Scripture: Galatians 3:1-5
Not long ago, Paul McCartney gave an interview with Esquire magazine. He was asked if he felt like he still had something to prove. “Yeah, all the time,” he said. “And it is a silly feeling.”
I do actually sometimes talk to myself and say, “Wait a minute: look at this little mountain of achievements. There’s an awful lot of them. Isn’t that enough?” But maybe I could do it a bit better… I mean, I never felt like, “Oh, I did good.” Nobody does.
Wait! So Paul McCartney, who is literally the world’s wealthiest rock star, who was one of the two primary singer-songwriters in a group that sold more records than anyone else, who once wrote a song, “Yesterday,” that people loved so much that other recording artists recorded it more than any other song in the history of recorded music—this same Paul McCartney says that even he “never feels like” he did good—or that he did good enough—and therefore he has something to prove.
He says to himself, “Look at this mountain of achievements… Isn’t that enough?” And for him, the answer is no. And he says the answer is no for the rest of us, too.
I think he’s on to something. Apart from the gospel of Jesus Christ, we will never feel good enough; we will always feel like we have something to prove; and we will never be happy in any lasting way. What we need, at every moment of our lives, is the gospel of Jesus Christ.
This is Paul’s message to the Galatians in today’s scripture.
To refresh your memory, Paul is writing to a group of churches that Paul and Barnabas started just a couple of years earlier on their first missionary journey. There are not many Jewish Christians in these churches. They are mostly Gentile Christians—which means that these were people who not long ago were pagan idolaters and polytheists. They believed in many gods.
In fact—it’s kind of funny to read about now—but you can read Luke’s account of the experience of Paul and Barnabas in Galatia, in Acts 14. Paul was preaching the gospel to a crowd of people. There was a man in the crowd who had a disability from birth. And Paul healed him, miraculously, through the Holy Spirit. And do you know what happened after that? Verse 11: People in the crowd “lifted their voices… saying, ‘The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men.’” They called Barnabas “Zeus,” the chief of the gods, and they called Paul “Hermes” because Hermes was the “messenger god,” and Paul was the one talking. And immediately, Luke tells us, the priest of Zeus—there was a temple to Zeus nearby—the priest brought “oxen and garlands… and wanted to offer sacrifice with the crowds”—wanted to offer sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas, who they believed were gods! And Paul and Barnabas tore their clothes as a sign of grief—“No, you can’t do this! We’re men just like you! We’re no different from you!” Then Luke says in verse 18, “Even with these words they”—Paul and Barnabas—“scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them.”
Why were these Galatians so eager to sacrifice to these men that they believed were gods?
So that “the gods” would be pleased with them; so that the gods would accept them, relent from punishing them for their sins, forgive them, show them their favor, bless them in some way. For these Galatians, being in a right relationship with “the gods” was all about what we human beings have to do for them—to appease the gods; to keep them happy. And historians of the ancient world tell us that this was a source of constant anxiety for pagans like these Galatians.
If you turn over to Acts 17, you read about Paul’s experience in Athens, where the people practiced the same Greek religion as the Galatians. And they had idols all over the city. And one of the idols, which Paul later remarks upon, is an idol dedicated “to an unknown god.” Why did the Greeks erect this idol? Just in case they failed to honor all the gods… just in case they left out a god… and that particular god got his feelings hurt because of their omission… and decided to punish them because of it… this was their way of apologizing in advance.
Like Paul McCartney said, “You feel like you can never do enough.” Well, that’s exactly how these Galatians felt before they heard and responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ. “We feel like we can never do enough to please this god.” But the gospel said, “You don’t have to do anything to please God; because God’s Son Jesus has done everything necessary to please God on your behalf. The gospel says that because we were unable to do enough to be acceptable to God, God did everything for us through Christ.” Remember, I said this a few weeks ago: the gospel is not good advice—you must do this, that, and the other thing to be saved. No, it’s good news—here’s what God has done for you through his Son’s atoning death on the cross.
This was a radical message for these former pagans. What a relief! I don’t have to do anything—I don’t have to worry that I’ve failed to do something and miss out on salvation. All I do is respond through faith. As Paul says in Romans 10:9, “Because if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved… For everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.” Romans 10:13.
And yet, Paul is writing this letter because these former pagans are in danger of slipping back into this way of thinking: that they must do something else. The Judaizers were telling the Galatians that they needed to add human effort to the finished work of Christ on the cross—in this case getting circumcised and following Jewish dietary laws.
