Who are your heroes and heroines of the Christian faith? It may be someone through whom you came to faith in Christ. It may be someone who over the years has encouraged you and supported you. It could be a figure from the past like Hilda of Whitby, George Whitefield, William Wilberforce, C. H. Spurgeon or Mother Teresa. The list is endless. And if you could have asked Paul to name his hero, who would he have chosen? Moses? David? Isaiah? No. None of these. His choice would have been Abraham, whom Paul describes as 'the man of faith' (Gal 3:9). In Hebrews chapter 11, much attention is given to Abraham who was known for his obedience and his faith. What a powerful combination! What an inspiration for us all! To obey, to believe. And to trust.
Just to remind you, the book of Galatians was written within twenty years of the death and resurrection of Jesus. It may well have been the first of Paul's letters. It was written to those Christian believers who were living in what today we call Turkey. Paul's letter to the Galatians was a personal letter and it was a controversial letter. A contrast between the true gospel and a false gospel. Between rule keeping and faith living.
Gal 3:1-9 highlights two gifts – the gift of faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit - and introduces us to Abraham as the model 'man of faith' (v.9).
1 Paul's testimony
To understand Paul and to understand his message we need to know something about his personal testimony. Paul was a young man, a converted Pharisee who had been transformed by his encounter with the risen Christ. From birth Paul had been steeped in the Jewish traditions and observances. As he put it in Philippians 'If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church, as to righteousness under the [Jewish] law, blameless' (Phil 3:4-7). In other words his circumcision marked him off as a Jew, and his belief and behaviour were shaped by his observance of the Jewish Law.
But Paul's encounter with the risen Jesus changed all that. 'But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the [Jewish] law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith' (Phil 3:7-9).
Now, as the recipient of divine grace, a follower of Jesus Christ, Paul's past was put behind him. He no longer relied upon the foundation of Jewish law-keeping. He regarded it as garbage, or, as our American friends say, trash. Now he relied upon the grace of God for his faith in God. And Paul, looked to Abraham as 'the man of faith' the one who believed in God and trusted in him long before the time of Moses and the giving of the Jewish law. Of course the order of things is all important. Divine grace always comes before obedient faith. 'Before I was born' said Paul in Gal 1:15, 'he who set me apart called me by his grace and revealed to me his Son'. Faith comes to us from God as a gift. Grace before faith and that faith is given by God.
Now you and I might not put it in exactly those form of words. But at the heart of our Christian testimony there needs to be some awareness of the grace of God, the love of God and the mercy of God, that has so graciously touched our lives and warmed our hearts. That invokes our response and our confession of faith in Jesus Christ as my Lord and Saviour.
2 Believing in Christ – the gift of faith
In Galatia Paul had proclaimed the good news concerning the death and resurrection of Christ. As he put it in Gal 1 – 'Christ gave himself for our sins' (v.4) whom God the Father had raised [him] from the dead (v.1). This was not a human gospel but a divine gospel that Paul had received by 'a revelation of Jesus Christ' (v.12). Galatia became a fruitful mission field and there were many there who had become followers of 'The Way' (the early name for the followers of 'the way', Jesus Christ).
Soon things began to change. Back in Jerusalem some converted Pharisees were convinced that 'it was necessary to circumcise [believers] and to order them to keep the [Jewish] law of Moses' (Acts 15:5). And these ideas began to be spread by visitors to Galatia. Understandably Paul became very concerned about the truth of the gospel. As far as he could see it was being compromised. It was being distorted. Some fellow believers wanted to add to the gospel. For them believing in Jesus was not enough. They insisted that the law of Moses had to be kept to the letter and that male converts must be circumcised (6:12). That was the heart of the controversy. Is salvation by faith in Christ - with circumcision or without it? And for those who are saved by Christ - must they keep every part of the Jewish law? This issue was fundamental. Was the Christian faith based on grace or law? If the first, then it was distinct from Judaism; if the second, then there was little difference between them.
And what was Paul's response? He was astonished! He was amazed! It was as if the Galatians were bewitched, spell-bound by the Devil himself. And Paul didn't mince his words. He didn't pussyfoot around. You mindless idiots! Why are you so stupid? Why are you so easily led away from the truth of the gospel? Lest we get all self-righteous about it we too can distort the faith we profess by our traditions and attitudes. We too can be very stupid!
The authentic Christian message is clear and simple. The just shall live by faith. And to make his point Paul turned not to Moses and the Jewish law, but to Abraham 'the man of faith' (v.9). And since he was so important Paul refers to him nine times in his letter. Abraham was the one who left all that he had and journey west, and whose experience of the living God was based on his faith in the promises of the living God. Abraham (we are told) 'believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness' (Gen 15:6; Rom 4:3; James 2:23). Centuries later Martin Luther said:'righteousness comes by faith not by [keeping] the [Jewish] law' (Luther, Galatians, ). And we need to remember that.
