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American Christians often forget that the early church was made up of Jews and non-Jews. Two weeks ago I showed how belief in the Gospel did not require conversion from Judaism or any religion for that matter. Believers were/are free to remain within the framework from which they came (1 Corinthians 7:20). However, the Gospel did/does reshape the people’s faith and practice.
Today, modern Christianity requires a conversion away from previous systems into a new so-called “Christian” religion. Within this transaction based system, people are NOT FREE to practice how they want. A new set of rules, dogmas, theologies, acceptable practices, and assumptions have replaced gospel freedom with another religion I like to call “Churchianity.”
The test for Paul’s Gospel is its ability to complete rather than convert. Gentiles were considered by the Jews to be sinners (Galatians 2:15). It’s exactly how the modern church refers to unbelievers or non-Christians. It’s how Jews refer to Gentiles, and Islam refers to non-Muslims (infidels). The church in Galatia was a diverse mix of Jews and Gentiles who were now free from strict obedience to religious law. The gospel freed them to live as Jesus did. They could eat what they wanted, with whom they wanted. They were free from perfunctory traditions like circumcision, ceremonial washing, the sabbath, feasts, or ritual sacrifices. By all Jewish (and religious) standards, the church was living like sinners.
The Gospel subverts institutional rule and liberates those who realize that ritual is mostly smoke and mirrors. That’s a hard one for modern religion too. Not all so called believers can turn loose of tradition without losing some sense of propriety. Some Galatians were more fundamental and insisting on circumcision and separation during meals. When Paul sees this happening, he blows his stack because he knows they are missing the point of the gospel:
“But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas (Peter) before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Galatians 2:14) In other words, if you now have the freedom of a sinner, how can you ask sinners to become imprisoned in religion?
We see this thought in other places in Pauls writings: “I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died” (Romans 7:9). Paul is NOT suggesting that we are free “to” sin, but free “from” the penalty (under the law) that sin impugns. “…the scripture imprisoned everything under sin…” (Galatians 3:22) “…before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” (v. 23) Thus both the “Gentile sinner” and the “religious devout” are imprisoned apart from faith.
How do we become free of the penalizing power of both sin and the law? Paul asks: “Is the law sin?”(Romans 7:7) He answers “No!” The law served as a guardian (Galatians 3:24). Faith is believing that through justification (Christ putting things right) we now have no legal obligations to God (no gap). We no longer need a religious practice, FAITH IS THE PRACTICE.
So why do religions use law, guilt or fear for behavior modification instead of faith working through love? Paul says that all things (and he means all things) are permissible for us but they aren’t all helpful (1 Corinthians 6:12). My best guess is because externals are measurable.
Following Christ is not subscription to Christianty. Faith in Christ is not a contraction of our life’s experience but an expansion of life through inner and outer personal freedom. The freedom offered by the gospel is too big for the guardian (rule keeper) of religion. Since Gentiles (so called “sinners”) already possess freedom from religion, many reject the gospel because they assume it curtails the freedom they already enjoy. Modern people see religion as a killjoy and they are mostly correct, but the gospel is not a religion. The gospel liberates the sinner from a life of excess.
The gospel liberates the religious person from a life that is wound too tight and governed by fear into a spacious experience with the world and all that is in it. “What God has made clean, do not call common.” (Acts 10:15) There is a point at which all good things can go too far and become destructive. The gospel means we are each required to draw the line for ourselves based on our faith. We can go farther than we think, but not as far as is possible. The gospel is the power to individually perceive the difference. We are not under the captivity of the law (external measurement). Living like a gentile (sinner) is life on the autobahn. No speed limit, but each one drives according to skill and respect for others.
Does your religion teach this? Most religions set the fence as far back from the cliff as a means of protection. “Play it safe, not free.” This may help immature faith (who need a guardian), but it stunts the growth of those whose faith could be stronger. (Romans 14:1-12) Religion teaches us to fear God if we are naughty, but the gospel tells us that “…He (God) has given the whole judgement to the son” (John 5:22). This means there is no judgment of God left over for anyone else.
The gospel Paul is defending requires both the religious and the sinner to live freely and responsibly, trusting that God is with all of us. To ignore God while living free is NOT freedom but the very definition of captivity. The message is that we no longer fear a judgmental God out there somewhere, so we don’t need to run from God to experience freedom. Instead, we’ve become aware of a loving God (presence/spirit) within us, which allows us to enjoy all the freedom our faith can tolerate before it harms us. A mature faith is to have our metaphorical fig leaf removed. Faith is to be fully naked and unashamed before God.
Until we discover that line, we are slaves in both extremes, we are imprisoned under the law or a slave to sin, neither free, nor living in faith. Why not test it this week? Search for your line and honor it. Don’t fear it. If you go too far, expect and embrace the consequences, then learn from your mistake.
If you fear the line or can’t see it, you are not living free. As faith grows, so does our experience.