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"The Scourge of Enslavement vs. the Joy of Sonship!"

MESSAGE FOR AUGUST 17, 2008 FROM GALATIANS 4:12-20

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This week, we move forward in our series of message from Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia.  For the past chapter or so, Paul has marshaled several theological arguments to prove to the Galatians why it is foolish to try to be acceptable to God by working to keep the law of God.  This week, he shifts his appeal from the theological to the personal.  In these verses we will examine today, Paul writes primarily not in logical argumentation.  He doesn’t cite any Old Testament texts, but he does write candidly about the dangerous direction their lives had taken since they had come under the influence of the false teachers and about his profound concern for them.  In these verses, he writes to them on a very personal level, pleading with them to stop turning back to a life of spiritual slavery.

Paul has been explaining to the Galatians that in their attempts to be acceptable to God by trying to keep the law, they were abandoning the blessings of their sonship relationship with God in Christ in favor of enslavement to the elementary principles of the world.  In that context, he continues in verse eight, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.  9But 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?  10You observe days and months and seasons and years!  11I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.”

          As Paul confronts these Galatians on a more personal level, I see four truths about anyone who lives under the law instead of by faith.  The first truth we will cover quickly because we examined it last week.  That is: the person who lives under the law invites demonic oppression.  We looked at this in some depth last week, but I want us to see again where we get this point about demons from a text that never explicitly mentions demons.  In verse eight, Paul compares the Galatians’ former enslavement to idols—“those that by nature are not gods” with the bondage they were under by believing the lies of false teachers who called them to live under the law.  Paul calls this turning “back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world.”  Last week, we labored to show that the common denominator between worshipping idols and these “elementary principles of the world” of the Judaizers was demons.  The idolatry of their life apart from Christ was based on lies and the teaching of these Judaizers was based on lies as well and lies all originate with Satan.  We saw from First Corinthians 10 that Paul forbids idol worship because there were demons behind the idols.  Paul puts this demonic idol worship in the same category as keeping the Jewish holidays which he expresses in verse 10 with the sentence, “You observe days and months and seasons and years! 

          One other text supporting this connection to spiritual darkness that we didn’t mention last week is in Second Corinthians.  Part of what Paul addresses in Second Corinthians is the wicked influence on the believers in Corinth by false teachers who considered themselves apostles.  We know from what Paul says in his defense against these false apostles that they were Jews who believed that obedience to the law was required for those who followed Christ.  Though they don’t openly call for circumcision, their heretical views were very similar to the Judaizers in Galatia.  Notice what he says about these false apostles in 11:13.  For such men are false apostles, deceitful workmen, disguising themselves as apostles of Christ.  14And no wonder, for even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light.  15So it is no surprise if his servants, also, disguise themselves as servants of righteousness. Their end will correspond to their deeds.”  Paul draws a parallel between these false apostles and Satan who disguises himself as an angel of light.  These were not simply men who had made some innocent theological mistakes in their attempts to put people under the law.  They were deceivers like Satan.  There is spiritual darkness here, not just an overstated emphasis on the law.  Likewise in Galatia.  These false teachers, in their calling on these Gentiles to become circumcised and live under the law, were very similar offshoots of the same demonic root that lies beneath all false religion.  When we try to live under the law in order to be acceptable to God, we are subjecting ourselves to dark, demonic spiritual forces.  Their intent is to use the law of God to steal, kill and destroy us.

A second truth about living under the law is in the first part of verse nine.  Paul writes, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back gain to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more.  This verse teaches that the person who lives under the law is powerfully betraying God and what he has done for them.  Why does the Holy Spirit make a mid-course correction here in verse nine?   Here’s what I mean.  He begins with a phrase that describes the Galatians’ experience of God with the phrase, “now that you have come to know God.”  That places the emphasis on the Galatians’ effort to know God—they did it.  They had come to know God.  Then the Holy Spirit, writing through Paul makes it more precise, “or rather to be known by God.”  Why does he do that?  Why does he start by saying it one way—giving the Galatians the active role, and then change to another—putting the Galatians in the passive role of those who have come to be known by God?  God is the active player there, not the Galatians. 

