Sunday, March 1, 2009


Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified… Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or believing what you heard?

                        Galatians 3.1-2 

Before Our Eyes

After spending the entire Advent season on thematic posts, I promised myself to go lighter during Lent—if only to avoid staring at a blank page, waiting for guidance to a missed message or unexplored angle. I still hope to veer off occasionally for a “palate cleanser,” but so far, my plan has backfired in an odd way. Every time I open the Word it leads me back to Lenten themes: penitence, redemption, resurrection, self-denial, etc. Instead of searching for something to say, I say too much. Posts get longer and more involved (I apologize), as it’s increasingly evident subjects pertaining to Lent comprise the wealth of our faith. If I spent 46 consecutive days reflecting on them at length, I’d barely begin to plumb their riches.

As Paul reminds the Galatians, truth and power of God’s unfailing love is right before our eyes, clearly portrayed in Christ’s death. We gaze at Mercy Incarnate from the foot of the cross and behind Him we see our vast Heavenly inheritance. After receiving so much for so little, surely more is required of us than simple faith and obedience. Looking at the extreme duress Jesus endured for us and His immeasurable love in spite of it, what He asks in return doesn't seem good enough. We think doing more for Him means making things harder for us. We revert to all we know—copious rules and regulations—imagining “higher standards” compensate for His sacrifice. But Paul admonishes us efforts to do more by working harder are woefully misguided.

Bothered and Bewildered

A rising trend among Early Church leaders and parishioners takes hold as legalism creeps into Christian doctrine. No less than Peter supports the notion, urging Jews and Gentiles alike to observe Mosaic statutes. Paul is bothered and bewildered by this. In Galatians 2.21, he writes, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” As Jesus explains in John 3.16, He came so we can believe—steering our hearts back to God and away from judging how one another behaves. If legal compliance is all it takes, Paul says, belief in Christ becomes superfluous.

Few grasp legalism’s seductive powers like Paul. He’s aware how easily religious law strays from divine principle. He knows legal focus on action rather than motive inevitably results in contradiction. As a Pharisee zealously stamping out early Christians’ embrace of belief over behavior, he participated in their arrest, torture, and murder. He broke the Law trying to keep it. This dogs him for life and after finding freedom from Law by grace, he opposes legalism with the same passion that drove him to defend it.

Tribal Traditions

From the sound of Paul’s letter, legalism is sweeping Galatia, a province in present-day Turkey. We see his urgency to contain it when he addresses all of the region’s churches at once. (Galatians 1.1) He wastes little ink on formalities. By the third paragraph, he says he’s shocked that they’ve forsaken his teaching for “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.” (v6-7) After reviewing his credentials and untangling knots in legalistic theology, Paul goes off. “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” (Galatians 3.1) We’re apt to read this as personal outrage at their disloyalty. But there’s more to it. Galatians subscribe to tribal traditions. Chieftains make the decisions and enforce the rules. Thus, they’re culturally predisposed to legal authoritarianism, making Paul’s reproach a wake-up call. “Tell me this,” he seethes. “Did you receive the Spirit by legal compliance or faith in God’s Word?” He asks if they’re now so foolish to think they’ll attain their goal by human effort rather than God’s guidance. He then puts this to them. “Does God give you His Spirit and work miracles in you because you behave, or because you believe?”

Modern readers can’t help but be struck by an added irony. Over two millennia, Christianity has evolved into a tribal culture of distinct hierarchies, traits, and traditions. We’re so accustomed to being divided we anticipate feeling strange if, for instance, we worship with another tribe. This is unfortunate purely on a philosophical plane. But on a spiritually pragmatic level it must grieve God’s heart. Tribal tendencies predispose us to forsake faith for legalism, to stress behavior over belief, to obey chieftains rather than God, to misjudge God’s gifts as rewards. So many—possibly most—of us jump through hoops and bend to standards earnestly hoping to repay our debt to Christ. We fear we’ll never match the price He paid for redemption. Yet as Jesus tells the synagogue ruler in Mark 5.36, He also says to us, “Don’t be afraid; just believe.” God’s love compelled Him to assume our identity solely to restore our belief. Tribal traditions have merits. Respect for leaders is important. But following rules doesn’t equate with following Jesus. We mustn’t let tribal imperatives bewitch us. We must believe.

He came so we can.

(Tomorrow: I Surrender!)

Postscript: Second Looks

I’m traveling on business through Thursday. When I’m away, I’m hampered by time demands and disorientation, as I try to listen, think, and write quickly in unfamiliar places. It’s a lousy way to work that always leaves me feeling I’ve given less than my best. Hoping to avoid that—and delayed posts, another concern—the next few days will be devoted to second looks at earlier posts, many of them very early. I’ve selected them for seasonal topicality and reworked some of them, hopefully to their improvement. I trust you won’t stay away while I’m away, because I’ll continue to check in several times a day to respond to comments, check the blog traffic, answer email, etc. I ask your prayers as I travel and truly appreciate your patience and understanding.



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