Two Kinds of Religion
Preached by Pastor Benjamin Vrbicek
As we think about this week’s passage, and for that matter the last two sermons from Galatians 4, there a certain themes that have come up. Those themes are slavery and bondage and freedom. For the last few weeks we have been singing the song “No Longer Slaves” which has these themes. As I talked with David, our worship leaders, about that song, he mentioned how powerful and arresting these themes are. As a culture, we feel strongly about slavery and bondage and freedom. We hear those words and we sing those words, especially as they are steeped in biblical motifs, and we get worked up. And we should. So does God. And we see that in Galatians 4.
Follow along with me as I read from Galatians 4:21-31. Then I’ll pray and we’ll study this together.
21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law? 22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia, she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. 26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” 28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. 29 But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. 30 But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
There is an interesting word in v. 9 and v. 21 of this chapter. It is the word, thelo. It means to wish, to desire, to want. Paul is acknowledging that the group of people that he is arguing with—and the people arguing with him—want something, they desire something; they wish for something. Paul asks,
9 … how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?
21 Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?
Paul says that he sees a willing, a wanting, a joyful seeking of something, a wishing for something to be true. And what is it? They want to be “under the law.” That means, they want to be a part of a religion where the main thing is not grace and promise and love, but rather, the main thing is obedience. To be under the law is to be under a system that rewards obedience and punishes disobedience—only. And Paul asks, Okay, you say you want that, but do you really know what you are asking for? Have you really considered the implications of it? Not everything we naturally want will be beneficial to us in the end.
I remember the time I worked at a sports camp called Kanakuk. I was counselor for the entire summer. I was in college at the time. This camp is in southern Missouri, and I know you think you have some humidity and heat around here, but let me tell you southern Missouri has more. And all summer, at the camp, we rarely were given desserts, but occasionally, we would see those that worked in the kitchen walk into a giant, walk-in freezer and bring out popsicles or ice cream sandwiches. And when they did, it was awesome. But no one, I mean no one, that didn’t work in the kitchen was allowed to go into the kitchen, and especially into the sacred freezer. And on the hottest days in July, I longed to just stand on the fringe of the freezer as someone just cracked the door open to walk in ever so quickly. I would think, O how happy I would be if I could do that, let alone to actually stand inside of the freezer for hours. I wanted that. I desired that.
Then one day in August, it happened. We ran out of popsicles and someone more important than me said, Hey, Benjamin, go get us some more. So I did. And it was glorious… for about 20 seconds. And then, in my t-shirt and shorts, it started to get cold. I don’t think I could find them right away. And after a minute the only thing I wanted was to get out of there as fast as I could because it’s freezing inside a freezer.
Not everything we naturally want will be beneficial to us in the end. Natural religion has a certain appeal. By natural religion, I don’t mean gospel-centered Christianity, but rather, I mean making a way to God in our own power and efforts. And I could see why people want that, why we desire it. The appeal is this: it doesn’t highlight our inability. In fact, natural religion says, “You can do it, you can get to God. Just keep trying. Follow these rules and you’ll make it.” That’s attractive. It flatters us. Deep down we want to contribute. We don’t want God to be – as the author of Hebrews says – “the author and perfecter of our faith” (12:2, NIV).
Natural religion tells us that, although we are not perfect, we can perfect ourselves. That’s attractive. It means I’m not dependent upon God. That’s attractive.
But there is a downside. If you look closer and realize that you can’t perfect yourself, then there is devastation. And what looked like “freedom,” you realize is slavery and bondage.
And it’s these themes that our passage stresses. And it’s into these themes that Paul speaks of another kind of religion. Not a natural religion but a supernatural one. Paul, as he has done throughout the letter, argues that Christianity is supernatural. The gospel is supernatural. Being made right with God requires God. The power to live the Christian life is supernatural. It requires God.
And the way Paul makes this point, is he tells a story. The ESV uses the words, allegory in v. 24. Other translations say it a little different. To paraphrase the New International Version, Paul says, “Let me tell you a story that you’re familiar with that figuratively is a lot like our story.” Or to paraphrase the New Living Translation, “Let me give you an illustration from a story you know that also applies to us.” Allegory, figuratively, illustration.
And as Paul tells this old story, he is not just making connections to those in the Galatian churches, he is also making connections to us as well. That is, if we know the story.
Story of Abraham
So, what I want to do at this time, is tell that same story and then very briefly make two points about it. I’ll tell you the points first so that you are ready for them. My two points are this. There are only two kinds of religion. First, there is natural religion, which leads to slavery. And second, there is supernatural religion, and that leads to freedom.
