Craig Smith - Fighting For Freedom
Hey, welcome to Mission Hills. So good to have you with us today, whether you’re joining us online or in person, we’re just so honored that you’d take a little bit of time out of your weekend to spend this time with us. We’re in the midst of a series here called Live Free. And what we’re doing in this series is we’re exploring what God has to say in the Book of Galatians in the Bible, about how we go about narrowing the gap between our expectation and our experience of freedom.
We know that freedom is a big part of the Christian life, it’s at the very heart of the Christian life. Jesus himself said, “If the Son sets you free,” which is his favorite title for himself. So, basically, “If I set you free, you are free indeed.” So, clearly, freedom was a big deal to Jesus. The Apostle Paul, writing to the church in Corinth, says, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” Freedom is really at the heart of the Christian faith, but a lot of us kinda come into Christianity expecting an experience of this freedom that’s been promised, but our actual experience of it is not quite what we were expecting. So there’s a gap between our expectation and our experience.
And one of the reasons, we’re going to talk about it today, one of the reasons for that is the simple fact that freedom isn’t free, and it’s not automatic. It’s actually something that we have to intentionally pursue or it won’t happen. And one of the things we’re gonna see in the passage today is that Paul actually gives us four sort of weapons that we can use in this fight for freedom. Four kind of practical things that we can do on a regular basis that will help us to be intentional about moving towards a greater experience of the freedom that we’re offered by faith in Jesus.
Let me show you what I mean. Why don’t you go and grab a Bible, start making your way to the Book of Galatians. We’re gonna be in chapter 5, starting in verse 1 today. And by the way, if you’re just joining us or maybe you need a refresher, here’s what you kinda need to know about the Book of Galatians. Written by a man named Paul. Paul is the Apostle Paul, maybe you’ve heard that name, he’s a follower of Jesus. And he kinda went around the world proclaiming what he called the Gospel.
And what he encountered in the Book of Galatians, really is really the Book of Galatians itself, is an argument against an obstacle to the Gospel. It’s an argument against something we call legalism. And legalism, as we defined it in this series says, believing plus behaving leads to belonging. That’s basically what legalism is. It says, believing plus behaving leads to belonging. So, if you believe in Jesus, meaning, you put your trust in what Jesus did on the cross and his resurrection, and you behave in certain ways, then you get to belong to God. But it’s only when you believe and you behave that you get to belong to God and to his people.
And Paul says, “That’s not the Gospel. That’s not what I preached when I was in Galatia. These people who’re telling you something different than I taught you are moving you away from the Gospel itself.” The Gospel says that believing leads to belonging, and it’s belonging that leads to behaving. The Gospel says that if you believe in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, if you put your faith in that, then you belong to God and to his people. And it’s from that experience of belonging that behaving begins to change, not in the short term, but over the long haul, because it begins to transform who we are inside that comes out in that.
Unfortunately, after Paul had proclaimed that Gospel. in Galatia, some other people came in, and in his absence, they started saying, “Hey, you know, what he told you is totally right, but it’s just missing a little bit. Yeah, believing in Jesus is so important. Absolutely. You got to put your faith in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. One hundred percent, we agree with him. But he didn’t tell you was, in order to belong to God and his people, you also have a few other little things you need to do.”
Now, the people who were doing this were Jewish Christians. And so, the things they were saying the Galatians needed to do were Jewish social rules and regulations. So they were saying that you needed to be circumcised, you needed to follow the Jewish dietary restrictions, you needed to obey the certain holy days, and a series of those kinds of things. And so, they said, “If you believe in Jesus, and you behave like we do, as God’s people, then you can belong to God and to his people.” And Paul wrote the Book of Galatians, basically, to say, “That’s wrong. That’s not the Gospel. at all.” He’s pushing hard against that.
In fact, in Galatians 5:1, he says, really, they’ve missed the point, and you’re missing the point by listening to them because it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.” And in essence, what Paul’s saying there is, “Hey, don’t exchange one kind of slavery for another kind. You’ve gotten out of one kind of slavery to sin, but now what you’re doing is you’re kind of boomeranging back into another kind of slavery, this time, to legalism. To this idea that your ability to belong to God depends on behaving in certain ways.” He says, “Don’t exchange one kind of slavery for another.” And he has to say that because the reality is that we all tend to do that. We all tend to come back into that.
