Keeping the Rules
Now, I know I’ve talked about some of my favorite movies before, but another that’s easily on my top ten list is the movie Shawshank Redemption. It’s the story of how a man wrongly convicted for the murder of his wife and sentenced to life in Shawshank prison redeems himself. The story itself is rooted in bad theology, but the movie is fantastic with the aid of superb acting, great characters, and Morgan Freeman (because any movie with Morgan Freeman is, by definition, good). One of the most interesting characters is an old man named Brooks. Brooks was a thief who got caught one too many times and was given a long sentence in Shawshank. He served as the prison librarian. Brooks is a pretty harmless, kind old man who has come to know with great intimacy the rules and routines of Shawshank. As a result, he goes about his time there with a remarkable degree of peace and contentment. At one point in the movie, though, seemingly out of nowhere, Brooks fashions a makeshift knife, grabs another prisoner unaware, and threatens to cut his throat. When the main character, Andy Dufresne, played by Tim Robbins, talks him out of the horrible act, Brooks can only emotionally sob, “They can’t make me leave. They can’t make me leave.” You see, Brooks up was for parole. Given that he was a model prisoner and so old, there was little chance he was going to be denied. This meant, of course, that he would be given his freedom. Now, you and I would naturally think that to be a good thing. But for Brooks, the structure of that institution had come to define his whole world. The freedom of the world outside the walls of the prison was a threat to everything he held as familiar. He wanted to run from it, whatever the cost. The seduction of the way of life he had long known as familiar proved to be too strong for this man given the opportunity to be free.
This morning we are going to continue in our series Living Free. This series is rooted in the idea that we were created for freedom, but on our own we don’t know how to live as free people. This is because, as we saw last week through Paul’s relating some of his personal story to the believers in the churches he had planted in the region known as Galatia, freedom is unnatural. More specifically, freedom in Christ is not natural. The reason for this, which we saw in the first part of our series, is that there is only one sufficient foundation for real and lasting freedom: the Gospel of Christ. There’s no gospel save the grace of Christ and this foundation is one that stands at odds with everything the world proclaims to us to be normal. Thus far, though, Paul has not been very specific with the reason for all of this. He called the Galatians believers out for leaving their freedom in Christ in favor of a life of rule-keeping. He described very personally his own call from a life of rule-keeping to one of freedom along with how he grew a ministry of Christian freedom over and against pressure to drift back into rule-keeping. But he hasn’t yet spelled out exactly what the problem with trying to live by rule-keeping is in the first place. This morning addresses that oversight. Here at the end of chapter 2 Paul finally gets very clear on why a life of rule-keeping doesn’t ultimately work. Grab your Bible, Bible app, or bulletin insert with the Scripture (all of it this time), find Galatians 2:15, and we’ll take a look at Paul’s direct words here.
Now, as a matter of context, keep in mind that this comes on the heels of Paul’s famous confrontation with Peter. You see, the belief on the part of some of the Jewish background believers (the ones Paul accuses of merely pretending to be Christians) was that they really were more special to God than the Gentile believers. After all, they were God’s chosen people, right? He had chosen them out of all the nations on earth and so therefore they were more special than all the others, right? This was merely an affirmation of their rule-keeping way of life, right? That’s part of why they were trying to force the Law on the Gentile believers in the first place. But, they had forgotten something. You see, when a group of people starts to think of themselves as particularly special to God, it is natural to start thinking that there must have been something about them that made them special to Him. After all, if you choose me, there must be a reason for it. And since it’s me who was chosen, the reason must be something about me. Folks like this start to think that maybe they really are better than the ones He didn’t choose. And if they’re better than these other folks, then it must be okay to think about and treat them as the lesser people that they are. It must be okay to insist that they take up our way of life in order to join us instead of merely as a consequence of having joined us. The Jews had forgotten Moses’ caution against this type of attitude in Deuteronomy 7:7: “God wasn’t attracted to you and didn’t choose you because you were big and important—the fact is, there was almost nothing to you. He did it out of sheer love, keeping the promise he made to your ancestors.”
Paul had not forgotten this and so he could declare to the Galatian believers that “we Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over ‘non-Jewish sinners.’” Just to clear up some language here, when Paul says “we Jews” he’s talking about Jewish background believers, and when he talks about “non-Jewish sinners” he is mimicking the attitude of Jews generally toward Gentiles to make his point. This becomes clear in the next sentence: “We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ.” That’s the basic Gospel message, but the next part here is the natural follow-up question: “How do we know?” That’s a pretty natural question to ask, isn’t it? We think the statement Paul just made is pretty obvious, but it wasn’t then—and it’s not nearly as obvious today as we who have been in the church for most of our lives are tempted to think. Paul’s statement was revolutionary. So yes, the natural rebuttal question would have been: How do you know that? What makes you think that?
