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The self-defeating strategy of rule-keeping

Inevitably, and coincidentally, Spurgeon says it better: Morality fosters immorality (Today from the ever helpful Pyromaniacs). But I already had this prepared from Galatians 4v8-5v1.

1. The joyless slavery of rule-keeping (4v8-20)
Why did the Galatians get enslaved? Was it fear? The pressure of persecution or opposition... peer-pressure... shame of the cross... persuasive personality... convincing words about Christian maturity? Perhaps a desire to avoid sinning. All of these and others are possible reasons why they submitted to rule-keeping. None of them ultimately make sense and whichever it was left Paul thoroughly perplexed.

He begins by equating law-keeping with slavery to idols. This is a shocking connection. The experience and reality of rampant sin and law keeping are indistinguishable. We'd be unlikely to imagine that religious zeal, whether in rituals or religious days or otherwise could be the same as outright sin. But, it's as miserable in it's slavery and undoes the work of the gospel. It leads to the gospel's work in us being in vain. All the glorious promises and power of the gospel cancelled out by the foolishness of submitting to law.

Never one to be guarded Paul displays his utter anguish and perplexity at the way young Christians he has loved and served are being ensnared so easily. Heretics have come in amongst them and gathered a following with their popularist message. Their rule-keeping message feeds believers ego by giving them a part to play. It appeals perfectly to the sinful nature whilst looking pious.

The heretics arrive full of zeal. But zeal is not their crime. Paul is all for zeal and passion, he has it in abundance. But it must be passions for the gospel not for fanmail or false teaching. He recalls the zeal with which the gospel was recieved by the Galatians, and the great joy they had - yet dow they live in the misery of law-keeping slavery.

Rulekeeping is utterly senseless. It doesn't compute. Slavery to religious law might look good, but actually it is a miserable way to live today. Useless. Rules aren't a way to resist sin they're just a way to return to it's slavery. It's the classic con. A strategy that looks spiritual, but is self-defeating. Spurgeon says "The preaching of morality seemed to lead to immorality", and more! When rule-keeping morality is required of a Christian it is immorality.

Sin isn't to be avoided because there are rules against it. It should be avoided because its bad, it destroys joy and only makes much of people. In the words of 6v12, it evades persecution for the Cross and 2v21 - makes nothing of it. It minimises and denies the reputation and work of the Cross. Any such strategy is doomed to fail and is inherantly evil.

2. The futureless slavery of rule-keeping (4v21-5v1)
And then comes the wierd bit. It involves the recall of Old Testament history, an allegory from it, and some conclusions drawn. The conclusions aren't all that difficult even if they route to them seems a bit peculiar. Paul draws the story and allegory from the law. He does this because those he writes to are captivated by the law - and so, just as he did in chapter 3, he uses the law against them. The story is Abraham. God promises that his wife Sarah will have a child by God's power. Abraham struggles to believe that his barren aged wife will bear a child, so he has a child "in the ordinary way" with his slave Hagar. From this he extrapolates an allegory or figurative understanding of the story.

(We don't appear to be given a Pauline right to allegorise the story of salvation... rather Paul allows the story to instruct us by drawing parallels and warnings for us from it at high altitude.)

He moves from Hagar to Sinai and then to Jerusalem. All three he says lead to slavery. And so the path of slavery is to be gotten rid of. Slaves will persecute the free but they're living in the past. Their way his already history. It leads to misery now, and has no future - no inheritance This is in contrast with Sarah and "the Jerusalem above". Notice no in-between-phase here. The people who are free are plugged back into the old, old promise to Abraham. The law had been just a temporary measure to prepare for the coming of Jesus.

Logically Hagar will have more children, and law makes people better. But Paul draws on words in Isaiah to assert that God's plans defy that. It's the barren woman who produces more children. Freedom leads to inheritance, to a future! Those who are free then should be free. They should resist any attempts to burden them with slavery. Attempts will come to return the free to slavery - opposing them outright, or singing their praises to win them over... same difference.

In chapter 5-6 Paul will flesh out what it means to have Christ formed in us - to be a new creation and how to live in freedom and keep in step with the Spirit, but the application here is simple. RESIST slavery. However appealing the teaching, or persuasive it's arguments... however safe or secure it might seem to use rule... Whatever anyone says: The Christian must fight against rule-keeping with all the zeal they have. Say no with a passion! Don't be burdened. Don't be a rule keeper any more than embracing idolatry. Neither works, because rules lead to misery today and no tomorrow.

Joy and a secure future make much more sense! The slavery of rules is to be avoided because it defames the cross and destroys the blessing Christ won there - God's sure promise of blessing for all peoples, of the Holy Spirit and sonship and life in Christ. There has to be a better way, a better way to find joy today and hope for tomorrow.

