Scripture: Galatians 1:1-10
I am this close to deleting the Twitter app on my phone. I don’t know if I’m sanctified enough to get rid of Twitter yet—because I love it so much! I wake up in the morning—and first thing, I reach for my phone: “I gotta check Twitter!” Even though it only seems to get me angry and worked up and righteously indignant these days.
But… speaking of anger and Twitter, I saw an angry tweet from a young woman in the Atlanta suburbs this past week. I gather that she is still a teenager, 17 or 18, and that she goes to or recently graduated from an elite high school in metro Atlanta. Anyway, the tweet was calling out—by name—her classmates, acquaintances, and now former friends for being racist. Even more, underneath the tweet, she linked to one smartphone video after another of these white, highly privileged high school kids using the N-word and other racial epithets—again, on video for all the world to see. And since this is the internet, all the world will be able to see the sins of these young people, I suppose, for the rest of their lives.
So… When these kids apply to college… when they apply for a job… when they fall in love… when they run for office, if they do… these videos will haunt them forever, potentially.
The whole thing, frankly, terrifies me. Even if, or to whatever extent, I’m not a racist, I have plenty of other bad and sinful things to answer for. And I’m relieved about this fact: when I have been at my sinful worst as a human being, no one has ever had a smartphone handy to capture the moment—for all the world to see… for the rest of my life! Thank God! And thank God there’s no smartphone yet invented that can see deeply into my heart—and perceive my innermost thoughts and feelings! Thank God that, in the absence of smartphone evidence to the contrary, I’m able to maintain the illusion that I’m a respectable sinner!
What about you?
So when I saw that tweet—and the people retweeting it—it was like all these angry people were saying, “I’m not like these people! I’m better than all these people who said these terrible things!” And I wanted to say, “Are you sure? What would people think about you if your worst, most sinful moments in life were being broadcast on video for all the world to see—or we had some device that could read our thoughts, which someone would then share with all the world? Don’t we all have more than enough sins to answer for—including the vast majority of our sins, which the world at large will never know about?
Don’t we all need grace all the time!
Fortunately, more than anything, that’s what Paul’s letter to the Galatians is all about! Galatians is Paul’s masterpiece about grace—about how every aspect of our salvation—including our present, ongoing relationship with God—depends on God from start to finish!
And why do the Galatians need to hear this message? Because they’ve become confused about it. They’ve become confused about the the very heart of the gospel.
Paul and Barnabas started these Galatian churches on their first missionary journey, which you can read about in Acts 13 and 14. Before the Galatians were converted, they were hard-core pagans. In fact, when Paul and Barnabas came to one town in Galatia, Paul miraculously healed a man who couldn’t walk. And the people of the town who saw it believed that Paul and Barnabas were Greek gods come down from Mt. Olympus to visit them. They tried to worship Barnabas as Zeus and Paul as Hermes. It’s funny because you read about the Greek mythology in school, but here in Acts 14 is a contemporaneous account of people who sincerely believed in the Greek gods!
Anyway, now these former pagans are Christians. And Paul and Barnabas have been away from their churches for no more than a year or two. And they’ve gotten word that false teachers have infiltrated their churches—and they were telling the Galatians something like this:
“Look, Paul is a great guy and all, but he didn’t preach the gospel exactly right. He got it just a little bit wrong. It’s not like Paul was one of the original twelve apostles, after all. And so we teachers have come to correct Paul’s mistake.
“See, Paul taught you that we are justified—i.e., our sins are forgiven, and we’re brought into a right relationship with God—through faith in Christ alone by grace alone—and that is almost right: Of course we need Jesus to have our sins forgiven, and of course we need grace to be made right with God… but… we still need to do our small part. We still need to add just a few things… just a few small things to Paul’s gospel… in order to be fully accepted by God. And of course, since all of you are former pagans, and not Jews, you wouldn’t understand these things without our help, so we’re here to help: you need to understand that God requires all Christian men to be circumcised—ouch! And of course all of you, both men and women, will need to follow Jewish dietary laws and observe all these Jewish festivals and holidays. To be Christians, in other words, you first have to become Jewish first… And then, once you do that… it’s all grace from here on out. Everything else Paul said was exactly right.”
Granted, getting circumcised as an adult without anesthesia in the first century seems like a big deal to me, but besides that, what the Judaizers were asking for wasn’t all that much. Grace takes us most of the way there, but then our own human efforts take us the rest of the way. What’s the harm in that?
