Sunday, November 12, 2000

THE TRUTH OF THE GOSPEL: Exposition of Galatians 2:15-21

Address 6
The Heart of the Gospel

… even we 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 shall no one be justified. (Galatians 2:16)

Last week I left you with the idea that there are certain “compelling truths” or “great alternatives” by which a person can live his life. Such compelling truths are necessarily mutually exclusive. You cannot simultaneously be a Jew, a Muslim, and a Christian for instance. Now there are some people today who say that all these alternatives are compatible. They put it this way: all roads lead up the same mountain, to God or spirituality, or whatever. I heard the President of Uganda make such an argument just this past weekend.

Such an idea may make for good politics in a country with diverse groups, but it is not very convincing in the ultimate court of appeal. In fact, what such “pluralists” are really saying is: I have a higher compelling truth – let’s call it liberalism or relativism – and that is the truly overarching alternative that encompasses the others. Well fair enough, they may make such a claim, but then their claim must be examined side by side with other “great alternatives.”

St. Peter had tried to straddle just such a worldview chasm when he ate Gentile food with Gentile Christians and kosher food with Jewish Christians. It just did not work, and St. Paul “confronted him to his face” about it. This incident gave Paul an opportunity to explain what the truth of the Gospel is, and why having received the Gospel by faith, one cannot go back and put on the yoke of the Law.

When he speaks of “we ourselves” in verse 15 and 16, he is still speaking to Peter, and he employs a common expression among Jews that Gentiles are “sinners,” i.e., they are unclean. One basic tenet of Judaism is that God has chosen the Jews to be his holy people, and hence all others are unholy. Paul is about to overturn this conventional understanding on the ground of the basic Gospel truth that no one is justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. Undoubtedly this statement was used by both Peter and Paul in their evangelistic preaching. Paul presses home the logic: if no one is justified by works, then even we Jews are justified by faith alone. He seals this point by quoting from the Old Testament Psalm: “no flesh shall be justified before me.”

The true implication of the Gospel, Paul is arguing, is that not that Jews are holy and Gentiles are sinners, but that all flesh, Jew and Gentile, is sinful. As he says elsewhere: “All have sinned, and fallen short of God’s glory” (Romans 3:20). Now this raises a major question from the Jewish perspective. If the Gospel levels the playing field by reducing the Jews to sinner status, then why did Christ come? He seems to have left the human race worse off, rather than better. He becomes a “bad news bearer,” an agent condemning everyone of sin.

No way! God forbid! is Paul’s reply in verse 17 to any such implication that Jesus came to make us worse off. What really happens when we seek Christ is that we discover how bad things really are, from the beginning. As Paul puts it, “we ourselves were found to be sinners.” Jews in the first century did not tend to believe in “original sin” the way Christians do, nor did they read Genesis 3 as a story of “total depravity,” i.e., of total rebellion of man against God. They knew human beings had a sin problem, but they thought this problem could be remedied by keeping the Law, which was the reason Jews could avoid being “sinners.” Not that they thought one could be perfect, but the Law provided sacrifices when one slipped up.

On the Road to Damascus, Paul discovered not only that Jesus Christ was the Son of God but that he, Saul the Jew, had a much bigger sin problem than he had imagined. He realized that in order to be justified, i.e., made acceptable in God’s eyes, he had to die to what he had considered the very source of his identity, his boast of being a keeper of the Law. The Law, which he had thought was sufficient to have life, was a failure. In fact, it was through Christ that he came to see the Law as an agent of sin, i.e., of revealing and even provoking the rebellious human flesh against God. This was a terrifying yet revolutionary insight: hence his passion in saying: “God forbid” that Jesus should be the cause of the spread of sin!

Having established that the whole human situation, according to the truth of the Gospel, cannot be explained in terms of Jews versus the Gentiles, or the saints versus the sinners, Paul now rams home the point that one cannot have both the Christian and the Jewish understanding of justification. In verses 18-21, he makes this point by means of three powerful analogies.

