We all want to improve. It’s natural to want to be better, do better, achieve greater things. This natural desire drive us to constantly strive farther, higher, to reach beyond perceived limits. It has fueled the creation of new inventions and discoveries, and caused us to explore new ground and even beyond our planet.
There is one area though, where this natural desire can get us into trouble… and that is the area of our spiritual identity. Because we tend to judge our standing and our progress by our performance; by the things that we achieve, or how good we are doing presently. And when we seem to have failed, our natural reaction is to become depressed, discouraged, even angry, and then clench our fist even tighter and declare “This time I’ll do better!” – and we get ourselves into a vicious cycle of determination, failing, guilt, and then back to determination. And it repeats over and over again.
What I want to share with you today, is how to break that cycle. Many people are deceived into thinking that if they just try hard enough, or focus more, they can get out of it themselves… but that is actually part of the trap. The way out doesn’t come by your strength, effort or force of will, but through knowing the truth of Jesus Christ that makes you free. As you see this truth, you will finally be able to break out of this performance-driven cycle, and be free to live and love, through the finished work of Jesus Christ.
As with everything else, Jesus must always be the center and the foundation. He is the one that holds all things together (Colossians 1:17), and this fact right here already begins to expose the trap and the lie that binds so many people in performance-mentality, because in such a system, Jesus is not really the center… but He’s relegated off to the side. He’s at-best a safety net in performance systems.
You see, under a performance system, you try your best to do things yourself, and when you fail under your own power, you then run to your safety net (Jesus in this case) and He catches you and cleans you up, and then you go back to trying to do things yourself again, until the next time you need your safety net.
In such a system, Jesus is not the focus, He’s a utility. He’s plan B when your own efforts fail. In such a performance system, the star of the show is you and your own works.
Now this gets dressed-up and concealed in a bunch of different ways. Some claim that by their own efforts they are “thanking God” (we’ve covered that before)… others say that they are earning rewards or crowns in Heaven (we’ve covered that before, too), we know that Jesus is our exceedingly great reward – we have Him and everything else is freely given with Him (Genesis 15:1, Romans 8:32).
Still others claim that their works are earning them righteousness, as if righteousness was something to be worked on, or some sort of a process – and this is what we are looking at today. And I want to start today with Galatians 5:1-4:
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.
Behold, I Paul say to you, that if you be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing.
For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.
Christ is become of no effect to you, whoever of you are justified by the law; you are fallen from grace.”
Now we need to understand some basic concepts here. First is that circumcision, was a sign. It was a sign of the Old Covenant, as Jesus Himself taught in John 7:22-23. It’s also confirmed as such from Acts 15:5-10, and our verses here from Galatians 5 as well.
In-fact notice precisely what verse 1 is saying… Stand fast in the liberty with which Christ has made you free. So you have been made free… specifically by the liberty of Christ. That liberty is precisely is what is spoken about in the verses referenced above. It is the liberty that made some legalistic-minded people trouble the apostles, because they couldn’t fathom the amazing reality which Jesus Christ had brought about… freedom, from the bondage and curse of the Mosaic Law. Freedom from the weight of the Old Covenant. Freedom to receive the love of God personally, and have unbroken, unbridled and unhindered fellowship and union with Him, through an eternal indwelling of His Spirit.
This is the reality that we have today in Christ, and it is a freedom that many today (even in churches across the entire world) do know yet know, and do not understand. Yet this is precisely the freedom that Christ has brought to us… and notice here this is a freedom that we are to stand fast in. We have been liberated by Christ, and we are not to waiver or wonder about it. We aren’t to be teetering back and forth on it like uncertain people… we are to stand strong in this liberty of Christ and not let anyone shake us from it. Don’t get tangled-up in the yoke of bondage again, says Paul here.
That yoke of bondage, spoken of here is the Law of Moses, and all of the guilt, shame, condemnation and death that comes from it. Every single one of the curses that Christ has paid to free you from. He is telling you here, stand in your freedom. Don’t slink back, don’t go back to your old slavery, like the Israelite’s wanted to go back to Egypt. Stay free in Christ.
He says, if you are circumcised (which remember is a sign of covenant to the Law of Moses here) then you become indebted, to perform the entire Law), and more importantly Christ will profit you nothing! Oh boy! That’s a big one! Christ will not get you anything. If you place yourself under the Law, your performance is the standard by which you will be judged… and you will live or die by your own ability, to keep God’s perfect standard perfectly.
You see, the legalists don’t really think about this point. They will often tell people that they just need to try harder, and do their best to keep God’s Law. But, “just doing your best” has never been the measuring line – absolute perfection has always been the line. If you keep 99.99% of the Law, but fail in 0.01% of it, you have failed the entire Law (James 2:10).
