By Grace Alone

October 19, 2017

[As we approach the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther nailing the 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church, consider one of the key points of the Reformation: We are saved by God’s grace alone. Here is a shortened and edited version of my sermon on Galatians 1:6-12 on this theme, preached April 29, 2007. You can listen to the sermon at this link – Coty]

What really angers you? Think about a time recently when you’ve been ticked off. What prompted that reaction?

When did the apostle Paul become most upset? Scripture records several such times. But the beginning of Galatians displays some of his greatest anger.

All of Paul’s letters to churches begin by stating who they are from, whom they are to, and then calling on God for a blessing of grace and peace to the church. This is usually followed by a statement thanking God for the people of that church, or praising God for the blessings He has given to that Church or to His people in general. (See, for example, Romans 1:8, 1 Corinthians 1:4, 2 Corinthians 1:3-4, and Ephesians 1:3.)

But Galatians is different. After calling for grace and peace, Paul cries out:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel (Galatians 1:6)

Paul is angry – and he minces no words. What has angered Paul?

Remember, in Corinth the church was tolerating a man who was sleeping with his father’s wife. And when they came together for a meal around the Lord’s Supper, some were getting drunk. But even to Corinth, Paul says, “I give thanks to my God always for you.” Paul is angrier with the Galatians than with the Corinthians.

What makes Paul most upset?

The loss of the Gospel.

The Gospel was so precious to Paul that its distortion troubled him deeply. God’s glory in the Gospel is so precious to Paul that he found the perversion of the Gospel most disturbing.

Look at Paul’s summary of the Gospel in Galatians 1:4-5. The overarching theme is obvious: GOD gave Himself, GOD delivers, all according to GOD’s will, to GOD’s glory forever. God is at the center. The Gospel is all about God – His glory, His holiness, His mercy, His love. If we change the Gospel, we desert God. And Paul could not stand for that.

Let’s see how Paul elaborates on that point in verses 6-12.

The True Gospel: Called by God’s Grace

Having stated the Gospel in his intro, Paul keeps reminding his readers of its central points:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ (Galatians 1:6)

Paul could have simply said: “so quickly deserting God.” But instead he highlights the Gospel itself. The one they are deserting is:

  • The one who called them
  • The one who spoke to them with life-giving force
  • The one who miraculously touched them, when they were His enemies
  • The one whose grace and mercy are their only hope
  • The one who displayed that grace in sending Christ Jesus to die for their sins.

Paul will elaborate on this summary of the Gospel a few verses later:

[God] who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles. (Galatians 1:15-16)

The apostle’s point: There is only one Gospel. It is all about God. It is all about His grace – not our works! So be overwhelmed by that grace!

What is at Stake: Deserting God

In verse 6, Paul says the Galatians are deserting the One who called them by grace.

I think Paul’s readers were absolutely shocked by that accusation. They probably thought:

“Deserting God? Paul, we’re not deserting God – we’re trying to know Him better! These other teachers came and provided us with an alternative way of thinking. They said circumcision and the traditional Jewish ceremonies would lead us into a deeper, fuller understanding of God, into things we didn’t know before. How can you possibly say that we are deserting God?”

In that context, Paul then refers to God as the one “who called you in the grace of Christ.”

Paul emphasizes: “The Gospel is about God’s GRACE. Add ANYTHING to God’s grace, and you have left the Gospel. You have deserted God.”

Thus he says they are “turning to a different gospel – not that there is another one” (Galatians 1:6-7).

There is only one Gospel.

Another teacher might label his message a gospel – but it’s not. Any message other than salvation by God’s grace through faith in Christ apart from works of any kind is not Good News. Any “Christ plus” gospel is a false gospel – and to follow such a false gospel is to abandon God.

Thus, Paul calls such false teachers those who “trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (Galatians 1:7).

By adding to faith in Christ works that we have to do – even Old Testament ceremonies – these teachers are changing the Good News into Bad News. They are turning their backs on God’s offer of Himself freely to all who believe – and thus they are changing the Gospel of God’s grace into a way to make yourself acceptable to God. This is indeed flipping the Gospel on its head. This is abandoning God.

What does Paul then say about those false teachers who are leading these Galatians astray?

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. (Galatians 1:8)

To be accursed is to be eternally condemned (NIV), to be condemned to hell (NET).

These folks who look so kind, so friendly, so warm, so engaging, inviting you to a deeper knowledge of God – these lovely people deserve hell, because they are leading God’s people astray.

