If you have your Bibles, be turning to Galatians, chapter 2. We have been talking in this book about the gospel of Jesus Christ — the good news. Which we very much need because the truth is that you and I have fallen short. We have worshipped things that aren’t God. We have belittled and mocked God with either our lives, our mouths, or our minds, and God’s response to that has been to make a way for us to be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ.
In 2 Corinthians 5:21, Paul said that, “For our sake [God] made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
Paul says there are two things that happen. First of all, we get Christ’s righteousness and secondly, Christ takes on our rebellion and sinfulness. So that when God looks at us, he sees Christ and he regards us as perfect and spotless and blameless. And Jesus takes on all the penalty that we deserved. That’s the good news, that’s the gospel message, but we’ve seen that there are a couple of ways to pervert that message.
One way is to say that salvation comes not from what God has done, but from what we have done. That God’s grace is extended to us only after we have kept all of his laws perfectly, and if we fail to keep any of them, we lose our salvation. The Judaizers used the Law of Moses as their list of rules, but Paul says anytime we replace what God has done with what we do, we pervert the gospel.
Now, Paul is going to say when we get to the third chapter of Galatians that the law is a wonderful thing as long as you use it in the way that it was meant to be used…as a diagnostic, not as a cure. In other words, the law tells us that something is wrong in our lives, but the law can’t fix what it shows us is wrong.
God’s law is like an MRI machine. An MRI is a wonderful, wonderful tool. But, if you’re sick, you don’t use an MRI to fix what’s wrong with you. You get an MRI to find out what’s wrong with you, so that the doctor can then do whatever is necessary to bring you back to health.
And that’s the way God’s law works. God’s law is a wonderful thing. But, the law doesn’t fix what’s wrong with us. God’s law will show us where we’re sick and where we need help, but it cannot provide the help that ultimately Christ alone brings.
But, we’ve seen that there are also those who believe that if you talk about grace and our liberty in Jesus Christ, then some people will use that as a license to sin. I mean, if God is going to forgive me no matter what I do, then I’ll just do whatever I want to do, and God will forgive me. And there is certainly the danger that some people will have that attitude. But not someone who truly has faith in Jesus Christ.
So, Paul is repeatedly going to make the point in Galatians that salvation is found, not by works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.
We pick up this morning in Galatians 2:15, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:15-16)
Paul says, “I’m a Jew, just like these Judaizers, but I am not saved by keeping the law. Rather, like every other Christian, I am saved by my faith in Jesus Christ. Because nobody will be justified by works of the law. And that includes both Jews and Gentiles.”
Now, that doesn’t mean that the Jews didn’t have any advantage over the Gentiles. Paul spends a lot of time in Romans dealing with that. In Romans 3, he said, “Then what advantage has the Jew? Or what is the value of circumcision? Much in every way. To begin with, the Jews were entrusted with the oracles of God.” (Romans 3:1-2)
Paul said, basically, the Jews had a moral advantage over the Gentiles, because the Jews had the “oracles of God”. They had God’s Word; they had the law. The Gentiles didn’t have the law; the Jews did. The Jews had the prophets. The Gentiles didn’t. The Jews had the covenant. They had the promises. The Gentiles didn’t have any of that.
If there was ever a moral advantage, it belonged to the Jews. But Paul’s point is, “When it comes to being right with God, that doesn’t make any difference.” Because the law doesn’t justify anybody, so just because they had the law of God, it didn’t make them right with God.
Let’s bring this up to date for just a moment. Tell me – What was your home life like when you were growing up? Were you loved? Were you supported? Were you encouraged? Were you prayed over? Did your parents point you to Jesus? Or was your home just the opposite? Were you neglected, abandoned, abused? We all have different stories, we all have different backgrounds, and we all have different sets of parents who did things differently, but here’s Paul’s point. When it comes to justification, when it comes to being right in the eyes of God, any moral advantage you may have received at birth isn’t going to get you into heaven.