But he says, there’s a reason we can’t do it. Because whether it’s sin or legalism, both of them have the same impact. Both of them really become barriers to your relationship with God. Really, what he’s saying is, sin and legalism are both barriers to our relationship with God. And if you are set free from sin because you’ve said yes to faith in Jesus, that’s fantastic. You got over a barrier that was in the way. Jesus’ death on the cross removed the spirit. You can be in a relationship with God, that’s fantastic. But if you go back into slavery to legalism, that’s another thing that’s gonna create a barrier between you and God.
Now, sin and legalism do that in two very different ways. They create barriers in different ways. Sin creates a barrier because it separates us from God. When when we sin, we turn our backs on God, we walk away from God, we create a distance that we can’t backtrack on. Jesus had to come after us to do that. So, sin separates us from God, and that creates a barrier, obviously. Legalism doesn’t necessarily create the same barrier that sin does, but it does create a barrier. And the way it does it is that legalism inhibits intimacy. Legalism inhibits intimacy. It keeps us from experiencing a relationship with God, or really with anybody that is full of warmth, and affection, and love. Legalism inhibits intimacy. We see it in all of our relationships. It’s a fairly constant thing.
I realized that probably some of us grew up in homes where we had a mom or dad who withheld love and affection and warmth until we did the punch list, until we checked off the box in their list of do’s and don’ts, and they withheld it until we performed. And I can make a pretty safe guess. It’s a pretty safe bet actually. I’d put money on this one. If you grew up in a home where a mother or father did that, if their willingness to give you a sense of warmth and belonging was dependent on your behaving in certain ways, I can make a pretty safe prediction that you don’t have a close relationship with them today. That’s not a relationship that there’s lots of intimacy.
We can do it in our marriage relationships. If one or both of the spouses tend to withhold love and affection and warmth, and this experience of belonging and being a team, until the other one has behaved in certain ways, I can guarantee you, that’s a marriage where there’s not the intimacy that you went into it hoping would be there. And that’s true, whether you’re the one putting on the list, the legalism, or whether or not you’re the one on the receiving end of it. It just inhibits intimacy. And so, sin separates us from God and creates a barrier, but intimacy is limited by legalism, and that creates a new barrier as well.
Let me ask you a question. Think about a relationship that you have that is not as intimate as you’d like it to be. Just ask yourself this, what relationship would I like to be more intimate? Maybe it’s your relationship with your spouse, maybe it’s a relationship with a child or a parent, maybe it’s a friend or a significant other, or maybe it’s God. Because here’s the thing, if your relationship with God feels distant, if it feels cold, that’s not God’s fault. God has no intention of having a relationship with you that feels distant, that lacks intimacy.
The reality is that our relationship with God is often made less intimate because of legalism that we put into the relationship. So, maybe it’s God, maybe it’s a parent, maybe it’s a child, maybe it’s a spouse. But ask the question, what relationship would I like to be more intimate? And then ask this question, what legalism might be inhibiting that intimacy? What legalism might be inhibiting it? The reality is, if I’m just gonna be honest with you, like, I know that I do this in my marriage. I know that I inhibit intimacy in my marriage by kinda legalism.
Here’s one of the ways that I know it plays out. My wife is, she is really enthusiastic. And so, when we’re in conversation with people and she wants to tell a story, she’ll leap into it, and my wife… How do I say this in an honoring way? My wife remembers big. Can I say that? Like, my wife remembers big, so that she’s like, “Yeah, we hiked for seven miles.” And I’m a stickler for accuracy. I got a punch list when it comes to, like, let’s get the details right. I was like, “Well, actually we did, it wasn’t seven, it was actually three half.” “Well, so, it’s okay. It took us 12 hours.” “It’s four. It took us four.” And it’s really hard for me not to break in and sort of correct her in that conversation. I do it all the time. And I know every time I do that, every time I go, “No, you’re not checking the boxes of accuracy,” which is legalism, I undermine her confidence. I know every time I do that, she feels a little bit diminished, and that affects our relationship. Something I’ve been working on. I’m not making nearly as much progress as I’d like. I’ve done it even very recently.
