Recently we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation. It is good to remember history and learn from the mistakes, as well as rejoice in the good things that the Lord has done. But it is also good to remember what Solomon wrote:
10 Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?” For you do not inquire wisely concerning this. (Eccl. 7:10)
As for me, I confess that I get a little weary at the scholars pontificating about ancient disputes, wrangling over words and living in a world of books and dust and centuries past, while the rest of us live in a world of real hurt and real pain and real sins.
But as I look at the time of the reformation and compare it to our time, I also see a lot of similarities, and our need to recover the gospel is as great as it ever was.
Today, as in the sixteenth century, theology has become the area of the experts, who look in contempt at laymen trying to get involved. Those who have not gone to the right seminaries and read the right books are dismissed and told that they have no right to question people far more educated than they are.
In the sixteenth century, the common people didn’t know how to read and didn’t have Bibles in their homes. Today, we know how to read and have Bibles readily available, but the common people generally don’t crack one open. If they do regular reading, they are at a loss as to how to read and interpret the scripture. The experts have trained them to be dependent upon the teat of the learned. And the people have learned their lessons well. They figure that the experts will tell them what they need to know.
In the sixteenth century, there was an infallible pope, who got rich on the backs of the ignorant. The flimflammery of Tetzel and the selling of indulgences is well-known by students of Reformation history. The medieval church peddled salvation in exchange for money, which prompted Martin Luther to pen his ninety-five theses and post them on the door of the church. Today, there are thousands of “infallible” popes, who are also peddling salvation in exchange for money. If you question one of the learned ones, you will soon pay the price through isolation, ridicule, name-calling, and banishment from the circle of the important ones. Money and power of strong incentives to keep the common people ignorant of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
And, just like in the sixteenth century, The true gospel is Jesus Christ is shrouded by a miasma of qualifications, modifiers and conditions. The purity is lost. The beauty is shrouded with impenetrable language. The people of God are left as sheep without a shepherd, wondering if they are truly good enough to inherit the kingdom of God.
To strip away all of the Latin phrases, and the disputes of the wise of this world, the question is put simply – just like this: When God sees me, what does he see?
I tend to view myself as a good person, lovable, kind, generous. Does God see the same thing? I’ve done my best to obey. Sometimes I make mistakes, but will this change how God sees me? If God sees me as a sinner, can I change that? What should I do when I fall short?
Ultimately, it comes down to this. The day will come when I will die. I will meet God. What happens then? Will I be accepted by God? Will I be cast into hell forever? When I die, it will be too late to answer that question. So how can I be sure that I have the right answer BEFORE I die? Can I be sure?
This is the most important question you can ever ask. The Heidelberg Catechism puts it like this: How are you righteous before God?
To those who are outside of the covenant (what the first century would call a Gentile, a stranger to the covenant promises) the answer is “Just do the best you can and hope for the best.” And many different religions sprang up, trying to answer how to manipulate the gods to get a better afterlife. It is our natural religion. It is the religion of Cain, of Esau, and of Ishmael.
But to those who knew the covenant (the promise that was made to Abraham) they knew that there was a resurrection from the dead, and that the heirs of the promise to Abraham would inherit the new earth.
Today, we call this “heaven”, although it is a little misleading. We know that when the resurrection from the dead happens, all creation will be renewed, including this earth – and we will inherit it. But we also know that nothing unclean, wicked, sinful, will inherit.
So the question remains: When the time comes and we are laid in the dust, how do we know that we will inherit the promise made to Abraham? When the kingdom of God comes in its fulness, will we be a part of it?
How are we righteous before God?
The Jews (that is, the Pharisees at the time of Christ) answered this question with circumcision. Those who are circumcised inherit. Those who keep the law of Moses will inherit the kingdom of God.
At the time of Martin Luther, the Roman church answered: you can’t know for sure, but if you go to confession, do the penance, receive baptism, take mass, and submit to the pope, you can shave off years in purgatory and hope for the best.
But the Bible gives a far different answer. The answer is so contrary to everything that we believe about ourselves and about God that we cannot even see it unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.
How are you righteous before God?
