Good But Graceless

“How can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits, whose slaves you want to be once more?” Galatians 4:9

Perhaps it was the gumbo. During the holidays Leslie makes a big vat of the best seafood gumbo I have ever tasted. We spare no expense for the shrimp and crab (meat and claws). The real secret, though, is the roux, the mixture of oil and flour Leslie stirs continually like one of Macbeth’s witches over a cauldron (I probably should change that image). At any rate, the result is a delicious meal that I enjoy repeatedly every Christmas season.

On the night in question, however, I might have added a little too much Tony Chaceres, the main ingredient of which is salt. In my dreams later I was parched, thirstier than I had ever been. I searched for a drink only to find a glass of water evaporating before I could put it to my lips. Each time something in my dream kept me from finding the water I desperately wanted. What a dream!  I bet it was the gumbo.

That image stayed with me a few days, and as I read the book of Galatians this week’s verse stood out. Here’s the background. Paul was disappointed and angry with the Galatian Christians. They had abandoned the gospel, substituting a form of legalism that focused on works and muted the power of grace. I suppose their reasoning was that it is far easier to have a checklist religion than to rely on the subtle but more powerful force of grace. They turned back to rules and regulations (the elemental spirits), and made those the focus.

Pardon the pun, but Paul was appalled. He had been there. No one obeyed rules more effectively than Paul. As a Pharisee he knew all about the commandments and the ordinances and the commentary on each one. He could follow the law, but realized on the road to Damascus that it never led him home. It never satisfied the thirst. Only the grace of Jesus Christ could do that.

Paul often encountered this tendency of Christians to substitute a shallow legalism for the depths of grace. In Colossians he addressed this tendency. His verdict? “These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting rigor of devotion and self-abasement, but they are of no value in checking the indulgence of the flesh” (2:23). In 2 Timothy he warned of people who were “holding the form of religion but denying the power of it” (3:5). If Christians are not careful they can end up with a baptized legalism that produces a Christian Pharisee but not the image of Christ.

Do we have such a tendency today? Of course. Somewhere I read about “the good-boy syndrome” (or “good-girl”). This person is a Christian who does all the right things, but for the wrong reason. Trying to impress either other people, God, or themselves they are very adept at keeping the rules. They would be as surprised and scandalized as the Galatian Christians to find out that they have turned back to the “elemental spirits of the universe.” They are the Christian elder brothers (or sisters).

I am not for a moment questioning whether or not such people are Christians. I am sure they are, but they overlook or misunderstand the priority of grace. They know their own hearts well, but not the Father’s heart, and so they remain thirsty, drinking from a cup that will never satisfy. They substitute a cheap imitation for the real thing and do not even realize it. You see, it’s possible to be very good but graceless.

The solution is to drink deeply from the living water of Jesus Christ. Be strong in His grace (2 Tim. 2:1). The resulting behaviors will be very similar. Legalistic Christians and a grace-oriented Christians live in very much the same way. But the latter understand the proper motive. And they are not thirsty.


Dr. Terry Ellis

January 3, 2011

  1. Jim,

    We are not good at recognizing the source of our spiritual thirst or hunger. We long for God, but receive from Him the grace we really need. We were created for God and only in Him do we find peace. I'm very glad GraceWaves helps you.

    Terry Ellis

  2. I loved this! I love the picture of gracelessness as being thirsty, and having the water vanish just as you are about to drink. Nice post, I'm glad I happened upon your site.