Ethics of Christian Love: “You Can’t Buy God” (part 1 of 13)

Galatians 3:1–14 (NIV84)

1 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4 Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? 6 Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. 10 All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.” 11 Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.” 12 The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.” 13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.

Galatians 3:26–29 (NIV84)

26 You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus, 27 for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.



The Galatian Christians had a problem, a problem that we often share.  If Jesus came to fulfill the law – moral law, religious rules, etc.; — if our sins are forgiven, how does law function in our lives?  Why through the centuries does the Christian Church keep turning back from being motivated by the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to things like traditionalism, legalism, and ritualism?

This is an issue that comes up over and over in the New Testament, and through this series on “The Ethics of Christian Love” I hope we can hear God’s Word together.  This study was born out of a liturgical question: Why don’t we read the 10 commandments every Sunday like we used to?  Let’s begin by looking at why the biblical teaching about grace and the leading of the Spirit is so difficult for us.



How do we make decisions about what is right or wrong in any given situation?  How does the world work for us?  As I look at our culture, our world, I find it to be basically an economic world.  The pervading principle by which we run our lives is that we don’t get anything for nothing.  Life is seen as an economic struggle.  Everything we need, want and strive for in life has a price tag.  In an economic world the only question really is whether or not we are willing to pay the price.

This is pretty much a fact of life.  We buy our incomes and professional position with our abilities, time, talents, and education.  In turn we use our incomes to buy a kind of life-style.  Unfortunately, the principle has often been carried much further than that.  If we would honestly analyze our relationships, it would probably be very discouraging to see how many of them are reduced to a kind of contract:  I will meet this need in you and you do that for me.  If we listen to people carefully, the loneliness and feelings of alienation so prevalent in our culture is not about having no relationships, but having no relationships where we feel accepted and loved for who we are, no strings.

Many marriages have been reduced to an agreement, a contract.  So much of our culture is reduced to economics:  what does it take to get into certain social groups?  Are not the prices we pay things like the right income, the right attitudes, the right background?  This is very intense in most high school cultures: the price of acceptance is valuing the same things and having the same attitudes.

The same sort of applying the economic principles, buying and earning our way, has not been avoided in churches.  Acceptance into the fellowship has been contingent on keeping certain rules, having the right way of saying things, living a particular life-style.  The truth is we live in a world full of unspoken, unwritten, but very real contracts.  As a result, it is very natural for us, along with the people of Galatia, to approach God in the same way, to approach God with a contract.  It goes something like this:

Look, Lord, we can work this thing out.  We will follow a set of well-

defined religious rules so you can be impressed with our sincerity.  We will follow the letter of some rules we think you want, and in response your side of the contract is to save us, to give us eternal life, and to take care of us, especially if we get into trouble.

It all fits together.  I need to be cared for.  I live in a world where one has to buy that.  It is at this point that we run into one of the most confusing and disturbing facts in the Bible.  God won’t sign the contract.  Some religious people have gotten so frustrated by that, they simply raise the standard higher; thereby living in constant guilt because they cannot keep all the laws.  The Jews had over 600 just to govern the daily life of the religious person.  They had so many laws governing the Sabbath day that it was thought that if everyone in Israel just kept all the rules on one Sabbath the Messiah would come.  This is not an unusual way of thinking.  Our legislatures get frustrated because there is so much crime, so much breaking of the rules that society needs to function, so what do they do to solve the problem?  Make more laws.  Filled with guilt and frustration, it seems like some religious people want to make another contract with God: “We’ll be guilt ridden and miserable if you will feel sorry for us and save us.”   The problem is: God won’t sign the contract.

Jesus, in the Sermon on the Mount, pointed out that since God is perfect and reads all our thoughts and motivations, we need not only to keep the letter of the law but the spirit.  Then, not only is killing someone murder, but hating them is too.  Not only is being sexually unfaithful to one’s mate adultery, but a lustful thoughts are too.  We cannot buy God’s love, spiritual vitality, life because we do not have the right kind of money, but people keep on searching.

Because of sin, mixed motives, selfishness, ambivalence, failures and deception, we do not have the ability to please a holy God.  But people keep searching – if only we have the right prescription, the right theology, the right rules and experiences, — perhaps if we work harder – we will find spiritual life.  Maybe it is meditation – more discipline – more religion – more piety.  You can’t buy God.