I love Paul’s response: “We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen!” As I said last week, there’s really no other system in the history of the world that tops the Law of Moses and its history of interpretation in its breadth and depth. Nothing else covers so many different aspects of life, always pointing in the direction of a relationship with God. And Paul’s saying: “I’ve lived that. All of us who were faithful Jews and are now followers of Jesus spent our entire lives living out of that system and it didn’t work. We couldn’t get a relationship with God. And if our system didn’t work, no system does.” Look back at your text: “Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement [which was essentially what the law was], we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.”
This is the goal of the life of a follower of Jesus: to trust in Him and stop simply trying to be good. Yet critics of the church both in Paul’s day and in ours look at Jesus followers and make a very tough charge: “Yeah, but you guys aren’t perfect. In fact, you’re not even close. You’re supposed to be like Jesus, but you don’t look like Him at all most of the time.” Some Jewish critics in Paul’s day took things even further and alleged that Jesus Himself must be an accessory to sin since His followers still seemed to sin so much. Paul deals with this objection directly starting at v. 17: “Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was ‘trying to be good,’ I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.”
You see, the thing about the rule-keepers, is that there was usually immediate visible evidence of their effort. My baseball team, the Royals, hired James Shields to be their ace pitcher this season. He played last season for the Tampa Bay Rays. Last year when the Royals played the Rays, Shields did everything he could to make sure they lost. This year, he came out to the same game in the same ballpark dressed in Royals gear and smoked his old team. He changed the set of rules by which he was living and the difference was immediately apparent. Or put things in a different light. Imagine someone who has been living pretty wild joins a church. But they don’t just join, they adjust their behavior to fit the community, they start living life by a different set of rules. There will be an immediate difference as they seek to follow the new rules. But, absent a change of heart, this person has not found any real freedom. He has only found a new form of slavery. He’s not made right with God. He’s only living with a different set of guidelines to try and get there. He might be working really hard to be right with God as opposed to not caring as he was previously, but he’s still relying on his own effort to meet his adopted standard which will unfailingly fail him. Such a person may confess to be following Jesus, but really, he’s building a new house of slavery for himself out of different material. He’s acting as, in Paul’s words, a charlatan.
So what, then, does it look like to make this transition from living by rule-keeping to living in the freedom of Christ and why does that actually matter? Paul lays this out for us in the last couple verses of the chapter. Listen to the text here: “What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work.” By the way, have you ever felt like you’re working your head off to be good enough for God and it’s just not working for you? Look how Paul handled it: “So I quit being a ‘law man’ so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it.” Now look at how this happened for Paul: “I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not ‘mine,’ but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.”
Look, do you ever feel like you need to impress God? Like you need to live in such a way that will make Him think you have it all together? That’s a pretty natural feeling. I mean, He is God. And yet, what happens when we carry that feeling around with us? Well, when we understand that God’s standard is perfection, we start trying to make ourselves perfect. Somewhere along the way we realize that we aren’t doing it on our own so we look to put some guidelines in place to help keep us in line—some rules for living, if you will—and perhaps a community willing to hold us accountable for these. Yet we still don’t do very well with those rules so we make more rules to help us with the rules. And the chains of rule-keeping grow larger and more burdensome all the while. Eventually we either give ourselves totally over to the rules, letting them shape everything about how we see the world around us, or we get frustrated enough that we give up and decide we’re just going to live however we want regardless of the consequences and God can take His expectations and shove them. This just leads to slavery to some kind of vice. Either way, our ego is running the show because we’re trying to depend on us to do it so we get the credit at the end of the day. And Paul is saying: give up on all that. Forget about trying to impress God. Let’s just get this on the table so we’re all clear: you’re never going to impress God. There’s nothing you’ll ever be able to do to make Him think more highly of you than He does right now. If you feel like God doesn’t think very highly of you, you’re wrong. You may not think very highly of yourself, but that doesn’t mean God thinks like you do and you should thank Him for it. The better approach, in fact, the only approach that is going to give you the freedom, the ability to being in the relationship with God you were created to desire is to give up on trying to live by the rules. As long as we’re trying to be good enough based on some set of rules—whether from the Bible or not—we’re living by ego because if we succeed then look what we did. The way of Christ, though, turns its back on all of that. It is, in fact, its antithesis, its total and complete opposite. The way of Christ is freedom, not rules. Yet the temptation the Galatian believers were facing, and which we ourselves face, is to drift back into rule-keeping.
