…so that the truth of the gospel might
be preserved for you. (Galatians 2:5, ESV)
In his dynamic letter to the Galatians, Paul makes clear that there is a distinction between “religion” and “gospel”. Paul chastised the Galatians for accepting “religion” over gospel. Were he here today, Paul would have been just as incensed at all of the “religion” that people are adhering to and depending upon rather than the gospel of grace.
“Religion” is moralism, it is legalism, it is focusing on obedience to the law in order to be accepted by God. It is avoiding God as Lord and Savior by developing one’s own moral righteousness. It is characterized by self-salvation projects one may engage in, in order to secure God’s favor or to maintain God’s favor. “Religion” focuses on one’s activity in the flesh, and puts great weight on the importance of that activity.
Gospel, on the other hand, is God developing and giving us—imputing to us—a righteousness through Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30 and 2 Corinthians 5:21). It is God’s work in us.
What was the “religion” issue facing the believers in Galatia? It had to do with accepting the false teaching that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could be Christians. That was demonstrated in the requirement that they be circumcised—becoming Jews—before they could belong to Christ. That was just false and Paul called it what it was.
Of course, the false teachers that had infiltrated the churches in Galatia (Galatians 2:4) presented their doctrine in opposition to what Paul had preached, necessitating Paul’s defense of his ministry, which he does at length in Chapters 1 and 2.
In Chapter 3, then, Paul lays it out for these misled believers:
O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3, ESV)
Paul is laying out the difference between religion and gospel. He is telling them that they, in fact, were sealed by the Holy Spirit by faith, not by works of the law. He asks them, “so if you’ve begun your life with Christ by faith, by the Holy Spirit, are you really thinking you can be perfected by the works of the flesh? REALLY?”
In verse 7 of Chapter 3, Paul clearly states that it is those who are “of faith” that are the true sons of Abraham. He goes on to emphasize that it is faith, and faith alone—which is itself a gift of grace—that secures and maintains God’s favor.
We are surrounded by people who are engaging in self-salvation projects—from making sure they have their Quiet Time religiously, to memorizing Scripture, to giving to the poor, all with the idea that they must engage in such activity in order to secure and/or maintain God’s favor.
I “grew up” as a believer (not saved until I was 24) being taught that I had to engage in the spiritual disciplines in order to “be a good Christian”. I was taught that if I missed my Quiet Time one day, to “double up” then next day. I was taught I needed to memorize “x” number of Scripture verses per week, and to diligently engage in the other spiritual disciplines without fail.
Of course, there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with the spiritual disciplines…but if our motivation is to secure, or maintain God’s favor, then that is sin. It is clearly dependence upon oneself. It is a clear failure to depend on God to complete the good work he began in us (Philippians 1:6). It is a clear failure to understand that “we are HIS workmanship” (Ephesians 2:10).
It is not about us and what we “do” for God. It is all about God and what he does in and through us.
Rest in him, believer.