60. How art thou righteous before God?
Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart (Heidelberg Catechism).
This is the gospel of Jesus Christ, which will set you free from the bondage of sin and misery.
But the devil never lets go of his power easily. He is continually at work. The devil is always in the background saying in your ear, “yes, but….”
That is just too easy. You mean you don’t have to do anything? That means that you can just live how you want and it won’t even matter on the judgment day? That can’t be right? I know that you are saved by grace through faith, but you still have to obey God in order to make it into heaven. Otherwise, someone could just live how they want to and say, “I believe” and think they are saved!
I am 50 something years old. This means, in the circles that I have been in in my life, that I have been to fifty something reformation celebrations and conferences. I have heard every angle of Sola Fide (faith alone) my whole life. I have heard from my youth the story of Martin Luther writing in the margins of his Gutenberg Bible “sola” – by Rom. 1:17 (the just shall live by faith).
And I have seen, more and more, as the years have gone by, these same circles adding the “Yes, but…”
You still have to obey, right?
You preach on justification by grace through faith, and you will get the whispered “Amen” and the pious nod, and the muttered, “And obedience, of course….”
We even turned it into a hymn:
“Trust and obey, for there’s no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.”
In the first decade of the 21st century, my father fought the battle when it was called “Federal vision”; you are saved by grace and covenant faithfulness. He said we would have to fight it again, and he was right. The devil always adds the “yes, but…” to the finished work of Jesus Christ.
The “yes, but…” always takes the same form. You are saved by grace alone, but you won’t inherit the kingdom of God unless you add obedience to that faith. Whatever you put in the space of obedience – more love, more submission, more devotions, more, more, more – whatever you add, it doesn’t matter. You are adding something to the completed work of Christ. And when you go there, you have denied the gospel and you have denied Christ.
And this is what the book of Galatians is all about.
On this 500th year after Luther nailed his 95 theses on the door of the church, I thought it would be good for us to remind ourselves of how we are righteous before God. Where is peace to be found? How can I become a better person? How can I put to death the sinful nature that I still see in my life? How can I become more and more like Jesus?
And this is the book of Galatians. Today, I would like to give an overview, so we can see the argument from start to finish, and then I will go back and take it section by section. But I hate things out of context. So I will continually remind you of the context.
On Paul’s first missionary journey, he went to the Roman Province of Galatia and founded many churches. They had heard the gospel gladly and believed.
Meanwhile, back in Jerusalem, there were many thousands of converts, and the other apostles were busy there. Some of those converts were Pharisees.
The Pharisees misunderstood the sign of circumcision. It was so heavily engrained in the Jews that circumcision was necessary for salvation that they could not fathom it any other way. In Jerusalem, it wasn’t a problem, because everyone was circumcised. But then Paul returns from his journey to Antioch and tells of the marvelous conversions among the Gentiles.
And they weren’t circumcised! It is somewhat hard for us to imagine how shocking this must have been to the converted Pharisees in Jerusalem. They had heard the promises in the Old Testament – how God would bring the gentiles to the light. But the idea of circumcision had been engrained so deeply into them for 2,000 years, that they just assumed that this meant that Gentiles would also be circumcised and keep the calendars, feast days, and rituals of the Jews.
So as Paul is in Antioch, some of these Pharisees came down to the church there and started insisting that every new Gentile convert become circumcised, or they couldn’t be saved. They also pretended to be sent by the apostles in Jerusalem. In this pretense, they said that Paul wasn’t sent by any apostles, so he was less authoritative than they were. We are sent by the apostles. He wasn’t. Listen to us, not to him.
Paul the Apostle, saw that this was actually far deeper than it appeared on the surface. It would have been easy to cave and to avoid all sorts of strife. But he knew what was at stake:
If circumcision was necessary for salvation, then Jesus is not a savior. He didn’t actually save anyone. He just made salvation possible – if you add a ritual or a work or something to it. But if Jesus truly saves us from our sins, then we are actually and truly saved. And if we are truly saved, nothing else needs to be added.
