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True and false - Galatians 5:1-15

This is a sermon by Lee McMunn from the morning service on 4th December 2005.

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Aim: To encourage the Christians to use their freedom to serve each other as they wait for Jesus to return from heaven.

Mission to the Coming Days was the name of a Korean based Christian group in Sydney. They once handed out leaflets around Sydney saying they knew the exact hour when Jesus Christ would return to earth: 2am on the 19th October, 1992. On the morning of the 20th October, the Sydney Morning Herald reported as follows: 'About 300 people gathered in Victoria Road on Wednesday night including local residents drinking beer, students in fancy dress, delegations from the Order of the Perpetual Indulgence and the Born Again Virgins, and even the Grim Reaper. A cheer went up as 2am arrived, the rain poured down, and nothing else happened. 55 sheepish devotees of the Mission to the Coming Days, including about 15 children, emerged from the church's office between 2.30 am and 5.00 am faced by crowds of hecklers.' That evening a comedian was on TV, who been part of that crowd the night before. And he said, 'The people were so upset, you knew they were crying, and they had kids with them, they looked really sad. Then this one guy came down from the office and he was just broken hearted, crying his eyes out. And I thought I've got to try and cheer him up a bit, so I went over and put my arm round him and said, 'Mate, cheer up, its not the end of the world'.

Despite the sheer folly of a number of so-called Christian groups we cannot abandon our belief in the glorious, personal and visible return of our Lord Jesus Christ. The return of Jesus is mentioned over 300 times in the New Testament. Which if you do the arithmetic works out at an average of once in every 13 verses! Therefore, what we call the parousia of Jesus or the apocalypse of Jesus or simply the return of Jesus Christ to this earth cannot be marginalised as a wacky belief held by a few nutters in different parts of the world.

New Testament Christianity, which by the way is the only authentic Christianity there is, bombards us on page after page of its manuscripts with the amazing declaration that there is a day scribbled in the calendar of heaven when God the Son will return to this world once again.

After the American troops were forced to surrender the Philippines to the Japanese in May1942, General MacArthur vowed to retake the islands. He printed the words "I will return" on thousands of leaflets, which were then scattered across the country by aeroplanes. Towards the end of 1944, he kept his promise and the country was liberated soon afterwards. Can you imagine living in that country between 1942 and 1944? What would have kept you going through the occupation by enemy troops? Three words: I will return.

The same is true for Christians. We are a people who are waiting for a future. We are a people who have been promised by our great King Jesus Christ that we have not been abandoned. He has written in this book three words for the encouragement of the saints: I will return. So if you are a saint here this morning, whether your name is Saint Nathan or Saint Jim or Saint Esther or whatever it may be, if you are a saint here this morning I want you to think for the next few minutes about the return of Jesus Christ. Did you know that if you are a Christian here this morning you are a saint? Did you know that? The road to sainthood is much quicker in New Testament Christianity than it is in modern day Roman Catholicism. It takes years in the Roman system to become a saint but, according to the Bible, a sinner becomes a saint instantly when they repent and believe the gospel. So if you are a saint here this morning I want you to think for the next few minutes about the return of your great King Jesus Christ. And I want you to think about one question in particular: How are you waiting to receive him?

Although we live in an instant culture, with instant news, instant credit, instant communications and the good old cup of instant coffee by our side, we are still, very often, forced to wait for what we want. Now perhaps the desire to stand in a queue is as basic to being English as liking Blackadder is as basic to having a sense of humour. That may explain why standing in a queue is still a visible feature of British life Ė even in this so-called instant culture. But let me ask you this: How do you wait in a queue? Do you have any strategies for moving quickly through the ranks of those in front of you or do you simply resign yourself to the prospect of either counting the number of floor tiles beneath your feet or the number of light bulbs not working overhead? Just think of your last visit to Asda Kingswood. You finally discover your way to the cheese counter in the vast metropolis that is the Asda Superstore and at last you make your way to one of the many checkout desks. It is a record. You have only been lost for three days in the colossal store. But, oh no, up ahead you see that the checkouts are filled with queuing people. What do you do next? Do you simply join the queue and wait? Or do you try a clever diversion tactic to draw people away from the tills? Perhaps announcing over the tannoy system a new 3 for 2 offer which nobody can afford to be without. You can probably tell why nobody talks to me in Asda!

