keep the commandments, so that God will receive me into his eternal kingdom. At the heart of legalism is pride.

But at the heart of the law is love. Honour your father and your mother. You shall not murder. You shall not commit adultery. You shall not steal. You shall not give false testimony against your neighbour. You shall not covet thy neighbour’s house. You shall not covet thy neighbour’s wife, or his iPad, or his Kingswood, or his built in swimming pool, or his fancy sprinkler system, or his beach holiday house, or his full head of hair, or his round the world trip, or his polite and obedient children, or his shiny new header. As Paul reminds us in verse 14, the entire law is summed up in a single command:

Love your neighbour as yourself.

The heart of the law is the spirit of love that seeks what is good for others. And legalism can’t do it. At best it can imitate love. At worst it can only fake it. Works don’t work, for although they try to keep the law, they cannot fulfil the true spirit of the law. Only faith can. As we’ve already seen,

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Faith in God, faith that saves, expresses itself through love, because this kind of faith produces love.

Faith produces love firstly, by what it takes away from the heart. Faith takes away from the heart guilt and fear and greed. It takes away guilt because faith is confident that Christ died for us so that in him we have forgiveness of our sins. Faith takes away fear because it is confident that God works for the good of those who love him, that he had promised to help, strengthen, and protect us. And faith takes away greed because it is confident that Christ is greater wealth than all the world can offer.

So faith pushes guilt and fear and greed out of the heart, these things that keep us from being loving people. We feel guilty, and so we wallow in self-pity, unable to see, let alone care, about anyone else’s need. Or we play the hypocrite to cover our guilt and so destroy all sincerity in relationships. Guilt destroys love. And we feel fearful. So we don’t try to talk to the new person at church. Or we get swamped by all kinds of little phobias that utterly blind us to the needs of others. Fear destroys love. And we feel greedy. So we spend money on luxuries, money that could be used to help others. Or we focus on things instead of people, or see people as resources for our advantage. And so greed destroys love. These are the things that faith takes away from the heart.

But faith also produces love by the things it gives to the heart. Faith gives the heart a desire to experience God’s power moving in us and working through us. Faith wants to see God overcome obstacles in our lives. In other words, faith not only takes away the barriers to love; it also provides a positive impulse to move us to love. What else will move us out of our contented living rooms to take upon ourselves the inconveniences that love requires? What will propel us to greet strangers when we feel shy, or to admit we were wrong, or to ask for forgiveness, or to speak to a friend about Christ, or to invite new neighbours to a Bible study, or to give up a morning or an evening to pray for renewal? None of these costly acts of love just happen. But faith loves to rely on God and to see him work miracles in us. Legalism paddles about in the shallows of pleasing God and never gets anywhere. But faith pushes us out into the current where God’s power flows most freely, the current of love.

Works don’t work. They have the appearance of pleasing God and of keeping his commandments. But they cannot fulfil the true spirit of the law which is love. Only faith can, because faith works through love.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.