What is True Religion?

I pulled some longtail search queries from Google, and one result was, “What is true religion?”

When I read the question, “What is true religion,” I immediately think of James 1:26-27:

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless. Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

We often assert that Christianity isn’t a religion.

James would disagree.

He would probably also agree.

Notice that he doesn’t say, “Those who consider themselves religious should stop doing so.” Instead, he speaks of a worthless religion and an acceptable religion. The former seems to consist of religious words address to the divine that don’t affect our treatment of others. The latter consists solely of our interactions with other people. Words optional.

Even true words can be deceitful. When we hear and speak lofty revelations from God, we can become convinced that we are righteous people. The words travel into our ears and out through our mouths but they don’t find a place in our hearts and lives. Yes, the gospel is the power of God to save but that power is organic. It is a seed that must take root to have its mighty effect. This is why James has told his readers:

Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.

James 1:21 NIV

The word of the gospel can (has power to) save you, but it must be accepted into the soil of our lives if it’s going to do so. James seems to assume that his readers had heard and believed the message and that they had faith in Christ. And yet, he speaks of their salvation as potential. The seed had been sown into their minds and they had received it, but it didn’t seem to be bearing much (or any) fruit. Instead, they seem to have become advocates for other people to act justly. The gospel had made them religious reformers, but not disciples of Christ.

This self-deceit had left their salvation hanging in the balance. Keep in mind that salvation is a way of life. If we live by faith we live saved. If we claim to believe but live by sight, we remain subject to the corruption resident in this present evil ages. There can be no two ways about it. We’ll see how this works in a minute.

James has answered the question, “What is true religion?” but if we’re going to accept that answer, we should probably consider what makes these things true religion. Let’s break James’ answer into two parts and consider each in turn.

True religion is to look after orphans and widows in their distress

We call churches, synagogues, and mosques “houses of worship.” We do this because we think God lives in sacred spaces. He might visit our homes but he doesn’t live there. And that’s how we want it. The human heart wants a god that is holy enough to stay out of our daily lives.

But a holy God can’t truly receive our offerings. Under the Levitical system given through Moses, people went to a house of worship to offer sacrifices. Unfortunately, this approach to God caused a problem and contained a deficiency. Worshipers under this sacrificial system tended to think their offerings appeased God leaving them room to mistreat others. They ignore someone in need or even exploit someone because they had already given at the office.

But they hadn’t really done anything for God in their worship, and that was the deficiency.

“Listen, my people, and I will speak; I will testify against you, Israel: I am God, your God. I bring no charges against you concerning your sacrifices or concerning your burnt offerings, which are ever before me. I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the insects in the fields are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it. Do I eat the flesh of bulls or drink the blood of goats?

Psalm 50:7-13 NIV

The sacrificial system wasn’t about compensating God for the infractions committed against him. It wasn’t possible to compensate him through the death of these animals since he couldn’t benefit from the offering. Sacrificial offerings were supposed to express and inflame a love for God. And real love for God will always be expressed in righteous treatment of his image bearers – other people.

Notice that sacrifice as appeasements alleviates the worshiper from works of justice while sacrifice as adoration inspires those same works. And yet, there was still a disconnect under that system. Love for God could only be expressed in symbol or by proxy. That religion at its best was correct, but not true.

When the Levitical Jew answered the question, “What is true religion,” they were really explaining correct religion – as in the religion that was prescribed by God. When Christ came he encountered a Samaritan woman. She asked essentially asked him, “What is the correct religion,” but he answered, “What is true religion.”

“Sir,” the woman said, “I can see that you are a prophet. Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.” 

“Woman,” Jesus replied, “believe me, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.

John 4:19-23 NIV

When compared with Samaritan worship, the Jewish temple cult was correct. And yet, a time was coming for worship in truth. This would be in the Spirit. What could this mean? How could the religion that God prescribed not be in truth? It comes down to the meanign of the word, “truth.”

In Greek it was a negative word meaning unveiled. It was based on the idea that reality exists behind a veil of symbols which make up the world we live in. So, that which is “true” is the real while everything else is a similitude or expression of the real. The correct Jewish worship had been in symbol and by proxy. But now with the coming of God incarnate, people could love him in reality. Jesus had already invited this immoral woman to become one of his true worshipers when he asked her for a drink in vs. 7. What an honor!

Today, Christ indwells his people through his own Holy Spirit. And so, he continues to receive every kindness offered to them in his name. As Matthew recorded:

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”

Matthew 10:42 NIV

That which is given to a believer in Christ is received by God himself and God himself will repay that kindness. This is true religion.

True religion is to keep oneself unspotted from the world

In our moralistic society, we tend to read this phrase as a prohibition against sexual sins. That doesn’t seem to be James’ primary intent.

Consider the very next passage:

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

James 2:1-4 NIV

James seems to have been less concerned about moral corruption than about political corruption. In answer to the question, “What is true religion,” James would have said, to treat everyone as an equal without allowing the pollution of social standing to enter in.

Nobody’s Good Without God

Good without God?

"millions are good without god" billboard by americanhumanist.org in Moscow Idaho

I found a picture of a billboard put out by the American Humanist Society that says, “Millions are good without God.”  We tend to think that one of the main reasons to believe in God is because God guides us. He makes us good people. Specifically in Christianity, we deal with the concept of sin. We affirm that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We proclaim Christ as the remedy for sin. Without belief in those things, what are we left with? Is it possible for people to be good and to do good in the world apart from divine revelation?

Unbelievers, of course, would say, “You don’t need this belief system to be a good person. You can just be good. You can just do good.”  In researching this section of John, I came across a book entitled Good without God. In it, the author, Greg Epstein, says that humanists don’t just disbelieve in God, they believe in a better world. They don’t believe in an invisible being in the sky or a creator, but they do have values. Everyone can hold these values in common and so we can be good without God. Where does that leave belief in general for the humanists? They would say, “On the scrap heap.”

This question has a lot to do with what John is trying to tell us in his gospel. But before we really get into the book of John, I want to lay a little bit of background. 

The intellectual context of John’s Gospel

The gospel of John didn’t come into a world of credulity as we might assume. It came into a thought world that included skepticism and included even humanism.  There’s this guy named Heraclitus who lived 600 years before Christ. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says of him, “We might well think of him as the first humanist were it not for the fact that he does not seem to like humanity very well.”

Now, I would contend that anybody who sets out to be a humanist either just hasn’t met very many humans or hasn’t been around them long enough to come to dislike them as Heraclitus did. People are difficult.

But Heraclitus’ writings dealt a lot with the human condition. How should we live in this world and learn from this world?  So, he is a humanist in that the things he taught had to do with human behavior and what it means to be a human.

One of the major concepts that he innovated was the idea of the “logos,” which is often translated as “the Word” in English. He wrote, “Of this Word’s being forever do men prove to be uncomprehending both before they hear, and once they have heard it. For, although all things happen according to this Word, they are like the unexperienced experiencing words and deeds such as I explain when I distinguish each thing, according to its nature and show how it is.”

Heraclitus believed and taught that nature and experience are proclaiming a message. This word, “logos,” more accurately means a message or a discourse. For Heraclitus, underneath the way of things is a message about how to behave as humans.

Heraclitus not only spoke about the logos, but he also demonstrated it in his style of writing. He intentionally obscured his meaning behind his syntax. For instance, the previous quote from him, “Of this word’s being forever, do men prove uncomprehending.”

Now Aristotle, the genius, was one of those people who didn’t get Heraclitus. Aristotle read this section and thought Heraclitus must not have been very smart. He thought that since Heraclitus’ Greek was ambiguous his reasoning mustn’t have been very clear. Surely somebody who is a clear thinker could express themselves more clearly. Aristotle didn’t recognize that Heraclitus meant to be ambiguous to make a point.

This wording could be understood in one of two ways. First, it could be understood, “Of this Word’s being forever do men prove uncomprehending.” Meaning, of the eternal nature of the Word, of its transcendent existence, do men prove to be uncomprehending. But it could also be taken, “Of the existence of the Word, people are always uncomprehending.” If asked whether he meant one or the other, Heraclitus would have simply answered, “Yes.”  He structured his language to demonstrate that reality comes to us as a puzzle.  And that it is through solving the puzzle that we unlock life’s meaning.

Consider another Heraclitan saying, “ethos anthropoi daimon,” in Greek means, “The character of man is his luck.” In the Greek “character” and “luck” bracket “man.”  By placing “man” in the middle, he draws our focus to man as the actor. He’s saying that through good character a person makes his own luck.  He’s not just making a statement that if you do good, good things will happen to you in some karmic fashion. He’s saying that humans and their actions determine the outcome. Man forges his own character and in so doing makes his own luck.

So, Heraclitus used word puzzles to call people to wrestle with his teaching. The two grammatical devices we’ve seen so far are double entendre as with his statement about the people not comprehending the Word. The other device here we might call, strategic ordering.  I bring all this up because we’re going to see that John does the same kinds of things and uses many of these same devices. To unlock John, we must understand the thought world that he is writing into – a world that was influenced by Heraclitus.

With that context in place, I invite your attention to John 1:1-9. The theme of this section which I will unpack here is:

“Everything came from a relationship revealed through a person who shines through the darkness as the purest of light.”

“Everything came from a relationship…”

John chapter one verse one begins, “In the beginning was the Word.”

I had an atheist Western Civ professor in college who was diligent to point out that John plagiarized Heraclitus. I think he wanted us to see it that way. He obviously had his agenda. This conclusion fails to understand both John and Heraclitus. John didn’t start with “the word,” but with “In the beginning.” Heraclitus on the other hand taught that the universe had no beginning. He thought of existence as cyclical. That things were always coming into existence and being destroyed. John isn’t just borrowing from Heraclitus, but he is fusing together the Jewish revelation with Greco-Roman philosophy. “In the beginning was the Word,” is a brand-new concept. It’s a brand-new idea that is a bringing together of opposites. “In the beginning,” Jewish. “Was the Word,” Gentile.  He’s not borrowing from Heraclitus; he is owning Heraclitus.

Not only does John appropriate some Heraclitan ideas, but he also employs the philosopher’s literary devices. John 1:1 contains three statements about the logos. It says:

In the beginning was the Word.

And the Word was with God.

And the Word was God.

Notice the repetition. John’s language here seems superfluous. He could have said the same thing in one simple sentence like, “The Word, who is God, was in the beginning with God.” I’ve yet to find wasted words in the Bible, so I reject the explanation that John didn’t write well. John means to teach not only through straightforward statements but through the very structure of his words. He’s emulating Heraclitus.[1]

You remember how Heraclitus had placed the word “man” in the middle of “character” and “luck” and how that order shaped his meaning. Just as the philosopher used the order of three words to communicate two points, John here offers three statements about the Word to make two main points. He wants us to understand that these three statements each stand alone and work together. As with Heraclitus’ “man” in the middle, so John’s, “the Word was with God” is the central concept. The peripheral statements about the Word, then pair in turn with it. John wants his readers to know first and foremost that before anything else existed, there was a relationship. God has never been alone. He didn’t need to create to find companionship. He is the eternal partnership. His implicit preposition has always been, “with.” The Word was with God.

John wants us to know this point, but the rest of his prologue will only unpack two concepts. These two concepts emerge from a fusion of the outer statements in this trio with the one in the middle. So, point one can be stated, “In the beginning the Word was with God.” That’s what I’ll unpack in this exposition of John 1:2-9. In the next chapter, I’ll show how John 1:10-18 explains John’s second point from vs. 1, “The Word was God with God.” If I’m right about all of this, we should expect him to take up the idea of creation accomplished in partnership in the very next verses. Let’s look:

He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.

(John 1:2-3 NIV)

Creation is the result of a relationship. God didn’t create to find companionship, but creation has spun out of this eternal “with-ness.” This divine relationship, then, is the very basis of everything else that we experience or know. 

Like every relationship, this eternal one has a unique character. Here we find unique roles and a division of labor. The Word is the means whereby God created. There is also equality in that he says, “without him, nothing was made that has been made.” Both partners participated and both were essential. This statement suggests that the Word was uncreated.  If everything, absolutely everything, that has been made was made with him, that means he’s eternal and self-existent.  This is the relationship that is at the basis of nature and of our experience in the world.

“…revealed through a person…”

All of creation reflects the character of the divine relationship and Jesus is that character. Since the Word was the means of creation, he is the contact point between it and the Partnership. He is its representative. That means creation darkly reflects the Word. Notice John 1:4,

“In him was life. And that life was the light of all mankind.”