But do you see my point? At some stage in our lives we are forced to wait for what we want. And the same is true for Christians. Although we are guaranteed a great future, the future we are promised has not yet arrived. So for the moment we are standing in a spiritual queue. Which, I think, begs the question: How are we waiting to receive our King?

In Galatians chapter 5 we are presented with the only two possible ways that Christians can wait for Jesus. Have a look at verse 1. "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."

Outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ human beings are in slavery. Whether we realise it or not, our natural condition as rebels before our loving creator has resulted in a situation of enslavement. Without Christ, people are enslaved to a sentence they cannot avoid and to a lifestyle they cannot control. On the one hand, the judgement of God hangs over their heads and there is absolutely nothing they can do to avoid its enforcement. And on the other hand, they find themselves enslaved to a lifestyle they can no longer control.

According to Romans chapter 1, every single human being needs to worship something. We are all worshippers. The desire to worship is built into our very nature. So the question is not ĎWill I worship today?í but ĎWho will I worship today?í And what do we discover when we turn to Romans chapter 1? We discover that when someone refuses to worship the true and living God, they worship something else instead; they worship an idol of their own creation. An idol is anything that takes the place of God. It may be family, it may be friends, it may be fitness, it may be a career. But whatever the idol is, it functions in the place of God. So instead of looking to their creator for security, for a sense of identity, for meaning, purpose and hope, people start trusting in the idol for all these things. But in the end, the idol that was created to serve the wishes of a human rebel becomes his or her master. And how do we know this? Because in the end the idol begins to control the diary. Just think about it. How many schedules are controlled by the pursuit of a career? Or the pursuit of a hobby? Or a sport? Or even the cleaning of a car? Have you seen those people who worship their cars? The people who look to a piece of metal to give them significance and identity as they drive around the city. Why do you think they spend so much time washing and polishing the car? Because, in the end, the idol that we worship begins to control our diary.

What is reality? It is this. Outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ people are enslaved to a sentence they cannot avoid and to a lifestyle they cannot control.

Which is why Galatians 5:1 is such good news. Paul says, "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." My friends, the gospel brings liberation. Because of Jesusí death on the cross we are now released from a sentence that we could never avoid. The penalty has been paid. The ransom has been delivered. We are now free from the consequences of our past behaviour. Isnít that amazing? And wonderfully we are now able to approach the true and living God to re-establish the relationship that we were created to enjoy in the first place. So we can get rid of the idols. We donít have to look to them for security or status or meaning or recognition. Instead we can derive these benefits from God alone. Which means no more enslavement to a lifestyle we cannot control.

The gospel brings liberation. And yet for many people the gospel is a dangerous message. ĎIt cannot be as simpleí, they say. All this talk about free justification, instant sainthood and complete forgiveness sounds far too simplistic. Surely we need to do something as well to guarantee our place in heaven. Are you really saying to me that faith in Christ is all I need? And if you are, then do you not see the potential consequences Mr Preacher? What is to stop one of those forgiven sinners, who has just been granted immunity from prosecution, from living a life of sin-filled indulgence? Surely what you are suggesting is a licence for immorality? Is it not better to have spiritual rules to keep the people in order?

Do you see the issue? Itís all about how we use our freedom as we wait for Jesus to return. We have two choices. Either we believe the gospel is true or else we believe that the gospel is false, and so we become convinced that as we wait for Jesus we must add a little credit to our spiritual bank balance. But can I say to you that what we make of the gospel determines how we live day by day. So, for example, if we are convinced that we still need to earn our way to heaven by keeping the laws of God then life becomes very self-centred. It has to be. Because our focus will be on our own performance.

We will be trying to do everything we can to make God notice us, to pay attention to us, and to ultimately reward us with a place in his eternal city. But, if on the other hand, we have a clear understanding of the gospel in our minds, with its announcement that all those who trust in Christ are saved anyway, then we are freed to serve other people in this life. No longer do we have to spend our time attempting to win a place for the future. No, with a guaranteed place already certain, we can be released to live an other person centred life. Which is how we were created to live anyway.

And itís the way we are commanded to live in verses 13-15. "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14 The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 15 If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other."

