From Blessedness to Bitterness
Do you remember when you first became a Christian? Do you remember how even the light of the sun seemed to shine a little brighter, every breath felt a little more refreshing, and how every moment of life seemed to be a new revelation of God’s love for you, a sinner? Then perhaps there was that time a little while later when you discovered those doctrines of grace known as Calvinism. It was like being born again all over again. What grace! What joy! What a Savior!
You began with inexpressible happiness in the love of Christ, however, over the course of time there was a slow, subtle, and perhaps imperceivable change. The sun still shone, but not as brightly as it had before. Each breath of air was still a gift of God, but perhaps it was no longer as crisp and refreshing as it was when you began your new life in Christ. The days of your life became increasingly bitter as the sweetness of the taste of God’s love slowly diminished from the palate of your soul. What then has become of your blessedness?
Trouble in the Churches of Galatia
This was the same question which Paul asked the churches of Galatia in Galatians 4:15. Apparently they had a similar experience. They had begun the Christian walk with such joy that, “if possible, you would have gouged out your eyes and given them to me.” (v. 15) Paul had evidently contracted some kind of a “bodily ailment” (v. 13) which was a trial to them, and yet Paul said of them, “you did not scorn or despise me, but received me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” (v. 14) Now the inward spiritual condition and disposition of these Christians had so changed that they seemed to be treating Paul as though he was their “enemy.” (v. 16)
What then became of their blessedness, and what then has become of your blessedness? Though perhaps the outward effects might appear different, as we shall see, the bitter root is the very same. Let us briefly examine what went wrong with the churches of Galatia, and then let us look at some ways in which we are often guilty of the very same thing.
The Root of the Problem
You don’t have to read Paul’s letter to the Galatians for very long before you get at least some general sense of what had gone wrong among these churches. In Galatians 1:6 we read,
“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.”
There is a striking balance as Paul expounds on this criticism in the following three verses. On the one hand, he does not say that they are guilty of blatant heresy such as an outright denial of the deity of Christ or the necessity of the atonement, but rather that this is a distortion of the gospel of Christ. (v. 7) Yet, on the other hand, he says that this distortion of the gospel is so serious that those teachers of this distorted gospel are “anathema.” (v. 8, 9) To be anathema is to be set apart and devoted to destruction without any hope of redemption. In other words, while this distortion was not necessarily an obvious and blatant rejection of the truth, nevertheless it was still such a serious error that it was worthy of Paul’s severest condemnation.
So what was this subtle distortion? We got a hint already from verse 6 where Paul said that they were guilty of “deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ.” This distortion has something to do with grace, and yet they were not guilty of outright denying our need of grace, nor that grace comes through faith in the crucified and risen incarnate Son of God. No, they were still completely orthodox in that sense. We get a closer look when we read in 2:3-5,
“But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. 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— to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”
“The truth of the gospel” which is here preserved was evidently under attack because of the issue of circumcision. Again, circumcision was not some pagan or heretical practice. It was completely biblical and orthodox, for even Jesus himself was circumcised “at the end of eight days.” (Luke 2:21) Yet, Paul calls those who were here advocating for circumcision “false brothers” who were trying to “bring us into slavery.” How can this be, especially when we read in Acts 16:3 that Paul himself approved of Timothy being circumcised before they went on missions together? Indeed, this issue of circumcision pops up often in the New Testament as the Jews and new Gentile converts came into contact with each other. The first church counsel in Acts 15 is even centered around this issue of circumcision.
The Nature of Grace
The root of the issue fundamentally comes down to the nature of grace, and the nature of grace is ultimately about the person of Christ in whom is “every spiritual blessing.” (Ephesians 1:3) So in Galatians 2:15-21 we read some of the clearest descriptions of the nature of grace in all of Scripture. In verse 16 we read,
“yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
Here Paul uses two different literary devices to make his point crystal clear. First, he uses affirmations and denials. Second, he uses a threefold repetition. So in this one verse he affirms what he means, and denies what he doesn’t mean three times. The nature of grace doesn’t get much clearer then it does in these three antithetical statements. This is why we can speak of justification being by grace alone. “Alone” acts as a different literary device to communicate the same thing that the inspired writer communicated through his threefold statement of affirmations and denials in verse 16. Lest that statement not be clear enough, he then summarizes his argument in verse 21 by saying,
“I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”
If any amount of grace could be merited by our own virtue or obedience to the law of God, then we blaspheme the death of Christ, the Son of God! Grace is either unconditional, unmerited, and free, or else it is not grace at all! This is why Paul could on one hand speak of their error as a distortion of the gospel, and yet say of those who teach such a “gospel” that they are “anathema.” It is the difference between being justified by grace, through faith, in Christ, and being justified by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. The truth of the gospel hangs on such a subtle yet crucial distinction regarding the nature of grace.
