On November 10, 2021 I was let go from my preaching ministry after six-and-a-half years.
There was nothing scandalous involved. Other church leadership simply decided that it was best for me to move along.
This blog has been live since 2012, and in the intervening nine years I have grown and changed a lot. I moved across the country, began preaching full-time, my son was born, I experienced a theological renaissance … and then I got fired.
This is a season of change for me. And one of the changes I’m making is that I’m saying farewell to this blog. I will no longer be updating here.
Live video and notes for my message at Central Church of Christ in Stockton, CA for October 31, 2021.
It was Reformation Sunday and as Providence would have it–I am currently preaching through Galatians. So I simply preached the next passage, Galatians 3:10-14.
The live video link is below. Sermon outline is below that.
Soli Deo Gloria!
The story of Martin Luther and Reformation Day
Recovered the Gospel of Christ and gave it back to the church
The simple truth Martin Luther uncovered: The righteous will live by faith.(Gal. 3:11)
Luther translation: Those who are righteous by faith, shall live.
A line from Luther’s viral Facebook post: The true treasure of the church is the most holy gospel of the glory and grace of God.
The salvation offered by God in the Gospel is by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, according to the Bible alone, and for the glory of God alone.
Few better texts for proclaiming the Gospel of Christ on this Reformation Day than Gal 3:10-13
The primary concern of the Christian faith is: How can I be right with God?
Question the Gospel of Christ answers
In these vv, Paul describes right relationship with God in two ways
Justified before God (v11)
What does justified mean? (Declared righteous)
Justified is the opposite of condemnation (Rom. 8:1)
It means God accepts you, you are in His favor, God is smiling on you.
Life — one who is in a right relationship with God will live (vv11, 12)
Not just our biological life, the life of this age; but our spiritual life— eternal life
These verses teach that there are only two possible ways to be declared righteous before God, and gain eternal life.
The Law — You must actually be righteous, and earn eternal life by your own efforts
The Gospel — You are declared righteous by faith in Christ, and are granted eternal life based on His work alone
The Law (vv10-11, 12)
The Law of God = every commandment God gives humanity
In the Bible, whenever you see a commandment, an instruction, imperative—that is Law
To be declared righteous by God and gain eternal life by the Law, you must have perfect, perpetual obedience to every commandment of God, in all of its details, in word and thought and deed
For whoever keeps the entire law, and yet stumbles at one point, is guilty of breaking it all, James 2:10.
Must do everything written in the book of the Law (v10); the one who does these things will live by them (v12)
The Law is kind of like an electrical cord. If one small part gets cut or damaged, the whole cord no longer works.
If you fail to keep any of God’s Law, you’re done trying to gain eternal life by actually being righteous.
Theoretically—in principle—you could be declared righteous before God and be rewarded eternal life, if you perfectly obeyed the Law
But no one ever has—except who? Jesus Christ
And the problem is not with the Law
The Law of the Lord is perfect, Ps 19:7; it is holy, just, and good, Rom. 7:12
But we are not perfect, holy, just, or good—the problem is with us. We are sinners. We are sinners by nature, Eph. 2:3. It comes as naturally to us as breathing. And that’s what the Gospel of Christ addresses.
The Gospel (vv11-12)
No one is justified by the Law—because nobody but Christ has kept it, or can keep it—but Christ kept it on our behalf
Jesus is our representative
It’s like a group project where one person does all the work, but the whole group gets the credit; Jesus is that one person who did all the work; He got an A, we share in His A, we are on the Dean’s List with Him
The Gospel is that He lived for us—so that we could be covered in His righteousness; He died for us—to satisfy the curse of the Law; He rose for us—so that we might also be raised to eternal life; and now He is in heaven, at God’s right hand, interceding for us—He is praying for you right now that you will not lose your faith
And all of that is ours by faith alone. That’s important.
If they didn’t make sure you understood that Christ’s death has atoned for all of your sins—past, present, and future; if they didn’t explain that yes—you’ve been saved from sin, but not from sinning, so you are covered in Christ’s perfect righteousness—your life is hidden in Christ with God, Col. 3:3; If they never told you that your salvation is eternally secure, because Christ is in eternity praying for you, that your faith will hold, Heb. 7:25—if they didn’t teach you all that, I’m not saying you’re not saved; believing in Christ alone to save you is enough; but you were not taught the whole Gospel. You were not given the whole Christ:
Martin Luther: The faith that takes a hold of Christ takes a hold of Christ the Son of God and dresses up in Him. This is the very faith that justifies.
This is what it means when it says: The righteous will live by faith—or as Luther put it, those who by faith are righteous, will live
Not that people who are already somehow righteous accomplish much because they have strong faith; but that those who are by nature unrighteous and sinful take hold of Christ and His benefits by faith—and are declared righteous by God for His sake, and are granted eternal life in Him.