But the thing is, like, what I’m saying is, I would like my marriage to be more intimate than it is. I have a great marriage, but I’d like it to be even more intimate. And I know that part of the problem is that I have a checklist of things that come out and strange ways. It’s that way with God. If you feel distant from God, if God was the one that came to mind when you said, “That’s the relationship.”
I know that if you have a tendency to think of God as a distant taskmaster, rather than a close and a loving Father. I know that it’s almost certainly because legalism is somewhere in the midst of the mix in that relationship. So, Paul says, listen, you cannot exchange one kind of slavery for another kind, both of them are gonna get in the way of the relationship that God wants you to have with him, the relationship God created you to have. And legalism will kill that relationship every bit as quickly as sin will.
And so, he gives us two commands. He says, “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery.” Two commands that tell us two very important things. First, it tells us that freedom is a fight. Freedom is a fight. He uses war words here, he says, “Stand firm.” The original Greek word that he uses there typically was a word that you’d use for soldier, where you tell them, “Hey, plant your feet, get the shield up, get the sword out, because the enemy is coming and he’s coming at you hard.”
We have an enemy, and our enemy is not happy about the freedom that we found in Christ. He’s not happy about the fact that through our faith in what Jesus did for us on the cross, that we are freed from sin and from his dominion. He is not happy about that. And so, there are all kinds of forces, personal and impersonal, working to push us back into some kind of slavery. And so, Paul says, you got to stand firm. Get ready, this is going to be a fight, and it’s gonna be the fight of your life.
The second thing these commands tell us, I think, though, is that slavery is our default setting. It’s part of the reason it’s such a fight. It’s because slavery is our default setting. He says, don’t let yourself be burdened again by the yoke of slavery. Again. Don’t go back to it again, because the reality is, we often go back to it. There’s something in us that’s just kind of hardwired to be enslaved to something, to serve something. It’s probably why that great theologian, Bob Dylan, said, “You’re gonna have to serve someone, somebody,” right? We’re hardwired for it.
I mean, can we be honest with each other? How many of us have ever gotten out of one bad relationship only to go into another bad relationship? Like, three of us? Okay. All right. How many of us have gone out of a bad relationship, only to go back into the same bad relationship? A few more, interesting. No, we’re just getting warmed up. Okay. How many of us have ever gotten out of debt only to get back into more debt? Yep. How many of us we’ve gotten out of one bad work relationship only to go into another bad work situation? How many there have broken one bad habit only to build another bad habit in its place?
Yo, I kicked the Mountain Dew habit. I’ve been drinking Mountain Dew my whole life, like massive quantities of Mountain Dew, and I am off that. I am not drinking any more Mountain Dew. Don’t applaud yet. Don’t applaud yet. I have replaced it with Pineapple Fanta. Dental hygienist came up to me after the last service and said, “You were a 10 in my book, now you’re a 9.” She said, “Pineapple Fanta is every bit as bad.” I was like, “That’s my point.”
Yeah, we all do this, right? We get out of one thing, we go back. There’s something in us that’s just kind of hardwired. Slavery is our default option, which is one of the reasons we have to fight so hard against it. Which, fortunately, Paul gives us several practical weapons that we can use in the fight to stay free. But before he does that, he tells us how not to do it. How not to fight to stay free. He says this. He says, “Again, I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised, that he is obligated to obey the whole Law.”
Circumcision is so much fun to talk about, by the way. And if you don’t know what circumcision is, I would tell you to Google it, but if you do, do not like use Google Image Search, don’t go that way. Go to Wikipedia or something. If you don’t, I just don’t want anybody to feel left out. So, basically, circumcision is where you cut off a little part of the male anatomy. Can we stop there? We good there? It was a Jewish custom. And so, basically, what’s happening is these people are coming and go, “Hey, you know, God’s people have always been the Jewish people, the Jewish people have always been circumcised. Therefore, if you wanna belong to God and his people, you’re gonna have to behave like God’s people, and you got to be circumcised.”
