What is scripture?

We live in a culture of sound-bytes and tweets, where everyone seems to want the TL;DR version of everything.

But when everyone wants their information in the form of a thumbnail sketch–it’s very easy for important information to be lost, and reality distorted.

Such is the case with defining the Bible. It’s popular to hear the Bible defined by an acronym: BASIC INSTRUCTIONS BEFORE LEAVING EARTH.

That sounds more like the title of a training manual for astronauts, than what the Bible declares itself to be: the sacred Scriptures, which are able to give you wisdom for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus (2 Timothy 3:15 CSB).

Indeed, if you were to pare down the Bible to nothing but instructions, it would probably be a tenth of its size–perhaps even less–but you’d have no context for the instructions.

But worse than that–you’d have no Gospel. After all, the Gospel of Christ is good news to be believed, not an instruction to perform. Gospel means good news, not good advice.

In other words–if the Bible were really only basic instructions before leaving earth, it would not be able to make you wise for salvation through Jesus Christ. Which is the very thing God has given us the scriptures for. Or at least the main thing.

After all, what did Christ Himself say? You pore over the Scriptures because you think you have eternal life in them, and yet they testify about me (John 5:39 CSB).

Likewise, after His death and resurrection, what did Christ tell His disciples? Everything written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled. After Jesus explained that every page of the Bible is meant to point us to Him, Luke says: Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures (Luke 24:44-45 CSB).

You can only even begin to have your mind opened to the Bible once you realize it’s all meant to point us to Christ.

Scripture always points us to Christ, who is for believers wisdom from God for us—our righteousness, sanctification, and redemption (1 Cor. 1:30 CSB). In other words, we are not wise, but Christ is God’s wisdom in the flesh. We are not righteous, but Christ is, and by faith we are clothed in His righteousness. We are not holy, but Christ is, and He has sent His own Holy Spirit to dwell in us. We could never redeem ourselves by following all of God’s “basic instructions”–but Christ has redeemed us by living and dying in our place.

To give basic instructions before leaving earth as a thumbnail sketch of what the Bible is, and what it does, not only distorts reality–it simply is not true. Because it leaves out the most important part. Namely, that: the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people (Titus 2:11 CSB). In other words, God sent Jesus to save us because we have not and cannot follow even the basic instructions. And that salvation is not just for a certain class of people, but for all kinds of people: men and women, young and old, rich and poor, from every nation, race, and language under heaven.

Nevertheless–there are instructions in the Bible. In the very next verse, we are told that the God who saves us by grace, also by His grace instructs us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age (Titus 2:12 CSB).

So, aside from the most vital thing it does–proclaiming the Gospel of salvation through Jesus Christ–what else does the Bible do?

To this, let’s look to 2 Timothy 3:16-17 for a fuller picture.

All Scripture is inspired by God

This means God breathed it out, by His Holy Spirit. It is God’s own words, and they are alive and active (Hebrews 4:12). Just like God breathed life into a lump of clay, and made the first human a living creature.

The Scriptures are not just dead words on a page. They are living words, with the power to condemn, convict, declare, promise, to kill and make alive, to save, sustain, comfort, and guide. Moreover, because Scripture is God’s own Word, it is not only active and able, but also authoritative.

and is profitable

Everything in scripture is useful. You may come across something in the Bible and say: This is not useful to me. When that happens, I assure you–the problem is not with the Bible. It may not be useful to you right now. Or perhaps you have not understood it. Or perhaps it is saying the exact thing you do not want it to say. But every word is useful and relevant–even if it does not seem useful to you right now.

If you’re going to be a hoarder or pack-rat of anything, may it be the Word of God.

for teaching

Older translations say for doctrine. Because this isn’t just teaching in the sense of a practical “how-to” lesson. The Bible does not work like WikiHow.

The teaching of the Bible includes very practical, “relevant” everyday life type instruction.

But it also teaches us grand doctrines, like the Trinity; the hypostatic union (the doctrine of how Christ is both fully God and fully man); and salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone.

Now, certainly a Christian doesn’t need perfect understanding of all of these doctrines to be saved. Otherwise, no one would be saved, since human understanding is always imperfect. We are saved by our faith in Christ, not our perfect knowledge of doctrine.

However, it is useful to know these doctrines, because where they are neglected, ignored, or twisted, terrible tragedies always follow. Our souls are starved, the Christian life is impoverished, and we are vulnerable to abuse and manipulation by spiritual predators.

Where doctrine is uncertain or distorted; or where ethical instruction is divorced from the person and work of Christ–it always and inevitably results in impoverished faith that cannot sustain the saints, and spiritual abuse by wolves who feed upon the weakened flock of God.

for rebuking

The Law of God–the instructions parts of the Bible–does two things:

  1. It condemns us all as law-breakers by showing us clearly that we have sinned against God, and cannot by our own efforts overcome this. For no one will be justified in his sight by the works of the law, because the knowledge of sin comes through the law … For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God … For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, because it is written, Everyone who does not do everything written in the book of the law is cursed … For whoever keeps the entire law, and yet stumbles at one point, is guilty of breaking it all. (Romans 3:20, 23; Galatians 3:10; James 2:10 CSB) The Law of God not only rebukes us for our sin; it also rebukes all of our own efforts to be made right with God by our own merit.
  2. But for believers in Christ, the Law still rebukes us when we sin. We are no longer under the Law in the sense that the Law can no longer condemn us (Romans 6:14; 8:1). But the Holy Spirit in us does convict us of sin by referring to the Law of God, now written upon our hearts (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

Again, if all the Bible is can be summed up in basic instructions before leaving earth, we are in a world of trouble, because we have not and cannot even follow the basic instructions.

for correcting

There is only one true correction for sinners–for all of us who have not obeyed even God’s basic instructions. Which again, is everyone.

In faith, we must cast ourselves upon the mercy and grace of God, in Christ Jesus.

  • For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus … For we conclude that a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law. (Romans 3:23-24, 28 CSB)
  • For God loved the world in this way: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. (John 3:16-17 CSB)
  • But to the one who does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited for righteousness. (Romans 4:5 CSB)

Scripture teaches us that the only way to correct our situation is to turn from ourselves, and by faith to turn towards Christ. This turning away from self and towards Christ is called repentance, and it is what believers do every day for the rest of our lives. If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me (Luke 9:23 ESV). It is not only a one-time act of faith, but the daily posture of a Christian.

The Westminster Confession of Faith defines confession as follows:

Repentance unto life is a gospel grace … By it a sinner–seeing and sensing not only the danger but also the filthiness and hatefulness of his sins, because they are contrary to God’s holy nature and his righteous law–turns from all his sins to God in the realization that God promises mercy in Christ to those who repent, and so grieves for and hates his sin that he determines and endeavours to walk with God in all the ways that he commands.

Of Repentance Unto Life, 15:1, 2

Repentance is not a one-time course correction. Because our repentance is always imperfect and incomplete. Believers will still sin every day, in word or thought or deed. But again, in scripture, we find this promise that through Christ, God will continue to correct what we cannot:

If we walk in the light as he himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say, “We have no sin,” we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:7-9 CSB)

for training in righteousness

Even though Christians are no longer condemned by God’s Law, and therefore not under the law but under grace (Romans 6:14 CSB), God Law–His instructions–still orders our lives.

How do sinners know what righteousness is without the Law of God to show us?

Jesus said:

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:37-40 ESV)

The Law of God is summed up in these two great commandments; made explicit in the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20:2-17; Deuteronomy 5:6-21); applied practically in the case laws of the Torah; preached by the Prophets; and confirmed by Christ and His Apostles. The Law is the believer’s instruction in righteousness.

The Psalms, the Proverbs, the other Wisdom books (like Job and Ecclesiastes), and the narratives of scripture also instruct us in righteousness, by helping us think rightly about God’s Law; how to use God’s Law lawfully in a way that conforms to the Gospel (1 Timothy 1:8-11); and learn by example from those before us who either ignored God’s instructions, or strove by faith (albeit imperfectly) to obey them (1 Corinthians 10:6; Hebrews 11).

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says: whatever you want others to do for you, do also the same for them, for this is the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 7:12 CSB). He did not say, Do this instead of the Law and the Prophets. Rather, the Law teaches us to love our neighbor as ourself. Thus, the Law of God is our training in righteousness (see also Psalm 119:45; Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:13-14; 6:2; James 1:22-25; 2:8).

But for those who believe in Christ, who no longer fear the Law’s condemnation, the Law is not on tablets of stone, shouting instructions, and threatening wrath when we fail.

Rather–the Law of God is now engraved upon the very depths of our being by the Holy Spirit, who has quickened our hearts with faith in Christ and love for God. In us, the Law is a living, breathing Word that dwells in a living heart of flesh. As the Bible tells us:

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will place my Spirit within you and cause you to follow my statutes and carefully observe my ordinances. (Ezekiel 36:26-27 CSB)

so that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.

The Bible gives us both the Law of God–His instructions–and the Gospel of God–His grace to save us, even though we have not followed even His most basic instructions.

Without both the Law and the Gospel, the believer is not complete.

For without the instructions, we would never see that we had completely and irreparably destroyed our lives, our future, and all hope by our sin. The Law makes us aware of our sin (Romans 3:20; 7:7-13), and our need for a Savior. Without the Law, we would not even know we need the Gospel!

But without the Gospel, the Bible would only be God barking instructions at us. And that would be sad indeed.

Sadder still, much of what passes for preaching is really just that–just the instructions. Some preachers believe if they lower the standards of the Law, or if they preach it with a pleasant voice or hide it inside heart-warming stories or dad jokes–like you hide a dog’s medicine inside a treat–that is grace and Gospel.

But no. Such preaching can only produce lopsided, incomplete Christians. Without the Law of God, we are not equipped for every good work. And without the Gospel of Christ, we are not equipped for any good work: For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot (Romans 8:7 ESV).

The Bible is clear that we are not saved by how well we follow the instructions–or as the Bible says it, by good works. But we are saved for good works. God has saved us in Christ so that we might at least begin to make a go at following the instructions, with the assurance that even though we fail–there is always forgiveness in Christ:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10 CSB)

The Bible is so much more than basic instructions before leaving earth. Rather–it is God’s living Word, which gives us the Gospel to make us alive, and the Law which instructs us in righteousness. So that God’s people will not be unbalanced, immature, or vulnerable to wolves.

And hey–in the end, it’s not really even about leaving earth. For based on [God’s] promise, we wait for new heavens and a new earth, where righteousness dwells (2 Peter 3:13 CSB). But that’s a post (or even a series of them) for another day. This one is long enough already.

Crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:19-21)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for October 10, 2021.

We’re continuing to work through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The preaching text was Galatians 2:19-21.

Mark 8:31-38 and Philippians 3:4b-14 were also read during worship.

Sermon video is embedded below. Sermon notes are below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

“Take up your cross and follow me”: Common (mis)interpretations

Today we heard these words of Christ from Mark 8: If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.

Jesus says the same thing In Matt. 16:24 and Luke 14:27; and there’s a couple of really popular ways to explain what He meant.

First, some folks think it means: Whatever it is I’m suffering through, whatever hardship I’m enduring—that’s my cross to bear.

So everything from a cancer diagnosis to this job you hate is your cross.

And the application people want to make from that is, A true follower of Christ will bear suffering and hardship with dignity. 

If deny yourself and take up your cross means that your salvation is somehow tied to your ability to suck it up and perform well under pressure; you might as well throw the entire Gospel away.

But if bearing suffering with dignity is a test of how sincere your faith in Jesus is—what happens when you shatter and break and fall to pieces under suffering? 

Does that mean you’re not really a Christian? That you’re not really saved? 

Or at least that you’re not as good a Christian as so-and-so over there, who seems to handle all their struggles with calm and grace?

If deny yourself and take up your cross means that your salvation is somehow tied to your ability to suck it up and perform well under pressure; you might as well throw the entire Gospel away.

Because as soon as you factor in your own performance, you erase by grace, through faith; it is the gift of God, and not by works

The other way of explaining what Jesus means when He says you must pick up your cross to follow Him is what I call the radical, sold-out for Jesus remix. 

It’s the I surrender all Gospel, that says: Taking up your cross means utter dedication to God. If you’re not at least willing to suffer anything, put up with anything, do anything, and give up everything for Jesus—you’re not actually saved.

This sounds super-spiritual—it sounds like you’re taking your faith seriously, so a lot of Christians just assume this is what it has to mean.

So again—you’re looking at the same problem. If your salvation depends on how well you surrender, or even just on your willingness to surrender—you’ve just put the Gospel on mute. Because now you’re putting your confidence in your own works—and even worse, how you’re feeling at a particular moment. 

Have I truly surrendered all? Was I really willing when I made that commitment? How willing do I feel today?

The consequences of misapplying “take up your cross and follow”

When you tell Christians with a tender conscience that taking up your cross and following Jesus means you’ve got to be completely sold-out and surrendered, or it’s not real: they will keep going back looking for the cross they dropped somewhere, until eventually they get too tired and discouraged and give up.

So there’s a couple of very real consequences from applying it this way, and they’re both destructive to souls.

  • First, it can lead to self-righteousness in certain people; because they are going to believe they are really doing this—that they really have surrendered all to Jesus, and they’re willing to give even more.
    • This is especially a temptation for people who are Type A, high-energy, high-performing, competitive. If you’re one of those people, you know you’re not really into navel-gazing or introspection. You have to be moving and doing
      • The idea that taking up your cross means you surrender all; and are willing to give even more tickles your theological sweet tooth, because it’s what comes natural for you.
    • The danger for you is that you imagine that taking up your cross has to do with the amount of time or effort or energy you expend. Another danger is you might think that taking up your cross means you don’t maintain healthy boundaries. And you equate all that with at least being willing to surrender all.
  • Second, while some folks take that and they think they’re crushing it—believers who have tender consciences, this interpretation is really going to crush them.
    • I’m one of those, by the way … and we’re introspective and self-aware enough to know we have not surrendered all.
      • Even if, in a moment of emotional excitement, because the music was right and the speaker was fire, we thought we did—in the light of reality, we find hundreds of things we didn’t really surrender to Jesus.

Let me explain to you what happens to folks like me when you tell us that taking up your cross and following Jesus means you’ve got to be completely sold-out and surrendered, or it’s not real: we will keep going back looking for our cross we dropped somewhere, until eventually we get too tired and discouraged and we give up.

