Paul wrote to the Galatian church to show them, among other things, that a lot of barriers between people exist because we try to justify ourselves—to declare ourselves righteous and good—through something about us.
Jews did this through the law. They had a whole system of rules that distinguished them from the world. The Old Testament alone contains 613 laws, and, in addition to those, Jews made a “hedge about the law,” rules to keep them from even approaching breaking the rules—and that list got up into the thousands.
Having a list of things to do for acceptance is not unique to Judaism, of course. All religions have lists like this. It’s instinctive to who we humans are. We are always trying to justify ourselves, to set ourselves apart from others. Life is like one big episode of Survivor, and we’re trying to convince everyone else we’re not the ones that should be thrown off the island. (I may be dating myself a bit with that reference, but I think you still get the idea.)
Our lives are eaten up with pride. And so, we’re in constant competition with others, because the essence of pride is competitiveness, and this fuels division. We have to protect and defend our distinctives because they give us value and worth above others.
Charles Spurgeon, the 19th-century British pastor, said he saw three of these divisions in his society, and it’s amazing how evident these are still in our society today.
1. The pride of race
For many, their ethnic identity becomes a way of distinguishing themselves above others. They take pride in their white-ness, their black-ness, their Indian-ness or their Asian-ness. A racial distinctive makes them who they are and forms their identity.
Our cultures are beautiful things, created by God like a many-sided diamond to reflect his glory. But when culture becomes our primary, distinguishing identity, it causes division.
People can and should honor their culture. But the moment they start vesting their culture with pride, they’ll begin to protect and defend that culture, because their culture gives them a sense of identity and sets them apart.
But do they not understand the gospel?
There’s only one race of people: the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve. We have one core problem: sin. We have one hope: the blood of Jesus that cleanses us all alike. Paul says in Romans 10:12, “For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, bestowing his riches on all who call on him” (ESV).
Sometimes the root of racial division is that our ethnic identity has become too large. If we hope to overcome any division among us, a crucial step is that our identity in Christ become greater—much greater—than any other identity we possess.
2. The pride of face and place
We tend to see people in categories—the successful and the unsuccessful, the intelligent and the dull, the beautiful and the ugly, the fit and the fat, the rich and the poor. We look down on those who are less than we are in these areas and feel intimidated by those who are more so. We think some personal accomplishment or characteristic sets us apart and justifies us before others.
I know I recognize myself in that. Perhaps you do, too. But do we not understand the gospel?
First, do we realize how little of our talents we can actually take credit for? Our parents gave us our genes, and God gave us the health and opportunity to pursue them. Do we really think if we’d been born as orphans in a village in Somalia, we’d have succeeded like we have? All that we have is a gift.
Second, do we realize how worthless our talents are when it comes to the things that really matter? Our SAT scores and bank accounts and promotions cannot justify us before God. Before God, there is only one kind of sinner: hopeless.
This is good news for those of us on the bottom of the heap. It doesn’t matter if I am not that intelligent now, because I am promised I will inherit the mind of Christ. It doesn’t matter if I’m not beautiful now, because I am clothed in the righteousness of Christ. It doesn’t matter if I am not successful now, because I have all the promises of God in Christ Jesus. It doesn’t matter if someone doesn’t appreciate me, because in Christ I have the undying love of the eternal Father.
If we could have saved ourselves by our merit or good works or beauty, God would have let us do that. But we couldn’t do it! What we have now in Jesus is worth infinitely more than any of those things.