By SAM AND HELEN ROGERS
Scripture: Galatians 3: 1-14
In this scripture, Paul still shows his bewilderment with the attitude of the Galatian church, with their turning away from his insistence on justification by faith alone. Using very strong language, he says that he feels they have been bewitched. There is no human condition which will cause our relationship with God to change. There is nothing we can do that will cause God to love us more. There is nothing we can do that will cause God to love us less. As a parent is with their child, so it is infinitely more with God!
One commentator has said: “When we understand the gospel rightly, the shocking yet gratifying truth is our salvation has nothing to do with how well or how poorly we have conformed to God’s desire for us. It has nothing to do with our nationality, zip code, skin color, or gender. It doesn’t matter if we are charismatic or belong to a particular denomination, laid-off or fully employed, high school dropout or college educated, straitlaced or immoral or criminal. God’s grace is not contingent on anything about us. It is solely contingent on the life and death of Jesus.”
Grace is truly amazing! Remember, however, the universality of grace being offered to everyone is not the same as universal salvation. The offer has to be accepted, and we do that by faith alone. The watchword of the Protestant Reformation was “sola fide” – only faith. As he began the Reformation, Martin Luther used the same quote as Paul from Habakkuk 2:4: “The righteous will live by faith.” Here is where Paul takes us back to Abraham and uses Abraham’s faith as the linchpin for all who want to get right with God. Genesis 15:6 says: “He believed (trusted) God and it was credited to him as righteousness.” What is righteousness? In Genesis and Galatians, righteousness is a right relationship with God. The moral dimensions of righteousness are important, but they come after the relationship with God is established – not as a requirement for that relationship.
Only later was Abraham circumcised as a sign of the covenant, like Baptism is for us Christians. The act doesn’t save—only God can do that! As Abraham’s response of faith was accepted by God, God’s promise declared through this trust: “All the Gentiles will be blessed in you.” That blessing is what enabled the Galatians to be included in the fellowship of God’s love, and it still works the same way today!
Paul used the Galatians’ own experience to prove his point. “When did you receive the Spirit?” he asked. Long before they were persuaded by some to begin observing the Law, they had received the Spirit when they first believed. The Church has always been truest when it recognized the indwelling of the Spirit, with the Spirit’s work, was the sure sign of God’s presence and approval. Only by the Spirit can we even say, “Jesus Christ is Lord.” Like Abraham, we experience God when we trust Him, and find we can do miraculous deeds through the Spirit working within us.
The most obvious reason Paul rejected the Law as necessary for salvation is simply – the Law limited who could be reconciled to God. Jewish ethnicity was at the heart of the Law and obedience to it. Ethnicity is just one human measurement limiting the work of Jesus on the cross. There are others, but in the first century, Law = Jews, and for Paul nothing could keep God from offering redeeming grace to everyone. He remembered what Isaiah had written in 49:6: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant (just) to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”
We United Methodists have a hard time separating grace and law. We know, sing, and talk about grace, but we still think it is important to be law abiding people. We even put signs in our yards urging the keeping of the Ten Commandments. All of this is important, of course, and certainly true – just don’t equate abiding by the law with earning God’s approval!
In the many sermons we have heard across the years on Luke 15 (the prodigal son), or Matthew 20 (the workers in the vineyard), or Luke 18 (the Pharisee and the tax-collector), the preacher would point out our hesitancy to accept what Jesus is saying about grace. Often the hearer would respond: “But that’s not fair!” To whatever degree a person really feels that way, to that degree, they just don’t get it! As long as keeping the law is the focus, what need is there for a Savior?
Somehow humans want levels or degrees of sin. In society there is a difference between murder and gossip—but not with God. A person can “murder” a person’s reputation and life with slander and gossip as surely as with taking that person’s life with a gun. This distinction escapes many people, and because it does, we “can think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think (Romans 12:3). “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” writes Paul (Romans 3:23), and thus all need a Savior. God gave us the gift of Jesus to fill that need. Why do we find it so hard to accept this gift for ourselves? Is it pride? I’d rather do it myself! Ah! There is a problem! We can’t! Without Jesus we are truly lost!
The plan of salvation is clear and Paul wanted his Galatian friends to follow the plan. When our granddaughter Taylor was a little girl, we were discussing what we would do one day during our mountain vacation. There were many good options, and the discussion went on longer than she could take. She suddenly said loudly: “We need a plan and just ‘tic to it!” So Paul is saying to the Galatians, “Here is God’s plan—just stick to it!”