Like a former addict who suffers a dangerous relapse, the Christians to whom the apostle Paul is addressing today’s scripture are themselves facing a kind of relapse—only one that is far more dangerous than a relapse to illicit drugs. Because this “relapse” risks destroying not merely their bodies but their very souls as well… for eternity! And it’s a dangerous threat for us present-day Christians, too! What am I referring to? Listen to the sermon and find out!
As I said last week, my preaching style has changed somewhat. I preached from an outline, not a manuscript—with much ad-libbing. So the following manuscript, which I wrote from memory after the fact, will be different, to some extent, from what I preached.
Sermon Text: Galatians 1:1-10
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Back in 1985, when I was 15, I saw Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Omni in Atlanta. Do you remember the Omni? It was one of the first concerts I went to, and I became a lifelong Tom Petty fan. So, like many of you, I was deeply saddened when he died late last year. The initial report was that he suffered cardiac arrest. Then about a month later, a medical examiner reported that he died of an opioid overdose. He had broken his hip while on tour last year, and—because the “show must go on,” he was prescribed a powerful narcotic called fentanyl, which is, like, 50 times more powerful than heroin.
In a way, this is what Paul is dealing with in Galatia—a relapse of a sort. Except a relapse into opioid addiction would be far less harmful, from Paul’s perspective, because it could only destroy the body. Whereas the relapse that the Galatians are facing could potentially destroy their souls!
So what do I mean when I say “relapse”?
To answer that, we need to ask ourselves: What did Paul preach to the Galatians? What ideas did he build his ministry on? What message was Paul willing to suffer and die for? He tells us in the greeting of letter, verses 3 through 5: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”
This is Paul’s gospel in a nutshell! Let’s look at some of the key words and phrases.
“Grace”: The free gift of God. We can do nothing to earn it: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9. “Peace”: This is the end result of receiving this gift. Prior to Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross—and our faith in it—we were not at peace; we were incapable of achieving peace; there was a state of enmity between us and God. Paul says in Romans 5:10 that we were “enemies… reconciled to God by the death of his Son.” But the end result of Christ’s death is described in Romans 5:1: “[S]ince we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.”Christ “gave himself.” “No one takes [my life] from me,” Jesus said, “but I lay it down of my own accord.” John 10:18. “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13.
Moreover, Christ gave himself “for our sins”—by being our substitute. This was necessary because of what Moses tells Israel in Deuteronomy 28: “But if you will not obey the voice of the Lord your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you.” Moses goes on to describe a list of frightening consequences that come from failing to follow God’s law. If we break God’s law, we will be under a curse. But hear this good news: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” Galatians 3:13. “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God.” 1 Peter 3:18.
And why did Christ die for our sins? “[T]o deliver us from this evil age.” This doesn’t mean that we are merely forgiven, as amazing as God’s forgiveness is; it’s much more than forgiveness!
There is some really bad “bumper sticker theology” you may have seen. I say “bumper sticker” because I’ve actually seen it on bumper stickers. Maybe today we could call it “Twitter theology”? But it goes something like this: “Christians aren’t perfect, only forgiven.” Christians aren’t perfect, only forgiven. You’ve probably heard that. What bothers me about this statement is the word “only”: Christians are only forgiven, or “just forgiven.” That’s not what Paul means when he says we are “delivered from this evil age.”
Some of you know a woman named Ann Dix. She’s not a member here, but she comes to Sunday school sometimes, and I had the pleasure of getting to know her a few years ago. I was talking to her one time, and I said something like, “I’m still a sinner, but…” I’m still a sinner, but… And Ann, who knows her Bible very well looked at me and said, “You still sin, but you are not a sinner! The ‘old man’ has died,” she said. The old man has died.
And I probably looked at her like she was nuts. But you know what? I see now that she was on to something!
Listen to what Paul writes in Romans 6:6: “We know that our old self”—literally “our old man”—“was crucified with [Christ] in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” That sounds like much more than mere forgiveness, doesn’t it? We are no longer enslaved to sin.
