We live in an age of gospel illiteracy. Unchurched people have never heard this message. And I wonder about a lot of churched people too. But it’s always been this way. The Reformers’ recovery of the good news was not a one and done deal. We are daily in danger of gospel amnesia, so we must always be recovering the astounding announcement of grace.
Even in the early church, in the days of the historical newness of the gospel there was so much confusion. If we think about it long enough, we can feel, for instance, Paul’s exasperation with the Galatians. “I’m astonished at how quickly you’ve deserted this message,” he says in the introduction to his letter. And so he fires all his cannons in this short letter, rebuking the pharisaical heresy of the Judaizers, who insist that the good news is Jesus PLUS something – namely, circumcision – and calling the Galatian church to return to the undiluted, unvarnished truth. And as he rounds the corner into chapter 5 of that letter, he’s doing some meticulous work of what we might call “gospel distinctions.”
Here’s Galatians 5:13-25:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who dosuch things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
Many people treat the good news of Jesus as a kind of ideological abstraction, as a shibboleth, as amorphous, ambiguous, a biblical feelgoodism to which we can attach any meaning at all. So it’s important not just to understand the gospel by its affirmations, but also by denials. Here from Galatians 5 are three things the gospel is not.
1. The gospel is not license.
It seems clear that Paul is addressing a somewhat common assumption that since grace is free, it must not cost much. Which is like saying it doesn’t matter much. The good news is an announcement of great freedom, including – apparently – the freedom not to take it too seriously. He addresses this in a few of his letters and puts a little ink toward that idea here too. As in verse 13: “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.”
Or, as vv.16-17, when he lays out the weightiness of grace. Because the gospel comes by the Spirit, it is in opposition to fleshly appetites. Desires of the flesh are against the Spirit. The point he’s making is similar to the point in Romans 6, when he brings up hypothetical – “If grace abounds more than sin abounds, should we continue in sin to get more grace? Of course not!” he says. How can you continue living in something you have died to?
Here in Galatians 5:24 he says, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
In short, the good news doesn’t just give us pardon, it gives us Christ HIMSELF — which is to say, it gives us a new life.
In his work Concerning Councils and Churches, Martin Luther addresses this kind of antinomianism and puts it this way
Verily, it amounts to this, that Christ is taken away and made worthless in the same breath with which He is most highly extolled. It means to say yes and no in the same matter . . . According to the logic of Nestorius and Eutyches these people, in masterful fashion, preach a Christ who both is, and is not, the Redeemer. They are excellent preachers of the Easter truth, but miserable preachers of the truth of Pentecost. For there is nothing in their preaching concerning sanctification of the Holy Ghost and about being quickened into a new life.
It is proper to extol Christ in our preaching; but Christ has acquired redemption from sin and death for this very purpose that the Holy Spirit should change our Old Adam into a new man, that we are to be dead unto sin and live unto righteousness, For Christ has gained for us not only grace (gratiam), but also the gift (donum) of the Holy Ghost, so that we obtain from Him not only forgiveness of sin, but also the ceasing from sin. Any one, therefore, who does not cease from his sin, but continues in his former evil way must have obtained a different Christ
Christ is too precious to live as if he’s not. But we do live as if he’s not, don’t we? Every day we do. In fact, we find that we often can’t seem to help it. And this is why the second denial is actually a comfort:
2. The gospel is not law.
The gospel is not license. But also, the gospel is not law.
Paul writes in 5:18, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
This is the overarching point of Galatians in fact. (See verse 13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers.”)
Earlier in the chapter, in vv.1-3, he says:
It is for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.
Paul recognizes the great danger in failing to make proper distinction between law and gospel. It’s the same danger the church faces in every age. It’s the same danger you and I face every day, and it makes the biggest difference between seeing the Christian life – the way of Jesus himself – as a burden or as a liberation. In a way, Paul’s letter to the Romans is about the gospel to the world. Galatians is the gospel for the church.
I grew up in church hearing about people who had “fallen” into sin, people who had “fallen away,” and it usually referred to people who had given in to sexual sin or some kind of immorality or debauchery. But that’s not the danger Paul is emphasizing here at all. No, in v. 4 he defines “falling away” as those who depart from the truth of grace! Not those who engage in licentious sin but those who adopt legalism. It’s the legalists who have fallen away!
Both license and legalism are self-salvation projects. What can save us?
The true gospel? The Holy Spirit working through the announcement of the finished work of Christ.
No, the gospel is not law. It’s not advice. It’s not instructions, commandments, or exhortations. It’s not moral uplift. It’s not an inspirational maxim or a religious aphorism. It’s not a spiritual imperative. It’s not anything we do. Sometimes we hear people say things like “We just need to ‘be’ the gospel to people.” Look, if you could be the gospel, you wouldn’t need the gospel.
No, it’s not anything you or I do. It’s a declaration of something that HAS BEEN DONE.
It’s a newspaper headline! It’s an announcement. It’s glad tidings of great joy. It’s a proclamation of something that happened. The gospel does not demand “Get to work” but announces “It. is. finished.”
Because the gospel is not law, you are not your sin. You are not your worst day. Or your best. Because the gospel is not law, the summons is not to come prove yourself, but to come BE yourself.
Isn’t that amazing? To qualify for the gospel, all you must be is a sinner. Who couldn’t qualify for that? You qualify. If it’s not beneath you to admit it.
The freeness of the gospel seemed too good to be true to the Galatians. Which is just a way of saying they were too good to be true . . . To tell the truth about themselves. The great problem of legalism is in fact not thinking too highly of the law but not thinking it highly enough! Thinking too highly of ourselves that we think it manageable, achievable. But we are wretched sinners. That’s the truth. And because that is true, the gospel can never be law.
But what neither license nor legalism can do, the gospel can. Which leads to the third denial:
3. The gospel is not lacking in power.
License claims to make much of grace but belittles it – it says the gospel is big, but not big enough to empower obedience. Legalism claims to make much of the law, but belittles it – it says the law is ultimately manageable, doable. Thus, license and legalism are more alike than we often think. They are basically both self-salvation projects. One seeks to liberate the self through feeding of the flesh. The other seeks to elevate the self through religious merit. Both are bullet train journeys into hard canyon walls.
If you want real liberation and real elevation, it can only come through the unfiltered, unadulterated, undiluted grace of Jesus. Only grace has the power to save. Only grace has the power to transform.
So we look at those two lists Paul contrasts with each other in vv.19-23 in a new light. We notice a difference. The first list (in vv.19-21) is largely a list of actions, even if mental. The second list (the fruit of the Spirit in vv.22-23), by contrast, is a list of conditions, qualities. Isn’t that interesting? Paul doesn’t contrast a list of bad things we do with good things we do; instead, he contrasts a list of bad things we do with good things to be.
Because the fruit of the Spirit cannot be faked, because it is the result not of religious behavioral change but Spiritual heart transformation, it can only be brought to flourishing in us through the gospel of Jesus. Only the gospel has the power to affect real, deep heart change. That is real power.