Scripture: Galatians 5:1-12
We’ve just read Paul’s most impassioned, angriest words in all of the New Testament! Verse 12: “I wish those who unsettle you would would emasculate themselves!” This is heavy sarcasm, in case you missed it! It’s as if he were saying, “Hey, Judaizers! If you’re going to pervert the gospel by insisting that Gentile Christians get circumcised in order to be saved, why stop at circumcision? Why not go all the way and castrate yourselves while you’re at it!” That’s what he’s saying!
Paul is righteously angry here. Why?
Because for Paul, the issue confronting the Galatians is nothing less than a salvation issue. Because for Paul nothing other than heaven or hell hangs in the balance of the Galatians’ choice to go back into slavery under the law or to live free as a child of God. Because for Paul, if the Galatians buy into the theology that these false teachers are selling—if they start trusting in something or someone other than or in addition to Christ alone to save them through faith alone, they will not be saved at all!
I mean, look at his words in verses 3 and 4: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.”
Have you ever heard someone speak about “falling away from grace,” or, more commonly, “falling from grace”? When preachers or others talk about “falling away from grace,” I don’t think this is what they usually have in mind!
Listen: if you know your Methodist doctrine, you may know that we Wesleyan Christians believe that it is possible for Christians who were at one time justified, or in a right relationship with God, to “backslide”—that is, to “fall away from grace” and even lose their salvation. That certainly seems like what Paul is warning against here, doesn’t it?
Many Christians disagree with the Wesleyan doctrine of backsliding. Baptists, for instance, believe in “once saved, always saved.” Reformed Christians, like Presbyterians, talk about the “perseverance of the saints,” which is the same idea: If you at one time genuinely receive Christ as Savior and Lord, you will be saved. No matter what. You can be confident of that. In my opinion this is strictly a secondary issue over which there’s no need for Christians to divide.
Because let’s say you’re a Baptist who doesn’t believe in backsliding. Like everyone else you know people who make a profession of faith in Christ, and promise to love and follow Jesus, who get baptized, only later to fall away from the faith. If you’re Baptist you would say that when someone has “fallen away from grace” it’s only because they never possessed saving grace in the first place.
So whether you believe, like Methodists, that it’s possible to be saved at one and time and lose your salvation, or that you begin to live like a Christian but were never truly saved and later fall away, the end result is the same: unless you repent and believe in Jesus, you will be eternally separated from God!
Regardless, when we talk about backsliding, or “falling away from grace,” what Paul says in today’s scripture isn’t normally what we have in mind. Because we think that this “falling away” normally happens when Christians manage to “sin away” their salvation—they sin and sin and sin some more. Until finally they find themselves on the outside of God’s kingdom looking in.
That simply isn’t the kind of backsliding that Paul worries about very much.
If you don’t believe me, consider the Corinthian Christians. If you were in my 1 Corinthians Bible study—before the pandemic hit and the world turned upside down—you’ll recall that Paul was writing to a badly dysfunctional and sin-filled church—a church that was sinning in spectacular ways—in a wide variety of ways—both large sins and small sins, at least according to the way as we usually understand sin.
And Paul never gets nearly as passionate or angry about the Corinthians’ sinful behavior as he does about the Galatians in today’s scripture.
In 1 Corinthians 5, for instance, Paul is talking about a man in the church who’s committing a grievous sin that I can’t mention in church without moving this family-friendly sermon into PG-13 territory. You can look it up. My point is, even that man, Paul says, hasn’t yet passed a point of no return; Paul says that he has not currently “fallen away from grace”… not that he isn’t in danger of falling away—but at the moment even he is still saved. Then in the next chapter, in 1 Corinthians 6, Paul is talking to Christian men in the church—likely married men—who are sleeping with prostitutes. And this seems so obviously wrong to us, but Paul is having to explain to them, and warn them about, why Christians are not permitted to do that sort of thing!
But even in that case, he is writing to them as fellow Christians—not as men who have “fallen away from grace.”
Elsewhere he warns Christians in the church that they’re not permitted to go into a pagan temple, filled with idols, and participate in any way in pagan festivals or worship services. And again… the Christians who are doing this, he says, are still part of the Body of Christ. They haven’t “fallen away from grace.”
Not to mention all the Christians in Corinth who, Paul says, are committing so-called “smaller” sins, respectable kinds of sins, related to pride and hypocrisy. These Christians, likewise, haven’t “fallen away from grace.”
Indeed, at the very beginning of 1 Corinthians—when he addresses these sinful Christians in this sin-filled church—in verse 2, Paul writes: “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” Literally that means they are saints—already… because of what Christ accomplished for them through the shedding his precious blood on the cross—and through their faith in what Christ accomplished.
Yes, they are engaging in seriously sinful behavior; yes, they ought to repent; yes, the Holy Spirit is still working to change them from within so that they will stop sinning, but in spite of all that, in spite of their sin, because of their faith in Christ they are still accepted by God… they are still loved by God… they are still beloved sons and daughters of God… they still enjoy God’s blessings and favor… God hasn’t given up on them; God hasn’t turned his back on them; God isn’t going to condemn them… because nothing they can do… not even their seriously sinful behavior… can, in and of itself, separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus!
What does Paul say in verse 6: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.” It’s as if Paul were saying, “None of you were saved because of all the good works that you did in the past, or that you promised to do in the future; your salvation had nothing to do with you and what you can do. Therefore, it follows logically that you won’t be unsaved because of your failure to do good works; you won’t be unsaved because of anything you do, including your sin.”
It’s only by faith that we’re saved!
This is the radical message of the completely free grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ! It’s almost offensive; no, it is offensive… Verse 11: “But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.” What does preaching circumcision have to do with the “offense of the cross”: because the cross reminds us that we can do nothing at all to deserve God’s amazing free gift of eternal life! God had to do everything to save us!