This is exactly what Paul taught in Rom. 4:5: But to the one who does not work—the one who has not and cannot fulfill the Law, the one who will not be granted eternal life on the basis of their own righteousness, and that’s all of us—but believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited for righteousness.
Luther: One is not righteous who does much, but the one who, without work, believes much in Christ.
The Two Ways Compared, Law & Gospel
Luther continues: The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.
It’s because of the amount of faith that you have, or the quality of it, or how much knowledge of the Bible you have added to your faith, or how many good works you have added to your faith, that you stand justified before God.
Puritans: A weak faith can lay hold on a strong Christ
Spurgeon illustration: The ship from England to America, with a strong man and a helpless little infant on board. Both the strong man and the weak child will arrive safely at their destination because the boat is worthy—not because they are.
What saves us, what justifies us before God and rescues us from the curse of the Law and gives us eternal life, is not the quality or quantity of our faith—it’s who our faith is in, and what He has done
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, v13.
Law of God has teeth—penalty for disobedience—condemns all who do not obey. (Rom 6:23). And that’s everyone (Rom. 3:23).
saving faith rests in Christ’s finished work for us
You not only believe that it’s true that Christ suffered the curse of the Law; you believe it’s true in your case—that He did it for you, and now, in Christ, there is no condemnation for you.
There are only two ways to be righteous before God and have eternal life:
You can actually be righteous according to the Law, and earn heaven on your own merits;
But our text today says no one can do that, and no one will ever be able to do it.
Or, you can be declared righteous by God through faith in Christ and in His finished work—and God will give you the eternal life Jesus has earned for you.
And you can’t mix them together. They are like oil and water. They’re two completely different things.
That’s why v12 says that the Law is not based on faith—relying on your own efforts for any of your salvation is the opposite of faith; indeed it is in defiance of faith
So it’s like when you tell your kids: In or out. It’s either by Law, by your own efforts; or by the Gospel, through faith.
Our problem in the church is not usually that people are self-consciously trying to earn salvation by their own efforts. Satan is a lot sneakier than that.
That wasn’t even the problem in Galatia. The false teachers who’d upset the church there weren’t saying: Obey the Law instead of having faith in Christ, and you will be saved. No, they said: You have faith in Christ. Good. Now to keep your salvation, to stay in God’s grace, to have God keep smiling on you, you must also be circumcised and do this, and do that, etc.
So Paul’s point is: No, you can either keep the Law fully and perfectly and be saved on your own merits—which you can’t do; or, you can trust in Christ alone to save you completely. But you can’t mix the two.
What we often communicate—and maybe it’s not on purpose—is that yes, you are initially saved by grace alone through faith alone; but then your work at obeying God is how you keep your salvation.
This is how we subtly communicate that: whenever we, or someone else in the church, is struggling with sin, or they’re having a weak point or a cold spot in their faith—What are you looking to? What are you pointing them to?
Are you pointing them and yourself first to Christ, the author and finisher of our faith, who is at the right hand of the Father praying for us? Or are you pointing them to the Law—to the commands and instructions and good advice of the Bible, so that you’re directing their focus away from Christ, and on themselves and their performance?
Luther talked about that: Faith in its true function does not have any other point of reference but Jesus Christ the Son of God, given over to death for sins … Faith does not say: ‘What have I already accomplished? How did I sin? What is it I deserve?’ Instead, faith says, ‘What is it that Christ has already done? What does He deserve? Here the truth of the Gospel responds: ‘He has redeemed you from sin, the devil, and eternal death.’
What Luther said there—that’s what the Bible means when it says the righteous will live by faith.
As long as we are primarily relating to God through the Law—by thinking about what we have done, or not done, or ought to be doing, or should be doing more of—then we will always be striving to be perfect, or at least messing up less.If you’re a parent, do you want your child to relate to you on those terms?
I hope not, because that means there’s always guilt and shame and fear in the mix of your motivations. But God’s perfect love in Christ is meant to drive that out of you—so you can serve Him without fear.
Relating to God primarily by the Law—what can I do, what do I need to be doing—you’re always going to have that guilt or shame, that feeling of not measuring up. It might be a little nagging feeling that you get sometimes. Or it may—if you have a tender conscience—really lead to crippling anxiety.
So here is the truth I want you to understand: The Law without the Gospel; or trying to blend the Law and the Gospel; it will not produce righteousness.It cannot. The Bible tells us that over and over again.
Preaching obedience—even to yourself—will not produce obedience;
Preaching Love your neighbor; does not produce love;
Preaching holiness will not produce holiness;
Preaching joy will not produce joy;
Preaching contentment—even to yourself—will not produce contentment;
Telling yourself not to be anxious will not relieve your anxiety.