The verses then go on to say here, that if you are trying to be justified in God’s sight by the Law, you have fallen from Grace.
Now “fallen from Grace” is a term that modern Church-ianity has misused quite a bit. Most people use it in regards to when a prominent leader is caught in sin. They say “Oh, he fell from grace!”.
However we see here what the term really means, straight from the scripture. It means someone who is trying to earn God’s justification by their own performance! Get this fact, Grace is higher than the Law! Notice that you fall from grace – that means grace is higher. Grace is where Jesus puts you… and because we are so confused, we try to add works to it… when Grace is already the top of the mountain!
Notice verse 11:
“And I, brothers, if I yet preach circumcision, why do I yet suffer persecution? then is the offense of the cross ceased.”
Paul says here, that if he were to still preach circumcision (Law), then the people wouldn’t be persecuting him anymore! Why? Because the whole reason that legalistic people hated his message, was due to the fact that his message was the Gospel – the liberty and freedom from the bondage of the Law in Christ!
Paul’s message totally destroyed the legalistic mentality, and the focus on self-reliance – and put the focus squarely on Jesus Christ alone… and the legalists couldn’t stand it!
So then, if Paul wasn’t preaching Law, then what was he preaching? What was his Gospel message? I’m glad you asked! Take a look at Romans 3:19-26:
“Now we know that what things soever the law said, it said to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God.
Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin.
But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets;
Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ to all and on all them that believe: for there is no difference:
For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God;
Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus:
Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God;
To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believes in Jesus.”
Take notice that right in verse 19… whatever the Law has said, it said to those that are under the Law.
Today in Christ we are not under the Law (Romans 6:14). but it still speaks to those under it, so that every mouth will be stopped. No one will be able to speak – no one will be able to say anything, because all have become guilty in God’s sight, according to His perfect standard.
Furthermore, no one is justified before God by performing the Law, verse 20. The Law does not get you justification. You can’t earn it, work for it or strive towards it. That’s a never-ending treadmill that will destroy you. So if you have been sweating, struggling and wearing yourself out because you think you “have to”, and that God won’t be pleased if you stop working to please Him… you can be released from that bondage now.
Now you might say “but James! How can I be righteous without working for it?” – look at verse 21:
But now, the righteousness of God, without the Law is manifested. Take special notice of this, because this is better than human righteousness. This is better than anything we could ever work up, and better than any animal sacrifice too. This is the very righteousness of God. And notice also how it comes… without the Law! In-fact the verse goes on to say that this righteousness of God was being witnessed by the Law and the prophets! The Law and the prophets, spoke about the coming righteousness of Jesus Christ, they testified about Him and His righteousness – indeed, that was the whole point. This is why Galatians 3:24-25 says that the Law was our attendant to bring us to Christ – but now that the faith has come, we are no longer under the Law. Do you see how Jesus has truly changed everything?
Moving on to Romans 3:22 now, it drives the point home even further, that again, this is the very righteousness of God given to us… for we know that Jesus gave us His own righteousness, so this makes perfect sense. And look who it comes on… to all and on all that believe. This is the only requirement my friend. I have talked to people who think that they are somehow disqualified from salvation – either because of their past, or because God didn’t choose them, or whatever the reason might be.
Yet we see here, that there is only one qualification… Believe. That’s it! God made it simple! We make it complicated by our human reasoning, and added steps, and little pet theologies. But God made receiving His righteousness simple!
Verse 23 puts us all on the same level field… all have sinned and come short of God’s glory. If it stopped there we would all be doomed, but thank God it goes on to verse 24:
Being justified freely by His Grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Again, I can’t overstate this… we are justified freely not by our works, not by our efforts, not by our own personal sacrifices, struggling or striving, but by His grace. And what vehicle does it come by? Maybe we need to fast or tithe or suffer for it in some way, right?
Nope. His grace and mercy comes through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.
Do you see how this is all because of Jesus, and not of yourself? He did the work, you reap His benefits. He took your sins, you receive His righteousness. He was cursed in your place, you are blessed in His place! This is the Gospel! The good news of Jesus Christ.
This was the message Paul preached, and this was the message that the legalists couldn’t stomach. Because they couldn’t boast in their works anymore… (even though if they truly understood, they had nothing to boast in anyway!)
Verse 25, shows the amazing mercy of God in that even the sins of the people committed “in times past” (meaning before Christ, under the Law) were indeed cleansed by Him, for all who would take it. The tragedy is, there were still some that wouldn’t… even as there are still some today who refuse His gift of righteousness.
However, let this message encourage you today. If you have been performance-minded, works-driven, if you have been carrying the burden of legalism, you need not carry it any longer.
I declare to you in Christ today: be free! Receive His free gift of righteousness, apart from the Law.
Live in the liberty of Christ, stand fast in it.