What is freedom? It is not the ability to live as we please but the ability to live as we ought. It is the ability to live other person centred lives. In Genesis chapter 2 we are told that it is not good for the man to be alone. So what does God do? He creates a woman to be his companion. They are to exist in mutual, self-sacrificing relationship. And that is the model for human behaviour. Why do you think Britain is rapidly descending into moral chaos? Why is there so much unhappiness in this country despite the fact that we are one of the richest nations on the earth? Because most people with a British passport have believed the lie that the way to live in this world is as a selfish consumer rather than as a relational giver. But we are to be different! The church of Jesus Christ has been liberated from its sentence of death so that its members can now focus on each other. And thatís how we should use our freedom as we wait for Jesus to return. As people who are no longer fearful of missing out on the big party of heaven we can now concentrate our efforts on serving one another rather than on saving ourselves.

But crucially all this activity hinges on how much we believe the gospel. Do we believe the gospel is true? Because if we do we should be serving one another as we wait for Jesus to return.

As Christians our temptation will always be to disbelieve the gospel. Our temptation will always be to move from the freedom of faith to the slavery of law. Which is why Paul commands us in verse 1 "to stand firm." He says "stand firm guys. You are now in a position of great freedom, of great liberation. But whatever you do donít get burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Youíve left the past behind. Youíve left slavery behind. So whatever you do donít become a slave again. Donít become a slave to rules that you cannot keep.

It will be your temptation but resist at all costs."

So how can we withstand the temptation to misuse our freedom as we wait for Jesus to return? How can we resist the temptation to become slaves again? By taking to heart what Paul tells us in verses 2-12. First of all, in verses 2-4, he declares to us the horrific consequences of this way of behaving. Secondly, in verses 5-6, he reminds us of the true value of the person of Jesus. And then finally, in verses 7-12, he speaks about the false teachers who try to persuade people to follow a religion of rules because they are offended by the cross. Or if I can put it like this: If we want to remain free as we wait for Jesus to return and so therefore if we want to serve one another in the church as we wait for Jesus to return then we must remember the consequences, we must remember the Christ and we must remember the cross.

First of all, the consequences. Have a look at verse 2. "Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. 3 Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. 4 You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace."

Now for these Christians living in Southern Turkey during the first century there was a particular route to enslavement that was being offered to them. They were being encouraged by a number of false teachers, who had arrived in their churches, to abandon simple trust in Jesus for their future salvation and to instead take on obedience to the Jewish Law, the law that we find in the Old Testament. Now for us this morning the particular route to enslavement will probably be different. It is very unlikely that anyone sitting in these pews will start to advocate precisely what those false teachers were suggesting 2000 years ago. But the principles remain the same. We may exchange circumcision with coming to church or giving to charity or just generally being a decent sort of person. But the issue is this: When we try to add anything to the completed work of Christ the consequences are disastrous. Letís find out what they are.

Consequence number 1. Have a look at verse 2. Paul says, Mark my words! Get your highlighters out! These words are important. I tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Now there is a wake up and smell the coffee type of statement isnít it? Christ will be of no value to you at all. Are we hearing this? If we try to add anything to the work of Christ we benefit nothing from what he did. This is Gospel Mathematics. If you add anything to Christ you subtract everything he achieved. In fact, when we attempt to add anything to what Christ has already achieved we are demonstrating that we do not think his achievements were good enough.

Can you imagine what would happen on the set of the new James Bond movie if after the filming of one of those dangerous Bond stunts, you know the ones I mean, when, for example, James jumps out of a speeding plane that has a dead pilot at the controls and which has unfortunately lost its two engines and so is heading for an explosive landing, but James manages to jump out just in time using a handy parachute that he has found in the corner.

And then with amazing precision manages to land in the seat next to his latest lover. Can you imagine what would happen if after the filming of this dangerous stunt the new bond actor Daniel Craig says to the director Ďwell that was okay but do you mind if I have a go?í

When Christians try to add anything to the work of Jesus Christ they demonstrate that they despise what he has achieved for them. Thatís why the Roman Catholic doctrine of Purgatory is so offensive to me. Not only does it have no biblical warrant but when you think about it, what is the strap line of Purgatory? Purgatory: for those who think the life and death of Jesus Christ were not good enough. So, consequence number 1, if we try to keep the law to win a place in heaven, Christ will be of no value to us. We show by our actions that we are not trusting in Christ at all. In fact, we show by our actions that we despise his person and his work.

Consequence number 2. Have a look at verse 3. "Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law." Not just some of the law but all of the law. So, Paul says, before anyone thinks of indulging in a little bit of DIY religion let him or her be clear about their obligations. They are obligated to keep all the commandments not just the ones they think they have a chance of putting into practice.

