You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace…. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5.4,6)
Rules and Roles
I recently caught one of those “lost books of the Bible” shows that pop up on the History Channel. These programs don’t hold my interest long, as they’re riddled with speculation. We have fewer facts about these texts—their origins, authors, dates, and purposes—than the 66 accepted volumes, which is to say next to nil. Yet if I could get my hands on any lost manuscript, it would be a reliable biography of Paul. The little we know of him before conversion is self-reported. He was a Jew raised abroad. He was a bright young man, an exemplary student of religious law. His hubris fostered intense hatred of Jews who didn’t subscribe to his indoctrination. His trade as a tent-maker funded his anti-Christian activism and the atrocities he committed against believers.
These fragments can't fully explain how Paul's past ignited his great passion to pry first-century Christianity from Judaism’s legalistic roots. No matter the topic at hand, he inevitably returns to this: “You’re no longer bound by rules. Fulfill your roles as free believers.” If only there were a document to shed more light on his obsession with rules and roles. What sparked his naïve enthusiasm for legal compliance? What in his encounter with Christ changed his mind so decidedly? Paul doesn’t gradually lose his ardor for the Law. It’s a violent, instantaneous reversal. His ministry is as much about pushing believers from legalism as leading them to grace. We’ll never know why this is. It's fairly obvious in his formative years Paul fell hopelessly in love with the complexity of the Law. He was brilliant at deconstructing its content and relished being a recognized legal expert. But all it took was a brief glimpse of Jesus to cure his arrogance. In that moment, he learned the one fact that eluded him: obedience is a simple thing.
Though it’s not hard to understand what God asks of us, like Paul, our distrust of simplicity pushes us to make it hard. We create impossible, often impenetrable rules. Even the work of making rules becomes hard, since we have to agree what they should be before agreeing to abide by them. This calls for committees, hearings, and votes. Consensus invariably ends in compromise. Then there’s enforcement, which introduces status and judgment that foster imbalance and prejudice. We settle for compliance to code rather than obedience to principle. Having embraced this process as a young man, Paul is intimately aware how easily we’re duped by its deceits. He reviles legalism with such vehemence because his conscience is seared with the faces of believers who suffered crimes he committed at the Law’s behest. The first sign of legalism creeping into the Church is Paul’s cue to shut it down. Every stroke of his pen is a personal strike against injustice.
The Galatians letter is a manifesto seething with hatred for legalism. Paul writes to a cluster of congregations in present-day Turkey, which tells us his readers are largely converted pagans. They’ve fallen under the influence of teachers who advocate “a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.” (Galatians 1.6-7) The destructive doctrine calls for Gentiles to convert to Judaism before joining Christian ranks. This reduces Christianity to a Jewish schism, an idea Paul will not tolerate. It burdens believers with a moribund code that confounds the Gospel’s simplicity and defeats its purpose. He writes, “You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” (5.4) Or, you’re making it too hard for yourselves. The Gospel is so simple, Paul says, the ridiculously complex Law becomes obsolete. None of its restrictions and demands bears relevance now. “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” (v6)
The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. The statement alerts us that we possess a living faith—a confidence that can only be conveyed by action. Pardon the bluntness, but dumb compliance to ancient codes steals our means to articulate faith in word and deed. That’s why we can’t be coerced to comply with rules. We’re called to communicate our faith in the roles we’re given. It can’t get any simpler. Stubborn commitment to love at all costs, all times, and in every situation witnesses our faith. No one’s impressed by how well we heed religious ordinances. Club membership of any kind implies accordance with its rules. It’s a conventionally human response, which is why Paul says legalism alienates us from Christ and His grace. Living faith is told in the doing, not doing as it’s told. When expressed through love, it reveals godly traits alive in us—compassion, justice, creativity, kindness, patience, and other mercies we adore in our Maker. These qualities cause people to take notice. What they see isn’t how “devoutly religious” we are; they see how divinely reliant we strive to be. Without God, we could never look beyond inescapable reasons not to love and find every excuse to love.
Living faith expressed through love not only frees us from dumb compliance, it protects us from doubt and criticism. It builds more faith. In 1 John 3.18-20, we read: “Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth. This then is how we know that we belong to the truth, and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence whenever our hearts condemn us. For God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything.” Living faith often casts us in roles that ignore accepted rules. Courage to obey Christ’s principles tests our comfort with non-compliance to social and religious codes. Unease raises uncertainties. Doubt surges when we’re hit with harsh criticism within and without our religious traditions. But God is greater than any doubt or critic. He knows everything. What anyone, including us, thinks or says isn’t our worry. The only thing that counts is faith expressed through love.
Though I’m not quite seeing it, the figure in this graphic is a lion—which I like very much, since expressing faith through love is simply fierce and courageous obedience to Christ's principles.