During a family reunion many years ago, my husband’s family found themselves at a karaoke bar in Branson, Missouri. This was before I became an official part of the family. Toward the end of the evening, all the brothers, sisters, in-laws, cousins, etc. came together onstage and sang “We Are Family.” My mother-in-law still recalls it as one of the most special moments of her life.

Except one aunt and uncle weren’t there. They stayed back at the hotel because alcohol was served in that establishment.  Just before this aunt passed away, she told my mother-in-law how much she regretted that decision…how much she wished she had been part of the family ensemble on stage that night.

I deeply respected this aunt and uncle. In fact, they were among my favorites in this large family. Surely, our shared faith contributed to our connection. But I think they were trying to live under the Old Covenant in this case—more worried about getting everything right than about showing love.

The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. Galatians 5:6

In Galatians 4,

Ishmael’s life was like the
laws God passed down to
Moses on Mount Sinai.

Paul writes about a family—one very different from my husband’s family. Hagar and Sarah were not sisters. They started out as master and slave but became rival wives of Abraham. Hagar’s son, Ishmael, represents the Old Covenant: conceived in a very natural way (“according to the flesh,” Paul says in 4:23) and born into slavery. His life was like the laws God passed down to Moses on Mount Sinai. Remember the stone tablets on which God wrote the commandments? Before they were even read aloud, Moses broke that set of tablets (Exodus 32:15-19). The actual pieces of stone didn’t even make it off the mountain before they were—literally—broken! Why did Moses break them? Because the people were very tangibly breaking the first law written on those tablets.

Do you see this? Do you see how impossible it is to keep the law? Keeping the law is like the children’s relay game in which you have to carry a raw egg on a spoon while walking as fast as you can. Except it’s not for a twenty-yard dash. We’re talking about your whole life. Messy. Just Messy.

Isaac’s life is like the eternal
life we receive from Jesus.

Sarah’s son, Isaac, however, represents the New Covenant: conceived miraculously (“as the result of a divine promise” –Galatians 4:23 again) and born as a beloved son and heir. His life is like the eternal life we receive from Jesus. Our eternal life has always been in the heart of God, and He sealed the promise to Abraham long before Ishmael and Isaac, or Moses and the Law. God made a one-sided covenant with Abra(ha)m in which He promised Abram progeny, property, and a legacy. (There’s another “p” word here, but I can’t think of it today.) Paul calls us “children of the promise” (Galatians 4:28) because we are part of that covenant’s fulfillment.

Now this verse is really interesting:

At that time the son born according to the flesh persecuted the son born by the power of the Spirit. It is the same now.  –Galatians 4:29

Yes, Paul. It’s still the same now…2,000 years later.

Those who try to live in their own power by meticulously following the rules (and making excuses for when they fail), exacerbate the difficulties for those who live in liberty. They typically judge fellow believers who don’t follow the same set of rules. They also create barriers to sharing the Gospel because non-believers don’t want to live like they do.

Under the Old Covenant, life is spent trying to live up to the law, worrying about every little thing. It focuses on restrictions, and it results in stepped-on toes.

Under the New Covenant, life is spent leaning into the promise, celebrating the “done deal,” and enjoying liberty. The focus here is on relationship—with God and with others (Matthew 22:36-40)—and it results in embracing others. (See All You Need is Love…and More Love.)

When Isaac was born, he automatically became the heir to Abraham’s property and power. He didn’t spend his life trying to earn it. When we are “born again” (Jesus’ words in John 3:3), we are then-and-there recognized as heirs of the same promise Isaac enjoyed.

Isaac had responsibilities
and expectations placed
upon him as he grew.

But Isaac wasn’t free to do whatever he wanted whenever he wanted it. He was free, as in, not a slave, but he had responsibilities and expectations placed upon him as he grew. In the same way, our freedom isn’t about indulgence but about service (Galatians 5:13)—service to our Lord and to each other. (See also The Balance Between Liberty and Licentiousness.)

How is faith expressed? Not by keeping a bunch of rules but by love (Galatians 5:6).

Are you trying to live up to the law, or is it time to start leaning into the promise?

Maybe this Christmas, your non-believing family members don’t need to be reminded of how good and right you are. Maybe they need to see how Jesus loved and enjoyed the company of everyone (See The Worst Networking Opportunity Ever.), in every kind of social situation.

Do you spend your holidays trying to live up to the Law in front of your friends and family? Try leaning into the promise this year and just loving them. My #holidays are #NotAboutMe, via @Carole_Sparks. (click to tweet)

Does your history include time spent trying to keep all the rules? Mine does. How did God lead you into His liberty? You will bless us all if you share in the comments below. 

4 thoughts on “Letting Go of Legalism

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