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Gal 5:1-15: Common Errors and How to Avoid Them Print E-mail
Sunday, 04 June 2006

Repetition of truth is necessary in life due to the costliness of errors.  There were certain truths that our parents taught us over and over again.  If we are honest, at some point we probably thought, ‘I know this already, tell me something new.  Why are you always telling me the same thing?’  For example, if I say to you, ‘Look both ways,’ how would you finish the sentence?  Of course you would say, ‘before you cross the street.’  We have all heard that statement hundreds of times in our lives.  So, why is it so important to continually repeat that truth?  Because it only takes forgetting it one time to show how devastating it can be to not remember.  The costliness of making such an error is so great that we must keep that truth before us.

As we read this week’s text, you may be thinking to yourself, ‘Paul, we get it already, we are justified by faith alone.’  In the first two chapters, Paul uses some biographical information to show the Galatians, and us, that we do not have to become ‘Jews’ by keeping the Law in order to be justified.  In chapters 3 and 4, Paul offers his theological and scriptural arguments for justification by faith alone.  In chapters 5 and 6, Paul concludes his letter by demonstrating how the doctrine of justification by faith should impact our daily living, or our ethics.   Yet, we might be saying at this point, ‘Paul, you do not need to cover justification by faith anymore, we get your point.’ 

But Paul knows the costliness of the error of getting this wrong.  He understands that to lose justification by faith is to lose the very gospel of Jesus Christ.  Thus, look how he begins in verse 1.  After using the Sarah and Hagar story to remind the Galatians that they are sons of the free woman, Paul makes a clear statement of their freedom in Christ.  Then he gives them two commands: stand firm and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.  This one verse, with these two commands, is very much a summary of what Paul is saying to the Galatians.  He wants them to stand firm in their faith in Christ and not to return to slavery under the Law.  He then identifies three costly errors pertaining to the doctrine of justification by faith and how we can avoid them.  Let’s look at these together.

First, the error of works righteousness (v. 2-6).

As we have already seen in the letter, the Galatians were being tempted by the Judaizers to be circumcised in order to ‘become Jews’ and be justified before God.  Yet, Paul has warned them over and over again not to submit to such teaching.  He warns them again in verses 2-6.  Look at those with me.  Paul gives three negatives for the Galatians being circumcised.  First, he says that Christ will be of no advantage to you.  Second, he tells them that if they are circumcised, then they will be obligated to keep the whole law.  Paul is telling them that they cannot go half way.  If justification is by keeping the law, then the whole law must be kept, not just circumcision.  Third, he tells them that accepting circumcision and the law to be justified will severe them from Christ and forfeit grace.  Paul is not saying that they will lose their salvation.  No, he is saying that to trust in works, be they circumcision or anything else, for justification is to make it plain that you do not believe in justification by faith.  As he will state later, the offense (or scandal) of the cross has been removed.

So, why is Paul so against the act of circumcision?  To answer this question, we must first note the differences between Paul’s treatment of Timothy and Titus.  In Acts 16, Paul has Timothy circumcised because his mother was a Jew and his father was Greek.  Seemingly, he does this to allow Timothy to minister among the Jews.  Yet, as we looked at earlier in Galatians 2, Paul did not have Titus circumcised when they went to Jerusalem.  Thus, as he says in verse 6, the primary concern is not circumcision.  No, the reason he is against the Galatians being circumcised is because they are doing it as part of their justification.  They are being taught that it is a work, along with keeping the law, that they must do in order to be justified.  Paul will have none of that.  He teaches us that we are justified by faith alone and not by works.  To teach anything else is to completely distort the gospel (see 1:6-9).

How do we see this error of trusting in works righteousness in our own day?  I mean, what does this talk of circumcision have to do with us?  For the Galatians, circumcision had become a way of becoming a ‘better’ Christian or a ‘more justified’ Christian.  But Paul completely dismisses this idea.  Paul hammers home the truth of justification by faith.  We, too, often struggle with looking for ways to become ‘better’ Christians or ‘more justified.’  Granted we might not admit this, but we struggle with it.  We think, ‘Sure we were saved by grace but now we have to earn our keep.’  So, we start trying to do good works to convince ourselves and everybody else that we are ‘good’ Christians.  Let me approach it this way: why did you come to Church this morning?  Did you come out of joy or out of duty?  Is coming to Church a work you do to earn God’s favor as a ‘better’ Christian or is it an unbelievable privilege God has given you to meet and worship with other believers?  Our doing good works to earn our righteousness will only cut us off from Christ and forfeit grace.  Rather, we must believe that we have been justified and made free through faith in Christ and that any work we do is a result of such faith and by His grace.  Only then will we avoid the error of works righteousness.