By holding up the man-centered way of thinking about their conversion, Paul draws attention to the fact that when the Galatians were converted, they were not the initiators.  It wasn’t as if they had searched diligently for God and had finally found him.  Romans 3:11 says, “…no one seeks after God.”  These people were lost in the spiritual abyss of idol worship.  Paul wants to remind these Galatians, “You didn’t find God—God found you.”  Salvation is never about our long pursuit of God—it’s about God’s pursuit of us.  That’s important for these Galatians to be reminded of here because it reveals another sinful element of their living under the law.  When we try to be acceptable to God by what we do, when in fact he has, from the foundation of the world had another plan—to actively seek after us by sending his Son to die for us—to send his Spirit into us and to legally declare us righteous through nothing but faith, we are betraying the Lord of the universe.

Paul is implying here how God perceives a believer who is living under the law.  God, before the foundation of the world, predestined us to be adopted as his children.  He sends his Son to live a perfect, righteous life and die a sin-atoning death to purchase that child for God.  He sovereignly sends his Spirit into his chosen ones and declares them righteous by transferring the righteousness of his Son to his adopted children.  He sends his Spirit into them so that they can know him as sons.  This is God’s work from start to finish.  Yet those same people who have been known by God in this way through his glorious plan of redemption that makes them his children return the favor by saying to him, “No, I’d rather try to be acceptable to you on the basis of what I do.  I want to come to know you through my efforts.  I want to be the initiator here.  Ultimately, it’s up to ME whether or not I know you.”  Because the law brings slavery, what anyone living under the law is communicating to God is, “I know you sent your Son and your Spirit to make me your son, but I prefer relying on my own slave-like efforts to know you. 

Living under the law takes the most glorious, most gracious work of God, conceived in eternity past and flawlessly executed through the life, death resurrection of his Son, so that we could be known by God as sons and says, “I have a better idea.  I can come to know you through MY efforts.  I want the final responsibility for this on my shoulders.  That’s a profound betrayal of God and his plan of salvation.  That’s what we are communicating to God when we make it about our efforts to come to know him by living under the law. At its root, the problem with the Judaizers false teaching is that it is man-centered—ultimately dependent upon man, whereas the gospel of grace is absolutely God-centered.  David Wells would say that the Judaizers were teaching a religion “from below”—man-centered.  Every other religion apart from the gospel is man-centered.  Only the gospel, with its gracious saving work dependent wholly upon God is “from above”—God-centered.

A third truth about a person living under the law—trying to be acceptable to God based on their performance is the person who lives under the law does so because they have willfully decided to do so. We have spoken much about the fact that someone who lives under the law has been deceived and is under the demonic influence of the “elementary principles of this world.”  But we mustn’t forget that in most cases the ultimate reason a person lives under the law is because that’s just the way they want to live.  Even with the misery and grief it can bring to a sensitive soul, generally speaking, people who have had good gospel teaching but who live under the law do so because they want to. 

Don’t miss the fact that Paul does not do what so many in our culture and even an acculturated church often does today.  That is, he doesn’t make the Galatians victims of the Judaizers.  Today’s “apostles” might very well say to the Galatians, “You poor things—those deceitful Judaizers saw that you were new believers and they came in and seized on your vulnerability and took you captive.  They exploited your ignorance and you were helpless against them.  Their teaching had demonic power behind it, so how you possibly stand against it?”  You see none of that with Paul or any of the other Biblical authors.  Although the Galatians were comparatively young in Christ, they were far from helpless.  They had a solid foundation of justification by faith laid by a master apostolic builder—they had run well according to chapter five. According to 3:5, they had seen the Spirit move miraculously in their midst in response to faith, not works.  Beyond that, they had experienced the life-changing power of the gospel of grace through faith and they had been given the Holy Spirit who would have with certainty led them to the truth if they had been seeking after it.  They were far from helpless and Paul here holds them personally responsible for turning from the truth to error.

We see this in verse nine. He says, “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.”  Although Paul certainly has no love for the Judaizers, here he holds the Galatians responsible for the spiritual bondage they were experiencing.  In the final analysis, they were living as slaves and not sons, NOT because they because they had been victimized, but because that is the way they wanted to live.  We might ask, “Why would anyone want to live as a slave under demonic influence, living under condemnation when they could live as sons of God, enjoying his love?”  Don’t miss the presupposition lying underneath that question which is, people don’t typically live irrationally.  That’s a naïve assumption because all sin is irrational and our self-centered flesh loves it anyway.