Let me tell you the story. It’s about a man named Abraham. Abraham lived around 4000 years ago. He is a central figure in the three monotheistic religions of the world. But he was not from a monotheistic family. He wasn’t brought up to fear God. His parents worshiped the “other gods” (Joshua 24:2). But God called Abraham to himself—powerfully. And God made promises to Abraham. In Genesis 12:2, God said to him,
“And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing.”
And as time went by, there were glimpses of how this greatness would take shape (he won some wars and he was amassing wealth and followers), but it’s greatness wasn’t fully happening, especially with respect to a child, to children, to offspring.
In Genesis 15, we can see Abraham’s desperation. (He was called Abram at the time.) In verse 2-3 we read,
2 But Abram said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” 3 And Abram said, “Behold, you have given me no offspring, and a member of my household will be my heir.”
Who is “Eliezer of Damascus”? Some guy. We don’t know. He’s mentioned nowhere else.
Abraham says, “God, you say I’ll be great, you say that as I follow you and my offspring follow you, that we’ll be a blessing to many people and many people will come to know you through my family. But I ain’t got no kids. No offspring, no heir. And some dude from Damascus will inherit everything. That a problem to you God? It’s a problem to me.”
4 And behold, the word of the LORD came to him: “This man [some guy] shall not be your heir; your very own son shall be your heir.” 5 And he brought him outside and said, “Look toward heaven, and number the stars, if you are able to number them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And he [Abraham] believed the LORD, and he counted it to him as righteousness.
You think I can’t do this, Abraham? Look up; count the stars.
That’s a promise. There is freedom in that because it’s supernatural. It isn’t dependent on Abraham and it isn’t dependent on his wife Sarah’s natural ability. The only way that a couple too old to have children, have children, is by the supernatural power of God.
But then comes chapter 16. And they failed. Things aren’t moving fast enough.
Verse 1 says, “Now [Sarah], Abram’s wife, had borne him no children…” And in verse 3 we get the time marker of 10 years have gone by since they have lived in the land of Canaan. That’s a long time, a long time to suffer with infertility.
There she is, month after month, with no child. I can imagine, every month the expectations would rise, the hope would build—this will be the month!—then her time of the month would come and her body would scream back at her, “You’re not pregnant yet.” The month of May goes by, and June comes, and more of the same: her body screams, “You’re not pregnant yet.” July, then August, on to December, and then another year has gone.
We can’t know for sure because the text does not say, but it is possible, that in the course of these ten years spoken of in verse 3, that Sarai began to go through menopause. And now any hope, naturally speaking, was gone.
It is almost like all these desires for a child and desires to be “normal” and all of her insecurities that she had been guarding, cultivating and nurturing over these years were like little fragile pieces of glass. She was guarding and protecting little pieces of glass. She had been trying for months and years to trust them to God, throwing them up to him, asking, “Can you catch this?”
And then maybe she went through menopause or maybe for some other reason, everything came to a head, and all of a sudden, it was like the bottom fell out and those tiny pieces of glass smashed into a thousand pieces.
So what does she do? Back to Genesis 16 and this story. Sarah asks her husband to sleep with a servant so that they can fulfill the promise of God in their own natural strength. They tried to do it on their own. And it worked, sort of. Abraham had a son; he had Ismael.
For 13 years that was his only Son.
Then God spoke to Abraham again. He said, ‘You’re going to have another son. And this time, it comes through Sarah.” (paraphrase of Genesis 17).
“But, but, but, but she is old and can’t have children anymore. How will this happen?”
By a promise. By faith. By my power. By me being God.
And a year later, Isaac, the son of promise was born. Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. The 12 Tribes. Offspring as many as the starts in the heavens. That’s the story Paul refers too.
At this time, I want to go back to Galatians and back to the two points I mentioned at the start. However, before I do that, I have to insert a parentheses. Let’s talk about something for a minute.
I hope that when you walked in to church you revived a bulletin. Sticking out of it was an insert. At the top is says, “One Flesh: 2 Nights of Teaching About God’s Design For Sexual Intimacy.” And then below it you can see that the first night is tonight and the second night is tomorrow.
When you and I hear the story of Hagar and Sarah and Abraham, we might be tempted to think, “That’s crazy! What wife encourages that? What husband would do that? And what woman would participate in that?” We think these things because we believe we have the moral high ground. We think these things because we are arrogant and naive.
In Abraham’s culture, that would have been acceptable. “If this isn’t working for you Abraham, I’m sure God would want you to be happy, so just figure it out another way. Just do the natural thing.”
