Faith and the Gospel - Galatians 2:15-21
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Faith and the Gospel
Let me begin with a true story.
When the Spanish-American War broke out in 1898 Clara Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, was prepared to offer relief. And so a Red Cross team of doctors and nurses, and fourteen hundred tons of supplies arrived in Santiago, Cuba, as the fighting began. The American and Cuban field hospitals were located side by side and their conditions were absolutely deplorable. The American military surgeons refused the Red Cross's offers of help so Barton and her team gave aid to the Cubans.
The Americans soon realized that the Cuban wounded were receiving better treatment than the American casualties. Under pressure, the American chief surgeon asked Barton for Red Cross help.
Soon after the Battle of San Juan Hill, Colonel Theodore Roosevelt (who later became the US President) came to Clara Barton and offered to buy food and medicine for the sick and wounded ‘Rough Riders’, the special group of soldiers he was leading. Barton refused. Roosevelt couldn’t understand it. He cared about his men and was even willing to pay for the supplies out of his own pocket. Still, she said, ‘no’. So Roosevelt went to the surgeon in charge to ask what was wrong. And the surgeon simply said, "Colonel, just ask for it" And so he did. And when he did, his troops were attended to straight away.
In that story you have a perfect illustration of the difference between the works based religion of the Judaizers and their modern day descendants, and the way of the Gospel. By whatever means, there are those who will insist in earning their way into God’s good books by graft-which God refuses point blank. Instead what he offers is a relationship as a gift. You can’t buy it, you ask for it. That is the burden of what Paul is saying in our passage this evening.
Just let me fill in a little of the background which follows on from what we were looking at a couple of weeks ago.
Peter and Barnabas and the rest of the Jews cut off table fellowship from the Gentile Christians in Antioch because they weren't keeping the Jewish dietary laws and so illustrating what Scott was saying that religion divides. And this was a big deal because it threatened the future of Christianity and so the future of people’s salvation. Paul saw this clearly which is why he publically rebuked the apostle Peter no less (v11), Jesus’ right hand man, because this behaviour amounted to compelling Gentiles to keep the Jewish laws as a means of full acceptance with God and the church. No quiet negotiations and compromises behind closed doors for Paul, this error had to be exposed publically for all to see no matter who was involved. That is what you have to do when the salvation of men and women is at stake.
Now Paul is about to show that such behaviour was both out of sync with the gospel and inconsistent with Peter's own convictions. And as he does so he shows how wonderful the Gospel is, existing in a category all by itself, like a jewel set in a glorious crown of gold.
First, Paul speaks of a common belief, vv 15-16, ‘We who are Jews by birth and not ‘sinful’ Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.’
In effect Paul is saying, "Look, Peter, you and I both know, we agree, that justification (that is being declared to be in a right relationship with God) doesn’t come when we work for God but when we trust in Christ. We have both put our faith in Jesus because we know that we can never be declared to be in the right-justified- by keeping the law. You haven’t been able to do it as a Jewish fisherman and I haven’t been able to do it as one of the Jewish religious elite, a Pharisee, so what hope would there be for those who aren’t Jewish? So stop acting as though Gentiles have to do works for God in order to get right with God. We don’t and neither should they"
You have got to hand it to Paul, he doesn’t go for the kind of fudge or the ambiguity so beloved by church politicians. He is blunt in his assertion that we can’t be put right through religious rigmarole. In this passage alone he mentions the law 7 times to that effect. Three times in verse 16 he insists that no one can be justified by the law. How often does he have to repeat himself? Do you get the message? YOU CAN’T SAVE YOURSELF! All that the law does is show up how bad you are, not how good. Even if by some superhuman effort you manage to get your external life sorted out, your internal mental life will still be a mess. The law says, ‘Don’t do a thing’ and the moment it does, you want to go on and do it! Isn’t that your experience as it is mine? Here’s the test, ‘Don’t think about elephants’! Now how many of you started thinking about elephants? Peter knew that and Paul knew that Peter knew, so why did Peter act like such a Klutz because the Judaizers were in town? But we all know how easy it is to back down and compromise in the face of pressure, especially from those who seem so impressive and persuasive. The only thing that will enable us to withstand such pressure to compromise the Gospel is a firm conviction of the truth and a humble reliance on the Holy Spirit. But it has got to be done.
Next we have a corrected misunderstanding, vv 17-19.
‘But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! [For] if I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.’
