How do we change and grow as Christians? In the same way we became Christians. That’s why in Galatians 3 v 1-3, Paul reminds the Galatian Christians how it was that they came to Christ. And in essence, “Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified” (v 1). This portrayal was achieved through preaching, through “what you heard” (v 2, 5). Paul isn’t referring to a literal picture, but a metaphorical one.
There was a message communicated—“Jesus Christ … crucified” (see 1 Corinthians 2 v 1-5). Notice that the essence of this message is not how to live, but what Jesus has done for us on the cross. The gospel is an announcement of historical events before it is instructions on how to live. It is the proclamation of what has been done for us before it is a direction of what we must do.
But it also says that this message gripped the heart. Jesus was “clearly portrayed”. The NIV translates the Greek as “clearly”; it also means “graphically”, “vividly”. This probably is a reference to the preaching’s power. It was not dry and lecture-like. It “painted a picture” of Jesus, giving the hearers a moving view of what Christ did. “Our gospel came to you not simply with words, but also with power, with the Holy Spirit and with deep conviction” (1 Thessalonians 1:4). A Christian is not someone who knows about Jesus, but one who has “seen” Him on the cross. Our hearts are moved when we see not just that He died, but that He died for us. We see the meaning of His work for us. We are saved by a rationally clear and heart-moving presentation of Christ’s work on our behalf.
And this was what these Christians had heard and believed. But now, something has changed. Now, they are “foolish” and “bewitched” (v 1). What has gone wrong? In verse 3, Paul comes to his major “beef” with the Galatian Christians and the false teachers. He says that the way the Spirit entered your life should be the very same way the Spirit advances in your life. He says this twice, strongly: “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” (v 3).
In verse 5, Paul is even stronger. He moves into the present tense and says that right now the works of the Spirit—even miracles—occur “because you believe” (not “because you believed”) and because you no longer “observe the law”. The Spirit works as Christians don’t rely on their own works, but rather consciously and continuously rest in Christ alone for their acceptability and completeness. The Spirit works as you apply and use the gospel.
Our failure to obey and conform to Christ’s character is not a matter of simple lack of willpower, and so we cannot treat our failures simply by “trying harder”. We need instead to realize that the root of all our disobedience is particular ways in which we continue to seek control of our lives through systems of works-righteousness.
The way to progress as a Christian is continually to repent and uproot these systems in the same way that we became Christians—by the vivid depiction (and re-depiction) of Christ’s saving work for us, and the abandoning of self-trusting efforts to complete ourselves. We must go back again and again to the gospel of Christ crucified, so that our hearts are more deeply gripped by the reality of what He did and who we are in Him.
So, we should not simply say: Lord, I have a problem with anger. Please remove it by your power! Rather, we should apply the gospel to ourselves at that point. Uncontrolled bitterness is a result of not living in line with the gospel. It means that though we began with Jesus as Savior, something has now become our functional savior in place of Jesus. Instead of believing that Christ is our hope and goodness, we are looking to something else as a hope, to some other way to make us feel good and complete.
Instead of just hoping God will remove our anger or simply exercising will-power against it, we should ask: If I am being angry and unforgiving, what is it that I think I need so much? What is being withheld that I think that I must have if I am to feel complete, to have hope, to be a person of worth? Usually, deep anger is because of something like that. It might be that we want comfort above all other things, and someone has made our lives harder, so we grow angry with them. It might be that we’re worshiping other people’s approval and so get angry with anyone who in some way thwarts our bid for popularity and respect.
Comfort, approval, and control; these are functional saviors. When they are blocked, we get bitter. The answer is not simply trying harder to directly control anger. It is repenting for the self-righteousness and the lack of rejoicing in the finished work of Christ which is at the root of the anger. As we make our hearts “look” at Christ crucified, the Spirit will work in us to replace that functional savior with the Savior; and the root of our anger will wither.
This extract is adapted from Tim Keller’s new expository guide, Galatians For You: For Reading, For Feeding, For Leading. As part of this curriculum, Tim has also written an accompanying Bible study, Gospel Matters: The Good Book Guide to Galatians.