I don’t know if they are amazingly intelligent or easily deceived. I’m talking about cows, and I know that whatever I say I’m bound to irritate cattlemen and cow lovers alike. On the one hand they know the danger of trying to cross bars placed at gates or on roads to keep them from wandering—the ubiquitous cattle guard. But bars just painted on the highway? Really? In my mind I see a herd of heifers trotting along with freedom in their sights coming to a confused halt because of nothing more dangerous than a few white lines painted across the road. See what I mean?

Before I come down too hard on the cows, perhaps there is a lesson to be learned from this conundrum. Their actions may describe how many of us tend to respond when we are confronted with something that looks like the real thing. It certainly explains what was happening to believers in the early church of Galatia. Paul was the one who brought the grace-filled gospel to these Gentile Greeks. Before hearing Paul’s teaching, their understanding of God wanting a relationship with mankind was that it was only between God and His people the Jews. And it was based on rules. Lots of rules. They knew that as non-Jewish people they were always the outsiders, and who could follow all of those rules anyway? Then Paul arrived with news that changed everything.

When Paul came to share that God’s love was for all men everywhere, the Galatians accepted his teaching with joy. They believed that in Christ all are one—no more Jew or Greek (Galatians 3:28). They accepted Paul’s teaching that salvation from sin is only through God’s grace made available through Jesus’ death and resurrection (Ephesians 2:8-9). That’s the answer to how men, who are sinful by nature, can come to God, who is holy by nature. Believers in Galatia heard, accepted the truth of the gospel, and began growing in their knowledge by walking in faith.

Then the unthinkable happened when the Galatians were tricked and deceived. They began to listen to those who promoted a different gospel based on works: salvation by faith plus human effort. Paul is incredulous, calling them foolish and asking who bewitched them (Galatians 3:1). He had brought them the true gospel and now they were putting their faith in something that wasn’t real. Sort of like metal bars versus the painted lines.

Cattle may be protected by something that isn’t real, but God doesn’t work that way. Our salvation, the protection we have from eternal separation from God, comes when we believe that God gave His only Son for us. If we truly believe this and trust in nothing else, the Bible promises that we will not perish, but have eternal life (John 3:16). Cows don’t actually see bars with a deep ditch or gully below when they see the painted lines, but they instinctively respond. And that’s the conundrum. The Bible reminds us that it is by faith we are saved (Galatians 2:16) so our salvation depends upon obedience to what we can’t actually touch or feel but know to be true—that Jesus died in our place.

So what we can learn from cattle and cattle guards? First of all, we can’t let ourselves be fooled or “bewitched” by something that isn’t real—a belief in something that only appears to lead us to God. We also need to remember that we are walking by faith which is the conviction of things not seen (Hebrews 11:1). A very holy conundrum.