If they could—it would’ve worked by now.
But if you preach the Gospel of Christ
When you preach that He has set us free to obey God’s Law without the fear of condemnation;
When you preach that He is our wisdom from God, our holiness, and our righteousness—like it says in 1 Cor. 1:30—so we can serve God without fear of rejection;
When you preach that He has given us His own Holy Spirit to dwell in us;
When you preach that eternal joy and contentment are found in Him;
When you preach that He came to give us rest from our burdens of sin and guilt and shame and anxiety—not to pile more on—
When you preach the whole Gospel of the whole Christ, and all of His benefits, then you will begin to see all those things.
When you preach that—to yourself and others—front and center, you keep the Gospel written on your eyelids, you keep your eyes focused in faith on Christ and His finished work—then you start seeing more obedience, more holiness, more wisdom, less anxiety, more joy, more love, more contentment.
It’s funny that it works that way—but the Bible says it does. We’ll see that the deeper we go into Galatians.
But today remember—the righteous will live through faith. When you have faith in Christ and his finished work alone to completely save you, God declares you righteous and seals you, by His Holy Spirit, for eternal life.
Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. And we can only glorify Him and enjoy Him through faith.
Live video link is below. Sermon notes are below that.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Paul’s Sunday School lesson: Father Abraham
Last week, we stepped inside Paul’s classroom. I had you imagine him walking in to find the Galatian Christians running wild, like unattended school-children.
And so Paul got their attention by giving them a pop quiz.
Today, I want to build on that. Imagine that Paul is not just any teacher, but a Sunday School teacher.
And he’s going to help those rowdy Galatians get some energy out by singing “Father Abraham” with them.
Who here remembers, Father Abraham had many sons? from Sunday school?
Father Abraham had many sons,
Many sons had Father Abraham.
I am one of them, and so are you,
So let’s just praise the Lord!
Right arm! Father Abraham …
Okay. That’s enough. You can do the whole song on your own time.
This song has made the rounds of Sunday Schools for at least the past 40 years.
But who knows why it’s so important that Christians are sons of Abraham? How did we even become sons of Abraham? And why we should praise the Lord for being sons of Abraham?
Well, it turns out that the song is a lot more than just a Sunday School version of the hokey pokey.
It’s based on our passage today, Galatians 3:5-9. Paul, our Sunday School teacher today, is going to explain what this song is all about, and why we ought to praise the Lord that He has made us Abraham’s children.
Preaching the Gospel from the Old Testament
What Paul is going to do is preach the Gospel to the Galatians from the Old Testament. And he begins his lesson with Abraham. Way back in Genesis—the very first book of the Bible.
Why is that important? Because remember, the false teachers in Galatia wanted the Christians to go back to keeping parts of the Old Testament Law—like circumcision—to prove they were really saved.
Those misguided teachers had it in their heads that the Gospel of Christ was a new thing—an addition to God’s Law as a way of being saved.
And you could almost understand why they’d have that idea. Jesus’ life, earthly ministry, and death had only happened about twenty years before Galatians was written. The Gospel of Christ felt like a new thing.
So Paul put on his Sunday School teacher outfit, and reached in and put Abraham on the flannel graph for two reasons.
He wanted to prove that the Gospel he preached—that people are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone—was not out of step with the scriptures. That’s exactly how God saved Old Testament saints, like Abraham.
He wanted to make sure they understood the Gospel wasn’t just a new add-on to what God had been doing all along. It was what God had been doing all along. God’s purpose and plan to save sinful humans has always been the same.
God didn’t give His people a Law, and only had to send Jesus as a Plan B, after—whoops!—He figured out that no one could actually keep it. Paul wanted Christians to understand that the Bible had been preaching the Gospel of Christ all along.
So with that in mind—and with Father Abraham still echoing in your minds, let’s pick up in Galatians 3, beginning at vv5-6.
In these verses, St. Paul stuck Abraham up on the flannelgraph and explained how God declared Abraham righteous in His sight—even though Abraham was still a sinful man.
And that’s so important, because what’s true for Abraham is true for every believer.
So then, does God give you the Spirit and work miracles among you by your doing the works of the law? Or is it by believing what you heard—just like Abraham who believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness?
Galatians 3:5-6 CSB
Paul was asking the Galatians: Did you receive the Holy Spirit through your own efforts at obeying God, or because you believed the Gospel?
And there’s only one right answer to that question: By believing what we heard—the Gospel of Christ, and all its promises, like the gift of the Holy Spirit.
Now Paul points to Abraham on the flannelgraph and says: That’s exactly right; just like Father Abraham, who believed God and it was credited to him for righteousness.
We heard this story in our readings today—Genesis 15. Many years before, God had first spoken to Abraham.
