Sermon 06-07-2020: “The Gospel of Completely Free Grace”

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 circumcisedouch! 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

3 thoughts on “Sermon 06-07-2020: “The Gospel of Completely Free Grace””

  1. Good points. However, I note that this appears to be a controversial subject, with plenty of scriptures that can be cited either way. For example, just earlier today I corresponded with a local Methodist minister (unfortunately likely a “false prophet,” sad to say–he teaches that everyone eventually ends up in heaven, even if they have a “temporary layover” in hell–go figure!) via email about the subject of this past Sunday’s lesson in our quarterly–“The cost of discipleship.” The lesson focused on Jesus’ retorts to his three would-be “followers;” following which Jesus says, “If any man does not hate his father, mother, etc., yes, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” In other words, a substantial “commitment” seems to be required. I don’t know the answer to reconciling this with Galatians, but it does appear to me that while there is no obligation to “become Jewish” (or even Baptist!), you do have to be willing to confess Jesus as “Savior AND LORD” (Paul in Romans) to “seal the deal” (a deal which you in no way deserve or can “earn”). What do you think?

    1. What you say about this Methodist minister doesn’t surprise me. So many of them are at least soft universalists. Do you know where this pastor went to seminary?

      Nothing we do can “seal the deal” by adding anything to the finished work of Christ on the cross. Good works naturally follow saving faith; they are, indeed, a necessary sign of faith that is genuine. I think that answers the “Lordship” question.

      1. I just can’t shake this idea that there must be a “commitment” in response to God’s “love offer” to have the eternal relationship. We don’t have to “become Jewish” or do any other particular thing to be “part of the group” (which is why Paul was so upset with Peter). But that does not detract from saying, “I do.” I take Paul’s discussion of the marriage relationship (as to which he says, “But I speak of Christ and the Church”) as illustrative of this. At least in biblical days, the man courted the wife, proposed to the wife, and even paid a “dowry” to the father to be permitted to marry her. The wife did nothing. Except, NOT “nothing” after all–she still said, “Forsaking all others, till death do us part–I do.” Without her responsive “commitment,” no marriage relationship was consummated.

        This strikes me as very consistent with many of Jesus’s teachings about true discipleship (which, in case of any doubt, surely we can take Jesus’s word on the subject!). After all, in the passage I mentioned, he went so far as to say, “If a man does not hate his father, mother, etc., yes and even his own life also, he CANNOT BE MY DISCIPLE.” Hard to get more of a requirement to “commitment” than that, right? Give up anything and everything which might be a competitor. We must “take up our cross.” We must “count the cost.” The rich young ruler was told that he must give up everything he owned, and come follow, and he went away sad, because he had much wealth that he was not willing to give up, as a result of which Jesus said, “How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven.” Far from being any easy thing to get to heaven, Jesus said straight is the gate, and narrow is the way that leads to life, and few there be who find it. He even said he will say to some who say, “Lord, Lord, did we not cast out demons in your name?,” in response to whom he will say, “I never knew you. Depart from me, you workers of iniquity.” “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

        I don’t think we can leave these verses to the side by simply saying, “Yes, but good works will follow if the faith is genuine.” WHY will good works follow? Follow from WHAT? From the COMMITMENT. If the commitment is real, certainly then good works will follow. James says, “You say you believe there is one God–good! The devils also believe, and tremble. Don’t you know that faith without works is dead?” So, though we can never “do enough” to EARN our way to heaven (perfection would be required if it were to be “earned,” and “all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God”), this does not mean that no “change” is required to, as I say, “seal the deal.” “REPENT, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” both John the Baptist (he who “prepared the way”) and Jesus preached. Paul himself says in Acts, “I preached to all men everywhere that they must repent.” As you know, “repent” means “to turn around.” It means to “follow” Jesus. “FOLLOW ME, and I will make you fishers of men,” Jesus tells his disciples. And so it is with ALL who will be Jesus’ disciples. Repentance is required for salvation.

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