Getting It All Right

In our reading for today from Galatians 4, Paul is perplexed with his converts at Galatia and their willingness accept the legalistic requirements placed upon them by the Judaizing teachers. He asks them, “What has happened to all your joy?” (v. 15). They had traded their freedom in Christ for a slavish legalism with its complex system of rules and regulations as the necessary key to pleasing God. The initiation rite of circumcision was only the beginning; it was quickly following by “observing special days and months and seasons and years” (v. 10). They had come to believe that they were righteous by being right and that they were right because of their rite. Paul wonders if he had wasted his time in taking the gospel to them (v. 11).

What happened to all your joy? Legalism insists that salvation depends on getting all of your I’s dotted and your T’s crossed. You have to understand every doctrine exactly correctly. You have to get every rite exactly right. Any deviation from the pattern will cause you to lose your soul. Loving the Lord isn’t enough. Seeking to please Him isn’t enough.

How much fun is it to have someone watching you over your shoulder while you are doing something? You’ve had that happen, haven’t you? I’m not sure of all the psychological reasons why, but I do know that it is really hard to do what you are doing when someone is watching you that closely—

  • You’re reading the paper, and feel someone reading over your shoulder.
  • You’re playing solitaire and someone says, “Play the red six...”
  • You’re typing while someone is watching and waiting for you to finish.

Is that as annoying for you as it is for me? We just don’t do our best work when someone is watching us, especially if they are just waiting for us to fail. In the legalistic system that the Galatians had bought into, someone was always watching over their shoulder.

In the movie “Remember the Titans,” there is this scene where a black football coach played by Denzel Washington has been brought in to coach a recently integrated high school in Alexandria Virginia and the racial tensions were off the charts. Right before their first game, a school board member came to the coach and said, “You know if you mess up, they will fire you.” Washington’s character said, “What do you mean mess up?” The board member paused and said, “Loose a game.” That really adds to the joy of athletic competition! Loose one game and you are gone!

That’s the message of legalism. There is a list of rules that one has to follow in order to really be a real Christian. Leave one item off the list, and you are off God’s list! Get a little mixed up on your doctrine.  Get a little off on your worship.  Organize your church in just the wrong way.  One mistake is all it takes and you cease to be a real church or a real Christian.  Loose one game and you are gone!

Well, we’re going to lose a lot games, you and I. The best batters in baseball (OK, so I’m switching sports metaphors here) fail to get on base 6-7 times out of ten. The most holy Christians fall short of the holiness of God by a mile. The most faithful churches get their doctrine wrapped around axle every now and again. Nothing will steal our joy as Christians faster than the mistaken notion that we can get it all right.

  • If we think that we must get it all right and we HAVE gotten it right, the result will PRIDE and a disdain for all those who are right like you.
  • If we think we must get it all right and HAVE NOT, the result will be DESPAIR and we'll likely give up trying to please God. 

Either way, what happens to our joy?  What Paul is doing in Galatians is reminding these baby believers that they were saved by God’s grace, not by their religious or moral performance. God calls them to obedience, but they will not and cannot win God’s love because they get all the rules right. They couldn’t and neither can we. We can make up our lists of rules and regulations. We can even get pretty good at keeping our list (as long as we leave ourselves a few loopholes now and again). What we can’t do is impress God in the process.