What a wonderful reminder of the how easily we can trade our freedom for slavery and not even be aware. As I [Larry Malament] read this article from TableTalk to my family the other night it led into a helpful and insightful discussion about what grace is and how legalism can so easily capture our thinking. No one desires slavery but freedom – but it is freedom with a price. Christ’s death on the cross offered this freedom to us. Let us not be like Javert in Les Miserables, unable to humbly accept God’s grace purchased for us. Instead, let us run to God’s throne “pleading for more grace” Psalm 86.
For the Love of Slavery
By John P. Sartelle
“Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in – who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery” (Gal 2:4). She was eight-six and her body was failing but her mind was clear. The doctor had said she would not last the month. I was on my way out of town for two days and stopped by her home. After I read some verses from the Scriptures she asked a question that still rings in my ears after thirty-seven years: “John, do you think I have done enough to be saved?” I spoke to her of God’s grace to sinners and quoted passages about Christ dying for the ungodly. Then I prayed with her and left. She died the next day. She had heard the gospel preached every Sunday for over a half century. Yet, hours away from her death she was still striving to do enough to earn her salvation.
In Galatians 2:4 Paul speaks of some illegitimates in the church who were trying to add the performance of men to the gospel of faith alone in Christ alone. He spoke of this as a return to slavery. And that is exactly what salvation through the Law or through religious ritual is: slavery. I have lived in that slave camp. In the morning I arose to the endless demands of the Law that I could not satisfy. Oh, I worked heard to erect a façade that looked good to the world around me. But at the end of each day, I knew that under my polished veneer were the dark, indelible stains of failure. Thus, I went to bed each evening shackled to the Law. Therein was a great irony: The very Law that chained me was condemning me! No matter how hard I worked at obedience, the Law cracked the whip with the constant mantra, “More, more…not enough…not enough.”
Then came Jesus. He told me to trust in Him to do what I could not do—faith alone in Christ alone. That was the key He put into the lock that held my chains. Freedom! Freedom from laws God made and freedom from laws man had invented. Freedom from constant accusation and guilt; freedom from God’s judgment. Was God’s law invalid? No. But His law could not save me.
If this freedom is so wonderful, then why was Paul forced to warn the Galatians not to return to the prison of endless efforts of self justification? Who would want to return to that slavery? I think the answer is deeper than merely pointing to some counterfeit teachers with a flawed theology. There is a constant temptation, even in authentic Christians, to return to the self-praise of self-sufficiency. Even as we grow in Christ and our lives look different to the world around us, it is easy to take credit for our holiness. That is only a step away from attributing justifying merit to our service to Christ.
It is not easy to live with charity. Javert, the law officer in Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, could not live with the grace he had received from Jean Valjean. He thought of himself as being morally superior to Valjean. He would rather die than live with such a humiliating grace. Gospel self-denial brings us to the admission of being helpless in ourselves. Complete dependence on God’s grace gives glory only to Him. It leaves no credit to self. The remnant of sin in the Christian still desires the exaltation of self over the exaltation of Christ. That is what drives us back to the prison and chains of the Law.
We could conclude by pointing to the joy of freedom as our motivation for holding fast to grace. The prison of the Law ultimately holds only the despair of slavery. However, it is not the joy, in and of itself, that will keep us from returning to prison. The gospel of grace was not invented and accomplished by man. The gospel of grace is the plan and revelation of God. Our salvation is not dependent on fervor no matter how sincere. Our salvation is dependent on dogma and the truth of that dogma.
Paul went to Jerusalem with Titus, a Gentile disciple of Christ, whom some insisted had to be circumcised before he could be a true Christian. He had complete faith in the truth of the grace he had been teaching. He did not go there in doubt of his message. Neither did he go there doubting the message of Peter, James, and John. He knew they had received the same truth that he had received. He was bringing the heretical teaching of self-justification through the Law and ritual before the court of God’s revelation. What a picture! Peter, James, John, and Paul were in one room with other representatives from the church. Peter, James, John, and Paul standing shoulder to shoulder proclaiming God’s revealed doctrine of faith alone by grace alone. Titus went home uncircumcised!
Do you rest all you life on faith alone in Christ alone? If you do, you know that you will never hear from the grace of Calvary: “More, more…not enough, not enough.”
Rev. John P. Sartell, Jr. is senior minister of Tates Creek Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky. He is author of What Christian Parents Should Know About Infant Baptism.