And this is why he tells the Galatians in verse 1, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.”
In other words, the gospel of Jesus Christ is about what Christ has done for us on the cross, and it shows us that Jesus has already done everything we need to be accepted by God, forgiven by God, loved by God. Look to the cross and what Jesus has done, not to yourself and what you have to do!
We Methodists sometimes struggle with this! I know a church that has a church logo that includes a tagline—you know, a graphic with the church name and a few words that describe what that church is all about. Many churches, of course, have logos with taglines. Nothing wrong with that.
But this one church logo says, “Such-and-such United Methodist Church: Do Good.”
So what’s wrong with that? Do good. Aren’t we Christians supposed to be all about doing good.
Well, yes, but literally every other religion in the world could have that as its tagline: Do good. In fact, every other religion in the world, besides Christianity, says something like this: Do good… or do enough good… and then maybe God or “the gods” will accept you.
Christianity begins very differently: It says, “You can’t do good,” or you can’t do enough good apart from God’s grace, therefore God has done all the good necessary through his Son Jesus for you. As Romans 5:8 says, “For God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
In other words, every other religion says, “Do good, and God might accept you.” Christianity says, “God accepts you”—because of what Jesus has done—“and God then gives you his Spirit to enable you to do good.”
The point is, it’s never about what we do… How else could the apostle Paul make this startling statement in 1 Corinthians 15:10: “I worked harder than any of [the other apostles]”—that sounds like bragging. But not so fast… He goes on… “though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” I worked hard, but actually it wasn’t me doing the work; it was the Holy Spirit doing it through me. Whenever Paul talks about grace, he’s talking about the activity of the Spirit. This is precisely what he means in verse 3: “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” When he says “perfected by the flesh,” he means “perfected by your own human efforts.”
Listen, each one of us will one day stand before God in judgment and give and account for our lives—either after death or when Jesus returns. On what basis do we expect to receive eternal life? Are we supposed say, as Paul McCartney said in the interview, “Look at my little mountain of achievements, God. Isn’t this enough?” Or do we instead say, ‘I’ve got nothing to show for myself, but I can tell you about Jesus on the cross!’”
Being a Christian, Paul says, from beginning to end, is about what God does for you, in you, and through you, supernaturally, by his Holy Spirit—and the way God does this is not based on your efforts, your work, the things you do. But it does depend on something. See verses 2 and 5: the Holy Spirit does his good work in our life, Paul says, “by hearing with faith,” or by hearing and believing. Hearing and believing what?
Hearing and believing what?
Hearing and believing the gospel. Look at verse 2: You first become a Christian and receive the Spirit by hearing and believing the gospel. And look at verse 5: God continues to “supply the Spirit and work miracles among you”—including the ongoing, miraculous process of
sanctification, changing you from the inside out, making you holy—the exact same way: “by hearing with faith,” by hearing the gospel and believing it.
By the way, where do we hear the gospel? Is it only in a revival meeting, or in an old rerun of a Billy Graham Crusade, or in a gospel tract, or when an evangelist offers an invitation to receive Christ… or is it only found in the four gospels of the New Testament? No… it’s found throughout the pages of the entire Bible. In fact, my Wednesday night Bible study is all about hearing the gospel even in the Old Testament! The primary way we “hear the gospel” is by reading, studying, meditating upon God’s Word.
Are we doing that?
Because verse 5 convicts me. Remember, in this verse Paul is speaking of people like us who are already saved. Notice what he says, “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith?” That’s a rhetorical question. Paul knows, and the Galatians know, that the answer is “by hearing with faith.” But in order for Paul to ask this question, the Galatians already have to agree with Paul that they possess the Holy Spirit, that they’ve seen evidence of the Spirit’s power; indeed, that Holy Spirit has worked miracles among them.
In other words, they can’t answer Paul, “Well, maybe we haven’t received the Spirit… we haven’t experienced him in our lives… we haven’t seen any miracles.” No… they have! They know they have! There’s no doubt about it! Could we at Toccoa First Methodist say the same thing? “Do I even know if I’ve received the Spirit? Where’s the evidence?”
I long for us as a church to experience the Holy Spirit in such a powerful, supernatural, miraculous way! Don’t you? Let’s take responsibility for our part!
