Galatians 2:15-21, 3:10-24
Imagine for a moment that you’re driving to a big meeting in another state. You rent a car and are running ahead of schedule, breezing down the Interstate when, suddenly, traffic slows to a creep. You check Wayzer and it tells you that the freeway will have you creeping for a little while, but that in less than a mile, you should have smooth sailing. Suddenly though, everything stops.
As I say, you’re ahead of schedule. But you don’t like waiting! You remember that about three-tenths of a mile ahead, there’s an off-ramp, that can lead you on a back way to your destination. It will take longer than you’d planned. But you’ll be moving. You hate how out of control you feel when waiting in traffic jams.
You tear down the road on the berm and get to the exit ramp. You feel like you’re in charge of your trip again!
But as you speed down the two-lane country road, you look back to see that a hoist has moved the cause of the traffic jam out of the way and traffic on the Interstate is flowing again. “That’s okay,” you think to yourself...until you get about twenty miles down the road and see a sign: “One Lane Traffic Next 30 Miles.” And at the end of that stretch: “Detour, 5 Miles Ahead.” Your decision makes you over an hour late for your meeting.*
Our second lesson, Galatians 2:15-21, 3:10-14, has been described as “dense” by one New Testament scholar. I feel a bit dense when I read it!
But if we read it carefully, we see that God is telling us through the apostle Paul, who wrote these words back in about 49 AD, to not be impatient with God’s way of saving us through Christ, to not try to take control of our own lives after Christ has set us free to live--really live--in the freedom of God’s kingdom.
A brief reminder: Paul had founded the churches in Galatia. It had come as good news to this mostly non-Jewish (or Gentile) congregation that Jesus Christ saves from sin, death, and pointless existence all who turn from sin and trust that by the victory over death Jesus won when He died on the cross in our places, we have life with God and purpose that extends even beyond death! (It's good news for us, too, no matter how immune we may have become to it, the best news you'll hear this week or in your life!)
But shortly after Paul left, a group of people scholars call Judaizers came along and said, as I mentioned a few weeks ago, “What Jesus did on the cross and from the empty tomb is very cool. But if you really want to be saved for eternity, you need to obey Jewish ritual law.”
In other words, they were telling these new Christians that they really weren’t saved by God’s grace through their faith in Christ. That they needed to be good Jews in order to be saved.
The Judaizers were telling the Galatians that it didn’t matter if the apostles had taught them that Jesus was, in His own words, “the way and the truth and the life” and that no one comes to God except through faith in Him, they had a way that Jews had been using for centuries that, the Judaizers were sure, would make them righteous apart from Jesus.
They totally disregarded the power of the death of Jesus, morally perfect God in the flesh, taking our punishment for sin so that, after God the Father raised Jesus, He could give all who turn from sin and believe in Jesus His righteousness, His freedom from sin, death, and futility!
Paul must have felt a bit like I did on the rainy day after Ann and I had laid down zoyzsia grass in our lawn in Cincinnati and looked out to see a neighborhood kid rapidly pulling out clump after clump of the soggy sod and throwing it at a friend in fun. The freeing good news that Paul brought to the Galatians directly from Jesus Christ was being uprooted by preachers who thought that they knew better. The faith and future growth in faith of these newly minted Christians was being threatened by the allure of an off-ramp to hell.
We could spend hours on how Paul responds. We only have minutes. So, let’s take a look at just three points in this lesson from 30,000-feet, diving into a verse here and there.
The first thing Paul says that no one is made right with God (or made righteous) by keeping God’s law or by being a good person.
How often do we hear at funeral visitations, for example, “He has to be with God because he was such a good person”?
That’s wrong way thinking!
As Paul writes in Galatians 3:10-11 of our lesson: “...all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ [That’s Deuteronomy 27:26 that Paul quotes there. Then he says, quoting Habakkuk 2:4;] Clearly no one who relies on the law is justified before God, because ‘the righteous will live by faith.’”
For centuries, Paul’s fellow Jews and, earlier, Paul himself, had thought that by doing good works, they were setting themselves free for life with God. And the fact is that there was nothing wrong with the law God gave His people through Moses. There was nothing wrong with the Jews' often ritualized obedience of those laws. As we stand on this side of Jesus, we no longer need the ritual/sacrificial law, but there's still nothing wrong with God's moral law--stated succinctly in the Ten Commandments.
The problem was that many of Paul's fellow Jews obeyed God's laws to the letter not because they were grateful for God's grace, but because they thought that by being good, God would be obligated to take them into His kingdom.
The truth was that by relying on their good works, they were really enslaving themselves to a system that ranked their worthiness in the eyes of God on their performance and they were moving away from God. They thought that they were in control.
Faith accepts that we aren’t in control and that, left to our own devices, we completely go the wrong way.
The second thing I want to surface from these words in Galatians is that we can only be made righteous by faith in the perfect Savior Jesus Who died in our place on the cross.
God’s law can’t save me.
But when I look at its demand that I love God totally, love my neighbor with the same passion with which I love myself, that I worship only God, that I not steal, gossip, covet, commit adultery, or use God’s name in vain, even when I only do these things within the imagination of my mind, I realize that I am a sinner in need of a Savior.
Christ makes right with God those who see their own sin and that Christ is the only way out of the eternal death my sin has earned us.
Paul writes in Galatians 2:19-20: “...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. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
The third and final thing I want to emphasize is this: Watch out for the plausible sounding detour.
In our little scenario at the beginning, taking the delay-ridden back way seemed like the right thing. It made you feel good, made you feel that you were in charge. But it didn’t work out so well.
This is a lesson for us when it comes to life with God. If we think that we can rely on our goodness to save us from sin and death, to give our lives meaning and purpose, we are tragically and fatally mistaken!
“There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death,” the Proverbs tell us more than once.
When, from the perspective of our sin-tinged reasoning, we think that we can make ourselves good enough to get by with God, we are definitely taking a wrong turn.
Think of it: The fact of the matter is that God only accepts people who are totally, completely, purely morally perfect into His kingdom. And God doesn’t grade on a curve. People who think that God will hear their prayers or use them in fulfilling ways because they’re nice guys are disappointed.
We would be in heap of trouble, eternally lost to God, eternally condemned in our sins, if it weren’t for one important fact. Paul puts it this way in Romans 5:6: “...at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”
When we trust in Jesus Christ and follow Him through this life, God makes us right with Himself. Jesus is the right road to follow.
At the end of our lesson, Paul summarizes this truth. Galatians 3:13-14: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.’ [That’s Deuteronomy 21:23. Then:] He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.”
The true heirs of Abraham and Sarah aren’t people who do good works, because all our good works done to impress God or other people are worthless.
The true heirs of Abraham and Sarah, the true children of God, are those who know that it’s only through faith in Christ that our lives are set on the right path, today and always.
*This little "thought experiment" was inspired by a personal story recounted by N.T. Wright in his commentary on Galatians. He used the story to make an entirely different point about the section of this lesson from Galatians 2. I love Wright!
[Blogger Mark Daniels is the pastor of Living Water Lutheran Church, Centerville, Ohio.]