And Paul says an interesting thing, he says, “Listen, I tell you that every one of you who lets himself be circumcised, he’s obligated to obey the whole Law” And what he means is, listen, here’s the thing, when you do that, it might seem like a little thing, but when you believe and kinda act as though you have to do that to belong to God, you’re buying in to a system that says, belonging depends on behaving. That you can only belong to God and his people if you behave in certain ways. And if you buy into that, it’s not just that one you’re gonna have to deal with. That’s only sort of emblematic, it’s a symbol of a whole bunch of other rules and regulations. And so, listen, if you buy into that system, you’re buying into it wholesale. You’re buying into the whole package of it. And you’re gonna find that your ability to feel like you could actually belong to God is dependent on an incredibly long checklist that never really seems to get finished. He says, I tell you, don’t go that direction. It’s not gonna work.
He says, listen, you who are trying to be justified by the Law have been alienated from Christ. You have fallen away from grace.” These are two very strong words to say one really important thing, which is that, hey, when we think about grace and legalism, when we think about the Gospel. and legalism, it’s kind of an either/or situation. It’s not a both/and. You can’t embrace a little legalism and a little grace, a little Gospel. Just doesn’t work. It’s a binary system, it’s one or the other.
He says, when you start acting as though you can only belong to God and his people by behaving in certain ways, you’re disconnecting from the Gospel. You’re disconnecting from grace, from God’s undeserved kindness. You’re disconnecting from Jesus himself. It’s interesting, he says, “You’re alienated from Christ.” The word that he uses there often has a relational component to it. His point is, you’re putting a distance between you and Jesus relationally.
Think about it like this, I mean, imagine that, you know, someone you care about is in the second story of a burning building, and they’re at the window. And you love them, so you run over and go, “I can catch you, just jump.” And they go, “I’m not so sure about that.” And you go, “No, I really can. Do you do trust me?” The guy, “I did trust you.” Then you go, “Then jump.” And so they go, “I will, just hang on a second.” They go back in and they get a bunch of sheets and towels, and they tie them together to get a rope, they get themselves anchored. They’re like, “Okay, I trust you. Here I come.”
Do they trust you? Of course not. They’re depending on their own efforts. And how do you feel as the would-be rescuer when they’re depending on their own efforts? There’s a sense of distance. There’s a sense of alienation. He says, you’re alienated from Christ. He says, you’ve fallen away from grace. That’s an interesting translation. And I think it’s a good translation. But the Greek word that he uses for fallen can also mean drifted. It’s often used to talk about a boat, when the anchor breaks, the boat kind of drifts away.
And I wonder if that’s not what he meant, because the reality is that most of us don’t leap into legalism. We don’t make one big decision that suddenly turns us into people who think that we can be saved and belong to God by our own effort. What happens is we drift in that direction. There’s small steps along the way. It’s the reality of most big sin, right? Most of the big things that get in the way of our relationship with God, we don’t leap into. Nobody decides, they don’t wake up and go, “I think I’m gonna have an affair today.” Nobody wakes up and goes, “I think I’ll embezzle from my company today.” There’s a series of small decisions that don’t seem like a big deal until we find ourselves hopefully looking back going, “How on earth did I get here?” The answer is, we drifted.
He says, legalism is the same way. We don’t leap into legalism, we drift into it. Little by little, step by step. Making decisions and adopting ways of thinking that don’t seem like a big deal, until one day, they in fact, are revealed to have been a very big deal. And this actually is one of our most powerful weapons for fighting for freedom. And it’s this, we fight to live free by watching for the drift. We fight to live free by watching for the drift. So that we identify it when it’s happening, and we can turn away from it and move in the other direction before it’s taken us too far away. So we fight to live free by watching for the drift.
And you might be going, “Well, how do you do that? How do I watch for the drift?” I’m gonna give you a question that I have learned to ask myself. And I found that it has been really helpful in my own life. I will tell you right now, you’re not going to like it. Okay? It’s not a fun question. But it’s a really powerful question when it comes to watching for the drift of legalism, this the question, what am I most likely to judge others for? Told you, you weren’t gonna like it. Because we’ve all got our list, right? The list things that we judge people for.
We got our other stuff like, “Oh, I can give grace on that. But this one, yeah, boy, if you’re not doing that, or you are doing that, it’s hard for me to have grace.” So we have our list where we judge people. Here’s the problem, or here’s why this is so effective. See, I know that what we judge others for often reveals what we feel superior about. We don’t tend to judge other people for things that we’re not doing well, because then we’d be judging ourselves. So, what we do is we judge other people for the things that, like, we feel we are doing well. And that’s the red flag. Because it’s in those places where we feel superior to others that we’re actually identifying a list of the things that we tend to go, the way I’m behaving is making progress for me. It’s putting me ahead of others. It’s probably pleasing to God. It’s a whole series of those kinds of things. So, that’s a very powerful question. What am I most likely to judge others for? Because that reveals where legalism is really beginning to get a foothold in our lives.