I mean, give the Judaizers credit: they were preaching a respectable kind of religion; the kind that makes sense to us: “God has done his part; now you have to do your part. It’s a two-way street. Of course you need to perform these good works! Consider what God has done for you.” You’ve got to pay back at least a little bit for God’s gift of eternal life. Right? That only makes sense.
By the way, this is exactly what the Prodigal Son thought. Remember that great parable from Luke 15? After the younger completely squandered his father’s inheritance, he thinks, “I’m no longer worthy to be treated as my father’s son. So here’s what I’ll do… ‘Make me like one of your hired servants. At least I’ll be able to eat three square meals.’ And the father, of course, won’t hear of it. “Kill the fattened calf! Throw the biggest party imaginable! My son has returned! You’re my son! I’m going to treat you that way!”
But we don’t often pay attention to the older son—who is so upset at his father’s completely free gift of grace toward his no-good little brother that he refuses to come inside the house and party with everyone else! And when his father goes outside to talk sense to him, what does the so-called “good son,” the long-suffering older brother say to his father? “Look, these many years I have served you, and I never disobeyed your command, yet you never gave me a young goat, that I might celebrate with my friends.”
And the father tells him in so many words, “Your place in this family as my beloved child has never depended on serving me! I never asked you to serve me in order to be my son; in order to win my love or favor! My love for you doesn’t depend on what you do!”
It’s like this: My family and I went on vacation last week to the beach in St. Simons. Suppose Lisa and I kept a chart on the wall for my three kids… with different chores for each day of the week going back months. And we kept track of how often each child did the dishes, or took out the trash, or scooped the litter box, or did the grocery shopping, or washed the cars, or gave the dogs a bath, or made good grades in schools. So that before we left for vacation last week, I tallied up how often and how successfully my kids did these things. And I thought, “Did my child, my son, my daughter, do enough to earn their trip to the beach? Well, no they did not do enough! Therefore… they’re going to have to stay home!”
What kind of loving parents would ever subject their children to that kind of scrutiny and testing before letting them enjoy their vacation? It’s preposterous!
Simply by virtue of being a member of the family, a child is entitled to all these good things that come with family membership! There was simply no danger that any of my three kids could disqualify themselves form going on vacation with us—based on what they did or didn’t do for me or for Lisa! And I am myself a sinful human father, and even I would never consider doing that… how much more true is that for our perfectly loving heavenly Father?
I have counseled people over the years who have come to me as their pastor, just filled with guilt… in tears even… because of some sin or failure or addiction in their lives. And they’ve said: “How could I do this? There’s no way God could still love me! Because I failed in this spectacular way. I sinned in this spectacular way… I’ve hurt these people so badly… I knew better, and I did it anyway; I had repented of these sins in the past; I asked forgiveness in the past; yet I here I go, failing again. Blowing it again. How could my heavenly Father still love me? How could he still forgive me? How could he still save me? How could he still call me his child?”
I’ve heard these sorts of confessions over the years. And Christians are just wracked with guilt.
And if I could put into words the unspoken theology underneath the words of these guilty Christians, it would be something like this: “Jesus saved me from all my sins in the past. I couldn’t do that myself. But I received his forgiveness. And I’m grateful for that. Thank you, Jesus. And I had my act together… for a little while at least. I was doing my part. I was showing God that he didn’t waste his grace on me. so that now, doggone it, I need to prove to God that I deserve the grace he gave me back then, when I first became a Christian. I was doing so good, I was working so hard! But I blew it. I failed. I let others down. I’m obviously not a good Christian… and God can’t possibly love me very much, if at all. And maybe I’m not even saved.”
Does this sound familiar? Because I guarantee that some of you who are listening to my voice right now are living your Christian life believing this about yourself and about your heavenly Father! I don’t blame you for believing this way… That’s just respectable religion, after all. But I am urging you to repent because God’s Word says you’re in danger! And the danger, Paul says, is not that what you’ve done will cause you to “fall away from grace.” The danger is your lack of faith in what Jesus has done for you, on the cross, to forgive you, to save you, to make you a child of God! That’s what risks causing you to fall away from grace!
I know many of you seen and loved that Steven Spielberg movie Saving Private Ryan. If so, you’ll remember the dying words that Captain Miller, Tom Hanks’s character, speaks to Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. After nearly everyone in Miller’s unit dies in order to save Ryan’s life, Miller grabs Ryan by the collar and says, “Earn this… Earn it!” And next we see an elderly Ryan, decades later, near the end of his own life, standing beside the grave markers at Normandy beach—asking his children and grandchildren, “Did I earn it?”—in other words, “Did I live a life worthy of the sacrifices that Miller and his fellow soldiers made for me so long ago? Did I deserve the life that their deaths made possible for me?”
And his family reassures him: “Of course you did, Dad!”
And I’m like, Really? Who are they kidding? A dozen men sacrificed their lives to save his. How could he possibly “earn” that. What a cruel thing for Capt. Miller to tell him with his dying breath! What an impossible, crushing burden to have live up to! What guilt to have to live with for your entire life!
By contrast, when Jesus—the world’s one and only true Savior—willingly sacrificed his life on the cross to save ours, he didn’t say “earn this”—as if any one of us could earn God-in-the-flesh suffering death and hell for us, in our place… No, our Savior didn’t say, earn this—“earn this forgiveness,” “earn this salvation,” “earn this eternal life”—instead he said, receive this—“Receive this gift and enjoy it. Enjoy it! Don’t you dare feel guilty! It’s yours for free. I’m giving it to you out of love! I wanted to do you this for you because I love you that much!
“Enjoy this gift.” Amen.