Paul says, in essence, if your daddy was a deacon and your mom gave birth to you on a Sunday morning in the middle of the church building, and up to this point, you’ve lived your whole live being faithful in church, and you read your Bible regularly, and you’ve never been drunk, and you’ve never done drugs, and you were a virgin until you got married, and you only watch PG-and-under movies. When it comes to being religious, you’ve got it down pat.
But, what Paul is saying is, that when it comes to justification, you’re no better off than the man who has no idea who his father is, whose mom gave birth to him at three in the morning in a bar, who has grown up in nothing but drunken debauchery and promiscuity, who cusses like a sailor, and has lived in every deplorable way imaginable. Paul said that the one who is “moral” has no advantage over the immoral. Because both of them need a Savior. Neither one of them can justify himself. Neither one has the ability to save himself through their behavior.
And so, for some of us, we just need to get over ourselves. If you grew up in church, and you’ve been here your whole life, and you had the little Sunday school medallions that you won because you didn’t miss any classes (and you may think I’m joking, but we really did have those). One-year pin, two-year pin, three-year pin. After a while, you begin to look like General Patton. But that doesn’t make you any better or more right in the eyes of God than the person who has none of that.
And maybe your reaction is to say, “But, I’m living a righteous life. Surely that counts for something!” But here’s what Isaiah had to say — “…all our righteous acts are like a filthy rag.” (Isaiah 64:6, ISV). And, as bad as that sounds, it doesn’t quite translate it coorectly. That’s the sanitized version. Because what Isaiah literally said was, “All our righteous acts are like menstrual rags,” Which is pretty nasty. He says, “You take all of that, all of your Sunday school pins and your PG-watching movies, and all that stuff, and you lay it before God as an offering, and it’s filthy.”
Now, understand that I’m only talking here about justification, I’m talking about being right in the eyes of God. Living a righteous life is a wonderful thing. In fact, it is a necessary thing for those of us who are Christians. But being righteous won’t save us.
And I can tell you that there are definitely some advantages to growing up in a home where you are cared for, encouraged, and pointed toward the Lord. There are advantages there. They’re just not advantages that equal salvation.
And, as a result, it is possible for a kid to grow up just doing whatever his parents did and believing what his parents believed and he doesn’t have a personal faith. But that’s not what we want. We want our children to own their faith. I don’t want my kids to own my faith. I want them to have faith. I want them to have trust. I want them to have joy in serving God. And so, Sueanne and I did everything we could to teach our children and train our children, but none of that guaranteed their salvation.
My kids are not justified, they’re not saved, just because they were born into a preacher’s home. That won’t get them any credit at all when they stand before God. And you are not justified just because you grew up in church. You’re not justified because you memorized Scripture. You’re not justified for keeping all the rules. There is only one who justifies, and it’s not through the works of the law, it’s through faith in Jesus Christ. That’s Paul’s point, and he keeps making it over and over and over.
Look at what he says in verse 17: “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.” (Galatians 2:17-18).
Paul raises the question here of whether or not Christ is a “servant of sin” or a “minister of sin”. And I think Paul is referring to something he said over in 2 Corinthians chapter 3. In that chapter, several times, Paul said that Moses had a “ministry of death” (2 Corinthians 3:7), or a “ministry of condemnation” (2 Corinthians 3:9).
And what he meant by that is that when God’s law comes into our lives, we find out that we’re sinners. Can you imagine what Israel must have thought when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, and he brought all these rules back with him? Moses walked down with the Law and he said, “Don’t worship other gods. Don’t make any graven images.” But what had they just made? They created a golden calf that they were worshipping.
Don’t you suppose there were a lot of nervous folks when Moses started reading through the ten commandments? Now, if Moses hadn’t brought those commandments to the people, they still would have been guilty of sin, but they wouldn’t have known it.
I have a friend in China who e-mailed me this past week with a question about Romans 3:20, where Paul said, “through the law comes knowledge of sin”. And he wanted to know exactly what that means. In my response, I used this illustration: Here in the United States, our roads are typically marked with speed limit signs. But, suppose there’s a stretch of road where the speed limit is 50 mph. If you go faster than that, you have broken the law and you may get a ticket. Now, in that situation, a speed limit sign is very helpful. It tells me what “sin” is. If there wasn’t a sign there, I wouldn’t know that it is a “sin” to go faster than 50 mph. It would still be wrong, but I wouldn’t know it unless I have the sign to tell me it’s wrong.
