What does it mean to be a Christian?

Jeff Garrison
Bluemont and Mayberry Presbyterian Churches
Galatians 5:1-15, 22-23
May 22, 2022

Thoughts at the beginning of worship:

Sermon recorded on Friday, May 13, 2020 at Mayberry Church. This was before heading to Kentucky for a mission trip.

What does it mean to be a Christian? This week I came across a meme that I thought was insightful and a bit challenging. 

Geocide is biblical.
Loving your enemy is biblical.
Only one is Christ-like. 

Slavery is biblical.
Chainbreaking is biblical.
Only one is Christ-like. 

Patriarchy is biblical.
Counter-cultural elevation of women is biblical.
Only one is Christ-like.

Retributive violence is biblical.
Grace-filled restoration is biblical.
Only one is Christ-like.

Segregation is biblical.
Unity is biblical. 
But only one is Christ-like.

Christ transforms, not the Bible. Be wary of those who know one but not the other.[1]

Yes, there are a lot of things, some horrific, you can support from the Bible, but we’re called to first and foremost to follow Christ. What does that mean? What does it mean to be a Christian? I hope you wrestle some with this question this morning as we look at how it was debated in the first century.

Before the reading of scripture:

As I pointed out at the beginning of worship, what it means to be a Christian has been debated over the years. Some things we’ve gotten over, such as arguing over circumcision. But that was the big theological debate in the first century. Paul talks about it a lot in his letter to the Galatians, but we also find it discussed in Romans and Acts. 

While we may not concern ourselves with circumcision anymore, the topic of what it means to be Christian continues to be debated.

Tying this debate together, J. B. Lightfoot, a 19th Century Anglican theologian, says this:

Circumcision is the seal of the law.  He who willingly and deliberately undergoes circumcision (I should note, for a religious reason), enters upon a compact to fulfill the law… He cannot plead the grace of Christ; for he has entered on another mode of justification.[2]

As Christians, our seal into the faith is baptism. It’s a seal showing that we depend on what Christ has done for us for our salvation, and nothing else. Grace alone, as the Reformers proclaimed.

Today, Paul finishes up the middle part of the book, where he continues making the case for justification by faith. Then, he shifts in verses 12, and speaks of the implications of our faith.  How should we live our lives since our salvation is secure by grace? 

Read Galatians 5:2-15, 22-23

After the reading of Scripture:

Last week, I told you about reading Kidnapped by, Robert Lewis Stevenson. In staying with the Scottish theme, let’s talk about the Scottish Reformer, John Knox.   

The Reformed Reformation: 

Knox’s idea of church reform, like the Swiss Reformers, went beyond what Martin Luther in Germany and Thomas Crammer and other English reformers wanted. I’ve heard these two views of church reformed described as how one cleans out their dresser drawers.[3]

Luther’s method and, in a similar manner but with different issues, the English, are similar. They open their drawers and straighten things up. They place their dark socks in one drawer, the light ones in a separate one, and fold up t-shirts and place them in the middle drawer. On the floor would be a small pile of stuff destined for Goodwill. Get the picture? We end up with neat drawers; nothing too disturbed. 

Those from the Reformed tradition, such as Zwingli, Calvin and Knox, were more radical. They pulled the drawers out of the dresser, dumped their contents on the bed, and then only put back into the drawers that which they could find a reason in scripture for keeping. Instead of tidying up, they do a spring cleaning. An immense pile of stuff for Goodwill grows on the floor. 

Knox and the English Prayer Book

Knox, after his first exile, lived in England and served within the Church of England. There, he kept getting in trouble for his refusal for using the Prayer Book. It wasn’t that he had a problem with praying (he wrote his own prayers), but he felt that having to be bound to this book was an imposition not warranted by scripture. It trapped people into a false sense of security that they placed in a book that wasn’t the Bible.[4]

In case you’ve wondered why we Presbyterians don’t have prayer books we’re required to use in worship, this is it. Some might call it Scot’s stubbornness, but’s it’s an issue of freedom.  Knox cherished his freedom, just as Paul insisted the Galatians live in the freedom they have in Jesus Christ and not find something else to which they could enslave themselves.

Paul’s emphatic on circumcision:

The Message translation captures the spirit in which Paul wrote this section of the letter. “I am emphatic about this!” he says as he goes on about the reason to avoid submitting themselves to circumcision or other systems of rules that squash their freedom. It’s beyond Paul ability to understand why they would want to live under such a system when Christ offers grace so freely.  Maybe Paul is naive. This is a human problem. Think about it. We tend to be willing to give up our freedom willingly. We’d much rather have security and prosperity, even if it means being enslaved.

Dostoevsky and freedom: 

There is a section in the center of Dostoevsky’s humongous work, The Brothers Kamarvoz. The chapter’s entitled, “The Grand Inquisitor.” Russian novels are so long, so if you don’t read it all, you can at least be provided with an insight into his thoughts. 