Another Twist in the Tale
As we continue on in Galatians, another twist in the tale becomes apparent. There is yet another nuance in their subtle apostasy from the gospel of Christ. Immediately after Paul’s profound and clear conclusion in v 21, we read in 3:1-5,
“O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—”
The key phrase is, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” It seems that the churches in Galatia were not so much guilty of distorting the gospel when it came to conversion, that is, when it came to becoming a Christian. They had professed faith in Christ upon Paul’s proclamation of the pure gospel of Christ and him crucified. What these Christians had evidently began to believe, although perhaps subtly and imperceptibly, was to make their own obedience to the law of God a condition for progressing in the Christian life. That is, it seems that circumcision now became the mark of real spiritual maturity, and therefore, a means of “going to the next level” of sanctification.
Paul’s argument in these verses is basically that your sanctification does not happen in any way that would be contrary to your justification. In other words, your continuing in the Christian life happens in the same way as your initial conversion: by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Follow Paul’s inspired logic in 3:1-5. In essence he says: How did you begin, by faith or by works? By faith. Can you now complete by your own obedience and merit what God began by his grace through the effectual working of the Spirit? Certainly not!
So, it was evidently this subtle distortion in the gospel that caused these Christians to go from experiencing such blessedness that they would have gouged out their eyes and given them to Paul, (4:15) to actually regarding Paul as an enemy. (4:16) Their treatment of Paul here becomes a reflection of their affections for Christ himself and the gospel of his grace. The real root of their error was that they no longer savored the sweetness of Christ and the gospel, but rather, they began to rejoice in their own sanctification and righteousness like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14.
What Then Has Become Of Your Blessedness?
Let us then return to our original question: What then has become of your blessedness? You and I are often guilty of the same subtle and perhaps imperceptible distortion of the gospel of Christ. We may not be guilty of preaching a false gospel by our confession, for we know the truth, but nevertheless we may be inwardly guilty of believing a false gospel in the secret depths of our hearts. As Jeremiah 17:9 says,
“The heart is deceitful above all things,
and desperately sick;
who can understand it?”
You see, even when we unknowingly begin to distort the gospel and to delight in our own works, we grieve the Holy Spirit and thus short circuit God’s unmerited kindness and favor toward us. We cannot have joy in ourselves and joy in Christ at the same time. To come to Christ is to come to the end of self. It is to be “crucified with Christ” so that “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Galatians 2:20) That’s what it means to become a Christian, and according to Galatians 3:1-5, that’s also what it means to live out your entire life as a Christian. What then has become of your blessedness? You have stopped believing in the free grace by which you were saved.
How Does This Happen?
In order that we may not continue to be deceived by that crafty serpent, the devil, we must now ask, “How does this happen?” I personally ask that question as one who is Reformed, “a slobbering 5 point Calvinist” who believes and rejoices in the doctrines of grace and the 5 Solas of the Protestant Reformation. Yet, holding to such truths does not automatically exempt our hearts from being deceived by such distortions of the gospel. Actually, I would go even a step farther than that. I would say that there is a peculiar danger in being Reformed.
We Reformed guys tend to be very serious about all of Scripture and the vast scope of theology from Genesis to Revelation, which is a very good thing. However, the snare can be this: In taking those things so seriously, we can easily fall prey to the same error as the Galatians. Were they not taking all of Scripture seriously when they began to teach circumcision in those churches? They had not wandered into godless myths or paganism, but into Scripture itself when they gravely erred. Indeed, such distortions can easily happen under such labels as “the regulative principal of worship,” “the third use of the law,” or “practicing the spiritual disciplines” if we are not careful.
You see, we start out the Christian walk knowing that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9) However, we soon find out that there are certain commands and obligations in the Christian life which apply even to those who have freely obtained grace as citizens of a new kingdom, the kingdom of God. We soon discover that there are right and wrong ways to worship God, that which is acceptable to God as well as that which is disregarded by God as “strange fire.” (Leviticus 10:1) We learn that there are certain disciplines we should practice, from offering prayers of all sorts, to reading Scripture, to studying commentaries, to leading family worship, to evangelism, to giving, to serving in the church, etc., etc., etc. These things are all good things, but they all tend to focus us on ourselves and our duty.
