Our second lesson for this morning, Galatians 2:15-21, is difficult, maybe too much so to tackle in a sermon on a Sunday in June. But I think it’s worth the effort.
To help understand this whole passage, it might make sense to first look at its conclusion. So, please turn to the next to last verse in our lesson, Galatians 2:20. Paul writes:
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.All who submit to Jesus Christ as their Savior and God submit to the crucifixion of their old sinful selves, so that we can rise with Jesus and live with God. No one, apart from Jesus living in their lives, can rise from the dead. And it’s only when we die with Jesus, dying to sin, dying to the selfish, self-concerned values of a world that is doomed for destruction, that we can rise with Jesus to a new life with God. That’s why Jesus says elsewhere, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.”
Fact is, we have no hope for this life or the one to come if we don’t submit to the death of our old selves and let Jesus Christ free us to be our true and best selves by taking up residence in our lives. That happens, Paul says, “by faith in the Son of God,” the One Who “loved me”--loves you--”and gave Himself for me”--and for you.
Is that Christianity 101?
Sure. But in what Paul writes in the rest of our lesson, he shows us just how deep and eternity-changing this truth is.
Go back to the beginning the lesson, Galatians 2:15. It helps us to understand this passage if we remember a few things.
First: After Paul founded the churches in Galatia and moved on to preach the Good News of new life for all who repent of sin and believe in the crucified and risen Jesus in other places, new preachers came in, teaching what Paul called a “false gospel.” Believing in Jesus is nice, they tell the non-Jews who make up the Galatian churches, but if they really wanted to be right with God, they needed to also become Jews and keep all the Old Testament ceremonial and dietary laws.
Now, as good confessional Lutherans, you know that there were three kinds of law in the Old Testament.
There was civil law, like the laws we pass at city hall or Congress. God laid down civil law in the Old Testament because ancient Israel was meant to be ruled directly by God. But the civil law of that old kingdom is no longer necessary; Jesus has established the kingdom of God, which we enter by His grace through faith in Him.
A second kind of Old Testament law was sacrificial, ceremonial law. These laws governed everything from the types of sacrifice made at the temple in Jerusalem to how people wore their hair. But Jesus has rendered this type of law unnecessary too, because He is the one and only sacrifice for sin. We trust in Him alone for freedom from sin, death, and the devil. John the Baptist recognized that Jesus spelled the end of sacrificial, ceremonial laws when he said of Jesus, "Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!"
The third kind of Old Testament law is the one that remains valid to this day, the moral law, the ten commandments and the laws that flow from them. Jesus summarized this law with the great commandment: love God with your whole selves, love your neighbor as you love yourselves.
The moral law, which God has written on every human heart, can act as a bridle on the inborn sinful impulse of human beings to do whatever we want, no matter how we may hurt God or may hurt other people.
It can also be used by the Holy Spirit to drive us to repent and believe in Jesus as we come to understand that the demands of God’s moral law cannot be kept perfectly by any of us. This is our dilemma: The Ten Commandments remain in force. But we can’t keep them.
It’s when we realize this truth that we’re open to the Good News that the God we meet in Jesus Christ is willing to take us in, willing to cover our sin with His forgiveness, willing to grant us life with God, and willing to give us the power of the Holy Spirit to resist sin.
We are saved by God’s grace through our faith in the God we know in Jesus Christ, not by being “good” people, which not a single one of us can be anyway. As Jesus told a man who tried to suck up to Him one day: “No one is good but God alone.”
The teachers of the false gospel didn’t understand this. Paul writes to remind the Galatians (and us) of the true Gospel.
A second thing to remember when looking at this passage is that in the verses right before it, Paul talks about a run-in he’d had with Cephas, that is, Peter, in Antioch. When Peter first arrived in that city, he’d sat down for dinner with Gentile Christians, something the old ceremonial law had forbidden a Jew like him to do. Then, Peter stopped doing it, reverting to eating with only Jewish Christians for the rest of his stay in Antioch. There’s a lot of dispute about Peter’s motives for this. But whatever Peter’s reasons, Paul would have none of it. We are saved by grace through faith in the God we know in Christ alone, Paul told Peter, and you shouldn’t be shy about violating those parts of God’s Old Testament law that are no longer valid by eating with the Gentile Christians!
This is where our second lesson picks up. Paul writes, speaking for both he and Peter as Jews, starting at verse 15: “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified.”