Even though Abraham and his wife Sarah were childless, and getting up in age, God had told Abraham: I will make you into a great nation … and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you, Gen. 12:2, 3.
God promised many sons—a great nation—to Abraham. And all the nations of the earth would be blessed through Abraham’s offspring.
Now years have gone by. Abraham and Sarah have grown old. And they still don’t have a great nation of sons. They don’t have any children.
Since he has no sons to leave an inheritance to, Abraham has made up his mind to leave everything to Eliezer of Damascus—his most loyal servant—when he dies.
But right when Abraham was about to call his lawyer and write up a new will, God appeared again one night and took Abraham outside of his tent.
And God directed Abraham’s eyes to the heavens, and told him: “Look at the sky and count the stars, if you are able to count them … Your offspring will be that numerous,” Genesis 15:5.
God reaffirmed his promise to Abraham. And how does Genesis 15:6 say Abraham responded to God’s promise? Abram believed the Lord, and he credited it to him as righteousness.
So why did Paul put Abraham up on the flannel board and tell this story?
Well, there are two really important, practical truths Abraham’s story teaches about how humans are declared righteous in God’s sight.
1. Humans are not righteous before God because of any outward act of obedience we perform.
Remember, Paul’s opponents were trying to convince the Galatians to be circumcised. They were saying: You must get circumcised to be part of God’s people and keep your salvation.
Paul’s using Abraham here to prove that’s hogwash. Because you see, Abraham himself did not get circumcised until Genesis 17—two chapters after God declared him righteous in ch15. In real time—it was fourteen years or more after God declared Abraham righteous, before God mentioned anything to him about circumcision.
Do you see Paul’s point? God counted Abraham righteous years before he got circumcised.
Abraham’s righteousness before God came through faith. He heard the promise of God, and he believed God. He believed that somehow—even though he and his wife were well beyond the age of childbearing—God would come through on His word and give him offspring as numerous as the stars in the heavens.
There’s not a grand gesture God is waiting on for you to perform, and then He’ll declare you righteous. This is why the Gospel of Christ is good news: There are no hoops to jump through. God has promised to save completely whoever comes to Him through Christ. You are righteous in God’s sight by looking to Christ and believing God’s promises in Him.
2. Humans are not righteous before God because of any righteousness we naturally possess.
About ten years ago, Barna Research conducted a poll where they asked professing Christians if a person is generally good, or does enough good things for others during their lives, will that earn them a place in heaven?
And nearly half of the professing Christians who were surveyed said, Yes. If a person is generally good and does enough good things, they will go to heaven.
Church, that’s actually worse than what the Galatians were being taught. Because Jesus Christ didn’t even come up in the question! At least the false teachers in Galatia weren’t saying: Just try to do the best you can. They still taught that you must have faith in Christ. Their problem was they were teaching Christians to look to Jesus as their helper instead of as their Savior. But we need a Savior.
Abraham proves that God declares sinners righteous through faith alone
We need a Savior because none of us has any natural righteousness. Ephesians 2:3 tells us that we are by nature children under [God’s] wrath. Romans 3:10 says that no one is righteous—not even one. Likewise, Ps. 143:2: no one alive is righteous in your sight.
This definition of righteousness—the kind of righteousness that could actually earn you heaven—means perfect, perpetual obedience to all of God’s Laws in all of their particulars.
Now maybe you’re asking: Where are you getting that from? Surely God understands that no one is perfect. Surely He does not expect perfect, perpetual obedience!
I’m getting my definition of righteousness—the kind of righteousness that would earn you heaven if you actually had it—from the Bible.
Listen to Deuteronomy 6:25. This is right after Moses gave Israel the Ten Commandments from God. The Israelites said: Righteousness will be ours if we are careful to follow every one of these commands before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.
How could a human be truly righteous—the kind of righteousness that would stand before God’s Judgment Seat? Only if they were careful to always obey every commandment of God.
Right? Perfect, perpetual obedience to the Law of God in all of its particulars. In every detail. In every word, thought, or deed.
And no person besides Jesus Christ Himself has ever fulfilled that definition of righteousness.
Abraham plainly was not declared righteous before God because he had offered perfect perpetual obedience.
That’s the other reason Paul put Abraham up on his flannel board for Sunday School. Because scripture tells us about Abraham’s moral failures.
Twice he lied to pagan kings that his wife Sarah was his sister—not his wife. Twice he put his wife in danger of being trafficked into the royal harem. Twice these unbelieving kings had to rebuke Abraham for his sin.
Then there was the time Abraham and Sarah—in their unbelief—tried to force God’s promise by their own efforts instead of by faith. They had Abraham take an Egyptian slave girl named Hagar and have a son with her. Then Abraham failed to protect Hagar from Sarah’s abuse.
