The Problem With Leaven

(October 2000 – Volume 6, Issue 10)

The author of Underserving, Yet Unconditionally Loved writes:

To many people, grace is nothing more than something to be said with heads bowed before dinner. But that idea, simple and beautiful as it may be, is light-years removed from the depth of meaning presented in Scripture regarding grace. This biblical concept of grace is profound, and its tentacles are both far-reaching and life-changing. Were we to study it for a full decade we would not come close to plumbing its depths.

I never knew Lewis Sperry Chafer, the founder of the seminary I attended. He had died a few years before I began my theological studies in 1959. Some of my mentors and professors, however, knew him well. Without exception they still remember him as a man of great grace. He was an articulate defender of the doctrine and an authentic model of its application throughout his adult life, especially during his latter years. I sincerely regret never having known Dr. Chafer.

I love the story one of my mentors tells of the time when this dear man of God had concluded his final lecture on grace. It was a hot afternoon in Dallas, Texas, that spring day in 1952. The aging professor (who taught that particular semester from a wheel chair) mopped the perspiration from his brow. No one in the class moved as the session ended. It was as though the young theologues were basking in what they had heard, awestruck with their professor’s insights and enthusiasm about God’s matchless grace. The gray-haired gentleman rolled his chair to the door, and as he flipped the light switch off, the class spontaneously broke into thunderous applause. As the beloved theologian wiped away his tears, head bowed, he lifted one hand, gesturing them to stop. He had one closing remark as he looked across the room with a gentle smile. Amidst deafening silence, he spoke softly, “Gentlemen, for over half my life I have been studying this truth. . . And I am just beginning to discover what the grace of God is all about.”

Within a matter of three short months, the stately champion of grace was ushered into his Lord’s presence at the age of eighty-one (pp. 57-58).

Such is the testimony of men of grace — Paul would shout a hearty “Amen.” But the people of grace have ever been under attack by people of law. People of freedom have ever been under attack by people of bondage. This should not surprise us. What should and does surprise us is how often people of grace can be persuaded by people of law to trade in their liberty for a spiritual straightjacket.

In order to understand the gravity and awfulness of this exchange Paul, in Galatians 5, identifies what the people of grace lose in such an exchange:

  1. Freedom (verse 1)
  2. The benefits of Christ (verse 2)
  3. Their hope of righteousness (verse 3)
  4. Connection with Christ (verse 4a)
  5. The life of grace (verse 4b)

With this as a backdrop, the apostle now progresses in his thoughts with the use of two more arguments:

The contrast between law-based Christianity and grace-based Christianity

(Galatians 5:5,6 For we through the Spirit, by faith, are waiting for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love.)

How does true, grace-based Christianity differ from its law-based, legalistic perverted cousin? In four ways:

(1) It is a life lived by the Spirit rather than Law
(5:5a For we through the Spirit. . . )

The apostle is going to outline in detail in 5:16-26 what it means to live by the Spirit. There he will affirm that the Christian life is not simply one of discipline, good habits and clean living. Rather, the Christian is to live by the power of the Holy Spirit. The “just say no” brand of Christianity is virtually indistinguishable from its secular counterpart, behavioral modification. True biblical living is far superior to this mutation. Additionally, in other epistles Paul has taught the inferiority of legalistic living. For example:

The Law produces death, (Romans 7:10; 8:2), but the Spirit produces life (Galatians 4:29; Romans 8:2-4,10; compare with John 3:5).

The Law creates fear and wretchedness, (Romans 8:15), but the Spirit brings about hope and assurance (Romans 8:15b-16; Ephesians 1:13).

The Law enslaves (Galatians 3:23; 4:24,25), but the Spirit brings about freedom (Galatians 4:29-5:1).

The Galatians had been convinced that life under the Law was superior, Paul is building a case proving that it is not.

(2) It is a life lived by faith not by works
(5:5b by faith. . . )

Here is the lost ingredient in the Christian experience of so many — we have misplaced the ingredient of faith, and replaced it with the ingredient of effort. Most Christians think they’re saved by grace (through faith) but grow by sweat, hard work and discipline.

There is no question that the Christian who is making spiritual progress will be dedicated and disciplined. No one is going to read our Bible for us; or force us to pray; or make us focus our minds for worship. But the New Testament picture is that of a person of faith whose efforts spring from a deep trust in a sovereign God. Our growth in Christ will occur in direct proportion to our faith in Him.