To be honest, I do it with other pastors all the time. So easy to listen to a message and judge it on the basis of, like, theology, or the way they interpreted the Scripture there, or the way they applied it, or something like that, and it’s so easy for me to do it. What that tells me is, I feel a little superior about my theology and my doctrine, and my expository skills. You know what, none of those things get me closer to God. But in those places where I feel like I’m doing pretty well, I’m not leaning into grace, for others or for myself. Which is probably why, to be perfectly honest, I know that my relationship with God doesn’t depend on how well I preach. And yet every single time I preach, when I don’t feel like it went really well, I feel like God’s disappointed in me.
Because, see, I got that list. The list of things that I usually I’m doing pretty well. And so, now I need to do pretty well, and if I don’t do pretty well, then surely God must have a problem with me. And God’s going, “Dude.” He says that to me all the time. “I don’t love you because you perform well, in whatever your set of dos and don’ts.”
It’s a good question to ask. It’s how we watch for the drift, it’s our first weapon. We fight to live free by watching for the drift. Paul says, “For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith of righteousness for which we hope.” And that actually might be the most important verse in this section. But it might be the most important verse in the Book of Galatians. And probably one of the top five most important verses in the whole Bible, honestly.
He says, “For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope.” What he’s talking about here is ultimately, I think, the primary reason why most of us don’t experience the freedom that we’re called to in Christ, why we struggle so hard with it. See, here’s the problem, we tend to define freedom halfway. We only have a half-formed understanding of what freedom is. We tend to define freedom primarily in terms of what we’re freed from, right? I’m freed from that bad relationship. Awesome. I’m free from it now. I’m freed from my parents. I’m in college now, I’m free. I’m free from, as followers of Jesus, I’m free from sin. I’m no longer enslaved by sin. We talk primarily and almost exclusively of what we’re freed from. The problem is, that’s only half the definition of freedom.
The true definition of freedom not only pays attention to what we’re freed from, it also pays attention to what we’re freed for. And the reality is, because we don’t focus on what we’re freed for, we end up drifting back into what we were freed from. Here’s a principle that we need to grab ahold of. If we don’t lean in to what we’re freed for, we will drift back to what we’re freed from. Think about relationships. You get out of a bad relationship. “I’m so glad I’m out of that relationship.” But unless we give very careful thought to what kind of a relationship we really want. What will a God-honoring relationship look like? Who do I wanna be in that relationship? What kind of person am I gonna be? How are we gonna treat each other? What is this relationship going to look like? Unless we’re very intentional about that and becoming ourselves the kind of person who would attract somebody like that, we end up going back into a relationship that was just like the one that we left.
If we don’t lean into what we’re freed for, will drift back into what we were freed from. It happens in debt, in finance stuff. People go, “I’m finally free from debt.” But unless we lean into what we’re freed for, which is a new way of thinking about finances. Honoring God with our finances, saving, making financial decisions that are wise, we’ll end up back in debt. There’s a reason why most people who win the lottery end up broke within a couple of years. Because they didn’t lean into what they were freed for, and so they drifted back into what they were freed from. It happens with every relationship, with bad habits.
Yeah, I know that Mountain Dew is bad, but I wasn’t really deliberate about going, “I’m gonna adopt a new healthy lifestyle.” And so, I drifted back into Pineapple Fanta. This is a weird analogy, I know. But you see the point.
Okay. So, we’ve been set free from sin. What are we free for? What do we lean into that we’re freed for so that we don’t drift back into what we were freed from? What does Paul say? It’s righteousness. “For by the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness we hope for.” And it’s at this point that a whole bunch of people who are listening this message breathe a big sigh of relief, because this whole series has made you nervous. I know because I’ve gotten emails. I’ve had the conversations. And I get it, I’m not bothered by that. I’m not upset by it, I understand it.