No, Abraham was not righteous. Not before God or before man. Only he believed God, and God credited it to him as righteousness. God counted Abraham as righteous, even though he was not. Abraham had faith—and even the faith he had was often weak and shaky. But because Abraham believed God, God treated him as though he had perfectly obeyed all Ten Commandments every day of his life. Even though he had not.
In fact, any time you read in the Bible that any mere human is righteous—it’s not because of their performance. It’s because of their faith. It’s because, like Abraham they believed God, and they rested in God’s promises.
God counts people as righteous through faith alone.
That’s the heart of the Gospel of Christ Paul proclaimed. Are you tired of me preaching it? It was the heart of every letter Paul wrote, and I’m certain every sermon he preached.
It never gets old for me. It’s like the perfect playlist I could just put on repeat forever. This sinner’s ears need to hear it every day. To the one who … believes on him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited for righteousness (Rom. 4:5)
It was true for Abraham. It’s true for me. It’s true for you. Indeed, the deeper I fall in love with Christ, the more ungodliness I see in me. I do not need to hear the Gospel less as I mature in Christ. I need to be reminded of it more often.
Christians are Abraham’s children by faith
In Sunday School, we used to sing: Father Abraham had many sons—and daughters! I am one of them, and so are you.
Listen to what Paul says in vv7, 9: You know, then, that those who have faith, these are Abraham’s sons … Consequently, those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith. (CSB)
Paul’s opponents in Galatia had been trying to convince the young Christians—who’d not been raised as Jews—that they must be circumcised to be part of the chosen people of God. They were putting Jesus behind a paywall.
But Paul taught them to sing Father Abraham had many sons / I am one of them / and so are you—by faith!
You know that song we sing sometimes: Oh God you are my God, and I will ever praise you … ? It’s actually the chorus of a song by Rich Mullins.
And in one of the verses, he sang: Sometimes I think of Abraham, how one star he saw had been lit for me.
Every Christian is God’s promise to Abraham come to life. God has declared you and I righteous in His sight the same way He declared Abraham righteous—through faith alone.
The Gospel in the Old Testament: The Lord is our righteousness
Yes, Father Abraham has many children—I am one of them, and so are you. So let’s all praise the Lord!
And that brings me to v8. It says:
Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and proclaimed the gospel ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you.
Here’s what I want to focus on. The Bible has been preaching the Gospel of Christ of Christ almost from the beginning, since Genesis 3:15.
Right there in the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve first sinned, God promised salvation through Christ. He promised that a Son would be born of a woman—that’s a virgin birth—and this Son would defeat the serpent Satan. He would crush Satan, sin, and death.
Paul says that God proclaimed the Gospel ahead of time to Abraham—that people of every nation under heaven would be counted righteous by God, the same way Abraham was: because we believe God. By faith alone.
When you and I came to believe—God credited it to us as righteousness. He treats us as if we have always perfectly obeyed all of God’s commands, in all our words, thoughts, and deeds. Just like he did for Abraham—our father in faith.
I want you to pay attention to that word credited. It’s a financial term. God imputed righteousness to us. He added righteousness to our account, when we have none of our own.
Where did that righteousness come from? I assure you, God is a God of honest money. He didn’t just print off trillions of extra dollars of righteousness currency and put it to our account.
It’s real righteousness God credits to us. It’s just not ours. It’s Christ’s.
When we place our faith in Christ, and in His finished work—when we believe God’s promises and look to Christ alone to save us—God credits Christ’s perfect righteousness to us.
You know how I know that? The Bible tells me so. It actually tells us in many places. But this is probably my favorite. Jeremiah 23:6:
This is the name he will be called: [who is He? Christ!]
The Lord Is Our Righteousness.
You know how we sing that song sometimes that says Jesus is, My one defense / My Righteousness? That’s what it’s talking about. This verse. Before God’s Judgement Throne—you and I have no righteousness of our own. If we stood before God with our own works, our own efforts, our own obedience—God would condemn us, and we would have no defense.
But through faith—listen—God joins us so closely to Christ, that His righteousness is our righteousness, too.
You see, before Jesus died for us—He lived for us.
That’s why Jesus was born as a baby, and grew up into adulthood. That’s why He didn’t just drop down full-grown and get on a cross for us. Jesus said He came to fulfill God’s Law for us (Matt. 5:17). He came to fulfill all righteousness (Matt. 3:15). So that God would credit His perfect righteousness, His perfect obedience, to us.
That’s why the Gospel of Christ is such good news. It’s not just that Christ zeroed out our debt with God—that’s what He did when He died. But God actually pours out Christ’s perfect, infinite righteousness into the accounts of all who believe.
Christ is our Righteousness before God. His righteousness is our inheritance that He earned for us. Yes, we are declared righteous in God’s sight by works. Only it’s by Christ’s works—not our own.
