Not so long ago I had reason to say in a sermon: “If your preaching of grace isn’t causing offence, you’re not preaching it hard enough.” I stand by that declaration. And I think it is important enough to bear repeating. Christianity is a religion of grace. It is all about what God has already done and what God continues to do. It is all about the sovereignty of God, who in his absolute freedom chooses us, and chooses to be our God. There is nothing we can do that can make a difference to that. There is nothing that we can do to earn or deserve God’s action in saving us. I find myself saying to people, “There is nothing that you can do, or fail to do, that will make God love you more, or less, than God already does.” This grace is all inclusive. When God acts, God acts for us all. When God chooses, in his sovereign grace, God chooses us all. And there is nothing we can do to prompt or prevent this! Have I said this clearly enough? Am I preaching this hard enough? Have I offended you yet?
This of course is not my idea. This is Paul. It is Paul who first arrives at this understanding of what has happened in the life, and death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is he who recognises first that a restored relationship with God is entirely down to God. It is a gift. Accepting that gift, and placing our trust, our faith in that as truth and reality is all that we can, and all that we have to do. That is all there really is to Christianity. God has acted on our behalf, and gives us this as a gift. Preaching like this is guaranteed to produce a reaction, and as I said, some of it is guaranteed to be negative. Preaching Paul’s way of putting the gospel for one thing is likely to prompt a good deal of “what aboutery.” That is a kind of response that says: “well if salvation is a free gift from God then what about. . . ?” This would be followed by a list of reasons why salvation shouldn’t be free, or why some people should be excluded. And because the gospel was first preached to Jews and travelled across the ancient world through Jewish networks, the first “what about” was: what about the law? If God has acted in this way, if it’s all a free gift, a free gift what is more that includes Gentiles, where does that leave Torah? What about the law of Moses, surely you have to obey the commandments, all of the commandments in order to be right with God. And how would or could the distinctiveness of God’s people fit into all of this? What about the law, the covenant with Israel, surely people who aren’t part of that can’t be included. It carries on from there. Because Christianity has moved away from its Jewish roots the “what about” isn’t quite phrased as it might have been for the Galatians. What about commandments? If God loves you anyway, doesn’t that just mean that it’s a free for all, anything goes, we’re on a slippery slope. What about the church? If God loves you anyway, does that mean that coming to Church doesn’t matter? How are to keep this show on the road if it makes no difference?
This is exactly what had happened in the church in Galatia. After Paul had preached the gospel of grace there, and had established the church there, and had then moved on, other missionaries came after him. They did not share his view that the gospel is grace. They did that “what aboutery.” They had said of Paul’s teaching: “That can’t be right. What about the law? What about God’s chosen people? What about circumcision?” They had said: “Look, in order to be a Christian, you still must obey the law to Moses.” For a Gentile that meant in order to be a Christian you must become a Jew. And for a Gentile man this meant he would have to accept the sign of circumcision. That is the most tangible sign of Jewishness, and so stands as a symbol for all the rest.
Because of all the other ways which Paul uses the word “flesh” to imply negative connotations, it is easy to miss what he means when he first talks about “in the flesh” as he does here. Circumcision is a sign that is literally made in human flesh. To begin with Paul’s rejection of “in the flesh” is just that, he rejects a sign that is cut into a human body. Paul rejects circumcision because he sees it as one of the many many things which human beings do to justify themselves before God. Circumcision stands for all the things we might do deserve God’s favour, or to earn God’s love.
Paul won the argument against circumcision and against the idea that you need to be Jewish in order to be Christian long ago. But that is not to say that the problem he is indicating has gone away. It is hard to accept that God just loves us anyway. It takes humility. We want to imagine that our religion makes a difference. Each time we pray, we might be tempted to assume that we had added to the credit of our balance before God. Each good deed we accomplish, we hope will pay off some of the balance of debt of the bad deeds we know and suspect we have committed. And our identity, we want being members of a church to count for something. Yes God loves everyone, but surely God loves people like us more! The temptation to justify our selves, to live “according to the flesh” as Paul first means it is still there.
But this is not to say that one of those “what abouts” doesn’t require an answer. There is still the question of morality, ethics and lifestyle. It is tempting to say, and some people have, that if we don’t need to earn God’s favour, then anything goes. And, they say, once we start down that road we are heading for chaos. This is where preaching grace hard is most likely to give offence and get you into trouble. I think we all probably still suspect that if God isn’t just holding our carrot, but isn’t also brandishing a stick morality, ethics and civilisation just collapse. But is is here that other more “conventional” meaning for Paul’s use of the word “flesh becomes prominent. Whilst Paul is a theologian of grace, he is also always a theologian who is very quick to move from theology to ethics and morals and lifestyle. He offers a truism, in which we can hear echoes of Jesus’ manner of speech:
for you reap what you sow.
Like Jesus, Paul chooses to use an agricultural metaphor. It’s meaning is obvious to the point of cliché. If you put seeds into the ground, only the plants which come from those seeds can grow, and that is all you will have to harvest. And then he makes his classic distinction between flesh and Spirit.
If you sow to your own flesh you will reap corruption from the flesh.
If you are committed only to yourself, and to the material reality you are now experiencing, the only thing that can grow from that is corruption and eventually death. And remember Paul doesn’t just mean the self-evidently self-destructive behaviours which we would normally associate with the word flesh or the idea “sin.” He also means those religious attempts to justify ourselves before God. Both of those alternatives, fleshy sin and fleshy religion, are in reality two sides of the same coin, that human self-absorption, our concern for ourselves. And we, in terms of our bodies are going to only one place, and that’s the grave. But he says:
if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit.
Put simply “life in the Spirit” is Paul’s definition of Christian religion. And this life is always the response to the gift which God has already given. Paul is opposed to doing good as an act of self-justification. Paul demands doing good as a grateful response for what God has done. Sowing to the Spirit is the life filled with the good gifts which God is offering, faith, hope and love, which grow into all manner of virtues. So Paul can still say to the Galatians and to us:
So let us not grow weary in doing what is right.
What about morals, ethics and lifestyle? The answer is that they are a response to God not an attempt to demand from God.
Knowing that God loves us might make us too relaxed, almost casual before God. For all his gospel of Grace, Paul is still resistant to such sentimentality. As ever he sounds a very serious, even threatening note.
Do not be deceived; God is not mocked.
One way to mock God would to be to pretend that what God has done is not enough, and out of pride still try to earn God’s favour. The other way to mock God would be to pretend that we could accept his gifts and not be changed for the better by them. But in the end what we do or don’t do don’t matter. In the end all that matter is that we are transformed by God into what God intends us to be for his kingdom and for eternal life.
For neither circumcision or uncircumcission is anything but a new creation is everything.
God Is Not Mocked by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0