As I’ve said before, things have changed a lot in our lives over the past year because of COVID. One of the biggest changes is that we now have so many rules. We’ve always lots of rules. But over the past year, it just seems like we’ve added so many new rules.
Rules about wearing masks, rules about eating in restaurants, rules about which way you can walk down the aisle in the grocery store, rules about travel.
The Bible is also full of rules, commands, laws. Things we should do, and things we shouldn’t do. The Old Testament in particular has a whole section that’s actually called “The Law”, 613 commandments.
In our study through the New Testament, we come now to the book of Galatians, and Paul talks a lot in this letter about law, but he talks even more about grace. In fact, Galatians is sometimes referred to as “the gospel of grace” because God’s grace is one of its key themes.
But I think, to some degree, we’re afraid of grace, and we’re comfortable with rules. We never exactly verbalize it this way, but we think, “How are you going to keep everyone in the church from doing such-and-such if you don’t make a rule against it?” If we teach grace, we’ll lose our ability to control people and make them do what’s right.
How are you going to keep those boys from growing their hair too long if you don’t make a rule 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 any rules?
And furthermore, our concern is that a gospel of grace will give people a license to sin. We’re afraid that if we emphasize grace, then Christians will suddenly stop serving God and start living however they want to live.
But 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, so this morning, we’re going to explore this topic in the book of Galatians. But first, let’s take a look at this overview of Galatians, and then I’ll be back to talk some more about this “gospel of grace”.
As we heard in the video, Galatia was a place where Paul had preached. People in this region heard the gospel, they believed in Jesus Christ and they were baptized into Christ.
Some of those who were converted to Christianity were formerly Jews, and some of them were Gentiles. And it was a beautiful thing as these two groups were brought together into one family, just as God had promised Abraham centuries before – “in you all nations shall be blessed.” (Galatians 3:8)
And everything was going along just fine until some preachers came along who said, “You Gentiles can come into the church, but you’re going to have to become Jews first. You’ve got to be circumcised, and then you’ve got to keep the Law of Moses. And then, after that, you can be Christians and be saved.”
Which leads Paul to say in Galatians chapter 1, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (Galatians 1:6-7)
Now it’s important for us to understand exactly what Paul means by “the gospel of Christ”. We sometimes say that the gospel is the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus Christ, based on what Paul said in I Corinthians 15.
And that’s part of what Paul has in mind here, but Paul tells us exactly what he means by the gospel in Galatians chapter 2. He’s talking there about the reluctance of Peter and some of the others to eat with Gentiles and Paul says, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel”. (Galatians 2:14)
Then Paul goes on to say that the gospel is the good news “that a person is made right with God by faith in Jesus Christ, not by obeying the law. And we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we might be made right with God because of our faith in Christ, not because we have obeyed the law.” (Galatians 2:16, NLT)
When people put their faith in Jesus Christ, and that faith leads them to be baptized into Christ, they are brought into God’s family – and it doesn’t matter whether you’re Jew or Gentile, black or white, male or female, we all have the opportunity to share in God’s blessings through our faith in Christ. That’s good news! That’s the gospel.
And Paul says in chapter 1, “If anyone — if anyone – preaches to you anything other than that gospel, let him be accursed!” He says, “I don’t care if an angel comes down from heaven. If anyone preaches to you anything other than that gospel, let him be accursed!”
But then along came these preachers. And they said, “We understand that you Gentiles have faith in Jesus Christ. We’re not denying that that’s 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. Paul is angry at how these teachers have distorted the gospel message.
Now, it’s important to notice that these teachers 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 obeying these rules.”
It’s not that circumcision was a bad thing. In fact, Paul had Timothy circumcised in Acts 16. And observing Jewish holidays wasn’t a bad thing. In fact, Paul often arranged his travels so that he could be in Jerusalem for Passover. But Paul makes it clear that those things are not necessary for salvation. They have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not you have a right relationship with God.
And Paul says when you add those laws to grace, you pervert the gospel, you make it something other than what it was intended to be. What those teachers were teaching is called legalism, and legalism is contrary to the gospel of grace.
But we need to understand that legalism is not the same as “law keeping”. Obeying God’s laws is not legalism. That’s called obedience, and obedience to God’s laws is a good thing. But legalism is when you teach that you become right with God by keeping all the laws perfectly. Grace says we’re saved because of what God has done. Legalism says we’re saved because of what we do.
And because we believe so strongly in the importance of obedience, we have to be careful not to 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. Sueanne and I raised three children. Suppose someone came into our home and managed to convince our children that they have to bring home straight A’s on their report card. Furthermore, if they don’t get straight A’s, then they’re going to get kicked out of the family. They won’t be considered a part of the family any more. Mom and Dad will disown them.
Suppose this person has done such a good job of presenting their case that our children actually believe him. They’re scared to death. Every day when they get home from school, they open their books and start to study. They work and work and study and study, but they live in constant fear that they might actually bring home a “B” and get kicked out of the family.
Now, when I find out what this person has been saying to my children, I can tell you that I would be absolutely furious that they would do anything to cause my children to doubt their relationship with me.
And, if you can understand that, then I think you can see why Paul is so angry in this letter. Those preachers had caused these young Christians, these children of God, to doubt their relationship with God and to spend all their time working and working, trying to keep all these laws to maintain that relationship. It’s what Paul calls it a “yoke of bondage” in Galatians 5:1.
And Paul knew what he was talking about because he grew up Jewish. Because he was a good Jew, Paul truly loved God’s law and he made every effort 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 eventually, he came to realize that salvation is not found in keeping the law, but through faith in Christ.
So, when Paul spoke about legalism, he did so from personal experience. And when he spoke about grace, he also spoke of it from personal experience. Perhaps more than any of the other apostles, Paul understood the bondage of the law and the freedom of grace.