Heraclitus saw natural phenomena pointing to a transcendent message. He wasn’t wrong. He just didn’t look far enough. He didn’t recognize the personality behind that message. The interplay between light and life teaches us that you need one to have the other. This interdependence further teaches us about the nature of Christ and our need for him as his creatures. The Word contains life, and that life is light.

We get that life needs light, but how could life be light? How can the life force be a visible phenomenon? 1 John 1:2 says,

The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us.


Apparently, (see what I did there?) life is something we can see just like light. We know that light is essential to physical life on this planet. By looking at nature, we can deduce a connection between the two. But there is a higher truth to learn. According to this verse life that can be seen is the eternal life. It’s something that was before creation. It’s something that is infused into creation, and it will continue forever. What is this life that is light?

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord. 

(Ephesians 5:8-11 NIV)

What is moral/spiritual light? It is what is done in the physical light. Paul says that the disobedient do their dark deeds at night. They do it outside of the visible light.  This interconnection that physical light has to moral light exists because physical light came into existence through the relationship characterized by goodness, righteousness, and truth. Actions that harmonize with the eternal character belong in the full light of day. They please the Lord because they resonate with his own eternal nature which is light.

“…who shines through the darkness…”

We find glimmers of Christ’s light in creation, but this creation is fallen so it also obscures the divine light. We only see a light that is shining in a dark place.

Light shines in the darkness and dark and the darkness has not overcome it.

(John 1:5 NIV)

John in this verse employs Heraclitus’ double entendre. Compare the NIV rendering above with the King James Translation:   

And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not.

(John 1:5 KJV)

Besides the “eth’s” what other difference do you see? Did you notice that the NIV says the darkness didn’t overcome the light and the KJV says it didn’t comprehend the light? Unlike the archaic English, that’s a significant difference in the meaning don’t you think? Why would two sets of Greek scholars render this word so differently? Maybe it will help to appeal to a third party to settle the debate. Look at this translation:

And the light shines on in the darkness, but the darkness has not mastered it.

(John 1:5 New English Translation [NET])

The NET Bible retains the nuance of the original Greek word which could both refer to conquering someone or to understanding a subject. Translators must make tough decisions all the time especially when a word in the source language could mean many things in the target language. Both the NIV and KJV translate this verse accurately. Like Aristotle did with Heraclitus, the translators underestimated the sophistication of John’s language. The beloved disciple frequently uses ambiguous wording to convey two truths at once.[2]

That John means to use double entendre in this verse is borne out by the paradoxical nature of John’s straightforward statement, “The light shines on in the darkness.” The truth of this statement requires paradoxical conditions – it must be dark and there must be light. If the dark should have overcome the light, then it would no longer shine. If the dark should comprehend the light, then darkness would be dispelled. Both possible meanings of this Greek word must be retained for the verse to be true.

As we continue through John’s prologue (vs. 1-18) we’ll consider each meaning in turn. In the remainder of this section, we’ll consider the inability of the dark to extinguish the eternal light which has pierced it since the fall. In the next discussion on vs. 10-18, we’ll marvel with John at the mystery of unbelief in the face of him who is light.

Christians often make the mistake of thinking that every belief system until Christ was false. The earliest proclaimers of the gospel didn’t share that assessment. They understood that the light of God shone from a multitude of little lamps in every place and time through the human experience. One of God’s lanterns was John the Baptist.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.

(John 1:6 NIV)

God has been keeping the light on throughout the dark centuries by sending messengers. In the Hebrew tradition, they were called “prophets.” John the Baptist was the last of the prophets of the old era. I think for the writer of this gospel, John the Baptist embodied and represented all who’d held the prophetic office.

About the prophetic scriptures we find in the Old Testament, Peter wrote,

We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it.  As to a light shining in a dark place.

(2 Peter 1:19a NIV)

The best that scripture can be for us is a lantern or a lamp in the middle of the night.  It can’t dispel the darkness, but it can be “a lamp for my feet and a light on my path.”[i] The light shines in the darkness and the darkness hasn’t overcome it.

But surely God didn’t withhold light from everyone but the Jews for all the long ages. Could I suggest that John’s employment of Heraclitus’ ideas and methods are meant to include him among God’s little lamps? What’s more, John’s not the only apostle to refer to Heraclitus.

 Two verses down in 2 Peter 1 we find these words:

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of scripture came about by a prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though humans, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.

(2 Peter 1:21 NIV)

When Peter used the phrase that no prophecy of scripture is “of private interpretation,” he is using an idea that was first expressed by Heraclitus who wrote, “But although the logos is common, most people live as if they had their own private interpretation.”

Peter’s reference to Heraclitus suggests that he found value in the philosopher’s writing. Just like Psalm 19 says “the heavens declare the glory of God,” so John and other writers of the New Testament would agree that even though pagan peoples around the world, didn’t have their scriptures, they still had access to light. And that light, which is the logos, has been shining in the darkness. And it’s shown through people like Heraclitus.

The social light

Because John and Heraclitus were little lanterns in the middle of a dark place, we can’t expect perfect revelation. We’re only looking for glimmers of light despite the darkness. John 1:7 says,

He (John the Baptist) came as a witness to testify concerning that light. So that through him all might believe.


John did more than teach about the light; he testified. John’s Gospel is replete with courtroom imagery, and I think there’s a reason for that. John treats civil law as another example of the light shining in a dark place.

The Baptist doesn’t expect his audience to reach a verdict on hearsay but solemnly testifies to something he has seen. One of the great strengths of the Christian system is that it’s based on a claim of something having happened. The gospel is an event attested in the courtroom that is this world.  Consequently, Christianity affirms the value of testimony, legal systems, courts, magistrates, and rulers. Though fallen, they all reflect the eternal light which is the Word.

Colossians 1:15-16 says:

The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.


Authorities and powers were created through Christ and for him. When we encounter them, we get a glint of the eternal light shining in the darkness. Generally, all around the world, rulers and laws are there to preserve justice and goodness.

To the Romans, Paul wrote of the civil authorities,

…they are God’s servants, agents of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. Therefore, it is necessary to submit to authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also as a matter of conscience.

(Romans 13:4b-5 NIV)

Paul agrees with John that civil laws are an expression of divine light. So, we should acknowledge that and submit to them for Christ’s sake.

Not coincidentally, Heraclitus taught that human legal systems were part of the logos. He wrote, “For all human laws are nourished by the one divine law. For it prevails as far as it will. And it suffices for all and is super abundant.”

Could I suggest that human law and even the Old Testament law, are attempts to codify the divine character? Law is a light shining in the darkness because it keeps evil at bay even though it can’t dispense with evil.

Here’s an example of law and its ability to keep the light shining in darkness:

For Herod himself had given orders to have John arrested, and he had him bound and put in prison. He did this because of Herodias, his brother Philip’s wife, whom he had married.  For John had been saying to Herod, “It is not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife.”  So Herodias nursed a grudge against John and wanted to kill him. But she was not able to,  because Herod feared John and protected him, knowing him to be a righteous and holy man. When Herod heard John, he was greatly puzzled; yet he liked to listen to him.

(Mark 6:17-20 NIV)

Herod Antipas wasn’t a great guy. Jesus called him a fox because he got his power through intrigue and trickery. Not very complimentary. Now for John, the law superintends over and presides over even rulers. And that’s necessary because there’s darkness and rulers become corrupt. John the Baptist holds Herodias accountable to the law.

So “Herodias, nursed a grudge against John.”

Some people hate the light. They have no use for it, especially when it indicts their actions. Her murderous hatred of John the Baptist was darkness intent on covering the darkness of her incest.

But that darkness couldn’t easily snuff out the light. Even her husband was affected by the light coming from John. Herod both protected John and enjoyed listening to him. Even a conniving, corrupt politician longed for the warming rays coming from the Word through his little lamp.

But John’s light wasn’t sufficient to dispel the darkness. This brings me to the fourth point of our main statement, “Everything came from a relationship revealed through a person who shines through the darkness and as the purest of light.”

“…the purest of light.”

Some say that God is too big for any one religion. They compare the differences between religions to blind men encountering an elephant. One of them feeling a leg might say, “An elephant is like a tree.”  Another feeling the tusk might think the whole animal is like a sword. Yet another might feel the trunk and say, “It’s like a snake.”

Before we as Christians dismiss that imagery, I want us to grasp that the blind guys are all right to some degree. They all are experiencing the elephant, but they are experiencing him in the dark.  John in his gospel recognized the light that has been, but he means to announce the end of darkness for those who comprehend the Word.

So, he writes of John, the Baptist, “He himself was not the light. He came only as a witness to the light.” (John 1:8 NIV)

John couldn’t dispel all the darkness around because he was affected by it. 

According to Matthew 11:2-3:

When John who was in prison, heard about the deeds of the Messiah, he sent his disciples to ask him, “Are you the one to come or should we expect someone else?”


John, for all his wonderful service to God and his faith, had his weaknesses. And here his faith is beginning to crumble at the prospect of being imprisoned for life or being executed.

Heraclitus for all the things that he shared with humankind was also wrong about much. He finally faltered in his mission.  We’re told by a biographer that, “Finally he became a hater of his kind and wandered the mountains, making his diet of grass and herbs.”

He sounds a lot like John the Baptist.

But before we indict John too much, we must consider what Jesus said about him. Just after John’s messengers depart, Jesus turns to the crowd and he says, “Truly, I tell you among those born of women, there has not risen anyone greater than John the Baptist…” (Matthew 11:11a NIV)

But then Jesus says, “…yet whoever is least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.” (Matthew 11:11b NIV)

With the coming of Christ, a new day has dawned – a new chapter in human history. Where everyone had glimmers of light now, as John 1:9 says, “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.” (NIV)

All those perceptions of that elephant are correct but incomplete. Christ is the whole elephant. Every positive message, every just law, every kind deed, or pleasant experience that we’ve ever had has always been just a reflection of the great and true light that is at the basis of all reality.

And he came into the world as an infant. This message was first given just before Christmas but has relevance to us all year long. Christ has become one of us to bring the fullness of pure light to us.

Nobody can be good without God.

Back to that billboard that said, “Millions are good without God.” Could this be true? Yes and no. I don’t disagree that there are millions of kind and compassionate people who don’t believe in a God. I think there are atheists who care about their neighbors, who love their families, who give to charity and work to improve the human condition. None of that means they are good without God. Just because they don’t acknowledge him doesn’t mean that the goodness that they long for and that they express doesn’t come from him.

All that is good and right in every society regardless of their religion reflects the light of God which is the Word. Nobody is good without God. They may try to deny him. They may reject him and disbelieve in him, but they are not good without him. Because he is the source of good.

Humanism can’t save the world. All it can do is try to undermine a fruitful worldview and salvage what’s left.

But we as believers, what should we do? We shouldn’t treat unbelievers as our enemies. We shouldn’t engage in works of darkness to resist unbelief. I have a picture here of that exact same billboard. Someone has spray-painted over the word “without.” I assume these were believers who vandalized someone else’s property. Maybe they thought they were defending God, but he doesn’t need them. At what time of day do you think these vandals did their work? Do you think it might have been under the cover of night? Do you think the civil authorities will reward these folks for their ”heroism”? This was a deed of darkness and those who claim to be in the light must do better.

"millions are good without god" billboard vandalized

Here are a few suggestions on how to celebrate the incarnation:

We should seek peace with everyone because that’s light. We should live unashamed. Not just choosing not to feel ashamed, but to make decisions that are honorable and open.

We should look for the positive and call out the negative. If we find ourselves in a conversation with unbelievers, we should point out the good that they do. We should celebrate and encourage them. It doesn’t mean that we’re somehow relinquishing our position or conceding the point. It just means that we recognize light when we see it.

We should read the Bible because it is a light in the darkness.

And then finally we should rejoice that Christ, the true light, has come.

[1] Even though Heraclitus had lived nearly 600 years before John, he’d had a major impact on Greco-Roman philosophy. We can’t be sure of the full extent because most of his works have been lost to antiquity, but we can know that he was quoted (and rebutted) by many influential philosophers over the intervening centuries before Christ.[1] In preaching the gospel to a pagan audience, John needed to account for Heraclitus’ influence. This was especially so since John’s works were most likely to have been written while he was ministering in Asia Minor and Heraclitus was from Miletus, a town in that region.

