The Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 10, 2013
“Law versus Promise”
Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not hear the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons: the one by a bondwoman, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born according to the flesh, and he of the free woman through promise, which things are symbolic. For these are the two covenants: the one from Mount Sinai which gives birth to bondage, which is Hagar; for this Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, and corresponds to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children; but the Jerusalem above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written: "Rejoice, O barren, You who do not bear! Break forth and shout, You who are not in labor! For the desolate has many more children than she who has a husband." Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are children of promise. But, as he who was born according to the flesh then persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what does the Scripture say? "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.
There are two and only two religions in this world. They stand opposed to each other and have been at war with each other since the beginning of time. The one religion is the religion of the law and the flesh. The other religion is the religion of the promise and the Spirit. The religion of the law and the flesh makes you a slave. The religion of the promise and the Spirit sets you free. The religion of the law and the flesh is every single religion invented by fallen humanity. The religion of the promise and the Spirit is the religion revealed by God in Christ. It is the Christian religion.
But here’s the problem. The false religion of the law and the flesh claims to be the true Christian religion. It denies the true religion of the promise and the Spirit and it does so in the name of Christ. This was going on in the first century. This is why the Apostle Paul wrote his Epistle to the Galatians. He was defending the true religion of the promise and the Spirit against the false religion of the law and the flesh. One would think that St. Paul’s clear words would have settled the issue once and for all, but this issue arises again and again in the church. In fact, it is the main source of conflict throughout the church’s history.
The religion of the law and the flesh teaches us that God gives us his law to show us the way to eternal life. He helps us along the path to eternal life by giving us the strength to obey his law. God does his part and we do our part. If we do the best that we can to do to meet the requirements of the law, God will see to it that we will make it to our goal. By working together with God, doing what we can do, we hope to find our way to heaven. God’s commandments are the path to heaven.
The religion of the promise and the Spirit teaches us that God gives us his law to show us our sins. It teaches us that doing the best we can do to obey God’s law is not good enough. That won’t get us to heaven. Instead, God promises us eternal life as a free gift of his grace in Christ. We don’t find eternal life by doing the best we can do, but solely through faith in Christ our Savior who, by his obedience, suffering, and death, has won eternal life for us.
The religion of the law has us depending on our own flesh, that is, on our own abilities as human beings. The religion of the promise has the Holy Spirit enabling us to rely on Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. The religion of the law and of the flesh enslaves us because it cannot ever give us what it promises. Since it depends on our doing, we must constantly be looking at what we do. We can never do enough. The religion of the promise, on the other hand, sets us free. The Holy Spirit gives us Christ who sets us free.
It is by the law and works? Or is it by the promise and faith alone? That’s the debate. If it is by the law and works, it is by the flesh. If it is by the promise and faith alone, it is by the Holy Spirit. If it is by the flesh it enslaves us. If it by the Spirit it sets us free.
In his Epistle to the Galatians, St. Paul showed the truth of the true gospel and showed the error of the false gospel. Then, after proving his case, he illustrated it by means of an allegory. An allegory is an historical account that has a hidden spiritual meaning. False Christians had invaded the churches in Galatia, promoting a false gospel of human works. Their false gospel placed people under the law and the law enslaved them. Paul explained by an allegory what was wrong with the religion of the law and what was right with the religion of the Spirit.
Abraham had two sons: Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael represents the religion of the law and the flesh. Isaac represents the religion of promise and the Spirit. Ishmael was born in a purely natural manner. God had promised Abraham a son and his wife Sarah was barren and could not conceive. Sarah gave her maidservant, Hagar, to Abraham so that he could have a son through her. When Hagar had a baby and Sarah was still barren, Hagar, the servant, acted superior to Sarah, the wife. She strutted around as if she owned the place. God promised Sarah a son, even though she was well past child bearing years. God kept his promise and Isaac was born. But just as Hagar had sneered at Sarah, Ishmael persecuted Isaac. Finally, Sarah’s patience ran out and she insisted that Abraham send Hagar and Ishmael away. So he did.
Ishmael was born of the bondwoman and he had no permanent place in the home. Isaac was born of the freewoman and he was the true heir. Just so, those who lay claim to membership in the Church by appealing to the law and their obedience to it are relying on the flesh, not the Spirit, and are slaves, not heirs. They may appear to belong. But they don’t. They are neither Christians nor members of the Holy Christian Church.