If it is necessary to be circumcised, then Christ died for nothing. And in the place of circumcision, you can add any work you like, the theology is the same. If it is necessary for you to do ANYTHING to inherit eternal life, then Jesus died for nothing. We could have just saved ourselves if we had had the right motivation.
If circumcision was necessary, then Christianity was just another sect of Judaism, and just another religion that teaches another way to do something to gain God’s favor.
This is what was at stake. The church at Antioch understood the issues and, together with the church in Jerusalem, they called a council to be held in Jerusalem to examine the issue. We read about this in Acts 15.
Paul returns with the decree. We aren’t laying any burdens on you. You also are led by the Spirit. You also are righteous before God. You have all that you need.
The four stipulations that they add are out of concern for harmony in the church. They are not four works that you must add to the completed work of Christ, as Paul will explain in Galatians. Rather, they are simply instructions for how Jewish and Gentile converts should live together in harmony. They had never done that in thousands of years.
So Paul returns with that decree. But the Pharisees still added their “yes, but…” to the council’s decree. They continued up to Galatia. They continued to slander Paul, saying that he wasn’t sent by any apostle and he had the gospel wrong. To the gospel of Jesus Christ, they substituted their false gospel – that it was necessary for new converts to be circumcised in order to be saved.
When Paul heard that the churches of Galatia were starting to be troubled and believe what they were hearing, he wrote this epistle. His purpose was to explain the decision of the Jerusalem council, warning the sheep about the denial of the gospel that was taking place and teaching Christians of every age how to answer this question: “When I stand before God, will I be judged a sinner or will I be judged righteous”? How can I know for sure?
When you answer that question right, everything else flows from there.
Salvation by grace alone through faith alone doesn’t ever do away with the law of God. It establishes the law. In fact, it is the only way to actually begin to keep the law, as Paul will argue in chapters 5 and 6.
First, God is not interested in man-made rules. So we can immediately throw away all relics, saints, kissing hands and toes, masses, purity balls, and the other rituals – whatever they are.
But what about God’s law, summarized in the Ten Commandments. Doesn’t God require that we keep them? Then how can you say that salvation is by grace through faith alone?
When you understand the nature of God’s law, the question becomes more clear. God is not interested in outward obedience, for God sees the heart. A command can be obeyed out of fear or out of desire for reward, but God wants hearts that love him. How can you love God with all of your heart if there is even one part of you that believes that God is just waiting for you to mess up so he can throw you into hell forever? If you are not righteous before God, then love is impossible, for you cannot see God except as a terrifying judge. This is a God to flee from, not a God to love.
But the gospel is a changed heart, not a check-list.
15 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Gal. 6:15)
Paul begins by defending his call against the lies of the usurpers. He isn’t just making up a man-made religion; but is bringing the very words of God as an apostle of Jesus Christ. It is true that he wasn’t sent by the apostles. He didn’t even confer with them. He was commissioned directly by Christ.
His point is this: You have the gospel directly from God through my mouth. If anyone tells you otherwise, I don’t care who they are, let them be anathema. This whole “appeal to authority” is useless!
In fact, even Peter got it wrong. He was visiting Antioch and when these Pharisees arrived he chickened out. He even left the table of the Gentiles to eat with the Jews!
Paul says, in effect, “I didn’t care that this was Peter. I rebuked him, because he was wrong.”
Since the time of the reformation, there have been many who have said “yes, but…” to salvation by faith alone. They can find many quotes in many sources: Puritans, Dutch reformed, Presbyterians. Since 1517 There have been many who have succumbed to the temptation to revert to our natural religion and add the “Yeah, but…” to the finished work of Christ. Just like the Judaizers troubling Galatia, they quote authorities, seeking to drown out the opposition with contempt and verbiage, seeking to silence opposition through intimidation. You don’t know what you are talking about. Just keep quiet and let the experts deal with this.
And Paul responds with this:
8 But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. (Gal. 1:8)
After he establishes that the gospel is from God and not up for debate, he expresses his shock that they so quickly denied Christ. He explains what he means in chapters 3 and 4.
They want to add circumcision and make it necessary for salvation. So he breaks that down. Did they forget what the promise to Abraham actually was and who qualified for it? The law requires this:
3 Who may ascend into the hill of the LORD? Or who may stand in His holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart, Who has not lifted up his soul to an idol, Nor sworn deceitfully.
