Paul is reminding the Galatians that Christ has set them free from works. "Works" is more than just keeping the Old Covenant law. "Works" is any system of trying to become worthy or good on one's own, whether it's a pagan system, a godless system, or a backwards Christianity that looks to the Law for direction instead of to Christ.
Paul isn't saying that we can't be saved if we rest on the Sabbath or keep the Old Testament dietary laws or any other legal requirement. Rather, his point is that if we do those things with any underlying sense that God expects us to do those to demonstrate our love or acceptance of him, we are functioning outside of grace. We are still "earning" our salvation.
We can't try to "cover our bases" by saying we accept Jesus and his grace and also by keeping the law. We can't be both children waiting to be told what to do and adults functioning with internal authority. If we try to gauge our Christian experience by checking our obedience to the law, we have not experienced the transforming grace of Jesus.
In fact, Paul points out that if we try to keep certain parts of the law because they seem important (i.e. mandatory circumcision, Sabbath, dietary laws, etc.), then we are "obligated to obey the whole law." (verse 3) We are then obligated to keep all the ceremonies, feasts, rituals, and rules the Israelites had to keep. We are not free to choose certain parts of the law and say they're for us today and then let the rest go. It's all or nothing. If we require part of the law but don't observe the rest of it, then we are condemned by the law.
We either embrace grace or we embrace the law. When we live in grace the law becomes internal. The Holy Spirit literally lives in us, and God himself directs our decisions and actions. The Holy Spirit keeps our sinful self subjected to his love, and Christ lives his love through us to the world.
If we honor the law as authoritative for us, we place something external in the place of the Holy Spirit. The law holds our affections instead of the Holy Spirit holding them. Honoring the law instead of the law-giver is turning away from grace. It is also placing "another god" before God.
The only thing, Paul says, is "faith expressing itself through love." (verse 6) True faith cannot express itself through criticism or coercion. True faith is a spiritual reality, not just an intellectual assent. Intellectual understanding does not give us a new heart. We can always argue with someone's intellectual understanding. In fact, intellectual understanding can and should change with time.
True faith, on the other hand, while grounded in intellectual integrity, is a result of a relationship. It comes to life when we meet Jesus and accept the reality of HIM. A relationship based on love is something no amount of argument can threaten. A relationship based on love will motivate us to act in love. And that encompassing love, Paul says, is "the only thing that counts." No rituals, no special observances, no ceremonies "count" in a true relationship with Jesus. Only "faith expressing itself through love" counts.
Paul also points out that the people who persuaded the Galatians to return to works did not speak for God. He uses a familiar symbol for evil, "yeast," to illustrate the seriousness of the poison of requiring certain religious rituals. He also talks about the Galatians being thrown into confusion. Confusion is a symptom of evil. When God reveals truth, it illuminates, it explains, it makes all the "pieces fall into place." Evil confuses; it blurs truth and integrity; it causes fear and doubt.
But Paul does acknowledge that grace doesn't guarantee a life free of trouble. He points out that he's being persecuted, and that persecution is not because he's preaching circumcision. He's being persecuted because he's preaching the "offense of the cross" (verse 11). The seriousness of Christ's sacrifice, the reality of our sin, the overwhelming magnitude of the gift of grace offends people.
Grace demands that we give up control of our "goodness." It requires that we experience the depth and seriousness of our personal sin. It requires us to stop rationalizing; it requires us to be receptive and submissive to truth.
Grace gives us life. It transforms our hearts and minds. Grace puts us in the heart of God, and it brings the Holy Spirit to our hearts.
Grace gives us freedom. And along with freedom, grace gives us the authority of Jesus to stand firm and not "be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."
Grace gives us the mind of Christ (I Corinthians 2:16). Grace gives us love with which to express our faith.
Grace takes the veil away from our hearts so we can live in the fullness and freedom of our finished salvation.
Grace makes us one with God.
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