[2] This is especially so in John’s epistles.

[i] Psalm 119:103

The Sign of Jonah


The calling and ministry of every believer is but one simple thing. We do not get to define it, and although it is deeply personal, it is not unique.

I have been spending the better part of this week poring over old photos of our family’s time living in Thailand. Even though we were there for only three years, we managed to take more pictures during this period than the next seven years combined. Thailand was such a colorful chapter of our lives and so much happened during this time – there was simply too many stories for us to try and capture a photo of.

To be honest though, reviewing these photos has been incredibly difficult, and not really due to the sheer number of images. The stories in and behind many of these images are a mixed bag of beauty, heartache, awe and desperation. The better part of five years of our lives were dominated by either preparing for, going to, living in and coming back from doing Christian ministry work in Thailand. We poured our heart and soul into this effort every day as we sought to live a life where faith and compassion could somehow overcome career ambition and material gain. It was not just the culmination of our hopes and dreams for making the world a better place because of who believe God truly is – it was the fulfillment of what we believed our life’s calling and identity was really all about.

Sadly, we were ill-prepared for the harsh reality that would confront us there. As it turns out career ambition and material gain is not unique to those outside the Christian tradition. It happens to run just as deeply in the well-intentioned ranks of foreign missionaries and career ministers. It merely takes a different shape, and it often goes unnoticed until the lives of other well-intentioned souls lay broken and bewildered at the side of the road. By the time we left Thailand to return to America, it was not due to any disillusionment from Thai people or their culture. We were leaving a ministry and organization that we could no longer identify ourselves with and who we felt had utterly betrayed us. In the process, the years since have become a difficult exploration about letting go of what we thought our identity as followers of Christ was really all about. Where had we gone wrong and how had we allowed ourselves to put our trust in systems and structures that elevated “Christian leadership” over the calling to truly be like Jesus?

I do not have time or space enough to unravel the convoluted web that believers, under the banner of our Lord’s authority, has managed to tangle themselves up in. However, in my time after leaving Thailand and official Christian ministry, I have come into a deeper place of understanding my own personal journey and identity in Christ. And it has brought me more peace and abiding joy than anything I had previously pursued in Jesus’ name. So much of what I had to unlearn and come to terms with is the humble admission that the calling and ministry work to which I had aspired to for so many years (far before we ever went to Thailand) was not centered around a desire to lay down my life for Jesus’ sake, but to gain his and other Christian’s recognition – for my own sake.

Around the halls of Christendom, I had picked up on the dream of finding a personal calling to discover and fulfill my “ministry” – that is, my personal contribution in life to God’s glory and Kingdom. The work to which I aspired to accomplish great things in His’ name and to inspire others to love and follow Him. This was taught to me as the special “calling” and purpose that God had designed for each of His children. This was packaged and sold to me by well-meaning people, many of whom had moderate success in the ministry examples that they proclaimed. However, I would discover they had also never suffered such an utter breaking of their self-will to recognize that the Cross alone is the tool by which we must define our ministry and calling.

I would eventually discover a different shape of Christian altogether, one whose success in life was not defined by any accomplishment or recognition that had motivated those whom I had previously been encouraged to imitate. These humble believers had been so shaped by pain and disappointment as to share in an uncommon sense of peace, grace, mercy and love. They exuded the kind of solid character and unshakeable experience that I was longing for, but could not find in my devotion to Kingdom ministry work. It was clear to me that they were navigating by a different kind of star. Why did my pursuit of a ministry and calling leave me feeling burdened and in turmoil? Did not my Lord say, “My yoke is easy and my burden is light”?

I began to realize that I had placed the cart before the horse. The calling and ministry of every believer is but one simple thing. We do not get to define it, and although it is deeply personal, it is not unique. It has already been set before every one of us who would seek to follow Jesus into real life. For the truth is that we each have only one true calling, one ministry in this Kingdom which we carry around in broken vessels: to be shaped into the very image of Christ. This is God’s primary purpose and plan for every child of God, every believer who comes seeking spiritual direction and personal fulfillment. That we would become like His Son – so that in the process, we come to understand that we too are truly the sons and daughters of God.

We want spiritual revival to break out among us, signs and wonders to transform lives, ecstatic worship and supreme revelation to impart greater truth. But few of us want what the Son has carefully prepared for each of us on this path of his – the sign of Jonah (Matt. 12:38-39).

We long to be raised up in glory, but we don’t want to first follow unto death. We want to experience deep, abiding spiritual truth but we don’t want to experience the deeper, painful work of taking up a Cross and sharing in the disgrace of our Master. Whether we succeed or fail in our efforts to bring people to Christ or build a growing ministry here on earth has little to do with what God actually desires to be at work within each of us. Being shaped into Christ’s likeness is not skin deep – it’s more than simply bearing a passing resemblance to Jesus. It’s a heart transplant – a complete rewiring of our identity that can say with utmost honesty: “I do nothing of my own agenda, but I watch and wait to see what my Father is doing.” (Jn. 5:19)

Unfortunately for our flesh, this kind of heart transplant is completely fatal. We cannot gain this identity through prayer, fasting, or by spiritual gifts. While the path of spiritual formation can often include such practices, we will only find this new identity through an utter breaking of our deepest selves, resulting in a very real kind of death. One that will require our deepest hopes and dreams for our life to truly die. This means the Cross will take a different shape for every person, each one uniquely fitted to the shape of our soul through the Spirit at work in us. This also means that we can only gain what the Son is offering us on the Cross through a living and active faith – the kind that is not mustered up through any effort or will-power on our part.

Please understand that this kind of faith can only be spelled one way – TRUST. If we do not truly trust and believe that our Father will use the inevitable pain and suffering of our lives to accomplish the abiding work of His Spirit, which is Christ in us, then we will always find another way. It’s our fleshly nature, the survival instinct wired into the very base of every human brain. When God corners us at the dead end of our worst moments and offers us a cross, if we do not truly believe that death is our only hope, we will fight and flee.

We can deceive ourselves that we are growing spiritually or learning great truths by pouring ourselves into all kinds of teachings or ministry practices, but one thing will always be lacking: A deep and abiding peace that can look at the Cross with joy, knowing that our present sufferings are working within us a greater weight of glory – the surpassing knowledge that God is always with us no matter what seems to be happening around us. Death and trust in a resurrection will become our only spiritual practice, the only hope of recovering what we are really seeking in this life and beyond.

Where is peace lacking in our hearts? Where do we feel most shaken in our identity? What do we most fear will happen if we let our greatest dreams die a painful death? These are the areas we are invited to keep bringing to the foot of the Cross and to work at trusting the One who will accomplish what we need most in the right time and place.


“Father – what is it about your Love that I am still struggling to believe? Show me where I still do not trust in your goodness. Show me were my hope in your resurrection power has grown weary of waiting. Help me to not fight you or flee from you, but to trust that your perfect love is able to take the object of my death and turn it into an instrument for my salvation. Amen.”

Genesis 1 Never Taught Six Literal Days of Creation

The idea that everything was created in six days seems almost impossible to reconcile with what we observe.

I was raised on science with a little faith on the side. When I got serious about my faith, it tried to move science completely off the plate. Science claimed that the universe was vast and very old, but Genesis 1 seemed to teach that everything was created in six days about 6000 years ago. When I confronted my preacher about it, he provided some materials which taught that science was wrong and that the earth was, in fact, 6000 years old.

I chose to believe him, but questions still lingered.

How can we see the light from galaxies which are very far away?

Late in high school, I heard Kent Hovind, aka Dr. Dino, speak at a church in my town. His alternative explanations for seeming evidence of an old cosmos addressed many of my concerns. I went to him after his presentation to thank him and ask him about something he hadn’t addressed.

I asked him how light from very distant heavenly bodies could reach us in only 6000 years. He became agitated and provided some implausibilities. That light perhaps traveled faster at the beginning of creation for example. His on-stage bravado had become defensive, and it troubled me. Could it be that he had only been answering a straw man?

Why are kangaroos only found in Australia?

What happened when all the animals got off Noah’s Ark? Did God somehow inspire all the kangaroos to hop all the way to Australia and only then begin to multiply? I suppose this could be possible, but it’s highly unlikely.

How would a young-earther explain the Wallace Line which depicts the boundary below which we find 240 species of marsupials and all monotremes with only placental mammals above it? They might have an answer, but it will need to be more plausible than the one offered by evolutionary biology. Now, that doesn’t seem to be the case.

If the Bible has been disproven, there’s nothing to gain by holding on to it.

Suppose you were indicted for murder and had no alibi. Even though you were innocent the verdict was looking uncertain because of a strong case the prosecution had built against you. How would you feel if before you could make your defense, a “friend” of yours came forward to say that you had been with her at the time in question? Would her lie help your defense or invalidate it?

What if when you confronted her about her false statement, she said that you indeed had been with her, but not literally. She had been thinking about you that night, so she was with you in thought. What if she pointed out that no one had asked her if she was physically in your presence, so she hadn’t lied? Would that convince you to go with her strategy?

And why would she make up this lie if she really believed you were innocent? Might her attempt to defend you suggest doubt on her part of your ability to defend yourself?

I can’t speak to the motives behind some of the arguments made by young-earth creationists, but they don’t always sound intellectually honest. I wish I could say I’ve only heard one person say that dinosaur bones were planted by the devil to cause unbelief. That’s an extreme example, but the very notion that all of science is run by an anti-God conspiracy is just untenable. Such a far-fetched notion belies an unbiblical belief that God is under siege.

By the same token, revisionist interpretations of Genesis 1 sound a lot like “your friend’s” attempt to rationalize her lie. I understand wanting to have the best of both worlds by accepting the discoveries of science and holding to a semblance of faith. But trying to interpret the Bible in light of science creates a lose-lose scenario.

Did God mislead primitive people?

If the “correct interpretation” of Genesis 1 has only recently arisen to coincide with scientific discovery, doesn’t that mean God mislead previous generations? Indeed, he not only misled them but produced an obstacle to scientific discovery. Hasn’t it always been literalist Christians standing against scientific inquiry? I sympathize with cynics who interpret updated biblical interpretations as Christians changing their story once heretical ideas become established theories.

Did God give us a description of creation that would hamper discovery until a few scientists braved the wrath of the church? Wouldn’t that suggest that God wanted to keep people ignorant but not take the blame for their ignorance? Doesn’t it seem simpler to just admit that Genesis 1 presents an antiquated cosmology because it arose from archaic minds?

The God of the Gaps is Science.

Some might admit that Genesis 1 is archaic but redirect the argument to other questions about the origin of life or the nature of the universe. They might agree that the ancients got the details wrong but that they were ultimately right about where everything came from.

To be sure, there are many questions that science has yet to answer about origins. Yet, if it’s clear that Genesis 1 is wrong, we no longer credit the Bible with any legitimacy as a source of truth. What help could this book provide when it’s been corrected by science? Why not simply toss it on the scrap pile and just look to science? If there is a God, let him reveal himself through means that have proven trustworthy. But what use would we have for a god when science has given us the ability to expose him?

Genesis 1 Was Always Figurative.

It’s intellectually dishonest to update our interpretation of Genesis 1 to fit modern scientific understanding unless we can show that Genesis 1 was never intended to be understood literally. We can’t interpret coincidence as evidence. For instance, we can’t say that Genesis 1 accurately depicts aquatic life coming before land-dwellers since that point would have been lost on pre-Darwinian people. Also, it speaks of birds popping literally out of thin air before the first lizard crawled on dry land. The text itself must point us towards a more figurative interpretation.

In fact, it does.

Two poetic elements feature throughout Genesis 1.

Ancient songwriters used repetition just like modern songwriters do to keep rhythm and cadence. Go look at Genesis 1. What phrases do you see repeated? “And God said.” “God saw that it was good.” “There was evening and there was morning.” Compare that to Harry Styles’ As It Was, “In this world, it’s just us. You know it’s not the same as it was. In this world, it’s just us. You know it’s not the same as it was. As it was, as it was. You know it’s not the same.” Now go read a scientific journal article. I bet you won’t find a lot of repetition there. In fact, you’ll find linguistic thrift. What’s the difference? Surely, Mr. Styles is attempting to convey a message he finds true, but he’s not making scientific claims.

