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In Genesis 15, God speaks to Abram and says “I am your shield and your exceedingly great reward. Abram says, “What will you give me, seeing I have no children? At this point my servant Eliezer is my heir!” God then reiterates the promise made to Abram in chapter 12 of making him a great nation, with descendants as many as the sand and stars. Abram faithes in God, and God counts Abram’s faith as righteousness. But then God says, “I’ve brought you from Ur to give you this land as an inheritance.” And Abram pulls a Gideon on God: “How do I know this is true?”
So God makes a covenant. Animals are killed, and the pieces divided, and normally both parties would walk between the divided pieces, amidst the blood, to make a covenant together.
But God puts Abram to sleep, and walks the covenant alone. He was making a point; this was to be a one-sided promise, God keeping his word, not based on whether or not Abram fulfilled his side of a contract. It was a covenant of grace to Abram which did not depend on Abram’s performance, the promise of an heir.
In the very next chapter, ten years later, Abram and Sarai are getting impatient. They’ve waited ten years and are getting older. So they decide to help God out on keeping his promise, through their own thoughts, ways, and effort. Sarai suggests that Abram go into the tent with her servant Hagar, and a child is born, Ishmael, the child of their own effort, their own striving to help God fulfill his promise.
Years later, when they are long past childbearing age, God speaks to them again and reiterates his promise of a child. In doing this, he is saying, “Ishmael is not the one I promised.”
Fast forward. Isaac is born, and grows from baby to child. Sarah sees Hagar’s son Ishmael taunting Isaac, and says, “Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the free woman.”
When Paul wrote the epistle to the Galatians, a very similar circumstance was happening. The Galatian children of promise, born by faith, were suddenly caving in to the idea that they were to add self-effort rule-keeping to reliance on Christ. Paul says, “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? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Theny were adding rule-keeping, human effort, to reliance on Christ. Paul goes on to tell them, “…the Law was our schoolmaster to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster.” In chapter four he digs into Abraham, Sarah, and Hagar, and their children; he says, “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law? For it is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise.” Later he goes on, “….what saith the Scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son, for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. Stand fast therefore in the liberty with which Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.” He ties the self-effort of Abram and Sarai, striving to attain God’s promise by their own effort, with the believers in Galatia, who were believing they had to add their own human effort to help God out on his unilateral promise in Christ.
What is this yoke of bondage we’re to avoid? It is to use our human effort (Gal 3:3) in the pursuit of being accepted, justified, sanctified, or glorified before God. We began by relying on the Spirit, who revealed Jesus Christ to us. Are we now going to be make ourselves holy by our effort (even combined with God’s help)?
Are we eating from the wrong Tree, like Adam and Eve? Are we bringing the fruit of our works to God, like Cain? Will we strive by effort to help God fulfill his promises, and produce our own Ishmaels? Will we try to do it our way, like Saul? Will we begin with wisdom and end with futility, like Solomon? Do we begin by reliance on Christ as our redeemer and then introduce our own effort to “be like Christ?” Does a tree branch strain to produce fruit after it is grafted into the tree, or does it just sit there and rest in the Vine?
We are to continue the same way we began – by reliance, by faith, by trust. If the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit. We’re to walk according the Spirit, trusting his life in us, seeing him working in us, knowing him as our life, our source of every virtue; he is the power of easy conquest over every temptation. That’s the branch in the Vine.
Do we in our human effort, with God’s help, have to keep the commandments? The Pauline answer is “No.” If we abide in Christ, trusting his life in us, will he cause us to walk in his ways and keep his statutes? Absolutely. By reliance/trust/abiding, the fruit of the Spirit is expressed in our lives.
Should we read and meditate on the commandments? Of course. Reading the whole Bible, not just a few favorite passages, is a prerequisite to getting our minds and hearts in tune with the Eternal. But as faithers in Jesus Christ, who now lives within us, we have a new identity – new creations, holy, beloved, accepted, one spirit with the Lord. We are sons of the Kingdom. The commandments tell us who we really are, and if we are relying on Christ within us, the fruit that comes is love, joy, peace, gentleness, goodness, humility, and faith. Everything we need for life and godliness is given to us in Christ, not in our human effort, striving to be good. Christ is our indwelling righteousness, and in the end, he will get all the credit, not us. Our focus as the Christ-indwelt is to faithe in that Power within us and expect him to cause us to walk in his ways, and keep his statutes. Pressure off the human vessel; pressure on God within the vessel.
“There remains therefore a rest for the people of God. For he who has entered His rest has himself also ceased from his works as God did from His.” (Hebrews 4:9-10). A branch doesn’t try to grow fruit. It just sits there up in the tree.
Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he's not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin' on audiences around the world, he's taking care of his donkey named "Trash" and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.