Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians upon hearing that they were being heavily influenced by a group of people claiming that salvation was not solely by grace. This group was teaching that being a Christian also meant submitting to the Jewish Law—including circumcision. Paul does not hold back in his critique of these false teachers he refers to in 2:12 as “the circumcision group.” As soon as Paul dispenses with the customary greeting, the first thing he says is, I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6, NIV).
The reason the legalism of the circumcision group was so tempting is the same reason any kind of legalism is tempting—it offered to its adherents a standard for discerning visible proof of one’s salvation.
Paul points out two fatal flaws in the message of the circumcision group. The first flaw was thinking that one’s position before God hinged on what we do, not on what Christ did. The gospel Paul and the Apostles preached was that salvation was by faith in Christ alone. That’s it. Nothing else. It is all of grace. It is a gift to be accepted, not a prize to be awarded. The second fatal flaw was that these false teachers completely misunderstood the purpose of the Law. The purpose of the Law was not to show what to do to get into God’s good graces. The point of the Law was to show that we are unable to get into God’s good graces. Living by the Law dooms you to failure and judgment because our selfish, self-centered, and self-driven nature keep us from wanting to obey it.
There is nothing we need to do to earn or keep our salvation, we are free from that burden of the Law. We are nonetheless, supposed to be living the Law in our freedom. Paul says in Galatians 5:13-14, You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” What God was looking for in the lives of the Galatians was not a religious adherence to the Law such as circumcision, but a relational adherence: loving your neighbor as yourself. Love was the proof of God’s grace and the fruit that the Galatians should be looking for.
This gets to the heart of Christian discipleship, or as I like to call it, spiritual parenting. Paul asserts that the main focus of the Christian life is serving one another in love. At its essence, that is what discipleship is: serving one another in love. Paul states up in Galatians 5:6, For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Paul is saying that all the outward works, trappings, and traditions of religion, however good or helpful they may be, mean nothing when it comes to discerning spiritual health. The only thing that counts, the only thing that matters, is faith expressing itself through love. This is where the Christian’s growth and maturity is to be measured: by their love for one another.
The focus of the disciple is to make new disciples wherever they are throughout the world, teaching them to obey everything Christ commanded. What are “all of Jesus’ commands?” Jesus answered that question in two places. The first was in Matthew 22:37-40 (NIV), where He said, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments. The second place was in John 13:34-35 (NIV) where He said to His disciples, A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. This command was really a clarification of the first. The Great Commandment is to love God and love your neighbor as yourself. In this command to His disciples, He is telling them that they now have a model for that command: Himself.
When Paul calls us to live by the Spirit and to keep in step with the Spirit (Galatians 5:25), he means to live a life of love that is summarized in the Great Commandment, and that was exemplified for us by Jesus Christ.
To live a life of love means two things: first, finding and uprooting the thoughts and behaviors that run counter to the Spirit; and second, discerning and promoting the thoughts and behaviors that the Spirit moves us to produce.
The acts of the sinful nature and the fruits of the Spirit are contrary to each other in just about every way, but they do share something in common—they are all shown and grown in and through personal relationships. I believe I can take that one step further: they are both the result of discipleship. As my mentor and spiritual father Charlie Jones said, “Hang around thinkers and you’ll be a better thinker, hang around givers and you will be a better giver, hang around lovers and you’ll be a better lover, hang around a bunch of thumb-sucking-complaining-griping-boneheads, and you’ll be a better thumb-sucking-complaining-griping-bonehead!”
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23). The health of the Christian life is gauged by the possession and growth of these fruits. If we want to be growing and maturing in our walk with Christ, then we need to be discipling one another so that we are in greater possession of these fruits and less and less in possession of the acts of the sinful nature.
Jesus said that all the Law and the Prophets hang on the commands of loving God with all your heart, soul, and mind, and loving your neighbor as yourself. Paul said that the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love, and that the entire Law is summed up in the single command: love your neighbor as yourself. Therefore, I believe Jonathan Edwards was right in defining theology as “the doctrine of living to God by Christ.” The goal of the Christian life is love—love for God and love for others. Everything we do needs to be moving us to cultivate that life of love.
It may be very easy to see the legalism of the circumcision group, but trust me when I say legalism is still a favorite tool in the devil’s tool box. Whenever we gauge our own salvation or devotion to God on what we do or don’t do we are engaged in legalism. When we judge ourselves or others on church attendance, on the kind of church we attend, on our involvement in it, on our knowledge of the Bible, or on our giving we are engaging in legalism. When we judge ourselves or others’ spiritual maturity—or lack of maturity—on issues like praise music vs. traditional hymns, or political party, or involvement in a particular cause (however good and honorable that cause may be) we are being legalistic. We need to remember 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 (NIV), If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing. Legalism is counter to the gospel, counter to love, and counter to Christ. We need to avoid it, fight it, and condemn it in all its forms.
Beware of getting caught up in “learning” at the expense of “loving.” This is another way that the devil likes to attack the church, and it is very insidious because it has the appearance of personal piety. It is very easy to get focused so much on learning that it can become an idol. If all of our time is spent in attending church services, listening to Christian radio and podcasts, reading Christian books, blogs, and magazines we are missing the point. The aim of the knowledge of Scripture is to love God and our neighbor. If we are not practicing what we know with one another, we are not helping ourselves. I encourage you to take to heart what my spiritual father Fenélon said,
We can listen to endless sermons about Christian growth, and become perfectly familiar with the language, and yet be as far from its attainment as ever….Although being a know-it-all makes us feel important, what is really needed to strengthen Christian character is love. So don’t be satisfied with anything less than love. You certainly don’t think it possible that the love of God and the dethroning of self can only be reached through the acquisition of knowledge. You already have more knowledge than you can use. You would do better to put into practice what you already know. Oh how we deceive ourselves when we suppose that we are growing in grace because our vain curiosity is being gratified by the enlightenment of our intellect! ( from “Letter 8” in Let Go).
The goal is not knowledge but love. Love requires knowledge, but knowledge is not love.
Let me give you an example. I love preaching. I look forward to every opportunity God gives me to bring a message to His people. I believe that preaching is one of the regular tools God uses to teach, encourage, and admonish His people.
But the real excitement and work of ministry is not preaching, it comes after the service. Love does not happen in the pulpit. Don’t get me wrong, a preacher needs to be motivated by love, his sermon needs to be born from his love for God and for the people he is addressing. But the real transforming work of the Spirit that builds the fruits of the Spirit in the life of the believer happens after the service in our relationships with one another. Love happens one on one. It happens through discipleship. That, I believe, is why all Christians are called to disciple. If preaching was where it was at, then the Great Commission would have been a call to make preachers from all nations. Maturity is not gauged by preaching, knowledge, spiritual gifts, or whatever else there might be. Maturity is gauged by love. And love comes by discipleship