And here’s why… I want to describe a theological doctrine called “imputation.” The truth is, I was talking about imputation a moment ago when I was talking about Christ dying for our sins and becoming a curse. Christ is able to do that for us because, on the cross, it’s as if our sins have been transferred from us to Jesus—so that he could suffer the penalty for them. In other words, our sins were imputed to Christ. But there’s something else that happens in imputation: When we place our faith in Jesus, his righteousness gets transferred to us. This concept is found in Romans 6:11: “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.”
The Greek word translated “consider yourselves,” logizomai, implies that God makes us righteous by “calling” us righteous. He speaks the word and we become righteous. That’s imputation.
Do you doubt that words, or at least God’s Word, has the power to make us righteous? If so, listen to the way Fleming Rutledge, a retired Episcopal priest, describes it in a recent book on the Crucifixion:
We tend to become what we are “regarded as.” Here, for example, are two scenes. One is a first-grade schoolroom in East Tennessee in the mid-1960s, recently integrated. Three small black boys, looking miserable, are separated from the others (all white) for special remedial attention from the white teacher. After working with them for a while, she rises from the table and says to an observer, in a stage whisper that the children surely hear, “How does anyone think they can ever learn anything?” The phrase “self-fulfilling prophecy” was invented for a situation such as that. The second scene occurs two decades later, in a supermarket in a suburban New York town. A mother is bending over a stroller containing her child, no more than two years old. With great intensity she is saying, over and over, “You’re bad! You’re bad!” What can the child have done, at that age? What grave sin had he committed? Spilled his drink? Snatched candy off the shelf? Cried from frustration? Who can doubt that the child will grow up with those words ingrained in his psyche? “You’re bad!” Words have great power. Imagine, then, the power of the Word of God saying Shamed! Condemned! Rejected!But now, because of what Christ accomplished on the cross, God is speaking words such as these to us: Beloved! Adored! The apple of my eye! Infinitely valuable to me! Righteous! This is now what you are! So the message of sanctification—of overcoming sin in our lives through the Holy Spirit and becoming holy—ought to be this: Become what you already are!
Isn’t that wonderful? If you are in Christ, God is saying this to us this morning: Become what you already are! In God’s eyes you are already righteous! Isn’t that good news?
We’re also “delivered from this evil age” because Christ has disarmed the devil of one of his most potent messages: He can no longer accuse us—remember that Satan’s name means “Accuser”—of not being righteous enough for God to accept us. He can’t say, “God can’t love you or accept you or save you… after all, look at how badly you sin.” No… From God’s eyes we are holy already. And this holiness is a gift from God! It’s the basis on which we can approach God with confidence!
Moving on… Christ’s atoning death was “according to the will of our God and Father.” This was God’s plan of salvation all along. “But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8. Finally, all the glory for salvation belongs to God “forever and ever. Amen.” Why does all the glory belong to God? Because this is completely his doing. Nothing about the process of salvation will make us glorify ourselves!
So this is Paul’s gospel of completely free grace. We contribute nothing to our salvation beyond our saying “yes” to God’s offer of salvation: We agree to be saved, in other words, which we’re only able to do after God’s prevenient grace has worked on us. I like the way Mark Galli, editor of Christianity Today, describes the human “contribution” to salvation. It’s like this:
Imagine you fall off the side of an ocean liner and, not knowing how to swim, begin to drown. Someone on the deck spots you, flailing in the water and throws you a life preserver. It lands directly in front of you and, just before losing consciousness, you grab hold for dear life. They pull you up onto the deck, and you cough the water out of your lungs. People gather around, rejoicing that you are safe and waiting expectantly while you regain your sense. After you finally catch your breath, you open your mouth and say: “Did you see the way I grabbed onto that life preserver?! How tightly I held on to it?! Did you notice the definition in my biceps and the dexterity of my wrists? I was all over that thing!”
Needless to say, it would be a bewildering and borderline insane response. To draw attention to the way you cooperated with the rescue effort denigrates the whole point of what happened, which is that you were saved. A much more likely chain of events is that you would immediately seek out the person who threw the life preserver, and you would thank them. Not just superficially, either. You would embrace them, ask them their name, invite them to dinner, maybe give them your cabin!So look at verses 3 through 5 and marvel with me that salvation is all God’s doing! But that’s the good news: He did everything necessary for us to be saved! We contribute nothing to the process!