“Take up your cross” is a description of a life of repentance

Here’s the context you need to know to understand what taking up your cross and following Jesus means. What was Jesus talking about?

Mark 8:31ff. Jesus had just began to teach [his disciples] that it was necessary for the Son of Man to suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and scribes, be killed, and rise after three days.

In other words, He began to tell His disciples about how He was going to take up His cross, and be crucified. 

And it’s right after Jesus said that—Mark 8:34—he turns to His disciples, and would-be disciples, and tells them: If anyone wants to follow after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.

So what Jesus is saying there is: I am going to be rejected, and suffer, and die. And if you’re going to put your trust in Me—in this life, you should not expect a life of victory or triumph or glory, either.

We must erase from our minds any notion that Christ only accepts heroic, self-disciplined followers, who perform well under pressure. 

In other words—Jesus wasn’t issuing a command that we can follow to gain victory in this life, and glory in the next, through our heroic service.  

We must erase from our minds any notion that Christ only accepts heroic, self-disciplined followers, who perform well under pressure. 

If that’s true, I’m not sure Jesus has ever saved anyone.

Instead, we should read His words as instructive or illustrative of what our lives will look like as followers of Jesus. 

“I have been crucified with Christ”: Paul’s summary of a life of repentance

And that’s what our reading from Galatians today is all about. In Gal. 2:19-21, where Paul says: I have been crucified with Christ.

Paul was summing up his own experience of taking up his cross to follow Jesus. 

There’s three lessons I want us to take from this passage. 

My prayer is they’re going to help you not only to think through what it means to carry your own cross; but also to understand the shape of your life under the Gospel.

Taking up your cross simply means turning to God in repentance and throwing yourself on Christ’s mercy.

1. Taking up your cross is not heroic.

It’s very easy to miss Jesus’ real point when He tells us we must take up our cross to follow Him; because we’ve come to see the Cross as a place of heroic sacrifice, triumph, and glory. 

Christians have been clinging to the old, rugged cross now for two thousand years, because Christ gave up His life on a cross to save us.

But nobody back then would have had a sentimental attachment to the cross. There was nothing heroic or virtuous about dying on a cross. 

After all, who usually died on a cross? Rebels. Slaves. Defeated people. Lawbreakers.

So when Jesus tells us we must deny ourselves and take up our crosses to follow Him, what is He really saying? You are rebels against God, and slaves to sin. The only way to salvation is by being completely conquered by God. You can’t deal with your sin on your own. And God’s way of conquering your sin and rebellion is a cross.

Taking up your cross means turning to God in repentance and throwing yourself on Christ’s mercy.

And that’s what Paul tells us in vv19, going into 20:

For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.

So here’s what he means when he says: through the law, I died to the law. He means that the only thing God’s Law can do for anyone outside of Christ is condemn them.

But what if we could find refuge in the One who perfectly satisfied the Law of God on our behalf?

God’s Law sends us running to Christ, who is that One who has perfectly satisfied it for us. We are done trying to do what we could never do, which is be right with God through our own efforts.

That was Paul’s point in Philippians 3, which we also heard today. In his previous life, Paul said: If anybody could’ve worked their way to heaven, it was me. I was born into a godly family. I was enrolled in the cradle roll before I could even sit up straight. When it came to following God’s Law—I was scrupulous and meticulous in my obedience.

But Christ revealed to Paul that he was still a miserable sinner! When Paul looked back over all of his advantages, his reputation, all of the good deeds of his past, he said: I consider them as dung (Phil. 3:8).

He learned to see it all—even his greatest moral efforts, his best behavior on his best day—as something he scraped off his shoe and left on the side of the Damascus road.

He said—vv8-9: I renounced it all—even my thoughts of my own virtues and righteousness—for the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord … and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own from the law, but one that is through faith in Christ.

That’s what it means to take up your cross and be crucified with Christ.

When you come to Christ by grace through faith, faith actually links you together with Christ. As far as God is concerned, you died with Him when He died for you. Col. 3:3 says: you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.

In that sense—you have died to the Law. The Law can no longer condemn you because have been crucified with Christ. He took your sin and punishment. And now you are covered in His righteousness.

Not only are you linked to Christ by faith, Christ lives in you—by His Holy Spirit. This is good news—the best news.

By faith you take up your own cross, and God crucifies you with Christ.

Not only have you died to the Law’s condemnation … But God has taken a defeated, rebellious lawbreaker, and transformed you into a temple where Christ lives in you by the Spirit.

You want the TL;DR version? Once you have have known yourself a rebel and a lawbreaker before God; you’ve turned from your sin and trusted in Christ alone to save you—you’ve already taken up your cross and followed. You’ve already been crucified with Christ. Nothing more radical or sold-out is demanded of you.

2. Though we’ve been crucified, we live by faith 

Crucifixion isn’t an instant death. It’s a long, slow, painful death. Your is going to desperately cling to life, clawing and fighting for every last gasp of breath it can get.

Does this sound like a contradiction—a crucified person living by faith? But it isn’t when you think about it.

By faith, you have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Gal. 5:24). But you say: I don’t feel dead yet. I still just feel like me.

But you see, crucifixion isn’t an instant death. It’s a long, slow, painful death. Your flesh, your old self, your old sinful nature—is going to keep trying to assert himself or herself. She’s going to desperately cling to life, he’s going to claw and fight for every last gasp of breath he can get.

That’s why God wanted Paul to tell you this. This is the middle of Gal. 2:20:

The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God,

Literally it says, The life I now live in the flesh. Flesh is this fallen body of ours that wants to do its own thing, to be its own Savior, that will not accept defeat—even when it’s been crucified.

That means you’re still going to struggle with sin and failure and discouragement and doubt and boredom, and everything else that’s not victorious and triumphant and glorious.

Where will your only hope and comfort and assurance come from then? It will not come from you having confidence to perform well under pressure. Your hope and assurance comes only from your faith in the Son of God, Jesus Christ.

Heb. 11:1 reminds us that faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. If we could see it already, it wouldn’t be faith.

What we hope for, but do not yet see, is our resurrection to glory. In immortal, imperishable bodies that cannot sin, with hearts and wills that never even want to sin.

So even though right now, we dwell in these miserable bodies of death; we keep our eyes fixed on Jesus the author and finisher of our faith (Heb. 12:2). 

When it says Jesus is the author and the finisher of faith, here’s what that means: Even though your flesh still rebels and asserts itself daily, you have confident assurance that, He who began a good work in you will bring it to completion, Phil. 1:6.

Jesus is the author of your faith—He began the good work of salvation in you. And He’s the finisher of your faith—He will bring what He’s begun to completion.

The struggle of your crucified flesh against its death is not going to derail that process. By faith, you have taken up your cross and been crucified with Christ—the good work of salvation has begun in you, and Christ will finish it.

3. Your confidence is in Christ’s cross, not in your own.

There is only One who ever took up a cross and surrendered all to God to save you … and it wasn’t you.

This is the point really what I want you to take home with you.

No one has ever been saved because they surrendered all, withholding nothing. Human repentance is always imperfect. It’s always incomplete. 

That’s why we have to do it every day. Here’s another version of take up your cross and follow … Luke 9:23. Jesus said: If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

Jesus tells us to take up our crosses daily, because human repentance is always imperfect and incomplete.

The entire Christian life is repentance. It’s a daily turning away from ourselves, and turning to Christ. It’s daily not only renouncing my sin and selfishness; but also my own goodness and righteousness.

That’s what Paul’s getting at in v21:

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.

A lot of Christians have this mindset that to be a real believer, they need to surrender this much time to the Lord, they need to be doing this much of this, and stop doing so much of that.

But let me tell you what that is. That’s all superficial changes. You’re basically pulling spiderwebs off yourself. And I mean, that can be sticky and frustrating and require a great deal of effort. But you don’t need Jesus for that. Paul says if that’s what you think life in Christ is all about, then Jesus died for nothing.

If you have even the slightest inkling that your own works, or doings, or willings, or surrendering factors into your salvation—Paul says you’ve set aside the grace of God. 

Functionally, you are denying the cross, insulting the blood of Christ, and rejecting the Gospel.

There is only One who ever took up a cross and surrendered all to God to save you … and it wasn’t you.

It was the Son of God, who loved meand you!and gave Himself up for [us.]

Christian, if you lack assurance, if you lack confidence; or if the Word is convicting you that you’ve put your confidence in yourself—you must engrave this upon your heart.

1 John 4:10: This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

This is surrender: Not that we surrendered all, but that God—in love—surrendered His only Son for us.

Not that we have taken up our crosses for Him, but that He took up the cross we deserved, and surrendered His life for our sin.

And notice carefully—the love of God in Christ in these verses is in the past tense. The Son of God loved me … God loved us and sent His Son …

As your flesh continues to fight and claw for air … whenever you grow weary from the daily work of repentance … and the hope of sinless glory feels so far away … remember—He loved you.

Before you were born, He loved you. On the cross, He loved you. In the manger in Bethlehem, He loved you. Before the foundation of the world, He loved you.

There has never been a time when Jesus Christ did not love His people!

And once you ever get that engraved on your heart, that will melt you into fuller surrender, deeper repentance, and richer joy. That will transform you and renew your mind. That will lead you to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. 

Just trying harder will not.

Does grace enable sin? (Galatians 2:16-18)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for October 3, 2021.

The text was Galatians 2:16-18.

Romans 7:15-25 and Romans 5:20 – 6:2 were also read during worship.

Occasionally I like to remind readers of the resources I am using as I preach through Galatians. They are:

J.V. Fesko, Galatians, The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Jon D. Payne (Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege Press, 2012).

Martin Luther, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535): Lecture Notes Transcribed by Students & Presented in Today’s English, trans. Haroldo Camacho (Irvine, CA: 1517 Publishing, 2018).

Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians, Reformed Expository Commentary, ed. Richard D. Phillips and Philip Graham Ryken (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2005).

John R.W. Stott, The Message of Galatians: Only One Way, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968).

Live video of the message is below. Sermon notes are below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Saved by Amazing Grace: The life of John Newton

Even people who’ve never stepped inside a church building know the song “Amazing Grace.”

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see.

What many people don’t know is the remarkable story of the man who wrote it. 

As a young man, John Newton was a slave ship captain, and an atheist who blasphemed and cursed so much, it even made other sailors blush. 

As an older man, John Newton was a pastor of a prominent church in England. They had to build on to the sanctuary because so many people came from all over to hear him preach. This man who had once hated the very idea of God.

Along with his friend William Cowper, John Newton published a hymnal that contained some of the most enduring songs of the church—songs we still sing more than 200 years later. Like “Amazing Grace.” This man who used to come up with creative ways to take the Lord’s Name in vain, writing songs that testify so beautifully to God’s grace.

And this man who once captained slave ships, as an old man, became a fiery abolitionist who preached against the evils of the African slave trade.

A young member of the British Parliament named William Wilberforce was a member of the church where John Newton preached. He was so convicted by Newton’s preaching against slavery, that he led the movement in Parliament to abolish the slave trade.

How was it that this man, who hated and blasphemed God, came to write such glorious hymns? How was it that this man who once made his living kidnapping Africans to sell as slaves, became the catalyst for ending slavery in Great Britain?

It was only because of God’s amazing grace! You see, when John Newton wrote his famous hymn—he was really writing the soundtrack of his own life.

The whole time John Newton was working on slave ships, he was miserable. He would often stare over the side of the boat, and think about throwing himself overboard to drown. Later, he said it was only the secret hand of God that held him back.

In “Amazing Grace,” John Newton wrote these words: Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come. ’Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace shall lead me home.

It was March 10, 1748 when the secret hand of God that had been holding John Newton back from suicide revealed itself to him.

That was the day God hurled a ferocious storm at Newton’s ship. As the wind and waves lashed the boat, Newton was sure the ship would be destroyed. And for some reason, instead of cursing, he called out: Lord, save us!

Something moved him to pray in the storm. And miraculously, the storm cleared and his ship survived.

As soon as the ship was able to dock in Ireland, John Newton went to a church and confessed his faith in Christ.

I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.

John Newton

And as he grew in God’s grace, he came to see that the whole time he had been piloting this ship with kidnapped Africans to the living hell of slavery, he’d actually been steering his own soul closer and closer to literal eternal hell.

And here are John Newton’s final words. My memory is nearly gone. But I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Savior.

St. Paul’s Amazing Grace Gospel (Galatians 2:16)

You know, John Newton could have also written “Amazing Grace” about the life of the Apostle Paul.

Looking back over his youth, as an old man, Paul said: I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and a violent man. 

Even so, in His grace and for His own glory, Paul says God showed him mercy because I acted in ignorance and unbelief, 1 Tim. 1:13.

John Newton used to kidnap Africans and sell them into slavery, until God opened his blind eyes. Likewise, Paul was kidnapping Christians and voting for them to be put to death.

Until, by God’s grace, Christ laid hold of Paul and the scales of unbelief fell from his eyes. I was once lost, but now am found; Was blind, but now I see, could’ve been St. Paul’s song, too.

God—by his grace alone—saved Paul. 

And the Gospel Paul preached was always some version of what we heard in our readings today. From Galatians 2:16: a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.

People are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, for the glory of God alone.

With no qualifications on that message. No back-tracking. No equivocation.

You see, once you put your own effort into the Gospel equation, it’s no longer by grace. Paul makes this clear in Romans 4:5. Grace is for the one who does not work, but believes on him who justifies the ungodly.

Is grace a license to go on sinning? (Galatians 2:17-18)

Last week, we answered the objection that salvation by grace through faith alone—not by works—makes us lazy.

And the answer to that objection—remember—is, Because God’s grace doesn’t make you lazy—it makes you alive!

Now, in today’s reading, Paul is going to answer another common objection you’ll hear to the Gospel, when its preached in its purity and sweet simplicity.

Isn’t grace alone just a license to go on sinning?

Listen—this objection is a road that leads to nowhere, and it was already worn out back when Paul was preaching the Gospel.

We heard this in our readings from Romans today, too. Paul’s Gospel of salvation by grace alone assures us that where sin multiplied, grace multiplied even more, Rom. 5:20. 

That’s supposed to be a word of comfort for struggling saints: You literally can’t out-sin God’s grace!

