Summary: This study seeks to examine the confusion between walking in obedience and working to earn righteousness.
Is Obeying God’s Law Working for Salvation?
I have seen that there is a common misunderstanding among Christians as we struggle to reconcile God’s grace with obeying God’s commands. A few years back I read a book that stated that if you teach grace the way you should, it will almost sound like a license to sin. This conclusion can only be drawn if we neglect 95% of the scripture for the same passages that instruct us that we cannot merit salvation also instructs us to walk in obedience. We cannot walk in God’s grace while living a lifestyle that is at war with God. As the church has worked so hard to attract the unchurched they have shied away from passages that may drive away those who want grace without change. Over the years we have created a new breed of church member that has no concept of what it means to walk in the light of Jesus Christ through obedience.
So does grace nullify the commandments of God? Do the commandments of God nullify grace? Can someone rebel against the word of God and receive grace? Do we have to turn our backs on the commandments of God in order to cling to grace? Quite the opposite – you cannot cling to grace while rebelling against God’s instructions. In this study we will examine this in detail so that hopefully we can get a better understanding.
O Foolish Galatians
One thing I commonly hear is that if you try to keep the law (obeying God’s commandments), you are adding to salvation and falling into the same error the apostle Paul addressed in Galatians. Look at Galatians 3:1-3
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified? 2 This only I want to learn from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?
Paul is condemning the Galatians because they have turned to the law of Moses for salvation under the influence of those who claim that salvation is by Christ and by circumcision. It is important to understand that the Bible does not condemn the Galatians for seeking to obey God’s commands, for the opposite is proclaimed in verse 1, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified?” Keep in mind that the law of God is spiritual but the Galatians were seeking to be justified by the flesh. Obedience through understanding is by the Spirit but seeking to be justified by rules is an act of the flesh.
We can see that even though the Galatians were condemned for adding to the salvation message, it was not for obedience. Indeed they were condemned for NOT obeying the truth. The failure of the Galatians was that they were seeking salvation through the law of circumcision as stated in Galatians 5:2 and Galatians 6:12-13. Performing an animal sacrifice is condemned because these sacrifices cannot take away sins but instead pointed to the sacrifice that would be fulfilled by Jesus on the cross. After Christ fulfilled the law, sacrifices meant nothing and anyone who performed them was denying the sacrifice of Christ. In the same sense circumcision was done away with once the Holy Spirit was poured out in the hearts of the believer. Circumcision represented the removal of the flesh as the person entered into the covenant of God’s promise.
The true circumcision is the work of the Holy Spirit in our heart (See Jeremiah 4:4 and Romans 2:29). The Holy Spirit removes the flesh as we are joined to the New Covenant of Jesus Christ. The bondage of our sin in the heart according to the lust of the flesh has been removed by the Holy Spirit and we enter into the covenant of promise. When the Galatians gave into the pressure of being circumcised according to the law of the Old Covenant, they were rejecting the New Covenant and had therefore fallen from grace. We are NOT required to turn our backs on the commandments of God for the moral law of God has not changed. Only the covenant has changed and all the laws of the Old Covenant that foreshadowed the coming work of Christ were taken out of the way. They were not done away with, but fulfilled by Jesus. Obeying God must be fulfilled by each person’s life but keeping the law of the Old Covenant was fulfilled by Christ.
Returning to the laws that pointed ahead to the work of God in our lives was foolish because Jesus was clearly portrayed as crucified and therefore returning to the law pointing to the New Covenant was a denial of the sufficiency of Christ. Keep in mind that these laws were intended to be a tutor that brings us to Christ and once He was revealed to the world, the tutor is no longer needed. This is explained in Galatians 3:24-27