Get Back to the Beginning, and Stay There!
Well were back in Galatians after a few weeks off, and it's not a gentle landing as we come back to this passage, Paul starts out this passage in with an exasperated cry:
'You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?'
'You fools!' 'What are you doing?' 'How could you even think that?'
I guess most of us will know that feeling when you watch someone do something stupid.
When I was in second year at theological college one of the guys from the previous year's fourth year an affair. He was a great guy; I had a lot of respect for him. He was married with small children, he'd worked through six years training for ministry and had finally started work as assistant minister of a church. And within a year he'd thrown it all away for an affair. It was all over in a matter of weeks. But he's never worked in a church since. I don't know what happened to his marriage, but if it survived God and his wife were very gracious.
But what foolishness it was – what blatant stupidity! What could possibly be gained that was worth endangering his marriages, hurting his wife and children, damaging his church and ending his ministry for? And this from a man who was so committed to serving Jesus that he'd left a career to dedicate himself to years of training and studying in order to serve the church.
What could make someone do something so stupid? Looking in from outside you say just what Paul did don't you? – you idiot, how could you be so stupid, were you under some kind of spell? What could possibly make you do that?
So what is Paul so upset about? Well remember the Galatians foolishness was in turning away from faith in the gospel to put their trust in keeping the law – and it was just as foolish as throwing away their marriages and ministries for an affair – in fact it was worse, because they were cutting themselves off from Christ, as Paul said right back in chapter 1 verse 6.
And so Paul says to them you're fools! And there's no surprise there. But what he goes on to say is surprising, at least at first. See what he says next: you've lost sight of Jesus Christ crucified for you, that's the second half of the first verse –
Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.
1. They had Lost Sight of Jesus Christ Crucified.
They may have forgotten, but it was presented to them as clear as could be – Jesus died on the cross for them. Now the logic follows from the end of chapter 2 – Paul set up two exclusive alternatives – seeking to be righteous before God by obeying the law, that is, by what we do; or seeking to be right with God by faith in Christ Jesus – that is, by grace, by what Jesus did. And he finishes the chapter saying:
'I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!'
Paul wouldn't set aside the grace of God, but that is exactly what they've been doing – they're abandoning God's grace to try and win righteousness for themselves through keeping the law.
And that is craziness. It's craziness precisely because Jesus was crucified and they knew it. And if Jesus was crucified then we can be absolutely certain, that there is no way we can get right with God except through his death – if righteousness could be gained through the law Christ died for nothing… but righteousness can't be gained through the law, Christ didn't die for nothing, he died because it was the only possible way.
So it's mental, it's crazy to turn away from Jesus to keeping the law.
And in losing sight of the cross they've lost touch with the seriousness of sin. Anyone who sees the full seriousness of sin, the awful sinfulness of sin knows that we can't make up for it by keeping the law, that we can't suppress it and contain it by using the law.
But since we are all sinners we have real difficulty in this area. I mean think about it in the context of evangelism. When we're trying to explain the gospel people can see that we're all sinners because we've all done things we're ashamed of, things we'd rather not talk about, things we'd hate for everyone to know about us. But it's a bit of a jump to get from those things and our shame about them to saying that we deserve to die for that sin.
I mean we don't feel like we deserve to die for those things – we might feel someone responsible for the nerve gas attacks this week deserves to die; we might feel that the people from ISIS who delight in cutting people's heads off, that they deserve to die – but not us, certainly not the 83 year old grandma who I spoke to after the service last week – little, frail grandma, how God's sentence her to death? Surely not!
You feel that don't you? Sin can't be that bad, can it? It's not like she's cutting people's heads off, right?
But remember Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified!
And he didn't die for nothing – he died because he had to, because there was no other way we could be saved – sin is far more serious that we think, much more serious than we'd like to admit! If I'm able to imagine doing something to make it right with God myself, then I can't have grasped just how serious my sin is.
So the problem is losing sight of Jesus Christ crucified, and so losing sight of the seriousness of sin, and so beginning to hope that we might just be able to sort this problem out on our own. And that's not just a first century problem, it's our struggle as well, we find the sinfulness of sin elusive, it runs away from us and we like to indulge the fancy that sin isn't very serious after all. I mean how else can we be so blasé about indulging it? How else can we carry the burden of our guilt?
So if that's the problem, is there a solution for us?
Paul says the solution is to go back to the beginning, go back to the beginning.
2. Go back to the Beginning
See it there in verse 2:
"I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?"
Paul's talking about the beginning here – when you became Christians what was it that made you right with God – was it keeping the law? Well it wasn't, because they weren't. They heard the gospel and they believed it and God baptised them with the Holy Spirit as a sign of their salvation – they were joined to Jesus by the Spirit and made right with God. That's what it means to become a Christian, to be joined to Jesus by the spirit and made right with God. And how did it happen? Well it wasn't by keeping the law! It was by believing what they heard. There it is again in verse 5 isn't it?
"Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?"
The things they saw and heard when the gospel came among them, the life they enjoy through the spirit, the changes that have been done in them – they all came through believing the gospel. They had tangible experiences of God's favour towards them, they experienced life as Gods children, energized by the very spirit of God within them.