Inasmuch as we’re not experiencing this supernatural power in our lives and in our church, is it because we’re not hearing and believing the gospel? If that describes us, let’s cry out to Jesus, like the man in the gospels, “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!”
Jesus says, “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him.” Let’s ask the Father to give us the Holy Spirit… Of course we already have him, but we need more of him! Amen?
Paul says that even we Christians still need to hear the gospel. We never outgrow it. Our Christian life begins with the gospel, continues with the gospel, and ends with the gospel.
Let me give you a practical and timely example of how this works. Just last week, my family was talking about what our future grandchildren will call Lisa and me. Don’t worry… it’s not going to happen any time soon! But the name “Grumpy” was suggested for yours truly. Well, it kind of sounds like “Grandpa,” and—as my family is happy to point out—it also kind of sounds like Brent, because I can be grumpy.
I’m glad we can laugh about it, but grumpiness is perhaps the mildest form of an otherwise deadly sin: the sin of anger. And I know what some of you are thinking: “But Jesus got angry! Remember when he overturned the moneychangers tables and drove out the livestock in the Temple? Anger is okay!” And I admit I used to tell myself that; I used to coddle my anger. It’s no big deal, I thought. “I’m righteously angry, after all. I have good reasons to be angry.”
But you know when my attitude started to change? I was talking to a friend who was a very successful attorney in Atlanta. And I joked with him about an incident involving an angry outburst. I thought it was no big deal, and I thought he would sympathize with me. Instead, he looked at me very seriously and said, “Brent, there’s nothing that you can say or do in anger that you can’t say or do better without being angry.” Naturally, I got angry and wanted to punch him when he said that. But he was right!
By all means, Jesus was capable of getting angry without sinning, but guess what? I’m not Jesus!” And that’s why Jesus and the rest of the Bible warn against getting angry!
But how do I solve this problem? By trying really hard to overcome anger in my life? By sheer willpower? By willpower I was intending to lose ten pounds during quarantine, and that didn’t work, either.
Anyway, when we were talking about how my future grandkids might call me “Grumpy,” I’m happy to say that my favorite daughter—I don’t have a favorite son, but I have a favorite daughter—she made an excellent point. She said, “Who knows? Dad might be so sanctified by the time we have grandkids that the name ‘Grumpy’ won’t even apply!”
That’s the spirit! I am “moving on to perfection,” as we Methodists say, and I hope she’s right! But inasmuch as I am overcoming my sin of anger, it’s happening as I apply the gospel to my problem.
Pastor Tim Keller actually talks about anger in his commentary on this text:
Instead of just hoping that God will remove our anger or simply exercising will-power against it, we should ask: If I am being angry and unforgiving, what is it that I think I need so much? What is being withheld that I think that I must have if I am to feel complete, to have hope, to be a person of worth? Usually, deep anger is because of something like that. It might be that we want comfort above all other things, and someone has made our lives harder, so we grow angry with them. It might be that we’re worshiping other people’s approval and so we get angry with anyone who in some way thwarts our bid for popularity and respect.
So there’s something I think I need to be happy, to feel good about myself, to feel like I’m a worthy person, and someone or something is preventing me from having it—or is taking it away. Maybe like Paul McCartney said, I need to have this “little mountain of achievements,” so I can have the glory, but someone else is stealing the spotlight, or someone else is knocking down my moutain. And that makes me angry.
But then I remember the gospel. “Brent, you don’t think you’re getting what you need? Are you kidding? Look at Christ ‘publicly portrayed as crucified.’ Because that happened, the Bible says that you’re a beloved son of God on whom God’s favor rests! The Bible says that through faith in Christ you’re a member of the most powerful ‘royal family’ in the world—in the universe—because you’re part of God’s royal family. The Bible says that, spiritually speaking, you’re seated with Christ in heaven. The Bible says that God is for you, therefore nothing and no one can be against you! The Bible says that at this very moment, because God loves you exactly as much as he loves his only begotten Son Jesus, he is working everything that’s happening in the world for your good. The Bible says that nothing can separate you from God’s great love! The Bible says that God wants you to be happy in a lasting, permanent way—not in the fleeting sort of way that we usually settle for.
“So if you’re upset because things aren’t going according to your plans, that’s only because things are going exactly according to God’s plans for you—and his plans are so much better! Will you trust him? Will you believe him?”
That’s what it means to “hear and believe the gospel,” and that’s what we need no matter what we’re going through. Amen?