“We still believe in Jesus,” they might have said. “We still believe you need Jesus to be saved. But doesn’t it seem perfectly reasonable that God expects us to do something, to play some role in saving ourselves—apart from surrendering to Jesus and confessing our utter inability to save ourselves? So out of an abundance of caution—that’s what everyone is saying about coronavirus—out of an abundance of caution, what harm would it cause to require Gentile Christians to do these extra things? We’re not taking away from Paul’s gospel; we’re just adding to it.”
But Paul is having none of it! “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.”
In other words, Paul writes, if you think that by adding a few requirements to the gospel you’re somehow pleasing God, you’re wrong: You’re actually deserting God. By Paul’s math, the gospel plus a few small works doesn’t equal something more than the gospel—but something less. From Paul’s perspective, the gospel plus any human effort means you lose the gospel entirely! That’s why stakes are so high for Paul. Look at verses 8 and 9, you will be eternally separated from God if you get the gospel wrong!
The gospel is not Christ plus something else; the gospel is Christ alone! The gospel is, Christ has done everything necessary for you to be saved! You can add nothing to it!
See, the gospel is good news… Not good advice. Do you see the difference? I like the way pastor Tim Keller puts it:
Advice is counsel about what you must do. News is a report about what has already been done. Advice urges you to make something happen. News urges you to recognize something that has already happened and to respond to it. Advice says it is all up to you to act. News says someone else has acted.
Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.
However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers… The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything.
There’s something within us that is deeply uncomfortable with the radical nature of God’s grace. There’s something within us that makes us want to do something to earn it, rather than rest in the fact that Christ has done everything for us.
When I was growing up in the Briarcliff Baptist Church youth group, we would have a winter retreat every February and a summer camp in the summer. I’ve told you before that a couple of years I came right here, to Toccoa, Georgia, for camp. And the climax of each of these retreats was always the last night—when the youth pastor would offer an invitation to “accept Christ” as Savior and Lord. We also talked about “making a commitment.” There’s nothing wrong with these invitations at all—so long as we understand that “accepting Christ” isn’t so much something that we do as something that’s done for us! There’s nothing wrong with making a “commitment,” so long as we understand that our commitment to Christ is infinitesimally small in comparison to his commitment to us. By all means, we receive the “gift of salvation,” but that gift has already been purchased by the blood of Jesus and gift-wrapped and handed to us by Jesus Christ when we have faith!
But my point is, there was a guy active in my youth group named Rick—and on the last night of each of these retreats and camps, during the invitation, you could count on Rick coming forward in tears to “accept Christ”—except this time… this time he really meant it!
Why did he do this every time… Because, God bless him, he failed to understand that our salvation is based on what Christ has already done for him, and not what he does. He would say, “Yes, but you don’t understand! I made a commitment six months ago, and I blew it! I’ve sinned in so many ways! I have utterly failed to be a good Christian!”
Yes, you have. But is your sin somehow more powerful than the cross of Jesus Christ?
See, Rick was thinking, “I obviously don’t believe in Jesus sincerely enough, or strongly enough, or passionately enough. Or else I wouldn’t be struggling like this!”
But do you see what Rick was doing? He was adding to the gospel. “My salvation depends in part on me, and what I bring to the table—it depends on the purity, the sincerity, and the strength of my faith.”
No! You’re saved by faith in Christ and what’s he done, not by how strongly or sincerely you believe it!
Let’s say you’re sliding off the side of a mountain, and you will surely die when you hit the bottom. But you see a vine pushing through the mountainside. It doesn’t take a strong faith in the vine for that branch to save you. If it’s your only chance to be saved, you’re going to reach out and grab hold of it. It doesn’t take a strong faith to save you; it takes a strong vine to save you! And Jesus is like that strong vine!
[16-year-old Billy Graham: “This means I can murder someone, and I’ll still be saved”… Well, if you’re in Christ, that’s true… Remember the smartphone videos I mentioned earlier. You’re walking around with those videos playing in your head. The devil is saying, “Remember this sin. God doesn’t love you anymore…” They are deleted… 2 Corinthians 5:21.]
[Field Day… the green ribbon, “Honorable Mention”… It’s true that apart from Christ we all get the green ribbon of failure for our efforts to be righteous on our own. But when we become Christians, we trade in the green ribbons for blue! Christ won that for us through his death and resurrection…]
My son, My son, why are you striving
You can’t add one thing to what’s been done for you
I did it all while I was dying
Rest in your faith, my peace will come to you
For when I hear the praises start
I want to rain upon you
Blessings that will fill your heart
I see no stain upon you
Because you are my child and you know me
To Me you’re only holy
Nothing that you’ve done remains
Only what you do for Me