Friday, February 02, 2007

Legalism vs. Life by the Spirit

The entire book of Galatians appears to be Paul on a rant. Clearly, he's very passionate about the one consistent subject he seems to be addressing (legalism.) At last, in Chapter 5, we get to see what Paul presents as the juxtaposition to legalism: freedom in Christ.

After one of the funniest passages in Scripture (where Paul reveals his true colors in cynically expressing his wish for a "slip" of the surgeon's knife- see Galatians 5:12) he gets to the point:

"You, my brothers, were called to be free." And he immediately states a danger: "But do not use your freedom to indulge in the sinful nature" (Galatians 5:13).

He goes on to instruct on how to avoid that danger: "Live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature." Then he concludes with: "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law."

To summarize:
  1. Legalism is evil; we were called to be free.
  2. Freedom can easily be used as an excuse to indulge the sinful nature.
  3. Life by the Spirit will preclude indulgence of the sinful nature.
  4. Life by the Spirit will preclude legalism.

Circular logic? It goes one step deeper. Paul says "The entire law is summed up in a single command: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.'" And he completes the circle with this statement: "Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ."

So it would seem that the way to avoid both legalism and indulgence of the sinful nature would be to live by the Spirit, and it would further seem that to live by the Spirit would mean to carry each other’s burdens, or to “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Enclosed within this circle of logic is what I find to be one of the most fascinating and challenging passages Scripture has to offer: Paul's picture of the traits that characterize "life by the Spirit." He refers to them as "fruit." And if you've hung out with me at all over the last two years or so, you know that this has become a big touchpoint for me.

These are measurement points: a life “by the Spirit” will be a life of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. But I see Paul calling us to concentrate on something higher than those character traits themselves. Fruit grows because the tree is tended, not because the fruit itself is tended. You don’t wash an orange while it’s on the tree… you fertilize and tend the roots so that the oranges it bears will be healthy and many.

I think Paul is drawing our attention to one central truth:If we bear each other’s burdens… if we love our neighbor as ourselves, and thus fulfill the law of Christ, then our life will naturally be characterized by these fruits, and we won’t be given to either legalism or the gratifying of our sinful nature.

Freedom from the law has its roots in being a servant to others.