It was the same way with the law that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. It had always been wrong to worship other gods and build graven images, but when Moses brought down that law, the people of Israel knew it was wrong and they knew that they stood condemned. They also knew that they deserved to die. And so, that’s why Moses was called a “minister of death” or a “minister of condemnation”.
Rules show how we fall short. Rules show us that we stand condemned. Rules show us just how far we are from where God wants us to be. God’s rules, God’s laws, reveal all of that. They diagnose our spiritual condition, and they let us know that we are guilty.
Now Paul’s argument here in Galatians is this — if Christ came simply with more rules, then he didn’t come to bring life and righteousness. Rather, he came to bring more sin, more condemnation, and more death. But, Paul says that’s not why he came!
But that’s what we think. In fact, sometimes we’ll say that Jesus got rid of all the rules in the Old Testament and he replaced them with all the rules in the New Testament, and these rules are better than those rules. But you won’t find that anywhere in the Bible. Now, in Hebrews 8:6, the writer says that the new covenant is better than the old covenant, but a covenant is not the same as a list of rules.
The truth is, there wasn’t anything wrong with the old set of rules. The problem was with people. People who aren’t capable of keeping God’s rules perfectly. Jesus didn’t come to bring a new set of rules. Instead, he came, saying, “I am your righteousness. I am taking God’s wrath from you. I am freeing you from the effects of the fall. I am rescuing you from the clutches of sin and death.” He didn’t come to bring accusation; he came to remove all accusation. And he literally takes it upon himself.
Jesus didn’t say, “I came to fulfill the law, but now here’s some more law. Since you couldn’t keep it the first time, I’ve got a few rules that might be easier for you.” What Paul is arguing here in Galatians is that if Jesus came to bring a new set of rules, then he becomes the same thing that Moses was – which is a minister of sin and condemnation and death.
And so, in verse 17, Paul asks the question, “Is that what Jesus is, a minister of death?” And his answer is, “Certainly not!” (Galatians 3:17). Jesus did not come to rebuild what was torn down. And if he did, if the way to be justified in the eyes of God is to keep all the rules perfectly, then we are all guilty, and we will always be guilty.
And so, in verse 19, Paul says, “When I tried to obey the law’s standards, those laws killed me. As a result, I live in a relationship with God.” (Galatians 2:19, GW)
Now, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t follow God’s law. We should. But, it is to say that keeping those rules isn’t what makes us right in the eyes of God.
For some reason — and I’m going to guess that it has something to do with the way we were raised – but, for some reason, this seems difficult for some of us to understand. We want to cling to our righteousness like a security blanket, and we somehow think that if we let go of it, that means that it’s OK to live an ungodly life. But, that’s not what it means at all.
And those of us who are parents should especially be able to understand, because we operate the same way with our children that God operates with us. When Sueanne and I raised our children, we had rules in our house (Amber will let you know we had lots of rules). We had rules about cleaning the house. We had rules about how to behave at the dinner table. We had rules about going to bed at night. We had rules about what they should do, and lots of rules about what they shouldn’t do.
And it was important to us that our children follow those rules. But their status in our family had nothing to do with any of those rules. If they stayed up past their bedtime, we didn’t kick them out of the family. If they snuck out at night through their bedroom window, we didn’t kick them out of the family. If they sat at the dinner table for hours with their cheeks stuffed with peas because they refused to swallow, we didn’t kick them out of the family.
As important as all of our rules were, none of them had anything to do with the relationship that we shared together as parents and children. Perfect obedience wasn’t the guideline for being our child. And imperfect obedience didn’t get them kicked out. But, none of our kids ever said, “Well, if keeping the rules isn’t necessary to stay in this family, then we’ll just ignore the rules.”
