Posts Tagged ‘justification by faith alone’

Those puzzling verses in Galatians 2

May 8, 2018

Rembrandt’s Paul. He wouldn’t really have been writing in a book.

I’ve been preaching a sermon series on Galatians, and last Sunday I tackled Galatians 2:15-21. It includes Paul’s first use of the verb “to justify” in the letter (four times in vv. 16-17, plus the noun form of the verb in v. 21). Justification by faith alone is the letter’s most important theme. Paul is dealing with false teachers who’ve infiltrated the churches in Galatia and are teaching that Gentile believers have to add circumcision and observance of Jewish dietary laws and festivals in order to be fully acceptable to God. It’s not that they deny that faith in Jesus is necessary for justification—but just add these few additional things.

Paul, by contrast, argues that if Christians add anything to the gospel of free grace through faith in Christ, they lose the gospel entirely. In fact, they do so at the risk of their very souls: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” The stakes for getting the gospel right couldn’t be higher.

But Paul’s opponents in Galatia, the “Judaizers,” were saying that it was Paul, not they, who had the gospel wrong. Paul is, at best, a second-hand apostle, having learned the gospel—or, rather, not learned it properly, or misunderstood it—from the “real” apostles in Jerusalem before “going rogue” and starting churches independently of the Mother Church and apostolic authority.

So Paul spends 1:11-2:21 arguing for his own authority. He is an authentic apostle, every bit the equal of Peter, James, John and the rest (vv. 1:11-24). In fact, when he presented his gospel to the apostles in Jerusalem—after 14 years of preaching and teaching it—they agreed completely with Paul and endorsed his mission to the Gentiles (vv. 2:1-10). On the basis of Paul’s own authority, he even confronted Peter “to his face” for failing to live up to the gospel (vv. 2:11-16).

Which brings us to the very difficult verses 17 and 18. In the ESV, as literal as English translations get, it reads:

But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.

There is no scholarly consensus on the meaning of these verses. One possible interpretation relates to antinomianism: If we misconstrue the doctrine of justification by faith alone, saying “let us continue in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1), that’s on us, not Jesus. Jesus will not be a “servant of sin” (or Christ has not therefore “led us into sin,” NLT). The “rebuilding what I tore down” would represent a reversion to the kind of sinful lifestyle from which Christ came to rescue us; living this way would not only be unbecoming of the gospel, it might even signal the kind of backsliding that, if left unrepented, would lead us back to condemnation.

Nevertheless, I am persuaded by the interpretation that Douglas Moo, among others, favors:

Peter, Paul, and other Jewish Christians are seeking to find ultimate justification in their union with Christ and, in doing so, have recognized the implications that Paul states in verse 16: they have abandoned the law as a means of finding that justification. They therefore “find themselves” to be in the same category as the Gentiles (v. 15): “sinners” who do not live by God’s law. But this does not make Christ the servant of sin (in the ultimate sense of that word). This would be the case only if Jewish Christians would “rebuild” the law as a fundamental authority; they would then truly be “transgressors.”[1]

For me, this interpretation makes far better sense of Paul’s ironic use of the word “sinners” in verse 15. I say “ironic” because his point in verse 16 is that “Jews by birth” who possess the law of Moses and seek to follow it are also sinners in need of redemption through faith in Christ. As John Piper said in a sermon on this text, Paul’s use of the word “sinners” in verse 15 ought to have scare quotes around it, as indeed the CSB, NLT, and GNT have it. Paul’s point is not that Gentiles who disregard Jewish ceremonial law are truly sinful as a result (as Moo says, in the “ultimate sense”), only that they would be considered “sinners” under the old covenant—not the new.

In verse 17, therefore, Paul concedes for the sake of argument that Jewish Christians who’ve abandoned the law as a means of justification may now be considered “sinners” under that law—but not in a way that matters. Why? Because Christ has fulfilled the law on our behalf. We can no longer come under the curse of the law; Christ became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). Ironically, these Judaizers who attempt to place themselves back under the authority of the law (who “build up what I tore down”) are the ones who are in trouble: because the law can only condemn them: they will be shown to be “transgressors.” Remember James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” There’s no middle ground: we live by faith in Christ or according to the law. The rest of the letter goes to great lengths to make this point.

The ’70s were awesome!

