Week of Feb. 5: God's grace is a gift, not something we can achieve


 Scripture: Galatians 2:15-21
Background Scripture: Galatians 1:1—2:21
     This week begins the third and last unit of the Winter Quarter.  The entire quarter’s study has been focused on the relationship between God’s faithfulness and the human response of faith, not as a system of beliefs but of action.  In December, our attention was on Abraham as God chose a people through whom His covenant would be passed on to future generations.  In January, the primary emphasis was on Joseph and God’s protection over him and the growing Hebrew nation.   Now in February, this unit shifts to Paul’s letter to the Galatian churches and God’s plan of salvation for the world. In all three units the believer sees how God relates to each one of us.
     Before examining the scripture for the day, some background on Paul’s journey of faith is necessary before the student can accept uncritically Paul’s affirmation that the gospel the Galatians must accept is the one HE preached! (1:6-9). He wanted his readers to know the gospel he preached was not “learned” from others, but came by direct revelation in his personal encounter with Christ.  He establishes his credentials as a zealous and learned Jew – zealous to the extent of persecuting Christians.  Following his encounter with Christ, a long period of time (three years!) elapsed while his conversion touched every aspect of his heart and mind. He rethought everything and came to the inevitable conclusion that the Law of Moses could not enable a person to have a right relationship with God. 
     He had begun to reach out to Gentiles with the saving gospel of being justified by faith in Christ.  (By the way, the word “justification” is one used to declare a person “not guilty” in a court of law.)   To Paul it was obvious that Christ had opened the door for all people – “Jew and Greek, slave and free, male and female” – to be put right with God.  He sought the blessing of the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem.  These leaders included Peter and James, the brother of Jesus.  This famous Jerusalem Conference gave approval to what Paul was doing as long as he remembered the poor (2:10).
     When Paul came to the churches of Galatia on his second missionary journey, this message was the good news (“gospel”) he preached.  Later, when he learned others were confusing them with the assertion they still needed to observe the Jewish law, he was incensed.  As with all his letters, here was a pastoral concern, prompting his writing of the Letter to the Galatians.
     The decision made at the Jerusalem Conference, which allowed Gentile Christians to be free from observing the Law of Moses while Jewish Christians would continue to do so, was a compromise.  Like all compromises within it there were seeds of conflict.  The decision created two groups of Christians. As humans will, each group said “We’re the REAL Christians!”  Sound familiar?
     The way Paul saw it, the only benefit of the Law was to show us our sin.  He had tried keeping the Law, but realized he could not do it. In Romans 7, he confesses he cannot do the good he wishes to do, and neither can he refrain from doing the evil he wants to avoid.  Then he cries out: “What a wretched man I am!  Who will rescue me?” (vs. 24)
      Paul states powerfully in Galatians 2:20, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives within me.”   Here was the death of his old way of trying to live by the Law.  Many of us try to live by creating for ourselves alternative systems of goodness molded often by the society in which we live.  We are used to living this way and to change means admitting we were wrong and only fooling ourselves.  We must die to that self-created standard, and, like Paul, discover that crucifixion is painful but liberating! 
       We finished high school, college, and, for Sam, seminary during the early days of the civil rights movement.  Growing up in South Georgia, we accepted segregation as the way life was and assumed all was right with the world.  Our conversion to a different attitude and the changes to be made was like dying.  Many of our church members could not accept what we believed, preached, and lived. Their disapproval and personal opposition was most difficult and painful to us and to our children.  What redeemed the situation was the gift of God’s grace as we looked at Jesus on the cross and understood more deeply His dying.   Galatians 2:20 became ours!   We were crucified with Christ, yet we found the gift of joy-filled life.
      All who have experienced such a life-changing moment know this is a gift – not an accomplishment we achieve. Only then can one really understand the miracle of grace as God’s way of freeing us from human created standards of measuring life.
     There is one more very significant word from Paul today.  If what he said, and what we have experienced, is not true, then Christ died for nothing! (vs.21)  If there were another way, why the cross?  If righteousness (a right relationship with God) could be achieved by human decision and effort, Calvary is ludicrous.  In that case, why not join those at the foot of the cross who ridiculed and mocked him?  Why not laugh at the biggest scam the world has ever known?  Jesus saves? Bah! Humbug!  So says Paul!
      Helen and Rev. Sam Rogers are a retired clergy couple. They can be reached at sandhrogers@friendlycity.net.