Saints and Super-saints?
Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)
Jesus did not come to send us on our own personal spiritual journey, but to build his church. Each believer is a living stone of that church. Jesus is not calling us to be part of a Kingdom where we are competing for the top seats. He came to restore us from brokenness and sin into a people who are known as his because they love one another.
Looking back through church history, you have to be struck by the arrogance people have had—and still do have—concerning their siblings in the faith. When I met my wife, she had just transferred from a Bible school seemingly founded on the principles of separation; separation from the world; separation from anything that smacked of sin, or that was edgy; from anything that did not meet the prescribed rules of the institution. As a result, students divided themselves into two categories. The largest group was referred to as the saints. But then there were the super-saints. These were young adults who had already scaled the heights of holy living and could, and did, look down on those who were merely saints.
When Paul gets into Peter’s face at Antioch (Galatians 2:11ff), saying, ‘You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?’(v.14 NIV) you see that the same dynamics had been at work. Peter and the rest of the Jewish believers had been living life together with the Gentile believers for some time. They ate together as a sign in their culture of being one family. After some teachers showed up from Jerusalem, Peter and Barnabas switched sides and returned to the practice of separation. “It’s not that we can’t eat with you. It’s that we won’t eat with you because we are righteous in a way you are not and may never be!” is the underlying theme.
Paul was brutally honest. He saw these actions as not acting in line with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:14). He immediately demotes the Torah to the level of merely Jewish custom rather than allowing the idea to stand that those practices constituted a superior means to righteousness. A means that was allowing the Jewish believers to believe they were super-saints.
The truth of the gospel is that all of us came into a relationship with God as sinners (Galatians 2:17). This is everyone’s confession if they are to be included in Christ. Jew, Gentiles, male, female, slave, free—are all equally needy at the foot of the cross. We bring nothing to Jesus he wants or needs but our miserable lives, which are not only justified by the cross alone, but are transformed by the Spirit alone.
What this confrontation at Antioch reveals is that whenever we forget this reality that all of us are level at the foot of the cross and fall into thinking we are superior saints, division and distrust break out in the church. People who should encourage each other, serve each other, spur each other on to good deeds begin to divide into different camps, sure that theirs is the one blessed of God. This is what Paul is referring to as not in keeping with the truth of the gospel.
The reason I have looped back to this matter is because of the verse that follows “keep in step with the Spirit.” Paul warns, “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Galatians 5:26) He indicates that not keeping in step with the Spirit creates a toxic fellowship for believers. Instead of loving each other, we end up at each other’s throats. We find ourselves looking down on the others in our congregation, internally motivated either to fight or to gossip about them.
So if you… belong to a faction in your church looking to grab the power,… or if you find yourself looking down on others as failures in the faith instead of realizing that, ‘There but for the grace of God go I,’… or if you find yourself holding on to grudges and speaking disparagingly about other believers to people in your own circle, then you can be certain that you are not keeping in step with the Spirit. And, like Paul’s cold slap in Peter’s face, it should bring you up short because you are not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.
Keeping in step with the Spirit is a necessity for each of us separately and together. If we are going to be part of a healthy, hope-filled faith community, keeping in step with the Spirit is something we cannot disregard.