Given Paul’s words already in this letter, imagine how Paul feels when he learns that false teachers have come into his churches. They are telling these Galatians, in so many words, “Paul nearly had it right. But he missed a couple of things… You have to add circumcision. And I know you like your bacon and ham and pork chops. You have to cut that out, too. And lobster! Because you have to follow Jewish dietary laws. By all means, Paul was right when he said you needed Jesus to be saved, but you still have to do this, this, and this… But that’s all!”
And this is what I mean when I talked about “relapse” earlier… The Galatians were set free from following the law! What happened? They’re going back to where they came from! Obviously that would be true for Jewish Christians in the church, but even Gentiles, too! Gentiles who were formerly pagans were taught that in order to please God—or the gods—they had to work really hard and prove that they were worthy! In fact, every world religion besides Christianity says, in so many words, that you have to obey these commands, follow these steps, conform to these principles, observe these practices and then, if you can successfully do that, then… you’ll go to whatever version of heaven that religion offers.
Christianity, by contrast, says, “Christ has done everything necessary for us!”
If salvation depends even to some small degree on what we do, we are no longer righteous in Christ, as I spoke about above; Christ has no longer done everything necessary to save us; and the devil can say, “No, no, no… You’re not good enough.”
Continuing on to verse 6: “I am astonished,” Paul writes, “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.”
What makes Paul so confident that he has the right gospel? Because, as he says in verse 1, he’s an apostle “not from men nor through man.” In other words, Paul says, “I’m not an apostle from men. Nor do I have the authority to teach because a mere man has given me these credentials or commissioned me or ordained me.” Paul is not like me, for instance. I’m an ordained elder in full connection in the United Methodist Church “through man”—because the BOM gave me that authority. Paul, by contrast, received his authority directly from the Risen Lord himself! Jesus himself authorized Paul to preach and teach this gospel!
So… do we have reason to believe that Paul knows what he’s talking about? Can we trust him when he says what the gospel is and isn’t? If so, then we need to hear the warning in what Paul says next, in verse 8: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” And he repeats itself in verse 9, in case we missed the point: “As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
Translation: “Let him be damned.” “Let him be cut off eternally from God.”
See, for Paul, the stakes couldn’t be higher that we get this gospel right! Paul is so confident that he’s got the gospel right that he’s willing to say to Michael the archangel, to Gabriel, the angel who visited Mary when he announced the birth of Christ, “If you preach another gospel from the one that I preach, you can go to hell!” Not that he’s worried that’s going to happen, but he’s willing to do that if necessary!
But notice he’s even calling a curse down on some future version of himself if he veers from this gospel one inch.
Why does Paul speak so strongly? Because these false teachers will lead people to hell. That’s how important it is that we get the gospel right!
Among other things, this tells us that nothing less than heaven and hell hangs in the balance… nothing less than eternal life or eternal damnation hangs in the balance. What we do here at Hampton UMC—what we teach here—matters for eternity… one way or the other! The stakes couldn’t be higher!
How does this relate to us? Are we ever guilty of preaching or believing a false gospel?
For example, do we believe in the false gospel of “just be a good person”?
Five years ago, Warren Buffett, at the time the world’s second-richest man, said he would donate 85 percent of his $44 billion fortune to five charitable foundations. When asked to comment on this extreme act of generosity, he said, “There is more than one way to get to heaven, but this is a great way.”
Do you hear the subtext: “Good people” go to heaven. Good people, for example, are generous with their money. I’m a good person; therefore I’m going to give this money away.
And I’m sure that many people heard him say that and thought he was being very inclusive, unlike those Christians who insist that we only go to heaven through faith in Jesus Christ. But I think the gospel according to Warren Buffett is much more exclusive. After all, how many of us will be as generous as him? Do we have to be that generous to be saved? Exactly what is the standard of goodness here, anyway? Do we have to be “Mother Theresa good”? Or “Pope Francis good”? Or “Billy Graham good”? For that matter, how does Warren Buffett know that giving away $37.4 billion makes him “good enough”? After all, he’ll still have $6.6 billion left over! Maybe the God whose heaven he believes he’s going to requires its inhabitants not to be billionaires at all—maybe they can only be multimillionaires!
