Sermon 07-05-2020: “It’s Not What You Do, It’s Who You Are”

July 14, 2020

Scripture: Galatians 3:5-14

I grew up Southern Baptist, as some of you did. As you might know, Baptists don’t have any kind of confirmation class—you know, “everything you wanted to know about being a Christian but were afraid to ask.” There’s no formal process that leads to young people into making a profession of faith in Christ—for better or worse. Instead it happens something like this: after the pastor preaches his sermon, he makes an invitation for the congregation to receive Christ as Savior and Lord. Then, during one of twenty-six verses of the invitation hymn “Just as I Am,” people respond to this invitation by walking down the aisle, praying a sinner’s prayer, and later getting baptized. Many of you know what I’m talking about because you’ve been through it yourself. I have too. I’m not criticizing this tradition at all.

Except… in my case, at least in the church I grew up in, it would have been nice if someone had explained to me what exactly was happening. Because between the ages of about eight and twelve, I watched one Sunday school classmate after another, one friend after another, walk down the aisle and get saved. That’s what they said was happening: they were saved. And I just sat in my seat, unsure and afraid. 

For one thing, oftentimes people who walked down the aisle were in tears… and I did not want to cry in public, in church! I had a crush on a girl named Betty Jean, and I would been mortified to cry in front of her! So before long I was the only one left who hadn’t walked down the aisle. 

And I felt left out.

To make matters worse, I had a friend down the street named Wes, who was also a Baptist. Around that time I was at his birthday party. During the party, I watched him whisper in the ear of one of his friends—and he was whispering something about me. Which was kind of rude! When I confronted Wes about it, he said, “I told him that you’re not a Christian.” 

I was offended: “What do you mean I’m not a Christian? How dare you!” 

But Wes was right. Maybe he shouldn’t have put is so bluntly, but he was right! Wes knew, based on what he knew about me, that I did not know Jesus Christ as my Savior. 

But that’s not how I interpreted Wes’s words at the time. All I knew was that unlike Wes, and unlike all of my Sunday school classmates, I hadn’t yet walked down the aisle, prayed the sinner’s prayer, made a profession of faith, gotten baptized; I hadn’t yet done these things.

Because for me, at that time, that was what being a Christian meant: There are certain things I needed to do… 

I’ve told you before that each my parents experienced either a conversion or at least a deepening of their Christian faith before they died. But when I was young they taught me through their example that being a Christian was very superficial… it was on the surface… it was about keeping up appearances. For example, I was responsible in my family for cutting the grass, which I hated doing! My older sisters did the dishes; I cut the grass. But my parents wouldn’t let me cut the grass on Sunday. Did any of you have this rule? All our other neighbors cut the grass on Sunday. Not me. Because Sunday was the Sabbath, so I couldn’t work outside on Sunday—where all the neighbors might see me! I liked this rule, especially when it rained on Saturday… because then I knew that I was spared having to do it until Monday rolled around. Because we don’t cut the grass on Sunday…

So my family taught me that being a Christian was about a list of do’s and don’ts—and the most important do was walking down the aisle, praying a sinner’s prayer, making a profession of faith, getting baptized.

And here’s something else that was going on: I was afraid, even as a 12- or 13-year-old kid, I was afraid that my days were numbered… 

Because this was, after all, the early-’80s. Many of you remember the those days. There was a TV movie that came out in 1983 called The Day After. I was too scared to actually watch the movie myself, but it depicted what life would be like if the United States got into a war with the Soviet Union—the day after a nuclear holocaust. And I’ll never forget, we subscribed to Newsweek magazine back then, and they had a cover story about the movie, and it showed a guy out jogging—like it’s just a normal day—and behind him in the background was a giant mushroom cloud. Because the Russians had launched World War III. And I thought, “What if that happens to me? I like to jog!” In the weeks leading up to the movie, teachers in my high school would take time in class to talk with us about how we felt about the prospect of nuclear war. “I do not like it, thank you very much!”

We played arcade games like Missile Command, in which you had to shoot nuclear missiles out of the sky before they landed on one of your cities and wiped it out. We heard President Reagan talk about a real-life missile defense system nicknamed Star Wars. We saw movies like WarGames, in which a computer hacker played by a young Matthew Broderick nearly launches World War III by accident. The rock star Sting had a hit song and MTV video called “Russians,” in which he said that if the Russians really love their children, surely they wouldn’t attack the West with nukes.

I was impressionable; I was absorbing all these messages. And I was reasonably certain back then that I would die in a nuclear war. And to make matters worse, I knew that I wasn’t saved; I wasn’t ready to come face to face with God. Because whatever it meant to know Jesus as a personal Savior and Lord, that wasn’t true for me.

So I knew even as a young teenager that I had a spiritual problem. And I lived with this nagging question: What do I need to do to be in a right relationship with God? And how will I know when I’ve done enough?

Well… how would the apostle Paul answer these questions from today’s scripture? 

He would say this: If being saved were a matter of what we do, we can never do enough! He would say that God’s plan from the beginning is that we would be saved—or justified, or made right with God, or declared righteous before God—through faith in Jesus Christ. He would say that God always intended for salvation to be based on faith and nothing but.

Recall the situation in the Galatian churches: False teachers, known as Judaizers, had infiltrated these churches. And they were teaching the Galatians this: “If you want to be saved, faith in Jesus is important and necessary, but… you also have to also do some things.” In this case, they said, you have to be circumcised—if you’re a man, at least—and you have to eat certain foods, and avoid eating other foods, and you have to observe these holy days and festivals.”