Here’s the cool thing that happens once you know Christ’s righteousness has hit your account. You will want to live for Christ, the One who died and lived for you.
I want to live a godly life. I want you to live godly lives. I’m sure that you want to live godly lives.
But when you fail—and we all do, daily—when you feel yourself backsliding, when you feel far away from God, when you have wandered like a straying sheep—and we all do—your first inclination will be to get busy and try harder. Pray more fervently. Read your Bible more. You’re probably going to panic and try to start doing more stuff to draw closer to God.
But the secret to godly living is not your own righteousness. It’s Christ’s righteousness. That’s when you must pray: Lord, I believe in You. Help Thou my unbelief. Remind me that, like Abraham, I have believed in Your promises to completely save me in Christ—and you count that as my righteousness. Teach me to rest in the Sinner’s Substitute—who lived for me, who died for me, and who lives to intercede for me. That’s living by faith, and it’s the only truly godly living there is.
The live video link is below. Sermon notes are below that.
Soli Deo Gloria!
Professor Paul discovers a classroom in chaos
You’ve just have to love how our passage in Galatians began today:
You foolish Galatians! … Are you so foolish?
I love how J.B. Phillips has it in his paraphrase: O you dear idiots of Galatia … surely you can’t be so idiotic?
The Apostle Paul was like one of those school teachers you see in the old movies. Where they walk in to find the classroom in total chaos—all the kids running around, shouting, fighting, throwing paper wads and shooting staples across the room.
The Christians in Galatia had turned into a mob of unruly middle-schoolers. Only the classroom they were destroying was their own faith. And it wasn’t their schoolbooks and homework they were ripping apart to make spit-wads out of—it was the very Gospel of Christ that had saved them.
It seems some older kids on the school bus had told them the Gospel wasn’t enough. Faith in Christ was not enough to save them. His finished work on the cross was somehow incomplete.
They told the younger Galatian Christians: You need Jesus, absolutely. But you also need to go back to the old ways of the Law of Moses. Dudes, you need to get circumcised, and you all need to go back to the food laws and the ceremonies of the Old Testament.
To sum it up, those sophomores who were still riding the school bus told the young Galatians: Yes, Jesus paid it all. But you have to go through a pay wall to get to Him. And we’ll show you how …
I think we’ve all had experiences like that when we were young, haven’t we? Some older kid shares some impressive secret about how the world really works, or gives you some tip to get ahead in life.
You wanted to believe them, because they seemed so hip, so much more experienced than you. But when you follow their advice, it backfires. And you find out they weren’t so smart after all.
Okay, that’s basically what had happened spiritually to the Galatians.
You see, in their own minds, the Galatians thought they were in study hall. They were buckling down, applying themselves to their salvation, learning all kinds of new Bible-y stuff.
But that’s not what Professor Paul saw when he looked in on his classroom. He saw a bunch of rowdy children tearing the room apart. Some of them were about to throw a desk through the window, and they were all going to run away if no one stopped them.
Paul had to restore some order and discipline to his classroom of faith. And so he bellowed those shocking words: You foolish Galatians! Are you so foolish?
Paul concludes his students must be under a curse
But Paul also didn’t believe that the Galatians had gotten this way all on their own. That’s why he asked them: Who has bewitched you?
I’m a big Harry Potter fan, so when Paul asks: Who has bewitched you?, it reminds me of the Imperius curse.
For the uninitiated, the Imperius is one of the three “Unforgivable Curses.” It will get you a life sentence in wizard prison. A wizard or witch can use it to place a victim completely under their control.
It steals their personality and their will. Under the Imperius curse, you could make somebody jump out a window, or run into traffic.
Listen—when it comes to faith, when it comes to salvation, turning someone’s eyes away from Christ’s finished work, and teaching them to put any confidence in their own efforts—that’s just as potentially deadly as the Imperius curse. And just as unforgivable.
Paul was carefully choosing his words to break the spell that had been cast over his students. Before your very eyes, he reminded them, Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.
We know Christ was crucified in Jerusalem, not Galatia. So what did Paul mean? He meant: I did not preach Christ with big, confusing words. I taught you the Gospel of Christ so plainly, you might as well have been there at the cross. You embraced Him with such faith! The only way I could have made it even plainer was to staple it to your foreheads in all caps: It is finished! He suffered in our place to satisfy all of God’s righteousness. You can’t add anything to it.
Paul just couldn’t believe it. There’s so much love and grace and mercy and godly wisdom flowing from the cross of Christ. Why would anyone ever turn their eyes away from it, and put their confidence in their own efforts and prayers and feelings—anything other than the simple Gospel of Christ?
The only reason Paul could imagine anyone doing that was witchcraft. Anything that leads a person to look for their salvation in their own works has got to be an evil spell.