That is why He places us in a variety of experiences, including deep valleys and hot furnaces. Legalistic Christians miss this life of faith. They believe that they grow as they attend to outward rituals: church attendance, tithing, Bible memory, etc. God says we grow through faith, these other things spring from that faith. Observance of the Old Covenant could make a person externally and legally clean, but it could not change their heart; faith in God can, and does.

(3) It is a life of hope rather than a life of anxiety and uncertainty
(5:5c are waiting for the hope of righteousness)

Law-based Christianity can produce moral people, good neighbors, excellent parents, crowded churches, but it cannot produce hopeful Christians. When eternity is based upon performance, there are always doubts. We can never be sure that we have done enough to please God.

As a pastor I have observed two errant extremes here. On the one hand is the Arminian who denies eternal security and thus lacks assurance. I recently spoke to a young man who is studying for the pastorate in an Arminian Bible college. In our discussion he made it clear that neither he nor anyone else could ever be certain of their eternal destiny. Even though he was confident of his salvation at that moment, he believed that something in the future could derail his travels toward heaven, and sadly, send him plummeting into hell.

Ironically, the other extreme is found among some Calvinists, who so defend the doctrine of preservation that practically speaking their view differs little from my Arminian friend. Such was the thrust of a recent message I chanced to hear by a conference speaker. He taught that only those who “endure to the end” would be saved, and since none of us will know if we will endure — until the end — assurance of salvation is an elusive thing. In contrast, while the Scriptures teach endurance, it also teaches assurance. Our “hope of righteousness” is the springboard from which godly living emanates.

Paul tells us that the Christians who are living through the Spirit by faith are the ones who are patiently waiting for the hope of righteousness. The hope of righteousness here speaks of the consummation of our redemption — the final state of our salvation — glorification. He pictures the Spirit-filled Christian as one eagerly looking forward to this day. He is not wringing his hands hoping that he is going to slide into heaven through a side door. He knows his future, and looks forward to it with confidence.

(4) It is a life motivated by love not duty
(5:6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but faith working through love)

Keep in mind that circumcision was God’s idea. It was never intended to be a path to salvation — it was simply a sign of God’s covenant relationship with the Jews. As with many religious symbols, circumcision had been distorted through the years to the point that some within the church were saying that you could not be saved without it.

Paul basically says, “Get real! Circumcision is nothing but a physical operation. It is no big deal either way — it has nothing to do with salvation.” Today, he would say the same thing about baptism or communion — both of which have undergone similar alterations at the hands of some.

What does matter? Our faith (again) working through love. Our faith, through the power of the Holy Spirit produces love in our lives (verse 22) — this is our motivation, not duty.

When I think of motivation I often think of marriage. I, for example, am commanded by God to love my wife. To not do so is sin. Yet, if I say to my wife, “Woman, I can’t stand you, but it is my duty to love you, and so I will,” I wonder how thrilled she would be. I am also commanded to love God, and to not do so is sin. The Law-based Christian would fulfill his duty (both to wife and God), but the Spirit-empowered Christian finds love is being produced in his life (Galatians 5:22). That love does not generate from his own designs and efforts, but from the Spirit’s. It is not my job to provide fruit, it is the Holy Spirit’s. It is my obligation to cooperate with the Holy Spirit, to cultivate, weed, and water the ground (so to speak) so that love grows as God intended. But only the Spirit can produce fruit.

The Character of the Legalists
(Galatians 5:7-12)

Those who espouse legalism are not just misguided, they are dangerous. For this reason Paul bothers to expose the character of such false teachers. We are given several marks of legalists in order that we might be aware:

They “cut in”
(5:7 You were running well; who hindered you from obeying the truth?)

As is often the case with Paul, he is thinking of sports. When he was last with the Galatian church it was running well. They were running in the freedom of grace and were right in stride. But now someone was hindering them. The word “hinder” means to “cut in.” When a runner is cut off they break stride, slow down and sometimes are even injured.

The legalistic Christian just loves to find some Christian who is enjoying his freedom in Christ and shames him into knocking it off. When this happens one of the first things to go is a sense of blessing (4:15). Note that Paul does not view this as an unfortunate situation, but rather a disobedient situation, “Who hindered you from obeying the truth?”

