Galatians is a little bit repetitive. Paul piles argument upon argument to support the outrageous claim that all a person needs to do to be accepted as a beloved child of God is to hand over control of their life to Jesus. Galatians says you can do nothing to earn God’s acceptance. Jesus lived the perfect life and died a sacrificial death so that you can experience peace with God. Salvation as simple as putting trust in Jesus!
‘But what about obedience—are you saying that it doesn’t matter what you do?’ When you ask me that question I know I am truly preaching grace. The famous Welch preacher, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, said that ‘there is no better test as to whether a man is really preaching the New Testament gospel of salvation than this, that some people might misunderstand it and misinterpret it to mean that it really amount to this, that because you are saved by grace alone it does not matter at all what you do …’
This morning we are going to see yet another argument that Paul gives to show that salvation is all of grace and none of works, and then I will tell you that you will only be able to truly obey God if you grasp this good news.
You are a miracle child (21-23)
For generations the people of Galatia (in what is now southern Turkey) knew nothing about the true and living God. Then Paul visited them to recuperate from an illness. He shared the good news of Christ with them. Many responded in joy and became Christians. But it was not long before false-teachers came along and muddied the waters. These false-teachers agreed that Jesus was the Messiah, but claimed you had to obey all the laws of the Old Testament to be a Christian. Their message was that God will accept you on the basis of what Jesus did plus what you do. That is a denial of the gospel. Paul wants them to realise than grace plus anything (rituals or obedience) results in nothing. Salvation is by grace alone. To help them understand this he tells them more about Abraham.
Paul has already shown that Abraham is a great example of someone who was saved by free grace. He was a sinful man from a pagan background who was given a promise by God. Abraham simply believed God’s promise and it was credited to him as righteousness. Obeying the Old Testament Law had nothing to do with his salvation, for Abraham lived hundreds of years before that law was given. Indeed, the grace that saved Abraham also kept him. For at times he sinned and wavered in his faith, but he remained a friend of God.
One occasion where Abraham wavered in his faith was when he allowed his wife, Sarah, to persuade him to have a child with her servant girl, Hagar. The promise that God had made to Abraham involved a son. But God was taking his time. Abraham was eighty-six years old and he still hadn’t changed any nappies. So Abraham took matters into his own hand. Hagar gave birth to Ishmael. Ishmael was the result of human effort and planning. Paul describes him as the son who was born in the ordinary way (literally ‘by the flesh’). Ishmael is a good example of the religion of the false-teachers with their striving to earn God’s acceptance.
I heard of a family planning clinic that was offering some sort of deal whereby they would wave a large part of their fees if the couple failed to conceive. They would never have taken Abraham and Sarah on as clients. Abraham was one hundred years old and Sarah was ninety years old when Isaac, the son of the promise, was born. Have you ever heard of such a thing? That is extra-ordinary. It is one of many examples in the Old Testament when something happens against all the odds, and leaves you knowing that God’s must be behind it. Paul describes Isaac, as the son born by the power of the Holy Spirit (29).
If you have been born again then you are a miracle child. Isaac was born by God’s miraculous work, and you were born again by God’s miraculous work. At the beginning of his gospel, John wrote about those who become children of God who ‘are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God’ (NLT). You were dead in your transgressions and sin (Ephesians 2:1)—dead people can do nothing to become alive. While we were still sinners Christ died for us (Romans 5:8)—people steeped in sin cannot do anything to win God’s approval. We were hostile to him (Romans 8:7)—people don’t naturally give up on pride and seek the grace of true and living God. We are kept by the power of God (1 Peter 1:5)—it is God who will keep you to the end. From planning, to conception, to new birth, through life and into all eternity your faith is all about the work of God. You have a lot to be thankful for!
You were born to be free (24-27)
Paul takes the story of Isaac and Ishmael (and of Sarah and Hagar) and shows how it relates to the two ways people try to be right with God. There are only two types of religious person in the world—those trusting in their own goodness and those trusting in the life and death of Jesus.
These things may be taken figuratively, for the women represent two covenants. One covenant is from Mount Sinai and bears children who are to be slaves: This is Hagar. Now Hagar stands for Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present city of Jerusalem, because she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem that is above is free, and she is our mother.
The false-teachers pointed the Galatians to Mount Sinai and reminded them of the Law of Moses. They told the Galatians that they must obey those laws in order to be saved. Yet that law could never save people. It was not designed to save people. It was given to those who had been rescued from Egypt to show them how to live in the time before the coming of Jesus. One of its functions of that Law was to expose people’s refusal to obey God, and so cause them to cry out for the forgiveness and grace of God.
Paul then contrasts two cities of Jerusalem. The first-century Jerusalem was the home of the Jews. The Jews had forgotten the grace of God. Like the false-teachers they believed that they had to earn God’s acceptance through observing rules and rituals. The other Jerusalem is from above. Isaiah had referred to God’s people as Jerusalem—not a physical city but a community of God’s people. This Jerusalem is free, and she is our mother. We were born to be free. Isaiah told God’s people in exile, that God had not finished with them. He would supernaturally bring about the new birth of many children. Your faith is a part of the fulfilment of that promise!
Religious people will hate you (28-31)
Before I tell you about the relationship of obedience to faith, I want you to notice that religious slaves will always resent free sons. The one born to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit. Those who are trying to earn the acceptance of God have no grounds for joy and they eventually resent those who are resting in the free grace of God. This was seeing in the bullying words of the false-teachers who caused such havoc in Galatia, and it shows itself in so many ways in the modern world. Paul tells us that we must resist the teaching of those who say things like, ‘sure it doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you live a good life and are sincere.
Conclusion—only those who understand grace can live a life that pleases God.
The first verse of our reading is astonishing, given the sheer beauty of grace and the fact that trying to earn God’s acceptance will rob you of your joy. Tell me, you who want (desire) to be under the law … Many of the Galatians wanted to be placed under laws that no longer apply to the Christian. They want to buy into a false-understanding of that law. They wanted to contribute to their salvation. They wanted to earn God’s acceptance. I suppose it must have been rooted in pride.
But you can never please God if you are working to earn his acceptance. To start with, trying to earn God’s acceptance denies the fact that Jesus has done everything necessary to make wicked people dearly loved children of the Father. Secondly, if you are only living a good life so that God will bless you and take you to heaven, then you are not really being good at all—you are simply being self-absorbed and self-righteous.
The seventeenth century Belgic Confession of Faith says, ‘far from making people cold toward living in a holy way, justifying faith so works within them that apart from it they will never anything out of love for God but only out of love for themselves and fear of being condemned.’ So while living to earn God’s acceptance will leave you joyless, proud and insecure understanding God’s grace will fill you with gratitude, thankfulness and awe. You will want to obey Jesus because you love him.
Finally, this has an important application when we see moral weakness and spiritual apathy in our lives, and in the lives of our brothers and sisters in Christ. I remember hearing a wonderful Christian teacher explain, ‘when things seem slack don’t revert to preaching law.’ Yes, there is a time to rebuke and warn. But our primary means of bringing change is not to nag. Nagging doesn’t work—anyone who is married knows that. The primary way to inspire holiness is to magnify the beauty of free grace, ponder deeply on the privilege of being an adopted and beloved child of God, and remember that your sin has been dealt with. Then the love that has been poured into you will flow out of you!