Paul drops a quiz on ’em to break the spell
One quick and dirty way to break a spell that’s fallen over an unruly classroom is to give them a pop quiz. And that’s exactly what Paul did in our passage today.
Paul said: Okay class: Pop quiz!And then he just bombarded them with questions about their salvation.
Questions that have only one right answer.
Did you receive the Spirit by works or by faith?
So here’s Question 1 of Paul’s salvation pop quiz.
Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard? … again I ask, does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law, or by your believing what you heard?
His question has to do with how people receive the Holy Spirit, and so begin the Christian life. What part did you play in that?
There’s really only one right answer. By His grace, God poured out His Holy Spirit on us even while we are disobedient. So that we may turn to Him in faith, and be renewed.
The Bible tells us this over and over again.
In Joel 2:28, God says: I will pour out my Spirit on all humanity. Not just on one people, Israel. But on Gentiles—non-Jews. Like the Galatians.
Why does God pour out His Spirit on people from every nation? To enable them to turn to Him in faith, and begin to obey Him. God says: I will put my Spirit in you, and you will live … Then you will know that I am the Lord, Ezekiel 37:14.
God pours His Spirit out on people who do not know Him, so that they may come to know Him.
Indeed, we cannot even begin to obey God’s Law until He puts His Spirit in us. Romans 8:7 says that the mind governed by the flesh—our mindset before God sends us His Spirit—is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.
But listen to God’s promise, Ezek. 36:26-27: 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. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.
God pours out His Holy Spirit to give us a new heart—a heart that’s tender to Him, and wants to obey His Law. Only the Holy Spirit can do that to us.
So Paul’s question is basically: Did you receive the Holy Spirit because of your obedience? And the answer is obviously: No!
And Paul builds on the question. While I was with you, the Holy Spirit worked great miracles among you—on top of the miracle of renewing your cold, dead, stony hearts! Again, tell me class: Did all that happen because you obeyed the Law, or was it a gift of God that came by grace through faith?
And the only correct answer was what? By faith. The Holy Spirit works through people who are declared righteous by faith alone. Not through self-righteous people.
This is Gospel 101, church. Martin Luther explained it beautifully when he said: The Law never brings the Holy Spirit, therefore it does not justify us. In other words, the Law never declares us righteous in God’s sight.
He continues: The Law does not justify us, because it only teaches us what we ought to do. But the Gospel does bring the Holy Spirit, because it teaches us what we ought to receive.
By the Gospel, we receive not only forgiveness of our past sins; our future sins are also covered, indeed—our whole lives are covered by Christ’s righteousness. We receive the Holy Spirit, who makes us holy—who is Christ dwelling in us.
And we receive all that—the Spirit; fresh forgiveness; and a righteousness that is not our own—by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone.
That’s the only correct answer.
Have you suffered so much for nothing?
A Second Question, this is from v4: Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain?
You could also translate this question as, Have you suffered so much in vain?
Paul’s saying: I’ve seen you struggle—I’ve pastored and counseled and prayed with you, when we both ended up ugly crying—because your flesh was fighting so hard against the Spirit!
You have literally experienced Christ holding on to you when your faith was too weak to cling to Him!
And are you really going to throw all that away now? All your experience of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life? To what—try and build your own stairway to heaven, by your own efforts?
Remember, those sophomore kids on the school bus had convinced these young Galatians they needed to get circumcised to stay right with God.
They’d basically told them that salvation by grace through faith alone is just “entry-level” Gospel. But if you really wanted to “get promoted,” you had better start keeping the Law. You get in by grace through faith, but that’s not how you stay in. You gotta earn your quota.
Paul’s response to that is essentially a rhetorical question: Really—you think if you don’t get circumcised, Jesus will loosen His grip on you?
He’s asking them to remember everything they’ve experienced so far in Christ—the struggles, the comfort in the midst of struggles, the breakthroughs. Was it all for nothing? Paul certainly hoped not!
Can you finish the work God started?
So we’re about to hear a third question from Paul’s pop quiz.
But I hope by now you see—these questions Paul asked the Galatians are also questions we should be asking ourselves.
Usually, when Christians examine themselves—we ask: Am I doing enough? Am I doing it well enough, consistently enough, often enough?
And yes, there are absolutely times we need to examine our own fruit. We’ll talk about that when we get farther along into Galatians.
But so often, we want to judge how our faith is, by looking at its results according to the flesh—by outward and visible signs.
I think that’s why it was so tempting for the Galatians to try to prove their faith by being circumcised and other outward works of the Law. Those were visible results they could see and keep track of.
Christians actually do have outward and visible signs of the grace of God in our lives, that God has given us to strengthen our faith. And those are baptism and the Lord’s Supper.
Are those not enough? If they’re not—that may be a problem we need to have some serious conversations about.