In addition to repetition, Genesis 1 employs another poetic device called “parallelism.” Ancient poetry needed not only to evoke emotion; it also had to demonstrate intentional structure. In Genesis 1, scene 1 corresponds to scene 4, scene 2 to scene 5, and scene 3 to scene 6. So, Day 1 provides day and night as the environment for the inhabitants (sun, moon, and stars) created on Day 4. Day 2 provides the sea and sky for the birds and fish of Day 5. On Day 3 a verdant landscape is produced in preparation for land-dwellers from bugs to people on Day 6.

The Genesis 1 Days of Creation Arranged in Parallel

Since Genesis 1 is clearly a song or poem, why do we expect it to make scientific claims? Could the problem with Genesis 1 be a problem with our expectations of inspiration rather than a problem with inspiration itself?

The people who put Genesis together weren’t complete idiots.

Did you notice that according to Genesis 1 God created day and night three days before creating the sun, moon, and stars? Do we really think ancient people thought the rising of the sun coincided with daybreak rather than causing it? Did they envision God telling the sun, “Hey, it’s first light, you better get up there”? I can’t help but be amused by modern skeptics who congratulate themselves for knowing the light of day comes from the sun. Such thinking belies a modernist bias that humanity lived in ooga booga stupidity until the so-called Enlightenment. As we’ve seen, Genesis 1 places day and night before the sun, moon, and stars to serve the parallel structure and not to explain why that fiery ball always comes up at daytime.

The same could be said for the glaring contradictions between Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. Do we think that nobody until the mid-nineteenth century noticed that humans were created last in the Genesis 1 account and first in Genesis 2? Surely whoever compiled Genesis into a single volume noticed? If not that person, it must have been the first person to hand copy the manuscript. Why would those ancients not attempt to reconcile the accounts if they were both meant to be taken literally? I can see someone failing to get their story straight, but placing contradictory accounts back-to-back seems unlikely. Unless they understood the text differently than we tend to.

Genesis 1 is a work of art dedicated to the superlative Artist.

Why do artists create? The reasons are different from those of other tradesmen. Carpenters, coders, and journalists create to perform a function. Not that there isn’t an element of artistry in those other disciplines, but pure art exists entirely for aesthetic reasons. The artist creates for enjoyment. He or she must have skill to be sure, but the quality of their work will be judged less by its utility and more by symmetry (or other features).

Genesis 1 is an ode to the artist who created the canvas upon which we paint our lives. Like other artists, he seems to have made everything from self-expression and for his own enjoyment. Like other artists, he displays his works for others to enjoy. Made in his image, we are his magnum opus and some of those invited to walk his gallery.

Genesis 1 invites us to twirl in childlike joy at the beauty of creation rather than stodgily analyze it into another issue for debate. Let’s allow Genesis 1 to invite us to explore all of creation and to agree with its creator that “It is good.”  

The Original Four Spiritual Laws

The Apostle Paul wrote about the original four spiritual laws long before Bill Bright wrote his tract.

Centuries before members of Cru began using their evangelistic tool on college campuses, Paul wrote about the original four spiritual laws to Christians in Rome. In 1965, Campus Crusade for Christ founder, Bill Bright, wrote a simple tract entitled, “Have You Heard of the Four Spiritual Laws?” From its first publication until now, that little yellow booklet has been used to lead millions of people to make a decision for Christ. If you haven’t heard of Bright’s four spiritual laws, they are:

  1. God loves you and offers a wonderful plan for your life.
  2. Man is sinful and separated from God. Therefore, he cannot know and experience God’s love and plan for his life.
  3. Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. Through Him you can know and experience God’s love and plan for your life.
  4. We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord; then we can know and experience God’s love and plan for our lives.

While these four “laws” have been effective in getting people to pray the sinner’s prayer, the version of the gospel which they represent tends to produce forgiven sinners rather than growing disciples. Campus Crusade’s follow-up material contains this quote:

“God knows of the existence of evil, yet God is not evil nor does He give in to evil. We, on the other hand, are attracted to it, and we give in to it.”

What Happens When You Sin? (startingwithgod.com)

That’s kind of a bleak outlook.

Perhaps full truth in advertising would require that they add a fifth spiritual law to the tract – “God’s wonderful plan includes an unsuccessful struggle against sin for the rest of your life.” I wonder how such an addition would affect the effectiveness of the presentation. I wonder how many people lose their joy or even their faith after years of continued failure.

Sadly, this experience of continued sinful behavior has become the norm for most Christians. Everyone I’ve talked with identifies with Paul’s struggle:

For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.

Romans 7:18-19

While it’s tempting to read our own experience into this passage, we will miss the point if we think Paul was simply commiserating with all the Christians stuck in sinful patterns. He was demonstrating the law of death which is one of the original four spiritual laws.

The original four spiritual laws are given in Romans 7-8.

It’s almost a given that religious people behave inconsistently with their profession. For years, unchurched people have blamed hypocritical Christians for their opting to stay home on Sunday mornings. I hate to admit that I assume most conservative politicians and evangelical leaders are hiding something scandalous. It’s just happened so many times and it hasn’t seemed to matter how unlikely the perpetrator was. Every scandal prompts organizational soul-searching, but questions about accountability only concede the argument that religious people can’t be trusted.

Religious hypocrisy didn’t start with Christianity, but Christianity was supposed to end it. According to Paul in Romans 1-3, salvation was for the Jew and the Gentile because both were under the wrath of God. Gentiles deserved God’s wrath because they had spiraled into immorality which they not only failed to restrain but even celebrated. The Jews on the other hand were under God’s wrath because they preached against sinful behavior while committing the very same sins. These words to first-century Jews could easily have been addressed to twenty-first-century Christians:

You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law?

Romans 7:21b-23 (NIV)

Just as the pagans needed the gospel to save them from their idolatry and immorality so the Jews needed it to save them from hypocrisy. That Christians are known for hypocrisy demonstrates how far the church has drifted from Paul’s gospel. The message he preached liberated believers from self-righteousness as much as from ungodliness.

Paul develops his proposition that the gospel is God’s power to save both Jews and Gentiles through the book of Romans. In chapter 7 he begins to explain that hypocrisy and inconsistency were both consequences of legal dynamics. Through chapter 7 and into chapter 8, Paul names four spiritual laws and shows how they relate to one another. You will find them in boldface in the excerpt below:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inner being, but I see in my members another law waging war against the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and (the law of) death

Romans 7:21-8:2 (ESV – parenthetical mine NAW)

Here is a list of the original four spiritual laws with definitions:

  1. The law of God – His written commands such as “You shall not covet.” (Romans 7:7)
  2. The law of sin – The antithesis of God’s law. Where God’s law says, “You shall not covet,” it compels us to lust. (Romans 7:8)
  3. The law of death – Defined at the beginning of this section and named at the end of it. This law states, “When I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.” It is “another law waging war against the law of my mind making me captive to the law of sin.”
  4. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus – This law is stated succinctly in Romans 8:11, “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (ESV)

Sometimes chapter breaks keep us from recognizing the connections between the authors’ thoughts. By considering Romans 7:23-25 with 8:1-2 it’s easy to see that Paul meant for the Romans to recognize four spiritual laws that pertain to Christ’s saving work on our behalf.

While Bill Bright’s “Four Spiritual Laws” was intended to make Christians, Paul explained the original four spiritual laws to help Christians demonstrate their salvation from ungodliness and from hypocrisy. It seems to me that an understanding of Paul’s four would not only liberate Christians but would call more people into Christ’s kingdom through authentically righteous lives.

How three of the original four spiritual laws operate

I used to think that Christianity consisted of combing through the New Testament for every “command, example, and necessary inference,” which I must obey in order to get to heaven. Not only was the idea patently false according to the New Testament itself, it just didn’t work. It didn’t work for me or anyone else I knew. Everyone in that group would agree with the statement, “We all sin all the time.” Public prayers in that group would ask God to, “Forgive us for our many sins.” Looking back, my religiosity fit the very definition of insanity, “Doing the same time repeatedly expecting a different result.”

No one in our moralistic society would be offended by the gospel’s call for sinners to repent of their misdeeds. The offense comes when it calls religious people to repent of their virtues.

Somehow our self-congratulatory ego takes hold of the foolish hope that we’ll do better next time no matter how many “next times” we’ve blown. This was the case with so many Jewish people in the first century to whom Paul and others offered justification on the basis of faith. In Romans 10 Paul diagnosed them as having rejected Christ because they were seeking to establish their own righteousness. And yet if that were possible then Christ would have died for nothing. No one in our moralistic society would be offended by the gospel’s call for sinners to repent of their misdeeds. The offense comes when it calls religious people to repent of their virtues. And yet that’s the only way anyone will become truly righteous according to the original four spiritual laws.

According to Romans 7, the law of sin uses the law of God to imprison humans in the law of death. Since the law of sin is an evil, oppositional force it must be inert until it encounters something authoritative and righteous. The law of God, then, activates it. But since we are made in God’s image we don’t just succumb uncritically to sin but even while sinning we acknowledge that God’s law is righteous. This recognition might keep us from overt sin but can’t overcome the law of sin altogether since the law of God is external to us and the law of sin indwells us. Per the Jewish definition of death as the separation of spirit and body, Paul calls this moral disintegration “death” and the operation of it “the law of death.” So, the law of God or any perceived religious prescription becomes the instrument of spiritual death to the individual.

As Paul said in 1 Corinthians 15:56, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law.”

Just to be clear, living out of sync with our values is spiritual death, not normal Christianity.

We need to be saved not just from eternal death in hell but from the hell of spiritual death now. It is from this wretchedness that Christ saves us today as Paul wrote:

Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Romans 7:24-25a

So, I need to be delivered not just from legal guilt for sin but also from the dynamics at work between the law of God, the law of sin, and the law of death. Christ through his death and resurrection has completely snatched everyone who believes from the prison guarded by this three-headed dog.

Life to your mortal bodies

Real salvation must begin with the nullification of the law of God. So long as the law stands the sinner remains imprisoned on death row. Paul sums up the law of death in Romans 7:25b, “So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.” As with capital criminals, release must begin with an overturning of the verdict. So Paul goes on to say, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1 ESV) But verdicts in the American justice system can only be overturned in the case of judicial error and that can’t exist under God’s law. For there to be no condemnation, that which has been violated must cease to apply.

Christ didn’t come to perpetually settle the score but to change the game entirely.

Christians often conceive of grace as God’s repeated willingness to overlook their many transgressions of his law. While some would argue that this “continual cleansing” inspires humility and gratitude it actually fosters disregard. When a person is expected to fail, they’ll do just that. Being told we’re fundamentally flawed doesn’t do much to inspire real worship for our creator. Christ didn’t come to perpetually settle the score but to change the game entirely. His death and resurrection don’t just allow us to cope with the law of sin and the law of death but to overcome them through a brand new law. As Paul goes on to say:

For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

Romans 8:2-4 (ESV)

We’re under a new law that doesn’t consist of prescriptions and prohibitions written in a religious text. That sort of law will always fall into the hands of the law of sin and imprison us in the law of death. There’s a new sort of law that instead of arming the laws of sin and of death sets us free from them. We no longer need the law to show us sin’s ugliness because Christ has put that on display once and for all. Now we can turn our attention from our own legal culpability to his resurrected beauty. We can now turn from a law of works to a law of faith that puts its joyful hope in the power of the resurrection. That power is the Spirit of Christ who brought him to life from physical death and so will bring us to life from spiritual death.

The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus states, “…he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11b ESV)

Sin can’t be overcome by trying to avoid sin. Christ sets us free from (thinking about) sin so we can focus on him. The law of God was weak not because it was flawed but because it counted on human strength to accomplish it. The law of the Spirit of life counts on human weakness relying on God’s strength which means it can’t help but overcome. The Christian life consists of repeatedly offering our own human strength over to death so that resurrection power may fill the void. When that happens the law of death is broken by life which his Spirit gives to our mortal (the ones we’re in now) bodies.

We don’t live the Christian life by avoiding sin and pursuing virtue. Rather, we avoid self-righteousness and pursue Christ. With him as our whole focus, we will become more than good; we’ll become glorious.

Free Indeed – Galatians 1:10-17

The gospel couldn’t have arisen from humans because humans don’t set each other free.

Photo by Snapwire on Pexels.com

Everyone wants to be free, but nobody likes freedom.

We don’t like to be compelled or constrained. Something in humans will resist external control when we perceive it.1 We’ll even do things we don’t really want to do just because someone else has prohibited it. Take for instance the prevalence of tobacco use among teens2 despite its unpleasant taste and dysphoric effects.

