Who, or what, is a Christian’s worst enemy?

“You were running a good race,” Paul writes in Galatians 5:7. And why were they running so well? Because, verse 16, they were trusting the Spirit to replace their sinful nature with Christ’s nature. But then Paul writes in verse 8, “Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?”

The Galatians had been running well but people were trying to cut in on them, slow them down, knock them off track, and if possible even stop them “obeying the truth” all together. What truth? The truth that Christ had died to free them from ever again having to make themselves into righteous, loving people by human effort or obedience to the Law.

But some people didn’t like this truth at all. Why not? Because they wanted “to make a good impression outwardly,” Galatians 6:12. They much preferred the old way of doing things, of making oneself into an upstanding person by self-discipline, strength of will and obeying all the Old Testament laws perfectly, including circumcision, because it made them look good. It was impressive. And if they could persuade others to follow them, they could boast about that too, that the old way was right.

But, Paul writes, “The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ,” verse 12. The cross wasn’t popular because it didn’t allow for any human boasting or pride. It was offensive (5:11) because it took away the chance to show off how obedient and strong you were. It was humbling having to accept that it’s only “by the Spirit” that we “will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.” People didn’t like being told that. They got angry. They liked being able to boast about how righteous they were.

Paul was the absolute opposite. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world,” Galatians 6:14. It was only by Christ’s death that he’d managed to throw off the shackles of his sinful nature. So, having already experienced what Christ’s death had done for him, he wasn’t going to let anyone knock him off track. Nothing would persuade Paul to go back to depending on himself.

There are persuasive voices out there, though, who would rather “righteousness be gained through the law,” Galatians 2:21. And why is that? Because the cross doesn’t give them anything to boast about, where keeping the law does. What knocks people off track, then, is pride. It is those motivated by pride, therefore, who are identified in Scripture as a Christian’s worst enemy. 

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The only thing that counts

When we hear the right gospel and believe it, the Spirit begins to work miracles in us. What miracles? Galatians 5:3, “by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope.” The Spirit works the miracle of righteousness in us. And it’s a miracle because we can only “hope” for it since we can’t create it ourselves.

But what does Paul mean by “righteousness” in this verse? In context, verse 6, he’s talking about “faith expressing itself through love.” The miracle we’re trusting the Spirit to produce in us, and the “righteousness for which we hope,” is love.

And to Paul that’s “the only thing that counts,” (verse 6 still), because, verse 14“The entire law is summed up in a single command: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.'” This was the great hope and ultimate goal the Galatian Christians were trying to achieve too, but they thought they could love by their own efforts, and by keeping the law.

“But the scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe,” Galatians 3:22. No way could we achieve the righteousness God had in mind for us, or love our neighbours as ourselves, because we were all prisoners of sinful human nature. But the gospel gave the solution: What we can’t do, the Spirit does for us – by working the miracles of love and righteousness in us. And how do we receive this Spirit? By believing the gospel, that Christ took our sinful nature to the cross and crucified it, so that what was promised, the Spirit, would be given to us instead.

Paul summarized how this works in Galatians 2:20 – “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” Christ crucified our nature on the cross, so that the old life we lived, totally at the mercy of our sinful nature, is over. We are out of that prison. Christ, through the Spirit, now lives his life in us, so that we have his nature in us now. And all he asks of us is to believe this is what’s happening to us every day, because this is what he gave himself willingly for.

The Galatians did believe it too, that Christ was doing what he died for, working the miracles of love and righteousness in them by his Spirit, and because of their belief the miracles really happened (Galatians 3:5).

Even God’s law was powerless?

When the Galatians began slipping back to trying to attain their goal by human effort in Galatians 3:3, Paul asked them in verse 5, “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?”

Answer? God gave his Spirit when they believed what they heard. So what was it they’d heard? Verse 14, that Christ “redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” What they’d heard from Paul was the promise God made to Abraham, that one day, because of Jesus Christ’s death, the Spirit would be given to us. And what would the Spirit do? Deal with our nature, Galatians 5:16: “Live by the Spirit,” Paul wrote, “and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

This was the miracle the Galatians had experienced. It was the incredible change in their nature, from the typical self-centred mess of verses 19-21 to the fruits of the Spirit in verse 22. The change was so noticeable that of course they knew when the miracles of the Spirit had begun.

Had all their strict obedience to the law created this remarkable change in them? No. Nor had it changed the Israelites, either. It had proved a key point, though, that “the law was powerless…in that it was weakened by the sinful nature,” Romans 8:3. Our nature, with all its self-centred desires and passions, is so powerful that even the law can’t change it. And that’s the lesson of the Old Testament, that there’s nothing we can do about our sinful nature. We can try our best to be good people by willpower, self-discipline and strict religious rituals, but none of it works in changing our sinful nature.

But what the law (and all human effort and ritual) was powerless to do, “God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering,” verse 3. Jesus’ sacrifice broke the back of our nature, by taking our nature upon himself and nailing it the cross, and in so doing “condemned sin in sinful man.” And he did that “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according the sinful nature but according to the Spirit,” verse 4.

No longer would we be driven by our nature, or be dependent on what’s in our nature to attain our goal of obeying God’s law. Christ died so we could depend entirely on his Spirit to enable us to keep God’s law.