People are nervous, they’re like, I don’t feel like you’re talking enough about behaving. It’s almost like you’re saying that behaving according to God’s commandments doesn’t matter. Absolutely, it matters. It just doesn’t matter to get us into a relationship with God. And if you really want long-term change in behavior, the only way to accomplish that is to allow people to belong to God by faith and to allow God to do what our insistence that they behave so that they can belong with us can never accomplish.
So, here’s where he leans into it. Here’s where he lives into the behavior, remember, the Gospel says, believing leads to belonging, which leads to behaving. It’ll come, but we got to get it in the right order, and we got to do it in the way that God says, okay, so, how do we do it? How do we lean into righteousness? By the way, it’s a little bit like this interesting thing that Jesus said once, right? He said, right? So, I’m gonna cast a demon out. And it goes away through errant places. And then it comes back, and it finds the house has been swept clean, but there’s nothing better in there. So, it brings in several others, and the condition of that person is worse than it was before.
So, Jesus has swept clean the house. What’s the better thing we put in there? And the answer is righteousness. Okay, but how do we do that? How do we put righteousness in that place so that we don’t drift back? And he says, it’s not by building a list. It’s not by insisting on people behaving so that they can belong. He says, it’s through the what…? Through the Spirit. He says, through the Spirit, we actually change the way we behave. And this is one of the most powerful weapons that we have in our fight for freedom. We fight to live free by learning to live by the Spirit. Not by the lists, but by the Spirit.
Now, we’re gonna talk a lot more about that next week. He gets into a lot more detail in the following passages, and so, we’ll unpack that. But here’s probably what I think you need to know for now, when we say yes to following Jesus, three important things happen. Number one, we’re freed from sin. Jesus wipes our slate clean. We’re freed from sin. Number two, we belong to God. We’re adopted as sons and daughters of the king. And number three, we’re given the Holy Spirit who enables us to lean into righteousness. We’re given the Holy Spirit who begins to change us from the inside out so that we actually become righteous. We lean into righteousness and fill that space that was filled by sin with true righteousness. But not by our own efforts, and not by trying to follow the list of dos and don’ts, but by the power of the Holy Spirit who leads us.
By the way, if you’re new to church, or maybe you’ve been in church your whole life, and the Holy Spirit’s always been a little fuzzy, here’s kind of a helpful way to think about the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is the person, presence, and power of God. The person, presence, and power of God, who every follower of Jesus has, enabling them to become the people that God designed them to be in the first place.
Paul continues on, but before he gives us a couple more weapons, and before he really kind of digs into what living by the Spirit looks like, he gives us kind of a big picture of, like, how you know if it’s happening. He says this, he says, “For in Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself as love.” He says, circumcision, you know, that list, or uncircumcision, that list, none of the lists really are the best way to tell if someone is in a relationship with God. It’s not really the best way to tell if they’re becoming more like Jesus. That’s not the best way to tell. What’s the best way to tell? Is if they love others. If they love. That’s the best way to tell.
He says, the best evidence of belonging to God is loving others. And we struggle with that one. Because it’s so much harder. It’s so much easier to go, “Well, if they’re followers of Jesus, they’re gonna begin to obey God’s commands. And so, I just look and see how they’re doing, you know, check, check, check. Ooh, not doing so good on that one. But okay, we’ll get back to it.” And if we feel like there’s enough checkmarks, well, then they must really be in a relationship with God. They must really be saved, that’s awesome. That’s the easiest way to do it. Unfortunately, that’s not what Jesus told us to look for.
Because what Paul says here is exactly what Jesus said. And here’s what Jesus said, he said, “By this standard, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you follow the rules.” No, he said, “If you love one another.” It’s not the list, it’s love. Now, does that mean that the followers of Jesus are gonna break God’s commandments? Of course not. It’s just that, how well someone’s doing at following the commands, the rules, the regulations, is no real sign of how much they’re actually in a loving relationship with the Father and being led by the Spirit who’s in them.
