Friday, November 25, 2011

“Paul’s Pastoral Appeal”

Fourth Quarter 2011 Adult Sabbath School Lessons
Paul’s Pastoral Appeal”

For the week of  November 20-26, 2011
Can we separate our understanding of the gospel, from how we treat other people?  Can our theology and our relationships actually be “separate”?  Is it really possible to have right theology and wrong attitudes?  Is there a cause-effect relationship between how we see God relating to us through the gospel, and how we relate to others in our daily lives?  This is what Paul desperately wants us to understand in this week’s lesson.  If you have ever wondered within yourself, “how come my relationships with others are so superficial or negative, when I know so much truth (theology)”, then this lesson is for you – and me!

Throughout Galatians, Paul has been presenting the theological case for the “right” gospel, in terms of covenants, illustrations (Hagar and Sarah, Isaac and Ishmael, Jerusalem above and earthly Jerusalem, Mt. Zion and Mt. Sinai, etc.), justification by faith versus justification by works, etc.  All vital truth, but truth that may leave us feeling intellectually edified, but experientially dry.  In our passage this week, Paul will reveal to us the interpersonal, emotional, and experiential consequences of bad theology – of a wrong experience of the gospel.

The foundation is laid in Gal. 4:8-9.  “Before you Gentiles knew God, you were slaves to so-called gods that do not even exist.  So now that you know God . . .  , why do you want to go back again and become slaves once more to the weak and useless spiritual principles of this world?” (NLT).  Notice what Paul is saying.  Before the Gentile Galatians became Christians, they were idol worshipers – they didn’t know God.  But now he is asking them why they want to go back to that religious system.  But we know from the rest of Galatians, that they weren’t going back to idol worship, but were becoming legalists.  So Paul is essentially telling the Galatians (and us), that legalism and paganism are the same.  While superficially, legalism and paganism look quite different – for example, Hinduism (idol worship) compared with dry formal obligatory Christian worship (legalism) – the reality is that they are exactly the same in their picture or perception of God.

In both paganism and legalism, the basic idea is that something we do – or someone else does – change God’s attitude or stance or feelings towards us.  Rather than the true gospel understanding that salvation is all about God changing our attitude or stance or feelings towards Him.  In paganism, the offerings we bring, or sacrifices we make, cause the god(s) to relate to us in a more favorable manner.  In legalistic Christianity, the right behaviors or right theology or our faith/repentance/confession, etc, cause God to relate to us more favorably.  Or, more subtly, what Jesus does for us (interceding on our behalf), or did for us (at the cross), causes God to love us more, or be more merciful towards us, or to relate to us in a more positive manner.  In all these ideas, the basic fundamental principle is that something or someone outside of God causes Him to relate to us in a more favorable or generous or positive manner.
But now, in our passage for today, Paul is going to explain to the Galatians and to us, that the consequence of viewing God as the party in salvation  needing to be changed, versus, recognizing that we are the ones that God is trying to change, is evidenced in how we relate to others.

Notice the language of how the Galatians related to Paul early in their Christian experience – “you received me as an angel of God, even as Christ Jesus” – 4:14, “you would have plucked your own eyes out and given them to me” – 4:15.  But notice how they relate to Paul now as they have changed their theology away from genuine justification by faith (God is trying to change me), to legalism (Jesus and/or I change God’s attitude towards me) – “Have I become your enemy” – 4:16, “I am afraid for you” – 4:11, etc.  A change in their gospel (i.e. a change in how they understood God related to them and how He was saving them) resulted in a change in how they related to their close friend to whom they owed their very salvation.  They now viewed their friend as an enemy.
What is the most sensitive test of our understanding of the gospel?  If I surveyed you, or fellow Seventh-day Adventists, or other Christians, and I asked them how many believed in justification by faith versus how many believed in salvation by works, we know that every hand would go up for the former.  If I asked on the other hand, how many of us truly – deep down in our hearts – love our enemies, could we raise our hands?  How many of us demonstrate patience with those who disagree with us in Sabbath School class, or with the pastor who doesn’t see things the way we do?  How many of us demonstrate genuine Christian love and patience and tolerance towards our husband or wife?

We may feel that while we aren’t living up to the standard of Christ in our experience, at least we understand the truth theologically.  But is it possible, that our experience and relationships with others are a more sensitive marker of our true level of gospel understanding.  Is it our theology that is ahead of our experience, or our experience that should be sounding warning bells about our real theological understandings?

In Galatians chapter four, Paul is telling the Galatians that in their attitude and feelings towards him, they are merely seeing the fruit of their misunderstanding of the gospel.  The evidence of who they really are isn’t contained in what they think they know, but the evidence of what they actually know is contained in how they relate to and treat others.

The final evidence of this reality will play out in the end of time when one group will think they are Christ’s representatives and will think that they understand the gospel, but the truth will be seen in their desire to destroy those who disagree with them (Rev.13:15-17, Jn.16:1-2).  While another group will be willing to give up their lives if it would help save their enemies (Rev.12:11).

What you believe about God and salvation has real, inherent consequences that will be manifest in how we relate to others.  And this may be below our conscious thinking level.  May we be changed by beholding God in Jesus Christ, so that our experience can teach us what we actually know about God, rather than believing that right theology and wrong experience are compatible.
--Bob Hunsaker