I awakened this morning with an email from Rod Rosenbladt with this attachment. It’s the indefatigable George Carlin on his identity as a “Modern Man.” Rod’s comment was thought-provoking: “And this is the man we’re supposed to be preaching the gospel to in America?”

Something of a white Boomer rap, Carlin’s brilliant riff exposes our fallen heart: especially that tendency we have toward works-righteousness. Works-righteousness? George Carlin? Yes! If you thought you had to leave a legalistic church to become free to “be yourself,” this celebration of the self may give you pause.

In Galatians 4, the Apostle Paul throws his critics a curve-ball. One of the main reasons that his opponents wanted people to become Christians by coming under the old covenant was their failure to realize that the ministry of Moses was temporary and typological. It was like being an heir of an estate while still being under-aged, more like a slave than a son (Gal 3:23-2). Then in 4:3 he adds, “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” This phrase, “elementary principles of the world” (stoicheia tou kosmou) was well-known in the Hellenized world. In fact, the Stoics had based their whole philosophy bringing their lives into conformity with these laws of nature (even deriving their name from it).

What’s jarring is that Paul uses this phrase to describe the Mosaic system now. It wasn’t wrong (just as the moral law written on the conscience of Gentiles isn’t wrong); it’s just elementary, a task-master—like the nuns at Catholic school who wrapped you on your knuckles if you acted up. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:4-5). He adds,

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weaek and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (vv 6-11).

In other words, the Gentiles were living “under the law” along with the Jews, but in different ways. Both had the moral law, either in the conscience or as delivered directly by the hand of God in written form. And both had failed to keep that law. So anyone who seeks to justify himself before God by keeping the law is in bondage to “the elementary principles of the world”—even if those principles are found in the Bible!

It’s not a question of content. The moral law remains the abiding expression of God’s holy character and righteous demands, the standard by which he will judge the human race on the last day. Rather, it’s a question of one’s relation to the law here and now. To be under a certain covenant is to be obligated to keep its stipulations or suffer its curses. Now that Christ—the reality—has come, the new covenant has been inaugurated. Having served its purpose, the old covenant is now obsolete. Going back to the “elementary principles,” whether in the form of the Mosaic economy or natural law, in order to justify oneself is in fact to place oneself under condemnation. In short, apart from Christ Jews as well as Gentiles are “in Adam.”

This argument must have provoked a lot of heated reaction among Paul’s agitators in Galatia. Basically, he’s saying that those today—Jews or Gentiles—who cling to Moses rather than Christ (or even in addition to Christ) are in exactly the same relation to God as Gentile idolaters.

So we can see that George Carlin’s expression of his life philosophy is just as legalistic and self-justifying as any comparable version in the Christian world today. There is only one safe place to be: in Christ. Only in Christ can you be a son instead of a slave. (“Son,” by the way, is a legal term: the firstborn heir who was entitled to the whole estate. That “there is no male or female” in Christ (Gal 3:28) means that the gospel runs counter to the ancient laws of inheritance. Not only slaves and Gentiles, but women, are “sons” in that legal sense.)

Outside of Christ, there are only different forms of slavery. No matter how the religious or irreligious profess their self-confident autonomy, they are actually slaves. Paul’s opponents had flattered the church into which he poured his energies and that responded initially with such affection for Paul’s gospel. “They make much of you,” Paul says, “but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them” (4:17).

Again, there is nothing wrong with laws, principles, and wisdom for living. By God’s common grace, good advice may be found outside as well as inside the church. Christians are still obligated to God’s moral law, even as unbelievers are still going to be judged by it. The real question is whether the law functions for them in a covenant of works, where they are personally bound to keep it perfectly on penalty of death, or in a covenant of grace, where it is no longer their prosecuter but testifies to the fact that in Christ they are justified by his imputed righteousness. Does one seek life by this law as it is revealed in general and special revelation? In other words, when we’re evaluating our life and destiny, do we say, “Well, at least I’ve followed my best lights—tried to do the right thing, followed my little voice within, been true to myself, made the most of what I’ve been given,”etc.? Or do we say, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner”?

Compare Paul’s argument with Jesus’s comments to the Pharisees in John 8. After telling them that the truth would make them free, the religious leaders replied, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:31-36).

Why do we try to justify ourselves, as Carlin does in this performance? Because we know we’re guilty. Heir of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, the “modern man” tries to break free of this guilt by making him accountable to himself rather than to God. But that still doesn’t do the trick. In fact, it just deepens the guilt. The inner legislator is a demanding task-master. There is no end to the plans, schemes, make-overs and expectations. We’re too fat, too thin, too lazy, too “workaholic,” and so on. This thirst for glory and drive for self-justification keeps us self-absorbed: the very essence of sin.

Once you get out from “under the law”—that is, “the elementary principles of the world” as a way of self-justification, to come under Christ as your covenant head, you are truly free not only from the guilt but also the vicious cycle of sin’s power. So Paul can turn in chapter 5 to “the fruit of the Spirit”—which in content expose the deeper intent of the moral law. Not just outward actions and behaviors, but inner motivations and orientations, change. At last, instead of being turned in on ourselves as narcissists, alternating between self-loathing and self-justification, we can look up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love. Ironically, when we stop defending ourselves in a covenant of works and cling to Christ in the covenant of grace, we are free for the first time actually to obey God’s commands out of faith rather than any attempt to secure our identity and life. God’s commands continue to direct our steps, but as the Father’s instructions rather than the Judge’s sentence. The law no longer stands over us, as an external threat, but is written on our hearts even as we are forgiven all of our transgressions against it—past, present, and future. Now that Christ has come, we are no longer slaves but sons. No wonder Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”