Galatians: Saved By the Bell
Today we get past the introduction to Galatians, where Paul is laying out his credentials and why the Galatians should listen to him, and into to the heart of this epistle, the deep theology, the content that Paul wants them to believe and feels like they are mixing up with whatever ‘other gospel’ people have been teaching them. Paul’s writings are certainly not as easy to listen to as the Parables of Jesus, and so you may find yourselves tuning out or getting overwhelmed when you first hear this passage – but Paul has some really good stuff in there when we take the time to examine it closely – stuff that, when we rephrase it into our own words, I bet you will find hits the nail on the head for some of the struggles we face as disciples. Let me share with you this same text from Galatians in Eugene Peterson’s The Message, to help us understand Paul’s argument better. He writes:
15-16We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over "non-Jewish sinners." We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.
17-18Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren't perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was "trying to be good," I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.
19-21What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn't work. So I quit being a "law man" so that I could be God's man. Christ's life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not "mine," but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.
Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God's grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
At stake in Paul’s writing is this: the question of how we are saved. What saves us? Paul uses the word “justified” – how are we justified? And to understand this term, you can just think of the documents you create on a computer – you can have your text in a straight line on the right, the left, center your text, or justify it on both sides, so that your columns make straight lines on both margins. That’s my preferred style – nice and neat. To be justified theologically means to be set in a correct line with God. So, how are we justified? What saves us? Paul’s answer, here, and throughout his writings, is that we are justified, saved, by faith in Jesus Christ. Having faith in Jesus Christ gets us in line with God. At first glance, this may not sound like a startling revelation to us, but Paul is teaching directly to a culture that prized obedience to the laws of Moses as the way to be ‘justified’, saved before God.
But Paul’s argument met with a lot of questions and outright disagreement. If your faith saves you, can you do whatever you want, sin as much as you want, as long as you believe in Jesus? If doing good works, or obeying the rules isn’t actually going to do anything for you in God’s eyes, why bother to obey the rules? Why bother to do good works? And really, if you and I both have faith in Christ, but I am really so much better at doing good than you are, shouldn’t I get some better reward than you? And finally, the Galatians and others apparently see Paul’s lack of perfection, the faults they see in him, as proof, somehow, that this whole “justification by faith” thing doesn’t really work out after all. In fact, elsewhere in the scriptures we’ll see that even the other apostles didn’t take Paul’s arguments at face value. James, brother of Jesus, wrote: “Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.” Even today, church-folks still have a lot of debate about how to answer the question: How are you saved?
So why do we struggle with this question so much? As I was preparing my sermon this week I kept thinking of the ordination essays I had to write five years ago as I was preparing to be examined by the Board of Ordained Ministry. One of the questions I had to answer is this: 2) What effect has the practice of ministry had on your understanding of humanity and the need for divine grace? In other words, what had being a pastor helped me understand about people needing grace? And this is what I wrote in part, “The practice of ministry has put a spotlight on the ‘human condition’ for me – this struggle, this tension in which we are caught. On the one hand, we consider ourselves such hopeless, worthless creatures. We’re overcome with a belief that we are without much value, without importance. We hate ourselves, hate our actions. In this sense, our need for grace is complete – we need to be given value, and that value comes in our very existence, our beingness, creations of God. But on the other hand, we are content – smug – ruling the world, in charge, unstoppable. Humanity feels so full of itself that we can’t give anymore. We whine, “we’ve done enough, God, we have no more to give.” In this way, our need for grace is complete – we need to be challenged, prodded, transformed, made new. So I find myself preaching two themes in my practice of ministry: one, where I say, “just being a ‘good person’ isn’t enough. God wants more! God wants all of you!” And the other says, “You are so loved! You are so valued! God’s grace is free – you don’t have to and can’t earn it.” We live in that tension, grace and responsibility.”
We struggle with this question of how we are saved, how we are justified, because we’re torn between so many presumptions. We figure that though we’ve heard otherwise, grace can’t really be free, because nothing’s free, and it seems like some trick to catch us off-guard. And I think we simultaneously feel like we aren’t doing enough, being good enough to get God’s grace, and like we’re basically good people, so what more does God want from us? And then, we feel like at least we’re better than the next guy, so maybe if we highlight to God how not good, not worthy the person next to us is, God won’t pay so much attention to the faults in us. And that’s just another proof that grace can’t really be free – if it was free – if it was for everyone – grace would also have to be free for the person we like the least, who is the worst. And that’s hardly fair, is it?
Ah, but as we all know, life isn’t fair, is it? And really, grace – God’s free gift to all of us – grace isn’t really fair either. I’ll tell you it’s a bad sign that you’re going to end up as a pastor when you have some serious internal theological debates as a sixth grader. Here’s one of mine. There was a girl in my sixth grade class who made my life pretty miserable. She was the most popular girl in school – wealthy, athletic, and pretty, and years later became the homecoming queen and prom queen and senior ball queen – and she was mean to me, and with her friends, made my last year of elementary school pretty miserable. What I struggled with was this: from everything I’d read in the Bible, I understood that if this girl had faith, she could be forgiven and welcomed into heaven someday despite how much horrible stuff she’d done to me, and even though I was so much nicer than her! And it just wasn’t fair! It really got to me, that if God’s grace worked like I thought, God’s grace would be for her too.
And yet: if God was fair, we’d be in big trouble, wouldn’t we? If God was fair, we would try to follow the law, but when we broke a law, we’d be punished. If God was fair, our punishment would be equal to our transgression. If God was fair, the law that we try to follow but can never perfectly fulfill would crush us, body and soul, and God would never be able to forgive us for all the good we fail to do. Thank God God is not fair. Instead, God is gracious. When we have faith in God’s grace, then, we find precious salvation – wholeness – justification.
For through the law I died to the laws, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. By faith. By unfair grace. Amen.