If you have your bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 5, verses 1 through 15.
Christ has liberated us to be free. Stand firm then and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery. 2 Take note! I, Paul, tell you that if you get yourselves circumcised, Christ will not benefit you at all. 3 Again I testify to every man who gets himself circumcised that he is obligated to keep the entire law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace. 5 For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision accomplishes anything; what matters is faith working through love.
7 You were running well. Who prevented you from obeying the truth? 8 This persuasion did not come from the One who called you. 9 A little yeast leavens the whole lump of dough. 10 I have confidence in the Lord you will not accept any other view. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. 11 Now brothers, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished. 12 I wish those who are disturbing you might also get themselves castrated!
13 For you were called to be free, brothers; only don’t use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but serve one another through love. 14 For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out, or you will be consumed by one another.
Today’s passage reminds a guy I knew back when I lived in Oklahoma. Most of my weirdest stories are about when I lived in Oklahoma, because, uh, it was Oklahoma. I worked at a tech repair shop called Digital Doc – “Doc” was short for “Doctor,” and it took me an embarrassingly long amount of time to figure that out.
I was an Assistant Manager, which meant that I was a low-level grunt who made a quarter more than the other low-level grunts but also had to risk getting robbed after my shift each night when I walked to the bank next door to make an after-hours money drop.
These are the kinds of edgy and relatable stories you come to Mount Zion for, I know.
But, anyways, there was this one guy who would come in on about a weekly basis and buy a used smart-phone. He’d say, “What’s the highest end Apple Phone you’ve got?” And I would be like, “We have this iPhone 5S. You know it’s fancy because it has “S” in the title.” And he’d be like, “I want that one.” And I’d be like, “Excellent choice, sir.” And he’d be like, “Nothing but the best for my sweetheart.”
The first time I assumed it was for his wife. Maybe his daughter. But he would do the same thing again the next week. And then the next week. And I thought, “This guy’s got a lot of daughters.”
He did not have a lot of daughters.
Which I figured out because, uh, eventually, I started seeing those phones again, because young women would come in to get some kind of repair, or a screen protector, or something like that, and I would recognize that it was one of the phones that I had sold to this man. And one time I made the mistake of saying, “How’s your dad doing?” And she said, “My dad’s been dead for 7 years. My boyfriend gave this to me.”
This particular elderly customer was what some people refer to as a “sugar daddy.”
I’m not talking about the candy. This is a different thing. He was financially very well off, and he used his financially-well-off-ness to get, like, 17 girlfriends.
You would date him, and in return for dating him he would buy you phones and pay your rent (and help you with your taxes, probably, ’cause you’re 19 and clueless).
And this particular Oklahoman sugar daddy has everything in the world to do with our text because the heresy that Paul was facing off against in today’s passage essentially reduces the God of the Bible to a sugar daddy. You do certain things in exchange for certain rewards. You follow this or that rule in exchange for God’s blessings.
A couple weeks ago we used the analogy that most of us, deep down, don’t particularly want God, we want God’s stuff, and that’s exactly what’s at work, here. Most of us are much more comfortable trying to earn God’s favor than we are resting in the mercy that God has poured out onto us in Jesus Christ because we’d rather have God as our “Sugar Daddy” than our Heavenly Father.
This story is admittedly designed to shock you, but if you’ve ever left a Christian TV station on for a couple hours, you could probably recognize exactly what I’m talking about.
One of the oddest stories my mom ever told me was about a work friend of hers whose husband had cancer, and who – by pure happenstance – ended up in Houston, TX for an event, and just so happened to be in the same room as a certain very high profile pastor from Houston, and who just so happened to be able to corner him and ask him for prayer.
At this particular time, she didn’t know a whole lot about this particular pastor, so she didn’t quite recognize the hornets’ nest she was stepping into, so she told him the situation, and she asked him why God would let this happen. And he took her by the hand, asked her to bow her head, and prayed:
“Father, we ask that you would reveal whatever hidden sin is in her husband’s life that has brought this ailment on to him.”
And then he said:
“We ask that you would show him what he needs to do to obtain your blessings again.”
There is a large swath of people teaching, essentially, that you can corner God into blessing you by doing all the right things. That you can get into God’s good graces if you just carry out your end of the agreement. That if you’ll spend 5 years or so “dating God” he’ll buy you a iPhone 5S at the Digital Doc in Shawnee, Oklahoma and he’ll pay your rent (and he’ll help you with your taxes ’cause you’re 19 and clueless), but the problem is that none of this particularly jives with the Bible.
The God described in the scriptures is not your “sugar daddy.” There is no quid pro quo, there is no put-a-token-in-the-machine-and-receive-your-blessing-for-the-day, there is no “I’ll scratch your back, you’ll scratch mine.” There is only God’s glorious mercy – God’s plan, from the beginning of time, to redeem us in Jesus Christ. There is only God’s overwhelming love for you, the kind of love that drives him to leave heaven, come to earth, and give himself over to be crucified in your place. There is only the God who runs out to meet you while you’re on your way, embraces you, and says, “Welcome home, my child.” That’s the whole thing.