Or, like John Newton said: I am a great sinner, but Christ is a great Savior. 

But even in Paul’s day, there were folks who wanted to twist the word of grace to mean something dangerous: What should we say then? Should we continue in sin so that grace may multiply?, Rom. 6:1.

Here’s the logic: You say the more we’ve sinned, the more grace there is. That seems like a perfect arrangement: I love to sin, God loves to forgive. Why don’t I just sin even more?

Now, listen—that’s absolute blasphemy against the Gospel. 

Even if you’re just trying to make the point that you don’t really believe salvation is by grace alone, even to entertain this question is slander against God’s grace. 

Keep those words off your lips, and if the thought even crosses your mind—please beg God for mercy for even having such an evil thought.

Any time Paul heard this objection, he always had the same answer: Absolutely not!, Rom. 6:2. He just cut it off right there. 

He came up against this kind of objection in his battle with the false teachers in Galatia.

He laid out the Gospel—God declares us righteous in His sight by His grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—and not because of our works or efforts or feelings.

And he immediately follows it up by answering the objection. He knew the objection was coming! Look at v17:

But if we ourselves are also found to be “sinners” while seeking to be justified by Christ, is Christ then a promoter of sin?


See, it’s the same objection. You have people who are saying: Paul, this teaching of yours is very dangerous!

If you tell people God will accept them through trusting in Christ alone, apart from good works, you’re actually encouraging them to be lazy at best, and to go on breaking God’s laws at worst!

After all, if God really declares bad people righteous, on the basis of Christ’s obedience—what’s even the point of being good? Couldn’t we just do whatever we want, and live as we please?

And Paul has the same answer for them: Absolutely not! 

And listen, Paul’s absolutely not is very strongly-worded. The old King James translated it, God forbid. Paul’s basically saying: Yikes on bikes! Heck no! No way, dude!

He’s saying: If you even imagine that’s what the Gospel is all about—if you even have to ask, you don’t know. You don’t get it.

So there’s three points of application I want to make here—two from this verse, one from verse 18.

Application 1: Christians are still sinners

First, justified sinners are still sinners.

We absolutely will still be found sinners while, by faith, we’re looking to Christ alone for justification. That’s kind of the point and reason for the Gospel. 

The German Reformer Martin Luther came up with a phrase to describe this constant tension within the Christian life: simul justus et peccator. In English: The Christian is simultaneously righteous in God’s sight, and still a sinner.

Even as an old man, Paul said: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst, 1 Tim. 1:15.

And John Newton said much the same on his deathbed: I am a great sinner, and Christ is a great Savior.

Here’s Paul, who wrote the book on God’s grace—thirteen of ‘em, actually. And John Newton, who wrote the soundtrack. And they’re at the end of their lives, not saying: I used to be a rotten sinner; but, I am a great sinner; I am the worst sinner I know. 

Just because they weren’t out enslaving Africans or persecuting Christians anymore doesn’t mean they’re not still sinners!

What did we hear Paul say in Romans today? I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing, Rom. 7:19.

Paul was an old man, a mature Christian, an apostle writing scripture. And still, he said: I still haven’t defeated sin. I still keep finding myself not doing the good I want to do, but doing the evil I don’t want.

Why? Why aren’t you living victoriously over your sin anymore, Paul? He explains that in v20: Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.

In other words—I still sin because sin still lives in me. I hate my sin. But it’s still there with me. 

The difference between a Christian and an unbeliever isn’t that the Christian sins less. It’s that we used to live in sin—but now, sin still lives in us.

We used to love our sin. But over time, a Christian learns to see their sin, to hate it, to struggle against it.

But you need to understand, sisters and brothers—you are not any better than Paul. If he was still struggling with the same old sins as a mature Christian and an apostle—don’t you know you will, too?

The difference between a Christian and an unbeliever isn’t that the Christian sins less. It’s that we used to live in sin; but now, even though sin still lives in us, we hate it and struggle against it.

Here’s the reality: There’s a constant civil war going on inside every Christian, between our sinful flesh, and the Holy Spirit living in us. 

The sin in us is always trying to reassert itself, against the good and perfect will of the Holy Spirit who dwells in us.

Christians will not be sinless until the resurrection, when God raises us with immortal, imperishable, and incorruptible bodies. Incorruptible means you won’t even be able to sin anymore. That’s what we hope for, what we long for.

But now—you must fix the eyes of your faith on Christ alone, and rest upon God’s grace alone—for everything. Christ must be your all in all: your righteousness, your holiness, your wisdom, and your only comfort in life and in death.

So as you look to Christ alone for salvation—you are still a sinner. If someone doesn’t “get” that, they haven’t understood the Gospel. 

Application 2: Grace doesn’t enable sin, it makes us able in spite of our sin

Second—God’s grace doesn’t enable sin.

Look at what it says at the end of v17: If we’re still sinners, even after we’ve been declared righteous, is Christ then a promoter of sin?

Literally, is Christ the servant of sin? Isn’t He just enabling us to go on sinning, guilt-free?

Absolutely not!, Paul says. Grace does the exact opposite.

In Titus 2:11-12, Paul says: the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, instructing us to deny godlessness and worldly lusts and to live in a sensible, righteous, and godly way in the present age.

In other words, God’s grace teaches us to Say No! to sin, and Say Yes! to godly living.

God’s grace deals with our sin. God’s grace forgives our sin. God’s grace teaches us to hate our sin, because we love our Savior. God’s grace teaches us to say no to sin. And when Christ returns, God’s grace is going to resurrect us, sinless forever.

To say that God’s grace enables us to sin, would be like saying that wheelchairs enable paralysis. 

No, wheelchairs enable paralyzed people to actually get out of their houses and live. And God’s grace enables people who were dead in their sins to go and live.

To say that God’s grace enables us to sin, would be like saying wheelchairs enable paralysis.

Eventually God’s grace is going to raise us with sinless bodies, as Christ’s holy and perfect bride. 

Between now and then, it’s best to remember the words of St. Augustine: O Lord, everything good in me is due to you. The rest is my fault.

When you sin, you’re doing what comes natural to fallen humanity. When you find that you’re victorious over sin—God’s grace did that.

Application 3: Law-keeping cannot save, or make sinners righteous

The third application is going to come from v18: If I rebuild those things that I tore down, I show myself to be a lawbreaker.

So what does Paul mean by that? I’ll summarize what he means, and then I’ll explain what he means.

Paul is saying: Law cannot make sinners righteous.

We always have to make sure we’re not sneaking law into the Gospel box. 

And that includes both God’s Law—that’s any word in scripture that commands you do do anything, or judges and condemns you for not doing it—and especially the laws we make up.

Like: a good Christian will read her Bible this much, will be giving this much to the church, will be spending this much of his time doing evangelism and good works, a good Christian doesn’t smoke or play cards or listen to this kind of music … Etc.

Law says do. Gospel says done.

Law says: Do this and live. Gospel says: Jesus did it, now go live.

Here’s what Paul’s getting at in v18. 

He’s saying: If I relied on God’s grace alone to save me—not anything I’ve done; but now I’m trying to go back and trust my own good works to stay saved—I’m building up what I once tore down. 

And even if my outward conduct looks better than someone else’s, I’m still committing a deadly sin. Because I’m rejecting the grace of God, and the finished work of Christ, to trust in my own works.

The Law of God is holy, true, and just. But it cannot save sinners. It cannot make sinners righteous. It was never meant to do that. In fact, Paul’s going to make this exact point later on in the letter. Gal. 3:21: if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.

No law, no amount of rule-keeping, no amount of obedience or acting good or whatever adds anything to your salvation. 

God’s not sitting around in heaven, drumming his fingers, wishing you would come up with some grand gesture—something hard and costly to do—to prove your salvation to Him, or your faith in Christ. If that’s what you think the Christian life is all about, you haven’t understood grace. 

The Law cannot save, but God’s grace does

So let’s conclude by going back to our friend John Newton.

He was a slave trader. Now, God’s Law says: Whoever steals a man and sells him, and anyone found in possession of him, shall be put to death, Exodus 21:16. 1 Tim. 1:9-10 calls slave traders ungodly, lawbreakers, and disobedient.

Now, that Law is true, holy, and just, because God is true, holy, and just. God’s Law rightly condemned John Newton.

But it wasn’t the Law that saved John Newton. It wasn’t the Law that took him off the slave ship, and raised him up as a powerful enemy of slavery. It was the Gospel that did that. It was God’s amazing grace that led John Newton home to God.

And grace will do that for you, and me too. It will lead us from slavery to sin and death, to our eternal home with God, to glorify Him and enjoy Him forever. And, as John Newton taught us to sing: When we’ve been there then thousand years, bright shining as the sun; We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we first begun.

I’m saved by grace through faith: Now What?

Video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for September 26, 2021.

The text was Galatians 2:15-16. We also heard Ephesians 2:8-10 during worship.

Video is below. Sermon notes below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Martin Luther and the struggle to believe God’s grace

Martin Luther once said: If God were willing to sell His grace, we would accept it more quickly than when He offers it for nothing.

When God offers us salvation he says: It is by my grace alone, and it is in Christ alone. And it is yours—completely yours—by faith alone. 

You need not work to earn it, and indeed—you cannot work to earn it. 

Christ has done all the work. Jesus paid it all. It is my gift to you.

There’s something deep in our flesh that rebels and recoils and doesn’t want to believe that. We struggle against believing that salvation doesn’t require any effort on our part.

 And that struggle continues even when we’ve been Christians for a long time. There’s that accusing voice within us that says: Surely I must at least cooperate with God’s grace to secure my salvation!

It’s pretty silly, when you think about it. 

Ephesians 2 pictures the whole world as a graveyard full of dead men’s bones. And every tombstone has the same epitaph engraved on it: Dead in their sins and trespasses.

Now, if you’ve ever watched the movie Weekend at Bernie’s, you know that dead people are uncooperative

And yet, the Gospel proclaims that we were dead when God saved us. 

And by His grace alone, in Christ alone, for His purposes alone, for His glory alone, God went out into the graveyard and He brought you back to life.

Salvation isn’t a gift like a car, where you still have to tote the insurance and change the oil and rotate the tires to maintain it. 

It’s the gift of resurrection. It’s a resurrection of the spirit in this life, and a resurrection of both our souls and bodies in the life to come. 

I mean—how do you give that a tune up?

You don’t. You just need to be reminded of what an amazing gift you’ve been given.

But sadly—and you’ll find this even with people who’ve been Christians for a long time—there’s this impulse in us to try and work to maintain our own salvation. 

There’s something in us that just won’t accept that Jesus really did pay it all, and that we must find our rest in Him alone, and find in Him our all in all. We sang all that this morning. We often sing a better Gospel than we preach—or live by.

But let me ask you this: What do you think you would offer to God to purchase your salvation that’s of greater value than the blood of His only begotten Son?

Or have you gotten it into your head somehow that the cross of Christ was just a down payment on your salvation—and somehow you have to add in your own contributions to keep it?

Martin Luther knew what he was talking about, from experience. He lived this problem. When he was a young man, Luther was a monk who had entirely devoted his life to serving God.

He used to say: If anyone could have bought their way into heaven, it was me. 

He nearly killed himself trying to earn God’s grace. 

If he felt like he hadn’t prayed enough, been obedient enough, or read his Bible enough, he would go outside on a cold German night, and sleep in the snow until the other monks would drag him back inside before he froze to death.

You’ve probably never done anything that extreme. But I bet you will relate to this, some of you. Looking back on that time in his life, he said: No matter what I did to surrender all, I never found any assurance. My conscience would tell me: “You didn’t do that right. You’re not broken enough over your sin. You forgot to confess that thing.”

In those days, Luther never had any assurance. Only growing doubt, uncertainty, and weakness.

It wasn’t until God opened his eyes to passages like the one we heard today that Martin Luther understood how amazing God’s grace truly is.

Does “too much” grace make us lazy?

Galatians 2:15-16: We know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.

Justified is a legal term. It means you’re in a court of law, and the judge declares that you are righteous.

We are declared righteous in the court of God’s judgment because of what Jesus did, and who Jesus is. Not because of anything we have done or will do.

And God’s declaration of righteousness stands firm and unshakable from the moment you first trust in Christ to save you, until the day of judgment. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ, Rom. 8:21. And Jesus said that whoever believes in Him for salvation already has eternal life and will not be judged, John 5:24.

Ultimately, that means the only sin that will keep you out of heaven is unbelief.

And Martin Luther also say that Christians need to be reminded of this Gospel, this good news, every day; because we forget it every day.

But here’s the pushback you will always get whenever you preach the Gospel this clearly. Paul heard this objection. Martin Luther heard this objection. And if you’re preaching those Gospel right, you’re going to hear it, too.

Whenever you preach that salvation is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone; and—in the words of Jonathan Edwards—that the only thing you contribute to your salvation is the sin that made it necessary … any time you proclaim that boldly and plainly, here’s what someone is always going to say:

But wouldn’t that mean that God’s grace just makes you lazy?

I mean, if God’s grace is covering all your sins—past, present, and future; and if you don’t have to do anything to maintain your salvation; if you don’t need to work hard in this life to become holy and prepare yourself to be fit for heaven—then why do anything at all?

Why not just relax and enjoy yourself and keep on living exactly how you used to?

This sounds like a really weighty objection, doesn’t it? But actually, all it proves is that whoever asks you that question hasn’t really understood the Gospel.

You see, the human dilemma that the Gospel answers is not that we were weak or lazy. God’s grace isn’t your morning Starbucks that finally opens your sleepy eyes. It’s not a spiritual Red Bull that gives you wings, so you can do more good stuff.

It’s not ignorance or laziness that God has saved us from. The Gospel is that you were dead, I was dead, and God brought us back to life!

Grace doesn’t make us lazy–it makes us alive!

So no: The grace of God—salvation by grace alone—does not make us lazy. It makes us alive!

When I tell you to rest in Christ, that doesn’t mean be lazy. 

What I’m telling you is that if you’re looking at your own good works, it’s never going to be enough. So rest in Christ’s finished work.

You’re going to have sins that you will struggle with and never overcome in this life. That doesn’t mean stop trying. But it does mean that when you fail—and you will—remember that Jesus already atoned for all your sins.

