Eight Words Everyone Dreads but Needs to Hear

If you can't smell the stench of your own legalism, help is on the way.

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Eight Dreaded Words

There are eight words that have the power to strike fear in any household. You know what they are. “It is time to clean out the fridge.” If you haven't had the privilege of participating in this inglorious task, let me give you some insight. 

First, you take everything out of the refrigerator and freezer to clear the surfaces for wiping and disinfecting. Second, you triage, separating new food from the half-full cans of spaghetti sauce and Tupperware canisters filled with leftovers that have been hiding in the back of the fridge creating science experiments with various kinds of mold. In our latest “cleaning out the fridge weekend,” we discovered a partially consumed bottle of salad dressing. The expiration date was March… of 2014. How did that make it through all of our other fridge cleanings? Third, you place what is edible back, creating organized sections of meat, vegetables, fruit, and dairy. Finally, you step back to admire and enjoy the cleaned out fridge, knowing that it will only look that way for about thirty-six hours at best. 

Although I dread the process, it feels really good to know your food is fresh and the stink is gone. But moving from where you are to where you want to take someone willing to say those eight words. It is time to clean out the fridge. 

In Galatians 4:21-31, the foul odor of legalism has wafted from the region of Galatia all the way to the apostle Paul in Antioch. The map below gives an idea of where the Galatian churches are (red) and where Paul is when he wrote the letter (blue). Since we’ve defined legalism in previous posts, I will not belabor a definition, except to say that legalism emphasizes what we must do in order to be accepted by God while grace emphasizes what God has already done to make us accepted.

The Galatians started their Christian lives with grace but had slowly exchanged that aromatic scent for the stench of legalism. Like the frog in the kettle, their progressive drift away from the gospel was unnoticeable to them. Because they could not detect the malodorous air coming from the fridge of their own hearts, the apostle speaks the eight words, not to clean out stale leftovers but to throw out the rancid presence of legalism. 

As motivation for the process, Paul uses an illustration from the Old Testament, exhorting us to be honest about the need to address the influence of legalism in our own lives. Let’s read the text.

21 Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by the slave woman and the other by the free woman. 23 His son by the slave woman was born according to the flesh, but his son by the free woman was born as the result of a divine promise.

24 These things are being taken figuratively: The women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written: “Be glad, barren woman, you who never bore a child; shout for joy and cry aloud, you who were never in labor because more are the children of the desolate woman than of her who has a husband.”

28 Now you, brothers and sisters, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now. 30 But what does Scripture say? “Get rid of the slave woman and her son, for the slave woman’s son will never share in the inheritance with the free woman’s son.” 31 Therefore, brothers and sisters, we are not children of the slave woman, but of the free woman.

Legalism Versus Grace

There are a lot of two’s in this passage. Two mothers, two sons, two covenants, and two cities. Paul makes these numerous contrasts to show just how diametrically opposed legalism is from the true gospel. Legalism is not just a corrupted gospel, it is another gospel, which is no gospel at all.

To grasp the argument which begins in verses 21-23, we have to go back to the historical account of Abraham and his wife, Sarah. They were old, far beyond childbearing years, and had never been able to conceive. The Lord spoke to Abraham, promising that he would have an heir with Sarah. With Sarah is a critical detail in the promise, as her pregnancy would require supernatural intervention. 

But Abraham and Sarah grew tired of waiting on the Lord to fulfill his promise and opted for a more doable option, which was to have Sarah’s female attendant, Hagar, be the surrogate mother for their child. Admittedly, there are many cultural differences between their world and ours to weed through. And I have no idea how either Sarah or Abraham could be okay with Abraham having a child with Hagar. Actually, I don’t think they were okay with it. I think they were desperate.

Have you ever been desperate? To fix something? To get people to like you? To get someone to like you. Desperate to relieve the feeling of sadness? Sometimes desperate feelings prompt desperate measures, where we take things into our own hands. Rather than wait upon the Lord’s timing or trust his wisdom, we pursue our desires “according to the flesh.” Rather than wait for God to intervene, we take matters into our own hands—just like Abraham and Sarah.

Eventually, Hagar becomes pregnant and delivers a son named Ishmael. Years later, Sarah finally conceives, too, and also has a son, named Isaac. Notice how the text contrasts their births. Ishmael was  the son born “according to the flesh” while Isaac was “born the result of a divine promise.” One birth is attributed to human action. The other to God’s intervention. We could say it this way: one birth was “by works,” the other “by grace.”

Promises and Obligations

While these are real, historical people, Paul uses this familial scenario as an allegory of legalism versus grace, human works versus faith, leaning on our own wisdom versus resting in God’s wisdom. The word Paul uses for “figuratively” in verse 24 is translated from the original Greek word, allēgoria, from which we get our English word allegory.  

As an interpretive aside, we need to exercise caution when thinking about allegory in the Bible, lest we think that what is historical is merely “ a story with a moral” like Easop’s Fables. Paul is using a historical narrative as an illustration. Yes, there is symbolic, theological meaning attached to many historical events. But we want to avoid the kind of allegorical interpretation that strips the Scripture of its historical foundations. 

At the center of the illustration is the distinction between two covenants. In a previous message (post) in our present series, I explained that a covenant is a binding agreement between two people. To ratify a covenant, there are promises and obligations that both sides must uphold. 

