Paul Questioning the Christians of Galatia

Title: Paul Questioning the Christians of Galatia

Text: Galatians 3:1-9

Time: November 7th, 2010

Last week I summarized the Apostle Paul’s answers to questions from the Christians of the church of Galatia, but this week we’ll hear Paul ask some questions of his own to the Galatian church. Here is a Christian community that Paul had raised up from scratch. He had recruited, taught and discipled these people over the years, but when he was away on other missionary journeys he heard that they had turned aside from the key belief of salvation by faith alone. He heard that they were embracing a Christian legalism that required obedience to the law – or at least some parts of the law – in order to be saved. In other words, they were heading in a more consistent traditional Jewish direction rather than  the unique Christian direction. So Paul writes a letter, the book that we called the Book of Galatians, in order to persuade them to return to what they had been taught by Paul from the beginning – that salvation is by faith alone, not through works of obedience to the Law of God. Now Paul wasn’t saying that the law isn’t important in giving us the will of God, nor that following the basic moral teachings of the Old Testament were optional for a Christian, because he certainly lived an upright and moral life as a Christian and expected others to do the same. What he objected to was the use of the law as a means of salvation. As far as the Christian gospel message is concerned, the Law of God can’t save us but only show us how far lost we are and how badly we need God’s grace through Christ’s sacrificial life and death on the cross on our behalf. The law is really great at showing us how far lost we are, but really bad at actually saving us from our bad position. The unique message of the gospel is that it furnishes us with a new way, a saving way, apart from the law, that relies on Christ’s perfectly righteous life and Christ’s sacrificial death on our behalf to save us. We don’t have to live an obedient life – that’s good because we couldn’t anyway – because Christ’s perfect life counts on our behalf and fulfills the Law of God on our behalf. Any good works that we do in life – and there is some good that we do sometimes, although even our so-called goodness is mixed with sin – our works don’t contribute or count towards our salvation because they utterly fail to even remotely approach the standard of perfection required to obtain salvation. In other words, it’s impossible to be almost saved by our good works, as it is impossible to be almost saved by any other means. Salvation is an either/or situation. Either we are saved, perfectly saved, or we are lost, utterly lost. There is no middle or half-way position with salvation. It’s like the old saying, “Nobody is a little bit pregnant; you are either pregnant or you aren’t.” Well, that’s the same with salvation. Nobody is a little bit saved or almost saved. We are either saved – forgiven of all our sins and possessing the perfect righteousness required – or we aren’t saved, lacking forgiveness and the required righteousness. The Galatian Christians were being led astray by teachers who were teaching that faith and works mix together to save us. They were teaching that it’s important for Christians to have faith but also to work hard to be saved by obeying the Law of God. This is the opposite of what the Apostle Paul taught these same Christians earlier. So it’s understandable that Paul would be upset about the situation. His whole work and ministry was at risk. If he couldn’t keep these Christian converts from going astray how could he be sure that all of his converts wouldn’t eventually go astray, or that his whole ministry to the Gentiles wasn’t all in vain? No, this error had to be stopped, so he writes a long letter in an attempt to win these Christians back to the truth. This morning we’ll look more at what he says. Galatians 3:1-9 (read). He asks some questions of them.

First, who put you under their spell? Galatians 3:1, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” Paul is trying to figure out what happened to these Christians that he thought were so solidly following Christ. How could they abandon the fundamental doctrine of salvation so quickly, so easily? It must be that they were bewitched or some kind of spell cast over them. Paul doesn’t really believe this literally, but he’s using it as a figure of speech because rational explanation doesn’t make sense. How could the Galatian Christians drift away from the pure gospel faith so easily? The only explanation is that they were “bewitched” by some spell to turn aside from salvation by faith alone to salvation by works or obedience to the law – that’s the only explanation he can think of – it must have been sorcery or witchcraft that did it. Why? Because he, the Apostle Paul, presented the gospel of salvation by faith alone very clearly to them, presenting Jesus Christ’s crucifixion as the atoning sacrifice for sinners. The whole gospel message was presented from beginning to end, but particularly the part that says Christ died for our sins, Christ to give us new and eternal life. They accepted this message, once, but now they were starting to question it and many had actually returned back to thinking they must earn or merit their own salvation through acts of obedience with the will of God. The whole point of Christ living and dying in our place is that we can’t make it to heaven by our own human efforts. If we could merit our own salvation then Christ’s life and death would have been in vain. So Paul’s first question is, “What has gotten into you, you Christians who accepted the true gospel just a short time ago?” But like a lawyer with a witness on the stand, he isn’t finished with his questioning of them.

Second, did the Holy Spirit come to you by the law or by faith? Galatians 3:2, “I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” Did the Holy Spirit come upon you through your own human efforts or personal holiness – or did the Spirit come to you through faith, trusting in God’s promises? Just like salvation, the Holy Spirit doesn’t enter a person’s life because that person is holy or worthy of entrance. No. the whole point of the gospel is that nobody is deserving of God, nobody is worthy of the Spirit, but he indwells a Christian through the grace of God through the person’s faith. Faith is how we receive from God because not one of us deserves any of the good things we receive from God. We don’t earn anything from God. In fact, the only thing we earn is a one-way ticket to hell for our sins and disobediences. We break the law, we are law-breakers, not law-keepers. Promise Keepers is a group of men who dedicate their lives to following after God, but not one Promise Keeper fully lives up to their promises because they are like everyone, sinners and unable to live up to God’s holy standards. That doesn’t keep them from making promises and it shouldn’t keep us from making promises either, even though we shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking that we’ll fully keep them, especially our promises to God, although we should try to keep all our promises. By nature and by actual fact, we are sinners, and we will always sin in this life here on earth. Only in heaven will we be delivered from our sins. So we can’t technically please God by our actions, neither can we receive the Spirit because we are so good or deserving of God. We receive the Spirit, like we receive salvation – by faith, by trusting God’s Word, by relying on God and his grace. God doesn’t owe us anything; we owe God everything. So Paul tries to get these Christians to think about their departure from the true faith. What about you? Do you need to rethink the direction you are headed in as a Christian? Is it truly the path of Christ, or have you gotten yourself off course lately?