See also: Lifestyle is a matter of justification (Galatians 2)
And Adrian Reynolds is on this sort of thing to: 10 Commandments? and Sabbath. So also was The Coffee Bible Club recently.



  1. Heard a great sermon on 4.21-5.1 at a Proc Trust minister's conference. Title: "Never mind who your father is....who's your mama?"

  2. Hi Dave,

    While I agree with the content of your post, and especially like your first point ('None of them ultimately make sense and whichever it was left Paul thoroughly perplexed.') I'm not sure about your choice of language. Paul does not say that he is against rule-keeping anywhere in the letter. In fact he is all for walking by a rule - the rule of new creation. And as 5:13-25 shows he is not afraid to be quite specific in what that means.

    It is very fashionable to rail against 'rules' but I don't think it is biblical, or helpful. Paul does not say we are enslaved to rules (sounds more existentialist than Pauline to me) he says we are enslaved to 'those that by nature are not gods', and 'worthless elementary principles[/spirits] of the world' - that is to demons and the devil. When he talks about being under the law he does not mean we are constrained by these awful rules but under the curse of the law, which is God's judgment for Israel's unfaithfulness.

    Jesus did not save us from rule keeping; he saved us from the curse of failing to keep rules. When Jesus criticises the Pharisees it is for failing to keep the law, not for trying to do so. We are freed to keep rules (although that makes it sound very flat – ‘love God and one another’ is richer and more biblical) by the power of the Spirit, not to give up bothering.

    It is edifying to talk about trying the disappointment that results from trying to do-it-yourself as Abraham did with Hagar, to talk about the folly of seeking the approval of others and the feeding of egos as you do, or to explain the stupidity of forgetting the crucified Christ as the Galatians seemed to do. Paul does all these things in persuading the Galatians not to rely on the works of the (Jewish) law, but he does not talk about the joylessness of rule-keeping except so far as it is the result of one of the above. And rule keeping does not need to be like that - was Zechariah [Luke 1:6], and all those similarly described joyless? No, if you are looking for God for salvation, as Zechariah looked for the coming of Christ, it is a joyful thing.

    … that’s my 2 pence worth anyhow.

  3. I take your point, and recall that we've had this conversation before. Glad to have you back commenting though!

    I agree that he doesn't use the language of rules but rather "elementary principles" which appear to be the OT Law - which are equated with their old "not gods" - but clearly different from those in identity (they'd not been circumcised previously) but identical in effect.

    For this reason I think it's broader than just law-keeping. And that must, as you illustrate mean a wrong relationship with law (hence joyful zech) but one which most of Israel had known. It seems that few had caught on to the real purpose of the law and promise before Christ...

    So, I think Galatians speaks into slavery to law, to ouright sinful indulgence, to idolatry, to religious zeal (Paul's previous pursuit) etc. "Rules" may not be the best catch-all for that. But, I think it is "one" of the manifestations of it.

    And the effects in sin show more in ch5 - my next stop along the way.

    I appreciate your reflections and need to give them some more thought.

  4. Yes we have had a similar conversation before, but I have learnt some lessons since then, and partly they have come from you (so thanks for that, esp as I think they were largely driven by sin).

    And I agree with so much of what you say, esp in your comment, but then you bring in the pesky word again ('rules').

    You say: "Rules" may not be the best catch-all for that. But, I think it is "one" of the manifestations of it.

    I agree rule keeping is sometimes one of the manifestations of sin, but it not a catch-all by any stretch. A 'catch-all' would describe what is behind the sins you name in the previous sentence, but a 'manifestation' would flow out of those sins. Rules can be manifestations of idolatry etc. and are only criticised by Paul to the extent that they are manifestations of the sins you list, but he identifies the catch-alls to be: slavery to other not-gods, rebellion, sinful self-indulgence, etc.

    I used to read the puritans a bit... looking back that was largely a manifestation of my idolatry. I assumed that this was a mark of the true Christian, or at least the truly mature Christian. By reading the puritans I was only feeding my own pride - for all the treasure they contain. We can turn every good thing that God gave us into a sin: daily bible reading, dressing smart (or casual) on a Sunday, even enjoying food.

    While I might challenge my old self with the sin of reading the puritans (as a short hand for reading the puritans in a sinful way), just as you may challenge your a friend for their rule-keeping (as a short hand for rule keeping in a sinful way), i don't think I should say 'Paul thinks reading puritans is joyless slavery according to Gal 4'.

    Well I ramble, and in a preachy way, so I best stop.

    I look forward to chapter 5.

    Always appreciating....


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