The most important question we need to be asking ourselves is: Is my salvation on God or on me?
And like the questions Paul asked the Galatians—there’s only one right answer. And it isn’t both.Salvation belongs to the Lord, Psalm 3:8.
You don’t get in to salvation by grace through faith alone, but then stay in by what you do—by earning a quota.
Law says: Do it! Gospel says: It is done!
So, do you get in by Gospel, but stay in by Law?
That’s exactly what the Third Question from Professor Paul’s Pop Quiz is asking us.
Gal. 3:3: After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?
In other words: God saved you by His Spirit, by His power. Are you going to try and finish God’s job for Him in your own power, by your own efforts?
And the only correct answer is, No, I am not. Why not?
Because the Bible tells us so.
Remember: Salvation belongs to the Lord, Psalm 3:8. If you could do it, if you could make contributions to your salvation like you pay into social security—God would have done it that way. But He didn’t.
Cribbing from Philippians: God will complete what He began in you
What did we hear in Philippians 1:6 today? The same Apostle Paul who wrote Galatians also said: I am sure of this, that he who started a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
Paul was sure that God, who first saved you by His grace, through faith, in Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit; will completely save you the same way—by grace, through faith, in Christ, by the Holy Spirit.
The Lord will finish what He started. I’m confident of that. I want you to be confident about that, too. For yourselves. That God is going to complete the good work He began in you—personally.
Listen, there’s always going to be big kids on the school bus who are going to give you bad advice that sounds really good when you hear it.
For the Galatians, it was a group of Jewish Christians who’s been in the faith a few years longer, trying to get them to be circumcised.
And I almost understand where they were coming from.
Circumcision was part of God’s Law—it was the sign and seal of God’s covenant with His people.
These older kids on the bus had a high regard for scripture as the word of God, and they understood that God’s Law should still guide Christian behavior. They didn’t want to see God’s commandments overlooked, or broken.
And today, you still have a lot of Christians who live by a long list of dos and don’ts, and they’ll try and get you to do the same. Now, a lot of those dos and don’ts are biblical. But a lot of them aren’t—they’re just a bunch of stuff those people have decided seems more godly, or less godly.
Again—I understand where they’re coming from. They understand that faith in Christ should lead to a transformed life.
Not only that, we’re are born hardwired with the work of God’s Law written on our hearts. That’s what your conscience is.
But your conscience is one of the first places Satan attacks a believer—by constantly reminding you of your sins and shortcomings. Of all the quotas you haven’t met.
That’s exactly why God doesn’t allow one Christian to bind their own conscience on another believer.
The sophomores who are still riding the bus are always going to steer you the same way, and it’s away from the Gospel. They’re going to have you living as though grace is something you have to earn. You’re going to end up trying to live up to a bunch of impossible expectations.
Listen, as Christians we should absolutely be stirring one another up to love and good works, as it says in Hebrews 10:24. We should always be encouraging one another in loving God and loving each other and loving the people God brings to us. We should be looking for opportunities to glorify God, and enjoy God.
But that’s not what saves us. The Gospel is not a to-do list. Gospel means good news, right? Now if I come up to you and say: I have good news for you: Love God and love your neighbor!—you’re going to say, Well, that’s important, that’s good advice, but it isn’t good news. 
Paul’s message—scripture’s message, really—is that the Gospel is not just about getting saved; it’s about staying saved.
The same grace that saved you in the first place, will keep you and sustain you until the end.
So when the big kids on the bus ever get you worried about performance or promotions or meeting quotas—the Gospel says: Jesus already met all the quotas. I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved by His performance—not my own.
And that’s really what Professor Paul’s Pop Quiz today was really meant to remind us of. Whenever you feel anxious about your performance in the Christian life, just remember: After beginning by the Spirit, will you now finish by the flesh?
And there’s only one correct answer:No! Because I am sure of this: that God, who began a good work in me will bring it to completion at the day of Christ.
 I borrowed this illustration from J. Gresham Machen. The original quote: “‘Good news’ is never in the imperative mood; a ‘gospel’ cannot possibly consist in directions as to a way of life, or in a complex of worthy ideals. If a man comes running and says in a tone of great eagerness, ‘I have news for you,” and you ask him what it is, he does not say: ‘Here is the piece of news I have for you: Keep the commandments of God; love God and your neighbor.’ Such exhortations are indeed exceedingly important and valuable, but they are certainly not news. News consists always, not in exhortations or commands, but in information about facts; a ‘gospel’ is always in the indicative mood.”
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.
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.
The Law of God–the instructions parts of the Bible–does two things:
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.
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.
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?
“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.
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.
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”
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 allthat 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.
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.
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—forthe 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
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.
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.
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 me—and 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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 alreadyhas 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 Godprepared 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? 
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.
 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
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.
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:
We—we 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.