You’re going to go through periods of doubt and darkness and discouragement, where your faith is very weak. When that happens, don’t say: I wonder if I’m really even a Christian? Remember that when you are weak, Christ is strong. And even when your faith is too weak to hold on to Him, He is gripping firmly to you.

God made us alive, by grace alone, to do good works

God’s grace doesn’t make us lazy. But let me set up a question that is a fair question, and the Bible gives us some pretty straightforward answers to this question.

Okay, so I’m saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, and I can’t add anything to what God has done. So now what?

Now that’s a very good question, and I’m glad you asked it. 

Ephesians 2:10 tells us that the reason God has saved us by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone … The reason He called you out of death, back to life, and has made you new in Christ is to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

We are not saved by good works; but we are saved for good works.

And look at this: God saved you so that you could do good works that He prepared, from eternity, specifically, personally, for you.

That’s what the phrase God prepared them in advance means. 

It doesn’t just mean God is ready if you are willing. It doesn’t mean God has a plan for you, but if you step out of line, you’re going to miss what he has for you. It means God has already set everything in place and in motion so that you will be able to do them, and you will do them.

You literally can’t mess this up, no matter how shaky and spotty your performance is! 

That’s why it’s Good News, not just okay news.

So here’s the Now what? of our question. I’ve been saved by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone. What for? Well, to do good works. 

If we are saved by grace through faith alone, why must we do good works? [1]

And here are three reasons God has prepared good works just for you, from eternity.

  • Your good works express your love and your gratitude to God for saving you.

In Luke’s Gospel, a woman who had lived a very sinful life came and crashed a fancy dinner party where Jesus was eating. She brought this jar of perfume that cost a fortune. And she washed His feet with her tears, and dried His feet with her hair, and anointed His feet with that perfume.

Do you know what Jesus said about this woman, and what she did? Luke 7:47. Jesus said: her many sins have been forgiven; that’s why she loved much.

Was what she did weird and awkward? Yes! Did she care? No! She was dead in her sin, but Christ’s love made her alive again. Resurrected people aren’t easily embarrassed.

She wasn’t making a fuss over Jesus to make Him love her and forgive her. She did it because He already did love her, and He showed her He loved her by forgiving her.

The more we understand the length and breadth and depth of God’s grace; and the enormous cost of what Christ has done for us—the more love and gratitude we will have for Christ.

When you have actually felt the burden of your guilt and your shame and your misery across your shoulders; 

and you’ve fallen under it, and its crushed you; 

and then you feel the relief of Christ picking you up,

and He took all those heavy burdens off of you, and he put it on Him,

and He said: These belong to Me now;

and you see that they were all nailed to the cross with Him—

they were buried with Him,

and when He rose on the third day, they stayed buried—

see, that’s the Gospel.

And the freedom you find in grace and forgiveness—your love and gratitude are just going to start gushing out of you.

Just like the tears flowed freely out of that forgiven woman’s eyes, just like the perfume when she broke the jar.

You see, any good work we do for Christ is really just like that sinful woman washing His feet. That’s who we are, okay? She is us. And yes, our good works are often going to be awkward, just like hers was.

But you know what? God is still going to delight in them. They’re going to be a sweet aroma to Him. 

  • Your good works help strengthen your assurance before God.

We need to be very careful here. Because nothing you do should ever be the basis of your assurance before God. 

No—we can boldly approach the throne of grace only because of what Christ has done. 

Your assurance of salvation is always based on Christ, and His work.

Your good works don’t give you assurance. But they can strengthen your assurance. Here’s how.

Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. 

The Holy Spirit plows the fields of our sinful hearts, uproots the thorns and the thistles and the weeds, and plants them, and nurtures them, and waters them, and grows them.

As you abide in Christ—you will see this fruit start to break open in little buds, and begin to blossom. And you’ll notice that these good fruits are growing in you, almost in spite of yourself.

You’re going to find moments when you didn’t lose your temper. When you didn’t run your mouth. When you find exquisite joy in something you wouldn’t have even noticed before. When you sacrificed, where before you would have been selfish.

You’re going to have those moments, and you’re going to say: Wow, who put that there? I never knew I had that in me. Well, you didn’t. The Holy Spirit put it there.

And the Holy Spirit only dwells in saved people. So whenever you see the Holy Spirit bearing even the tiniest bit of good fruit in your life, it strengthens your assurance that that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ (Phil. 1:6).

  • God will use the good you do to win others to Christ.

This is Matt. 5:16: let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven.

It doesn’t say that God will see your good works and say: Oh wow! They really do believe in me! So I’ll let them into heaven.

It also doesn’t say that they will see your good works and glorify you. That’s a trap we often fall into—and not even because we have supersized egos.

We need to be oh so careful that we don’t end up drawing others to us. As a minister, I have to be careful about that—and you need to be careful not to put that expectation on me, or on yourself.

We have to be very careful that we don’t think that we’ll have greater impact because of our winsome personalities, or if we go to the church with the relatable preacher who tells good jokes.

If we’re winning others to us, and not to Christ—that’s a big problem, because we can’t save anyone. If we win others to us, they’re liable to ditch you or me when we’re not fun anymore, or something cooler comes along.

But if we draw them to Christ, Christ says that no one and nothing will ever snatch them from His hand, John 10:28.

So let’s all lighten up on ourselves. Nobody’s salvation rests or falls on us. Jesus says: All those the Father gives me will come to me (John 6:37).

God saved you and me to do good works that he has prepared from eternity, specifically for us. Those are the very same good works that will shine brightly before others, and help lead them to Christ.

God gets all the glory. 

We simply live with humble, astonished gratitude for His amazing grace—that He would even choose our imperfect, awkward good works, that He gave us to do, equipped us to do, and put us in the right place at the right time to do … that He would place our good deeds on the breadcrumb trails that He has made to lead others home to Him.

That’s it. But it’s important. And it’s amazing.

So, if you’ve been asking: I’ve been saved by grace, through faith: Now what?—today, I hope I’ve answered your question.

God saved you to do good works that He already prepared for you. 

These good works are not your salvation. They’re not the root of your salvation; they’re the fruit of your salvation. 

They are gifts God has given you, so you can express your love and gratitude to Him; so your assurance and hope can be made stronger; and so—through the good things He has given you to do, others may also be saved.

God created you, and God redeemed you from sin, called you out of death and into life, so that you would glorify Him, and enjoy Him forever.

The good work you do for the Lord glorifies God, and you even grow to enjoy it. 

But your salvation—what God has done in Christ—glorifies God; and brings you eternal joy.


[1] This portion of the sermon is based on Q&A 86 from the Heidelberg Catechism.

Q. Since we have been delivered from our misery by grace through Christ without any merit of our own, why then should we do good works?
A. Because Christ, having redeemed us by his blood, is also restoring us by his Spirit into his image, so that with our whole lives we may show that we are thankful to God for his benefits,1 so that he may be praised through us,2 so that we may be assured of our faith by its fruits,3 and so that by our godly living our neighbors may be won over to Christ.4

1 Rom. 6:13; 12:1-2; 1 Pet. 2:5-10
2 Matt. 5:16; 1 Cor. 6:19-20
3 Matt. 7:17-18; Gal. 5:22-24; 2 Pet. 1:10-11
4 Matt. 5:14-16; Rom. 14:17-19; 1 Pet. 2:12; 3:1-2

The one where Paul yelled at Peter at the church potluck (Galatians 2:11-16)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for September 19, 2021.

The preaching text was Galatians 2:11-16.

Acts 10:9-48 was also read during worship, for added context on Peter’s hypocrisy.

Video link is below. Sermon notes are below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

When Peter ruined the potluck and Paul got in his face

It was a wonderful church potluck in Antioch, with all the trimmings and the baked goods and the pies.

It was wonderful, at least, until the fight broke out.

Everybody was so busy raving over Brother Michael’s rib tips and going back for seconds and thirds of Sister Susan’s pastries, nobody seemed to notice unhappy-looking men, clustered at a table together in the back of the fellowship hall.

Nothing on their plates but a few slices of bread, and a couple of deviled eggs.

No one noticed these people who weren’t having a great time, and that’s why a shocked silence fell over the potluck when they heard Paul tearing into Peter. 

Paul was the lead pastor there at the church in Antioch. And Peter was a visiting preacher from the church in Jerusalem. 

Peter had been sitting, hunched over, at that unhappy table in the back of the fellowship hall. 

It’s always painful when Christians argue. It’s even more embarrassing when the fight breaks out in church. 

But this conflict was super-awkward for two reasons: 1) It happened during a church potluck, and ruined everybody’s good time; and 2) this conflict was between two apostles, two trusted leaders in the church.

But Paul had to oppose Peter, and I’m about to tell you all the reasons why. But more importantly: Paul’s example teaches us how Christians should confront sin.

So here’s the very wrong thing Peter did. Paul says:

When Cephas came to Antioch—Cephas is another name for Peter—I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 

The old King James Version said Peter was to be blamed. The NLT says what Peter did was very wrong.

Peter had come to visit Paul at his church in Antioch. Here’s what we did there that was very wrong.

For before certain men came from James—that means from the church in Jerusalem, where James was an elder; later on James categorically denied sending them

So before these dudes came from Jerusalem, Peter used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.

Okay, so probably most of us feel very far removed from this situation. Like, you can tell it was obviously a very big deal, but maybe some of you don’t understand why it was such a big deal.

So I’m going to try and break down the reasons why what Peter did was very wrong.

First, Peter sinned publicly, so Paul had to rebuke him publicly. This wasn’t a private sin that Paul could counsel him about in private. And it wasn’t just a slip up that Paul could let go. It was a big, bad, public sin.

Second, look at v13. Peter’s sin involved hypocrisy. Let me explain why.

Remember, Peter was born and raised a Jew. All of the leadership and the members of the church in Jerusalem were Jewish.

They had grown up with strict laws from God about what they could and could not eat. Most notably, they could not eat any pork or any shellfish.

No bacon, no sausage, no ham. No shrimp, no lobster, no crawfish.

These laws had a spiritual meaning. They were to help remind God’s people that they were holy. And holy just means set apart—you belong to God. The food laws helped divide off Jews from Gentiles. 

But once Christ came, those laws were no longer necessary. Eph. 2:15 teaches us that Jesus’ death on the cross set aside the law’s commandments and regulations about things like food.

God’s people no longer express our holiness to God by what we eat or don’t eat. We find our holiness in Christ alone. We have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all, Heb. 10:10.

God knew this would be a difficult adjustment for Jews like Peter. That’s why he sent Peter that vision we heard about in Acts 10 today. The one where God kept sending Peter all these foods that had been unclean under the law of Moses, and telling him: It’s okay, Peter! Eat up!

God had to reassure Peter it was okay. God said: Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.

Okay, and the point was, God wasn’t just talking about Gentile foods. He was also talking about Gentile people.

Now, here’s Peter’s hypocrisy. 

Antioch was a culturally diverse church, with both Jews and Gentiles.

Acts 11:26 tells us that Antioch was the first place where followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Because it was the church that put everyone on notice that Jesus wasn’t just for Jews.

And when Peter came to Antioch, he was eating with the Gentile Christians. But look at v14. Paul said that while Peter was in Antioch, he lived like a Gentile and not like a Jew.

He wasn’t just eating with Gentiles. He was eating along with them. He was chowing down at the crab feeds, and eating pulled pork at their BBQs. He was enjoying the freedom he had in Christ.

But when these guys came from Jerusalem, v12 says Peter began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.

The circumcision group were these same guys who kept following Paul around and saying: If these Gentiles won’t get circumcised and start eating according to the law of Moses, they’re not real Christians. 

So when they showed up, Peter was all of a sudden more afraid of offending these bullies, than he was of offending God.

When these guys from the circumcision party were around, Peter would basically pretend that he hadn’t just been eating bacon-wrapped shrimp with his Gentile brothers and sisters.

Paul called it hypocrisy because Peter was being dishonest.

Here’s the third reason why what Peter did was very wrong: Peter was acting out of cowardice, not conscience. 

If Peter had simply believed that he shouldn’t eat the Gentile food, he didn’t have to eat it. And Paul could have privately taught him better.

But Peter did what he did because he was afraid of these guys from Jerusalem. He cried uncle and gave up his freedom in Christ before they even twisted his arm.

And it’s not the first time Peter did something like that, was it? The night Jesus was betrayed, three times Peter denied even knowing him. Because he was afraid of what others would think.

Whether he realized it or not, Peter denied Christ all over again at that church potluck. Because when he denied fellowship with those Gentile Christians, he was denying his brothers and sisters Jesus had died for.

Fourth, Peter set a very bad example by his behavior. 

V13 says, The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. Other Jewish Christians began following Peter’s bad example. Even Barnabas, Paul’s right-hand coworker.

Because when they say Peter drawing back from the Gentile believers—well, he’s an Apostle; he was Jesus’ best friend, so this must be okay to do.

Peter led others astray into sin with him.

But the was the biggest reason that Paul had to get all up in Peter’s grill is in the beginning of v14. Paul says that Peter and the others were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.

Peter wasn’t preaching a false Gospel. But he was living like the Gospel wasn’t true. 

The Gospel had set Peter free to eat brother Michael’s pork ribs along with all the Gentile Christians. But more importantly—Christ’s blood made those Gentile believers just as holy as Peter or any other Jew.

Peter had an opportunity to stand up for the Gospel against those guys from Jerusalem. Instead, when he gave in and stopped eating freely with the Gentiles, Peter denied the Gospel.

So that’s the big reason Paul publicly opposed Peter.

And that’s what I want to focus on the rest of our time.

Because this isn’t just a story about the time Peter ruined a potluck.

Christians still sin–a lot

You see, becoming a Christian doesn’t make us immune from sinning. We all know that. Saving faith doesn’t mean you’re going to just start making all the right choices. Baptism isn’t a vaccine that magically makes us instantly righteous.

I don’t want to shock anybody, but Christians still sin. A lot. And that’s actually natural.

Don’t believe me? Paul himself said so. 1 Tim. 1:15: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them.

Paul didn’t say, I used to be a great sinner. He said: I am the worst sinner I know.

And he said that as an Apostle. He said that as an old man who’d been a Christian for decades. 

Christians are still going to sin. You’re going to sin, I’m going to sin. I bet you can’t even make it through the day without sinning.