What is Paul getting at? When Paul talks about ‘sinners’ here in verse 17, as he did earlier in verse 15, he is using it in a limited sense. Paul doesn’t mean that Jews aren't sinners, but Gentiles are. Rather he is saying that he and Peter, as kosher Jews, were not guilty of the flagrant and constant neglect of the Jewish dietary laws. Gentiles, on the other hand, were all automatically in the category of "sinners" in the sense that they neither knew nor kept the rigorous legal requirements of Jewish life. But you can imagine one of the arguments being used against Paul by the Judaizers that by encouraging Jews to neglect certain laws, like he and Peter had when they ate with Gentiles, he is encouraging sin, and so in this sense Paul’s Christ becomes an instrument or agent of sin- in Jewish eyes. But Paul is emphatic that it is not so –‘absolutely not.’ However, we need to get clear what Paul is admitting to and what he isn’t.
He is admitting that he and Peter are seeking justification only in Christ which means that they are both free to eat with non-Jews, because who you eat with or what you eat doesn’t count for or against you, it is an irrelevance. And in doing this he is also admitting that he and Peter became ‘sinners’ according to the strict Jew-the Judaizers. But that is only because they have got their beliefs wrong. So yes, according to this limited, strict, legalistic Jewish understanding of contravening their understanding of the law- he would fall into their category of ‘sinner’. But he is denying that Christ becomes an agent of sin, because it is not sin to become a ‘sinner’ in this sense. It is not sin to free yourself from the ceremonial Jewish laws in order to walk in love toward Gentile Christians. It is not sin to stop depending on works. It is not a sin to exchange slavery for freedom. Christ is not the agent of sin; he is the agent of freedom.
And Paul backs up his argument in verse 18 which begins with the word ‘for’- ‘[For- here is the reason]- if I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.’ What does Paul mean?
Well, the question we need to ask is, what is it that Paul has just destroyed- literally ‘torn down’? By saying we are only put right with God through Christ, he has destroyed the idea that we can be put right with God through the law. But if he changed his mind and then started to argue that we can put ourselves right with God through keeping the law that would be sin, because it would be denying what God has accomplished in Christ, making him out to be a liar. To say God has got something wrong or to go against what he has revealed is nothing short of rebellion- in short- sin. Do you see?
Here is an illustration to help us grasp Paul’s point.
Think of the law that God originally gave through Moses as a railroad track to guide Israel's obedience. The engine that was supposed to pull a person along the track was God's grace. And the coupling between our car and the engine was faith, so that in the Old Testament, like the New Testament, salvation was by grace, through faith, along the track of obedience (or sanctification).
But this way of salvation is an affront to human pride since God is having to do everything for us and we contribute nothing. And so it has never been very popular. The Pharisees, and many other Jews with them (as well as many people today), did an incredible thing. They took the railroad track—rails, ties, nails, and all—lifted it up on end, leaned it against the door of heaven, and turned it into a ladder to climb! This is the essence of legalism: making the law into a long list of steps which we use to demonstrate our moral fitness to attain heaven. While the track is on the ground, some of the ceremonials ties could be pulled out from under the rails without ruining the track. But as a ladder, every rung is crucial, or you may not be able to climb the next rung.
This is the ladder Paul tore down-destroyed. He tore down the legalistic misuse of the law. He says in v. 18, ‘[For] if I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.’ You really are a lawbreaker when you try to erect the law as a ladder to heaven on which you will demonstrate your moral fitness for salvation. So the connection between verses 17 and 18 is this: When Christ leads us to trust him for justification instead of trusting our own legal (climbing) efforts, he is not an agent of sin but a Saviour, for what really makes a person a true transgressor of the law is not the neglect of its ceremonial statutes, but the horrible prostitution of the law of God which turns it from a railroad track of grace into a ladder of works. The transgression against God is to presume that you can climb your way up a ladder of morality into his favour and all the way to heaven. That is both stupid and sinful and yet we naturally want to do it- introducing rules and rituals to which we can point and say to God, ‘Look at how good I am, how devoted I am, I have done all of these things- of course you must want someone like me in heaven to keep you company!’ So what are disciplines to help us in our walk with God- having regular Quiet times, meeting with God’s people, taking Holy Communion and so on, can, if we are not careful, become burdensome works for God. They become quietly twisted in our minds as means to not only gain God’s favour but keep in with God’s favour. And then Christianity becomes a duty rather than a delight and a source of pride because we will always be on the lookout for someone who is not doing these things we can look down on to make us feel good. But Paul will have none of it. The one who used to be the model of legalism becomes its main destroyer.
Verse 19 gives additional support for verse 18 (note again the "for"), ‘For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.’ You see, if you must die to the law in order to live to God, then clearly it is a sin to try to build the law again. That's the connection between verses 18 and 19. Verse 19 makes the point that as long as you are trying to earn your way to God by works of law, you cannot have a close relation to God. The closer you try to get to God by works, the farther you drive him from you.