And that shouldn't surprise anyone because that is exactly what the Old Testament law said they should expect. This is what Paul goes on to show from the life of Abraham. Remember Abraham? Anyone who's interested in the Old Testament should remember him – he was the father of Israel, the first Jew, the great ancestor of them all. The great promises of God came to him first of all, the Jews looked back to him as their great father, indeed that's what his name means, great father.
So what about Abraham? What does he show about what it takes to become a member of his family? The answer that was being pushed on the churches of Galatia was that to be in Abraham's family and receive his blessings you had to keep the law. But that's not actually what the law said. Look it up says Paul, look at Genesis 15:6 (remember that the Jews considered the first five books of the bible Genesis to Deuteronomy 'the law'), which he quotes in verse 6:
"He [Abraham] believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness."
We don't have time to go back to that passage this morning, but do look it up for yourselves later. You'll see there that God showed Abram as he was known then the night sky and told him to count the stars (pre electricity days, pre industrial smog I'm guessing he had quite a view of the stars!) – and promised that that's how many descendants Abram would have. This despite the fact that Abram was old and his wife was barren – God says I will do this for you. And what does Abram say in response – does he get his wallet out and say 'well, what do I owe you?' Of course not, there's no paying for this, all he can do is to accept it from God's hand. So Abram believed God, and it was credited to him – that is God counted him righteous on the basis of his belief in God, his trust in God's promise. So what does it take to be one of his children – follow in his steps, trust God as Abraham did, as verse 7 says:
"Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham."
And just to be clear that this could possibly be extended to people who weren't Abraham's physical descendants Paul says listen to Genesis 12:3, verse 8 and 9:
The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed through you." [that's Genesis 12:3, repeated again in 18:18 and 22:18] So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
We're going to talk more about this as we continue in Galatians. But it's clear here isn't it: Abraham received promises that were for the whole world, everyone would be included in his blessings. And those blessings were available not through keeping the law, but through believing God's promises. This was the way of salvation in the Old Testament just as it is in the New – belief in God's promises. That's how the Galatians came to faith, and that's how it was always meant to be, right from the beginning.
So get back to the beginning, remember that it was by faith that you were saved, just as Abraham was saved by faith right back at the very start of God's rescue mission.
And now that you've gone back to the beginning, never leave.
3. Don't Depart from what Saved You in the Beginning.
This is the basic argument of Galatians as a whole – you're not saved by faith and then kept by something else. You don't start out by trusting God but go on by some other means. To put it in theological terms – both justification – that is our being made right in the first place – and sanctification – that is our growth in doing right – are achieved by faith. And we see it encapsulated here in verse 3:
"Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4 Have you suffered so much for nothing--if it really was for nothing?"
I think this where we are most like the Galatians, it's just so natural for us to think that we need something else to help us to do what is right. But Paul's great argument here is that we don't. It's faith that saves in the beginning, it's faith that keeps us going as Christians, and it's faith that will help us to grow as Christians. It's so obvious when he puts it like he does in verse 3 – as if I could be stronger than God, as if I could do what the Spirit does, or as if God would ask me to take up the role of his Spirit – how could I possibly be strong enough? Where it becomes fuzzy is in the day to day, moment by moment struggle that we have with sin.
What I mean is this: What do we need to help us when we're feeling temptation? When I open up my computer and I know that a couple of clicks will take me to a porn sight, what help do I need then? If I'm lonely and isolated and the kids get on my nerves and the marriage is going through a tough spot and I'm finding myself increasingly attracted to someone from work who makes me feel good about myself – what's my defence? When I'm struggling to meet a deadline and everything in the world seems more interesting to me than my work and all I want to do is to escape into the internet where does my help come from? If I'm getting on a bit and I'm afraid that no one will ever marry me and there's a non Christian who's interested in me … In all our different scenarios, in all the repeated struggles that we face – what help do we need, what weapons do we fight with?
In those moments a list of rules won't help us. When we're face to face with temptation the problem is that we know it's wrong, but we want it anyway. At that point our problem is a lack of faith: we're weighing up in the moment whether to trust the good God who tells us to say 'no' to temptation, or to trust the promises of sin, which tell us to say 'yes' because it will be worth our while. In those moments God's promises can seem very thin, very unlikely, very insubstantial. But we can see and feel the benefits sin offers, we can taste it, it calls out to us and we want it. God says 'I have far better things for you, trust me and you'll see'. Sin is lying to us, but it's such a good liar, its promises seem so tangible. In that moment what we need is faith that will enable us to obey God and reject sin. Faith is what leads to us to godliness, we start by faith, we go on by faith, and we grow by faith.
That's Paul's thesis in Galatians, and that's what we need to remember in the heat of our battle with sin – don't go back to the rules, the do's and don'ts, go back to the gospel – Jesus has done it all for you. You're worse than you realised – your sin is deadly serious – but you're more loved than you could imagine. And let the one who loves you lead you to holiness. So put your faith in him and trust him enough to obey him.