At the entrance of Auschwitz, the German concentration camp in Poland, was a sign which read, “Arbeit macht frei!”. Loosely translated, it means “Work will set you free!”
The Nazis put this sign at the entrance to most of their concentration camps.
Which really weren’t concentration camps or work camps. Most were extermination camps, killing centers. It is estimated that three million Jews lost their lives in these camps.
The names of the major concentration camps are infamous.
The Nazis thought that the sign “Arbeit macht frei!” would accomplish two things.
First, it would hide their true purpose. The killing centers would appear to the outside world to be work camps where prisoners labored in support of the war.
Second, it would give the prisoners hope — hope that if they complied and did what they were told they would eventually be allowed to return home.
Of course, this was a lie. A terrible lie! Perhaps the worst lie ever told.
What occurred to me this week is that almost from the very beginning of Christianity this same lie has been told in the church.
Early on, Gnostic teachers and pharisaical Christians taught that if one did certain things or worked hard enough it would earn them salvation.
We call this kind of thinking “legalism”.
Paul had to deal with this heresy for most of his life.
To the Ephesians he wrote —
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)
He told the Romans —
“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” (Romans 3:28)
And in Galatians 2:16 we read —
“Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.”
Jesus dealt with this same kind of thinking in John 6:28-29. As He stood by the shore of the Sea of Galilee, He answered a question from someone in the crowd which had followed Him and His disciples:
“What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” (John 6:28-29)
They thought that if they worked hard enough they could obtain what Jesus offered. “Just tell us what we need to do!” Jesus replied, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Me.”
Arbeit macht frei.
Work will set you free.
This is the lie that won’t seem to die. We still believe it today.
Please understand: obedient faith and legalism are not the same.
Whereas an obedient faith will lead one to know God, serve God, and love His people out of a sense of gratitude and love, legalism says — “This is fire insurance! You better do these things — or else!”
Whereas obedient faith will be undergirded by God’s grace, legalism is founded upon self-righteousness and teaches us — falsely — “You can do this all by yourself!” Which inevitably leads to discouragement and isolation. Because at some point we will look at the mountain of failures and mistakes we’ve made and realize, “No, I cannot.”
Paul told the Galatians —
“For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’ But the law is not of faith, rather ‘The one who does them shall live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’ — so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” (Galatians 3:101-14)
I love God, serve God, work for the kingdom, love the people of God, love the lost and care about the suffering — not because I am afraid not to do so, not because I am under the mistaken idea that I can save myself by doing so, and not because I feel a tremendous of obligation — but rather because I love the Lord.
And it is because of this love that I find I cannot do enough!
As John said: “For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:3)