Those who trust in the promise of the gospel, and do not rely for eternal life on doing the best they can, are true members of the Church and heirs of eternal life. They belong. But just as Hagar sneered at Sarah and Ishmael persecuted Isaac, those who rely on the law and the flesh will always claim the status of those who rely on the promise and the Spirit. These two churches exist side by side and are in constant conflict with each other.
The gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. It tells us how God saves sinners who don’t deserve to be saved without any help from them. It makes more sense to believe in the law than in the gospel. Indeed, many nominal Christians (that is, Christians in name) think of the gospel as another law. It makes sense that you gain eternal life by doing what God commands. And what does it say about God’s commandments to insist that we don’t gain eternal life by obeying them? Doesn’t it render them superfluous? So the argument goes.
The problem with that argument is that is doesn’t reckon with the flesh. The promises of the law are conditional. Do this and you will live. Do it. But if you don’t, you don’t receive the benefit. If you are under the law you are dependant on you. But you are your own worst enemy. Those who depend on God’s law think they are being quite pious but in fact depending on God’s law is the very opposite of piety. Since the law’s promises are given only to those who obey the law, to rely on the law for your status before God is to rely on your own obedience. It is to rely on your own flesh.
The Church is always tempted by the religion of the flesh because it strokes the egos of sinners. We want some credit for our religious status. We want to set ourselves up over others. This way we can feel good about ourselves. We can feel deserving. We can feel that we and God have things all worked out.
Who wants to be like Sarah? She’s old, dried up, and useless. Her husband has no child. No heir. No future. All he has is an old barren wife. There’s just one thing she has: God’s promise. She laughed when God promised her a child because it was clearly impossible. She knew the facts of life and she knew what was going on in her own body. She knew where babies came from and she knew that she couldn’t have one.
But God said otherwise. He said she would give birth. And that is a lesson, dear brothers and sisters in Christ. That is a lesson to us. God’s promise is what matters. The promise of the gospel doesn’t depend on us. It depends on God. Faith trusts in the promise. Faith doesn’t trust in the law. To trust in the law is to trust in yourself. It excludes you from the Church because the Church is founded on the promise, not on the law. You want proof? Hagar and her son Ishmael are out. Sarah and her son Isaac are in.
The Church is our true mother. She has the promise. The promise is our life. The Church is beautiful, but her beauty is not seen or appreciated by the world. It can be seen only through faith in the promise. The barren woman has many children, though you cannot see it. The false church is always there, laying claim to a status she does not have, pretending to be the true Church. She ignores the promise as if it’s nothing, and replaces it with her own rules and laws and principles for this and that.
The false church looks holier than the true church because she trusts in her holiness. She actually thinks that her doing is what will gain her status before God. She promotes her works as the pathway to heaven. She magnifies her achievements. She advertises herself. Meanwhile, the true church has no beauty you can see. Her holiness is hidden. She lives by faith in the promise and the promise cannot be seen. It can only be believed.
In a time when licentiousness is on the rise, when basic social institutions are crumbling, when fatherhood, motherhood, marriage, and the family are under attack by forces of godlessness who openly mock the Church and her teachings, it is tempting for us to seek in the law our true identity as Christians and to ally ourselves spiritually with those who share our standards of right and wrong.
But there is no Holy Spirit apart from the promise of the gospel. The law that condemns the fornicators who despise marriage, the homosexuals who celebrate their perversion, the materialists, the drunks, the wife-beaters, the disobedient children, and the lawless of every description is the same law that condemns you and me. All sin shares the same poison. And all sinners try to justify themselves. Sinners trust in their own sin to save them. Only when they see how barren their lives are and how helpless they are to make themselves into God’s children are they in a position to cling to the promise by faith and receive the Holy Spirit and the freedom he gives.
The true Church has always been despised in this world. That’s because the world is devoted to the achievement of the flesh and knows nothing of the Spirit. We who are born again as children of the heavenly Jerusalem are free. We are set free by none other than Jesus Christ, the Savior. By his obedience to the law as our representative he fulfilled its demands for us. By his suffering on the cross in our place he bore our punishment for us. Every good thing he ever did is reckoned by God to us for righteousness in his sight. We are pure, sinless, and righteous before God, clothed with the righteousness of Jesus Christ. This is what the Spirit tells us. This is the promise on which faith relies. Trusting in the law is to put confidence in our own sinful flesh. That is the path to slavery. By the promise of the Spirit, we trust instead in him who bore the law’s curse for us all. For Christ’s sake, we are children of God. God is our dear Father. Christ’s Church is our true mother. We are free. Amen