If we can understand that in a human family, then why do we have such a hard time understanding it in God’s family? Keeping the rules doesn’t make us right with God. And failing to keep all the rules doesn’t get us kicked out. That doesn’t mean that the rules aren’t important; they’re very important. It’s just that “by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 3:16).
So what does it look like if I have the proper attitude toward grace and law, toward faith in Jesus Christ and living a righteous life? And I think Paul sums it up in verse 20:
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20)
This is a popular verse. People like to put it on plaques and magnets and coffee cups. We’ve even made a song out of this verse. But, I don’t know that we’ve really spent much time thinking about what it really means.
I think what Paul is saying here is this – “I can’t go around talking about what I’ve done. How I’ve been faithful in my church attendance, or I’ve given lots of money to worthy causes, or I’ve lived my life without drinking and swearing.” Because, for a Christian, it’s not about what we do. It’s about what Christ does in us. And, if we truly believe that, then there’s no room for pride in our lives.
Have you ever seen a little kid trying to learn how to play baseball? And he’ll pick up a bat which is about as heavy as he is, and he can’t hardly hold it up. But his dad gets behind him, wraps his arms around his little boy, puts his hands on top of his son’s hands, and helps him to hold the bat steady. And as they stand together at the plate, someone throws a pitch and the dad and the son swing the bat together and knock the ball into the outfield.
Suppose that little boy were to puff up his chest out and say, “Look at what I did! Look at how good I am!” We would laugh! Because we understand that that little boy couldn’t do anything on his own. Everything he did was his father doing it through him.
And I think Paul is saying something similar here. There are times when we accomplish some wonderful things. We obey God. We live a righteous life. We help out with the food pantry. And we’re tempted to puff out our chests like that little boy and say, “Look at what I did! Look how good I am!” But, the truth is, there’s nothing for us to be proud about. Because it’s not really us. It Christ living through us.
And, for all practical purposes, we don’t even exist anymore. We’re dead. We died to the old life. We died to the way of thinking that we are something special because of what we do. And now it is Christ who lives in. And it is Christ who lives through us.
And so, what is important is not that we make the effort to “do” everything perfectly, but that we have a faith in Jesus Christ, a faith that is willing to trust him enough that we let Christ use us. It’s not about us working to be righteous; it’s about giving God’s Spirit control of our lives to work through us. It’s about being submissive.
And I think that’s hard for a lot of us. I think our pride gets in the way. Because when we simply allow Christ to live in us and through us, we can’t take the credit for anything we do. And let’s be honest — we like getting the credit.
Paul closes out this chapter with what I think is one of the most significant statements in the entire book of Galatians – “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” (Galatians 2:21).
If my being right with God is dependent on me doing everything exactly right, then why in the world did Jesus die? Did Jesus only die for those people who don’t make any mistakes?
And if my being right with God is dependent on me doing everything exactly right, then what do I need God’s grace for? Is God’s grace only for those people who don’t make any mistakes?
When I start believing that being right with God comes about as a result of me keeping all the laws perfectly, then I have nullified God’s grace, and I have demonstrated that I believe that Christ died in vain.
Years ago, when Kobe Bryant first came into the NBA, he played in his first all-star game. Kobe had the ball and Magic Johnson was guarding him. Kobe had players around him who could help out, but he waved them all off. He gave a signal that said, “Back off. I want him one-on-one. I don’t need anybody’s help. I’ve got it covered.” And then he proceeded to drive to the basket, and as he made his shot, Magic Johnson swatted the ball away.
Something similar often happens to us. We may not say it in so many words, but we think to ourselves, “I don’t need really Jesus. I’m doing pretty good on my own. I haven’t missed church in two years. I read my Bible every morning. I’ve been to Africa on a mission trip. I’ve got a Christian T-shirt. I’m doing all right by myself. I don’t need Jesus.” And, in the process, we nullify the grace of God, and we make Christ die for nothing. Because we somehow think we can earn your own righteousness,
And there are some of you here this morning who may need repent because you have been trying to justify yourself with being religious and not allowing yourself to be justified by the only thing that can actually justify you.
Paul said, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.” (Galatians 2:16