Let me now say a word of praise for the New Living Translation. Given its dubious heritage—as the successor to the hippie-dippy Living Bible paraphrase (not that this child of the ’70s doesn’t love it)—I’m amazed at how solid the NLT is in its interpretive decisions. (Unlike its predecessor, it isn’t technically a paraphrase; it’s a “dynamic equivalence,” thought-for-thought translation, made by a translation committee rather than one individual.) Note how well the NLT captures the preceding discussion in its (loose) translation of verses 17-18:

But suppose we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then we are found guilty because we have abandoned the law. Would that mean Christ has led us into sin? Absolutely not! Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down.

The phrases “because we have abandoned the law” and “the old system of law” are interpretive glosses, but they illuminate the meaning of these verses nicely. In fact, although I wouldn’t recommend the NLT as your first Bible, it’s an excellent second Bible. And I heartily recommend it as a Bible study tool!

1. Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 164.

Devotional Podcast #11: “If Grace Is Cheap, It’s Too Expensive”

February 3, 2018

How can we be confident that all of our sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven? For starters, by not being confused about justification and sanctification. That’s what this special “flu-length” episode is all about. Enjoy!

Devotional Text: Genesis 18:22-33

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Hi, this is Brent White. It’s Saturday, February 3, and this is Devotional Podcast number 11. It’s a very special flu edition of the podcast, which means it’s an extra long version. In fact, you might even say it’s a sermon-sized podcast. Lucky you! Yes, I intended to record this for Friday, per my usual schedule—but I have been wiped out with the flu since Thursday. Anyway, while my temperature is down and the headache has subsided and ibuprofen works its wonders, here we go…

You’re listening to Keith Green and a song called “Make My Life a Prayer to You,” written by his wife and frequent collaborator, Melody. This comes from Green’s 1978 album, No Compromise, which could easily be a motto for his entire ministry. He is famous for not compromising—even going so far as to give his records away for free to anyone who couldn’t afford them.

I like the line in the song, “I guess I’ll have to trust and just believe what you say.” So honest! Isn’t that the hard part of being a Christian—that it actually takes faith to believe what Jesus said. If you’re a Christian, you sometimes say, “I guess I’ll have to!”

After today’s podcast, I hope you’ll trust and believe what Jesus says about forgiveness and grace.

Years ago, I was reading theologian Phillip Cary’s excellent commentary on Jonah. In the book’s introduction, he wrote something that literally changed the way I read the Old Testament—which is to say, it changed my life. He wrote:

First of all, this is a Christian reading of the Scriptures of Israel, which Christians call the Old Testament because it contains the ancient covenant to be fulfilled by Jesus Christ. Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.[1]

Did you hear that? Like the whole Bible, the book of Jonah is about Christ and therefore about all those who find their life in him.

This was exactly opposite what I’d learned in the liberal mainline Protestant seminary I attended. I’ve blogged about this before. It’s not that I didn’t learn a lot of useful things in seminary—I did! But I was spiritually unprepared for it. I was unprepared for the spiritual warfare—by which I mean attacks by a literal Satan—that inevitably accompany one’s decision to uproot one’s life and family, to leave a relatively prosperous career, to go to an expensive school, and to devote oneself to serving the Lord as a pastor. I was a sitting duck for the devil! And it didn’t help that few if any of my professors in seminary even believed in the devil!

Regardless, it was all for the good. I was tested. I failed miserably. But emerged on the other side a much better person for it. Thank God!

Anyway, we were taught in seminary that the Old Testament—which of course shouldn’t even be called the Old Testament, because that sounds pejorative, but rather, it should be called the “Hebrew Bible”… We should call it the “Hebrew Bible” because, by doing so, we recognize that this is a book that doesn’t even belong to us Christians. At best, when we read the Hebrew Bible, we are eavesdropping on someone else’s scripture. We certainly shouldn’t read Jesus into the Old Testament. He doesn’t belong there! It’s disrespectful to our Jewish friends. Or so the propaganda said…

I hope that sounds as ridiculous to you as it does to me now.

Of course Cary is right: the whole Bible, including every book of the Old Testament, is about Jesus… Jesus and the New Testament authors certainly thought so. I shouldn’t have needed someone like Cary to tell me this, but there you are…

My point is, I can now find Jesus on nearly every page of the Old Testament! Read the rest of this entry »

Sermon 08-27-17: “Faith Alone, Part 1”

September 21, 2017

Five hundred years ago this October 31, Martin Luther inadvertently launched the Protestant Reformation when he nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg. One of his core convictions, derived from scripture, is that we are justified by faith alone. We Methodists share his conviction that we can do nothing to earn or merit God’s saving grace. It is only on the basis of what Christ has done through his life, death, and resurrection that we’re saved. Why does this doctrine remain relevant today? Why do we still need to hear this message? That’s what this sermon is about.