Bob George states, “It occurred to me that if ‘truth set you free’ the opposite also had to be true: Error puts you in bondage. Identifying this principle was a significant turning point for me. Truth sets you free; error binds you” (Classic Christianity, p. 21).

They create (their own message)
(5:8 This persuasion did not come from Him who calls you)

Before they can argue the point, Paul makes it very clear that the message they had accepted was not God’s message. This is one of the hardest things to pound into our heads today. There are a lot of messages in the church. Many sound wonderful. Some appear to work. However, they are not the message of God, because they do not emerge from God’s Word.

They contaminate
(5:9 A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough)

Leaven is a substance such as yeast that produces fermentation in dough. When placed in dough it permeates the whole lump. It is almost always used in Scripture as a reference to evil. Sometimes it is a symbol of moral, spiritual evil (Matthew 16:6-12; I Corinthians 5:6); sometimes of doctrinal corruption as here.

Morally, a little sin tolerated in the church will soon drag the whole body down spiritually (I Corinthians 5:6). Doctrinally, the toleration of error is progressive. In most denominations and Christian organizations this digression can be easily traced.

This is why we sometimes make a big fuss over doctrinal errors in Christian organizations or leaders who are actually solid in many areas. For example, we don’t say much on the cults because they have already been corrupted with rank heresy. But when an organization like Promise Keepers sprang up, less than a decade ago, with many areas of doctrinal correctness, why do we challenge so aggressively their errors (see Think on These Things, Volume 1, Issues 3,4; Volume 3, Issues 1-7)? Because relatively minor errors today lead to great gaps tomorrow. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. It is because we have ignored this fact that the church is in the condition it is today.

They are condemned
(5:10 I have confidence in you in the Lord, that you will adopt no other view; but the one who is disturbing you shall bear his judgment, whoever he is)

Paul seems to have genuine confidence that when true believers read this epistle they will see through the heresies that they were beginning to embrace. As for the deceivers, Paul sees only judgment. God exacts a great price for those who would dare attempt to ravish His sheep. That price may not be paid in this life, but paid it will be .

They conspire
(5:11 But I, brethren, if I still preach circumcision, why am I still persecuted? Then the stumbling block of the cross has been abolished)

If you can’t beat a man on the basis of what he teaches, the next best thing is to undermine his character. If you are willing to lie and slander, you can bet that someone is willing to listen, no matter how far off base it might be.

Here, these lying false teachers are telling the Galatians that Paul has changed his mind on circumcision and apparently the Law. At one point Paul had preached against these things, but more recently he has seen the light and has come around. Paul quickly shatters this myth by pointing out that he is still suffering persecution at the hands of the Jews because of his views on these issues. If Paul had actually changed his mind on the Law he would no longer be persecuted because the stumbling block of the cross would be removed.

The cross is a stumbling block because it stands in the way of man’s efforts. It is ever a reminder that without the sacrifice of Christ all are doomed. It is a monument to man’s inability — he cannot save himself. All that needs to be done for our salvation was done on the cross.

This message has always offended people who want to help God, or who want to be self-sufficient. But Paul would not back down on this good news and as a result offended people constantly persecuted him. He was not alone, and you will search the Scriptures almost in vain in an attempt to find a true preacher who was popular with the masses for very long. The price of speaking truth is an offended audience. Luther pointed out that the church is in the best state when Satan assaults her on every side. He had a point.

They are contradictory
(5:12 Would that those who are troubling you would even mutilate themselves)

One of the warning signs that characterizes most false teachings and philosophies is that one cannot live consistently with its teachings. This was true at Galatia, as Paul now points out. William Hendriksen remarks “Since the Judaizers who are upsetting the Galatians believe a little physical mutilation is of spiritual value, let them be consistent and cut away more radically. Let them go all the way, and castrate themselves, thus making eunuchs of themselves like the priests of Cybele in their wild ‘devotions.’”

As Paul closes out his attack on the legalists he does so with what some consider to be the most severe statement in his writings. He began his attack by wishing eternal damnation on these false teachers, and he concludes by wishing them castration (1:8,9).

We may ask how these expressions of obvious anger can be reconciled with our meek and mild brand of Christianity today. Either the apostle was out of line, or we are. How often do we get red-faced angry over someone perverting the precious truths of Scripture? Would we be tolerant, if we lived in the first century, of the very false teachers that Paul so boldly condemns? May our hearts be angry over the things that anger the heart of God.


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