In this section, one of the brothers wrote a short story about Jesus returning to earth. He comes back to Seville, Spain during the height of the inquisition. Immediately, people flock to Jesus, but when the inquisitor gives them a dirty look, they flee just like Peter and the disciples fled when they arrested Jesus 

Jesus, in the story, is taken into a dark cell. Under the cover of night, the inquisitor enters and questions Jesus. In a fashion like Pilate’s interrogation, Jesus remains silent as the inquisitor asks questions and makes bold statements. “Why did you come back?  The people are happy. They don’t want freedom. We give them what they need, we give them bread, and they are content.”[5]

Think about it. Do we really want freedom?

Living by our own ideas, we’re cut off from Christ: 

As Paul points out in verse four, “when we attempt to live by our own religious plans and projects, we are cut off from Christ.” And then he reemphasizes, to quote the New Revised Standard translation, “The only thing that counts is faith working through love.” Faith is where it is at, and we express our faith with love.   Another way of translating the end of verse 6 is “faith active in love.” Paul is not making faith and love perquisites of grace. By faith we are saved, but our faith is lived out through loving one another.[6]

Galatians doing well until agitators showed up

In verses 7 through 12, Paul returns to his overall theme, pointing out how the Galatians were doing so well until these agitators came along and created confusion. They have sown their yeast of discontent and, as Paul reminds them, it only takes a bit of yeast to cause the dough to rise. Where is discontent sown in our world today? What do we require of others that’s not implicitly required by Jesus?

At the end of this next section, Paul shows a very human side of himself. He’s frustrated. He’s had it up to here. We can see this in verse 12, when he makes a crude remark, sarcastically suggesting that they turn their imzels (the knife used for circumcision) on themselves.  

Freedom

Then, in verse 13, Paul moves back to the discussion of freedom.  It’s important to note that for Paul, freedom does not mean that we can do what we want. Nor can we do whatever won’t harm someone else, as we like to think. While Paul wants the Galatians to enjoy their freedom, he wants them to understand that true freedom has limits. They are free to become servants to Jesus and to one another. We are free to love, as in working for the well-being of others.   

The gift of Christ: grace

In this middle section of this letter, Paul is concerned that we realize the gift we’ve been given is Jesus Christ. It’s a gift; it’s grace; it’s not something we must earn. This gift results in an incredible freedom from the law, but it doesn’t mean that we can do whatever we want. Paul’s desire is for the Galatians to love one another and, as he speaks of later in the chapter, to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit.

Virtues verses Rules:

Paul Woodruff, a philosopher, wrote a wonderful book titled Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue.  Woodruff makes the case that it helps for us to base our ethics (or how we live) on virtues and not rules. His reasoning is that rules are hard to separate from the culture in which they rise.[7]   

Although this isn’t Paul’s argument here, I think it applies. Many of the old rules that came from Israel’s desert wanderings and her life in the Promised Land would be difficult to justify in other parts of the world. What’s important, the essence of the matter, is that we accept by faith what Jesus has done and then, with a gracious heart, bear a harvest of fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness. When we are assured of our salvation in Christ, such fruits should come more naturally. 

Evaluate our lives by the fruit we bear:

Think of it this way. If you want to evaluate how you’re doing in following Jesus, don’t beat yourself with the law and how you fall short. Instead, evaluate your life by the fruits of the spirit. Even Jesus calls for us to show fruit in our lives.[8] Do you love others? Celebrate joy? Live peacefully as possible? Show patience, kindness, generosity, and faithfulness. Examine yourself. Does your life display fruit?  Amen. 


[1] Attributed to Jordan Harrell. The point of this meme is to show that just because one can find where people did something in the Bible, doesn’t make it right. What would Jesus have us do?

[2]J. B. Lightfoot as quoted by Ronald Y. K. Fund in The Epistle to the Galatians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 223.

[3] This illustration was used by Jack Rogers in a video on the Essential Tenets of the Presbyterian Church USA.  

[4] Jane Dawson, John Knox (2015), 72-75, 92-96.  

[5] This is my paraphrase from memory of what the Inquisitor asked Jesus in The Brothers Karamazov. 

[6] See Fung, 221 & 230.

[7] Paul Woodruff, Reverence: Renewing a Forgotten Virtue (New York: Oxford, 2001), 159. 

[8] See Matthew 7:15-20, 12:33, 13:22, 21:43. See also Luke 13:6-9 and John 15:1-17. 

The crew on a mission trip in Dawson Springs, KY (we worked on a new home for the woman in the center).

4 thoughts on “What does it mean to be a Christian?”

  1. The meme you shared powerfully expresses something I’ve always believed, Jeff. Thank you for sharing it. Don’t we all love to have what we believe validated? ~ lol! When Terry and I wanted to be married in the church, we had to compromise. He was Roman Catholic, and I was Northern Baptist, and we settled on the Episcopal Church. I always thought that I moved the greater distance. That prayer book! I argue with it internally when it’s being read aloud. It reminds me of a catechism which I studied at one point. I’ve had a lot of different religious exposures because my parents believed that if there was only one church where we lived and it was not Baptist, then we’d go to it anyway. Call me a stubborn Scot, but I believe in freedom of thought. That picture is wonderful. All the joy and love in your faces. It’s good to be able to give back.

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