When miracles happen

Paul asks an amazing question in Galatians 3:5, amazing for two reasons: first, because he’s talking about real, live miracles happening to people, and secondly, because the people he’s talking to know these miracles are happening.

And the question was this: “When God gives you the Spirit and works miracles among you, is it because you keep the law, or is it because you have faith in the gospel message?”

The Galatians are really in trouble at this point, because they know the answer. They know miracles have been happening, and they know when the miracles started happening, too. The miracles began when they heard the gospel and they believed it.

So, how are the Galatians going to answer Paul’s question, when faced with obvious evidence? They know that none of these miracles were happening when they kept the law. For all their diligent keeping of the Ten Commandments, their strict keeping of the Sabbath, being circumcised, tithing, and properly performing all their sacrifices and rituals, there was never a time during any of those things that they experienced the remarkable miracles that had been happening since “Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified” to them, verse 1.

It was hearing the gospel about Jesus that got the miracles started. It was hearing and believing that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us,” verse 13. But that meant accepting there was a curse, first of all, that only Christ’s death could release them from. And what was this curse? It was trying to win God’s favour, get God’s blessings, and earn one’s way into eternity by one’s own diligent obedience and determination. And why was that a curse? Because “All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law,” verse 10.

The curse of the law is having to do it all perfectly. One mistake and that’s it, a blood sacrifice has to be made, or you die. That’s why the sacrificial system was set up in Old Testament Israel, so at least the Israelites could keep on living while still being sinners, but the only sacrifice that removed the curse once and for all was Christ’s (Hebrews 9 and 10). And when the Galatians believed that, that Christ’s death released them from the curse of ever again having to rely on themselves and their own resolve and obedience, it was then that miracles in their lives began to happen.

Is this the year that Christ returns?

Is this the year that Christ returns? Yes, so was last year, because Jesus has been returning every year since his resurrection from the dead. He returned bodily to begin with, for fifty days after he rose from the dead, appearing to his disciples many times, making breakfast on a beach for them, giving them lots of last minute instructions, and then right in the sight of their own eyeballs he rises from the ground and disappears.

The disciples were then told that one day Jesus would return just as he’d left (Acts 1:11), which sounds like Jesus is coming back in the same human body he left with. The question they still had, though, was. “When would it happen?” They wanted him back just like he was, walking and talking with them and telling them all kinds of wonderful stories about God setting up his Kingdom on earth in Israel, with them on twelve thrones ruling it.

That was the return of Jesus they wanted, in bodily form as a ruling, conquering king. They missed the point in John 14:23, when Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.” It was Jesus’ great desire, just like that of his Father, to actually make this earth his home. Jesus wants to live here, by living in and with us.

Jesus would love to return, then, and he can and does in anyone who loves him. For many people, therefore, this will be the year that Christ returns, to them. Because for now that’s how Christ returns, it’s in people who understand what the return of Jesus will one day accomplish, and that he’s training up his team now by installing his nature and God’s way of doing things in our heads and hearts through his Spirit. Anyone open to that, realizing what Jesus had to do to make that possible, can have Jesus return to them personally, verse 21: “He who loves will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”

You can see him returning, in your own life, because the Holy Spirit will personally “teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said.” It’s as if Jesus has returned to earth again, and he’s personally teaching his disciples just like he did before. Only this time his disciples understand what he’s saying, because the Spirit will make it clear (John 16:13). So is this the year Jesus returns? For many people being taught by the Spirit, it’s been every year he returns.

Are our motives ever good?

Every human capable of choosing is making choices every day between good and evil, and it doesn’t matter if we’re religious or not, either. Non-religious people choose to do good things (like caring for their families), but religious people do bad things (like killing people in war). So, Christian or non-Christian, we make our choices for good or bad.

But to what end? Why do we make the choices we make? A Christian, for instance, chooses to be good – but why? Is it fear of what might happen if he isn’t good, or to win God’s favour, or to make up for doing something bad? And why does an atheist try to be good, too? Is it to be looked up to as a jolly nice person, or simply because it feels good to be good?

It’s all rather selfish, though, isn’t it? Our choices are fraught with questionnable motives. A Christian does good, for instance, to get a better reward in heaven. An atheist, meanwhile, does good for the rewards it gives him now. In both cases the motive for doing good is to benefit oneself.

What if, on the other hand, we could make choices without any of the clutter of self-image, self-promotion and self-gratification messing up our motives? What if we weren’t the least bit concerned about the benefits or rewards to ourselves? And what if, when we’re out there slapping people on the back at work and being a jolly nice person, it was all being done without any hint of hypocrisy or selfish gain?

The trouble with us humans, though, is that we have a selfish nature that’s constantly exerting its influence on us, and we can’t get away from it. It’s like a “law at work” – as Paul called it in Romans 7:23 – that “wages war” in our heads so skillfully that even the good we want to do gets mixed up with selfish motives. It creates a world where you can’t trust anyone, including yourself, because what’s really motivating all of us, even when we’re doing good?

When Paul saw that in himself, it destroyed him. “What a wretched man I am!” he cried, because every time “I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” Self got its ugly head in there somewhere, even in the good he wanted to do. Would he ever be able to do good from a purely right motive? Yes, when he was “controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit” (Romans 8:9), because by the Spirit he would be “free from the law of sin and death,” free at last from selfish motives.