So Paul says, “Even if I myself came back and preached another Gospel, you should say, “Paul, go to hell for that teaching! Don’t lead us astray from the one true Gospel!”

He imagines the most glorious possible being – an angel appearing to them. And even if this angel should preach something other than salvation by grace through faith in Christ, they should say, “Angel, go to hell!”

The GOSPEL is authoritative. Not the individual. Not even an angel

As Martin Luther writes concerning these verses:

Paul subordinates himself, all preachers, all the angels of heaven, everybody     to the Sacred Scriptures. We are not masters, judges, or arbiters, but witnesses, disciples, and confessors of the Scriptures, whether we be pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, or an angel from heaven.

Paul continues:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. (Galatians 1:11-12)

There is not one gospel according to Paul, another according to Peter, and another according to John, with each stating the result of his own philosophical speculations on the nature of reality, and how man can be put right with the ineffable sovereign power. No. Paul says Jesus Himself revealed this Gospel to him – and that this is the same Gospel He lived before the twelve disciples, the same Gospel that they continue to preach. There is one Gospel, from God, not based on the authority of any man, but revealed and put into effect by God Himself.

This is GOD’s gospel – so anyone who preaches another is NOT representing God.

Thus the false teachers, despite their speaking of grace, faith, Christ, and salvation, are teaching the opposite of the true Gospel. For it is God’s grace that saves us – nothing else. That is the only possible Good News. As Philip Ryken writes:

Not everyone who calls himself a Christian serves Christ, and not everything called the gospel is the gospel. It is not mere words that save; it is the realities of the one true gospel that save.

Our salvation comes about only by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone to the glory of God alone.

The Temptation: Aim First to Please Men, not God

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ. (Galatians 1:10)

Paul’s opponents may have been claiming Paul did not tell these Gentile believers to be circumcised because he was trying to please them. They may have argued: “Paul himself is circumcised, and he even circumcises men himself on occasion.”

Was Paul a man-pleaser? Should we be man-pleasers?

Pleasing men in and of itself is not wrong.

On non-essentials we are right to remove barriers to the Gospel, as we subordinate our personal and cultural preferences to communicate the Gospel more effectively. Paul did that (1 Corinthians 9:22-23, 1 Corinthians 10:33). But we must never change the Gospel in order to please men.

Notice in verse 10 that Paul admits that he used to try to please men – when he was a Pharisee. He implies that his opponents are now acting like he did when he was a man-pleaser.

In what ways were Paul’s opponents – and we ourselves – tempted to please men rather than God? Perhaps so that:

  • We might get along with those in power by submitting to another man’s authority or reasoning
  • We might fulfill our own natural desire to take credit for our salvation, for being master of our fate
  • We might accomplish an important but secondary goal, such as unity or kindness,

Conclusion

What is central for you?

Are you aiming in your life for popularity? For others to think highly of you?

My friends, the central goal of the church of Jesus Christ is

  • Not about marketing,
  • Not about church growth
  • Not about making money
  • Not about gaining political power
  • Not about attaining great health
  • Not about self-esteem
  • Not about building better families
  • Not about ending poverty
  • Not about ending abortion
  • Not about ending racial discrimination

If we make any of these the central goal of the church – even those that are good, biblical goals – then we have no Gospel at all. We have become man-pleasers of one type or another. We are putting ourselves, or some other group of people, at the center – not God.

If we do that, we are not making just a little adjustment to the Gospel. Instead, like the Galatians, we are deserting God; we are distorting and destroying the Gospel.

The church of Jesus Christ exists to herald the message of the Gospel: Your creator God made you for a purpose – to show what He is like, to marvel at who He is. Yet you have despised Him, treasuring attainments and objects in this world more than Him. You deserve His wrath and condemnation. But God in His grace sent His Son Jesus to die on the cross for your sins, to pay the penalty you deserve. You can be put right with God – you can be part of his intimate family – if you will have faith in Christ, if you see Him as your treasure, your hope, your joy.

The church of Jesus Christ exists to proclaim and to live out this Gospel radically in our lives as we, overflowing with forgiveness, overflowing with grace and mercy, become His humble servants, loving God, loving man, and rejoicing in the grace of Christ that we know we don’t deserve.

Is this central for you? Not a ticket to heaven after you die – but is this what you are most passionate about, what drives you?

There is only one hope for the world. There is only one hope for YOU: The Gospel of God’s grace.

So believe and be saved: By Grace alone. Through Faith alone. In Christ Jesus alone. To the glory of God alone.

 

 

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