And sometimes those sins are going to be significant enough that they need to be confronted. You will need somebody to get in your face about your sin. Or you’ll need to confront someone else about their sin.

This passage actually gives us some good guidelines for when we need to confront each other’s sins forcefully—like Paul did with Peter.

When they’re public.

When the sin is harming others.

When someone is being dishonest or hypocritical.

When someone is setting a bad example with their sin.

These are sins we can’t ignore or brush off. Because they’re not just weakness of the flesh. They’re not sins we’re struggling with, like lustful thoughts or jealousy.

These are a class of sins that are out of step with the Gospel. Because they’re leading you to live like the Gospel isn’t true.

And this passage in Galatians not only teaches us how to recognize those sins. It teaches us how to confront them.

And it’s really simple: When Christians fall into these sins, it’s usually because we’ve forgotten the Gospel. So you have to remind them of the Gospel.

Paul confronted Peter’s sin by reminding him of the Gospel

That’s what Paul did to Peter at the potluck.

He could have told Peter: Hey Peter, you’re being so racist against the Gentiles right now. He wouldn’t have been wrong. But that’s not what he said.

Paul also could’ve said: Hey Peter, you’re setting a really bad Christian example right now. He wouldn’t have been wrong. But that’s not what he said.

Instead—look at v16 and see what Paul told Peter. He reminded him of the Gospel. He said:

Peter, we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

No one is justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. That’s the Gospel.

Paul reminded Peter of the Good News that had saved both of them; the Good News that they both preached; and the Good News that Paul knew Peter still believed.

Peter, why are you doing this? You know following those food laws never made anyone right in God’s eyes. That’s why we put our trust in Jesus, why we rest in Him alone for our salvation. Nothing we do makes us holy. It’s what Christ has done that makes us holy. So why don’t you start acting like the Gospel is true, that Jesus’ death actually accomplished something, and come back over here and eat some more of Sister Bertha’s crawfish étouffée.

Paul confronted Peter’s sin. But he confronted it with the Gospel. He got Peter walking back in line with the Gospel by reminding him of the Gospel. What a radical idea, right?

Oh—and we know it worked, too. You know how we know? The Bible tells us so!

Because years later, Peter called him our beloved brother Paul (2 Peter 3:15). So obviously, their throw-down at the church potluck didn’t permanently damage their relationship. The Gospel won Peter over, and his fellowship to Paul and the Gentile believers was restored.

Big Sins still need a Big Gospel

In fact, what happened between Paul and Peter at the church potluck that day is really an example of how we should confront believers now when they fall into sin.

Among believers, we should confront sin with the Gospel. 

That’s where we should go first: What Jesus has done to save us, why it matters, and why we should trust Him.

We remind each other—or we remind ourselves, when we’re struggling with a sin we can’t seem to stop doing—of the Good News of Christ.

Instead of burdening ourselves and others with a to-do list of things we ought to be doing better. 

When someone is stepping out of line, that’s our natural inclination: Stop doing that thing, do better, read your Bible more, be more like me.

But what the Bible says actually works is to offer the promises of the Gospel. Rom. 2:4 says it’s the kindness of God that leads people to repentance. That’s the Gospel. God’s kindness is that in Christ, he draws sinners to Himself. He declares us righteous because of what Christ has done. He makes unholy people holy by His own Holy Spirit.

Rom. 1:16 says that the Gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. Because the Gospel unites us to Christ by faith. And He’s at the right hand of God, praying that we will not lose our faith. Christ is holding on to us—even in our seasons of sin and prodigal wandering. And He has put His own Holy Spirit in us, to do the lifelong, tedious work of weeding out our deepest-rooted sins.

In fact, this is exactly how both Paul and Peter dealt with Christians who had gotten caught in serious sins. They gave them the Gospel.

1 Cor. 6:12-20: Paul had to confront Christians who were committing serious immorality, sexual immorality. Some of them were even turning to prostitution.

That’s serious sin that needs to be confronted. But you know what Paul told them? Here’s what he said:

The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. And God raised the Lord and will also raise us up by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? … your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price.

That’s all Gospel

Paul’s saying: No, Roxanne—seriously, you don’t have to turn on the red light. Those days are over. Christ bought you out of all that with his own body and blood. Don’t you remember? He put His own Holy Spirit in you—the Spirit of God dwells in your body!

Jesus rescued you, and now you’re holy to God. Body and soul, in life and in death, you belong to your faithful Savior Jesus Christ.

Paul reminded Christians who were engaging in serious sin of the Gospel promises: That Jesus has rescued us, God’s Spirit is living in our bodies, and one day our bodies will be made perfect and sinless in resurrection.

Peter did the same thing. 

In 2 Peter 1:5ff, he’s dealing with Christians who have faith, but that’s about it. Their lives were still a mess of immorality. They weren’t growing in their knowledge of God. They didn’t seem to have any self-control. They gave up too easily. They weren’t striving for godliness. And they were doing a poor job of being unselfish and loving each other.

Peter didn’t write them off. He didn’t say, Wow—I don’t think you guys are really even Christians. He said they were unproductive and ineffective Christians.

And then he told them what their problem was: You guys are forgetting that [you] have been cleansed from [your] past sins.

In other words, the reason they weren’t growing, and they were ineffective and unproductive is that they’d forgotten the Gospel. They’d forgotten that Jesus rescued them from being ignorant and petty and unloving. 

We become ineffective and unfruitful when we forget that Christ is the source of any and all of goodness, wisdom, self-control, perseverance, and godly love in us. Jesus is not just our example of those things—He is all of them. When we’re joined to Jesus by faith, He plants and grows those good fruits in us by His Holy Spirit in us.

That’s the Gospel. And it works. It’s the infinite love and patience of Christ, His life poured out into us by the Holy Spirit, His promise to complete the good work He began in us that transforms us.

No matter how badly we fall, or how far we wonder—it’s the Gospel that leads believers to repentance, and brings us back to the potluck. 

Indeed, the promises of the Gospel will carry us all the way home to the great feast of God—when Christ will raise us from the dead to dwell in the house of the Lord, to glorify Him, and enjoy Him forever.

We will not negotiate with terrorists (Galatians 2:1-10)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for September 12, 2021.

The preaching text was Galatians 2:1-10, and the message primarily focused on v5: We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

Acts 11:27-30 was also read in worship, to give context for Paul’s reason for going to Jerusalem.

Occasionally I like to remind readers of the resources I am using as I preach through Galatians. They are:

J.V. Fesko, Galatians, The Lectio Continua Expository Commentary on the New Testament, ed. Jon D. Payne (Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege Press, 2012).

Martin Luther, Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535): Lecture Notes Transcribed by Students & Presented in Today’s English, trans. Haroldo Camacho (Irvine, CA: 1517 Publishing, 2018).

Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians, Reformed Expository Commentary, ed. Richard D. Phillips and Philip Graham Ryken (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian & Reformed, 2005).

John R.W. Stott, The Message of Galatians: Only One Way, The Bible Speaks Today (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1968).

Live video of the message is below. Sermon notes are below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

Paul would not negotiate over the Gospel

There’s a catchphrase you’ve probably heard: We will not negotiate with terrorists.

It comes from the 1997 movie, “Air Force One,” starring Harrison Ford as the President of the United States. It’s not exactly what he said, but it’s close.

Twenty years ago—just after the horrors of 9/11—“we don’t negotiate with terrorists” was stated as official foreign policy. 

But these days, you’re just as likely to hear it used in social contexts. It means that you’re not going to let a toxic or abusive person dictate terms to you. You’re not going to let them disrespect your boundaries.

In Galatians 2:1-5, Paul was dealing with spiritual terrorists, whom he called false believers. According to Paul, these men hated the freedoms we have in Christ, and would send us back into spiritual slavery if we let them.

But Paul said: We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved, v5.

Paul refused to negotiate with spiritual terrorists. He refused to give in to their demands. 

The Gospel that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of God alone, is the hill Paul was willing to fight and die on. 

Because without it, we are dead. Spiritually, we would still be dead in our sins and trespasses.

And if we let the enemies of the Gospel take that hill—future generations will die and be lost.

Paul wouldn’t budge on the Gospel. Neither will I. Neither should you.

Anti-Gospel terrorists gate-crashed the Apostles’ meeting

So let’s go a little deeper into the story Paul tells in Galatians 2:1-5.

Remember—Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians because troublemakers had come in and were convincing the young Christians there that Paul had preached an incomplete Gospel to them, that could not saved them. 

Paul’s opponents were Jewish Christians who demanded that non-Jewish converts needed to be circumcised and live by the Law of Moses in order to be saved. 

So Galatians is Paul defending his Gospel—No matter who you are, Jew or Gentile—you are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, period

And what he’s doing now—all the way through the end of chapter—is telling stories from his ministry. He’s saying: Look, these people have been going around bad-mouthing me for years. All the other Apostles know about it, and every time these guys have given me trouble, I’ve always come out on top.

So in Galatians 2:1-5, Paul is telling a story about his second visit to Jerusalem, fourteen years into his ministry.

Paul says in v2 that he went up to Jerusalem in response to a revelation. This is important, because he’s saying: I didn’t go to Jerusalem to defend my Gospel because the other Apostles were questioning it. I went because the Lord sent me.

Acts 11 tells us what this revelation was that sent Paul to Jerusalem. A prophet from the Jerusalem church was visiting Paul and Barnabas’ home base in Antioch. And he prophesied that a great famine was about to sweep over the world.

In response to this prophecy, Acts 11:29-30 tells us that the believers in Antioch decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea. This they did, sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul.

So Saul and Barnabas were actually going to Jerusalem to meet with the Apostles there about famine relief—not to have a theological argument. 

And they also brought their friend and coworker Titus along with them.

Here’s why Titus is going to be so important to Paul’s argument going forward. Paul, Barnabas, and all the Apostles in Jerusalem were Jewish. They were all circumcised—as the Law of God commanded—and were careful to observe the Jewish purity and dietary laws around their fellow Jewish believers.

But Titus was a Gentile—a non-Jew. A Greek. He was not circumcised, and did not observe the Jewish purity laws.

And as far as Paul was concerned—he didn’t need to. Because God accepts us on the basis of Christ’s finished work, not because of anything we do. 

Now I want you to pay attention to a couple of things in vv2 and 4. Paul says while he was in Jerusalem he met privately with those esteemed as leaders—that is, the other Apostles, like Peter and John, and the Lord’s brother James—and he presented to them the gospel that [he preached] among the Gentiles.

Now, that wasn’t the reason he came to Jerusalem. But a situation arose while he was there. Paul tells us that some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves, v4.

He’s talking about the troublemakers who’d been following his around, causing confusion among new believers, telling them they weren’t really saved if they didn’t get circumcised and follow the Jewish purity laws. 

That’s what he means by they were trying to make us slaves. The Gospel is that we are saved by grace through faith, on the basis of what Christ has done. We obey God now from a place of freedom from fear or shame. Saved people want to obey God out of gratitude.

So when you tell somebody—You must have faith In Christ to be saved; but also you must be doing this thing, and that thing—that’s putting them back under spiritual slavery.

You end up undermining their security and freedom, because now they’re always wondering if they’re doing enough to be saved. That’s spiritual terrorism. 

And you gotta feel for Paul here, too. Because he can’t even meet with his fellow Apostles and church leaders in peace to discuss famine relief without these bullies barging in and giving him a hard time.

But here’s what Paul said happened at that meeting: 

Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek.

Galatians 2:3 NIV

In other words, when these guys who kept following Paul around complaining about the disciples he made not being circumcised, the other Apostles and leaders in the church backed Paul up. 

Titus—an uncircumcised Gentile Christian—was there with Paul and the other Apostles, and none of them told Titus he had to be circumcised to be a Christian.

So here’s how Paul sums up the outcome of this dustup, v5. He says:

Wewe means Paul, Barnabas, and all the Apostles and elders—We did not give in to them for a moment.

Paul and his fellow Apostles didn’t negotiate with these spiritual terrorists who were undermining the Gospel. They didn’t budge an inch, and they didn’t compromise.

Our response to any attack on the Gospel has long-lasting consequences

And here’s something else I love in v5. Paul said the reason they didn’t back down for even a minute was so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved—not only for the Galatians, but for you and me all these centuries later.

Paul understood that how he and his fellow Apostles responded to these enemies of the Gospel in the moment would have long-lasting consequences.

If they gave in to those anti-Gospel terrorists at any point, if they negotiated, if they hemmed and hawed, if they allowed God-appointed boundaries to be redrawn by even an inch, if they even said: Look, let’s just agree to disagree on this circumcision thing—the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ alone would be lost.

Paul wasn’t going to agree to that, he wasn’t going to let that happen, and to their credit—Peter and James and John and Barnabas weren’t going to stand for it either.

Paul supported and defended the Gospel of Christ against all enemies, whether foreign or domestic.

In other words, he was willing to go toe-to-to with anyone who was hostile to the Gospel of Christ, whether they were unbelievers, from outside the church; or Christians—or at least who claimed to be Christians—inside the church.

I mean, what did he say in v4? Some false believers had infiltrated our ranks. Those men would’ve told everybody they were the real Christians. But Paul called them false believers, and he wasn’t going to sign a peace treaty with them.

The Gospel of Christ is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes (Rom. 1:16). That’s why it was the hill Paul was willing to die on, because we’re all dead without it.

How to defend the Gospel (1 Peter 3:15; 2 Timothy 2:24-25)

And that’s the challenge for you and me today: Are we willing to defend the Gospel like Paul? 

Are we willing to stand for the truth of the Gospel against all enemies? Both the ones in the world, who hate Christ and who hate our faith; and the ones who claim to be Christians, but preach a twisted Gospel?

You know—we can’t let people who say they’re Christians off the hook, and let them slide when they try and redefine the Gospel. Otherwise—the truth of the Gospel will not be preserved for our children, or future generations of believers.

Paul stood his ground on the Gospel—and so must we.

So what can we do to make sure the truth of the Gospel is preserved?

First, 1 Peter 3:15 tells us to: Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.

This is important, because fighting for the Gospel isn’t just a matter of intellectual debate, or knowing all the answers to the Big Questions. 

Yes, you should put your mind to work defending the Gospel. Peter also tells us to add knowledge to our faith (2 Peter 1:5). You should be learning the facts of scripture, and you should be learning theology.