I mean, it’s a little bit…have you ever seen, you know, you’re at a pool and the lifeguard tells a little kid, “Hey, stop running.” The little kid is like, “I’m not running.” And technically, they’re not. But there’s a heart of rebellion there, right? I have known people who are really good at the rules and making sure other people were following the rules, but they were cold and contemptuous, rather than compassionate. And honestly, I worry more about those people and whether or not they’re in a real relationship with God than the people who struggle with the rules but love others. It’s not an either/or, but we’re told very clearly, the best evidence of belonging to God is love for others, which, by the way, means that this is one of our weapons for fighting to stay free. We fight to live free by learning to love others. We fight to stay free by learning to love others.
So, here’s a dangerous prayer. I just tell you right now, it will mess you up. Start your day out with this prayer, “Holy Spirit, open my eyes to opportunities to love.” It will ruin your day, gloriously. Because you’re gonna suddenly find that you have all kinds of opportunities. It’s in the little ways, just the ways that we respond to people when they irritate us. It’s in the little steps of sacrifice that we make for our families and our friends. It’s in those conversations that we wouldn’t have leaned into that we go, “Hey, how you doing?” And they said, “Fine.” And the Holy Spirit goes, “Ask him again.” “How’d you say you’re doing?” “I’m fine.” Holy Spirit is like, “They’re lying.” “How are you really doing?” And then the guard comes down and the truth comes out and the tears come and suddenly, you’re loving that person in a way that you would have missed because you hadn’t taken that one little opportunity even just ask the question the second time. It’s a dangerous prayer. But it’s a powerful prayer for staying free.
It seems counterintuitive, right? The idea that we would experience more freedom by trying to love others more. But remember, we’re freed from and we’re freed for. And this is what we’re being set free for. He says, you were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth? You guys were doing this, he says. You were growing in righteousness that exhibits itself as loving others. And then somebody cut in, and they tripped you up and you fell. That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. And then you got people telling you, “This is what Jesus wants.” Yeah, no, it’s not. That is not Jesus.
A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough. I don’t make a lot of bread. But come Thanksgiving, sometimes that’s my task. And I’m a purist when it comes to Thanksgiving, so, like, we’re going from scratch. And I’m always astounded how that little tiny packet of yeast can go into this big batch of dough and affect the whole thing, turn into something different. That’s what Paul’s saying. But he’s talking about it here in a negative way. He’s like, the reality is, sometimes a little thing can do a lot of damage, and legalism is like that.
It might seem like a little thing. They’re just asking you to cut off a little part of the male anatomy. They’re asking you to take a couple of little steps to belong to God and to his people. But the reality is, that little thing can do a lot of damage, and we have to remember that. In fact, that’s our fourth weapon for fighting to stay free. We fight to live free by remembering that a little legalism does a lot of damage. It does a lot of damage to our own relationship with God. Because what happens is we end up with a list of things that we feel like we have to perform before there’s gonna be intimacy with God, and we’re just creating a distance that we were trying to overcome because we’re not trusting in God’s grace and his love.
So, a little legalism affects our relationship with God. It affects our ability to be on a mission. I mean, here at Mission Hills, we’re all about helping people do two things, become like Jesus and join him on a mission. Listen, you let a little legalism into your gospel, you’re off mission. Because you don’t have any good news to share. You tell people, “Oh yeah, Jesus died for you, and if you believe in him, you can belong to God, as long as you also just do a couple of the little things we got.” That’s not good news. That’s the same bad news the whole world’s already been suffering under believing was necessary. He says a little legalism goes a long way. We have to remember that we fight to live free by remembering that a little legalism does a lot of damage.
He says, I’m confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who’s throwing you into confusion, whoever that may be, will have to pay the penalty. Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case, the offense of the cross has been abolished. Apparently, these people that were bothering the Galatians were telling them, “Oh, Paul didn’t tell you you got to be circumcised? Well, I don’t know why he forgot it here. But he’s telling other people in other places that that’s what you got to do.” And he’s like, “No, I’m not telling them that.” And you wanna know how I can prove that I’m not telling anybody they got to be circumcised? My own people are persecuting me for it. The Jews are persecuting me because I’m telling people, “You don’t have to behave like Jews to be part of God’s people. You don’t have to be circumcised.” Whatever these people are telling you about what I’m telling others, they’re lying to you.
And here’s what he thinks about the people that are saying this to the Galatian followers of Jesus. He says, “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves.” That’s a great passage. Like, it starts out with, you know, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free, and it ends with I wish they would call off their own beep. And I’m not trying to be crass, but that’s what Paul says.
