Galatians Part 8: Tryin’ to Love Two Woman

Galatians 4:1-20

Believing in salvation by grace alone and believing at the same time that you still have to do something to be saved–or to stay saved–is tryin’ to love two women.  Like Abraham.  Who loved Sarah and made love to Hagar, and the world has never been the same.  Isaac became the father of the Jews, Ishmael the father of the Arab nations.

Before we get to the salacious details of Abraham’s love life in the second half of Galatians 4, I’d like to talk about the first half of the chapter, which actually begins in Galatians 3:26, a paragraph that carries into Galatians 4.

26 So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.  4.1 What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world. 4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. 6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

We are, Paul tells us in this passage, children of God, that is, we belong to God forever not because we earn his favor, but because when we are born again we become a part of his family.  Families have rules, but love rules.  This is central in the biblical doctrine of salvation, but because we live in a performance-driven fallen world, something Darwin described in non-religious terms as “the survival of the fittest,” we can’t fully believe that all we have to do is believe.  We tell ourselves–and others–that there must be something more.  Yes, we have to believe in Jesus, but …

This notion that our salvation is based on Jesus-plus-something implies that our relationship with God is ultimately conditional, that it rests on something we do, or stop doing, or don’t ever do again, or don’t do nearly as much as we used to do it.  In contrast, grace is unconditional, like family love.  You can’t get it because you earn it, and you can’t lose it because you un-earn it.  You have it because you are in the family.

Christians pretty much believe you can’t be saved by good works, which is why we define grace as God’s unmerited favor.  Christians are not so sure, though, that you can stay saved if you don’t stay faithful and obedient to God, as if you can lose grace by what you do or don’t do after you become a Christian.  It’s as though grace is unconditional if you’re a sinner and need salvation, but after you get saved, grace becomes  conditional.  Conditional grace, though, is an oxymoron.  Conditional grace isn’t grace.

Paul talks about this in Romans 4:3-4:  “What does Scripture say? ‘Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’  Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation.”  The New Testament Greek word translated “gift” is charis, which is most often translated “grace.”  Paul adds in Romans 11:5-6, “So too, at the present time there is a remnant chosen by grace (charis). And if by grace (charis), then it cannot be based on works; if it were, grace (charis) would no longer be grace (charis). ”

Grace isn’t grace when it’s based on works.

What it really means to be saved

What Christians do or don’t do matters.  Later in Galatians Paul is clear on this when he writes, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows”  (Galatians 6:7).  Yet eternal salvation is not about what we do or don’t do.  It’s about a nature problem. We are children of Adam, and his sin nature has been passed down from generation to generation.  It’s why we need a new nature.  It’s why we have to be born again.

If you sneer at this idea of “original sin,” just have kids.  They are not essentially good.  Every child enters this world screaming and yelling in a womb of absolute self-interest.  For the next twenty or so years, we parents make every attempt to help them understand that life isn’t just about them.

Children don’t just have a behavior problem.  They have a nature problem.  But then that’s everybody’s problem.  It’s not just what we do or don’t do that messes with our relationship with God.  It’s who we are. Which is why Jesus said to one of the best and most religious people of his day, Nicodemus, “You must be born again.”

Not wanting his colleagues to know he was spending time with Jesus, Nicodemus arranged to meet Jesus at night. “How can I enter the kingdom of God?” he asked.

If everybody’s gut feeling is right, that being a pretty good person is good enough to get to heaven, then Jesus should have said to Nicodemus, “Chill dude!  God’s OK with you.  You’ve done just about everything God expects, and in comparison to everybody else in the neighborhood, you’re not just pretty good, Nick, you’re real good.  Go home and keep up the good works.  I’m here to save bad people.”

No, Jesus looked Nicodemus straight in the eye and said, “You must be born again.”  In other words, really good isn’t good enough.  You need an interior transformation.  You need to be re-gene-reted.  You need a new nature.  Children of the first Adam need to become children of the last Adam, and although the Bible also teaches that God adopts us as his children, he does more than that.  When we are born again, the presence of the Holy Spirit in us gives us a new nature.  This is the miracle of the new birth.