Even as we buck perceived authority3 we fall under the sway of cultural conformity.4 Have you ever seen a rebellious teen smoking alone? We social animals instinctively know that without these controls, our societies will go off the rails. We desperately want to be free, but we don’t want to be alone. We need to be part of a society, but society can only function by inhibiting individual freedoms.

History catalogues governments and cultures formed and punctuated by coups and revolutions. Discontent builds beneath the confines of custom. Corruption corrodes credibility. Restless new generations aspire to recast society without their ancestors’ failings. When these tensions erupt they blow apart centuries-old conventions in a matter of months. These dynamics can be assumed from an historical viewpoint, but what happens next has spiritual implications.

Every revolution enthrones new oppressors. Yesterday’s edgy fashion trend becomes today’s cookie cutter look. Today’s social justice warrior will be tomorrow’s defender of the status quo.

The Who’s Pete Townsend penned some nearly-inspired lyrics about this phenomenon back in 1971:

There's nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced, by-the-bye
And the parting on the left
Is now parting on the right
And the beards have all grown longer overnight5

More prosaically, the clear-eyed Saul Alinsky observed:

The Haves usually establish laws and judges devoted to maintaining the status quo; since any effective means of changing the status quo are usually illegal and/or unethical in the eyes of the establishment, Have-Nots, from the beginning of time, have been compelled to appeal to “a law higher than man-made law.” Then when the Have-Nots achieve success and become the Haves, they are in the position of trying to keep what they have and their morality shifts with their change of location in the power pattern.

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals (pp. 42-43)

To document this tendency, Alinsky cites two stirring examples. First, the anticlimax to Ghandi’s political and moral triumph over British colonial rule in India:

Eight months after securing independence, the Indian National Congress outlawed passive resistance and made it a crime. It was one thing for them to use the means of passive resistance against the previous Haves, but now in power they were going to ensure that this means would not be used against them!

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals (p. 43)

Then, Alinsky points his iconoclastic spotlight closer to home:

Again Sam Adams, the firebrand radical of the American Revolution, provides a clear example. Adams was foremost in proclaiming the right of revolution. However, following the success of the American Revolution it was the same Sam Adams who was foremost in demanding the execution of those Americans who participated in Shays’ Rebellion, charging that no one had a right to engage in revolution against us!

Alinsky, Saul. Rules for Radicals (p. 43)

All of this suggests that no matter how frequently or vigorously we shoot for freedom, our loaded dice turn up oppression. This perennial disparity seems to indicate something endemic within the human species. That we keep dismantling unjust regimes only to reinvent oppression suggests that we’re unaware of the real problem.

The church has historically oppressed the liberated.

Jesus himself came resounding through the ages with the timeless promise, “you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”6 His church, tasked with dispensing that freedom, shortly became western civilization’s arch oppressor.7 Earthly kings might control their subjects’ actions, but only religious leaders can presume to lay claim on their hearts and minds. Politicians might put people to death for murder or treason, but priests execute them for what they believe.

Christendom didn’t create this kind of control; it just baptized it. Early believers in Christ had to defy the Roman imperial cult to confess that Jesus is Lord.8 Through this surrender to “the obedience of faith,”9 those first Christians rose above the reach of earthly authority. Then, the annexation of the church known as The Edict of Milan, paved the way for the persecuted to become the new persecutors.

Every religion, even historic Christianity, exists firmly within the world system and operates under the basic principles of control.

But Paul insisted that the gospel demands freedom.

It must be either that Paul had engineered a bait and switch or that the church has concocted a different gospel – one that conforms to human need for control. In this post, I plan to demonstrate that Paul’s gospel precluded human power dynamics at their root. This feature of the gospel argues strongly for its divine source.

Every religion is just another context for human control.

Photo by Jan Kroon on Pexels.com

Paul had previously served God for human approval and became God’s enemy.

Religious activities are almost always mediated through and witnessed by other people. This feature of religion makes it hard to know our own motives. Paul begins to probe into his own history with hypocrisy in Galatians 1:10-13:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it. 

(English Standard Version)

Paul assessed his own goals in writing the Galatian letter. Were his words borne out of obedience to God or a desire to please people? Was he protecting the establishment or was he functioning as God’s emissary?

We may wonder why Paul bothers to address such a possibility. Surely someone claiming to serve God must be aiming to serve God. But that’s not always the case.

In church staff meetings, I’ve heard Christian leaders say, “Everyone has mixed motives. It’s best just to do the right things and let your motives catch up.” Our ministries especially to youth intentionally employed man-pleasing. The goal was to have a youth leader who possessed enough “cool” factor to attract the popular kids. Then, he or she would train the popular kids to influence the rest of the group. Our senior pastor called it, “positive peer pressure.” To the question, “Are we pleasing human beings or God?” we probably would have responded, “Both.”

Paul doesn’t allow for such equivocation. He had to pick one because the two are antithetical – “If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”

If you’ve had only positive church experiences and can think back over a litany of mentors in your life, you might struggle to understand how this could be so. To appreciate Paul’s absolutist position, turn your attention to that little word, “still.” For Paul, this wasn’t an axiom like, “No one can serve two masters.”10 Galatians 1:10 is the beginning of his autobiography. Paul had to repent of his group loyalty before he could serve Christ.

We might expect this sort of assessment from a former gang member, but Paul hadn’t been a part of such an openly immoral group. Skip down to vs. 13a, “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism…” Paul had been a citizen in Israel among God’s chosen people. In another place he gives his impressive religious pedigree:

If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. 

Philippians 3:4b-6 (ESV)

How many people do you know who could call themselves, “blameless”? Before his conversion Paul had lived with complete integrity. His problem hadn’t been the law11 but the method of its enforcement. Even though he had zealously followed a religious code, he had ultimately been under the world system. The difference between Saul of Tarsus and Paul the Apostle wasn’t the God he claimed to serve, the values he espoused, or even his religious practice; it was in the influence other people had over his life.

Saul of Tarsus could not have become a follower of Christ because he, though highly religious, was the slave of human approval. His religious opinions and actions, as we will see, were shaped by his group rather than by a personal response to God. It has been said that when you mix politics and religion, you get politics. Paul would say that all religion is mixed. While the world’s power brokers artfully manipulate religious sensibilities, they recoil from the true gospel of God. Why? Because the kingdom which arises from its proclamation shimmers on a hill beyond their reach.

Here’s how Christ described his kingdom to a politician who was under political pressure from a bloc of power-mad priests:

Jesus said, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place.’

John 18:36

God gave the Mosaic law, but he left its interpretation and enforcement to people. And people are fallen. True to form, these lawyers manipulated the law for their own gain.12 Power corrupts and corruption spreads. Manhandled religion breeds the kind of monumental hypocrisy that killed the Son of God. And so, Paul’s “previous way of life in Judaism” consisted of “intensely persecuting the church of God.”

Paul had followed the highest possible standard taught to him by the best possible mentors and became the worst possible sinner.13 His redemption could be nothing short of supernatural.

Paul, the Jew, needed to be saved just like the pagan Galatians.

Back in verse 4, Paul wrote that he and the Galatians had both been saved from the same thing – this present evil age. But how could they both be saved from the same social environment when Jews and Gentiles maintained separate communities? The Jewish perception of the difference between the two communities can be seen in Paul’s own words to Peter in the next chapter:

We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles…

Galatians 2:15

First century Jews used the words, “sinners,” and “Gentiles,” interchangeably.

As a “Hebrew of Hebrews,” Paul probably thought the gentile Galatians needed to be saved from their society by joining his. His encounter with the living Jesus had shown him that he needed to be saved from his society as much as the Galatians needed to be saved from theirs.

How could this be when the two cultures looked so very different?

There’s a saying that goes, “If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it just may be a duck.” While the logic may be questionable, the so-called duck test, often cuts through labels to practical realities. In this autobiographical section of Galatians, Paul cuts through the superficial distinctions between Jew and Gentile to show that everyone serves the same awkward water fowl. As with the metaphorical duck, the present evil age can be recognized by its patterns of behavior.

Consider how these patterns of social control manifested in Paul’s pre-Christian life as described in Galatians 1:13-14:

  • “For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism…”
    • Tribalism is the foundation of social control.
    • When people identify with a group, they implicitly agree to conform to the beliefs and norms which make that group distinct from others.
    • Tribalism rewards insider compliance with guaranteed support and with affirmations of superiority over those who are without.
    • Tribalism is almost unavoidable since even the most inclusive groups will always find “bigots” to distinguish themselves from.
  • “…how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it…”
    • Coercion maintains the authority of the powerful.
    • Every society anywhere must spell out the negative consequences of nonconformity. These prescriptions are known as “law.”
    • Coercion might be as mild as the threat of financial penalty or as severe as imprisonment, torture and death.
    • Even smaller societies such as marriages, families, and institutions use coercion to maintain control.
  • “…I was advancing in Judaism…”
    • Ambition can provide persistent motivation even without enforcement.
    • This may sound like an internal motivator, but it is awakened and shaped by society’s definition of success.
    • In a religious context, I’ve been awed (in both senses of the word) by the achievement system in the Mormon Church. All Mormons, but especially the youth, know just how well they’re doing at Mormonism through clearly defined and celebrated performance goals.
  • “…beyond many my own age…”
    • What fun is ambition, though, without Competition?
    • Sure, achieving a goal can be satisfying, but it’s so much more exhilarating when we do it faster than anyone of our peers.
    • Our common association of competition with sports might be tempt us to trivialize its negative potential. But competition makes us perceive sports as anything but trivial. Off the field, competition in the workplace or for romantic attention, can crumble personal integrity.
    • We Americans have become so driven by competition that we assume it’s a virtue. I once heard a radio ad for a church-based Christian school that boasted it taught “truth, righteousness, and competition.”
  • “…among my people…”
    • Just as competition enhances ambition, so Honor and Shame drive competition.
    • An Olympic Gold Medal is worth around $900. That’s not much for all of the sacrifice elite athletes have to make to win one. So why do it? The answer is obviously for the honor of standing on that top podium. Just as ambition becomes more exhilarating in competition, so winning becomes that much more appealing in front of a huge audience.
    • As the withdrawal of Simone Biles from the competition illustrates, the avoidance of shame can be just as powerful (not to mention more prevalent) motivator.
    • The full extent of honor and shame’s power can be seen in the ritual suicides and honor killings which have historically (and also recently) taken place in eastern cultures.
  • “…and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
    • G.K. Chesterton, the brilliant author and social commentator, once said that Tradition is just democracy over time. Though he was a committed Christian, I don’t think he’d recognized that the collective opinion of fallen people is still antagonistic to God.
    • I’m all for learning from the failures and successes of previous generations, but tradition turns seniority into infallibility.
    • In my experience, tradition is more about predecessors grasping at godhood than descendants inheriting wisdom.
    • Good education says, “Here’s what we learned; now build on it.” Tradition says, “Here’s what we decided; now live by it.”

I’m sure this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s enough for us to assemble an accurate duck test to recognize that the present evil age operates in every relationship, family, friend group, organization, and nation. Every person in history was born under its domain because every social system operates on these dynamics. We may resent the oppression when we perceive it, but we’ll never be able to free ourselves because there’s no place to go.

Even if we could establish a free society, it would immediately begin to spoil. Why? Because in this world-wide prison, we’re not just the inmates; we’re also the wardens. Chances are, until this very moment, you’ve probably known these control tactics by their popular designation, “social skills.” They’re not just how we get used; they’re also how we get by. Like with trustees in a concentration camp we learn to survive by siding with our jailors. In time, our complicity wins us special favors which we come to treasure more than our own souls.

Only God can set us free.

Photo by Jonathan Borba on Pexels.com

God himself must dismantle our man-made prison.

Paul’s description of his previous way of life under Judaism looks pretty hopeless. He was an enemy of God and humankind while finding human approval and professing to serve God. The only hope there could be for such a deluded individual comes in his next three words to the Galatians, “But when God…” As with Israel in Egypt, only God could bring Paul and the Galatians out of slavery. This time, though, the Lord’s mighty hand would bring his people out from under the invisible lash of social control.