The point of Galatians 3 is that God turns the whole thing up-side-down. The love of God, given throughout history and consummately in the life, atoning death, and victorious resurrection of Jesus Christ and in sending the Holy Spirit to us is a gift.  God loves us first.  He loves us because he chose to.  “This is love,” says the author John, “not that we loved God, but that he loved us and have his son as an expiation for our sins.”  Grace – freely given love for you and me – not because we are religious, not because we are special, not because we have done wonderful things, not because we earned it, but love given freely only because God wants a relationship with us.  This grace is so hard for people to accept.

And what does God ask us to do?  To turn away from all our attempts at doing it ourselves, to turn away from the running to find some way of salving the emptiness inside (that is going on everywhere in our society), to turn to him in our need to be loved and forgiven and accept his love.   Just to accept it, believe it.

Like most of us, the Galatian Christians of 45 AD, heard that message from the Apostle Paul, looked at all the things they were doing to find meaning and value in their lives, and accepted the offer of grace in large numbers.  But soon, with the help of some legalistic Jewish Christians they got the thing turned around again.  How were they going to control people?  How could they control religious life in the community?  Paul wrote to them: (Gal. 3:1ff)

Galatians 3:1–5 (NIV84)

Faith or Observance of the Law

3   You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4 Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?

Paul’s language is intense.  He is upset.  Now they were turning grace back into religion, hopelessly attempting again to earn their own way.  In the history of the Christian Church it has happened over and over again.



But that still leaves us with a big question, doesn’t it?  God comes to us in a covenant relationship, saying just trust me, just love me.  But the moral law is still sitting there.  What do we do with it?  How does it fit?

Perhaps an analogy.  Psychology has defined the rules, what has to happen for people to have a successful marriage.  If we made a list of the rules and dynamics that need to happen, and you went into a marriage committed to follow the rules because you never want to be accused of not holding up your own end of things, how will you do?  Going to be miserable, aren’t you?  It won’t be long before you are keeping a list of each thing you have done, and what your mate did or did not do.  It just will not work.

However, if you deeply love your wife or husband, and you are both invested in your life together, and just do the things that flow out of your love, will it work?  Most likely.  Will you end fulfilling the rules and dynamic of relationships.  Yes, but only because you wanted to.

God came to Israel at Mount Sinai.  What did he say?  Here are some rules you had better follow or I will get you?.  No, he said that he was the God who loved them, who took them out of slavery, who wants them to be successful in putting together a society, and who wants them to love him.  God goes on to tell them and us how to love him above all and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  He was responding to the question of people who have received God’s love.  How do we love you?  How do we stay in relationship with you?  How can we be spiritually alive?  How can we stay free of the slavery we have been in?

The moral law stands as a description of what makes a healthy society.  For the Christian, the person who has seen God’s love through history and in Christ, the person who has received the Holy Spirit, it is about freedom, about helping us to define love.  When we come to a time of confession, it is not about how many rules we have broken, it is about our failure to love our God.  Real confession is, “Lord, I have failed to love you and I want to be reconciled to you.  I want us to be together.”

A simple example may illustrate the difference in how the law works in judgment or the ethics of Christian love.  We all know that God wants us to worship him.  So why did you come here this morning?  If you came because it is a religious rule, perhaps enforced by your parents or family or tradition, if you came because you feel guilty when you don’t come, or if you came to impress God or someone else with your piety, you have accomplished nothing besides filling a pew.  God is not impressed.  You can’t buy God.  One the other hand, if you came because you have received God’s love and are looking for ways to respond, to worship him, to love him because you want to; then you are in fellowship with God here.

God wants to give you something – his grace, love demonstrated in the sacrifice of his own son so we could be accepted and forgiven, given a new identity and eternal life.  This Christian spirituality, this covenant relationship with God is a gift.  We cannot buy it.  We cannot earn it.  We can only reject it or accept it.

If we reject it the heavy hand of law, guilt, shame and the emptiness of spiritual anxiety are the issues around which we build our lives.  It is all economics – trying to buy life.  

If we accept God’s love, life is the freedom of loving him back.  Worship takes on a whole new freedom.  Relationships with others become an attempt at showing his love.  Christian action, teaching, ministry become ways of sharing what we have been given.  Our identity is, as we read in Galatians, that of the sons and daughters of God.  Our failures are failures to love, healed by reaching out to our Father to be reconciled.

The word of God challenges us to take spiritual inventory this morning.  Are we foolish, like those Galatians, turning back to try to buy God’s approval with our religion, with rules, and looking good on the outside?  Or are we affirming his grace and our love, and ready again to receive his Spirit and live there?