1 John 3:9 speaks of this:  “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them.”  The Greek term used here is sperma. Salvation is the miracle of regeneration, or re-gene-ration.

All in the family

To me, this is why the family image is so powerful in helping us understand salvation by grace alone.  Jesus took our sins away when he died on the cross.  When we believe in Christ, God the Father forgives us for what we’ve done.  But Paul tells us there’s more:  “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).  My life is hid with Christ in God.  It’s Christ in me the hope of glory.

Later in Galatians 6:15 Paul states his argument in powerfully simple words:  “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.”

Salvation is not about what I do, but whether or not I have Christ in me.  And it’s not just about Jesus in my heart–and how he might leave if I give him a good reason. My condemned fallen nature has been crucified with Christ forever, and I now have a new nature that will live forever.  So now, in this life, my goal is to “to work out [my] salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in [me] to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose” (Philippians 2:12-13).

Paul doesn’t tell us to work for our salvation, or to work on it, but to work it out, because God is already inside wiling and acting on our behalf.

For decades I’ve tried to explain grace the way Paul teaches it in Galatians, and like Paul, I’ve had decades of objections.  Those objections are always essentially the same: you have to do something to keep your salvation.  None of my opponents, however, has ever made it clear to me what exactly you have to do to keep your salvation, or conversely what specifically constitutes apostasy.  This is the madness and confusion of Jesus+something.  No one can ever tell me exactly what the “something” is and how much of it we need to keep our salvation.

People who believe you can lose your salvation always fall back on the idea that our on-going relationship with God has to do with Jesus+something, that is, continuing faithfulness to God, believing and doing the right things and not doing the wrong things.  People who think you can lose your salvation are forced to argue their position based on good works.  At the same time, they invariably avoid the essential definition of Christian salvation:  you must be born again.

Just recently, in a replay of a conversation I’ve had countless times, I asked a skeptic who was arguing with me about Jesus+nothing, “Do you believe that you can do something to kill your new nature?  That you can be unborn-again?  That you can lose your new nature?”  I had to smile as he refused to say, “Yes.”  He just kept telling me that he believed you can lose your salvation.

But if you can, how?  By sinning?  By how much sinning?  By not believing?  By denying Christ?  How often?  Like Peter who denied Jesus three times with R-rated language?  Oh yeah, Peter repented, right?  So we are saved if we believe in Jesus?  But not if we sin and don’t repent?  So salvation is Jesus plus repentance?  Daily?  Hourly?  Every minute of every day?

What if I show my middle finger to someone on the road, and in that instance I crash and die?  What if I don’t show them my middle finger but God sees the finger in my heart?  Will I go to hell because I didn’t have a chance to repent?  Or will I go to heaven because a moment of freeway anger wasn’t that bad of a sin?

If it’s Jesus plus something, what is it specifically that kills my new nature?  At what particular point does God say, “I’ve had it!  I can’t take it anymore!  I’m done with you!”  I repeat:  In decades of heated discussions about his question, I have never had anyone tell me where God draws the line.

For me it’s so simple:  God draws the line on whether or not Jesus is in my heart, period.  Whether or not I’m born again and have a new nature, period.  It’s so simple.  It’s the such good news.  It’s the Gospel.

It’s apparent

So you’re a parent?  At what point can your children end up not being your children any more?  Can they rebel?  Yes.  Can they act like they’re not your children?  Yes.  But how bad do they have to be to alter their DNA?  For them to become the neighbor’s children?

Don’t you love your children?  More than you love your neighbor’s children?  Even though your neighbors have better children?  What’s up with that?  Once your kids, always your kids.  For better or for worse.  Faithful and prodigal.  They may make you proud or miserable, but they are forever your children.

This is Paul argument in Galatians 4.   First, we are children, not slaves.  It’s salvation, not slavation.  Second, salvation is totally a miracle of God’s intervention, like Abraham who had two sons, Isaac and Ishmael, one the son of free woman, the other a son of a slave.  The former a miracle child born to am elderly woman, the latter a child of regular sex and female cycles.  The one a grace child, the other a child of human effort.