5 He shall receive blessing from the LORD, And righteousness from the God of his salvation.
Pure means pure; No admixture of sin. A little bit of poison is still deadly, even if the water it is mixed in is pure. A little leaven leavens everything. A little sin ruins every chance of standing before God. Only those pure in all of their thoughts and clean in all of their actions can stand before God. So, you who think you can add to Christ, think of the last work that you did. Can it really stand before God? Just that one work? If you said “Yes” then you can add lying and pride to that work. Now where are you?
This is why the promise was given to Abraham’s seed. Not seeds. Seed. There was only one who qualified, and the only way for you to qualify is if you are found in him. And you are united to him only by the Holy Spirit.
And how do you receive the Spirit, by keeping the law, or by faith?
The first option (keeping the law, doing things, earning rewards) Paul calls “the flesh”. It is our natural religion, which we inherited from Adam. If I do good things, or at least better things than Abel, God will be forced to let me back in to Eden. This is the flesh. The second, righteousness of another received by faith, is called the “spirit”.
The flesh is what we bring out of our own treasury. It is our will-power, our choices, our decisions, our law-keeping, our own purity. It’s what we inherited from Adam.
The spirit is what we received by our new birth. It is our complete reliance on the finished and perfect work of Christ for all that is necessary for our salvation.
And Paul says this:
3 Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh? (Gal. 3:3)
And there is the theme of the book. The idea that you must add obedience to the completed work of Christ is called the flesh, and you won’t ever get what you think you will get from the flesh.
You think you will get purity and righteousness and something that you can offer to God. Instead you will get uncleanness of every kind:
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, 21 envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Gal. 5:19-21)
And every church that teaches that we must add to Christ’s work, no matter what it is they say must be added, is full of oppression, adultery, fornication, witchcraft, hatred, etc. God said that is exactly what it will bring, and we have seen it for 2000 years.
Tetzel, the peddler of forgiveness of sins in Luther’s day, was also a grand inquisitor of Poland. He tortured, raped, slaughtered, raged against the weak and helpless in his lusts for power.
And so also today. We have come so far from the gospel, that the churches are full of all sorts of wickedness – just as Paul said.
What do we want instead? We as Christians want to please God. And here is a promise for all who hunger after righteousness.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, self-control. Against such there is no law. (Gal. 5:22-23)
Fruit is not something that is added to make the tree good. Fruit grows naturally from a healthy tree. And the health of the tree only comes from union with Christ by faith. You can’t hold to Christ and to your own righteousness at the same time. You can’t ever get there by seeking to add to the finished work of Christ. You can only get there by confessing how far away you are, and asking again for the gift of the Spirit, rejoicing that all of your sins are truly forgiven and that you are an heir of eternal life, because Christ died for you and you have already been crucified with him.
The more we understand that, the more we will see the fruit of the spirit in our lives. Love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, self-control.
And when those are perfected, the law is kept naturally, as birds fly and fish swim. This will be our state in heaven. There won’t be laws on stone, because they will be written completely on the heart.
So the gospel isn’t at all contrary to the law of God. Those who say so are the least in the kingdom of heaven. The law is actually established by the law. This is what Jesus meant when he said
Unless your righteousness exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
In all of their striving to make sure the law was kept, they instead kept none of it. They were murderers and liars who tithed mint and anise and cumin.
Is that actually what God desires? How can we be so foolish?
So Paul concludes with this:
14 But God forbid that I should boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. 15 For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision avails anything, but a new creation. (Gal. 6:14-15)
This is what circumcision actually pointed to. Everything unclean must be cut off. But this is what the Holy Spirit is doing now, in the lives of all who come to him empty handed. God isn’t interested in what ritual these old, cursed, bodies went through. All of this fades into dust. We are dying men among dying men, and need to stop pretending otherwise.
Salvation is Christ alone. By faith alone. By grace alone. There is nothing more to be added, nothing more to be done. When we have that right, that is the beginning of new life, a new creature, for we have eternal life and it has begun already.