But here Peter says that it’s the hope we have in us that we must always stand ready to share … and to defend.

John Newton was a former slave ship captain who believed the Gospel, left his life of sin, became a preacher, and wrote the song, “Amazing Grace.” 

You see, John Newton’s life is a testimony to God’s amazing grace, and the power of the Gospel to save and transform even the worst of sinners.

And here’s how John Newton described the hope that was in him. He said:

How unspeakably wonderful to know that all our concerns are held in hands that bled for us.

Wow! Now see, that’s being able to give an answer for the hope that’s in you. The hope of the Gospel is that whatever you face in this life—suffering, loss, trauma, depression, rejection, even your ongoing struggles with sin—you are are held tightly in the grip of your crucified and resurrected Savior.

So you can serve the Lord without fear or shame in this life, and you are sure of an eternal life with God to come.

So Peter tells us to always be ready—like John Newton was—to give the reason for your hope. Hint: It’s Christ alone.

But he also instructs us to do this with gentleness and respect.

Defending the Gospel doesn’t mean that we have to fight every battle, or that we’re allowed to fight dirty, as long as we’re fighting dirty for the Lord.

You can present evidence, you can even engage in debate, without it disintegrating into pridefulness and personal attacks.

Because remember—you’re not trying to destroy your opponent. You’re defending the Gospel. You’re advocating for the hope you have, and you’re fighting to preserve that hope for others.

G.K. Chesterton once said that: The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him.

Paul, Peter, and the other Apostles didn’t stand firm against opponents of the Gospel because they hated those men. 

They stood their ground and fought for the truth that salvation is found in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone, because they had a deep love for their brothers and sisters in the church, and for generations of believers still to come. 

They fought to defend and preserve the Gospel so that others could have the same hope in Christ that they did. And that’s also why we contend for the faith.

And that brings me to the third aspect of defending the Gospel like Paul and his fellow Apostles did in Galatians 2:1-5.

We’re coming back to Paul. 2 Timothy 2:24-25. Paul says:

The Lord’s servant must not quarrel, but must be gentle to everyone.

This doesn’t mean that you never get feisty for the Gospel. It doesn’t mean that you never call out false teachers, or twisted Gospels.

Again, Paul had no problem calling the men who were adding circumcision to the Gospel—anyone who would teach Jesus plus anything as the way to be saved—he had no problem calling them false believers. That means he was saying: They’re not really Christians because they’re messing with the Gospel.

He had no problem warning other Christians about false teachers and abusers and predators in the church by name.

He also had sharp words for unbelievers who stood in the way of the Gospel.

But you must be discerning. Is this person a wolf who’s come to devour Christ’s little lambs, or are they just confused or immature? The only way you can know is to lead with gentleness.

Instead of always being ready for a fight, Paul says we should be able to teach, and patient, instructing [our] opponents with gentleness.

Cornelius Van Til was one of the most brilliant defenders of the faith in the twentieth century. And I love what he said about this passage. 

He said it means you don’t budge one inch on any truth of the Gospel. But you do keep buying another round of coffee for your opponent, so you can keep the conversation going as long as they’ll listen.

Because again—you want to preserve the Gospel. But you also hope that person will also come to believe the truth, and have the same hope you do. 

And that’s where Paul lands in v25. We must be bold in defending the Gospel, but as patient and gentle as we can be, because: Perhaps God will grant them repentance leading them to the knowledge of the truth.

By the way—that also takes so much pressure off of us. Nobody is convinced of the truth of the Gospel because we were so smart, or because we used just the right words.

Only God can open a heart to the Gospel. God grants people repentance. You and I are just the crooked sticks God is using to draw a straight line to Himself.

The Gospel is the hill on which Christians must be willing to die

But what we must never do is give in, even for a moment—not one inch—to anyone who would seek to steal the grace and peace and hope we have in the Gospel.

Whether they’re unbelievers in the world who are insisting that God is not real; that Jesus is not who He said He is; or that we can’t base our lives on an outdated old book like the Bible.

Or they’re people who claim to be believers but are twisting the Gospel so that it’s bad news—or even just okay news—instead of Good News.

Like Paul, we must be willing to die on the hill of the Gospel. Because we have no life and no hope without it.

And by the way: the hill of the Gospel, where we boldly plant our flag that says: Grace alone, faith alone, Christ alone, and never retreat—is the very hill of Golgotha, where Christ was crucified to save us from our sins.

We stand on that hill, in the shadow of the cross, in the shadow of Christ’s wings where He gathers us up and protects us—and we point everyone to His cleansing blood.

We show them the cross, where God’s justice and mercy met and kissed one another, and His forgiveness pours out freely on all who believe.

We show them the cross, where Christ cried out, It is finished!—because His death had fully paid for all our sins and guilt.

And standing on that hill, under the shadow of the cross, we point them to Christ’s empty tomb—His promise to everyone who believes that one day He will return, and our graves will also be found empty.

And from this hill—that beautiful, mysterious, scandalous hill of the Gospel—we glorify God, and we enjoy God—now and forever.

Glory to God for Salvation! (Galatians 1:18-24)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for September 5, 2021.

The preaching text was Galatians 1:18-24. This message especially focused on v24.

Acts 9:19b-30 was also read during worship, for context.

Live link is below. Sermon notes below that. Soli Deo Gloria!

There are no little people in God’s family

We must remember throughout our lives that in God’s sight, there are no little people, and no little places. Only one thing is important: to be consecrated persons in God’s place for us, at each moment. (Francis Schaeffer)

In God’s eyes, no believer—not one son or daughter—is less important than another one. Every saved Christian is holy to God, and our lives are a story He has written.

Moment by moment—wherever we are—those who love God, and are called according to His purpose, are living through God working all things together for our good.

There are no little people in God’s family, and no little places. No little cracks we can fall through, and be lost.

I want to remind you of that at the beginning of the message today, because we’re still in the middle of Paul telling his story.

It’s tempting to hear about Paul’s dramatic conversion, from the church’s greatest foe, to her dearest friend and advocate. To hear all the things that Paul did and all that he went through for the sake of Christ and the Gospel, and to put him on a pedestal.

Paul would not want you to do that. If he were with us today, I’m positive he’d be glorifying God for saving him, and saving you—not posing as the model for a SuperChristian. 

He’d be pointing us toward heaven—not himself.

He’d be telling us to focus on God the Father, who loved us and sent His Son to die for us. He’d be telling us to rest in Christ’s finished work to save us. And he’d remind us to be patient with the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, making us more and more holy.

And he’d say: You’re all so precious to God. Learn to love each other well, because you all matter to God.

Paul’s story: They glorified God in me (Galatians 1:18-24)

Paul was sharing his own story in theses verses. Not to put the spotlight on himself, but to defend the Gospel he preached. The very same Gospel that had saved him.

Because troublemakers had come along behind Paul, and had sown weeds of confusion and chaos in some of the churches he had planted. 

They accused Paul of watering down the truth, of not preaching the full Gospel. They said: If you follow Paul’s message, you may not actually be saved.

So in our text today, Galatians 1:18-24, Paul was talking about the early days of his ministry. After Jesus transformed him from an enemy of the church to an evangelist for Christ, Paul went and preached for three years in Arabia. 

Then after those three years, Paul says, I went up to Jerusalem. The birthplace of the church. 

Paul went there to visit Cephas—that’s another name for the Apostle Peter—and remained with him fifteen days.

While he was in Jerusalem, Paul says, I saw none of the other apostles except James the Lord’s brother.

But Paul didn’t just go to Peter’s house for a two-week vacation. 

We heard from Acts 9 today that the whole time Paul was in Jerusalem, he was preaching the Gospel, and publicly debating enemies of the Gospel—and he was winning.

The point of these verses in Galatians is that Paul went to Jerusalem and met with Peter—one of Jesus’ hand-picked original Twelve Apostles—and James, who was Christ’s brother. They accepted Paul, and from Acts we know they heard what he was preaching and teaching. 

So there was no discrepancy between Paul’s message, and what the other apostles were preaching. 

He’s telling the story to shut down the people who told the Galatians that Paul was preaching a deficient Gospel. 

Now, here’s where I really want to focus on today.

After Paul’s visit to Jerusalem, word started to get out among all the Christians in Jerusalem and Judea, v23: “He who used to persecute us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 

And when they heard the joyful news that their old enemy was now one of them, Paul said: they glorified God because of me.

And that’s what I really want to drill down on today, v24. When Paul said: And they glorified God because of me.

That one verse is just a hidden treasure.

Here’s why. I think most of us hear this, and if we think about this verse at all, it’s just: Well, of course they glorified God because Paul converted, and was preaching the Gospel, instead of trying to destroy it!

They were glorifying God because of the great miracle He’d worked in Paul’s life. Right?

I’m sure they were. 

But remember what I told you last week: God didn’t have to perform a greater miracle to save Paul than He did to save anyone! Even you and me.

Ephesians 2:1-5. Again. It says we were dead in [our] transgressions and sins. Dead. Helpless. Unable to respond to God with faith.

That’s the bad news. And it’s the same news for everybody.

But then vv4-5 cracks open that fire hydrant full of sweet, refreshing Gospel: But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.

Every believer is equally a miracle! Paul, you, me—God had to perform the same resurrection on every one of us.

They glorified God because of Paul. And we should glorify God for our own salvation, and glorify God for one another.

Ps. 3:8 says: Salvation belongs to the Lord. So He gets all the glory, every time anyone is saved.

Why we should glorify God for salvation

Look around this room full of believers. In God’s eyes, there’s no little person here. Every Christian here is equally eternally beloved and chosen by God. Every Christian here was equally lost, and has been equally found. 

We’re all equally known and called by God. Equally holy and precious in God’s eyes. 

We were all once equally dead, but by God’s grace, in Christ we’ve all been made equally alive in Christ, and are moving moment after moment closer to the same eternal life.

Francis Schaeffer told us we must remember throughout our lives that in God’s sight, there are no little people. Not in this church!

But in case you’re ever tempted to forget, here’s four good reasons why we can always glorify God—for our own salvation, and for one another. [1]

  • You matter to God

You matter to God. I matter to God. All these people in the seats around you matter to God.

God is not a distant God. He’s not an absentee Father. Acts 17:27 says he is not far from any one of us.

One of my favorite chapters in the whole Bible is Psalm 8. Because it teaches us that we matter to God.

The Psalmist once looked up at the clear night sky—at the moon and the stars, the constellations dancing across the heavens as the seasons change.

And surrounded by the vast expanse of the universe, he called out to God: what is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him? (Psalm 8:4)

In other words: Lord, how is it that we rebellious little specks of dust matter so much to you?

God is never too busy to hear your prayers. He’s never not paying attention to His children.

Humans beings matter to God because every human is made in God’s image and likeness. But He has a special love for His sons and daughters by faith.

You matter to God. You’re not an accident. God has an eternal purpose for you. Ephesians 1:4-5 says God chose [you and me] in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. 

God personally knew you and He loved you and me, so in love he predestined us for adoption [as sons and daughters] through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.

Human beings—you, me—are so important to God that He sent His own Son to live and die for us, to redeem us from judgment and death. Even though in our fallen condition, in our sin, we really are basically balls of mud and rebellion.

God sent Jesus to redeem a people for Himself, a great multitude that no one [can] count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, Rev. 7:9.

And He set His love on you to be one of that great multitude.

You matter to God. So does every other believer. Don’t ever forget that. Glorify God, because you matter! Glorify God, because we matter!

  • You are important.

Not only do you matter to God, you’re important to God. 

Not only did God choose to save you for His own purposes and glory—what you do is important to God.

Listen to what Ephesians 2:10 tells every believer: For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared ahead of time for us to do.

When it says that God prepared good works for you to do ahead of time, that literally means He planned your life before there even was time. Before the creation of the world, God predestined and prepared specific good works for you to do

And then He called you to faith in Christ, made you alive with Christ, created you anew in Christ, and filled you with His own Holy Spirit—so you would be able to do the specific good works He has planned for you.

So you’re important to God. He’s woven your life into His purposes. Every believer is important to God, and God has given you important work to do—for His glory, according to His will, and by His power. 

Philippians 2:13 says God is always working in you and in me, and in every believer, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.

So we should glorify God for including us in His eternal plan. And we should glorify God for the good works He is doing and will continue to do through us, and through every believer we know.

  • Our heavenly Father knows you by name.

When God called you to Himself, He didn’t just say: Hey you! Get over here!

Instead, God say: I have called you by name … Because you are precious in my eyes … and I love you (Isa. 43:1, 4).

God knew you and me—personally, and in intimate detail, before we were even born. 

The Psalmist says: all my days were written in your book and planned

before a single one of them began, Psalm 139:16.

God knows your name. He knows you inside and out—the good, the bad, and the ugly. And still, He says: child, you are precious in my eyes. You are my beloved, with whom I am well-pleased. 

God not only knows your story—God wrote your story! He’s even got the number of hairs on your head written down somewhere.

You are not a number or a statistic to God. You are a real person, a precious son or daughter, with a name.

So we should glorify God, because He has called us by name to faith in Christ. Every believer here was once dead in our sin, but God called us to eternal life in Christ. 

We were like Lazarus in the tomb—dead and already stinking. When Christ called Lazarus back from the dead, He said: “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). He called Lazarus from death to life by name. And He did the same for each one of us.

  • Jesus was thinking of you when He hung on the cross

Jesus didn’t die for a faceless mass of humanity. He knew exactly who He was dying for. He knew the name of everyone who would come to faith in Him.

How do we know that’s true? Because Jesus said so. In John 10:14, Jesus Himself said: I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.

Jesus knows you. He knew you from eternity. He is the Good Shepherd, who came to rescue you, and gather you safely to Himself. And like every good shepherd, Jesus calls his own sheep by name (John 10:3).

Our Good Shepherd, who knows His sheep, and calls us by name, also said: I lay down my life for the sheep, John 10:13.

In other words, He knew exactly who you were, by name, when He suffered and died for you on the cross. He laid down His life for you and for me, and everyone who has faith in Him—and He wasn’t just granting a blanket amnesty. He gave His life, personally, for His sheep, who He knows by name.

Jesus knew you, by name, and was thinking of you and loving you—in particular—when He died.