Let’s look at the first part of Galatians 4 again:

1 What I am saying is that as long as an heir is underage, he is no different from a slave, although he owns the whole estate. 2 The heir is subject to guardians and trustees until the time set by his father. 3 So also, when we were underage, we were in slavery under the elemental spiritual forces of the world.

Paul is telling us here that the law is good.  Rules are good.  Just ask any parent.  Kid’s can’t be trusted.  They need boundaries, but as they mature, as they become responsible adults, rules take on an entirely different purpose.

Paul is also using these images—slaves, underage children, guardians and trustees —to explain that the law was God’s plan to guide and restrain his people Israel until Christ came.  The law is good for many reasons, and this was one of them, to keep God’s people out of trouble.  When we are underage, you see, we are slaves to rules.

4 But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those under the law, that we might receive adoption to sonship. 6 Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.” 7 So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.

I love it:  You are no longer a slave whose value is based only and entirely on whether or not you keep the rules.  I can hear the slave master:  “Good slave, you have value because you do the right things.  Bad slave, you have less value because you don’t do the right things.”

Rules matter, but rules change nothing. If you’re a parent, why do you have rules?  To make sure your kids are always your kids?  Or because they are already your kids and you want them to believe in and live out your values?

I have three great kids.  They’re married, have kids of their own, they’re involved in their local churches, and two are in full time ministry.  Want to know our secret to raising great kids? Well, as soon as they could tell the difference between right and wrong, we let them know them every­day that we loved them, but there was a side to our love that was conditional.  In the most loving way possible we made it clear that if they didn’t do what we expected of them, we reserved the right at any time to exchange them for better kids.

Yes, we told them that daily, sometimes several times a day.  It was powerful!  They became everything we wanted them to be.  Yes, we loved them, but we always wanted them to know that in the end our love was conditional.  You know, a little bit of fear is a good thing!

Um … no … that’s not what we did. In fact, some of you readers are thinking, “He’s weird. He’s sick.  He’s evil.”  No one is dumb enough to believe children would respond to that kind of relationship with their parents.  Yet this is the way so many Christians think about God. Yes, they believe he loves them, but the bottom line is whether or not you behave.  You can’t wildly unconditional grace, they believe, because somebody is going to take advantage of that.  A little fear is a good thing, even though the Bible says, ” There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).

There are two worlds:

(1) Rules world. God is the Judge.  Compassion matters, but rules matter most.  Rules trump compassion.  The judge says, “I care about you.  It troubles me deeply to sentence you to death, but I have to stick to the rules, uphold the law, no matter what I feel.”  For someone who is not born again, God is a Judge.

(2)  Grace world. When we are born again, we get a new nature.  We are re-gene-rated.  God becomes our Father, and there is now therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  Jesus is our brother, and we become co-heirs with Christ.  Rules matter, but love matters most.  God says, “Be faithful.  Be righteous.  But I love you no matter what.”

A dear friend and colleague of mine, Hector Torres, tells the story about the time his daughter Heidi ran away.  She was fourteen.  Grief-stricken and haunted with fear, for weeks Hector and Mimi had no idea where she was or what may have happened to her.  Our kids grew up together, and I remember their pain well.

When Hector thinks back to this dreadful time in his life, when his daughter rejected him and Mimi, he’s reminded of God’s grace.  I’ve heard him say to large audiences of Christian leaders, “When Heidi ran away, I never loved her more.”

This, my friends, is amazing grace.  Unconditional love.  Love that’s based on relationship, not behavior.  Psalm 103:8-14 tells us this:

8 The LORD is compassionate and gracious,
slow to anger, abounding in love.
9 He will not always accuse,
nor will he harbor his anger forever;
10 he does not treat us as our sins deserve
or repay us according to our iniquities.
11 For as high as the heavens are above the earth,
so great is his love for those who fear him;
12 as far as the east is from the west,
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father has compassion on his children,
so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him;

14 for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.

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