Therefore, the Christian life can slowly and imperceptibly become about us and what we do for God, rather than about God and what he has done for us in Christ. Like those churches of Galatia, we can begin to subtly distort the gospel. We can begin to make grace so that it is not truly grace at all. We can preach the cross to others and to ourselves in such a way that makes it seem like Christ died only for those who have obtained to a certain degree of sanctification.
Again, most are not so careless as to say this in words, but we still might communicate this slavish spirit in 10,000 different ways by our actions. We cannot enumerate them all here, but here is a simple test for yourself. When you feel like a failure, do you think to yourself, “I need to try harder and repent with more diligence. Next time I will do better.” Or do you think to yourself, “Conscience, why are you bothering me? Christ already made full atonement for that sin. God’s wrath has been satisfied, and in Christ I will be presented holy, righteous, and blameless before the throne of God. Satan, go back to whatever pit of hell you came from!” That is the difference between a slave and a son. The slave lives by duty in constant fear. The son belongs by adoption forever and is therefore free.
Take the same kind of reasoning in the context of a local church. Do you feel like you must always prove and merit yourself before others in your church to obtain and retain their favor? If so, either you have a legal spirit, or there is a legal spirit prevailing in the life of the church. The general disposition of the church should be one of rejoicing and delighting in the person and finished work of Christ. The church should be a refuge for broken and weary sinners. It should be a place where the weak are brought tenderly to Christ in order that he might comfort them and heal them.
Hope for the Weary
My primary burden in this blog is for individuals—individuals like myself who tend to be introspective and therefore constantly aware of their own faults, failures, and inconsistencies. Even when addressing the church, I do so only as one who knows how this negatively affects those who are prone to constant self-examination. My goal is to turn your eyes back to Christ.
You may feel like a failure, and indeed, maybe you have failed grievously and repeatedly. You may feel like God has withdrawn the smile of his face from you, and perhaps his presence has truly been hidden from you. Yet, the root issue may not be in your “doing” or in your “lack of doing,” but in the subtle distortion of the gospel of grace in your own heart. In other words, it may not be your performance as a Christian which is at the root of your problem, but your failure to rest in and rejoice in the perfections of Christ who alone gives us joy and peace with God.
Listen to this refreshing word from John Owen,
“The state of spiritual decays is recoverable…If every step that is lost in the way to heaven should be irrecoverable, woe would be unto us;—we should all assuredly perish. If there were no reparation of our breaches, no healing of our decays, no salvation but for them who are always progressive in grace; if God should mark all that is done amiss, as the Psalmist speaks, ‘O Lord, who should stand?’ nay, if we had not recoveries every day, we should go off with perpetual backsliding.”
How is this possible that we can recover from any state of spiritual decay? Only because of the unmerited kindness and grace of God which is freely lavished upon us in Christ. Indeed, this is not only true for those who are in a state of spiritual decay, but this is equally true of the strongest of saints. Charles Spurgeon writes,
“Only on the footing of free grace can the most experienced and most honoured of the saints approach their God. The best of men are conscious above all others that they are men at the best. Empty boats float high, but heavily laden vessels are low in the water; mere professors can boast, but true children of God cry for mercy upon their unprofitableness. We have need that the Lord should have mercy upon our good works, our prayers, our preachings, our alms-givings, and our holiest things. The blood was not only sprinkled upon the doorposts of Israel’s dwelling houses, but upon the sanctuary, the mercy-seat, and the altar, because as sin intrudes into our holiest things, the blood of Jesus is needed to purify them from defilement. If mercy be needed to be exercised towards our duties, what shall be said of our sins? How sweet the remembrance that inexhaustible mercy is waiting to be gracious to us, to restore our backslidings, and make our broken bones rejoice!”
So then, what then has become of your blessedness? A legal spirit has subtly crept into your soul. What do we need to restore our souls? Christ. A man only needs Jesus Christ. He is all-sufficient for the recovery of our souls. That great joy and blessedness of our souls will only be restored to us when we return to the true nature of grace which is ours in Christ alone. Then we shall have the light of the Son shining on our face again, and we shall be blessed!