Second, the error of letting up (v. 7-12).

Paul now uses an athletic analogy to address the Galatians in verses 7-12.  Look at those with me.  Just because we go through a season of running well does not mean that we can let up or go astray.  It makes me think of the old tortoise and hare story.  The hare does so well for so long.  Yet, his pride and laziness get the best of him and he takes a nap.  Yet, the tortoise, even though he may never get to moving that fast, he is persistent and not distracted.  Christian life is no sprint, it is a marathon.  And as I have learned, a marathon takes dedication, time, and persistence.

We should also realize that even small issues can cut in and get us off course.  Paul uses the analogy of leaven leavening the whole lump (he uses the same analogy in 1 Corinthians 5).  The point here is that we cannot ignore issues because we think they are small or insignificant.  Also, Paul is saying that we cannot take sin lightly in our communities, for the sin will leaven the whole lump if we are not careful.  No man wakes up one morning and says out of the blue, ‘I am going to commit adultery today.’  No, the sin begins small through lust or an unchecked relationship and before you know it, the man finds himself cheating on his wife.  Thus, we must be focused on all areas in our lives, even those we might consider small.

How does Paul help us in avoiding the error of letting up?  He reminds the Galatians, and us, of our calling, and the one who called us, and he is passionate against all falsehood.  Look at verse 8 and verse 12.  Paul uses some difficult language in verse 12, but it reveals to us his passion against the errors of the Judaizers.  We need to be passionate against sin in our own lives and in the life of our Church.  Through this we can avoid the error of letting up.

Third, the error of abusing our freedom (v.13-15).

If we are justified by faith and not by works, then surely we can live however we want to, right?  Christ has freed us from the Law and we have nothing telling us what to do anymore, right?  Wrong.  Look at verses 13-15.  Indeed, Christ has set us free, but he gives us freedom for a purpose (and for a privilege).  The purpose and privilege of our freedom is not so that we can have an opportunity for the flesh.  We are not free to sin, for that would simply be returning to our former master.  Paul has addressed the error of legalism, or works righteousness, now he is addressing the error of license, or using our freedom to sin.  Both of these errors fly in the face of the gospel.

So how do we avoid the error of abusing our freedom?  We avoid it by using our freedom for its intended purpose.  And what is that?  The intended purpose of our freedom is to love and serve God by loving and serving His people.  This is what Paul is teaching us in these verses.  Instead of spending our time looking for ways to sin and get away with sin, we should spend our time looking for ways to serve one another.  We have an unbelievable privilege of being called to community together.  Instead of biting and devouring one another, we should use such a privilege to faithfully serve one another.  By doing this, we can put to death our hunger to sin and avoid the error of abusing our freedom.

Christ has set us free from the Law and our sin.  No longer are we guilty before a Holy God.  As the song says, “When Satan tempts me to despair and tells me of the guilt within, upward I look and see Him there who made an end to all my sin.  Because the sinless Savior died, my sinful soul is counted free.  For God the just is satisfied to look on Him and pardon me.” 1  Thus, in light of such freedom, in light of our justification by faith, let me close with three central questions.  First, are you motivated by joy or duty in your service of the Lord?  Why do you read your Bible, come to Church, spend time in prayer?  Are you trying to finish the work of your justification or simply responding in joy to the work that is already finished in Christ?  Second, are you passionately making war with your own sins and struggles and with those in the Church at large?  When was the last time you had someone hold you accountable for a specific sin?  Or when was the last time you offered to hold someone else accountable?  Third, are you using your freedom to love and serve the Church?  Are you looking for practical ways to meet the needs of those around you?  May God grant us the grace to avoid these errors by continuing to believe the oft repeated truth that we are justified by faith alone and that the faith that justifies never comes alone.  Amen.

1Charitie Lees Bancroft, Before the Throne of God Above.

~ William Marshall ~

Last Updated ( Monday, 26 June 2006 )

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