Galatians is Paul’s valiant attempt to pull back to the grace track a congregation of people in Asia Minor already teetering on the brink of a return to the ceremonial law track only 20 years after Christ. We know it is not the law of love and kindness and patience that Paul is trying to dissuade them from, for he is quite adamant about the necessity of that (see chapters 5 and 6). Rather, he is trying to undo the damage done by a group of teachers who are saying their parishioners need to get circumcised (5:2, 6). Paul is once again contending for the path of trusting Jesus instead of trying to be justified by the law (5:4).
I asked myself: Why would anybody want to go back to the old way of trying to keep a bunch of rules rather than just trusting Christ? Then I realized the answer: People like the rules better.
If you have ever tried to live by faith—and not just the word “faith”—and really set out to trust Christ—and not just say the words about trusting Christ—you soon find out you have been called to die. The lifestyle of living by faith, when done in earnest, is not an incantation; it exacts so much more from you than rule-keeping did (though truth be told, you never were much good at rule-keeping, either).
After about a solid hour on the track of living by faith, you may be sorely tempted to just take the blue pill (see The Matrix) and find yourself a nice little church where you are surrounded by comfortable little liturgies and customs and “observing days and months and seasons” (4:10) that fill your time and give you a sense that you are doing something religious.
I believe the impulse behind the Galatians syndrome is this: “The life of faith is just too hard; I’m going back to ‘doing stuff’ in the church. I’m going to leave this church where the pastor keeps talking about how we must put to death our sinful desires and love hard-to-love spouses and not speak worthless words and pursue purity and forgo opportunities on a silver platter that come with an integrity test. I’m going to find a church that has a lot of formalities and smoke and mirrors.”
When Paul calls us back to living by faith and not works, he isn’t calling us to something easy. Faith is only easy to those who haven’t done it. Paul doesn’t talk about spiritual warfare for nothing (Ephesians 6:10-20): It feels like war. Real faith in Christ means believing Him enough that you will keep showing kindness to a person who hates you because you are mindful of Christ’s promises and can already visualize what that person will look like when God changes his heart.