Let’s consider Galatians 1:15-17 phrase by phrase to see how God’s action through Christ liberates everyone who believes:

  • “…who set me apart from my mother’s womb…”
    • Election ends Tribalism.
    • Paul’s writings about predestination and election were more pastoral than theological. God elects individuals apart from any group affiliation.
    • According to Romans 4:17, God predestined people from many nations to become children of Abraham by including them in his covenant outside of time.
    • The doctrine of election does away with the insider/outsider distinction of tribalism because God’s kingdom includes every kind of person, even those who have yet to believe. Nobody in the kingdom knows who’s in and who’s out, so it’s incumbent on us to simply love as we have opportunity.
  • “…and called me by his grace…”
    • Grace makes Coercion obsolete.
    • I can think of no more touching illustration of grace than the story of the prodigal son from Luke 15. The first time I really contemplated this story it melted me to snot and tears. What got me wasn’t the fact that the father received the son back into his home. It was the complete absence of terms or conditions. That’s not how the world works. How could this father ensure that his son wouldn’t betray him again? Surely the son would need to suffer at least a good chewing out!
    • The paradox of grace is that it not only suppresses bad behavior, but cleanses the bad behind the behavior. Brennan Manning said it this way: “Several times in my ministry people have expressed the fear that self-acceptance will abort the ongoing conversion process and lead to a life of spiritual laziness and moral laxity. Nothing could be more untrue. The acceptance of self does not mean to be resigned to the status quo. On the contrary, the more fully we accept ourselves, the more successfully we begin to grow. Love is a far better stimulus than threat or pressure.”14
    • Now you might be all for receiving grace, but remember that grace is more than a divine disposition. It’s a new social operating system. Back in vs. 6 Paul reminded the Galatians that they had been called “to live in the grace of Christ.” We can order our relationships by a system of crime and punishment (law) or a system of grace, but not both. Much more on this later.
  • “…was pleased to reveal his Son in me…”
    • Discipleship redirects Ambition and Competition
    • The gospel gives a new goal to those who believe it.
    • Paul goes into more depth on his shift in Philippians 3:7-12: “But whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God on the basis of faith. I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already arrived at my goal, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me.
    • When Christ promoted us to his righteousness, he left us with nothing to chase but him. That pursuit which ends in life follows an ever descending road through identification with his suffering.15
  • “…so that I might preach him among the Gentiles…”16
    • Stewardship nullifies Honor and Shame.
    • Every child of God has been given a trust. We’re all employed in the enterprise of dispensing the word of life to everyone for whom Christ died.
    • There is no task in this enterprise that is beneath us.17
    • Any good we do, goes to his credit.18
    • He bears any rejection we face.
    • This vignette from Acts 5:40-41 illustrates the gospel transposition of honor and shame: “They called the apostles in and had them flogged. Then they ordered them not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go. The apostles left the Sanhedrin, rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (emphasis mine NAW)
  • “…my immediate response was not to consult with any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. “
    • Calling cancels Tradition.
    • The problem of humankind is people. The surest way to pervert a person’s view of God is to insert another person in between.19 The stab of instant regret prohibited Paul from repeating past mistakes. Having been yanked out of the stream of manhandled religion, he instinctively fled human involvement.
    • Conversely, the surest way to avoid tradition is to have a personal relationship with God. Notice that Paul didn’t even want one spiritual generation to intervene.
    • Here’s the kicker. Most evangelicals would defer to “apostolic authority” as given through the New Testament and expect others to do so. Paul didn’t, and as we will see, didn’t want the Galatians to do that either.20 Even if we could interpret the New Testament with 100% accuracy, we mustn’t make adherence to it an article of faith. To do so would be to place humans (admittedly exceptional ones) between us and God.
    • Upon being baptized, Paul, like Christ before him, was driven into the desert. There’s something critical about getting alone to find God as our one thing. The more involved a person has been in church, the more they probably need to pull away. And everyone needs at least a little time each day in his or her prayer closet.21

God sets us free to participate in community.

Paul fled to the desert after his conversion, but the desert wasn’t his destination. At the end of Galatians 1:17 he tells his readers, “Later I returned to Damascus.”

I don’t know how long Paul stayed in Arabia, but it probably wasn’t more than a few weeks. Luke, Paul’s biographer, reports Paul’s conversion and his ministry in Damascus contiguously in Acts 9:17-22.

The gospel doesn’t call us to abandon the world. Any old ascetic cult can do that. The gospel calls and empowers us to live free from human influence as an open community in the midst of this present evil world.

All of this may sound wonderful, but it’s also frightening. As members of the present evil age, we not only were compelled by these methods of control, we counted on them. To be freed from them, we’ve been stripped of them. Interacting with other people can feel like being sent unarmed into an active combat zone. In fact, that’s what it is –

“I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.”


You know what happens to sheep among wolves, don’t you? There’s nothing in Scripture or Christian history to suggest any exception to the usual outcome. Christ died to set us free. We too, must die to our illusions, affections, ambitions, allegiances, expectations, and even existence on this planet if we’re going to remain free. This is why humans while clamoring to be free, secretly hate radical freedom and would never think to release it upon the world.

And so we circle back to Paul’s contention that his gospel didn’t emerge from a human source:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

Galatians 1:11-12

Yes, Paul received his gospel through a supernatural event, but the message he received was the exact one he passed on. The revelation was “of Jesus Christ.” Paul wasn’t given a list of moral imperatives, a sacramental system, or an ecclesiastic order. He never claimed to be commissioned to write The Bible: Volume Two. The message he got from Christ was, “I’m alive.”

Even now when the gospel is preached only the called will hear directly from Christ. What they will hear will be the same revelation given to Paul. From that moment on, they will all be taught of God.


  1. We often don’t perceive we’re being controlled especially in the case of time-honored laws such as with seatbelts or in the case of social conformity.
  2. Teen tobacco use peaked in the late 1990’s but has been on the rise again in recent years. One CDC report found that “harsher parent-child communication on the rules about smoking and discipline for smoking had detrimental effects (i.e., it escalated smoking).”
  3. Dr. Stanley Milgram in his studies on obedience to authority concluded, “Submission to authority is a powerful and prepotent condition in man.” Obedience to Authority p. 123
  4. “Subjects deny conformity and embrace obedience as the explanation of their behavior.” IBID p. 115
  5. “We Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Pete Townsend
  6. John 8:32 (NIV)
  7. The Inquisitions of the church illustrate the oppressive potential of an institution which claims to invest divine authority into human vessels. This phenomenon isn’t limited to Roman Catholicism, either, since just mere decades after the Reformation commenced, both Martin Luther and John Calvin endorsed the killing of reformers more radical than they. Even though these instances occurred 1100 to 1500 years remote respectively from the time of Christ, they represent the full flower of second century debates over church primacy. In our own democratic society, the religious right, has worked to force non-Christians to conform to their perceived moral norms.
  8. Romans 10:9-13; 1 Timothy 6:11-16
  9. Romans 1:5
  10. Matthew 6:24
  11. In his writings, Paul repeatedly affirms the moral superiority of the Mosaic covenant such as in Romans 2:17-20.
  12. It seems that the Pharisees had concocted a system of minimum adherence which would excuse bad behavior such as in Matthew 5:33-35.
  13. As was his assessment of himself in 1 Timothy 1:12-16.
  14. The Ragamuffin Gospel p.52
  15. Christ’s trajectory in life was the polar opposite of worldly ambition according to Philippians 2:5-11.
  16. For an observant first century Jew, preaching to the Gentiles would have been a distasteful assignment. And yet, Paul boasted in it. See Acts 10:27-29 and Romans 15:15-17.
  17. Jesus upended honor and shame by becoming our royal servant. John 13:1-17
  18. Paul combats an incursion by Honor and Shame in the Corinthian church in 1 Cor. 1:26-31. He begins this section by reminding them that they’d been chosen precisely because they were for the most part the dregs of humanity. He ends it with a reminder from Scripture that the one who boasts must boast in the Lord.
  19. Yes, Jesus is a human, but he’s also God. We’ll talk more about that when (if?) we get to chapter 3.
  20. The early church seems to have seen this direct learning from God as a fulfillment of Jeremiah 31:33-34.
  21. A reference to the King James translation of Matthew 6:5-8.
  22. Matthew 10:16a

The Kingdom of the Gospel – Galatians 1:8-9

Every believer in the gospel has direct guidance from God.

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse!”

Galatians 1:8

Nobody outranks the gospel.

Paul claimed no legislative authority as an apostle. Instead, he affirmed his subjection to the message he had already preached to them. He didn’t claim ongoing revelatory rights. During the two or so occasions when he preached to these people, he had given them the full revelation of God. From what he says in this verse, we can be sure that Paul never intended his letters to become addenda to the gospel.

Yes, Paul in other places1 spoke of his authority as an apostle, but that seems to have been executive authority – that is, power to protect and enforce the gospel. As an example of Paul’s apostolic authority in action, consider this instance from just before he reached the Galatian region:

They traveled through the whole island until they came to Paphos. There they met a Jewish sorcerer and false prophet named Bar-Jesus, who was an attendant of the proconsul, Sergius Paulus. The proconsul, an intelligent man, sent for Barnabas and Saul because he wanted to hear the word of God. But Elymas the sorcerer (for that is what his name means) opposed them and tried to turn the proconsul from the faith. Then Saul, who was also called Paul, filled with the Holy Spirit, looked straight at Elymas and said, “You are a child of the devil and an enemy of everything that is right! You are full of all kinds of deceit and trickery. Will you never stop perverting the right ways of the Lord? Now the hand of the Lord is against you. You are going to be blind for a time, not even able to see the light of the sun.”

Immediately mist and darkness came over him, and he groped about, seeking someone to lead him by the hand. When the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, for he was amazed at the teaching about the Lord.

Acts 13:6-12

Paul’s words to Bar-Jesus weren’t part of “the teaching about the Lord.” Rather, they defended and confirmed the teaching. Most Christians read these verses with no inclination to strike skeptics blind. Since they are set in a narrative, we naturally understand Paul’s words to be situational. For some reason, we struggle to do the same with what he wrote to the churches. I suspect it’s because we really want a list of rules.

In making himself accountable to the gospel he’d already preached, Paul forever distinguished the gospel from any of his New Testament instructions. Christian dogma begins and ends with the gospel. Every other teaching or instruction in the New Testament ought to be evaluated pragmatically.

Let’s take Paul’s teaching on the role of women in the church as an example:

Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home…

1 Cor. 14:33-35a NIV

If we take these words as law akin to Old Testament Levitical instructions, then any time any woman speaks in any Christian assembly for any reason, she has committed a violation against God. That being the case, then she should be taken out of the assembly and stoned to death. Any men in the assembly who refuse to carry out this command would themselves be held accountable before God.

Someone might respond that we’re under a new dispensation of grace whereby this affront to God’s holiness can be overlooked.


Anyone who rejected the law of Moses died without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severely do you think someone deserves to be punished who has trampled the Son of God underfoot, who has treated as an unholy thing the blood of the covenant that sanctified them, and who has insulted the Spirit of grace?

Hebrews 10:28-29

According to the author of the letter to the Hebrews, Christ’s death on our behalf has intensified the implications of defiance. If 1 Cor. 14:34-35 was written to reveal God’s command to the churches for all time, then we may not countenance the least infraction. Yet, wouldn’t the addition of this instruction as a rider on the gospel come under the indictment of Galatians 1:8? We can’t say that as an apostle Paul had authority to legislate where others didn’t since he called down the same curse on himself.

If 1 Corinthians 14:34-35 was written to support the gospel, it is subject to performance review. According to the immediate context, Paul wrote these instructions to promote order in the assembly and to keep the gospel from falling into public disgrace.2 As we consider the effect of this passage on the tranquility of the church and the credibility of the gospel in our day, can we say that it’s fulfilling its intended purpose?

On the other hand, what does the gospel teach about the role of women in the church? Let’s take a few gospel elements and see if we can come to a conclusion:

  • Christ came into the world through a woman of faith.
  • He died for all people regardless of social status, race or gender.
  • He has instituted a new covenant that makes renewal through the Holy Spirit and not circumcision the hallmark of God’s people.
  • That same Holy Spirit gifts people at his discretion to carry on the work of the kingdom until Christ returns.

No doubt we could come up with other pertinent bullets, but these seem to sufficiently align to point in a doctrinal direction don’t they?

Which seems the more faithful interpretation of Paul: To turn his instructions into a new written code to be mindlessly followed regardless of their implications for the gospel? Or to reject some of his instructions to more accurately express the gospel as it changes the cultural landscape?