But that’s the opposite of what Paul’s opponents in Galatia have been teaching.
Now, I have to say a certain word. I’m sorry. I learned, like, two weeks ago that it was controversial. But it’s literally in the text. Here it goes: Paul’s opponents were teaching that you had to get “circumcised” in order to be saved. If you don’t know what “circumcision” is, don’t look it up, unless you can take the rest of the day off work to recover, or something. But they’d say, “If you are not circumcised, you are not God’s people.” They said, “If you don’t follow all 613 of those Laws from the Old Testament, God will not be your Father.
Paul’s opponents taught that your relationship with God was basically a contract, you held up your end and God held up his. You follow the rules like a champ and God takes you off to heaven on the Magic School Bus.
It’s very much like how, a few months back, pastor Dustin Mace told us the story of the two lost sons. The Prodigal son abandoned his father and wasted his inheritance but ultimately came home with his head hung low, asking to be made a servant instead of a son – we call that repentance. And his father brought him back with open arms, not as a servant or a hired hand but as his beloved son, like nothing had ever happened – we call that forgiveness.
But on the other side of the tracks, his older son had obeyed his every command from the time he was a kid to the present day. And he’s out working in the field, and when he sees that his younger brother is home, and that his dad threw a celebration, he gets so furious that his father would show mercy that he refuses to go inside. He says, “The grace you’ve shown that wayward son makes all of my obedience worthless.”
But his dad says, “Son, everything I have is yours. Come celebrate.” But he won’t. Because all those years of honoring his father with his obedience actually had nothing to do with honoring his father. He wasn’t obeying his father because he loved him. He wasn’t even obeying his father because he respected him. He spent his life obeying his father as a way of obligating his father to accept him. He wanted to be able to say, “I’ve been good my whole life, now you owe me honor and gratitude and warmth and acceptance.”
I think there’s a principle in that: When your goal is to earn your way into God’s good graces you will not react well when you learn that they were always yours for the taking. That God already accepted you. That God already wanted you. If your goal is to earn your way into God’s favor, discovering that God has already poured out his favor onto you in Jesus Christ will push you away rather than drawing you near.
And eventually it’ll turn you away from the gospel. Why wouldn’t it? If your endgame is to get leverage on God so he’s obligated to bless you, the most upsetting this I could ever tell you would be that God has already paid your debt on his own dime. You will take profound offense at the message that God has taken every ounce of your inadequacy, nailed it to the cross, and invited you to sit at his table with no strings attached.
Because nobody likes it when you kick the legs out of their “superiority complex.” You know what I’m talking about? The gospel robs you of any sense of superiority you might’ve had over other people beforehand. Like, if you’re in the habit of measuring your sin compared to other people’s sin that you find more repellant, the cross will shatter your self-image once you finally get it. If you’re able to quiet your conscience by whispering that at least you’re not such-and-such, the gospel will ruin your day. Because the cross accuses you. The cross measures your sin by the fact that it necessitated the sacrifice of Jesus to redeem you. The cross says that your sin was serious enough that it required the sacrifice of Jesus to redeem you. The cross takes a bat to your superiority complex by reminding you that you killed Jesus.
So if your goal is to see yourself as better than everybody else, the cross will offend you because it shines a blacklight on your heart and shows how righteous you aren’t. The cross testifies that your only comfort in life and death is that you are not your own, that you’ve been bought with the blood of Jesus and invited into his family by grace and grace alone.
But if you can stomach the way the gospel jacks with your superiority complex, what you’ll find is that it also makes you free.
You are free from trying to be good enough. Until recently, I didn’t get how important it was to bring that up.
Last semester I spent a couple days poring through the material in the SEBTS library that was aimed at lay people in the church – devotionals, bible studies and so on – and the one thing that almost none of them ever got around to suggesting was resting in the mercy of Jesus. There was no “Obey Jesus with everything in you and cling to his radical grace as you fall short,” it was all “I’m so terrible and I’ll try harder tomorrow.” There was no, “Become a student of the Holy Spirit by reading your Bible regularly,” it was all “I don’t read my Bible enough and I feel bad.” You know what I’m talking about?
Don’t misunderstand, I want you to read your Bible, and I want you to pray, and I want you to throw yourself, heart and soul, into obeying the good commands God gives us throughout the scriptures but all of that takes place within a relationship with God in which you are wholly loved, wholly cared for, wholly accepted. You will fall radically short every day until the Lord brings you home and turns every crooked corner in you straight again, but from your first breath as a redeemed person to your last, God has treated you as though you were already perfectly holy. God loves you like you’re Jesus. You are free from the demand to be “good enough.”
