Paul’s letter to the Galatians screams at us that we can’t run back to self improvement after starting with the Spirit (the indwelling life of Christ). The life of Christ in us means that we are constantly dying and rising- death and resurrection. We die to law and rise to new life through the gospel.
The problems is when we try to run to the law for life instead of death. Assuming that we can live up to the guidelines will kill us. It puts us back under the curse even though Jesus died to free us from that curse and its death.
But how do we distinguish law from gospel? Here’s a few key words and phrases to listen for that can help:
*1. Listen for a softening of the commandment. Any time a hard commandment like “be perfect” is softened into something like “do your best,” this is law not gospel.
2. Listen for who is making things happen. If God is making it happen, it’s gospel. If you are making it happen, it’s law. If it’s a mix, it’s law.
3. Listen for honesty. If you or others are constantly “doing just fine,” or “struggling, but it will all be OK….” then the law is at work. If you or others are honest about your problems, then this freedom shows that the gospel is at work.
4. Listen for exhaustion. If the burden is heavy day after day and week after week, the the law is probably overpowering the Spirit.
5. Listen for the language of law. Phrases like “If…then,” “Wouldn’t it be nice if…,” “We should all…,” or anything else that sounds like imperatives are law. If you hear the indicative voice, “God is…,” “We are…,” or “God will…” then it’s probably gospel.
6. Listen for a “high anthropology.” Anything that stresses human willpower, strength, or effort is law. High anthropology is low Christology and vice versa.
7. Listen for the “Galatians effect:”
Galatians 3:2-5. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? 5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—
“To live is Christ” is believing what you heard from the beginning- salvation by grace through faith. If your Christianity is anything more or less, you might be like the Galatians.
*This list is adapted from Mockingbird’s Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners and Saints.