This morning, I want to begin a new series of lessons based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It is a series about finding freedom, because freedom in Christ is a very important theme in this book. In Galatians 5:1, Paul wrote, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Galatians has also been referred to as “the gospel of grace” because another key theme in it is the subject of God’s grace. And I think it’s important for us to study God’s grace, because, over the years, I think the church has struggled with a proper understanding of grace. In the past, I think our concept of grace has been reactionary. And, by that, I mean that we have been more inclined to talk about grace in terms of “well, it’s not what they think it is” instead of talking about “this is what God says it is”.
And I think, to some extent, we’re afraid of grace. We’re afraid of talking about our Christian liberty. Despite the fact that, here in America, we regard freedom as one of our unalienable rights, the truth is, many of us are afraid of freedom, especially in the church. Because freedom brings responsibility and we’re afraid of what happens when we give people responsibility.
Liberty means a loss of control, and that concerns us. We never exactly verbalize it this way, but what we think is, “How are you going to keep the brethren from doing such-and-such if you don’t make a law against it? And through the years, I’ve seen all sorts of different laws. How are you going to keep those boys from growing their hair too long if you don’t make a law against it? How are you going to keep those girls from wearing their skirts too short? How are you going to make people come to church on Wednesday night? And on and on the list goes. How are you going to get people to do what you want them to do if you don’t have a law?
And second, our concern is that a gospel that is centered on grace will give people an excuse to sin. We’re afraid that if we emphasize the doctrines of grace and Christian freedom, then Christians will suddenly stop serving God and will start living however they want to live. But that’s exactly what Christians have been afraid of ever since the days of the apostle Paul. He starts off Romans 6 imagining the questions that Christians had — “Paul, are you saying we ought to just go and sin all we want to so that God will keep giving us more and more grace?” That’s what we’re afraid of. We’re afraid that if we teach grace and freedom, we will lose our ability to control people and make them do what’s right.
But after we study the book of Galatians, I think you’ll see that emphasizing grace and liberty doesn’t do that at all. In fact, I’m convinced that a proper view of God’s grace will provide even more motivation for us to serve God with all our hearts.
So, this morning, let’s begin by taking a look at why the letter to the Galatians was written, and then I want to talk about why I think this book is so very important for us today.
Galatia was a region of Asia Minor. Now, there’s some dispute among scholars as to whether this letter was written to Christians in northern Galatia or southern Galatia. And while we can’t be absolutely certain, what we do know is that this was a place where Paul had previously preached and shared the gospel. People in this region had heard the gospel, they believed in Jesus Christ and they were baptized into Christ.
Some of those who were converted to Christianity had previously been Jews, and some of them had previously been Gentiles. And it was a beautiful thing as these two groups were brought together into one church family, just as God had promised to Abraham centuries before – “in you shall all nations be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8)
And everything was going along just fine in the church until some false teachers came along. We sometimes refer to them as Judaizers, because what they said was, “Those of you who are Gentiles can come into the church, but if you want to do that, you’re going to have to become Jews first. You’re going to have to be circumcised, and then you’re going to have to keep the Law of Moses. And then you can be Christians and you can be saved.”
Now that’s very different from what Paul had preached to these people. When Paul came along, he preached the gospel of Christ, the “good news”. Now it’s important from the start that we understand what the gospel is in this letter. Because Paul says in Galatians 1:8-9, if anyone preaches any other gospel than what he preached, they are to be “accursed”.
And I think some Christians have done a very poor job of understanding what the gospel is. I’ve heard preachers say, “The gospel involves having the right name for the church and the right organization for the church and the right worship for the church. And if anyone preaches to you any other gospel than that, let him be accursed.”
Now, don’t misunderstand me, all of those things are important topics, but they’re not the gospel. All of those subjects are worthy of our study and teaching, but they’re not the gospel.
We sometimes say that the gospel is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, based on I Corinthians 15, where Paul said he declared the gospel to the Corinthians and then he mentions those three things. And that’s certainly much closer to what Paul has in mind here in Galatians.
