Sunday my pastor Mike Erre preached on grace in the Church. He rightly pointed out our salvation is by grace and involves the past, the present, and the future. We were saved at the point of time we passed from death into the newness of life in Christ. We are being saved as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12). And we will be saved when we are raised incorruptible (Col. 3:4). We are, he said, in process.
We use phrases like life is a journey and we are growing. We say we are being conformed to the image of God’s Son. In other words, we recognize that none of us have arrived yet. Even the apostle Paul said so about himself:
Not that I have already obtained it [conformity to Christ’s death leading to resurrection] or have already become perfect, but I press on so that I may lay hold of that for which also I was laid hold of by Christ Jesus. (Phil. 3:12)
The point of my pastor’s message, however, was this: we are eager to accept the fact that we are a work in progress, and less eager to do so about everyone else. We have reached, let’s say, point D on the continuum of spiritual growth and the tendency is to expect to find other Christians at least at point D—as if our level of spiritual maturity defines what it means to be a Christian.
He concluded that the Christian life needs to be more about taking logs out of our own eyes than looking around to see what specks we can find in others.
It’s a good point. Except this week I read the book of Galatians. It’s a pretty hard-hitting book. In part Paul confronts the people in the church—Jewish believers, you’d have to think—who were insisting that a real Christian had to be circumcised. Apparently, and understandably, this was a big issue in the first church. The Jewish believers rightly saw Jesus as their Messiah. They weren’t thinking they’d taken up some new religion.
But Paul and the elders in Jerusalem wrestled with this issue earlier and clearly determined following the law was not what saved and therefore Gentile believers did not have to start keeping Jewish law. Yet here was the issue again, in a different church.
Paul, however, didn’t sit back saying, well, they’re not as far on the continuum of salvation as those of us who understand that circumcision is not necessary. We’ll just be patient with them and let God show them the truth.
Uh, no. God’s means of showing them the truth was the Church and the man who was their spiritual leader.
Paul was not particularly gentle here, either. He encouraged the church, but he came down hard on the one dumping false doctrine in their laps:
A little leaven [the person teaching false doctrine] leavens the whole lump of dough. I have confidence in you in the Lord that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision [the need to follow the law instead of trusting in the grace of God], why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished. I wish that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves. (Gal. 5:9-12)
The word translated “mutilate” here carries the connotation of castration. I told you, Paul was not being particularly gentle here. He goes on to list out stuff that he says are deeds of the flesh, then adds, “I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
In contrast he lists the fruit of the Spirit and concludes that those who belong to Christ have “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:24b-25).
The next chapter is more hard hitting confrontation.
So which is it? Are we to be extend grace to the weaker brother, understanding that he’s in progress just like I am, that he doesn’t have to be where I am spiritually because God is bringing him along in His time? Or are we to confront sin and chastise whoever is teaching false doctrine and admonish the brethren to walk by the Spirit?
As I write this, I think a couple things come clear. First, Paul was criticizing the Galatians for thinking a legalistic act and not God’s grace meant they were Christians. Today, it seems as if Western Christians are more apt to think like the Galatians than Paul. Yes, I can hear some say, there are things you have to do if you’re to be a Christian—as if we need to clean up in order to stand before God rather than run to God with the stench of the pig-sty still clinging to us and let Him clothe us with His righteousness.
Second, it seems as if Paul reserved his harshest language for the false teachers—the ones responsible for leavening the lump of dough.
Third, we are to restore one caught in trespass with a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1). Confrontation is not intended to separate the sheep from the goats. It is intended to restore, bring the straying lamb back into the fold.
And during the restoration process, we are to take a good look at our own lives, so we don’t think we’ve got it all figured out, only to fall ourselves.
As I see it, there’s tension here. We are saved by grace and we are to live by grace. But we are to crucify the deeds of the flesh and restore one caught in trespass. All the while checking our own lives.
It’s the logs. We’ve got to constantly be checking for logs. But when specks pop up, we need to deal with them too. Gently!