I don’t think many in this room would classify adultery or lusting after pornography or stealing from your company or lying or mistreating your child as rational deeds, but professing Christians do those things all the time and we do them because  when we commit these sins, we are doing precisely what, in that moment we want to do.  As difficult as living under the law is for the genuine believer, living by faith is in many ways much scarier to us.  Living by faith is not for the faint of heart.  When we live by faith, we are not in control—God is.  When we live by faith, trusting in God, we will often be called to live outside our self-centered comfort zones.  Living by faith means submitting to the will of your Father.  Our heavenly Father never spoils his children.  He calls us to hard things—impossible things, but only things that will bring us ultimate joy and him, ultimate glory.  That sounds appealing on the face of it, but where the rubber meets the road in life, we frankly would much rather trust in ourselves—even though we know that is foolish.

Jack Miller in his “Sonship” discipleship series gives a good illustration contrasting the very different dynamics between living by faith and living in the flesh (in this case,) under the law.  He says that living by faith is like an endless ride on a whitewater raft in the middle of a river.  The journey on the river of faith has sections that are very calm and peaceful and we love those sections.  But there are other seasons when the river of living by faith becomes violent and it churns wildly.  Even though those sections of the river look very dangerous, people who live on the river of faith are in fact completely safe because their omnipotent Father is always in the raft with them and their Father is the Lord of the river.  Every eddy and current, every tempestuous wave, every heave and swell down the turbulent rapids, every violent collision is sovereignly controlled by their Father, the Lord of the river who is in the raft with them and they know him with the intimacy of the “Abba” cry of the Spirit.

But our flesh doesn’t like the river because on the river we relinquish control over all things—including things we love very much...too much.  On the river, you may fear that your kids will get knocked out of the boat.  You may fear that your homes and possessions will be lost on the wild journey.  You are forced to trust in the Lord of the River and his objective for you on this whitewater raft ride is not your comfort, or the retention of all the things of this earth that you love.  His objective is to bring glory to himself as he, through the rough ride, causes you to trust in him and know him and love him in the midst of the rapids.  His agenda is bringing himself maximum glory as he produces fruit through you that only comes from a life surrendered in love that springs from faith.  Life on the river produces joy unspeakable and full of glory, but it is at times an unpredictable and very rough ride.  In the end, and in spite of what they may say, many professed believers don’t want joy and God’s glory nearly as much as they want to stay in their self-centered comfort zones and maintain control over their lives and their treasures.

Miller says that life in the flesh or in this context we would say, life under the law, is like a canal.  The water in a canal has well established banks and is engineered to never flow beyond a certain rate.  The water is often putrid and stale, but it always flows at the same rate.  It’s very predictable.  Our flesh loves the canal.  We get to be in control of the raft.  We can stop whenever WE want and get out on shore.  We can speed up with a bit of paddling or even put a motor on the back of our raft to simulate life on the river of faith.  But we’re in a canal and canals don’t really go anywhere dangerous or exciting and in the end, they bring superficial fun, but no joy.  God isn’t glorified in the canal and people on the canal don’t sense the Father’s presence because frankly, he isn’t needed.  There is no fruit in the life of someone puttering along the canal—only the rottenness that comes from a life lived under the control of a fallen sinner. 

It’s important to understand that the difference between life on the river and life on the canal does not fundamentally entail adventure or the lack of it--it’s about our willingness to be taken out of our comfort zones and learning to trust in the Father.  For those believers whose personalities naturally love a life that is busy and unpredictable and wild—that’s not the river of faith for them because that’s their comfort zone.  For those people, the river may very well be their Father stepping into their raft and saying things like, “Quit your exciting job and take this one instead—simplify this wild ride you are on that you mistakenly think requires faith, but is producing no fruit and do something that really requires faith.  Slow down and seek after me in your home—with your family.”  For some, that’s the river of faith, depending on your personality.

