Galatians 5:1, 13-25


An Activity

This is a striking visual illustration of sin and good deeds. The pieces are quite small, so it works best with small groups doing the activity themselves rather than as a demonstration. If you use 5 magnets for each group, you will need 10 labels.

You will need

  • small flat magnets (preferably the strong, neodymium ones)   Uk-flag   usa-flag 
  • white labels to fit the magnets   Uk-flag   usa-flag 
  • pens and a red markers

Affiliate links: The flags will take you to supplies from / Anything you buy in that session will help to support this ministry and keep it free. So feel free to order that 50 foot yacht.

Stack the magnets on top of each other so that you know which sides stick. Put a white label on the top of each magnet from the stack. Check that all white sides repel other white sides. Write ‘old me’ on one white label.

Now turn all the magnets over. Put a white label with ‘new me’ on the opposite side of ‘old me’. Colour the remaining labels red and stick them on all the empty sides.

Just to check, all the red labels should repel all the others and repel the ‘new me’ side.

The labels represent the way we live. The white ones represent good deeds, and the red ones, sin. In Bible times, red dye was permanent, and could not be removed by washing. So when God said that our sins are like red dye, he was saying that there is no way we can wash ourselves clean from sin. “Come now, let us  settle the matter,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. (Isaiah 1:18)

Put the ‘old me’ magnet on the table in front of you and try to stick some good deeds to it. In our passage the Galatians, just like us sometimes, were trying to earn their way into heaven by doing good things. There’s nothing wrong with trying to do good, but none of the good deeds stick. We can see that the white sides, representing good deeds, just won’t stick.

The only things that stick are our bad deeds. We can see that the red sides of the magnets stick just fine. Why is that? Why does only sin count? Why will bad stuff keep us out of heaven, but good stuff won’t get us in?

It is the same in real life. Flushing the toilet after you’ve been won’t get you praised, but if you forget one time you’ll soon hear about it. Keeping to a 30 mph limit won’t earn you a medal, but speeding just once can earn you a ticket. The judge won’t care how many times you passed the speed camera at 29, just once at 35 is enough. It’s not a question of good deeds outweighing the bad.

We cannot save ourselves by just being good enough, because the standard is perfection and no one is good enough. What can we do?

We need Jesus to wash away the red stain and make us clean. We need a new start with the slate wiped clean. Jesus was the only perfect man and, as God, he is able to change us on the inside. Turn over the ‘old me’ magnet to a ‘new me’.

Now we can see that all the white magnets stick and the red ones don’t. This does not mean that when we become Christians we never sin again -even Paul struggled against sin! We are all still works in progress, but the power of God’s Spirit in us can help us to live new lives and wash us clean when we fail.

A Reflection

(There are some well-known parts in this passage, so try reading it in an unusual version, such as The Message, so that the words can strike you afresh.)

Before we look at the text, a little background so that we can understand why Paul is saying what he’s saying.

This is a letter from Paul to the Christians in Galatia in modern Turkey, and they were gentiles (non-Jews). That’s no big deal for us now (I’m not Jewish either), but back then it was a hot topic. Was this new-fangled Christianity part of Judaism or was is a separate faith? Did new Christians have to become Jews too? Some said yea, some said nay.

The Galatians believed they had to become proper Jews, and obey all the Jewish laws, such as foods and circumcision. Paul was furious at this and called them crazy (Gal 3:1).

The whole point of Jesus’ death and resurrection was that keeping laws can’t save you. It never could. And by adding this list of Jewish Do-s and Don’t-s to the simple message of salvation by faith, they were saying that what Jesus did was not enough to save them. No wonder Paul tore a strip off them!

They, and we, are free from The Law. We are not required to obey all the rules of the Old Covenant in order to earn God’s favour. God likes us anyway – bizarrely! – and he sent Jesus to fix what rules never could.

So in our passage, Paul, sets them right about how rules cannot save them, and then tells them what their freedom from rules means. And it does not mean a free-for-all! Sure, we are free from having to do this and that, but that does not mean that we can live a life of sin and say, ‘It’s OK, God forgives me’.

As Christians, we are Free From, not Freebies. We are free from The Law and the need to earn our way into heaven. But we are not free to live life any old way we like. If we are God’s children then we are supposed to show some family likeness. God’s spirit living in us produces fruit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control – and it is up to help this fruit grow.

But note – I do not try to be kind and self-controlled etc. so that God will like me and let me in to heaven. Rather I look with amazed gratitude to God, who sees me in all my filthy rags of sin, takes them from me and replaces them with Jesus’ spotless robes of righteousness then condemns Jesus in my place while welcoming me into his family. As one who has been dealt with so kindly, it is only right that I try to live up to it.

We try to live well because we are forgiven, not so that we will be forgiven.

Free From: free from needing to save ourselves by trying to be good enough. Why?
The bad news: We’ll never be good enough.
The good news: We’ll never be good enough. But that’s OK because God loves us anyway, imperfect as we are.

Our Response

Let us take a moment to think of some of the ‘good’ stuff we do, and try to look at our motives. Do we act the same way when we know no-body is watching?

Sometimes we do good to earn the approval of people. Sometimes to earn the approval of God. Sometimes to appease our own guilt or sense of unworthiness.

I know that I am very prone to being ‘busy for God’ – so busy doing that I miss out on being a beloved daughter. Writing this is one of my ‘doing’ things.
In God’s economy, ‘being’ is of far more worth than ‘doing’.

A Prayer

Kindest Lord and Saviour,

I give to you all the ‘good’ things that I do as my worship in grateful thanks for the far greater gift that you have given me. Please rescue me from endless doing and teach me to rest in your arms and simply ‘be’.

In your eternal name

Bible Text

Galatians 5:1, 13-25 The Message

Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.

It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life. Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom. Rather, use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom. If you bite and ravage each other, watch out—in no time at all you will be annihilating each other, and where will your precious freedom be then?

My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on.

This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom.

But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.

Legalism is helpless in bringing this about; it only gets in the way. Among those who belong to Christ, everything connected with getting our own way and mindlessly responding to what everyone else calls necessities is killed off for good—crucified.

Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives. That means we will not compare ourselves with each other as if one of us were better and another worse. We have far more interesting things to do with our lives. Each of us is an original.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 bEugene H. Peterson


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