Did I just say, “reject some of his (Paul’s) instructions”?

I know that prospect might sound alarming to some, but remember, Paul was going around telling everyone that the message he preached had replaced the Old Testament Scriptures as the authoritative standard. The unease which arises over trading prescribed commands for a simple story has a name – “doubt.”

God can be trusted to guide his people directly through the gospel as interpreted by the Holy Spirit. Really, this is the only way to preserve authentic Christianity. If the church had agreed with Paul that the gospel alone holds the final authority, we would have been spared the rise of Islam, the Great Schism, the Crusades, the Inquisition, the Reformation, denominationalism, Mormonism, and Evangelicalism.3 In light of 2000 years of history, can we really argue the effectiveness of ecclesiastical hierarchy or biblical scholarship? Every grievous deviation I’ve mentioned was predicated either on trust in human authority, the desire for an inspired code book, or both.

You heard me.

As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!

Galatians 1:9

This verse seems almost to repeat the preceding one, but with one crucial difference. In verse 8 he’d spoken of the gospel he’d preached. Here he speaks of the gospel they’d received. Miraculously, they were the same.

Communication is hard. We encode ideas into words which we send to someone else who we hope will be able to decode the words to reconstruct something similar to the ideas we encoded. Even if the ideas get accurately conveyed, they warp somewhat through the receiver’s perception.

This near repetition between vs. 8 and 9 seems to suggest that Paul recognized the difference between a message preached and one received. In the case of the gospel, though, he treated them both as equally inviolable. This presumes that they had accurately understood Paul’s saving message.

Paul’s curse on any apostles or angels who might proclaim another message closed the door on future revelation. Since the gospel Paul preached was the final revelation, any claims to new inspired truth could be dismissed out of hand. Before the popes, Mohammad, Joseph Smith, or L. Ron Hubbard were even born, Paul had equipped the church to reject them. As we will see, the gospel precludes supposed mediators because it has done away with the mediatorial office.

Not only had God done away with the need for divine messengers, he’s demoted religious teachers. Paul’s curse on anybody who is preaching what they hadn’t received, precludes the need for a clergy class. The gospel is a long-hidden mystery now revealed.6 It’s a story that a small child can retell. Each person can receive the gospel at their first hearing and have direct access to divine guidance from the point of belief.

The gospel which Paul preached removed the need for all human mediation between God and people until Christ returns.

God is fully capable of defending his kingdom.

It’s clear from his tone that Paul passionately opposed the activity of the Judaizers in Galatia. Why didn’t he call on the church leadership to silence them? Instead, he proclaimed a curse on such people.

The kingdom itself doesn’t need defending even if false teaching or persecution wreak havoc on the church. Those who know the gospel must handle it correctly, defending it against those who would tamper with it. However, the outcome of our efforts does not depend ultimately on us.

In calling down God’s curse, Paul affirmed God’s role and right to defend his own kingdom. The apostle to the Gentiles didn’t hurl an empty, “damn them” at the Judaizers. He called on God to superintend the glorious gospel. This literal anathema corresponds to the more specific curse which Paul cast on Bar-Jesus in the passage above. Paul demonstrated his apostolic authority through the application of divine power.7

When the church forgets that God defends his own kingdom, it resorts to worldly power structures to do the job. The history of Christendom is sullied by accounts of abuses of power by “Christian” leaders. Even in the absence of crusades, inquisitions, and scandals, church as usual often scars the souls of its members through political maneuvering and systemic manipulation.

From our vantage point, we might think that Paul had no institutional power because it wasn’t available to him. In fact, he did have institutional power. He just had to give it up to become a follower of Christ.

  1. 2 Cor. 10:8; 13:10; 1 Thess. 2:6
  2. For God is not a God of disorder but of peace—as in all the congregations of the Lord’s people. Women should remain silent in the churches. They are not allowed to speak, but must be in submission, as the law says. If they want to inquire about something, they should ask their own husbands at home; for it is disgraceful for a woman to speak in the church. (1 Cor. 14:33-35 NIV)
  3. Every one of these movements and events have been predicated on either church authority, the assumption that God must reveal his will through a written text, or a combination of the two.
  4. Acts 11 and 15
  5. 1 Cor. 5
  6. Colossians 1:27
  7. Paul threatened the Corinthians with God’s disciplinary power in 1 Cor. 4:18-21.

Fake News – Galatians 1:6-7

Paul begins the body of the Galatian letter like this:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ…”

Gal. 1:6a (NIV)

The Greek word here translated “I am astonished,” denotes more wonder than dismay. The NASB translates it, “I’m amazed.” The difference might seem insignificant, but I believe the latter more accurately conveys Paul’s tone.

We might say that he’s using the uncomplimentary, “wow,” such as in this meme:

meme with clipart profile of a woman and words, "'wow' This is not a compliment; she's amazed that one person could be so stupid."

Whatever this church was doing had risen to monumental heights of stupidity in Paul’s mind. What could it have been?

Let’s take a brief look at Paul’s history with the Galatians for insight:

  • Acts 13:1-12 – Paul and Barnabas are commissioned and preach through the island of Cyprus with John Mark as their helper.

  • Act 13:13-43 – The missionaries sail to Asia Minor and then travel inland to the Galatian region where Paul preaches at the synagogue in Psidian Antioch. He receives a hearing and is invited to speak again the next week.

  • Acts 13:44-48 – Almost the whole city turns out the following Saturday to hear Paul and Barnabas. Moved by jealousy, the Jews oppose their message. Paul rebukes the Jews and shifts the focus of his ministry to the crowds of receptive Gentiles.

  • The word of the Lord spread through the whole region. But the Jewish leaders incited the God-fearing women of high standing and the leading men of the city. They stirred up persecution against Paul and Barnabas, and expelled them from their region. So they shook the dust off their feet as a warning to them and went to Iconium. And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit.

    Acts 13:49-51 NIV

Throughout the history of missions, this kind of city-wide revival has only taken place where God had already been working in a special way to call a people into his kingdom.

It was the Galatians’ time to come into the kingdom. And so Luke comments on the Galatian response:

When the Gentiles heard this, they were glad and honored the word of the Lord; and all who were appointed for eternal life believed.

Acts 13:48 NIV

God himself had begun to call the nations (Gentiles) to be his people. The masses of unwashed pagans straining to hear at the door of synagogue signified that God had been working there already. The overflowing joy those believing Gentiles received in the midst of opposition confirmed that the divine preparation had paid off.

Now, they’d so quickly begun to abandon this God who’d worked for centuries to call them from their ignorance and bondage.


News can change the world.

On Wednesday, November 9th, 2016, US news outlets were flailing for answers. Just the day before they’d predicted with 90% certainty that Hilary Clinton would win the presidential election.

They were wrong.

Trump’s win was blamed on “fake news” disseminated through social media.

Eventually Trump himself would coopt the term to refer to those self-same media outlets.

Whatever your political leaning, I think we can all agree that fake news is dangerous. It wasn’t invented in 2016, though. It’s been with us from time immemorial and it came to Galatia after Paul had left.

Paul writes:

and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all.

Gal. 1:6b-7a NIV

The English word, “gospel,” arose from the older, “god spell,” where “god” was pronounced and meant, “good,” and “spell” meant, “a story.” It was a translation, by way of Latin, of the Greek, “euangelion,” which literally means, “happy announcement,” or “good news.”

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Back in those days, you couldn’t open an app on your phone and scroll a news feed. You couldn’t even turn on network television at 5 PM! News of the outside world came only one way, through a keirux – a preacher. We wouldn’t consider them an unbiased news source since they worked for the king, but none of them could put their own spin on what they had been given to say either. In Paul’s time, a preacher wasn’t a teacher of religious doctrine. He was simply a messenger sent to deliver a straightforward announcement.

Paul had not come to Galatia with a new religion. He hadn’t been commissioned to dictate God’s will to humankind. He didn’t come with a new book or even an addendum to an old one. He came to tell of a king’s victory and his ascension to heaven’s throne. Because he ministered a story rather than a religious system, his message came with one imperative:


Thankfully, the good news which Paul announced to the Galatians is recorded in Acts 13:16-41. Here’s the essence of what he said:

We tell you the good news: What God promised our ancestors he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. “Therefore, my friends, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is set free from every sin, a justification you were not able to obtain under the law of Moses.”

Acts 13:32-33a, 38-39 NIV

Paul made what he claimed to be factual statements about Jesus of Nazareth. Unlike secular heralds, Paul didn’t have any sort of physical authenticator such as an official seal to corroborate his message. What he did have was an appeal to the Hebrew scriptures and the experience of the kingdom among those who believed. I’ll talk more about both of these authenticators later on in this commentary, but for now suffice it to say that he took as a given that his gospel was true news.

If he was right, then any alternative facts would constitute fake news. A “different gospel” must, by definition be, “no gospel at all.”  And this kind of fake news did more harm than anything getting bounced around on Facebook today. 

Turning to another gospel meant abandoning God.

Consider the ramifications of accepting the alternative gospel:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all.

Galatians 1:6-7a NIV (Emphasis mine)

First century Jews used idioms to make sure they never misused God’s name. They often spoke of him indirectly by using passive verbs or by referring to what he’d done. Paul employs one such Hebraism to highlight the seriousness of the Galatians’ error:

“You…are deserting The One Who Called You.”

In our culture, “irreverent” often equates to “inquisitive” or even “funny.” We certainly never see anyone retract a tweet for being irreverent. So, we might struggle to feel the weight of this rebuke. When comparing our perspective Paul’s, we should remember that God spent 1500 years teaching Israel to revere him. In Romans 1:18, Paul wrote that God’s judgment is coming on humanity for irreverence. To desert “The One” is certainly no laughing matter.

How had they deserted him, though? Surely God doesn’t need our company or our support.

Paul says that they’d deserted the one who’d called them “to live in the grace of Christ.” This wasn’t neglect of a relationship so much as desertion in the middle of battle. Yes, God has worked in Christ to reconcile humanity to himself, but he’s also enlisted those same reconciled people into an invading army. When we defect from the way of the world, we simultaneously side against those same forces that held us captive.

The Galatians had deserted the holy God by giving up on living according to the standard of Christ’s own gracious character. In calling them deserters, Paul seems to have implied that they’d done more than detour away from God’s path – they’d fearfully fled in the exact opposite direction. As we will see, these weren’t evil or even careless people. These were church goers seeking to live according to a high moral and religious code. What had these decent people done to merit such unequivocal apostolic indictment? They had accepted an amended gospel.

The gospel that Paul preached is a divine artifact. If mishandling a gold-plated wooden box resulted in instant death, what greater punishment does a person deserve who tinkers with God’s self-revelation carved into the flesh of his own Son?

God’s disposition toward us depends on the authenticity of our gospel.

The good news (pun not intended) is that we don’t have to wonder whether we’ve believed a counterfeit gospel.

A distorted gospel twists souls and corrupts communities.

Only the authentic gospel compels and empowers us to live by the grace of Christ. Tinkering with the gospel will glitch our experience of it, and by extension, other people’s experience of us.

Look at Galatians 1:7b, “Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.”

As our gospel gets distorted, so do our lives. Paul points to their confusion as evidence they’ve entertained the un-gospel. The Greek word, translated, “confusion,” here, connotes both personal dissonance, and interpersonal strife. So, this tell-tale sign is also a two-fold sign. This was the same effect Paul witnessed in his home church in Antioch:

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question.

Acts 15:1-2 (NIV)

After the council in Jerusalem affirmed the sufficiency of the gospel, they wrote the church in Antioch about the legalists:

We have heard that some went out from us without our authorization and disturbed you, troubling your minds by what they said.

Acts 15:24 (NIV)

Notice that the fake gospel had both disturbed the church and disquieted the souls of its people. Anywhere we see interpersonal agitation or intrapersonal angst, we can find a perverted gospel.

These criteria might describe a large portion of your Christian experience. Some people might have come to accept them as normal. I assure you they are not. There’s another way – the original way.

Please don’t misunderstand, I’m not saying that we need to get back to New Testament Christianity. I’ve been there and done that. It doesn’t work. I mean, the New Testament church didn’t aspire to be the New Testament church did they? The attempt to reproduce “New Testament Christianity” is predicated on the assumption that the New Testament should shape our practice. That’s an egregious error that sounds almost unassailable – which is why confusion is the ordinary experience of most Christians.