Yet not only does this approach always fail—indeed it has always failed every time it has ever been tried in the whole history of humanity—but something else happens as well. Look at how Paul finishes v. 21: “Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.” Think about that for a minute. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily. If Christ’s death was not needed to deal with the problem of sin, if there was some rule-keeping approach that could have solved the issue, then we serve an evil God who put His only Son through the most horrendous suffering anyone has ever faced for no reason. If His death was unnecessary then Christ becomes entirely meaningless because His words and His mission were justified by His death and resurrection and if those were unnecessary then it was all a sham. Let’s put all this in one simple package: living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless. Living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless.
That’s a pretty strong statement and the ideas here may still be a little abstract so let’s get more specific. What does it look like to live by rule-keeping versus living by freedom? That’s actually a tough question to answer. Here’s why: the difference is not often an external one. The person living by a set of rules and the person living according to freedom in Christ may do or not do many of the same things. Take being kind to a neighbor for example. The person living by rule-keeping will do some act of kindness for a neighbor because somewhere in their accepted mental framework is a rule which says: be kind to your neighbors. The reason for this rule will vary but usually contains a sense self-accomplishment: “I have done this and so I now look good.” It could be that we’ve made ourselves look good for ourselves or it could be that we’ve made ourselves look good for someone else (like God), but either way we have done something to advance ourselves, to improve ourselves. The person living according to freedom in Christ, on the other hand, does an act of kindness for a neighbor because of the great kindness God has done for her in giving her life through Christ and such an act brings Him more glory which is the goal of everything she does even at the expense of her own. Do you see the difference? One relies on and glorifies Christ while the other makes Him meaningless. Living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless.
Now, yes, if a person is doing evil things there is an obvious difference between the one living by Christian freedom and the one living by rule keeping, but this is only because the rule-keeper has chosen to live with a set of rules very much distinct from those of the average person who has been shaped by the somewhat still Christianized culture of the Western world. But for most folks, there’s not an easy way to look and tell. The perceptive observer may gradually get a sense that there’s something different about the Jesus follower, but this is not often immediately apparent. It’s an internal heart decision that makes the distinction. Are we going to live in such a way that makes Christ indispensible or meaningless? Why do you do the good things that you do? Because you’re trying to impress God by following the rules, or as a free gift of thanksgiving to a God who loves you more than you could ever merit? Be careful in casually answering one way or another because the heart is deceptive above all things. Paul will give us some guidelines later on in the letter which will help us recognize which is the truth, but for now know that living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless.
There’s one more important part here. Breaking from a life of rule-keeping is hard. Until we walk in the freedom found in Christ, rule-keeping is all we know. Again, we may have had various sets of rules over the course of our life, but it was all rule-keeping of some kind. This is because we are either rule-keepers or free in Christ. When something represents the sum total of what we know of how the world works, it’s hard to break from that. This is why Paul made the point that freedom in Christ is not natural. This is why I warned you last week of the great and subtle temptation to drift back into the slavery of rule-keeping. This is why I say to you this morning that living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless. Let us make no mistakes here: There is security in the rules. They form very much objective measures by which we know if we are on track or not, whether we are pleasing God (according to our rule system, at least) or not. When we blow out the walls of our cells and walk out into the spacious openness of the grace of Christ, it can initially be a pretty disorienting experience. Unless we do the hard work of reorienting ourselves to our new reality, there is a very great danger of falling away even if we externally appear to remain faithful because we have learned some of the rules of the Christian life and are diligent in keeping them. This way of life which many professed Jesus followers have taken up, makes Christ meaningless. Living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless.
Let me take you back to Brooks and then we’ll get out of here. I told you that Brooks threatened to kill another man—a crime much worse than those for which he had been given his lengthy sentence—just to make sure he got to stay at Shawshank. The rules of Shawshank were all he knew and his reaction to the threat of losing those was severe. In the story, eventually Brooks was granted parole and ushered into freedom. And in a moving, but unsettling scene, we are given a series of images of Brooks trying to adapt to life with his newfound freedom with the sound of Brooks himself narrating a letter back to his former fellow inmates. In the end, he confesses that he doesn’t really care all that much for his freedom and is thinking of leaving it. The scene ends with a close up of his feet hanging idly above the overturned desk in his room. Brooks had his freedom, but it was meaningless because he desired to return to his former set of rules. Living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless. It’s like if Brooks had been let out but instead of renting an apartment in the city he rented his old cell at Shawshank just because it felt more comfortable to him. It sounds weird when put like that, but when we profess Christ and then try to live by rule-keeping to please God that’s exactly what we’re doing. Look, if you want to live free, there is freedom to be had. But don’t pretend that the rules are freedom. There’s no freedom in the rules. There’s only ego and slavery. Living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless. Let us walk in freedom and pursue good works to the glory of God and nothing else. Let us pursue the freedom of becoming fully who God designed us to be, not the slavery of the best we can make ourselves to be. Living by rule-keeping makes Christ meaningless. Let’s make Him meaningful.