But Paul defines for us exactly what he means by the gospel in Galatians 2. Paul said that the gospel is “the truth of the gospel” is “that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:14,16). When people have a living responsive faith in Jesus Christ, they are brought into God’s family – it doesn’t matter whether you’re a Jew or a Gentile, black or white, male or female, we all have the opportunity to share in God’s blessings through faith in Christ. And that’s the good news! That’s the gospel.
And Paul says, “If anyone — if anyone – preaches to you anything other than that gospel, let him be accursed!” He said, “I don’t care if an angel from heaven comes down. If anyone preaches to you anything other than that gospel, let him be accursed!”
But then along came the Judaizers. And they said, “Now, we understand that you Gentiles have faith in Jesus Christ, and we understand that the grace of God has been extended to you. We’re not denying that those things are very important. There’s just more one thing that you’re going to have to do. You’re going to have to be circumcised to prove that you are truly worthy of receiving the blessing promised to Abraham. And if you’re not willing to do that, then you can’t be saved, you can’t be a part of God’s family.”
And Paul is furious! He is absolutely livid when he writes this letter. This is the toughest letter that Paul ever wrote. The message of Galatians is very similar to the message of Romans, but the tone is so much different. Paul is angry at how these teachers have distorted the gospel message. And so, he says, “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.” (Galatians 1:9), or as the God’s Word translation translates it, “he should be condemned to hell.”
Now, it’s important for us to notice that the Judaizers didn’t deny God’s grace, and they didn’t deny that faith in Jesus was important. What they said was, “Grace is a wonderful thing. But we don’t just need grace, we need grace plus keeping these rules.”
And it’s not that circumcision was a bad thing. In fact, Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3). And observing Jewish holidays wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, quite often Paul arranged his travels so that he could be in Jerusalem for Passover. But Paul was adamant that those things are not necessary for salvation. They have nothing at all to do with whether or not you have a right relationship with God.
Paul says when you add those laws to grace, you pervert the gospel, you make it the opposite of what it was intended to be. Now there’s a word that describes what these Judaizers were doing and I’m going to be using it quite a bit throughout this study, and so I want to give you a good definition of it right from the beginning. The word is legalism, and legalism is the opposite of grace.
But you need to understand that legalism is not the same as “law keeping”. Obeying God’s law is not legalism. That’s called obedience, and obedience to God’s law is a good thing. But legalism is when you teach that you become right with God by keeping all the laws perfectly. Or to put it another, grace says we’re saved because of what God has done. Legalism says we’re saved because of what we do.
And because we place so much value on obedience, we need to be careful that we don’t misunderstand this very important distinction – if we have a saving faith, we will seek to obey God with all our hearts, but we are not saved by the laws that we keep.
Let me give you an example. We raised three children in our home – Charity, Amber and Joshua. Imagine for a moment that Charity and Amber plotted a scheme against their younger brother Joshua. They managed to convince Joshua that he has to bring home straight A’s on his report card. Furthermore, if he doesn’t get straight A’s, then he’s going to get kicked out of the family. Mom and Dad will disown him.
Let’s suppose that they have done such a good job of presenting their case that Joshua actually believes them. And, as result, he lives in constant fear. Every day when he gets home from school, he opens his books and starts to study. He works and works, and studies and studies, but he lives in constant fear that he might actually bring home a “B” and get kicked out of the family.
Now, when I find out what Charity and Amber have been saying to Joshua, how do you suppose I would react to that? I can tell you that I would be absolutely furious that they would do something that would cause my son to doubt his relationship with me.
And, if you can understand that, then I think you can see why Paul is so angry in this letter. These false teachers had caused these young Christians, these children of God, to doubt their relationship with God and to spend their time working and working, trying to keep all these laws to maintain that relationship. That’s why Paul calls it a “yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).
And Paul knew what he was talking about. He was a Jew, he had been a good Jew. And as a good Jew, Paul truly loved the law and sincerely sought to keep every commandment, to observe every ceremony, and to offer every sacrifice that the Law of Moses required. He was honestly trying to please God by obeying every detail of the law. But he eventually came to realize that salvation is found not in keeping the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.
So when the apostle Paul spoke of legalism, he did so from firsthand experience. And when he spoke of grace, he also spoke from firsthand experience. Perhaps more than any of the other apostles, Paul understood both the bondage of the law and the freedom of grace.