It has been said that the Bible is our final authority for all matters of faith and life. Paul would have disagreed. For one, the Galatians didn’t have the Bible as we know it. More importantly, Paul considered the gospel to be the final authority for all matters of faith and life. This simple story that can be stated in a sentence is the full revelation of God. Those who accept it can enjoy its promise. Those who adapt it can be sure of spiritual discord along with ultimate destruction.

As we will see, the people who’d perverted the gospel were merely insisting that obedience to Scripture be tacked on as a rider to the announcement about Christ. The addition 300 years later of twenty-seven volumes to the Bible doesn’t change the truth that the gospel is the complete word of God. Any group or individual who sees the gospel as our initiation and the Bible, or even just the New Testament, as our guide is participating in the Galatian heresy.

Sprung – Galatians 1:3b-5

Would you buy alien invasion insurance?

A recent Gallup poll revealed that a significant percentage of Americans believe that aliens have visited the earth. Even so, I bet alien invasion insurance would be a tough sell especially if the premiums were very high.

Two factors mitigate its appeal.

  1. Nobody’s ever experienced one. Aliens might be real and if they have visited this planet from a distant star system, they’re surely advanced enough to win an interstellar conflict. But, we’ve never even had a skirmish with them. People pay insurance premiums for “peace of mind” over events that cause them concern. I’ve never met anyone who lies awake at night wondering how they will rebuild should a photon cannon level their home.
  2. By the time benefits become payable, it’ll be too late for a refund. Suppose they come and take over. Who’s going to enforce the payout?

The gospel is a hard sell for the same reason alien invasion insurance is.


People are understandably unwilling to prepare for a world yet to come. Nobody’s ever experienced a divine judgment. Sure, everyone is going to die, but the promise of eternal bliss afterward to those who pay some sort of earthly price is impossible to verify. To my knowledge the dead haven’t started leaving ratings and reviews.

The call to “save yourselves from the coming wrath,” sounded more credible in premodern times. A pandemic announced God’s wrath rather than viral mutation. Volcanic vents threatened eternal suffering in a subterranean realm of the dead rather than geothermal activity. Nowadays the appeal to “get saved,” is met with, “From what?”

Additionally, the gospel requires a high premium. The New Testament presents Jesus as demanding that we give up our relationships, possessions, and rights to ourselves in order to have it. In other words, “Give up everything to prepare for something no one’s ever experienced and for which there can be no real guarantee.” Not a great sales pitch.

These weaknesses of gospel presentation in the modern age not only alienate unbelievers; they result in flaccid faith among church goers as well. A person might be a Christian in twenty-first century America because they were raised in the faith, because they like the community, because they gravitate to moral absolutes, or because they need support in raising their kids. I think this is why large churches that offer lots of spiritual goods and services tend to be more successful in America. It’s probably also why those same churches struggle to recruit volunteers or get their members to give more than 3% of their income.

Jesus asked, “What will a person give in exchange for their life?” The obvious answer is, “Everything.” But for most American church goers, the gospel isn’t a matter of life and death. It’s good versus best and most people won’t make huge sacrifices to just feel a bit better about themselves or their futures.

Seeker spirituality might fill church buildings or even stadiums but it’s fatally flawed in the following way:

  • You can’t be a disciple of Christ without surrendering everything.
  • People only surrender everything for self preservation.
  • A “gospel” which doesn’t address perdition, can’t produce disciples.

So, we’re left with a dilemma. The traditional appeal to get saved no longer resonates with the modern mind. The modified offer of personal wholeness, while striking a chord with overwrought moderns, doesn’t produce Christians.

The gospel offers perennial salvation.

The answer to the dilemma I’ve presented can be found not in apologetic gymnastics or creative contextualization. It’s, of all places, right in the New Testament. Here it is:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

Galatians 1:3-5 NIV

The Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us from something in the present!

No, you wouldn’t buy alien invasion insurance, but what if they had already invaded and had installed a governor in our brains. What if someone came around offering to remove the governor and in doing so, liberate everyone from external control? What if you ran into a group of people who were free in a way that nobody else was and they claimed to have undergone the procedure?

What would you do to get the real you back?

If Paul offered salvation to someone and they asked, “Saved from what?” he wouldn’t have just said, “an eternity in hell,” or whatever other revivalist threats we might think of. He would say, “From this present evil age.” He wouldn’t be the only one, either.

Look at the first-ever “altar call”:

 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”

When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?”

Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. The promise is for you and your children and for all who are far off—for all whom the Lord our God will call.”

With many other words he warned them; and he pleaded with them, “Save yourselves from this corrupt generation.” Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.

Acts 2:36-41 NIV (Emphasis mine)

Christ died to save us from the conforming, controlling, corrupting influence of the society into which we’ve been born. He wants to snatch the real us that he created from the pollution, dilution, and distortion imposed upon us by the flood of manipulation and intimidation that barrages us every minute of every hour of every day.

Remember how Paul cut all association between his apostleship and human influence back in verse 1? This is why! He preached a gospel of radical freedom which couldn’t be beholden to human authority or cultural conformity.

Stuck in the middle…at the start

Maybe you already think you’re free. You’re not.

We’re wired to obey authority and conform to our culture. Even if we defy one of these controlling influences we end up in the clutches of the other one. A teenager might defy her parents, but spiral into depression over perceived rejection on social media. Someone who struggles socially might gravitate towards the predefined hierarchy of the military or a career in law enforcement.

That probably doesn’t feel like much of a problem in a civil society, but slavery is still slavery no matter how familiar the chains or how tolerable the tasks.

I remember having a group of formerly religious people over to my house to watch The Experimenter, a movie about Dr. Stanley Milgram’s obedience experiments. After watching a depiction otherwise “good” people administer what they believed were lethal shocks to a stranger at the urging of a perceived authority, one young woman said, “I’d like to think I wouldn’t have done that, but I probably would.” I appreciated her honesty. We all think we’re free as long as we’re comfortable with society’s demands. As soon as those demands change, we discover how beholden we’ve been all along.

More recently, think about the power of cancel culture to force an apology from almost everyone. It’s hard for me to believe that so many people say things in the first place which completely defy their essential values. Or that their real opinions only come out in the face of social censure. Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew declared that people say what’s in their heart. I tend to believe Christ over a whole procession of backpedaling celebrities.

No only is everyone influenced by authority and conformity, the two of them together conspire to control almost every aspect of our behavior. The law might say that you can’t leave the house naked, but it’s your culture that dictates which clothes you’ll put on. Authority and conformity form a social Scylla and Charybdis through which no one can pass to true freedom. It’s as the classic Demotivator observed, “When people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.”

At the same time, we must be free.

Bound to be free

Only a free person can be said to be authentic and only an authentic person can be truly moral. Moralistic rants on social media might make you feel like a justice warrior, but they say less about your real priorities than they do your cultural programming. Virtue signaling isn’t the same thing as being virtuous. Neither does a clean criminal record indicate a pure heart. I’ve seen ex-cons painstakingly toe the legal line while exploiting every kindness they could elicit. Authority atrophies character. Conformity counterfeits it. Only outside the reach of either can it truly develop or be expressed.

If we can’t get free but we must be free, what are we to do?

We need to be saved!

In the latter phrase of Galatians 1:3, Paul refers to Christ by this lengthier moniker, “Lord Jesus Christ.” This is the first explicit mention of his identity as God-king. The confession that “Jesus is Lord” was in one moment an oath of fealty and a declaration of independence. In its deference it defies cultural norms and political authority at the same time. The good confession in first century Rome made a person an outcast among majority believers in Yahweh by ascribing to a man that which first century Jews reserved for God. It simultaneously diverted the secular allegiance which the Romans required for Caesar, to a celestial deity.

Where could someone find the personal and spiritual fortitude to defy both Jewish and Roman society? It had to be through a conviction that Jesus Christ really had received “all authority in heaven and on earth.”

This might not sound like liberation. Just this week, I heard about someone who’d abandoned the faith because being “purchased by blood” just transferred ownership over us from sin to Christ. I don’t know this person and I’m sure they’re otherwise quite intelligent, but that line of reasoning is bafflingly naïve. Even if a society could scrub every vestige of hierarchical control, cultural conformity would expand into the vacuum. In essence every person would trade one governing authority for millions. Only an ultimate, ever-present authority could give individuals the wherewithal to defy the insidious totalitarian reign of public opinion.

Photo by Jeffrey Czum on Pexels.com

Even in a supposed free society most people want there to be some sort of authority to at least control their neighbors. Civilization depends on authority structures. Social experiments which attempt to do away with them inevitably create new ones.

We will be under authority and we must be free. How?

By willingly offering our allegiance to someone who commands that we live free.

But what would inspire someone to gladly give away their pretense of self determination? And what ruler having received such compliance would use it to make self determination mandatory? The answer to both questions can be found in the next phrase of Paul’s introduction, “who gave himself for our sins…” Christ has purchased our obligation with his blood, but he’s also bought our gratitude. At least that’s how Paul responded:

The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Galatians 2:20b NIV

There’s no hint of begrudging drudgery in this declaration. Paul had entered love’s natural transaction with Christ: “He lovingly gave himself for me, so I will give myself to him.”

Beyond the heart’s inclination to love in return, Paul’s decision to give himself to Jesus made rational sense. Surely someone who willingly died for him wouldn’t betray him or mislead him.

Notice also that he gave himself for our sins. It doesn’t say that he gave himself for our strong backs. This wasn’t the purchase of free labor, but liberation from fruitless toil (aka “sin”). According to Romans 3:23, to sin is to fall short of the glory of God. Assuming that by “glory” Paul meant the image of God in which we were made, then Christ’s dying for our sins must be intended to restore that glory. His dying for our sins liberated us to become our truest selves.

We were purchased by the blood to serve in God’s household, but not as slaves. Rather we’ve been redeemed from all slavery to live as God’s children which is what we were created to be. Not only is slavery no longer our lot, it’s not even an option. How could those who’ve been redeemed by the blood of God’s Son ever think of themselves as bound to anything?

Trust Big Brother

Imagine you’ve been adopted as royalty (which you have). You are now the top dog and nobody gets to tell you what to do. You own everything and anything you might want is yours for the asking. How would you make decisions without external limits?

I think many (sadly) especially religious people recoil at the idea of complete freedom under Christ because they’re still clinging to the old social structures. We’re born into a world of crime and punishment. We know that while it might not produce authentic personal renewal, it at least keeps people contributing and on the rails. That’s enough for even most church leaders, but it’s not enough for God.

Did you know that you can build a church without a shred of real faith in God? It’s been done. An examination of the life of Joseph Smith or that of Charles Russell reveal utter charlatans founding world religions. How did they do it? They and their successors mastered earthly control structures. If you attend a Mormon ward this Sunday, you’ll notice a couple of things. First, everyone will be dressed the same – conformity. Second, you’ll notice that much is said about the authority of the church and its leaders, but almost nothing about God’s will – human authority. If after you get out of that meeting you bop over to a Kingdom Hall, you’ll notice everyone calling God by the same, unique-to-that-movement name, “Jehovah” – conformity. You’ll also notice that nobody in the room is a leader per se so much as a reader, of Watchtower publications – human authority. I’m sure there are many well-meaning Mormons and JW’s, but nothing positive about those groups necessarily glorifies God. Every single benevolent work or evangelistic activity can easily be attributed to ordinary social dynamics applied in a religious setting.

The lesson to evangelical churches, then, should be, “If you’re getting church done through authoritarian directives or group dynamics, you’re not doing the work of God.” It takes a certain special quality to trust that people will be transformed and God’s work will get done apart from social control. That quality is called, “faith.” Anything we do that doesn’t arise from it is sin. And nothing we do apart from it will ever please God.

In our own lives and in the lives of those around us, we must trust that those whom God has adopted have also received the Spirit of his Son. This means, they have the essence of his character and will express it in ways unique to each one. What is the essence of the Son? Complete trust in and love for the Father.

The same willing submission which we offer to Christ, he offered first to the Father.

Look again at Galatians 1:4, “who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father…” (emphasis mine).

Christ set us free from the broken control structures of this world by utterly defying them. Rather than leveraging his strengths to serve his ambition, he surrendered to ignominy and oblivion. Through it all, he remained free and unbowed before religious and political leaders. Having been vindicated, he confers his same brand of faith on everyone who accepts the benefits of his sacrifice. From that moment on, we are adopted and adopt his greatest desire – that to God, the Father would be glory both now and forever! (vs. 5)