One way we can know whether we are on the river or the canal is to see how we respond when God puts us in a place where we have to trust in him.  Someone you love gets sick or maybe even dies.  Maybe your kids are going sideways.  Perhaps you get a new job offer that is way beyond what you think you are capable of doing.  Maybe you lose your job and can’t make the payments on your home.  Your health goes down hill or in some way the future that you thought you had—your plans--are blown to smithereens.  Beloved, when that happens, God has plunked you right down on the raft in the middle of the rapids.  Your Father is with you and though you feel everything is out of control, he is Lord of that churning river.  But make no mistake--you are not in control of your circumstances and you are way out of your comfort zone. 

When you are in that place—when you are on the river involuntarily--how do you respond?  Do you come to see it as part of the journey of faith and look on it as a way for you to learn to trust your Father more fully?  Do you grow closer to your Father as his nearness in the midst of the wild ride becomes so precious to you?  Do you take comfort that all the bumps and heaves you are experiencing come from him—that he is Lord of the river and every turn and dip are under his sovereign control?  Or, do you get really scared and lose sleep and get irritable?  Do you get angry at God because he has ruined your life and messed up your plans?  Those kind of responses, whether we will admit it or not, point to a heart that is saying, “Get me out of this river of faith and get me into my canal where I can have control, where I will not be taken out of my comfort zones and I will not have to surrender to God what I love and where I will not have to trust him with my life and the things, people and resources that are important to me.  I don’t care about intimacy with the Father—I want my life back!” 

Our self-centered flesh is always looking for the superficial serenity of life on the canal.  Our flesh likes living under the law, in part because there are no surprises there.  The same rules to keep day in and day out.  There is no reason to be led by the unpredictable Spirit of God because you know what you need to do—just keep the rules!  Even though the law is frustrating because we not very good at it, over time, our flesh manages to round off the sharp corners.  Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, we deceive ourselves into thinking we are righteous even while the law is condemning us.  We edit the law.  It becomes like the “Sleep Number bed” as we reset it according to the contours of our individual comfort zones.  Instead of taking the law at face value for what it is—the sacred expression of God’s holy character, we begin to compare how well we obey God’s law with how poorly we perceive other believers do. 

We take comfort from the fact that, though we don’t keep the law perfectly, we do better than the others around us are doing.  This enables us to defang the law and mutate it from an ever present lion whose tremendous weight and ferocity crushes us, to a housecat that sits on our lap and purrs.  That "dumbing down" of the law enables us to externally keep the parts of it that come easily to us, minimize the parts that don’t, and we get to stay in our comfort zones.  Those people who are serious about fulfilling the law through faith we see as being negative or too rigid—even though they have joy and intimacy with the Father.  They need grace so they could live in the serenity of the canal…like us.  Paul tells these Galatians that they had begun to live under the law because they had willfully decided to do so.  And when we find ourselves living under the law instead of living in faith, we must never blame that on anyone else.  We are doing it because, as foolish as it is, that is just what we want to do.  Confess that for what it is—the sin of unbelief.

A fourth truth about living under the law is seen in verse 11.  There Paul says, “I am afraid that I may have labored over you in vain.  The person who lives under the law may not be saved.   Paul has made this argument less directly in the past, but he pulls out the big gun here in this last verse of this section.  He openly wonders whether at least some of these Galatians are saved.  Paul is not making this about himself—as if he was frustrated that he might have spent his precious time in vain.  He merely goes where the evidence has taken him.  That is—perhaps these people who wanted to live under the law had not been saved—perhaps they hadn’t been justified—perhaps they hadn’t received the Spirit—perhaps they weren’t sons of God.  That would have made all of Paul’s labor to bring these Galatians to Christ vanity.  Again, we see how huge this matter of living under the law is to God.  If you are living under the law—trying to gain acceptance with God by what you do, you are with your life denying the doctrine of justification by faith alone, which is the heart of the gospel.

Where are you this morning?  Are you on the raft learning to trust your Father and finding the sweetness of his presence?  There is joy out there with your Abba.  Or are you on the canal?—there’s no fruit there.  Life under the law in the flesh can be appealing, but it never delivers on its promises.  May God give us the grace to live in Christ, trusting in our Father for his glory and our joy.

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