So why is the message of Galatians so important to us in the church today? I mean, after all, there’s nobody trying to convince us to follow the Law of Moses any more. But some Christians believe that when the Old Testament law was abolished, it was replaced with a new set of laws and as long as we obey all those laws, then we can be saved.
Or, as one preacher in our brotherhood puts it, every law is like a step on a ladder and as long as you climb that ladder and don’t miss any steps, you’ll make it all the way up to the very gates of heaven, and the grace of God will help you get past those last few inches.
But we need to remember that there was nothing wrong with the Law of Moses. It was a perfect set of laws given by a perfect God. The problem wasn’t with the law, the problem was with people. We aren’t capable of keeping all the laws perfectly. If we were, we wouldn’t need Christ. If we were able to keep the law perfectly, we wouldn’t need God’s grace. Let me say that again because I think it’s so important — If we were able to keep God’s law perfectly, we wouldn’t need God’s grace.
But we need to acknowledge what Paul said so clearly in Ephesians 2:8, “For by grace you have been saved through faith.” Salvation by grace is the only salvation there is because you and I have no power, no ability, nothing in us to make us be able to stand in the presence of God.
And I think that, for the most part, we’ve done a pretty good job of understanding the part that grace plays in the salvation of a sinner. Here’s someone who’s not a Christian and we preach the gospel to that person and he responds to that gospel in faith, putting on Christ in baptism and he is saved from all of his past sins, and we understand that he’s saved by God’s grace. Despite what others may accuse us of, we don’t believe that baptism earns salvation, but rather that baptism is simply a response of faith in Christ.
And I think we can see the part that grace plays in that process. We have no ability to earn our way into heaven. We have no right to make God open the doors of heaven and let us in. But God’s grace was extended to us through his Jesus Christ and what we need to do is to accept that grace.
But I think we sometimes have a harder time understanding the concept of grace as it relates to our relationship with God as Christians. We sometimes have this idea that our status with God is determined by how much we have accomplished. And so the more you pray and the more you give and the more you work and the more people you visit in the hospital, all of that is what determines your relationship with God. And folks, that’s just not true.
Somebody may tell you that if you don’t pray an hour a day, then you’re going to be lost. If you don’t read your Bible an hour a day, you’re going to be lost. If you don’t share the gospel with ten people a day, you’re going to be lost. Those things are essential for your salvation; those things are essential for you to maintain a right relationship with God. But, that’s just not true.
Now, all of these things are good things and important things; they certainly relate to my Christian growth and my maturity in Christ. As I grow in Christ, prayer and Bible study and reaching out to others for Christ will become more and more important. But accomplishing those works and works like them have nothing to do with whether or not I maintain my position as a child of God.
Remember the example I gave earlier of Charity and Amber trying to convince Joshua that he had to make straight As or get kicked out of the family? The truth is, there were some things that I expected from my children. They were expected to study and they were expected to do their best in school. They had to clean up their rooms. They had to help clean up the kitchen and the rest of the house. Those things were important. But their relationship with me didn’t depend on what they accomplished on any given day. It wasn’t a situation where if their room was spotless, they were a part of the family, but if there were some dirty clothes on the floor, they were disowned.
But isn’t that how we sometimes measure our relationship with God? Let’s see, today I prayed when I got up, I did some Bible reading, I haven’t said any curse words today, I even gave a few bucks to someone in need, so I’m feeling pretty confident about my salvation. On the other hand, there may be days when I haven’t accomplished much at all for the Lord; I slipped up and let temptation get the upper hand. And so I don’t feel very saved.
And because we have a tendency to base our relationship with God on what we have accomplished, we end up with a lot of doubts and worries about our salvation. Christians will say, “I just don’t know if I’m doing enough. I don’t know if I’m sacrificing enough. I don’t know if I’m evangelizing enough.”
Let me just go ahead and ease your mind by saying, “There’s no need to wonder about it because I can tell you — you haven’t done enough and no matter how much you do, it still won’t be enough.” If you spend an hour reading the Bible, you could have spent two. If you talk to ten people about Jesus today, you could have spoken to fifteen. If you think that doing more and more makes you any better in the eyes of God, then you’re going to spend a lot of time doubting your salvation.
