A couple of years ago I read David McCullough’s fine work 1776. McCullough chronicled the story of the American Colonies’ quest for freedom under the leadership of General George Washington. Beginning with January 1, 1776, he diaries the events of our nation’s revolution through December 31, 1776. At the close of the book, Washington is faced with the challenge of keeping his continental army intact. Many who had joined the cause were longing to return home to their families and their farms. The price of freedom was greater than they initially thought, and to some degree, must have wondered if the old life under the tyranny of England was really worth the effort.
The Galatian Christians had some similar challenges. They had been set free by Christ to a new life of freedom in grace. Yet there was a certain appeal to the old life under the law. The law was simpler, cleaner and neater. Paul helped to set the record straight in Galatians 5:1: “So Christ has truly set us free. Now make sure that you stay free, and don’t get tied up (literally, take up the yoke) again in slavery to the law.”
The slavery to the law Paul refers to is the bondage that comes when one is determined to live life in an economy of earning God’s favor rather than living in the economy of God’s grace. The specific issue he addressed was the issue of circumcision, but I suspect we have our own issues here in the 21st century. There is something seductive about trying to earn God’s favor. We’re masters of the “art of the deal,” and we endeavor to earn blessings and favor through our behaviors and bargaining. It’s wrong headed thinking.
Paul gives three reasons why earning leads to bondage. First, “Christ will be of no benefit to you” (5:2). In other words, earning favor renders the work of Christ on the cross null and void. The second thing Paul mentions is that earning obligates us to “obey every regulation in the whole law of Moses” (5:3). If one is determined to earn God’s favor, he or she cannot pick and choose which commands to keep. Earners are committed to keep every single rule. Third, if one chooses an economy of earning, they “have fallen away from God’s grace” (5:4). Earning is completely counterproductive to what Christ has purposed for our lives. God extends his grace to us through his son Jesus Christ, and we respond to that grace through faith. That’s how we have received eternal life, and that’s how we live in eternal life. We live it the same way we received it. Yet like the Galatians, we tend to be quick to run back to the law even after we’ve tasted grace.
Earning is binding because we are not free to live the way God has created us to live. In Galatians 5:6, Paul writes, “What is important is faith expressing itself in love.” That’s the main thing. But we are not free to live that principle if we are consumed with our own attempts to earn. Earning is about me and my efforts, self-righteousness and goodness. But grace is about God. And, in Paul’s thinking, it’s about you, too.