This principle shaped the faith of subsequent generations of Christian believers. Making us (with them) 'the children of Abraham (v.7). The true sons and daughters who walk by faith and not by sight. Who believe in the promises of God rather than in observing rules and regulations. Paul makes it clear here that 'those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith' (v.9). Of course the divine revelation was not just for the Jews, but in time would include non-Jews as well. Those who walk by faith, and believe and obey the word of the Lord by the Spirit of the Lord. And for you, is that your experience of believing, trusting faith? Trusting in the Lord? Believing in the Lord? Obeying the Lord?
3 Receiving the Spirit – the gift of the Spirit
One of our Pentecost hymns has the opening line that 'the Spirit came as promised'. In the Upper Room Jesus had promised to send another advocate, the Holy Spirit, who would be our helper, teacher, guide, advocate, counsellor, strengthener. Jesus would be no longer with us in the flesh. He would return to his Father's side. In his place the Spirit was sent to be at work in the world: growing the church. Bringing people to faith. Making us more and more like Jesus. For this, 'the Spirit came as promised'. But wait a minute. Was the Spirit given under the Jewish law? We know that the Holy Spirit was active in OT times. But he came and went like a passing shadow. His presence was intermittent. He inspired the prophets. He came to individuals and then left them. He could be with a craftsman like Bezalel (Ex 31:3). He could be with a king like Saul, and then he left him. And in Psalm 51 king David prayed that the Holy Spirit might not be taken from him, but remain with him.
But under the new covenant, the Spirit came as promised. Given to believers as a gift and not earned by them or given because of human merit. The Spirit was not given to law-keepers but to men and women of faith. The Spirit brings individuals to faith (the theologians call that prevenient grace). The Spirit given to all believers. The Spirit empowering all believers. The Sprit equipping all believers. As one commentator put it, 'Trust in God is at the heart of Christian living, and when believers trust God they receive the divine empowerment that only the divine Spirit can give' (L. Morris, Galatians, p.95). Ever since Pentecost the Holy Spirit has been a permanent presence and not a temporary resident with every Christian believer. But remember this: though 'we cannot lose him. We can ... grieve and quench him and so lose the awareness of his presence.' (M. Wilcock, Psalms 1:188). So keep the faith. Trust in God. Be open to the work of the Holy Spirit.
Later in Galatians Paul has much more to say about the person and work of the Holy Spirit. He makes it clear that 'if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law' (5:18). Law keepers are not Spirit filled believers. The Christian believer is to 'live by the Spirit, and keep in step with the Spirit' (5:25). And to remain responsive to the leading of the Spirit. And how is the Christian to be identified? In 5:22 Paul puts it like this: 'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control'. That's for all of us. Not just for any spiritual élite.
Following on from the gift of faith is God's gift of the Holy Spirit. As believers we are to walk by the Spirit, to live by the Spirit, to express in our life and behaviour the fruit of the Spirit. The gift of the Holy Spirit is not for a special grade of Christians who aspire to some higher-life, but is for each and every one who believes and trusts in God through the Lord Jesus Christ. God gives us the faith to believe and the Spirit to live in Christ. That should be a great encouragement to each one of us. The gifts of God are to be received with joy and each day we are to live as debtors to the love and mercy of the Lord.
4 Further testimony
Christian believers are the recipients of two gifts –the gift of faith and the gift of the Spirit. These two gifts must be at the heart of our experience as Christian believers. To trust in Christ, to believe in Christ and to walk the walk of faith by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. In theory that sounds easy enough but in reality it can often be a real struggle. Some believers crumple under the pressures of the world, the flesh and the Devil.
I want to give three examples of living the Christian life from different periods in the history of the church. First, in the experience of the reformer Martin Luther.
'I myself, although I be a doctor of divinity, and have now preached Christ, and fought against the devil in his false teachers a great while, by mine own experience have found how hard a matter this is. For I cannot shake off Satan as I desire, neither can I so apprehend Christ as the scripture sets him forth; but often the devil sets before mine eyes a false Christ'. (Luther, Galatians).
Later, John Bunyan read Luther on Galatians, and there (he said),
'I found my condition, in his experience, so largely and profoundly handled, as if his book had been written out of my own heart ... [and I think] I do prefer this book of Martin Luther upon the Galatians, excepting the Holy Bible, before all books that ever I have seen, as most fit for a wounded conscience.'
And from a modern commentator, Peter Adam, I came across these challenging words.
'If we are not growing in our trust in God, then that trust is shrinking. If we are not dying to sin, then sin is growing in power. If we are not living in righteousness, then we are walking away from it. If we are not keeping in step with the Spirit, then we are walking to a different drumbeat, our own selfish desires. If the fruit of the spirit is not increasing in our lives, then the works of the flesh will be gaining in power over us' (P. Adam. The Message of Malachi, p.39).
Did you notice what these three Christians were saying? The need to face the challenge from a false Christ; the need for the healing of a wounded conscience; and the need to keep in step with the Spirit. Those three needs are probably to found among us here today and may well speak to your situation. If so, then look afresh to our gracious God.
Finally, we need to thank God for his two gifts, the gift of faith and of the Spirit. To testify afresh to the grace of God, the love of God and the mercy of God, and to grow in holiness so that we might become in reality and not just in theory more and more like Jesus. That must be our aim. That must be our prayer.