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It seems hard to believe that people who have answered Jesus’ call to a life of freedom could so easily lose the sense of joy and relief they first felt. It’s difficult to understand why Christians who have been made free and ‘alive in Christ’ would choose to return to a kind of spirituality that slowly imprisons the mind and poisons the soul. How does a message that speaks clearly of God’s love – a life of salvation in Jesus by His grace – become perverted and distorted, becoming instead a culture of performance-driven expectations, demanded by an unfair and intolerant God?
“God didn’t go to all the trouble of sending His Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again.” | John 3:17, MSG
Yet for many Christians, this is exactly where they find themselves. It may be early into their Christian journey or many years later, but somewhere along the way, their perception of Christianity becomes misshapen and their sense of peace, fulfillment, and relief dissipates.
Religious life becomes exhausting; they feel overwhelmed, emotionally drained and trapped. They may begin to judge themselves or others around them by what they do, what they wear, what they say. They become consumed by rules, preoccupied with fault and blame, and heavily focused on performance – their own or others’. Something that was meant to empower them and set them free has rendered them powerless – they are stuck, with no way forward and no way out.
The simple truth of being ‘saved by grace through faith alone’ has been turned on its head, becoming ‘the gospel of acceptance with God through performance’. Their simple faith in Jesus as the only source of life and acceptance with God has become toxic. Or perhaps, sadly, they never had that simple faith to begin with.
Toxic faith is a destructive and dangerous relationship with a religious system, not with God, that allows this system to control a person’s life in the name of God. It is a system where another gospel is preached – not one of freedom and liberty and acceptance through grace, but one, in reality, of enslavement to rituals and rules.
Seeking God’s approval on the basis of your own religious behaviour is toxic faith. Anything that adds to our standing in the eyes of God, apart from the performance of Jesus on the cross, is legalistic teaching. A true and meaningful relationship with God can never be sustained on this basis.
This deconstruction of faith is not just a problem that modern Christians struggle with. The first-century church at Galatia also dealt with this issue and the damage caused by this ‘false gospel’ is catalogued throughout the letter written by Paul to the Galatians.
The tone of Paul’s opening words is one of incredulity at the situation in which the Galatians find themselves.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel – which is really no gospel at all.” | Galatians 1:6, NIV
The Greek word used here for ‘desert’ means ‘to defect’; and it’s a defection, not from a denomination or doctrine, but from ‘Him who called you by grace’. It’s a severing of the real and personal relationship a Christian has with God. And it’s a distortion of the gospel Paul first preached to them, Christ’s gospel, of forgiveness of sins by grace – by Jesus’ performance – and not by their own. In fact, Paul says, it’s really no gospel at all.
Paul takes the issue the Galatians are dealing with very seriously. When a spiritual life of grace and rest is replaced with a life of imposed works, it’s a hugely serious issue.
But what was happening in Galatia for Paul to be so up-in-arms? What induced him to tackle the situation with such passion, to the point of stating the following words, not once but twice?:
“Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” | Galatians 1: 8-9, NIV
Law Versus Grace
Paul had been converted from a life steeped in religious tradition and law, a life that gave him privilege, prestige, and power. He had used that power to persecute the church of God, systematically destroying it, until one day He was confronted by the risen Jesus, and a message that was radically different to everything he thought he knew.
Paul learned that God was not an impersonal force to be used to make people behave in certain prescribed ways, but a personal saviour offering life and freedom through the saving work of Jesus. Paul discovered that right standing with God was not to be achieved through law-keeping – and, in fact, was impossible to be achieved this way – but by personal belief in God’s promises.
Paul learned of the true gospel – that of being ‘saved by grace through faith alone and not by works, lest any man should boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9).
This is the gospel that He originally preached to the Galatians and which they had gladly received. Yet, it is with dismay that he hears that religious leaders of the old school had come into the church, reintroducing old ways, law-keeping, and an abundance of religious rules and regulations. One of these religious rules was the rite of circumcision, which they were insisting Christians should undertake. Circumcision, in that time, was the ultimate act of external religious performance, and was being promoted as added ‘proof of spirituality’.
‘Yes’, they would have said ‘faith in Jesus is important and you absolutely must have it. But it’s not enough. In order to find positive standing with God, you must also be circumcised’.
In other words, there was a group in Galatia propounding the idea that right standing with God depends on what Jesus did plus additional ‘spiritual acts’ that are undertaken. This is completely in opposition to the message of the cross, that salvation comes through Jesus’ performance, not our own:
“For Christ did not send me to baptise but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” | 1 Corinthians 1:17-18, ESV
“He himself bore our sins” in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; “by his wounds you have been healed.” | 1 Peter 2:24, NIV
This ‘different gospel’ was a serious perversion of God’s gift of grace and a not-so-subtle manipulation of the relationship between the individual and God. No wonder Paul was furious.
“Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.” | Galatians 2:21, MSG
The Collision Of Grace And Spiritual Performance
The word of God is living and active, and, like a powerful sword, it cuts right through to the heart, judging the thoughts and purposes contained therein. It can be used as an instrument of grace, by reminding us of God’s love and showing us how to bring order and purpose to our lives.
In the wrong hands, however, or wrongfully used, the word of God can be used in ungraceful ways, as a means of shaming others into performing someone else’s agenda, in the name of God. In the hands of performance-based people, it can be used as a weapon in order to pressure people into acting differently or to get rid of them if they do not. It can be used to lay burdens on men ‘too difficult to bear’.
