The heartbeat of the Apostle Paul was the Gospel of grace. Whenever he
sensed that the Gospel was being domesticated, tamed, diluted, distorted,
lost or perverted his passions were aroused. A case in point is the letter to the Galatians.
Some have said Galatians is a ticked-off version of Romans. In Galatians 1:6 Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you in the grace of Christ, and are turning to a different gospel”. The gospel that the Galatians were in danger of turning to was in fact a desertion of the Father and the grace of Christ who gave Himself for us. Therefore, that gospel is no good news at all. Paul calls down a curse on the preaching of any gospel contrary to the one he received. I wonder how Paul might react to the evangelical church in western culture today. The Gospel is always in danger of being lost and that is why Paul in Philippians 1:16b says that he was “put here for the defense of the Gospel”. That defense is an ever-present calling and responsibility.
So, is there a contemporary version of the Judaizing heresy in the Church today? Is Judaizing a cultural, historical problem that has disappeared? No, sad to say it is alive and well in the Church and in my own heart today though I fight it. What is the Judaizing heresy Paul addressed in Galatia and Philippi? It is subtle and seductive and can suck you in hook, line and sinker before you know it. Believing the Gospel is like being turned right side up while the rest of mankind is standing on its head and the view is radically different. In Galatians Paul is addressing Jewish Christian agitators who adopted a rigorous attitude toward towards Gentile converts and sought to impose upon them circumcision and the observance of the Law as conditions for salvation or, what amounts to the same thing, for full Christian status. Paul regards this imposition of the Law upon the new Gentile converts as a gross perversion of the Gospel. Put simply, the Judaizing heresy is a Christ-plus gospel. Grace is not enough because it can’t be trusted to do the job so the Law must come in and save the day. The Judaizers say Christ plus the Law = full status. Paul says Christ alone = full status. So what does this heresy look like today? It parades itself as an “angel of light” but it smells like smoke and sulfur and has its roots in the pit of hell.
In the Christendom of today you hear it espoused like this: “Christianity is the best system available for making life work for me. The Bible is God’s manual for success in all dimensions of life. If you want a better life, marriage, career, family, business, status then Christ will serve and glorify you by exalting you and giving you your hopes and dreams. Didn’t Jesus say in John 10:10 ‘I have come that you might have life and have it abundantly?’” What this amounts to is “use Jesus to get a better life than the one you have now”! It plays out like this:
I enter the Christian life by receiving Christ. I live the Christian life by getting it right. If I fulfill the conditions, I will be blessed. It is a reinstatement of the covenant of works. If I obey God will bless me. I am saved by coming as I am, but I live now by doing what I should. If I get it reasonably right, God is obligated to give me a successful life. If I obey life will work for me is the gospel of evangelical pragmatism. The Gospel is not good news because it works for me, rather the Gospel is good news because it is true!
Turning my relationship with God into a negotiated quid pro quo arrangement is the heart and soul of contemporary Judaizing theology. However, in Galatians 4 Paul calls this returning to the weak and beggarly elements of the Law. They are weak because they have no power to save and they are beggarly because they are bankrupt. This heresy is a result of self-deception at the motivational level of the heart. We end up wanting the gift more than the Giver, the blessing more than the Blesser. We use Jesus to get a better life. We are not Gospel driven or Gospel centered but rather are blessing centered and success centered. We are not different from the pagan world. We are standing on our heads again rather than right side up by grace.
You may be offended by this and think it is too harsh. But we are far more sophisticated and manipulative to engage in a bald-faced using of Jesus. Modern Judaizers speak of trusting God, claiming His promises, applying biblical principles, meeting conditions, fulfilling terms and being godly. All of these are good things that become idolatrous if our motives are perverse.
Here’s what it looks like in today’s church: If you want a good marriage apply these principles; if you want a successful family and godly children follow these steps. If you want to have a significant ministry, be this kind of leader. If you want spiritual maturity, practice these disciplines. If you want wealth, apply biblical principles regarding money. If you want a successful, thriving business dedicate it to Jesus and have morning devotions for your employees. Repeat the mantra—Christ first, family second, career last. Life will work for you if you get it right. And if it is successful the credit is yours because you got it right. Of course we tack on ‘to God be the glory’. Follow the rules, fulfill the conditions, persuade Him to look on your efforts with favor and you can have what you want. But when doing it right becomes a strategy to get what I want, the energy driving me is pride and the focus and center is self!
I thought Christianity is all about knowing Christ, not using Him. I thought, in my saner moments, that intimacy with the Blesser is better than having the blessings I want. Paul said in Philippians 1:21, “for me to live is Christ”, not “for me to live is success”.
Why do we hang on with such a death grip to our Judaizing ways? It gives the illusion of control. If I get it right I can fix it. But we are most certainly not in control. There is no linear cause and effect between getting it right and blessing. We never, ever in this life get it right. So all the blessing we experience comes via the grace we have in union with Christ. When I am believing the gospel of the Judaizers I am proud and smug when I am successful and inwardly gloat, “I am really better”. But when others fail around me I look at them with contempt and disdain and inwardly reply, “they didn’t get it right, I am better”. Ugly, isn’t it? All idolatry leads us to be proud, smug and hateful.
Living for God’s glory is not about me, not about the blessings of life. It is not about obligating God to owe me and guarantee me a certain quality of life. It is wanting Him, come weal or woe. It is sometimes enjoying His presence and feeling it, and other times experiencing His hiddenness and the dark night of the soul. But when my heart is happy in the Gospel, blessings or sufferings don’t matter. Christ alone is enough!
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