He says, they’re saying you just got to cut off a little part? I wish they’d cut off the whole stinking thing. It’s blunt. It’s rough. Those are fighting words, right? Those are fighting words. Which is kind of the point. Paul’s using fighting words because he says, this is a fight we have to win. Your relationship with God and your ability to be on mission with Jesus with actual good news to share with the world, it depends on winning this fight. We have to fight hard to stay free. Bottom line. We have to fight hard to stay free.
We’ve been given four weapons. Number one, watching for the drift. We watch for the drift. When you ask yourself that question, where am I letting legalism slip in? How am I judging others? Because that might be my only way to see what otherwise would be invisible to me. We watch for the drift. Second, we learn to live by the Spirit. We’ll talk more about that next week. Third, we learn to love others. We focus less on trying to check off the boxes and more on trying to love others like Jesus loved us. And then, fourth, we remember that a little legalism does a lot of damage.
In addition to the other questions that I’ve asked you to wrestle with, I’m gonna give you a couple more, some homework. And the first one is this. Where do I see a drift towards legalism in my life? Maybe it’s in your relationship with God, maybe it’s in your relationship with other people. Legalism kills intimacy in both of those, and God wants us to experience intimacy in all of our relationships. But legalism will make it impossible. So, where do you see a drift towards legalism in your relationship with God or with others?
Second question I encourage you to wrestle with is, where am I doing well at loving others? Because I know many of you are. I get to hear the stories, it’s the best part of my job. I hear the ways that people of Mission Hills are loving their neighbors and each other and their families and doing sacrificial things that advance the Gospel, and it’s awesome. I know you’re doing many of these things. And I want you to celebrate those places in your life. We tend to become what we celebrate. And so, I think it’s good to take a moment and go, “Hey, I think I’m loving people well in this area, and this area, and this area.” And recognize, this is evidence the Holy Spirit’s working in you. Celebrate that. It’s awesome.
But then also, ask the question, and where do I need to grow in love? Because it’s in those places you’re gonna realize I need to grow in love there that you’re gonna find that the Holy Spirit is like, “Yep, come with me.” I’m gonna move you forward, and we’re gonna get you experiencing all the righteousness that you were freed for as you leave the sin you were freed from far behind. Would you pray with me?
God, we thank you for this Word, and we acknowledge it’s not an easy Word. Because in some ways, we’re all guilty of giving up on grace. We understand, we’re saved by grace. It was your undeserved kindness that sent Jesus to pay the price for our sin. It was your power that raised him from the dead. And it’s only by our trusting in the life, the death, and resurrection of Jesus that your power comes into our lives and changes us, and makes us into the men and women that we long to be. It’s so easy for us to substitute your grace and your power with lists that make us feel superior. We do that in our relationships with you. We do it in a relationship with others. And we ask for your forgiveness. We ask for strength through the power of your Holy Spirit to learn to say no to legalism and to leap into grace.
If you’re a follower of Jesus, if you have experienced the grace of God, would you do me a favor? Would you begin praying right now for the people listening to this message that have never experienced that? And if that’s you, if I can just speak to you for a moment, it may be that you’re listening this message, and there’s a fair amount of it, honestly, you’re not quite sure what to do with, and that’s okay, because there’s really only one thing in this message you need to hear clearly, and that is this thing we call the Gospel. The idea that if you believe in Jesus, then you belong to God and everything else will come from that. You just need to understand that God loves you so much that he sent his Son to die on the cross to pay the price for your sin. To remove that barrier.
Three days later, he rose from the dead, and he offers everyone who says yes to faith in Jesus, to trusting Jesus, to following Jesus. With your trust in that and nothing else, he offers salvation, forgiveness of sin, adoption into his family, and life eternal with him and his people. And if you’ve never received that gift, I wanna give you a chance to do it right now. There’s nothing standing in your way. Here’s how you do it. You’re just gonna have a conversation with God in your heart. You’re gonna say something like this to God right now, say:
God, I’ve done wrong. I’ve sinned. I’m sorry. Jesus, thank you for dying to pay the price of my sin. I believe you rose from the dead. I’m ready to accept your forgiveness, belonging to God and his family and eternal life. Jesus, I’m gonna follow you. I am yours for now and forever. Amen.