There are two covenants in the Bible.  One is a covenant of law and the other is a covenant of grace. The covenant of law promises blessing to those who are able to meet the conditions of perfect obedience to the obligations of the law. The covenant of grace promises blessing to those who look, not to themselves, but to Jesus to meet the conditions of perfect obedience to the obligations of the law for them. 

In the illustration, Hagar represents the covenant of law, which was delivered by Moses at Mt. Sinai as the Israelites were crossing the desert to the promised land. Sarah represents the covenant of promise, which was given to Abraham hundreds of years earlier. The question we need to answer, along with the Galatians, is this: from which mother am I descended? Am I living in the line of Hagar or Sarah? Am I living under the burden of the covenant of law or under the freedom afforded by the covenant of grace? When I consider my primary identity as a Christian, am I primarily a servant of God or am I a child of God?

While it is true that Paul calls himself a servant of God at times, he does not identify himself as someone who serves Jesus in order to be accepted, like the legalist. He identifies as a bond-servant who has willingly given himself to fulfill the will of a King in response to his master’s excessive kindness.  

Sibling Rivalry

One aspect of this kindness is the promise of God to do for us what we could never do for ourselves. This is seen in the birth of Isaac to parents who had no hope of conception apart from the supernatural intervention of God. God promised a son. Then he provided a son. 

During Isaac’s weaning ceremony, Ishmael mocked his diaper-wearing baby brother. Ishmael assumed he was the heir of Abraham’s wealth and grew proud of his privileged status as firstborn. However, when Sarah witnessed the elder brother speaking insults upon Isaac, she had Ishmael and Hagar sent away—banished from the family.

Of course, Isaac foreshadows the coming of the ultimate miracle child, Jesus, whose conception was even more improbable than Sarah’s. Jesus would face mockery and persecution from his own siblings, the Jews—particularly a sect of the Jews called Pharisees. If true believers are children of Sarah, legalists are like the Pharisees, in the line of Hagar. 

Like Ishmael, the Pharisees assumed that, because of their outward appearance of obedience to God’s law, they were in line to be blessed by God. Ironically, in looking to the law for their righteousness, they actually were cursed. Paul has already addressed this in Galatians 3:10, saying “all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.” Why? Because of our indwelling sin nature, it is impossible for any mere human to meet the righteous standard of holiness required by the law. 

This is why Jesus was born—to do for us what we could not do for ourselves. We could not keep the obligations of the covenant of law. So he fulfilled them for us. It’s why we have Christmas and not just Easter. Jesus didn’t only have to die in my place because of my unrighteousness. He had to live in my place, earning a record of perfect obedience to give as my inheritance. In the gospel, my membership is transferred from the covenant of law to the covenant of grace— a new relationship with God not based on my obedience but on Jesus’ obedience. Remarkably, in the covenant of grace, not only does God proclaim the promises of blessing but he, himself, meets the very requirements necessary to receive the promised blessing. 

Every Believer is a Miracle

Transferal of membership from the covenant of works to the covenant of grace takes place when we, like Isaac and Jesus, experience a miraculous birth. If you have confessed your need for a Savior and trusted upon Jesus as your substitute in life and death, then you have experienced the spiritual resurrection that Jesus calls being “born again.” This is really the point of this text—to show how everything the believer has is rooted in grace.

In John 3:3, Jesus tells an inquisitive Pharisee named Nicodemus, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless they are born again.” In Ephesians 2:1, 4-5, “1 As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins… 4 But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, 5 made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved.” 

When the Holy Spirit creates new life within a spiritually dead sinner, he gives new sight for them to see their need for a substitute Savior and respond to the finished work of Jesus with faith. Upon believing, the sinner is justified, set free from all charges before the law and accepted as a perfectly righteous, beloved son or daughter of God—a status we do not earn or deserve but receive as a gift. 

Why would someone who had been so radically set free turn back to their chains? This is the question Paul asked in the last section of Galatians. It is a fair question to ask again. Have you and I been affected by the spirit of legalism, which in essence is the spirit of Ishmael? 

One sign that I have exchanged grace for law is how I view and treat other people. As Abraham’s firstborn, Ishmael assumed he was favored and looked down with scorn on his little brother who couldn’t even change himself. With a natural aversion to grace, legalists despise weakness and like to stand on their own feet. They are proud and condescending to those whom they sense to be inferior, whether morally, intellectually, theologically, athletically, politically, socio-economically, whatever. 

Why the Cross?

What can we do when we realize our fridge needs cleaning out? Listen to the law. Paul asks this very question in verse 21, “Tell me, you who want to be under the law, are you not aware of what the law says?” What does the law say? It says, “O sinner, you need a Savior! Run to Jesus. Look away from yourself and to the cross. Behold his nail-scarred hands, feet, and side. Behold his wounds and ask, ‘Why?’”

Why? Why was he crucified? To set you free from guilt, shame, and condemnation. To liberate your soul from fear. To reconcile you to the Father and unite you to his family of grace, the church.

When the answer to “why the cross” is answered and believed, you will attack the fridge and start throwing out every scrap of ungrace, self-trust, and self-glorifying spiritual pride you can find. You’ll confess it and despise it, falling on your knees with praise and thanksgiving before the Savior, who took on the stink of your legalism that you might be cleansed by and covered with the aroma of his perfect righteousness. 

The Bible teaches that it is from such a posture of faith-filled worship and gratitude, living as a recipient of the Father’s kindness and love, that the Holy Spirit fills our souls with new motives and desires for obedience and grants us the enabling grace to live that new life with resurrection power. 

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