I’ve been trying to figure out a better way to introduce this difficult teaching to a Sunday school class. Where’s the one key that helps show what Paul is trying to say. Here’s an idea.
Last week we studied Romans 16 through 14, taking Romans backwards to see whom Paul wanted us to “mark,” that is, to watch out for. It is, as we discussed, those who divide contrary to Paul’s teachings on grace and unity, culminating in Romans 14-15.
Now, class, there were two issues that Paul wrestled with, calling them “disputable matters” — eating meat and holy days.
And what did Paul say was the right answer on the “holy day” question? Well, he didn’t give an answer. No, actually he did. He said that we shouldn’t judge or condemn those who disagree with us. And he told the Romans to be “convinced in their own minds” even though they disagree with one another.
Now some say that the holy day question was a matter of indifference. But I want you to consider what Paul said about holy days in Galatians.
(Gal 4:9-11) But now that you know God–or rather are known by God–how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? 10 You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! 11 I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.
Now, when Paul wrote Galatians, did he consider “special days” indifferent? I mean, what does he say? He says these are “weak and miserable principles.” He fears that the Galatians will be “enslaved.” He fears that his teaching of the gospel was “wasted”!
But in Romans, Paul tells both sides just to get along despite their differences. Here he says holy days risk undoing the gospel itself! Why the difference?
Let Paul explain. After giving some examples, he concludes,
(Gal 5:1) It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
This refers back to 4:9, where Paul accused the Galatians of wishing to be enslaved again. It’s likely a reference back to the children of Israel, who escaped Egyptian slavery and, while in the desert, begged to be returned to slavery in Egypt, threatening to refuse God’s gift of the Promised Land!
Paul says that the Galatians were heading back to Egypt and away from the land of milk and honey, preferring the familiarity of servitude to the challenges of freedom.
(Gal 5:4) You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Now we see the problem clearly. The Galatians didn’t just want to celebrate holy days. They wanted to be justified by their holy days.
“Justified” means literally “declared righteous” and was a term from the legal system. It was a verdict of acquittal — a finding of not guilty. Therefore, it is not so much God’s forgiveness as the declaration of God’s forgiveness.
The flavor of the passage is that that Galatians were insisting that those who’ve been saved must show their salvation through obedience. There must be certain boundary markers that separate the saved from the lost, including circumcision and honoring various holy days.
I can’t find any difference between this idea of essential boundary markers and our “marks of the church” or “tests of fellowship.” It’s the exact same approach to Christianity. And Paul declares that insisting on any boundary marker other than faith in Jesus causes one to fall from grace.
And so, why does Paul speak so differently about holy days in Romans and in Galatians? Why are holy days indifferent in Rome and damning in Galatia?
Here’s how I’ve got it figured. These are two sides of the same coin. If you follow Paul’s teaching in Romans and treat the holy days as indifferent, then they are. If you treat those who honor holy days as brothers and those who don’t as brothers, then you will stand, because God will make you stand.
But if you deny Romans 14 and 15 and treat the holy days as marks of the church — or treat not having holy days as a mark of the church — either way, you’ve added to the gospel. You’ve declared that Jesus’ blood is not sufficient to cleanse the sin of holy days (not having holy days), and so you’ve bound yourself to live perfectly — to obey the entire law of God.
Scary? It shouldn’t be. It’s actually quite easy to live this way. But for us in the Churches of Christ, we’ve been so thoroughly trained to deny the sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice that it’s hard for us. It takes practice. And we have to surrender some dearly loved preferences. We especially have to give up our sense of superiority — that we are the only ones who care enough to get the boundary markers right!
Sadly, we’re the ones who got the boundary marks just as wrong as can be. There’s one marker: faith in Jesus. It’s really just that simple.
Now as we’ve discussed before, “faith in Jesus” includes acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus. But as Paul describes so clearly in Romans 14, those who celebrate holy days do so “unto the Lord” and those who consider all days equally holy also do so “unto the Lord.” Both are worshiping God in their own way. (You’d never persuade a Jew that honoring holy days isn’t worship!)
Paul denies the continuing need for holy days, but nonetheless says that God honors the worship they reflect.
When a believer refuses to work on Sunday, considering it the “Christian Sabbath,” God accepts the worship. When a believer considers all days equally holy because all days are redeemed through prayer and service, God accepts the worship.
On the other hand, nothing in this approves behavior that violates the command to love.
(Gal 5:13-14) You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
And here we have a simple, God-given test for how the penitent are to live. Holy days are neither loving nor unloving. They are indeed indifferent. But if we separate from our brothers by declaring the indifferent a mark of the church, then that is very unloving — and may well separate us from God’s grace.
(Gal 5:15) If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.