My point is, unlike us Christians, Buffett can really have no confidence he’ll go to heaven based on being “good,” as he understands it. None of us can!
But here’s a false gospel that tends to afflict United Methodists, even people at our church: the false gospel of “easy-believism.” This is the false gospel that says, “Just get baptized… just go through confirmation… just hang out in the church a little bit: You don’t even have to come in the sanctuary for worship—just be in the building every once in a while! Just be affiliated with our church… Just make sure your name is on the church roll! It doesn’t matter how you live your life. It doesn’t matter whether the truth of the gospel has penetrated your heart. It doesn’t matter whether you have a real relationship with Christ! You’ll be O.K.!”
I had an economics professor at Georgia Tech one time who said that he wasn’t much for religion—he could take it or leave it. But he did have his name on the roll at the First Baptist Church of Atlanta… You know… just in case! Can you imagine what Charles Stanley would say to him!
But that’s the false gospel of easy-believism! It requires so little to be saved!
And some of you might be thinking, “Well, Pastor Brent, aren’t you contradicting yourself? You’ve been talking about the gospel of free grace that Paul preached, and now you’re complaining that we risk taking the gospel too lightly…too easily.
But it’s not a contradiction: See, for that professor who said his name is on the roll at First Baptist… that’s something that he believed he had to do in order to be saved! “Just in case, I’ll make sure my name is on the roll.” Warren Buffett: “Just in case—I may not make it to heaven otherwise—I better give this money away!” And even people who believe that any sincere follower of any religion will go to heaven—because, after all, all paths lead to God—would be reluctant to say that Osama bin Laden, for instance, would go to heaven… even though he was perfectly sincere in his own way. You see what I mean? We have standards about who goes to heaven! We have a bar that you have to clear!
It requires nothing to be saved! And this is why the majority of people in the world are not saved. Because they don’t have nothing. They have something. They say, “God, here’s what I’m going to bring to you! Here’s what I have to offer you. I have all these things to show for myself. I have all these great attributes!”
But no… It’s all grace from beginning to end. In order for us to be saved, we have to recognize that we have nothing to show for ourselves. And we will never have anything to show for ourselves that will count for anything! Because we don’t need to! Because Jesus has done everything that counts for us!
And if we only grasp this, we see that this is good news! Because we will be free from worrying about whether we’ll be good enough.
I talked earlier about Christ’s righteousness being imputed to me. I promise you that there are some mornings I wake up and think, “Well, Brent, how are you going to screw things up today? Brent, you’re such a failure! And you call yourself a pastor?” I think of my sin… I think of how I fall short…
What if instead I said, “Brent, you are righteous! Because of what Christ has done for you! You can’t add anything to what’s been done for you! You don’t have to! You’re free!” And if we’re free like that, then everything we do for our Lord and Savior isn’t duty…obligation… a commandment… Instead, it’s love… it’s gratitude… That’s what should motivate us to love and serve Jesus.
One more thing: Verse 10: “For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God?” Answer: He’s seeking the approval of God. “Or am I trying to please man?” Answer: No, he’s not trying to please man. “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
If Paul is right, then we need to consider this: Verse 10 does not apply only to Paul as an apostle. All of us Christians ought to share Paul’s singleminded devotion to loving and serving Jesus. Or do we think that Paul got carried away? “That’s good for Paul, but that doesn’t apply to me and my life.” No!
If you understand the gospel, then of course you understand that you should live with this same attitude! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could live your life with this one overarching thought: What can I do right now to please my Lord? And I don’t have to worry about what anyone else thinks about it. Because my only concern is, “What does Jesus think about it?”
Oh, if I could only be that free? We wouldn’t have to be enslaved to other people’s opinions of us. Well, that’s the goal… Let’s pray now that we can live with that kind of freedom! Amen?