But that’s just one of the ways that we indenture ourselves to “being good enough.” Because – unless you’re a robot, or something – knowing that God loves you doesn’t solve your anxieties. Like, when Tax Season rolls around and you don’t have the money in the bank to make your payments, if somebody says, “Don’t worry, God loves you!” You’re like, “Thanks. Not the issue.” You can know that God loves you and still feel wildly inadequate.
Like, if I did a survey, I’d be willing to bet that more than a few folks are horrified that they’re not good enough for their kids; they’re not good enough for their spouse; they’re not good enough for friends or their employers or their communities.
For the parents in here, don’t verbally answer, but how many of you constantly feel like you’re screwing up your kids? How often do you feel out of nowhere that your kids need a stability you can’t quite provide them; they need a degree of affection that is beyond your capacity to dole out; they need the kind of moral consistency that you have no idea how to maintain; they need a safe place to lay their heads but your finances are perpetually in flux.
I have met more people than I can count who blame themselves for the fact that their children have been in and out of jail. They blame themselves for the fact that their children have never held a marriage together. They blame themselves for the fact that their children embody all of their own worst qualities, magnified and pressed to the limit. And to those folks I desperately want to say; Show yourself some mercy.
For the love of God, literally, show yourself the grace that Christ has purchased for you. You are fallible. You are fragile, and so are your kids. Today it’s common to make fun of people by calling them snowflakes because they “melt” easily, right? Which is pretty funny. But that’s everyone. That’s you. You melt under minimal pressure. Everyone is remarkably breakable and unstable and fragile.
Nobody is as well-adjusted as they seem and so everybody, all the time, everywhere needs a mercy that presses past the masks we put up and the identities we project and forgives us for the limitations we’re subject to and can’t think past and rarely overcome. Show yourself the same radical mercy the gospel demands you show to others. Forgive yourself for the ways you’ve let yourself and others down. Accept the fact that you couldn’t raise your children perfectly. Rest in the grace that God has poured out onto you in Jesus Christ and pour that same mercy out onto yourself. You are free from the chains of being good enough.
But Paul has a very different definition of freedom than the one our culture has indoctrinated us into.
Because Paul is very clear about what “freedom” does not mean: “Freedom in Christ” absolutely does not mean “freedom to sin.” Not a very sophisticated sermon point: “Don’t sin.” But there is exactly one thing that “freedom” looks like, and that’s “serving one another through love.”
Whatever you’ve heard about “freedom” in the past, this is what it actually means. Freedom means “serving one another through love.” Freedom does not mean doing whatever you want, it does not mean being whatever and whoever you want, it means serving one another through love and absolutely nothing else.
So, freedom, in my life, has looked like having less options, not more. I don’t have a Big, Sensational Conversion Story with a Well-Developed Conflict and a Hyper-Emotional Resolution – the short version is that a guy named Brad just kind of annoyed me into the faith – but that very unspectacular conversion story changed quite literally everything about my life.
Most of you have heard the stories by now, but before my conversion I was a misogynist dirtbag. The best thing anybody could have done for me would have been shoving me in a locker, or something. I treated the people in my life horribly because of who I was as a person, and that particular character trait was getting more deeply embedded as I got older, not less. I was not “growing out of it.” Nothing about that was going to change on its own, but suddenly, when Christ got ahold of my heart and my mind and my conscience, he started changing me from the inside.
And as Christ started changing me from the inside – the way Ezekiel puts it, he started “Changing my heart of stone into a heart of flesh” – what happened was that I started giving myself less options than I used to give myself. “Emotional manipulation” stopped being an option that I had when relating to a girl that I was dating. Wearing down people’s self-confidence and subtly chipping away at their self-esteem stopped being an option that I had. Other people stopped being objects that I could use for my own advantage to make myself feel bigger because using people slowly stopped being an option for me.
But that didn’t mean I was less free. I was freer than I’d ever been. When you are tangled up in some lingering and soul-killing sin, freedom looks like no longer giving yourself the option to indulge in it. Because there’s no such thing as being “free to manipulate.” There is no such thing as being “free to neglect the emotional needs of others.” There is no such thing as being “free to indulge in your vices.” There is no such thing as being “free to underpay your employees” or “rip off your employer” or “cheat on your taxes” or “abandon your children with your former significant other.”
You cannot be free to sin because you cannot be free in sin. You can only be enslaved to it or free from it. But those are your options. Giving yourself over to sin will never make you free, no matter how it makes you feel. It’ll just bury you in nothingness and make you more alone than alone.
We will never be free so long as we “bite and devour each other,” to use Paul’s term in verse 15. Freedom in Christ is freedom from sin, and it’s the only freedom that actually exists.
And we would like very much for you to chase after that freedom alongside us. So we’ve transitioned into the part of the service that we refer to as the altar call. What that means is that as we respond by worshiping the Lord through song in just a moment, I’ll be standing here at the altar. Christ has come to make you free with the only freedom that actually exists. And if you would like to come and claim that freedom by throwing yourself on his mercy, I would like to walk you through that – we would like to walk with you through that. So come talk to me.