And what happens is that instead of picturing our relationship with God as that of a Father and a child, we tend to think of Christianity as an employer-employee relationship where if we work hard enough and we turn out enough widgets and we don’t mess up too bad, then we get our paycheck at the end of our lives. But, folks, I’m not working for a paycheck from God. Rather, I’m trying to live as his faithful child, and someday I will receive an inheritance from somebody that owns this world. And there’s a big difference between those two things. In fact, Paul addresses that difference when he says in Galatians 4:7, “You are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”
Those of us who are a part of the family of God ought to have the greatest confidence in the world regarding our salvation. But, from my experience over the years, we’re more likely to say, “When I die, I sure hope I get to go to heaven. I hope that I die within a few minutes after I last asked God’s forgiveness. I hope that if I die in a car wreck that I wasn’t doing 56 miles per hour in a 55 zone because I’ve got to be perfect or I won’t get God’s grace.”
And so we doubt our salvation. But, let me go on record this morning for saying this: I’m going to heaven. And I’ll tell you why I’m going. It’s not because I’m good. It’s not because I’m perfect. It’s not because I followed all the laws. I’m going to heaven because my trust is in Jesus Christ, I have been cleansed by his blood, and I am a child of God.
But there are so many Christians who are living in doubt, who say, “I can’t be good enough” and “I can’t do enough” and that’s true. And if you don’t have a good understanding of the grace of God in your life, you’re going to be miserable. Furthermore – listen carefully — you have fallen from grace! We have so misused that phrase over the years. We have used Galatians 5:4, “You have fallen from grace” to teach that if a Christian sins, they can lose their salvation.
But that’s not what Paul is saying at all. He says, “You who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4). Paul says that when you don’t understand the importance of grace in your life, you have fallen away from grace. If you hope to be right with God by following all the rules perfectly, you have fallen away from grace. You fall from grace by looking for salvation in places other than grace.
So, if grace is so important, then why do we have so much trouble accepting the concept of grace? And I think one of the reasons is because we love law. I mean, think about it. Why do we have Pharisees in every generation? The answer is simple — because people want them. If we didn’t want Pharisees, we wouldn’t put up with them. So why do we put up with them? Because Pharisees give us something we like. And what we like is law.
Let me tell you why we like law so much:
1. Law appeals to our pride. If my salvation is determined by a checklist of things that I need to do, then if do those things, I feel pretty good about myself. Let’s see, I didn’t smoke, didn’t drink, hey I even went to church on Wednesday nights, look at what I’ve accomplished. Grace, on the other hand, leaves no room for pride. It forces us to acknowledge that God is the one responsible for my salvation.
2. The concept of law is more natural. It puts religion on the same level as the rest of our experiences. Because, in basically every area of life, I’m judged by my performance and my ability to measure up to the competition. It just seems natural to put religion in the same category, and law does that for me.
3. Law is easier to manage. Because as long as we have laws, we can put the emphasis on external actions, rather than internal motivation. And every parent will tell you that it’s easier to make your small child behave with force than it is to patiently teach him to want to behave and to change his attitude.
4. Law makes it easier to control people. And we love conformity. We can say what we like about how much we love individualism but the fact of the matter is, if someone gets a little bit out of the norm, if they don’t quite fit in with what everyone else is doing, that makes us nervous, and law is a great way to tell everyone, “This is how you’ve got to do it.”
5. We love law because law seems safer. It’s so much easier for me just to obey what someone tells me to do than to assume personal responsibility and to decide for myself.
I think sometimes we make the mistake of thinking that because we’re not under the Old Testament law, we don’t love law. Folks, we love laws just as much as any Jew in Jesus’ day, we just have different laws. Law is very appealing to us. But law and grace have never gotten along.
And so we’re afraid to preach grace as radically as we read about it in the New Testament. But folks, we’ve got to. Because Paul says if we preach any gospel other than what he preached, we’re accursed.
So that’s what I want to do with you in the weeks ahead. I want to preach the same message that Paul preached to the Galatians. I want us to truly find freedom in Jesus Christ. Next week, we’ll dig into the text.