We do not have the moral high ground. Our culture and our churches are in desperate need of grace and mercy, specifically in the area of sexuality.
I want you to consider two pictures. Scott Ashton was the speaker at our men’s retreat last week. It was awesome. I asked his permission if I could show a picture from his Facebook page. He was vacationing with his family a few weeks ago and at a bookstore somewhere between Missouri and Florida he saw this picture.
I’m not sure if you can read it or not. It’s says, “Easter, What We Recommend.” And the book shelve below is stocked with “Fifty Shades of Grey.” The name of the store is Books a Million. There is one 10 minutes from my house on 22. (I’m not upset at the “world,” that picture got their because of market research!)
I want to show another picture. This one is 60 seconds from my house on 22. It’s a picture of the Gentlemen’s Club by my house. I drive by this several times a day, and this picture is from this morning on my way to church. I get up super early on Sundays to get ready and most of the time as I drive by on Sunday mornings, they are still open. Don’t look at them with arrogance, though. Think, “They’re thirsty, and they need to know that they could drink from rivers of living water.”
Listen, friends, we need help. You can see on that flyer the topics we are going to cover. We would love for you to come back, bring the handout with you, and talk with us. Listen to what God might have to say to these issues. God has given us a tremendous blessing giving us the capacity for sexual pleasure and we are so thankful for that. And we would love to spend time talking about how we can most use this gift in the way that God has designed. If you are wondering about children, just know we think it would be appropriate for any age you want to bring, but especially Jr. and Sr. High.
Well that was my parentheses. Now back to Galatians 4. Paul makes two point in this passage. I’ll summarize those two points very briefly and then offer a few applications and then close.
1. The first kind of religion: natural
The first point is that this OT story reminds us that there a natural religion. And that religion looks attractive, but in the end it only brings slavery.
Let me read v. 22-25 again,
22 For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. 23 But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. 24 Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. 25 Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children.
Paul makes a profound statement here. He says that the Jewish people of his day, if they do not accept Christ, are in slavery. They are not free. They are not in a right relationship with God. They are trying to accomplish salvation by “the flesh.”
Paul says that this might look attractive, it might seem like we want to contribute to our salvation, but we can’t. We need God. We need more than natural religion.
That’s the first point. Here’s the second one.
2. The second kind of religion: supernatural
The second thing we learn is that Christianity is supernatural. Paul uses many synonyms to describe this: free, promise, spirit, from “above.” All of them get at the idea that God is God and to be in a relationship with him is humbling because it requires us to acknowledge our dependence, but at the same time, in dependence upon God there is freedom.
Look at verses 26-28, and then v. 31:
26 But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother. 27 For it is written, “Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor! For the children of the desolate one will be more than those of the one who has a husband.” 28 Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise…. 31 So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman.
That quote—“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear; break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!”—actually doesn’t come from Genesis. You would think that it does, but it doesn’t. It comes from Isaiah 54:1. In that context, the “barren one who does not bear” is not Sarah but the people of God as a whole. God’s people are in exile, and they are weak. Everyone around them is stronger than they are, and God’s people feel like they are dying. Their very existence is in jeopardy and they don’t know what to do. Should they turn to their natural strength? No. God says, “Trust me.”
Any of you lack strength? Any of you feel afraid at the circumstances around you? Does anyone here feel like you don’t have the strength to do the things that God requires of you?
That’s okay. Remember this: Christianity is supernatural. You don’t save yourself. There was another woman who had an extraordinary birth. That woman was Mary. And she had a son and that Son was God. And Paul says in Galatians 3:13-14 of that son,
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” – 14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
If you are not a Christian, I plead with you to forsake your own efforts as you come to God. Come to God through Jesus. That’s the only way.
If you are a Christian, I plead with you to rest in the supernatural nature of our salvation. You don’t begin the Christian life apart from God, and you won’t finish it without his help either.
And if there was one other thing that I would say to those of you who are Christians, it would be this: if this is how you got saved (by the supernatural gospel of Jesus), then learn how to tell it that way to others. So many times I hear people explain the way they became a Christian—and I’m not talking about only people here—but they don’t include the gospel. They say they made a decision, or they received Jesus, or they came back to God. Well that’s good, but just say the gospel. Say Jesus lived a perfect life, Jesus died taking my sins to himself, and then Jesus rose. And then I repented, I turned from my sins and I trust him. I’m saved supernaturally by the gospel. Learn to say it that way. And above all, learn to love that supernatural gospel. O, it’s a beautiful thing to be a child of God, isn’t it? It sure is.