Philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre in his book After Virtue says “I can only answer the question ‘What am I to do?’ if I can answer the prior question ‘Of what story…do I find myself a part?'” (216). The church in Galatia had forgotten the story they had once received with joy, which was the Gospel story. This is why Galatians is known as Paul’s angriest letter. You can just hear the frustration and disappointment in Paul’s writing:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (Galatians 3:1 ESV)
The problem with forgetting our story as Christians is not just that we lose sight of what is true and what gives us life, but that we are also taken over by rival stories. Our culture promotes a story of self–self-sufficiency, self-promotion, self-satisfaction. A rival gospel in our own day is one of individualism where we can only find “freedom” if we do what we feel is right for ourselves. It wasn’t so different in Galatia. The Christians in Galatia were slipping back into the “law,” believing that they needed to be the ones to earn their salvation. The primary way this manifested in the Galatian church was by their trying to force Gentile believers into circumcision, which signified entrance into the Abrahamic covenant (Genesis 17). While this story they had fallen back into had all the trappings of piety and religion, it was really a gospel of self. They had forgotten their new and better story, a story where Christ provides a way to freedom for all through him and him alone (John 14:6).
This “gospel of self,” both in our day and in Paul’s, cultivates a kind of fear. It places the burden of salvation, joy, contentment, and freedom on us. We shift our reliance from an unlimited God to our limited selves. It is in this state of fear and worry that we begin to take measures into our own hands. We make lists, we read self-help books, we try to go to bed earlier, we listen to TED talks, we volunteer our time, we do our best to pray and read our Bibles, we go to work early and stay late, we make sure we attend church and small group, and we expect the same from others. There is nothing inherently wrong with any one of these “rules.” They have value so long as they are operating in the right story. We need to take a serious audit of our lives and ask the question: Are we operating in the right story? Is our list-making, self-help following, people-pleasing, five-minute-a-day praying blueprint for our lives producing any growth?
Many of us Western Christians have smuggled the story of the world–a story of individual achievement, social status, self-sufficiency, productivity and consumerism–into the Church. We have tried to baptize a way of life that is totally foreign to what God intended, Christ inaugurated, and the Spirit inhabits. We sing “Take the World, But Give me Jesus” while carrying the story of contemporary culture in our back pockets.
I know this because I struggle with the same thing. I find myself always battling anxieties about my future. These anxieties force me to ask “I” or “me” questions. “What if I fail?” “How will I know what to do next?” “What if I’m not accepted?” “How will my gifts be utilized?” “What if my calling is never realized?” Notice that these questions–the questions many of us wrestle with every day–are totally centered around the self, the I. Of course, these kinds of worries are natural to us, because we are natural sinners born into the world’s story. Unfortunately, it draws us into a way of life that is marked ultimately by “anxiety for tomorrow” and leads to us trying to control every aspect of our lives (Matthew 6:34).
This is one of the primary reasons why Paul’s letter to the Galatians is so important for us today. Of course we aren’t demanding circumcision for those who want to be a part of the Church; however, we do find ourselves capitulating to rival gospels all the time, often bringing them into the church.
Paul responds to this backwards gospel in Galatia by sternly (read: angrily) reminding his fellow believers that Christ has ushered in a new stage, a new covenant. Trying to apply the old paradigm (which had an important place in the story of God!) onto the new becomes “works righteousness” and is antithetical to the Spirit of God and His mission in the world (Galatians 3:28).
But how does Paul do this? How does he prove to them that this law and taking matters into their own hands is no longer necessary and assumes the wrong story? He reminds them of their story– a story that begins with Abraham and ends with Jesus. After all, Paul mentions Abraham eight times in Galatians 3 alone, so it should be obvious to both the Galatians and us that our story encompasses the whole of Scripture.
Genesis 15 tells the story of God’s sacred covenant with Abraham, and in Genesis 15:8, right after God has reminded him of the promises of offspring and land He has in store for him, Abraham, who has been wandering and surviving and stumbling in the wilderness for years, often taking matters into his own hands, desperately asks, “How am I to know?” a question we are all too familiar with when anxiety creeps in and we feel as if our calling may never materialize. Notice, again, that it is a question centered on “I.”
God answers this question not with a time-frame, not with a seven-step plan, not with a to-do list, but with a promise. He makes a covenant with Abraham.
To enact this promise, God instructs Abraham to bring “a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon” (Genesis 15:9). He then told him to cut in half the cow, goat, and ram (but not the birds) in half. In Ancient Near Eastern treaties, which this covenant between Abraham and God certainly draws upon, the halved animal carcasses communicates that if either party violates this sacred promise, they will end up like these animals. Death is to come upon the one who doesn’t uphold the sacred covenant.
But, as we read a few verses later, Abraham does not pass through. He doesn’t participate in the covenantal ritual. Instead, Abraham only saw “a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch” pass between the animal carcasses (Genesis 15:17). Because the fire and the smoke represent the presence of God, the narrative is telling us that only God passes through.
The significance of this cannot be understated. This means that God Himself–the One whose Word can never fail and whose promises are eternal–takes the penalty of a failed covenant upon Himself. This is the beginning of God’s story with His wayward people. A story about a God whose mission it is to bring all things into His love, even if it means giving up His own life.
Now let’s return to the Church in Galatia. Paul, in responding to their false gospel, reaches the climax of his argument when he states:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith (Galatians 3:13-14)
Paul is saying that Christ himself, who is the Word of God incarnate, took on this “curse” and became like the slain animals of God’s covenant with Abraham. Christ, who is fully God and fully man, becomes the curse that was meant for us–not because God’s promise failed, but because ours did. By doing so, Christ fulfills the original promise made to Abraham and, if we have faith in Christ like Abraham had faith in God, we too become “heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:29).
This faith is a deep trust in the God who passes through on our behalf. This means that if we continue to try to pass through ourselves, if we continue to attempt to earn God’s promises by laws and rules and plans, we are participating in the wrong story, a false gospel.
Jesus Christ, in fulfilling the promises of God to redeem creation, inaugurated the fulfillment of God’s story that began with Abraham. If we forget this story, it means that we have forgotten that God is a God who passes through. A God who passes through the animals on our behalf to take the burden of the promise on Himself. A God who passes through the spiteful and vindictive crowds, carrying that heavy tree, getting tortured and mocked on His way to become a curse for us.
When we remember the story that centers around God and His redemptive work, we avoid the burden of attempting to tell a story that we never could. We move from the story of limited self to the Story of unlimited God, whose promises are both sure and true. And when we do this, when this faith overtakes our hearts and we participate in God’s story, we can set up “rules” for our lives, but these rules are now an expression of our salvation, not an attempt to earn it. They become the means by which we enter into deeper communion with a God who has already achieved freedom for us precisely because he has already passed through death on His way to life. He invites us to do the same.
A rigid matter was the law, demanding brick, denying straw,
But when with gospel tongue it sings, it bids me fly and gives me wings18th Century Scottish Presbyterian preacher Ralph Erksine
Mike Terry, New City Stories Contributor