On Saturday afternoon, prior to the Marriage Banquet, I texted the elders this:
“Hey guys, as you know Galatians 4:1-7 is one of the most dense, glorious texts on redemption in Paul’s writings. Would you pray for 2 things: 1) that I could do this text the justice it deserves. God has been really kind in my prep this week & my heart is bursting in gratitude for Jesus’ work for me. And I don’t want to come out of my shoes so much that I communicate it poorly. 2) pray for our church because this text matters to so much of how they see their lives, children, jobs & world. And ask God to do what He does…apply this broadly in their hearts. Thanks!”
This text to our leaders gives you some insight into what I was feeling after a week of study in Galatians 4. After delivering this sermon, I’m very grateful that the Lord answered this prayer. And want I want to do in this version of “musings” is give you some thoughts on how a sermon like this can be applied. However, I don’t want these thoughts to take away from what the Lord taught you yesterday while you listened. God is the better counselor, pastor, and teacher and I trust that He will apply this in ways that I cannot comprehend or even know.
“Elementary, my dear, Watson!”
The part of the sermon that I prayed for broad application in our hearts was about the “elementary principles of the world”. You’ll remember, if you were there, that I tried to trace this back to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and what they did the moment they sinned…they attempted to cover their sin and shame with their own coverings…fig leaves. And I tried to track this in the Galatians and in the Jewish reader’s mind.
But one of the things I didn’t have time for was to look at the other places where Paul uses some form of this same phrase. This will help you see this idea even further:
- In Galatians 4:9, Paul wrote, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years!”
- In Colossians 2:8, Paul wrote this, “See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ.”
- And then he explained it even further with Colossians 2:23-23 when he wrote, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations— “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.”
Now, what you will notice is that each time Paul mentioned these “elementary principles” or “elemental spirits”, it had to do with some form of religious exercise: observing “days, months, seasons, years”…”human tradition”…”Do handle, taste, touch”…”self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body”. All of this goes hand-in-hand with what I mentioned yesterday: the most basic way, the most elementary way that mankind has tried to be right with God, to be children of God is through human effort and performance.
So, if you’re keeping score at home, you can see why this is the human performance is the most basic way the world operates. The covenant of works = obey perfectly, do enough good deeds to cancel out the bad stuff you’ve done, Karma, are all versions of the “elementary principles of the world”.
Until, until, until…
In the book of Galatians, the word “until” is used 5 times. Of those times, the first four times it’s used, notice how Paul uses it:
- “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.” Galatians 3:19, ESV
- “Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” Galatians 3:23, ESV
- “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” Galatians 3:24, ESV
- “but he is under guardians and managers until the date set by his father.” Galatians 4:2, ESV
Each of these first 4 times, Paul uses “until” it has to do the fact that we’re under the curse of the law, elementary principles of the world…until Jesus came and until faith was revealed to us.
This tells us something…there is a way to live in a world of performance and not be bound by its slavery. So, the big question is ‘how’ or what are practical ways this can be done? I said yesterday, “human performance and human effort might be the way the world operates, but it’s a lousy way to be made right with God.” How does believing in the gospel of grace, change us so deeply that we’re not controlled by a world of performance? Let me offer some things that have helped me through the last several years:
- On the most foundational level, this means, that God loved me before I loved Him. And the reason I love Him, is because He loved me first. This reminds me that there is nothing I did to gain God’s favor or love and it reminds me that my love for God, always has fallen short of His love for me.
- Continuing with that thought, it means that there is nothing I can ‘do’ to add to God’s love for me in Christ. Bible reading, prayer, sharing my faith, giving, are all wonderful spiritual disciplines, motivated and empowered by the Holy Spirit, but they do not add anything to my identity in Christ and God’s love for me in Christ. Now, to be clear…they’re means or tools that God uses to help me be more like Jesus, which honors God and pleases God, my father. But they don’t add anything to my position in Christ.
- And this also means something radical, which begins to deal with my relationships with others. At the cross, God “spoke” and “declared” 2 main things about me (and you): 1) my sin was so bad that it took the Son of God’s death to deal with it, which means God “judged” or “criticized” me more than anyone ever will and 2) God loves me more than anyone else ever will. In one and the same act, God said He criticized me more than anyone ever will and God love me more than anyone ever will. This begins to help me receive criticism from others (because they can’t criticize me more than God did) and it allows me to not “need” their approval (because God already approves of me more than anyone ever will).