The first analogy uses building construction imagery: “If I build up again those things which I tore down, then I prove myself a transgressor” (verse 18). Paul’s point makes common sense. Last week workmen tore down a leaky cistern beside our house, and the bricks are strewn all over the ground. Suppose I come along and say: “Oh dear! I want it put back.” That would be an impossible task, and I would have wasted the time of the workmen who knocked it down. Jesus made much the same point when he said: “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

Likewise Paul is saying: when you accept Jesus as the source of your righteousness, and then decide “Well, maybe I’ll keep the Law as a kind of insurance policy in case Jesus’ righteousness is not enough,” you are saying to Him: “Maybe you really aren’t the Savior, maybe your death isn’t sufficient for me.” In doing this you are making yourself a transgressor, not of the Law, but of God’s offer of salvation, of God’s Son himself.

The second analogy is even more powerful and has to do with restoring the dead. Paul begins with the fact that when he became a Christian and was baptized, he “died” to the Law (verse 19). Restoring the Law, he says, is like reviving a corpse. That’s weird, we Americans would say. It is even weirder than that in Paul’s imagery, because the corpse has been crucified, i.e., executed according to the law (verse 20). For a Christian to go back to observing the Law would be like nailing the corpse back up on the Cross in hopes that it would start breathing again.

Here we approach the pulsing heart of the Gospel because, of course, the corpse is not Paul’s. Paul could not die for his own sins or anyone else’s. The only one who could do that is Jesus Christ, who gave himself up to legal condemnation for Paul – and for you and me – Jesus Christ, who rose from grave, not resuscitated but filled with the new life of God and who now offers that new life to those who believe in Him. Praise God!

The third analogy in verse 21 is drawn from the sphere of inheritance law. When he uses the word “nullify,” Paul makes allusion to a covenant or testament that normally requires the death of the testator. Now suppose a father decided to distribute all his inheritance while he was alive. There would be absolutely no reason for the children to wait for his death. They could each hire a lawyer and distribute it fairly among them. The law would allow it. In the case of justification, Paul argues, if we can be reconciled to God and can receive an eternal inheritance by keeping the Law in this life, then it is unnecessary, even wildly superfluous (that is meaning of translated “freely” or “to no purpose”), for God to send his Son to die for us.

Here we can see Paul working backward from his Damascus Road encounter to his doctrine of justification. God did send his Son, who died on the Cross, and God did raise him from the dead. Therefore, Paul concludes, the Law must not deliver what Jews think it delivers, for only God’s Son can give true life.

I have presented this exposition as a kind of running argument between St. Paul and the keepers of the Law, the so-called Judaizers, who had even bent Peter’s ear. But in the midst of the argument, Paul breaks forth with words of such beauty that he wins us over not just be logic but by sheer love.

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.

Justification by faith is not finally a doctrine, but a relationship. It is a way of expressing the love of a holy God for sinful creatures, i.e., for us, and the price that love was willing to pay. Martin Luther, the greatest expositor of the Epistle, expressed it this way:

As I have said, faith grasps and embraces Christ, the Son of God, who was given for us, as Paul teaches here. When He has been grasped by faith, we have righteousness and life. For Christ is the Son of God, who gave Himself out of sheer love to redeem me. In these words Paul gives a beautiful description of the priesthood and the work of Christ, which is to placate God, to intercede and pray for sinners, to offer Himself as a sacrifice for their sins, and to redeem them. Therefore you should learn to define Christ properly, not as the sophists and fanatics do; they make of Him a new lawgiver who, after abrogating the old Law, established a new Law. For them Christ is a taskmaster and a tyrant. But you should define Him as Paul does here, as Son of God, who, not because of merit or any righteousness of ours but because of His sheer mercy and love, gave Himself to God as a sacrifice for us miserable sinners, to sanctify us forever.

The heart of the Gospel is, finally, the heart of the Son of God. Faith is our heart’s response to his love and sacrifice for us, nothing more, nothing less. So turn your heart to him today, for he has loved you from all eternity and given himself up once for all upon the Cross.

These eleven expositions were addressed to students at Uganda Christian University, Mukono, in the Fall of 2000.

 

 

 

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