Our Hope: Righteousness

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who receives circumcision that he is bound to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is of any avail, but faith working through love. You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view than mine; and he who is troubling you will bear his judgment, whoever he is. But if I, brethren, still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? In that case the stumbling block of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves!

Needless to say, Paul is angry. “I wish those who unsettle you would mutilate themselves” (5:12). That is very strong language! Who are these people and what have they done to bring down this judgment on themselves?

Why Paul Is So Angry

Well, according to verse 7 they are hindering the believers in Galatia from obeying the truth. “You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?”

They were trying to persuade the believers of something that was not from God. Verse 8: “This persuasion is not from him who called you.”

They were trying to bring the believers back under a yoke of bondage after Christ had set them free; and specifically that meant a burden to keep the Mosaic law in order to earn a righteous standing in the presence of God. Verses 1–2:

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.

In 6:12–13 Paul makes clear what these troublemakers are doing:

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that would compel you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who receive circumcision do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may glory in your flesh.

So here is a group of people in the churches of Galatia who are pushing the Jewish requirement of circumcision on the Gentile Christian converts. Paul’s problem with this is not that circumcision is bad — he had circumcised Timothy for strategic missionary reasons according to Acts 16:3. His problem was that the motive behind the requirement of circumcision was all wrong. It was diametrically opposed to the meaning of Christ’s cross and to the freedom of grace.

The cross means the end of all boasting in anything we can do. But these people were making circumcision a ground for boasting. They were treating it not as a gift of grace from God but as a debt or price paid to God. And so the way they treated circumcision called attention to their religious ability and not to God’s free grace. And nothing made Paul angrier than the religious nullification of the freedom of God’s grace.

The Different Way of Life That Paul Offers 

Now right in the middle of this dispute Paul says something that is tremendously encouraging to imperfect, sinful saints like you and me. In 5:5 he says, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.”

He gives this verse as a way of life that is utterly opposed to the way these opponents in Galatia are living. He speaks of a righteousness that is yet future — a “hope of righteousness.” He speaks of life now as a “waiting” for righteousness, not a possessing of righteousness. He speaks of this waiting as waiting “through the Spirit.” And he speaks of it as waiting “by faith.” “Through the Spirit by faith we wait for the hope of righteousness.”

There is a whole way of life in this one little verse. The very essence of what makes a Christian different from others is in this verse. Paul clearly means for this verse to describe another way of life than the one he warns against in the first four verses of the chapter. So let’s look very briefly at those verses.

The Way of a Slave

Verse 1: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand fast therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

The Way of a Slave or the Freedom of a Child

If you want God’s favor, there are two ways to relate to him. You can relate to him as an heir, or you can relate to him as a slave. The difference is that a slave tries to become acceptable to his master by presenting him valuable service; but the heir trusts that the inheritance of his father is his by virtue of a will that was drawn up without his earning it at all. A slave is never quite sure he has done enough to please his master and win an honorable standing in the house. A son rests in the standing he has by virtue of his birth and the covenant his father made in his will to bless his children.

Look at 4:4–5, 7:

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons . . . So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir.

So in 5:1 Paul reminds the Christians that through Christ God has adopted them into the freedom of a child. They don’t have to work to get into the family. They don’t have to put themselves in the position of slaves any more. Don’t do that, he says. Why do you want to be slaves again and treat God like an employer instead of a Father?

The Way of a Slave Usurps the Work of Christ

Then verse 2 says that if you want to be the workman in relation to God, then Christ won’t be.

Now I Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.

Christ is a great advantage to us! He paid all our debts on the cross and got us out of the debtor’s prison of guilt. He frees us from the slavery of having to earn our keep in the Father’s house. And he exerts himself for us with kingly omnipotence so that everything works together for our good. Christ is our great advantage and profit!

BUT! If you start to follow the advice of these false teachers and get circumcised in the hopes of earning God’s blessing — in other words, if you go back and take up the mindset of a slave instead of an heir — then you have taken over the work of Christ and treated his work as insufficient. He will be of no advantage to those who try to do his work for him.

Verse 4 gives the same gracious warning:

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law: you have fallen from grace.

Look carefully at what is at stake here. It is the freedom and glory of the grace of God in Christ. Paul is saying that if we will not live from grace, we are cut off from Christ and fallen from grace. If we insist on using the commandments of the law (good as they are!) like a slave uses his job description, in order to earn a good standing with the master, then we have abandoned the way of grace. And we are severed from Christ.

Being Like the Elder Brother

We are like the elder brother in the parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15:25–31. You recall how the father with overflowing grace received the broken, contrite, poverty-stricken prodigal. The father didn’t make him a slave to earn his way back into favor. The freedom and glory of his grace overflowed with a robe and a ring and celebration.

But what was the response of the elder brother? He would not go into the feast. His father came out and entreated him, but he answered with words that put him squarely in the camp with the false teachers in Galatia:

Lo, these many years I have SERVED you, and I never disobeyed your command . . .

The elder brother had the mindset of a slave. He worked for the father. He did not rest joyfully in the father’s beneficence. And as long as he insisted on treating the commandments of his father as a job description for slaves, he would be cut off from Christ and a stranger to grace.

Christ is at the feast with broken, forgiven sinners who have learned that their service is utterly inadequate. And he invites you and entreats you this morning to forsake the mindset of a slave and accept the gift of adoption. “To as many as received him to them gave he the power to become children of God” (John 1:12).