Just imagine that after the church service this morning I take my Renault Clio onto the A63. And after about 5 days I manage to accelerate to about 130 miles per hour, at which point in my rear view mirror I notice a police car with flashing blue lights. Eventually I am pulled over and the traffic cop asks me the inevitable question: Do you know what speed you were doing? Now at this point it is no defence for me to say to him "well look officer I know I was travelling at 130 miles per hour but come on at least I wasnít drunk and I was wearing my seat belt." We have an obligation on the roads to keep all the laws, not just some of them.

And, Paul says, anyone who wants to earn their way into heaven by keeping the commandments of God is obligated to keep every single one of them. So remember that if you are ever tempted to add to the completed work of Christ.

Consequence number 3. Have a look at verse 4. "You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace." It stands to reason doesnít it? If we become obsessed by DIY religion we will stop trusting in Christ and instead we will start trusting in ourselves. But when we stop trusting in Christ we stop talking to Christ. We stop relating to Christ. We stop praying to Christ or to use the words of Paul in verse 4, when we try to be justified by law then we will be alienated from Christ. And who wants that?

So when we are tempted to doubt the truthfulness of the gospel, when we are tempted to move away from the freedom that is ours in Jesus, let us, first of all, remember the consequences of what we are about to do.

Secondly, let us remember the Christ that we have decided to follow. Have a look at verses 5-6. "But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. 6 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." Why is faith the only thing that counts? Or to be more accurate, why is faith that displays its authenticity through actions of love the only thing that counts? Because it is faith that links us to the Messiah. It is faith that links us to our representative, the one who has lived a perfect life on our behalf and who has died our death in our place. So by faith we are ĎIn Christ.í Our life is hidden in him. And when this is the case neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. For those who are trusting in the Messiah the only thing that counts is what he, as our representative, has done on our behalf.

Now as I said before, when we put our trust in Jesus Christ we are instantly declared to be a saint. That is the current position for all those who are trusting in Jesus this morning for their future salvation. But, of course, we know there is still a tension in this life, donít we? Although the bible declares that we are saints in status we are still sinners in practice. And this, I think, helps to explain what Paul says in verse 5. "By faith we eagerly await through the Spirit, the righteousness for which we hope." So yes we are convinced as Christians that we are righteous in status now but who among us does not long for that day when Christ will return and transform our whole personalities and bodies to be completely sin free? I know I do. In fact, those three words of promise "I will return" get me out of bed each morning. Knowing the future keeps me going day by day.

So when we are tempted to doubt the truthfulness of the gospel let us remember the Christ that we have decided to follow. Let us remember that by faith we share all the benefits of Jesus and so let us wait eagerly for the righteousness for which we hope.

Thirdly, let us remember the cross, which causes an offence to many. Have a look at verse 11. Paul says, "Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished." Paul is amazed at what is happening to these young Christians in Southern Turkey. They had started out so well. Full of joy when they heard the message of the gospel but now contemplating obedience to the Jewish Law. They were running a good race but someone has cut into their running pattern and is now preventing them from finishing the race as they began. Or to change the metaphor from the running track to the debating chamber, Paul says someone has now persuaded you to abandon your simple faith in Christ. And how deadly this teaching is. Like a small portion of yeast working through a whole batch of dough this dangerous teaching, unless it is curbed, will influence the whole of the church.

But where does such teaching come from? Why do church leaders in every generation arise who persuade members of their congregations to abandon the doctrine of justification by faith alone for the doctrine of justification by human works?

The answer is found at the end of verse 11. The cross of Jesus is an offence to many people. It is offensive to human pride. It is offensive to religious zeal. It is offensive to the Five Pillars of Islam. It is an offence to the Eight-Fold Path of Buddhist Enlightenment. It is an offence to a belief in general English decency. Yes the cross tells us that we are loved by God but it also shouts to us that our wickedness is so great that God the Son had to die on a cross to save us. The cross is a visible reminder that we can do nothing to earn our own salvation. But such a belief is offensive to many people. So therefore in every generation we can expect church leaders to arise who will change the message of the gospel to make it less offensive to the people in the pews. So let me encourage you to always beware of the devil in a dog-collar. He or she may look like the genuine article, they may dress well and no doubt they will speak politely. They will be nice people. But press them on the cross of Christ because it is here where they will show their true colours.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. Letís pray.

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