The “curse” of life, so to speak, is that “What we’ve been is what we are.” We feel trapped by our genes, our social station, our economic class, our political misfortunes, or family upbringing, and our cultural context. Paul is telling us there is a way out—that it’s not true that we are imprisoned by our situation, but that in Jesus Christ we can be justified and live in a freedom undreamed of.
Paul was determined that all Christians realize that Christianity is not sacramental: no practice, person, office or ritual makes you holy. You are not holy because you said a prayer, got baptized, took communion, had holy water put on your head, or went to church. There is nothing you can do that will obligate God to you or force His hand. Christianity instead is free. It is complete religionless.
Sacramentalism is all about holy things or practices that possess special and unearthly power. Judaism itself has never been enthusiastic about this sort of business. For the ancient Jews, God is the one true “holy.” Even though the temple was holy, along with priests, furniture, and vessels, when all of these things were removed, Judaism kept right on ticking as if nothing had happened. When Christianity came, it was even less sacramental, if that were even possible. We don’t have temples, priesthood, sacrifices, or rituals. For that matter, we are all temples, we are all priests, and we all live our lives as living sacrifices. There’s nothing about Christianity that’s “religious” except that we seek the God who has sought us.
The very nature of Christianity—namely a respect for freedom in the sovereignty of God—is inimical to religion. This is the gospel: we become holy by relationship, not by ritual. Anything that tells us we have to do these five things, engage in this pattern, or experience the ritualistic blessing of a particular person is not drawing us to Christ, but to religion—stealing away the freedom we have in Jesus. While rules can help us live with some sense of security, even at best they confine, limit, and distort what it means to be a follower of Christ.
In our freedom, however, we quickly discover that there is rarely, if ever, perfect agreement between Christians about what we believe or how to minister—and that’s OK. 1 Corinthians 14 teaches us that God endorses diversity and has created it for His glory. But we still have to figure out how to be unified in our differences, finding the common ground (Eph. 4.4-6) in the big tent we call Christianity. Peter and Paul followed the same Lord and were baptized with the same baptism, but Peter had been called to preach to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. They were going to have different strategies and different emphases, but they both preached the same gospel. Because they were able to recognize their worship of the same Lord, they were able to deal with their differences with grace and communion.
This is not to claim, however, that there are never differences to be confronted or problems to be solved. Even between Peter and Paul, there were some face-to-face battles. Our differences don’t make one of us unchristian, but how we handle such difference can makes us act unchristian. Paul saw the need to confront hypocrisy that would steal away the freedom Christ gives, and so didn’t shy away from calling a spade a spade. In this case the differences between the two of them were not just in emphasis or style, but in the truth of the gospel, and in that we as Christians must be solidly unified. The point is that the truth sets us free. It doesn’t make us smaller and back us into a corner to protect our little box of truth. Truth that does that isn’t truth at all. Paul was preaching an immense truth: justification by faith. He was preaching that we following the Spirit, not a list or a set of rules. These truths are declarations of emancipation, not small facts to keep in boxes for safekeeping. These truths tear the roof of our understandings and lead us higher up and deeper in.
Paul knows the dangers of all this “freedom” talk. People will possibly use it to indulge in and justify sin, saying their freedom allows them to commit these compromises. Paul tells us that the danger is not in the freedom, but in our heart of sin. We must die to sin, we must die to the law, we must die to our petty rules and notions that we can build spiritual temples with good behavior and religious rituals. No, the point is to live by the Spirit and live for God. We must capture the essence of grace and all it means to truly live in Christ. It’s one of the most difficult tasks before us as believers, because there’s nothing natural about thinking grace or living in it. But if we think that spiritual righteousness can be attained through our lists and rules, then Christ died for nothing.