“Woe to you experts in religious law as well! You load people down with burdens difficult to bear, yet you yourselves refuse to touch the burdens with even one of your fingers!” | Jesus, Luke 11:46, NET Bible
The appearance of Jesus on the Jewish scene was a dramatic collision between grace and spiritual performance. The conflicts the Pharisees initiated with Jesus were usually over minor issues such as fasting (Mark 2:18), sabbath keeping (Mark 2:24), eating with ‘unclean’ people (Mark 9:11), or attitudes towards civic duties, like paying taxes (Matthew 9:11) – all performance-driven markers of supposed spirituality.
The Pharisees ‘majored on minors’ because precise details of religious life were their passion, but in doing so, they were actually inverting spiritual values. They made uncompromising stands on matters of no particular spiritual importance, while issues of greatest significance were minimised.
Jesus called them out on their hypocrisy in the gospel of Matthew, where he says:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices – mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” | Matthew 23:24, NIV
Jesus, in contrast, set out the essential way that a person finds right standing with God:
“I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me.” | John 14:6, BSB
“I am the gate. If anyone enters through Me, he will be saved. He will come in and go out and find pasture.” | John 10:9, NIV
“Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies.” | John 11:25, NIV
“And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” | Acts 4:12, ESV
Jesus is the only way to find right standing with God. The name of Jesus is the only means by which humanity can be saved. Jesus’ performance, not our own, is what secures this extraordinary gift of grace.
Christians must not be drawn to extremes in a misguided zeal for religious purity but pay attention to the essentials that Jesus so patiently explained. We must be on guard to avoid systems that employ the use of ‘formulas’ and ‘doctrines’ to press good people of faith into conformity with a system instead of conformity to Christ. Particularly, we must be on the lookout for cultures that promote or enable power posturing, performance preoccupation, unspoken rules, and a lack of balance.
“God’s steward, an overseer (leader) must be above reproach – not self-absorbed, not quick-tempered, not given to drunkenness, not violent, not greedy for money. Instead, he must be hospitable, a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined. He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it was taught, so that by sound teaching he will be able to encourage others and refute those who contradict this message. For many are rebellious and full of empty talk and deception, especially those of the circumcision, who must be silenced.” | Titus 17-10
“Leaders are given to the church to protect the flock from legalists, who push religious performance as the means of right standing or favour with God. In Paul’s letter to Titus, he says that the rebellious men must be silenced. Unfortunately, in many churches, not only are the leaders not protecting the flock against those who push religious performance, they are the pushers and in bondage to performance themselves.” | Johnson & VanVonderen
Jesus had no interest in setting up rigid religious and social guidelines for his followers. He chose instead to major on the significant agendas of the kingdom of God. Paul confirms Jesus’ way of living in his final words to the Galatians:
“For my part, I am going to boast about nothing but the cross of our Master, Jesus Christ. Because of that cross, I have been crucified in relation to the world, set free from the stifling atmosphere of pleasing others and fitting into the little patterns that they dictate. Can’t you see the central issue in all this? It is not what you and I do – submit to circumcision, reject circumcision. It is what God is doing, and He is creating something totally new, a free life! All who walk by this standard are the true Israel of God – His chosen people. Peace and mercy on them!” | Galatians 6:14-16, MSG
“Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” | John 8:32, NIV
Toxic: ‘Mid 17th century: from medieval Latin toxicus ‘poisoned’, from Latin toxicum ‘poison’, from Greek toxikon (pharmakon) ‘(poison for) arrows’, from toxon ‘bow’. (Oxford Dictionary). ‘Containing or being poisonous material especially when capable of causing death or serious debilitation’ (Merriam-Webster Dictionary). Faith: ‘Great trust or confidence in something or someone.’ (Cambridge Dictionary)
About Carrie Shaw
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I was really encouraged by your well written piece. I’d love the opportunity to wrestle with where ‘the line’ is …….’ lines’ are . What are our ‘circumcision’ challenges?
Thanks for your feedback on this article! I’m really happy to hear that you found it encouraging. I agree it’s an important conversation and a good question for us to be asking is exactly the one you’ve raised. I believe it’s important for genuine spiritual authenticity and healthy growth to seriously consider what ‘circumcision challenges’ we face as individuals and, in the wider context, in our churches. I think it would be fair to say that every generation struggles with what their ‘circumcision challenges’ might be and that those issues differ from generation to generation. It would be, perhaps, somewhat oversimplified to point the finger at specific issues, either now or historically, as those things, in themselves, aren’t really the problem (think here: bans on certain items of clothing, facial hair (for men), makeup or jewellery (for women), consumption of alcohol, certain music etc (things we ‘shouldn’t do’) or; how many times we pray and at which times of the day, attendance of specific church events, reading the Bible from a particular translation, wearing particular style of clothing, playing or listening to a particular type of music (things we ‘should do’)…) There are a raft of ‘formulas’ or ‘doctrines’ that can be found in people’s lives which actually conform the individual to a system rather than to God. The issues above (among many) cannot and should not be legislated upon (either by spoken or unspoken rules) for the purpose of controlling or manipulating the individual’s right standing with God. The Christian life is a deeply personal relationship between the individual and God. Any system in which performance is more important than emotional honesty or human need misses the life-changing message of the gospel – that acceptance with God is by grace through faith alone, not by works. Salvation is a gift, based on what God is doing, not on what we are doing! Christian life begins with freedom from dead works and any system or mindset that returns us to that place of performance-based acceptance with God is toxic faith. I believe any formulas or rules, whatever they are, that are part of those systems or mindsets are our ‘circumcision issues’ today. I hope that helps – I would be interested to hear your thoughts? All of God’s blessing to you on your journey and as always, I appreciate your feedback and welcome conversation.