So, let’s talk about why the message of Galatians is so important to us in the church today. Because, after all, there’s nobody trying to convince us to follow the Law of Moses any more. But some of us have this mindset 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.
As one prominent evangelist in our brotherhood puts it, every command that God has given us in the New Testament is like a step on a ladder and as long as you climb that ladder and you don’t miss any steps, you will make it all the way up to the gates of heaven, and the grace of God will help you to get past those last few feet. Paul says that kind of attitude is a perversion of the gospel.
And, while we may say that we don’t like rules, the truth is, we actually do like rules. There’s something about rules, something about law that we find comforting. Let me give you a few reasons why.
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 every week and listened to that preacher, 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.
Doug Kelly once made the statement, “If you want to make people mad, preach law. If you want to make them really, really mad, preach grace.” And I think what he meant by that is this — Law offends us because it tells us what to do – and we don’t like anybody telling us what to do (most of the time).
But, strangely enough, grace offends us even more because it tells us that there’snothingwe can do, that everything has already been done. And if there’s something we hate morethan being told what to do, it’s being told that we can’t do anything — that we’re helpless, weak, and needy.
We take great pride in doing something – this is what I accomplished, this is what I achieved. And so, 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.
2. The concept of law is more natural.
By that, I mean that it’s like the rest of our experiences. Because, in basically every area of life, we are judged by our performance and our ability to measure up to the competition. When we’re in school, we’re graded by how well we do on the tests. When we go to work, we’re judged by how well we meet the goals set before us. If we’re into sports, we’re judged by how many goals we can score and how many points we can collect for our team. It just seems natural to think of religion in the same way, and law does that for me.
3. Law is easier to manage.
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.
I heard about one little boy who wouldn’t sit down at the dinner table, he kept standing up despite repeated admonitions. Finally, his father said, “You sit down in that chair or I’ll take you in the bedroom and give you a spanking!” The little boy sat down, but he muttered to himself, “I may be sitting down on the outside, but I’m standing up on the inside.”
And I think that’s what we create in the church when we put the emphasis on rules. We get people who give, but they’re not giving cheerfully. We get people to attend, but they don’t really want to be here. But as long as we have laws, we will always place the emphasis on external actions, rather than internal motivation.
4. We love law because law seems safer.
It’s just so much easier for me to obey what someone tells me to do rather than to assume personal responsibility and decide for myself.
Let me give you an example. In this state, we have the freedom while driving to turn right on red. If you pull up to a red light and come to a stop and no traffic is coming, you can turn right without waiting for the light to change. It’s nice to have that freedom.
But, for a few years, I drove a school bus. And in North Carolina, there is a law that says that a school bus is not allowed to turn right on red. And I loved that law. The reason is because, every time I pulled up to a red light, I didn’t have to make a decision. I didn’t have to worry about whether that approaching car is too close or traveling too fast. Can I make it? Is it safe? No, every time I pulled up to a red light, I simply waited for it to change.
There is a certain amount of safety and comfort that comes from having laws that tell me I can’t do something or that I have to do something. I think a lot of Christians would prefer that God told us exactly how much money we’re supposed to give. We wish there was a verse that said, “Take exactly 10.6% of your gross income (before taxes are taken out), and put it in the collection plate.” It eliminates having to make any decision. But God says, “Give as you’ve been prospered” and now we have to make a decision.
Having a 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 decide for myself.
I think sometimes we think that because we’re not under the Old Testament law, we don’t love law. Folks, we love law just as much as any Jew in Jesus’ day, we just make new laws. Law is very appealing to us. We like to have lots of rules. But law and grace have never gotten along.
You need to understand 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 all the rules 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 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 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 baptism is a response of faith in Christ.
And I think we all 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 do anything for us. But God’s grace was extended to us through Jesus Christ and we simply need to accept that grace.
But I think we have a much harder time understanding the concept of grace as it relates to our relationship with God as Christians. We’ve got this idea in our heads 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.
Now, all of these things are good and important, and they certainly relate to my Christian growth and my maturity in Christ. But accomplishing those works and works like them have nothing to do with whether or not I lose my position as a child of God.
Remember the example I gave earlier of someone convincing my children that they have to make straight As or get kicked out of the family? There were things that I expected my children to do as a part of the family. Yes, they had to study and 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 what I hope they realized is that their relationship with me didn’t depend on what they accomplished on any given day. It wasn’t a situation where when their room was spotless, they were a part of the family, but if there were some dirty clothes on the floor they was disowned.
But isn’t that how we sometimes measure our personal 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 dollars 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 when we base our relationship with God on what we have accomplished, we end up with a lot of doubts about our salvation. I hear Christians 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, “You don’t 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 the gospel 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.
Instead of picturing our relationship with God as a Father and child relationship, we sometimes view 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, we’re not working for a paycheck from God. Rather, we seek to obey God as his faithful children, and someday we will receive an inheritance from someone that owns this world. And there’s a big difference between those two things. Paul addresses that difference when he says in Galatians 4:7, “Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.”
Those of us who are in the family of God ought to have the greatest confidence 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’m doing something wrong or saying wrong at the time because I’ve got to be perfect.”
And so, we doubt our salvation. Many Christians live in doubt, saying, “I don’t feel like I’m good enough” or “I don’t feel like I 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 says at all. Paul says that when you don’t understand the importance of grace in your life, you fall from grace. If you hope to be right with God by following all the rules perfectly, you have fallen from grace. “You who attempt to be justified by law, you have fallen from grace.” You fall from grace by looking for salvation in places other than grace.
You know, we may be hesitant 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 that gospel of grace, we’re accursed.