I’ve been teaching a Bible study on Galatians every Wednesday night for a few months now. In my opinion, it’s one of the best things I’ve done in my ministry so far. Last night we covered Galatians 3:1-6. You may recall that Paul is writing to a church that is being led astray by “Judaizers,” Jewish Christians who are teaching Gentile Christians that they must also observe Jewish ceremonial law—like circumcision, dietary laws, and holidays—if they want to be fully Christian.
Paul tells the Galatians, emphatically, that to add anything to gospel of justification by faith alone, which he preached to them, is to lose the gospel entirely. In fact, he feels so strongly about this, he writes, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.”
As I told the class last night, if we’re not careful, we can easily imagine that the gospel is something we need at the beginning of our Christian lives—when we first place our faith in Christ and are born again. But after we’re saved, well… then it’s up to us. We can easily turn the process of sanctification into a project of self-improvement. Becoming holy—moving on to perfection, as we Methodists say—becomes a matter of will power: Are you still struggling with sin? Try harder!
Paul would likely say that this quasi-gospel of “trying harder” is our attempt at “being perfected by the flesh” (v. 3). It will fail and lead to misery, as I know from personal experience. Like the Galatians, we don’t need a quasi-gospel; we need the real thing.
Tim Keller, in his Galatians for You commentary, picks up on this theme. Ultimately, he says, our failure to apply the gospel to our lives causes most of our problems:
So, we should not simply say: Lord, I have a problem with anger. Please remove it by your power! Give me the power to forgive. Rather, we should apply the gospel to ourselves at that point. Paul would tell us that uncontrolled bitterness is a result of not living in line with the gospel. It means that though we began with Jesus as Savior, something has now become our functional savior in place of Jesus. Instead of believing that Christ is our hope and goodness, we are looking to something else as a hope, to some other way to make us feel good and complete.
Instead of just hoping God will remove our anger or simply exercising will-power against it, we should ask: If I am being angry and unforgiving, what is it that I think I need so much? What is being withheld that I think that I must have if I am to feel complete to have hope, to be a person of worth? Usually, deep anger is because of something like that. It might be that we want comfort above all other things, and someone has made our lives harder, so we grow angry with them. It might be that we’re worshiping other people’s approval and so get angry with anyone who in some way thwarts our bid for popularity and respect.
Comfort, approval, and control; these are functional saviors. When they are blocked, we get bitter. The answer is not simply trying harder to directly control anger. It is repenting for the self-righteousness and the lack of rejoicing in the finished work of Christ which is at the root of the anger. As we make our hearts “look” at Christ crucified, the Spirit will work in us to replace that functional savior with the Savior.[†]
This resonates with me. What about you? What are the “functional saviors” in your life? How could the gospel save you from them?
† Timothy Keller, Galatians for You (Purcellville, VA: The Good Book Company, 2013), 69-70.