- This allows us to deal with people in a way that resembles Jesus…we can treat people with the grace by which we’ve been treated. Think about that for a moment: the who way the world operates is on: I’ll treat you the way you’ve treated me; or what have you done for me lately?; or if you’re in my socio-economic, educational, positional “status”, then you’re worth my time…but the gospel of grace says something completely different: the way I’ve been treated by Jesus is the way He wants me to treat others…this is why things like mercy, grace, forgiveness, patience, long-suffering, forbearance, “love covering a multitude of sins”, are all distinctly Christian traits. If you’re treating others like the world does, you’re still “enslaved”.
- But this also allows us to deal with success and failure differently than the world does. So much of the world basis “identity” on success or failure. And normally success brings some semblance of pride in our work and failure brings some sort of discouragement. What is fascinating is to see how many in this world that you or I might deem “successful” struggle with discouragement. Or how many times do you hear someone say, “I finally realized who I really am,” or “I’m going to try to be the best version of myself”. But what if, success or failure does define who we are, define our value, or define how we view our lives? What if Jesus’ work on our behalf did? Then we can truly, “do our work heartily, as for the Lord, not for men” (Col. 3:23, ESV) and trust God with the results. If God determines our hearty work will be successful, we can give Him praise and gratitude because we know that He brought that to us. And if He determines it to fail, He will give us the grace we need to deal with that failure and help us learn/grow from it.
- This allows us to live in a “dog-eat-dog” world in a way that shows that people matter because they’re made in the image of God and they deserve respect because He created them. And it allows us to bring the gospel of grace into everyday life. When employers treat us poorly, we don’t have to throw out vitriol or gossip. When employees under perform, we can hold them accountable, with mercy and if necessary, release them from their jobs, with respect.
Let me close this section with a personal story about this: as most of you know, I coach baseball in our community. This season is my 20th at Umpqua Valley Christian School. The Lord has been very kind to me to use this as a platform, but also He’s been kind to use it to shave off some rough edges in my life. What many don’t realize is that when I started coaching, winning was everything to me. Our first year we went 2-16 and the following year we went 11-10 and I was voted our league’s coach of the year. But something was wrong with me…my priorities were all out of whack and I was doing this for man’s applause and for the accolades of winning. So, the Lord convicted me deeply and I resigned from coaching at the start of what would’ve been my 3rd season. The timing of it is my biggest regret in coaching because I let those young men down. But the decision was the right one. By 2001, the Lord had changed some of this, but not all of it and Jill and I felt it was time for me to re-enter the coaching ranks with a new purpose: the glory of God and the good of these young men and their families. Well, within 2 years back in coaching, we won a state championship and we were on a roll. My heart was getting checked right off the bat and I really sense things were right in my heart. But in 2008, I started noticing the subtleties of living for man’s applause and success enslaving me again. I saw it in my relationships at church and how I was handling the young men on my team. I remember being in John Day, Oregon for a tournament and I went on a walk where the Spirit of God challenged me about this. I took some time to repent and asked God to forgive me. Then I started on my walk again and walked to the field we were playing on that day. It was freezing and the groundskeeper was there working the field. When he picked his head up, I realized it was a legendary coach from Grant Union High School that I really admired. Before I could say anything, he called me by name, then began to rattle off how much he respected me, admired my teams and couldn’t wait to watch us play that day. I was floored…here was “man’s applause” coming my way from someone I admired…how would I react to this news?? I remember it well…I thanked the man for his kind words, then walking off the field I said to the Lord, “thank you God for the kind words from this coach…but it adds nothing to my value or my identity in Christ and it is not what I live for or why I coach this game…but thanks!” It really didn’t matter to me anymore. And for the first time in my life…I felt free. The gospel had changed me and freed me.
I hope this encourages you and helps you apply the truth of this gospel to your souls. I love our church and I am so grateful for God’s work in our midst. May the grace of God be amazing to you this week.
To watch or listen to the sermon described in this post, please click here.