And He will never forget you. He holds up his nail-scarred hands, and promises: See, I have written your name on the palms of my hands (Isa. 49:16).

So give glory to God for your salvation, my salvation—and the salvation of every person here. Not one of us is a Christian by accident. Jesus died with you and me and every believer throughout the ages on His mind. Not a faceless crowd of people who might someday believe in Him. No—He knew exactly who He was dying for.

You might be tempted to say, either: I’m too big of a screw up; or, I’m so boring. I’m not gifted like Paul or the other apostles, or even other really faithful people in this church. Are you really sure He wanted me? I’m not worth it!

Well, it’s not really about if you’re worthy or not. No one is. 

That’s why it’s so awesome that our salvation, our righteousness before God, and our assurance of eternal life don’t come from anything about us.

Not anything we’ve done, or will do. And not anything we have to offer.

It’s all because—for God’s purposes, by His good pleasure, and for His glory—you and I mattered to God. He decided we were important to Him. He called us by name. And He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to die for us personally.

That’s the same Gospel that saved Paul. It’s the same Gospel that Paul preached. It was the Gospel He was willing to fight over, and even the hill he was willing to die on.

It’s the same Gospel that saved you and me. It’s the Gospel I preach, and will continue to preach as long as I have breath in my lungs. This Good News is the hill where I have planted my flag, and it’s the hill I’m willing to die on.

How to Glorify God for Salvation

We heard today that when the Christians Paul used to persecute found out he’d stopped fighting them, and had become a Christian himself—that they glorified God because of him.

But we can and should glorify God because anyone is saved. 

One way you can glorify God for your own salvation is to believe his promises. He has promised that Christ is able to save completely those who come to God through him, Hebrews 7:25. He has promised that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ, Philippians 1:6.

You glorify God when you say, Amen, Lord!, to His promises, and rest in them. 

And we can glorify God for each other’s salvation by how we love and honor one another. Rom. 12:10 tells us to: Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. Take the lead in honoring one another.

Sometimes your brothers and sisters will step on your toes, frustrate you, hurt you, and get on your ever last nerve. 

It is then you really must remember that they matter to God, they’re just as important to our heavenly Father as you are; that He called them to Himself by name, just as He did for you; and that their face was etched into Jesus’ mind as He hung on the cross—just as yours was. Their names are engraved on the palms of His hands just as deeply and clearly as yours is.

In the church, there really are no little people. No insignificant people. No useless people. There are only sons and daughters that God the Father has adopted in love. We all matter to Him. We’re all known by name. Jesus died for us all personally

So let us glorify God for our salvation. For your salvation, and mine. Remembering that the goodness and mercy of Christ are moment by moment, day by day, chasing us home to our Father, where we will enjoy him, together, forever!

[1] These four reasons were inspired by a social media post from Chad Bird. My favorite books by Chad are Upside Down Spirituality: The Nine Essential Failures of a Faithful Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2019); and Night Driving: Notes from a Prodigal Soul (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2017). Chad’s work will nourish and be a healing balm to your soul. You can also follow Chad’s podcast, 40 Minutes in the Old Testament, at the 1517 Network.

From enemy to evangelist (Galatians 1:13-17)

Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for August 29, 2021.

The preaching text was Galatians 1:13-17. For context, Acts 22:3-21 was also read during worship.

Link to video below. Sermon notes below that.

Soli Deo Gloria!

St. Paul the bully?

We’ve all dealt with bullies in our lives. On the streets, in your workplace, sadly—sometimes you even find them in church.

But most of us remember the bullies we knew in school. 

When I was growing up, there was a certain kind of bully who was worse than all the rest. 

They were the ones who came from wealthy or well-connected families in town. They were sometimes the teacher’s pet. They were very often on the honor roll. He may have been the captain of a sports team. She may have been the captain of the debate team.

People would often look the other way when they picked on you. In fact, sometimes you would swear that the worse they were to other people, the more they were rewarded.

In our reading today, the Apostle Paul confessed that he was once that kind of bully. 

Yes. This man, chosen by God, called by the risen Christ to be an apostle. This man who, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote a third of the New Testament—the Apostle Paul was once the worst kind of bully.

That doesn’t seem like the kind of person who’d become a great preacher and missionary in the church, does it?

And that’s actually the point Paul was making in our text today. 

Paul’s story, and why it matters

You see, there were people who were trying to discredit Paul’s message. And one of the tactics they used was accusing him of changing the Gospel, and teaching a different message than what Christ had preached.

[By the way—you’ll still hear people doing that today. Trying to drive a wedge between the message of Christ, and what Paul taught. So that’s nothing new.]

So beginning with these verses, and going all the way to the end of ch2, Paul’s going to defend his Gospel and his ministry. And he’s going to do that by telling his own story.

In our passage today, Paul’s going to say: The Gospel I preach is the same good news that saved me. He’s going to tell how Christ first gave him grace and peace, when he had absolutely not earned it, and certainly didn’t deserve it.

In other letter, Paul summed up his life under the Gospel like this: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the worst of them, 1 Tim. 1:15.

The same Gospel Paul preached is what transformed him from being a great enemy of Christ and His church; to being perhaps the greatest evangelist the church has ever known.

So here’s Paul’s story—in his own words.

Beginning at Gal. 1:13. Paul says:

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it.

Notice that he’s reminding the Galatians here. You know how I used to be. I used to bully Christians, and persecute them. I was an enemy of Christ, His church, and the Gospel. 

Paul first appears in our Bibles in Acts 7. He was a young man, and back then he was called Saul. Saul was running with a mob who attacked a Christian man named Stephen, and murdered him out in the streets. 

Those violent men had given young Saul their jackets to hold while they attacked Stephen.

And the bloodshed that day gave Saul a taste for destroying believers. 

You know what they did to Saul for his part in Stephen’s murder? They gave him a promotion.

Acts 8:3 tells us that, from that day forward, he began to destroy the church. Going from house to house, he dragged off both men and women and put them in prison.

Later on, Paul testified that, as young man called Saul, he had persecuted the followers of this Way to their death, arresting both men and women and throwing them into prison, Acts 22:4.

We heard that in our other readings today. Let me break down what it means when it said he’d persecuted Christians to their death. 

It means that, when they went up on trial—Paul had voted for them to be executed for their faith in Christ.

Paul, who began as a human coat rack for the angry mob who murdered Stephen in the streets; graduated to sitting on the council that sentenced Christians to death.

He wasn’t punished for being a bully and a persecutor. He was rewarded for it.

St. Paul joins The Breakfast Club

Listen to v14:

I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

Paul’s career was advancing, along with his social status. He was upwardly mobile. People looked at him and said: That boy’s going places!

You see, Paul already had quite a pedigree. 

If you piece together Paul’s story from his letters, and the book of Acts, what you learn is that Paul came from a wealthy and influential family.

And we also heard in our readings today—Acts 22:3—that Paul had studied under the Rabbi Gamaliel. That name probably means nothing to you, but Gamaliel was considered the greatest legal scholar of his day.

I’m telling you all that to help paint the picture of who Paul was. He was a rich kid, from an important family, with a law degree from an Ivy League university. Paul was somebody. 

And the more he went after Christians and tried to destroy the church—the more popular and famous he became.

Notice what else he said: Back then, he said, I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. 

It’s interesting that right here he says he was fighting for the traditions of his fathers—in other words, his people, his nation.  

You know what it kind of reminds me of? That classic ‘80s movie, The Breakfast Club.

Where you have all these high school kids stuck in detention on a Saturday.

I’m serious. Hear me out on this. If you remember the film—back when he was a young man called Saul—Paul would have fit right in with the other kids in The Breakfast Club.

Because they were also acting out based on what their parents and peers thought was important.

Brian, the nerd, was contemplating suicide because he grades weren’t living up to his father’s expectations. Claire, the rich girl, skipped school under peer pressure. Andy, the jock, was there for bullying a classmate. Then you had Bender, the delinquent from an abusive family. And Allison—who acts our because her parents ignore and neglect her.

Back when he was a young man named Saul, out bullying Christians and trying to tear down the church, he was just like the kids from The Breakfast Club. 

He couldn’t think for himself because he was so busy acting out a script his family, his peers, even his ancestors had written for him.

The only difference is, instead of getting detention for it—he got a gold star.

How Christ transformed Paul from enemy to evangelist

What would it take to completely transform a man like this from the church’s greatest antagonist, to her greatest advocate?

It would take a miracle. And it did take a miracle.

Paul tells us all about the miracle that changed his life in v15:

But when God, who set me apart from my mother’s womb and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me, so that I might preach him among the Gentiles …

I said this last week, I’ll say it again: But God—those are the two sweetest words in all of scripture!

Those words are always going to be followed up by some wonderful news.

Paul is saying: I was a bully. I harassed Christians and did everything I could to destroy the church. And that’s exactly what I would’ve kept on doing … but God had another plan for me!

And by the way, God’s other plan for Paul wasn’t a Plan B. Paul said God had set him apart even before he was born! 

If you read Paul’s other letters, you’ll see that God’s plan to save sinners goes even further back than that. Eph. 1:4 says God chose us in [Christ] before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight.

Paul’s story shows us something wonderful. Nothing is going to hinder or hamper God’s plan when God has set His love on you.Not even your own resistance or rebellion. God’s eternal will is infinitely stronger than yours.

Because next Paul says that God called me by his grace. For Paul,it wasn’t a weak call, in a still small voice.

The risen Jesus Himself confronted Paul. Saul, Saul—why are you persecuting me? He knocked Paul blind with his glory. 

Why? To show Paul how blind he’d been to God, to the truth, and to his own sin all those years. When those scales fell off Paul’s eyes three days later—Paul could see clearly for the very first time in his life!

But here’s what I want you to understand. Maybe—in His grace—God called you through the example of your parents, by someone inviting you to church, or through the words of a preacher. 

Just because He didn’t open up the heavens and blind you with His glory and call you out by name—He still called you by His powerful grace.

However God saved you, didn’t you feel the pull of grace that you couldn’t resist? That you didn’t even want to resist?

That’s what Paul describes next. Notice the words. Paul didn’t just say that God revealed Jesus to him. He says God was pleased to reveal his Son in me.

What does that mean? To reveal Jesus in you?

It means that God calls us both by the Word and the Spirit. God calls us outwardly, when we hear His word proclaimed. But He also calls us inwardly—inside us, by the Holy Spirit. 

Paul was called outwardly by the risen Jesus speaking to him directly. But the usual way we hear outward call of the Gospel, is when someone preaches it to us from the scriptures.

But the inward calling a miracle God works in us, by His Holy Spirit. That’s what Paul meant when He said God revealed Christ in him. God doesn’t just reveal Christ to us—outwardly. God also reveals Christ inwardly to us, and makes our hearts able to believe the Gospel. 

That inward call is the miracle. Ezekiel 36:26, God says: I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

Naturally our hearts are like stone. Dead to God, unable to respond to His call.

If you’re a believer, the only reason that you came to saving faith is that the Holy Spirit replaced your cold, dead, stony heart, with a new, living heart of flesh. A heart that could be broken by your sin, a heart that wants to embrace Christ in faith, and believe in His promises.

It’s just as great of a miracle when anyone is saved—whether it’s you or me, or a persecutor like Paul. 

God’s plan for Paul was to send him out to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles. So what did Paul do immediately after he came to faith?

Vv16-17. Paul said: 

my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.

Paul didn’t go and immediately sign up for the new members class at church. He didn’t ask anybody if he was ready yet to proclaim the Gospel. 

Even as a newborn Christian, Paul did exactly what God had chosen him to do from his mother’s womb.

Paul went straight to Arabia, and began preaching the Gospel to the nations.

So let’s sum it all up. People had come behind Paul and accused him of changing the Gospel.

But Paul said: No, I did not change the Gospel—the Gospel changed me!

By God’s grace and God’s power alone, in Christ alone, for God’s glory alone—God transformed Paul from the church’s greatest adversary, to her most loyal ally and advocate.

The same Gospel that transformed Paul can transform you

Paul was saved by the same Gospel he preached. He had received grace and peace from God, through Jesus Christ, who died for his sin, to rescue him—according to the will of God the Father. 

Maybe you’ve noticed that, as I’ve gotten deeper and deeper into the message, I’ve made it less and less about about Paul and more and more about us.

That’s because the same Gospel that Paul preached, the same Gospel Paul fought for—the same Gospel that saved Paul also saves you and me!

The Gospel is for you. It’s good news for you. It’s grace and peace from God the Father, through our faithful Savior Jesus Christ, for you!

You might think your conversion story isn’t as extreme as Paul’s. After all, you weren’t a blasphemer and a violent bully hunting down Christians.

But listen—before God saved you, you were just as much an enemy of God as Paul was. But God set His saving love on you, before you even knew you needed saving. While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, Rom. 5:10.

God didn’t have to perform a smaller miracle to save you than He did to save Paul. Listen to the miracle God performs for every person who comes to faith: But God—my two favorite words again—being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ, Eph. 2:4-5.

Paul wasn’t more dead in his sins and trespasses then you were in yours. You weren’t less dead in your sin than Paul was. There aren’t different levels of dead. Dead is dead.

God didn’t have to work any harder to make Paul alive in Christ. And God didn’t have to do any less work to make you alive in Christ. 

If you are a believer, God has performed a resurrection on you. Not a bodily resurrection—that won’t happen until Christ returns. But an inward resurrection.

God breathed His own Holy Spirit into you to resurrect your dead heart of stone, and replace it with a living heart of flesh. God has already begun the work of resurrection in you, from the inside out. 

That’s why 2 Cor. 5:17 says: if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come. God has already crucified the old sinful you with Christ, and buried your life in Christ. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God, Col. 3:3.

God has made you new, and will keep working to renew you for the rest of your days. 

The power of the Gospel transforms enemies of God into evangelists for God. That’s not just Paul’s story. That’s your story, and my story.

2 Cor. 5:19 tells us that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. You were God’s enemy. He has granted you peace with Him, through Christ. And now you get to go out and share the good news with others, so that they can also receive grace and peace from God.

And you don’t even have to know a whole lot to be an evangelist

Remember—Paul went straight out as a newborn baby in Christ, and began to preach the Gospel. As smart and well-educated as he was, I’m sure he didn’t have it all figured out yet.

You don’t have to, either. Even if all you can say is: I have found peace and rest in Jesus Christ—even if that’s all you know—that’s enough good news to share.

Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy God forever. As we enjoy the rest we find in Christ, we can immediately glorify God, by telling our story, and leading others to also find grace and peace and rest in Christ.

The Gospel is not a human message (Galatians 1:11-12)

Live video of my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for August 22, 2021.

The text was Galatians 1:11-12.

John 1:11-13 and Romans 9:14-16 were also read during worship.

This message owes a great debt to John Fonville’s sermon, Not Man’s Gospel, Part 2, Paramount Church; Jacksonville, FL: April 10, 2016.

Main resources I’m using for this series:

J.V. Fesko, Galatians, The Lectio Continue Expository Commentary on the New Testament, ed. John D. Payne (Powder Springs, GA: Tolle Lege Press, 2012).

Martin Luther, Martin Luther’s Commentary on Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians (1535): Lecture Notes Transcribed by Students and Presented in Today’s English, trans. Haroldo Camacho (Irvine, CA: 1517 Press, 2018).

Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians, Reformed Expository Commentary (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2005).

The livestream link is below. Sermon notes are below that.

Paul’s counter-argument: The Gospel is not Man’s Message

Martin Luther once wrote: 

How easy it is to cause horrible and infinite loss through one single argument! One single argument that removes God’s grace can pierce and demoralize someone’s conscience. In an instant, people can lose all the peace they ever had.

That’s what had happened to the Christians in Galatia. They were not firmly rooted in their faith. So when outsiders came and told them: You are not real Christians unless you get circumcised and follow Jewish customs, it robbed them of their assurance of good-standing before God. 

That’s why Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians. To get them back firmly planted in the Gospel, to fix their eyes once again on Christ alone. To remind them of grace, and give them back their peace.

Last week, v10: The false teachers accused him of being a people-pleaser who watered down the truth to gain more converts

In vv11-12, Paul launches into his counter-argument the charges that he’s preaching a made-up Gospel. 

I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel I preached is not of human origin. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ.

Throwing shade at the false teachers who had stolen the Galatians’ peace: I don’t know where those guys learned whatever they taught you, but I got what I teach directly from the risen Jesus Himself

[Warning: A lot of teachers and so-called apostles today claim they get revelations directly from Jesus. But when you listen to them, nothing they’re claiming jives with the Bible. 

Hearing a new word from Christ might sound exciting. But when we get bored with the word of God as He’s preserved it for us in scripture—that’s when we surely lose our grip on Christ and the Gospel.

God uses the His Word in scripture to create faith in us—by the Holy Spirit. And by His same word and Spirit, He strengthens our faith, He grows our faith, and He perfects our faith in greater knowledge and wisdom.]

So Paul was advancing his counter-argument against the false teachers.

The main idea of Paul’s argument here: the gospel I preached is not of human origin. [ESV says it’s not man’s gospel; KJV says not after man

That is, there’s nothing characteristically human about it. In other words—not only is Paul saying he didn’t get the Gospel from himself or any other human teacher; but that no human being would ever come up with a teaching like this.

That’s an argument that’s built to strengthen the peace and assurance of believers—not to tear it down, like the false teachers had done.

Six proofs that the Gospel is not of human origin [Credit John Fonville]

1. It’s not a human-centered message. 

The central idea of the Gospel is justification. That’s a legal word that means a person is declared not guilty.

And the core teaching of the Gospel is simply this: that God justifies the ungodly, Rom 4:5.

In other words, God declares that ungodly, unrighteous people are righteous in His sight—based solely on our faith in what Jesus Christ has done. 

Human judges in court of law do not look at guilty criminals and say: I know the Law condemns you, but I declare you righteous.

In fact, Prov. 17:5 says: He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.

But Christ—the Righteous One—lived a perfect life on our behalf, and willingly gave Himself on the cross to suffer the condemnation we deserve.

Why? So that it wouldn’t be an abomination—there would be no miscarriage of justice—when God declares you righteous in His sight, through faith in Christ.

That’s not a human-centered message. That’s not a message that exalts man. The Gospel gives us humility—not pride.

Because it says: There is nothing you could do to make yourself righteous before God. Christ did all the work so God could declare you righteous, and pardon all your sin. The Gospel never says: Up with people! It always says: Up with Christ!

2. Grace is not natural for humans.

Look back at v3: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Grace means unmerited favor. It means it’s a gift, a freely given gift. You don’t do anything to earn it.

And that doesn’t come naturally to us. Because in our experience—that’s not the way the world works.

[Grace is not a participation trophy. Because a participation trophy is based on nothing. God’s grace to us is based on Christ’s obedience, and self-sacrifice. There’s an objective basis outside of us. It’s more like Jesus won a gold medal, and He shares His prize with all His brothers and sisters by faith.]

But grace doesn’t come naturally to us. Every other religion or philosophy in the world—whether it’s Islam, or Mormonism, or the self-help gurus—it always comes down to what you earn or accomplish through your efforts. 

Earning comes naturally to us. That’s the reality of the world we live in from birth. You earn your grades. You earn your spot on the team. You earn your money. 

But your right-standing before God has to be earned by someone else—Jesus Christ—and given to you as a gift.

The Gospel is an outpouring of God’s grace. And grace isn’t: God helps those who help themselves. Grace is: God helps those who can’t help themselves. And good news—that’s everybody in this room.

How helpless are we to save ourselves? Eph. 2:1-5 says we were born dead in the trespasses and sins But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved.

That’s how the Bible defines grace. It’s not even that you were sinking in the ocean of sin, you were about to go under the third time, but Jesus threw you a life-preserver and you grabbed it and he pulled you safely to shore.

It’s that you were dead—drowned—and Christ jumped into the water and pulled you out and breathed you back to life. Why? Because God loved you.

That’s grace. And it doesn’t puff us up with pride. It deflates all of our pride. It doesn’t stroke our egos. It kills them. 

So the Gospel is not of human origin. We’d find a way to make ourselves the heroes—or at the very least, make it so we could take some credit for grabbing the life preserver.

3. The center of the Gospel is a crucified and resurrected Christ.

That’s not a story a human would write!

[Somebody’ll say: Well, what about Harry Potter? In Book 7, he died and came back from the dead!

First of all—where do you think J.K. Rowling got that idea?

Second—all the other books focused on how Harry was The Boy Who Lived

We prefer to worship strong heroes who don’t die]

What did Paul say in 1 Corinthians 1:23? but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.

Paul’s basically saying: The very idea of a crucified Savior is hateful and offensive to everyone!

Our natural instinct is to follow heroes who are crushing it—not heroes who get crushed

It’s the same with resurrection. 

After Paul finished preaching his famous sermon to all the philosophers and wise men in Athens, Acts 17:32 says: When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered.

Listen, all those people believed some version of good people go to heaven when they die. But what they did not believe in—and what you can’t get most people to believe today, either—is that God would physically, bodily resurrect a dead person 

In other words: the Gospel is not a story we would write. 

A human would invent a Gospel where the Son of God comes and destroys all the wicked and cleans up the environment and we all live happily ever after.

It would not be a story of a shameful death, followed by a resurrection—but He only reveals Himself to women and fisherman and a bunch of nobodies.

So this is not man’s Gospel—like Paul said.

4. The Gospel is what rescues us from exactly what comes most naturally to us!

Look back at v4. Why does it say Jesus died? It says He gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.

What do you think of when you read this present evil age? You probably think: This world of sin and selfishness and suffering and wickedness and injustice and death.

And that’s true. But it’s only part of the truth.

The truth is, this reason this present age is so evil is because ever since Adam and Eve listened to the serpent and ate the fruit, we human beings are addicted to being our own Saviors.

And this present, evil age is the result of billions of people, addicted to being our own Savior and Lord.

What was it the serpent told Eve? Gen. 3:5: you will be like God, knowing good and evil.

The world we live in is an evil place because in our sin and rebellion, we have wanted to be our own Savior, our own God—deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil. My body, my choice, right? Love is love, right?

Humans are born addicted to that. Our flesh craves control, our intellects crave the right to define goodness and evil, and our egos crave being the Batman in our own story—or at least Robin.

And just like you can’t reason an addict out of his addiction; you can’t punish an addict out of her addiction—because their minds, their bodies, their hearts, and their wills are all under the power of it—somebody has to intervene on the addict’s behalf. 

In the same way, God had to intervene in Christ, in His death and resurrection, by His grace, through the gift of faith—to save humans from our sin. 

5. Gospel is not of human origin because The Gospel was entirely God’s idea

Look at the end of v4.

Paul says that the Gospel—sending Christ to pardon and rescue us from sin—all happened according to the will of our God and Father.

You didn’t decide to save yourself. Your salvation doesn’t depend on a decision you made.

John 1:13 tells us that we have not been saved by the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

Again, Rom. 9:16—Paul says that our salvation does not depend on human will or effort but on God who shows mercy.

In other words: None of this was man-made. None of this was anybody’s idea but God’s.

By the way, once you realize that everything about your salvation is God’s will, God’s idea, God’s plan, and God’s work—through Christ, by the Holy Spirit—that just demolishes all self-righteousness. 

Even when you find yourself growing in faith and repentance and good works—you humbly remember that it’s God working in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose, Philippians 2:13. 

6. The Gospel leads us to glorify God and enjoy Him forever

Look at v5. Paul gets so emotional, so enraptured by the beauty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ that he just melts into the praise of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen.

A man-made, man-centered Gospel wouldn’t lead us back to God. It would have us looking to our own efforts, our own fulfillment, and our own achievements. A man-made, man-centered Gospel would be all about how to win your best life now.

See—if humans came up with a Gospel, we would want to grab at least some of the glory for ourselves. A human-centered Gospel always has God as your co-pilot, and you in the driver’s seat.

But God declares: I will not give my glory to another, Isa. 42:8. From Genesis to Revelation, the Gospel message has always been the same: Salvation belongs to the Lord, Ps. 3:8.

Somebody who really gets the Gospel—before they tell you anything else, anything to do anything—is always going to point you to Christ’s finished work, to the Spirit’s ongoing work, to Christ interceding for you right now before our Father, and to the Father’s infinite, eternal love for His sons and daughters.

Yes—they’re absolutely going to give you wise counsel from God’s word. But they’re going to give it to you, sandwiched between two thick slices of Gospel.

And I’m not just talking about getting you to believe at the beginning. I mean every time you’re struggling with sin or heartache or whatever—they’re always going to give you the Gospel. Every time.

This is not a man-centered message. Ours is not a human-centered faith.

The Law of God condemns all of our goodness, all of our righteousness, all of our accomplishments, all of our efforts, all of our wisdom, and all of our reason. 

God’s Law says: It will never be enough, and besides—it’s all stained with sin.

Jonathan Edwards: You contribute nothing to your salvation but the sin that made it necessary.

Because where the Law of God condemns us, the Gospel comes and proclaims: All goodness, all righteousness, all justice, all holiness, all wisdom, and every good work—God freely gives in Christ Jesus, through faith, to whomever believes in Him.

Conclusion: Why you should believe the Gospel

So there’s really only two questions to ask yourself today. The first is: Do I believe that?—and if not, why not?

And second: Why should I believe it?

And the simple answer is—again—what Paul said in v11: because the gospel … is not of human origin. 

You should believe it because it didn’t come from man, it’s not focused on humans, it’s not a step-by-step list of solutions for you to do, it’s not a ladder you climb rung-by-rung to perfection. It’s not about self-help or self-improvement.

It comes from God. It comes from the Father, through Christ the Son, by the Holy Spirit.

You should believe it because you’ve tried all the other ways. You’ve tried it your way, in your strength, with your best thinking and best efforts. 

You’ve tried it their way—maybe you’ve consulted the self-help guides, the positivity gurus, the horoscopes, the books that tell you to wash your face and stop apologizing. 

And maybe you felt inspired, maybe you decided—This time things are going to be different! But it wasn’t long before your realized, No—I’m still me.

Because those are all man-made, man-centered counterfeit Gospels. They didn’t come from God, and they are not the power of God unto salvation for all who believe.

Maybe you’ve even been a believer for a long time. But you look at your life, your struggles, how you keep falling short—and you wonder: Am I even really saved?

And you’re rededicated your life to the Lord so many times. And you’ve said: This time, I really am going to surrender.

But a few weeks or days or even hours later—you find that the fire of your zeal has grown cold again.

And so—in those cold, dark moments—maybe you’ve asked yourself: Why should I even believe this?

You should believe the Gospel because it’s God’s promise. 

You see, humans take back their promises. We don’t follow through on our best intentions. We back out when it gets too hard.

But God proclaims: my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways (Isaiah 55:8).

Our problem is that we often think God is like us. That He will cast us away because we fail Him so much. After all, we’d do that to someone who kept failing us.

But God’s ways aren’t our ways. He who began a good work in you has promised to bring it to completion when Christ returns, Phil. 1:6. 

Here’s where a lot of us get stuck. We base our assurance that we are saved and right with God based on a decision we made, or our level of commitment.

But your choice and commitment are not the Gospel. That’s not what saves you. 

The Gospel is grace and peace—peace with God, peace in yourself, no matter how you’re doing or feeling right now—from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave Himself for your sins, who rescued you from the present evil age—all according to the will of God.

God chose you in love, knowing exactly who and what you were. Christ died for your sins before you were even born. He was raised to life before you knew you were dead in your sins and needed His life. In Christ, you are forgiven before you even know you need forgiveness. Which is awesome, because as dark as the sins you struggle with are—there’s sin in you that you don’t even know about yet.

And don’t say: My faith is too weak! If you believe in Christ to save you—no matter how small your faith is right now—God has given you enough faith. It says you are saved by grace through faith—it never tells you how much faith. Like the old Puritans used to say: Even a weak faith can grab hold of a strong Christ.

So believe the Gospel. Because it’s God’s promise. Because the promise is sealed in Christ’s own blood, and guaranteed by His finished work.

Jesus calls—Matt. 11:28: Come unto me, all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. By faith, you can rest in Him. You can take refuge in God’s promises, and you can rest in Christ’s finished work.

That’s why Paul—why God speaking through Paul, and by the weakness of my preaching—we all want you to know that this is not a human message we’re preaching to you.

It’s God’s promise and God’s power unto salvation, for all who believe.

And for that, may we glorify God, and enjoy Him—now and forever.