Even we Jews have been made right with God--justified--not by being good Jews, Paul says, but by surrendering faith in Jesus Christ.
So, how, Paul asks, could we, these false preachers, or, as he put it in our lesson from last Sunday, even an angel from heaven (Galatians 1:8), dare to lay new religious laws on the Gentiles?
Christ has done all that is necessary for a person to be right with God. A right relationship with God is ours when we acknowledge our sin and helplessness over it and trust in Christ to place us in the arms of God the Father!
Paul then speaks to those who might recoil at the notion of a God Who cares so much about sinners. He asks: “But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is Christ therefore a minister of sin? Certainly not!” I like the way The Message translation of the Bible puts this verse: “Have some of you noticed that we [followers of Jesus] 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.”
You sometimes hear people say, “I won’t go to church because all those people are hypocrites and sinners.” Because Christians aren’t perfect, they insinuate that Christ or the faith we confess in Christ is imperfect. But the only person who can be a Christian is the person who acknowledges that she or he is far from perfect and needs Christ to be made right with God. As the old hymn puts it: “Just as I am, without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me.”
Paul then warns the Church against turning the relationship with God they enjoy by faith in Christ into a religion. As a preacher of the Gospel, Paul was in the business of dismantling the religions of the world that tell us we have to behave in certain ways in order to achieve whatever blessings that stingy deities or a stingy universe might otherwise withhold from us.
The God we meet in Jesus doesn’t want our religion. He wants a relationship with us that lasts for eternity. So, Paul writes in verse 18: “For if I build again those things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.”
Religion is about being nice, being kind, being virtuous, or being good...or else. That's not Christianity at all!
Why would I want to go back to that crumbling edifice of human-centered religion when Jesus Christ sets me free from sin and death simply when I trustingly take His outstretched hand and let Him lead me through this life and the next?
It’s stunning to me the amount of suffering people cause themselves when they hold onto religion rather than holding onto Jesus! You’ve heard me tell before about the woman in her eighties who repeatedly refused to take Holy Communion when we offered it at a nursing home because of a sin she’d committed as a seventeen year old. She was clinging to the wreckage of a religion that insisted that she wasn’t good enough for God when all she had to do was take Christ’s offered grace. She insisted on being a a self-accused and self-convicted transgressor rather than a sinner set free from her sin by Jesus.
In verse 19, Paul says that something very different happens in the life of the person who lets faith in Christ lead them: “For I through the law died to the law that I might live with God.”
The law showed me I am a sinner, Paul is saying. It killed me. And now that my old self has been destroyed, I’ve been set free to rise with Christ and live with God forever. This happens in the lives of believers not by obeying God’s laws, but by the power that resides in God’s charity--His grace--for sinners like you and me.
If we dare to trust in our own goodness or our own religion to save us from sin, death, the devil, and hopelessness, our sins remain, along with hopelessness and separation from God. That’s why Paul writes in verse 21: “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain."
Jesus Christ did not die in vain. Jesus Christ died for a reason. He died to set you free to be the very person God made you to be, for all eternity.
He died to give you grace. It’s the grace that wants the best for us and caused Jesus to cry from the cross, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Now, I feel that Jesus must have had me in mind when He prayed this prayer. I'm quite sure that 90% of the time in my life, I have no idea what I’m doing. And the older I get--I'll be sixty later this year, the more I realize all that I don’t know.
But I do know this: All the efforts we may put into being better people, more loving or understanding people, wiser people, will inevitably fail. Sinners cannot make themselves saints.
Now, we may be willing to accept that fact about ourselves if it weren’t for the haunting truth that only saints can live with God today or in eternity. “Unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees,” Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount, “you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”
You and I would be totally out of hope if it weren’t for the truth about God that trumps all other truth: Christ died and rose to make sinners like us into saints and He does it for those with faith in Christ by His grace alone.
There will be times each day when, if we have any sensitivity to God and other human beings, we will recognize our sinfulness, our distance from God. And the closer we grow to Jesus Christ, the more sensitive to these realities will become.
But don’t let Satan use this realization to make you hopeless.
Turn instead to Christ.
Give your sins to Him.
Give your life to Him.
Let your old self be crucified and let your new self rise.
Jesus says in Revelation: “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me.”
Let Jesus in.
Let His grace fill you.
Let Him claim you as His child every moment of every day.
Let Jesus in.
UPDATE: Steve Martin,