THE PATH OF SELF-EFFORT, OR THE PATH OF GRACE?

GODS-GRACE

The problem we often have with grace, is that when we depend upon it, we aren’t in control anymore. But when we embrace it, grace brings tremendous freedom and joy, precisely because we don’t have to be in control any more.

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GALATIANS #13

GALATIANS 4:17-31

At the beginning of the letter, Paul says, “There are some who are troubling you and want to change the good news” (1:7). In 3:1, he writes, “Who has hypnotized you?” We are reading between the lines here, but it seems apparent that in the Galatian churches were some folks who claimed to be leaders or apostles, and were leading the people astray; specifically, they were trying to make the people conform to Jewish law in order to be saved. Paul must have some information that these people were very convincing and charismatic, saying how much they cared about the Galatians. They appeared to be “zealous” for the Galatians. But Paul says that the zeal of these false teachers has a purpose: they want to isolate the Galatians.

I want to pause here and echo something Paul said in the first chapter. There is only one message of salvation, and it does not come from human beings. Paul says, “These folks want to isolate you from the truth. Don’t believe them. They are not helping you.” We talked about all that, earlier in the series. If you hear anyone – including me – preaching a different message, do not listen to it, don’t fear it, don’t follow it. This is one reason why it is so important for each one of you to know the bible for yourself. If you know what the bible actually says, you will not easily be led astray.

Let me be very direct. I have seen many posts on Facebook, and in blogs, and in internet forums, that demonstrate a HUGE ignorance of what the bible actually says, while claiming that they are getting their thoughts from the bible. You can’t get your information exclusively from internet. Even if you follow this blog, understand, I am not the authority. The Bible is. Don’t just take my word for your spiritual information – read the bible for yourself. Don’t ever assume you know much about it, unless you have actually read the bible yourself.

If you rely on me, or any other human, for your spiritual information, you are putting yourself at risk. What if I’m wrong? What if those others are wrong? Even worse, what if some supposed “bible teacher” is deliberately leading you astray? Go to the source.

Now, of course, I believe there is a use for those who teach and preach biblical truth. The Holy Spirit calls, gives talents to, and empowers, all kinds of different people, for all kinds of work. Teaching the bible is one of those callings. We teachers can point out insights that the Holy Spirit has given us. The good bible teachers have spent the time to understand the background, culture and language – things that are not contained in the text itself. Since I know the bible well, I can often point out other parts of it that help us dig deeper into whichever passage we are studying. All that knowledge is very useful when we want to understand certain parts of the bible. The working of the Holy Spirit through teachers and preachers he has called can be a powerful thing We can point you in the right direction when you have spiritual questions. But ultimately, we are only here to help you and encourage you to know Jesus better for yourself. The final authority is the Word of God itself, not what we say about it.

Next, Paul uses an illustration from the Old Testament. Just to refresh your memory, I’ll summarize what he is talking about. When God first called Abraham, he was childless. God promised, among other things, that He would give Abraham, and his wife Sarah, many descendants. Abraham and Sarah followed God, and did what he asked, and generally lived a life of faith. But God didn’t give them any children. Years went by. Abraham got older. Sarah went through menopause. Now it was too late. There would be no children, so they thought. They gave up on God’s promise. They stopped believing that he would really do it for them.

Now, they didn’t entirely abandon God – they just began to believe that it was up to them to take care of things, up to them to make sure God’s promise was fulfilled. Does this sound familiar?

So they found a solution. Sarah had a slave girl named Hagar. She told Abraham to sleep with Hagar, and have a child with her. Then, Abraham and Sarah would consider that child theirs; Hagar’s child would be their heir. They took matters into their own hands, and did this. The son that was born to Hagar was called Ishmael.

Ishmael was the result of their planning and effort to make things happen. But he wasn’t God’s plan. When Ishmael was fourteen years old, when Sarah was ninety, Abraham and Sarah conceived, and she had Isaac. Isaac was the child that God had promised. He came in God’s timing, not in response to their efforts.