There are two possibilities in religion: you can think of your ability, God's demand, and the ladder of law; or you can think of your inability, God's demand, and the free gift of justification by faith. Those are the only two options. One leads to pride and eventually hell, the other to humility and heaven. Before he met Christ, Paul was as far away from God as any man could possibly be, although to anyone looking on they would have thought the opposite- how could anyone SO zealous in their religious observance be anything but close to God? However, it was a dead end in more ways than one. And when he realised this, Paul became dead to the law, it no longer held out any hope or attraction to him, because he had found God’s true way back home for everyone- trusting in Jesus alone.
The result of all of this is a complete change, v 20, ‘I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.’
What does Paul means when he speaks of himself as having being ‘Crucified with Christ’ such that ‘I no longer live’? At least two things. First, when he trusted in Christ, his old self, the ‘I’, was done away with as far as God was concerned. Christ died as his substitute and representative, so the ‘I’ that deserved God’s judgment was in effect judged and finished with. Second, when he and any of us see this and believe that he really died for me, then my old proud self which loves to display its power by climbing ladders of morality and intellect and religion dies. Self-reliance and self-confidence can’t live at the foot of the cross. Therefore, when Christ died, I died- says Paul.
But in its place there emerges a new self, a new ‘I’ with the risen Christ living in us by his Spirit, guiding, shaping, aligning our wills with God’s will, so that his priorities and plans become ours. No longer is it a religion of ‘do’, but one which declares it is ‘done’, we have been put right with God by God and can rest in this new freedom, steadily become more the person God wants us to be- more like his Son, Jesus Christ.
And to all those who say that the simple Gospel of faith alone in Jesus alone makes Jesus an agent of sin by tearing down the ladder of the law, Paul says, just think what you are doing by erecting a ladder of works, you are making Jesus an agent of folly, v21, “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” Let me tell you something: if even a single person could make it back to God by being good, then why on earth did Jesus die such an excruciating death? Because if one person could make it, so could two or three, or three million. But the fact that God sent Jesus as a sacrifice means there is no other way, otherwise do you not think God would have taken it?
I began with a story; let me end with a story. It is one I have shared with some of you before, but it is worth telling again as it illustrates how even Church ministers sometimes get it wrong and need saving.
In the middle of the 19th century there was a Vicar who lived in Cornwall by the name of William Haslam. One day, much to his surprise, his gardener became a Christian and he didn’t quite know what to make of this change. And so he visited a friend who told him quite bluntly that the reason he didn’t understand was because he himself was not a real Christian. His friend asked him: ‘Have you peace with God?’ To which the Vicar replied, ‘Of course, God is my friend.’ Pursuing the point further, his colleague asked him, ‘How did you get that peace?’ ‘Oh’ replied Haslam,’ I get it at the daily service. I get it through prayer and reading and especially at Holy Communion. I have made it a rule to carry my sins there every Sunday and often come away from the Holy Sacrament as free as a bird.’ ‘And how long does this peace last?’ enquired his friend. ‘I suppose not a week,’ said Haslam thoughtfully, ‘for I have to do the same thing every Sunday.’ The friend went on to tell him about the living waters that Jesus promised, welling up from within to eternal life. Haslam admitted he didn’t know of that but would love to have it. Then he went on his way. Well, the following Sunday the strangest thing happened. The Vicar climbed into his pulpit and announced the text, ‘Who do you think Christ is?’ Then Haslam explained what occurred next, ‘As I went on to explain the passage, I saw that the Pharisees and Scribes did not know that Christ was the Son of God or that he came to save them. Something was telling me all the time, “You are no better than the Pharisees yourself, you do not believe he is the Son of God and that he came to save you any more than they did.” I do not remember all I said, but I felt a wonderful light and joy come into my soul, and I was beginning to see what the Pharisees did not. Whether it was my words or my look, I know not; but all of a sudden a local preacher, who happened to be in the congregation, stood up and putting up his arms shouted out in a Cornish manner, “The parson is converted! Hallelujah.” He then describes how at least twenty in the congregation cried out for mercy themselves and said they found the joy and peace which Christ gives, including four members of the Vicar’s own family. The news spread like wildfire through the town that the Vicar had been converted by his own sermon!
God is saying to you tonight, if you have not yet put your trust in Jesus as your Lord and Saviour, do it now. Stop the self-delusion of how good you are, how you can make it all by yourself and in your mind’s eye kneel at the foot of the cross and give over your whole self to him, so that a new life can begin tonight. And if you are trusting in Christ keep on trusting, bring to him your sins and your sorrows and lay them out before him so that he can take them away and in their place give you peace and joy.
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