Sermon Text: Galatians 2:11-14; 3:1-6

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Nearly 500 years ago, on October 31, 1517, an Augustinian monk and theology professor named Martin Luther nailed a document, now known as the Ninety-five Theses, to the door of the All Saints Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It wasn’t unusual to nail things to that door; it was the equivalent of a community bulletin board—a way of making announcements, or in this case inviting church officials to debate him. In this document, he took issue with a particular practice in his church—the Roman Catholic church—that he believed was unbiblical, un-Christian, and needed to be reformed. Little did he know that this action would launch what would become the Protestant Reformation.

A couple of centuries later, in England, it would even enable the establishment of our own Methodist church.

As Methodists, we are Protestants. And I know that’s just a label, and we probably haven’t thought much about what it means aside from knowing that it means, “Not Catholic.” But in this new sermon series, celebrating the 500th anniversary of Protestantism, I want to talk about the five core convictions that nearly all of us Protestants have in common. Because I believe they’re still relevant today. And I believe if we take each of them to heart they will help us fall in love with and glorify our Lord Jesus more and become more faithful followers of him.

So let’s begin today with the Protestant conviction that in Latin is known as Sola Fide: that we are justified by faith alone. Read the rest of this entry »

When the apostle Paul steps on my toes

February 9, 2017

Rembrandt's Paul. He wouldn't really have been writing in a book.

Rembrandt’s Paul. He wouldn’t really have been writing in a book.

I’m currently teaching a Bible study on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. At last night’s study, we looked at Galatians 1:6-9.

Paul’s main concern here is that false teachers had infiltrated the Galatian churches, which Paul established on his first missionary journey, and were distorting the gospel he preached to them. These teachers, often called “Judaizers,” insisted that the Galatian Christians, many of whom were Gentiles, needed to observe Jewish ceremonial law in order to be fully Christian.

Keep in mind: the Judaizers’ error was subtle. As one Reformation-era theologian, Heinrich Bullinger, put it, they could affirm everything in the Apostles’ Creed. “What they denied,” however, “was that everything related to salvation was given by Christ alone.”

As you can see in Paul’s response, this seemingly small error was spiritually deadly.

In his Galatians for You commentary, Tim Keller asks us to consider ways in which contemporary Christians and churches make the same mistake. As I told the class, I see in my own preaching a tendency toward this error when I emphasize the necessity of “surrendering” our lives to Christ. While I like the language of surrender, the problem, as Keller describes it, is that we can overemphasize our human action at the expense of God’s grace.

Surrendering to Christ, in other words, can become more about us than Jesus ChristIt can become a measure of the strength and purity of our faith, or the thoroughness of our repentance. We can turn “faith” itself into a kind of meritorious work that we must perform for God before he saves us the “rest of the way.”

In which case, what we do is very small, but it’s hardly nothing. And contrary to Paul’s words in Ephesians 2:8-9, our efforts would be something about which we could boast.

No. Paul would remind us that saving faith and repentance are not something that we muster on our own, apart from the prevenient grace of God. The biblical kind of surrender that we need to make to God is one that says, “I give up! I am helpless. I can do nothing to earn this gift of salvation. If I’m going to be saved, it’s going to be through Christ’s merit alone. Enable me depend on him completely for my salvation.”

Are you already a Christian? That means that you’re “in the process” of being saved—i.e., you’re being sanctified. God is enabling you to become more Christlike. Paul’s warning still applies: Sanctification is not self-improvement. It is God alone who sanctifies. Surrendering in this case would mean, just as before, trusting in Christ completely to do this good work within us.

But do we have to do anything? Well, yes—if you insist on looking at it from the human side of the equation. But, but, but… I can hardly say that without the legalist within puffing his chest out—or, depending on the day of the week, hanging his head in shame. 

I’ll leave it to John Piper to say the rest. This comes from his post, “Should We Teach that Good Works Come with Saving Faith?”:

I don’t think that question will ever be settled at the experiential level… because human beings are wired to be legalists. We are wired to trust in what we do as the ground of our assurance.

Now along comes a gospel preacher who says, “Christ died for your sins and he provided a righteousness, so that all of your guilt can be taken away and all the righteousness that God requires of you can be provided totally by another. And this forgiveness and righteousness is received totally by faith alone.” Then he follows it up in a subsequent message, saying, “The faith that justifies justifies by faith alone, but the faith that justifies is never alone. It will always be accompanied by graces like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.”

And as soon as you say that this faith is going to bear fruit, people shift back into their legalistic mode of “Oh, I see. We’re really justified by our works.” And it takes a lifetime of fighting that battle…