Third, do you think what the Spirit started by faith you can complete by human effort? Galatians 3:3-4, “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?  Have you suffered so much for nothing – if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” It’s as if these Christians got the idea that the Christian faith starts out by faith, but then changes into a works-righteousness religious system. Or in other words, God helps us out at the beginning because we are such bad sinners, but then after we are headed in the right heavenly direction he then expects us to work it out on our own by our own human efforts. In other words, salvation starts out by grace through faith but later becomes by obedience to the law as we mature. But that is totally wrong, yet there are Christians today who think it. For example, if you think that you can lose your own salvation by something you say or do, then you really hold to a version of the Galatian heresy. Think about it. If you get saved by faith in Christ alone, but then have the idea that unless you shape up and live a holy life and obey God’s Law then you can lose what you already had by faith alone, if you think that – and there are lots of people who do, even some or many who call themselves Christians – then you believe similar to what they Galatian Christians believed. It’s wrong. We don’t start out saved by faith and end with salvation by works. We don’t start with faith alone in Christ alone and end with faith and works. It’s faith alone in Christ alone from start to finish. Now don’t get me wrong. God expects us to progress in our Christian life. The sins I’m battling with today shouldn’t be the same sins I’m battling with ten years from now. I should be making progress along the way. I should be working towards a greater state of holiness in my life, but my progress doesn’t effect my state of salvation one bit. If you are in New York City and start swimming out to sea with the intent of swimming all the way to Europe, you won’t make it, even if you’ve made greater progress than you did when you first started off. It’s just too far for anyone to swim. It’s the same way in reaching heaven. You can’t do it by human effort, not now, not ever. Only by faith in Christ, only by Christ carrying you to heaven can you make it. Are you trying to complete the job of salvation Christ started? If so, stop it, that’s the wrong path. But Paul asks another question.

Fourth, do miracles happen because of your obedience to God’s Law or because of your faith? Galatians 3:5, “Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” We’ve already seen that God doesn’t send the Spirit because of obedience by Christians, but what about doing miracles? Can we earn God’s divine intervention with miracles? The so-called “charismata” or literally “grace gifts” are gotten just like salvation is gotten, by faith alone. Nobody can be good enough or holy enough to merit God’s miracles. Yes, sin can and does prevent God from acting on our behalf with miracles, but the opposite is not true – namely that we can earn the right to miracles. That was the old error in the Catholic church during the Middle Ages, they thought that the really holy saints could call down miracles due to their extreme holiness. But that kind of thinking is in error. Again, nobody is truly holy, nobody is really good in the strict sense of the word. Remember the words of Jesus to the rich young man in the Gospels, “Why do you call me good? Nobody is good except God alone.” In other words, the rich young man was using the category “good” in a loose and casual sense, tossing around something that should really be reserved for God alone, because after all, only God is truly holy and good in the absolute sense. Now that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use the term “good” in a relative sense. We should encourage people with a “Good job!” or recognize them as doing “good” if they are doing something praise-worthy, but we should also keep in mind that only God is truly good in the strict sense of that term. Our best efforts can’t buy us miracles, only God’s grace gotten by faith can bring us miracles – if they get us anything at all. Again, even our faith is no guarantee of God’s miracles in our lives, since God determines what he gives and withholds from us at any given time. But if we do receive miracles, they are received by faith alone, not by our own pious activity. Let’s remember that the next time somebody tries to sell us a formula for miracles. They come by grace alone not human effort. Paul finally finishes his thoughts by drawing some conclusions.

Fifth, it’s by faith we are blessed, not by obedience to the law. Galatians 3:6-9, “Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.” Paul reminds these Christians what he told them, no doubt, before, that Abraham was considered righteous by God for his faith, not his obedience – although Abraham was obedient compared with most other men. Still, Abraham was a sinner like we all are and it wasn’t his piety or devotion to God that saved him, but his faith in God. Abraham’s faith was credited as righteousness in his account. It wasn’t his works that were credited as righteous because as a sinner his works didn’t count towards his salvation, as none of our works count towards our salvation. Now we are children of Abraham, children of faith, if we believe like Abraham believed. We are blessed because we believe, not because we obey – because after all, who really does obey fully or truly? Who can really say, “I’ve obeyed the Lord in all things, or even in most things?” No. We should really all be saying, “I’ve failed the Lord in many or most things. Outside of a few shining moments, my life has been a constant falling short of God’s perfect standard.” If you are honest, that’s you, that’s me. So then Paul makes his point again and again that we are saved by faith and that we live by faith. Don’t ever start looking at or pointing towards your so-called good or pious acts in life. Don’t even go there. You don’t know what you are saying. If God graded you on your so-called good works, you’d fail, you fall, and you’d miss salvation. No. Everything good we receive we do so by faith. Are you living a faith life today? Or are you trying, are you striving to somehow save yourself or justify yourself by living up to the Law of God. Forget it, don’t try that failed path. Yes, by all means try to live a holy life, but don’t try to do it for salvation’s sake. That’s a dead-end street. It’s only by faith we are saved, and it’s only by faith we are kept, and it’s only by faith we are to live this Christian life. Amen.

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