Forsaking the Way of a Slave Is Forsaking Boasting

But mark well, this would be the end of all boasting in your life. The end of all self-reliance. The end of all independence. When you come home to the Father, you come broken and destitute and helpless. And that is good news for sinners — unless you have the mindset of a slave who has to prove his own worth to the master. I urge you this morning to forsake the way of servitude that prides itself in its accomplishments, and to take up the song of grace that Paul sings in 6:14,

Far be it from me to glory except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ by which the world was crucified to me and I to the world.

Cast yourself wholly on the grace of God this morning. Look to the cross of Christ as the one boast of your life. Turn away from every form of self-exalting servitude, and receive the free and gracious gift of acceptance in the Father’s house.

God aims to glorify the all-sufficiency of his Son and the wonder of his grace in this affair of salvation. Therefore, no sin, regardless of how great it is, should keep you from coming to Christ for help. There is a great incentive in the heart of God to glorify his Son and magnify his grace by forgiving the chief of sinners.

The Way of a Child and Heir: Four Observations 

Now, let us suppose that we have come. I pray that you have come! And we have been received by the Father. We are children and heirs, and no longer fearful servants. What is the new and different way of life that Paul describes as an alternative to the servitude that nullifies grace?

The answer is given in verse 5.

For through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.

This verse is full of instruction and full of encouragement for saints who have come to Christ and forsaken the way of servitude and long to stand fast in grace but know that they are still sinful and imperfect. Let’s look briefly at four things in the verse.

1. Righteousness as a Future Hope

Righteousness is a hope and not a full present reality.

Very probably the legalists in Galatia were teaching a kind of perfectionism. They were saying that by strict adherence to the Mosaic ceremonial law you can go beyond the beginnings of faith and be perfected in righteousness.

You can see this behind 3:3. Paul asks the believers, “Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with [literally: being completed by] the flesh?” The two words used for “begin” and “end” in this verse are the very same used in Philippians 1:6 where Paul says, “He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Surely that is the meaning the words should have here in Galatians 3:3. “Having begun in the power of the Spirit, are you so foolish as to think you can bring yourselves to completion or perfection by the flesh?”

This is what the legalists were saying. It is fine to begin the Christian life by trusting Christ, but if you want to be completed in righteousness, you need to go beyond faith and do some works of merit, beginning with circumcision.

So in Paul’s opposition to this in 5:5 he very boldly says, there will be no perfection in this life. Full and perfect righteousness lies in the future. It is our hope not our possession. (See Philippians 3:12–16 and Romans 7:21–23.)

That is the first thing to see in verse 5, and it should prevent us from falling into the trap of judging ourselves as hopeless because we have not yet attained the full righteousness we long for.

2. A Life of Eager Waiting

The second thing to see in verse 5 is that our present life is a life of waiting, eager waiting. “Through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.”

The word for “wait” here is exactly the same one used in last week’s text, Romans 8:23. There Paul says, “Not only the creation but we ourselves who have the first fruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.” He says that we Christians groan because we have to wait for new bodies.

Well, Galatians 5:5 says the same thing about the moral condition of our souls that Romans 8:23 says about the physical condition of our bodies. We wait for the hope of righteousness, and we should understand that there is groaning and frustration and disappointment in ourselves while we wait. We cry out with Paul in Romans 7:24, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?”

There is a great comfort and an exhortation in this word “wait.” The comfort is that the presence of a struggle with sin in this life is not a sign that we are lost. Perfection is not the test of spiritual life in this age. And that is a great comfort to saved sinners.

The exhortation is this: we must not be indifferent to righteousness in this life; we must wait eagerly for it. The word implies eager expectation and longing (see also Hebrews 9:28.) “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matthew 5:6). We hunger for it as we wait.

Therefore, we are not content with sin. There is battle and struggle and failure and confession and forgiveness and relief and joy and power and then failure again and confession and forgiveness and deeper love to Christ. And so it goes till the great day when the work which he began in us he himself, by his grace, will complete.

3. Waiting by the Spirit

The third thing to see in verse 5 is that the way we wait for the hope of righteousness is “through the Spirit” or “by the Spirit.”

This takes us back to 3:3 again. “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit [same phrase], are you now being completed by the flesh?” So the point of 5:5 is to say that we wait for righteousness by the Spirit not by the flesh. Which means, we wait by God’s power not our power.

We did not begin the Christian life by relying on ourselves. We do not go on living the Christian life by relying on ourselves. We do have the first fruits of the Spirit. And to the Spirit we owe all of our waiting.

You and I would never wait for righteousness on our own. It is by the Spirit that we are able to wait. And therefore it is by grace. So we are not cut off from Christ and we have not fallen from grace. All the good that we accomplish is a work of the Spirit who dwells within. Therefore the whole Christian life is a gift of grace.

That is God’s work as we wait for the hope of righteousness. Now what, finally, is our work?

4. Waiting by Faith

The fourth thing to see in verse 5 is that the human counterpart to the divine work of the Spirit is faith. “Through the Spirit, by faith, we wait for the hope of righteousness.”

What does this mean?

Galatians 2:20 gives the exposition. “I am crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me [that is the presence of the Spirit, 5:5]; and the life I now live in the flesh [the state of imperfection and waiting, 5:5] I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

We look back at the death of Christ for us while we were still sinners. We feel again the immensity of his love. Then we turn our eyes to the day’s work and to the uncertainties of the years ahead, and we trust that because of this unfailing love he will not leave us or forsake us. He will work all things together for our good. And so there comes into our lives a freedom from self-protecting anxiety, and a passion to double our joy in God by giving it away to others.

Stand fast in freedom, all his saints!
Your God is love and never faints!
Though you must wait and oft confess,
He gives at last full righteousness.

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