I would assume that you are well acquainted with the phrase, “work ethic.” By it, we usually mean that someone works hard to not only accomplish the bare minimum of their work, but is internally motivated and disciplined to excel, without someone constantly looking over their shoulder to make sure they do what they are supposed to be doing. This is a good thing, in most cases, and we properly admire such efforts.
There is a point, however, when someone with a good work ethic may cross a line and gets renamed as a “workaholic.” By this we typically mean someone who doesn’t have the proper priorities in life; work consumes them at the expense of relationships, health, and character. They find their very identity wrapped up the ongoing performance of their work, rather than in other more important matters such as character, personality, connections, and discernment.
However, even a good work ethic, as just defined, is not so good when it comes to the salvation of our souls, and I don’t think you will have any trouble understanding that being a spiritual workaholic is just deadly. The appeal of accomplishment in the area of the soul lures us, just as it did the Galatians, into thinking that pursuit of perfection through the law is the way to go. And some now, just as then, find their whole identity in working to keep even the areas of the law that have been clearly fulfilled in Jesus Christ once for all. To do so is to live as a slave…but you are to pursue the freedom of the gospel. That’s an important message in the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
A Little Background
Galatia, a province of Asia Minor, is a Gentile region. Many members, if not the majority, of the churches there are Gentile believers. Jewish believers brought with them the remnants of their heritage. No problem there. But the issue that this entire epistle is dealing with is the threat of those, called Judaizers, who insisted that, in order to be complete as Christians, Gentiles must keep all the minutia of the Jewish law – what to eat, what to wear, circumcision, the lot. Even though the Jerusalem Council had declared it was not necessary (and, in fact, wrong), these false teachers kept at it, apparently with some success. After all, it is appealing to congratulate yourself that you are more holy and complete than others because you have the perception to see and do things that others do not, or will not. The Galatian church no longer had simply a good “work ethic;” it was becoming a church of spiritual “workaholics.” Consequently, their freedom in Christ was going or gone…and from Paul’s point of view, it makes no sense whatsoever.
Son or Slave?
Almost 56 years ago, I was adopted by a loving couple who took me into their home and gave me everything I needed and a whole bunch of stuff that I didn’t need but sure liked a lot. Never hungry, never alone, never unloved, never wanting for clothing or shelter or education or anything else. My life was settled and secure in both the physical realm and the relational realm. And it still is.
I never met my birth mother. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I had enough curiosity to try to find out what my birth mom’s name was! Once I found that out, I was somewhat disappointed to discover that she was deceased. I don’t know if I have any other siblings out there or not, but I do know that my birth family originally came from the same area of England that my adoptive family came from! But even though disappointed, I nonetheless remain settled and satisfied with my situation, because I know the love and commitment of my adoptive family.
Personally, though I have an interest in the bloodline question, naturally, I believe I would be a fool to abandon my present family and go in search of a family that didn’t want me in the first place, or at least was unable to care for me. Of course, things might have changed, but it was an uncertain beginning, and there is no relationship that could now exist anyway.
It is this sort of thinking that is going on with Paul’s message to the Galatians in chapter 4 of his epistle. You’ve been made heirs through adoption (v. 5-7)…why on earth would you want to go back to being a slave??? Redeemed by Christ into freedom from the outward requirement of fulfilling the law (such as observing days and months and seasons, and years, v. 10) to have a favorable standing with the Father (He’s done it all!), what makes you think that returning to that requirement as if your salvation depended upon you makes any sense? Paul, in fact, calls such thinking “weak and worthless” (v.9). Do you really want to be a slave again? I can just see him shaking his head in disbelief.
An Object Lesson
Nevertheless, the appeal of this sort of thing continues, in part because of the efforts of the Judaizers who keep painting this way of living as a wonderful thing, even though it is a cheat and a deception (v. 17). These folks are pretty good at stroking your ego, that inner workaholic that wants to feel good about your ability to earn points with God. But it’s a lie. Paul has already pointed out to the Galatians that the Judaizers are “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” (2:4). But the fact is that “No one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (3:11).
And so, he comes to his object lesson, a tale of two covenants. Even the Gentiles would be familiar with the tenets of this story, but his remarks are particularly aimed at the Judaizers and those who are following them. He hits them right where they live… “You who want to live under the law, do you even know what it says???” (v. 21) Yes, you are Abraham’s offspring (3:29), but in Christ, through the line of promise, not the line of man’s presumption and personal efforts to bring about deliverance through human wisdom.
The line of Ishmael, born to the slave Hagar, represents the law, not just of Moses (Sinai), but of the requirements of the Covenant of Works in general. In order to bring about the redemption and reformation of your soul and your eternal inheritance, you must fulfill everything God has ever commanded. This was what the earthly Jerusalem was all about, the Judaizers with their insistence upon laws of eating and the feasts, and circumcision, and the rest.
The line of Isaac, on the other hand, born to the wife Sarah, represents the Covenant of Grace, in which we have a standing because of Jesus Christ, who did indeed perfectly fulfill the Covenant of Works on our behalf (v. 4-5a). The heavenly Jerusalem, the reality of which the earthly is but a shadow, is the source of our life, our “mother” which corresponds to Sarah’s motherhood of Isaac. Our inheritance will not be shared with the slave!
So, don’t go back there. Cast out the slave mentality, abandon your precious “workaholic” attitude because you can earn nothing. Christ has already earned it. Pursue the freedom that is truly in the gospel – for there is no “good news” in slavery. As Paul concludes in 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”