Juliette Smith remembers having a conversation with her father Alec, about his need to find peace with God. ‘His biggest problem,’ she said, ‘was that he didn’t think he was all that bad—didn’t think he needed forgiveness, that God should look at his life, give him five out of ten, and accept him. He couldn’t accept that he needed forgiveness just as much as some murderer in the newspaper—as much as every single one of us does.’
Do you realise that apart from Christ you deserve hell? Do you see that your only hope is to turn to Jesus?
The apostle Paul taught that we are helpless to make ourselves right with God. We are dead in transgressions and sin. He also taught that Jesus had done everything necessary to give us peace with God. Jesus lived the perfect life and took the punishment for all our sin on the cross. Now, when we turn to him in faith, God looks on as and sees that all our guilt has been punished. He treats us as if we had lived Jesus’ pure life. This is the only gospel that enables us to glimpse something of the awesome holiness of God and not be crushed with fear. In fact this message is designed to cast out fear, crush pride, fill our hearts with love and transform our lives.
In this passage we see that Paul and the leaders of the church in Jerusalem were united in their resolve to preserve this beautiful gospel of all sufficient grace.
This is a meeting that shaped the future of the Church
Paul has told the Galatians how he encountered the risen Jesus on the Damascus Road, and was turned from being a persecutor of the church into a messenger of the cross. After his conversion he went to Arabia. Then, after three years, he had a brief visit to Jerusalem. ‘Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to revelation.’ He meets the Jerusalem leaders in private and says that he wanted to make sure that he was not running the race in vain (2).
What does he mean about running the race in vain? It cannot mean that he needed to check with the others that he has got his message correct. He knows that he is not a false-teacher. He has received his message directly from Christ. Rather he is scared that the fruitfulness of his mission will be ruined. If the leaders in Jerusalem don’t come in behind him and fully support his message there will be a divided church, with many people preaching a watered-down gospel. The fact is that if the Jerusalem leaders don’t roll in behind him the entire shape of the church will be skewed.
Thankfully, the leaders in Jerusalem totally agreed with Paul. The false-teachers at work in Galatia and elsewhere had said that converts from non-Jewish backgrounds had to obey all the Jewish laws in order to be true Christians. The Jewish leaders and Paul are in agreement that they don’t. Titus, who was from a Greek background, had travelled with Paul, and he was not circumcised. The Jewish leaders do not want him to be circumcised. He doesn’t need to be. In fact the Jerusalem leaders, give Paul the right hand of fellowship, added nothing to his message, but asked that he remember the poor (‘the very thing I was eager to do’).
I love the fact that they were all in agreement of the importance of remembering the poor. These weren’t cold heresy-hunters. They were warm-heart responsible leaders who cared for people’s spiritual, emotional and physical well-being. These people knew that if you distort this message you will rob people of freedom, joy, assurance and life. They also know that if you understand the immense grace and mercy God has shown to you, you will inevitably be a person who shows grace and mercy towards others.
I believe that the false-teachers who plagued the first-century Christians were motivated by pride. They wanted their Jewish background to matter for something. They wanted to contribute to their salvation. They wanted their rituals to put God in their debt. As a result they denied the gospel of grace. They implied that the cross alone was not sufficient to save people from all their sins. They robbed God of glory and people of hope.
So beware of the modern deniers of grace
Beware of those who belittle the cross. I heard a young leader say that he felt that the cross was bad public relations. A university chaplain wrote that the death of Jesus is not the crux of Christianity. Yet the apostle Paul can sum up his message by declaring that he preaches Christ-crucified. What do you get if you have cross-less Christianity? You get a religion where you seek to follow the moral example of Jesus. Such religion will either lead to pride or insecurity. Pride if you think you are good at following Jesus’ example. Despair if you realise how much we fail to be like Jesus.
Beware of pride. The gospel has the power to sever the root of pride. ‘Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.’ ‘Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the worst’ (1 Timothy 1:15). ‘For it is by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not as a result of works, so that no one may boast’ (Ephesians 2:8-9). The gospel of grace teaches us that we are accepted totally on the basis of what Jesus has done for us in his life, death and resurrection. If we are struggling with pride, it may be that we are forgetting the gospel of grace!
Beware of legalism. Grace was not attractive to the false-teachers—they had to make Christianity a matter of following laws and rituals. The false-teachers wanted to deny the Christians of their legitimate freedoms. According to Tim Keller, legalism stems from the belief that we must pry blessings out of God’s begrudging fingers by all sorts of observances and performances. Legalism portrays God as a petty tyrant who cares more for outward appearances than his inner work on our hearts. Legalism gives no place to the centrality of love. Rules around alcohol, dress codes and even giving may be well intentioned and yet quickly lead to attitudes of judgemental-ism and pride.
In a book on the Love of God, Oswald Chambers wrote, ‘Nothing is too hard for God, no sin too difficult for His love to overcome, not a failure but He can make a success.’
He could write those words because he understood grace. When we realise that Jesus—in his life, death, resurrection and ministry before the throne—has done everything necessary for our acceptance before God, we need not despair when we see afresh the horrible evidence of our sinfulness. When we realise that it is God who works within us to will and act according to his good pleasure then we will not get all puffed up with pride when we make some progress in being transformed into the likeness of Jesus.
When we understand grace we don’t have to reduce the perfect holiness of God to manageable portions. We can stand before a holy God without fear because we are clothed in the perfect righteousness of Christ. We need not tremble at the thought of past failures because the death of Christ has taken their punishment. We don’t despair when we fail and fall, for the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us from all sin. We need not fear for our future because nothing can pry us from the grip of grace.