Tolle Lege: “Christ Has Set Us Free: Preaching and Teaching Galatians”

I’ve always known there were drawbacks to not being on social media.  I often find myself out of the INTERPERSONAL loop but I learned recently that I was quite out of the INTERSECTIONAL loop as well.  Until a month or so ago I’d never even heard of intersectionality, was only vaguely aware of critical race theory and thought “progressive” was a type of insurance.  More than a few eye-opening blog posts and podcasts later and I’m way more aware than I ever wanted to be of the presence of these movements in the church and the tsunami of anti-social media shared/hurled between Christians I love and respect. 

I’m just old-fashioned enough to believe in one kind of Justice and one kind of Gospel.  So it was with alarm that my recent education revealed there has now spread throughout the church a new, if not IMPROVED, at least socially APPROVED, variety of both.  It was difficult enough to hear the bitter animosity from the lips of a beloved friend toward others who are resisting this wave of leaven– part of me wanted to excuse him on grounds of his own past hurts by the people he was attacking– but then I heard his same words echoed by other pastors and teachers that I had long held in high regard, some of them contributors of the volume I am reviewing right now.

As I sifted through the cacophony of intersections and theories, of justices and gospels, of posts and casts that seemed intent on convincing me that I stand condemned on the basis of skin-tone alone for the oppression of millions and the 50-year-old murder of one in particular, the words of Paul to the Galatians kept ringing in my ear.

“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—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (1:6,7).

“O foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?  It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (3:1).

“Are you so foolish?  Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh (3:3)?”

“How can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more” (4:9)?

“I am perplexed about you” (4:20).

“You were running well.  Who hindered you from obeying the truth?  This persuasion is not from Him who calls you.  A little leaven leavens the whole lump” (5:7-9).

What was this bewitching new gospel the foolish Galatians were being troubled with and to which they were enslaving themselves?  The first hint is that it was “man’s gospel,” designed to “please man” and gain “the approval of man” (1:10,11). In other words it was a socially acceptable gospel foisted upon them by “false,” “influential” brothers intent on destroying the freedom of some and showing partiality to others” (2:4-6).  It’s here that we get to the main hot-button issue of that day: circumcision.  This might seem laughable to us who are so entrenched in more universal egalitarian issues like race relations and sexual ethics.  But circumcision it was and it was having a serious impact on the church and it’s adherence to the truth of the gospel.

The Gospel Coalition’s “Christ Has Set Us Free” (Crossway, 2019) is a beautifully written look at the book of Galatians with contributions by Thomas Schreiner, Gerald L. Bray, John Piper, Sandy Willson, Peter Adam, D.A. Carson (who co-edited the volume with Jeff Robinson Sr.), Thabiti Anyabwile, Timothy Keller, and Sinclair Ferguson.  I hadn’t planned on reviewing this book and was honestly a little disenchanted with The Gospel Coalition in general after reading certain articles and listening to podcasts from the MLK50 Conference.  But since it was Galatians that I thought spoke so clearly to the hot-button issues of our day, I felt I should at least see how they would interpret the epistle themselves.  

The biggest weakness in the book is that they seem to sidestep today’s issues all together.  Instead the authors juxtapose the issues Paul was addressing with those faced by Luther over 1000 years later during the Reformation.  This juxtaposition proves to be one of the book’s great strengths as it serves to maintain a point of focus throughout the text even though each chapter is written by a different author.  Several of these authors were new to me but I enjoyed all of them and was reminded over and over again why I had been so blessed by some of these guys in the past, including Luther.  It was fascinating to read about his take on Galatians and how he applied it to his own situation.  Bray examines this thoroughly in the second chapter.

“The late medieval church had the gospel, but it had added its own superstructure of penances, devotions, and works of different kinds, which Christians had to perform if they were to be properly reconciled to God.  To Luther this was blasphemy.  The cross of Christ had done all that was necessary, and to suggest that something more was required was to doubt the sufficiency of Christ’s saving work.  It was in this context that Luther’s doctrine fo justification by faith alone came to its full expression” (29).

Piper identifies this same doctrine along with the doctrine of the supreme authority of scripture as the material and formal principles of the Reformation and adds that they are also the focus of the book of Galatians.

“Chapters 1 and 2 deal mainly with the formal principle—Paul’s apostolic authority.  Chapters 3 and 4 deal mainly with the material principle—justification by faith apart from works of the law.  Chapters 5 and 6 deal mainly with what that looks like in life” (37).

The rest of the authors do a fantastic job in the remaining chapters fleshing out exactly what those principles mean, how Paul applies them to the Galatian situation, why their absence would be a direct assault on the gospel, and what their application would look like in the life of the believer both during Paul’s time and Luther’s.  Which brings me back to the book’s great weakness.

Piper begins his chapter with a serious and, I think, timely warning.  But it’s just left dangling out there and never picked up again.  

“Paul says, ‘Cursed!’—damned—be those who lead people away from the curse-removing gospel of Christ…This is happening to people in your church and your family.  They are being exposed to kinds of “gospels”—which are no gospel—every day.  They are being lured away from Christ as their supreme treasure and away from grace.  And they need to hear a very serious word from you” (36).

It’s almost as though Piper knows there’s an elephant in the room but he’s not willing to identify it or give the rebuke himself.  Why is that?  Why not point out the false gospel right then and there and offer that serious word against it?  

So as not to be guilty of the same.  Let me do the dirty work.  Because Piper’s right.  I have seen this yoke of slavery taken up by family and friends, other brothers and sisters in Christ, and yes, even members of The Gospel Coalition.

In Paul’s day the Judaizers were insisting that Gentile believers be circumcised, or be justified by their FLESH.  That’s a false gospel.

In Luther’s day Rome was insisting that people pay indulgences, or be justified by their FUNDS.  That’s a false gospel.

In our day the whole world is insisting that white heterosexual males feel guilt simply for being born and not experiencing the same forms of oppression that a million other categories of people have felt, imagined to have felt, identify with someone who has felt, or imagine that they identify with someone who has felt, are declared justified for having felt.  In other words, we are now to be justified by our FEELINGS.  That’s a false gospel. And it’s a bewitchingly, socially acceptable gospel to be sure—man centered, man pleasing, man approved—destroying the freedom of some, showing partiality to others…it’s like Galatians played on repeat.

Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law [i.e. flesh, funds, feelings etc] but through FAITH in Jesus Christ, so also we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by FAITH in Christ and not by works of the law [i.e. flesh, funds, feelings etc], because by works of the law [i.e. flesh, funds, feelings etc…] no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).  

That’s the only Gospel.  And I’m pretty sure Paul just stated the same thing three different ways just to be clear.  Just in case though, he repeats himself several more times in 3:11, 3:24, and 5:4, just to name a few.  Paul also points out that where you have the true gospel, you are led by the Spirit in freedom.  But where you have a false gospel, you will have evidence of the flesh and the law, “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and things like these.”  But “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:19-24).

Yes, in response to an article written by one of the authors of this excellent book, I am guilty of the murder of one man.  But that man was not Martin Luther King Jr.  That man was Jesus Christ, the Messiah.  And of that murder I have been declared justified through FAITH in God’s justice poured out on His Son on my behalf.

“I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

Christ Has Set Us Free” is an excellent book.  But it doesn’t address the false gospel of our day.  I would encourage Christians everywhere to pick up another short book instead.  It’s called “Galatians.”  You’ll find it in the Bible.  

9781433562617

(I was provided with a free copy of this book by the publisher but am not obligated to write a favorable review.)