As it turns out, God blessed Ishmael, their mistake, because God is a gracious and loving God. But he chose Isaac, before he was even born, and it was through Isaac that the people of Israel, God’s chosen people, came into being. It was through Isaac that Jesus came, and therefore through Isaac, the child of God’s promise, that all people of the world were blessed. So, Ishmael, though he was also blessed by God, was sent away from Abraham, and he was not considered part of God’s specially chosen people.

Now Paul is using this story from Genesis as a picture. The Galatians want to be thought of as Jews – particularly, Abraham’s descendants. “Well,” says Paul, “Abraham has two kinds of descendants: a child of slavery to self-effort, or a child of trust in God’s goodness and his promise. One of them was born was born to a slave, and was the result of self-effort, work, and lack of trust in God. One was born out of God’s goodness and grace.” Paul says that Ishmael was a child born “according to the flesh,” and Isaac born “according to the Spirit” (v 29). The path of self-effort, self-reliance, work and pressure, is the path of the flesh. The path of trust and waiting for God is the path of the Holy Spirit. Ishmael came about because Abraham, Sarah and Hagar tried to make the promise appear by their own efforts. Isaac came about because God made him happen.

Paul says that the Jews of his time, regardless of the fact that they physically came from Isaac, are living like the children of Ishmael. Trying to be justified with God by obeying the Jewish law is the path of self-effort and slavery; the path of the flesh. He says to the Galatians:

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. (Gal 4:28, HCSB)

The Galatians had two paths in front of them. They became believers through God’s choice, through God’s grace, not through their own efforts and goodness. But these false teachers were trying to lead them in a different direction. They suggested instead, that the Galatians should make their own plans for getting God’s promised blessings. They taught that people need to work and earn God’s favor and goodness.

I think most Christians are aware of the obvious trap of thinking we can earn God’s favor for salvation. But far too many of us, once we are saved, act like we must take matters into our own hands in order to live the Christian life or get the Blessings that God has promised.

Just think of this for a moment. Abraham and Sarah longed desperately for a child. They felt like life could not possibly be complete without a son. But they couldn’t make it happen. God did not seem to make it happen for them either. Their only choice was to sin, in order to get what they longed for. So they tried that. Even though the Lord took care of their mistake and blessed the child that resulted, it still did not get them what they really wanted. They had to trust the Lord and his gracious timing and provision.

I want to point out one more thing. Paul says: “the child born according to the flesh persecuted the child born according to the spirit, and so also now.” This is true in several ways, more ways than Paul even knew. The descendants of Ishmael are the people that today we call Arabs. Even as we speak, those descendants are enemies of Isaac’s descendants, modern-day Jews. So Abraham’s reliance on the flesh to bring about the work of God has had extremely long term and far-reaching consequences.

Paul of course, has something more spiritual in mind. Those who live by self-effort and works of the flesh typically do not appreciate those who live by grace. Grace is outrageous, offensive at times. A drug addicted prostitute can come to Jesus just as she is and be forgiven and accepted, while the hard-working pillar of the community who is too proud to admit her fundamental need for Jesus cannot come to feast unless she admits her need and turns her life over to the control of Jesus. Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 proclaiming honor and blessing for a childless woman. In those days, childlessness was a big deal, even seen as a curse and a mark of shame. Paul is reminding them of the grace of God, that can give such a woman honor.

The other problem we often have with grace, is that when we depend upon it, we aren’t in control anymore. We don’t get to demand what we want, when we want it. And we can’t control others either. We are all on equal ground, standing a place of need and dependence upon God. But when we embrace it, grace brings tremendous freedom and joy, precisely because we don’t have to be in control any more. It doesn’t have to be up to you. You don’t have to deserve it. In fact, you don’t deserve it, and you can’t make yourself good enough to. You can only surrender and receive.

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One thought on “THE PATH OF SELF-EFFORT, OR THE PATH OF GRACE?

  1. itayanancy@yahoo.com

    Wow this is great I have learn a lot, you are blessed sir. Thanks
    Sent from my BlackBerry wireless device from MTN

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