Now, is there anything wrong with being circumcised, or following dietary laws, or observing certain holy days and festivals? No. Even today, I have met, and I know of, many Jewish Christians who cherish their Jewish identity and heritage and continue to follow Jewish customs and rituals—even as they also believe in and worship Jesus. And there is nothing wrong with that! Why? Because they’re not depending on their Jewish identity, they’re not depending on the performance of rituals and customs, they’re not depending on anything they have to do: they’re depending on Christ alone to save them!

And this is where I went wrong when I was growing up in church: In order to be saved, I believed I had to do certain things—even perfectly good things—like walking down the aisle and praying a sinner’s prayer, or getting baptized, or going to church regularly, or avoiding certain sins… those things are good in and of themselves. But none of these things—by themselves, apart from faith in Christ—can save us!

No… God never intended for us to be saved by anything that we can do; salvation was always based on faith alone. 

To make this point, Paul goes all the way back to the beginning—to Abraham. God made him a promise: God told him that even though he and Sarah were unable to have children when they were young and of childbearing age, God was going to work a miracle and give them a son. And through that son, their descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. And the most important part of this promise was that one of his descendants—Jesus Christ—would save the world from its sin. And in Genesis 15:6, which Paul quotes in verse 6, Abraham, he says, “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.”

This is nothing other than the gospel, Paul says, way back in the first book of the Bible! God was telling Abraham through his spoken Word to him back then, and he’s telling us through his written Word today, that we are brought into a right relationship with God through faith alone! The moment Abraham believed, it’s as if righteousness was credited to Abraham’s account. 

Let’s say you work really hard in your career—and you earn a billion dollars! Let’s say your best friend doesn’t work hard at all, but a rich person he knows transfers a billion dollars into his account… as a free, unearned gift. No strings attached! That’s a good friend!

So who has more money? You… or your friend? 

That’s a silly question: you have exactly the same amount of money, whether you worked hard for it or whether it was credited to your account. This is precisely Paul’s point about being righteous before God—except, unlike the possibility of earning a billion dollars, we can’t “work hard enough” to earn our standing before God! If we’re going to be made righteous, it’s only because of what God does for us through Christ—which we receive only by faith.

Does that make sense? 

And that’s Paul’s gospel; and I hope that’s my gospel; because that’s the only gospel there is!

I told you earlier that I recognized as a 13-year-old that I had a spiritual problem; I was afraid of dying because I was afraid of what happened next—I wanted my sins forgiven; I wanted eternal life but I didn’t know what to do, as I’ve said, or how to receive it. I told my parents, and they signed me up for a youth retreat the following month, in Black Mountain, North Carolina—near Montreat, where Billy Graham lived.

When I went on this retreat, I was hoping that I would get the equivalent of a “Get Out of Hell Free” card, redeemable upon death. You know? Because I thought that being a Christian was mostly a one-time decision to accept Christ, and once you make it…well, it didn’t matter what you did for the rest of your life… when you died, you would go to heaven..

But of course, when the Lord got hold of me on that retreat, he gave me something so much better than a “get out of hell free” card! 

In fact, God gave me what Paul refers to in verses 13 and 14: Because of what Christ did for us on the cross—“redeeming us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us”—God gave Gentiles like us “the blessing of Abraham”—which is forgiveness of sin, eternal life, salvation—“so that”—get this—“so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.”

It almost sounds like receiving the promised Spirit is the most important consequence of the gospel—like receiving the Spirit is the main goal! Doesn’t it?

If you read my social media posts regularly, you know that for the past year, my dog Ringo has served as a living parable of God’s love for me—thank you, Jesus. It’s true! And it was especially true two weeks ago.

Ringo became seriously ill. He ate something he shouldn’t have. Not that he doesn’t often eat things he shouldn’t eat—or at least try to—but this time his digestive system couldn’t handle whatever it was. He was dehydrated and lethargic. Frankly, I thought we might lose him. My family and I were heartbroken and worried.

Ringo spent Saturday night at a veterinary hospital. And I’ll never forget the experience of watching the vet technician walk Ringo across the parking lot into the hospital. Because of the pandemic, we weren’t allowed to go with him. And it’s not like we could explain to him what’s going on—we couldn’t reassure him in any way. And when Ringo got to the door, I promise you, he stopped and looked back at us. His expression said something like this: “Why are you doing this to me? What did I do wrong? Is it over between us?”

I felt so much love for him in that moment… It wrecked me! Later, when I was praying and reading scripture, this thought struck me: the intense pain and longing I felt for Ringo in that moment must be something like God’s love for his children—only better… because God’s love is perfect and infinitely stronger.

And I know I’m a child of my heavenly Father… why? Because, as Paul says in verse 14: God has given me his Holy Spirit. And one of the most amazing promises about the Holy Spirit is found in Romans 8:16: “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” 

The Spirit reassures me and reminds me that I’m a child of my heavenly Father. I know it deep in my bones! In the core of my being! So bring a Christian is not about doing, it’s about belonging!

So I think of how my heart went out to Ringo in that parking lot two weeks ago—how I thought, “What wouldn’t I do for this creature that I love? What wouldn’t I give for him? What wouldn’t I do, if it were in my power, to rescue him from any harm and always work in his best interest?”

If I felt that way about Ringo, how does my infinitely powerful heavenly Father feel about me—his beloved son?

I want you to know that your Father loves you like that! And you can know that!

How? 

There’s a great old hymn that puts it like this:

Cast your deadly “doing” down—

Down at Jesus’ feet;

Stand in him, in him alone,

Gloriously complete.

Amen.

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