Jerry Bridges is an author who died recently. He wrote a number of wonderful books on grace. Including one called ‘Transforming Grace’, which influenced me as a young Christian. In it he writes, ‘we cannot exercise love unless we are experiencing grace. You cannot truly love others unless you are convinced that God’s love for you is unconditional, based solely on the merit of Christ, not your performance … Our love, either to God or for others, can only be a response to His love for us.’
It is true that even the wicked love those who love them (Matthew 5:46-47). But we are called to a greater love. We are called to love our enemies. We are to let love cover a multitude of sins. We are to forgive, as we have been forgiven. We are to lay down our lives for each other. Such love finds its source in God’s lavish love for us.
This morning we are going to see that we must not try to contribute towards God’s acceptance and that understanding God’s acceptance is free is the key to change.
1. What is so wrong with trying to contribute towards God’s acceptance? (2)
Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all (2).
The false-teacher told the Galatians that you must be circumcised if you are to be accepted by God. Paul doesn’t have a problem with circumcision. He has a problem with using circumcision (or any work or ritual) as a means of earning God’s acceptance. You have not understood the gospel if you are trying to purchase God’s love!
What is so wrong with trying to earn God’s acceptance?
It is wrong because trying to contribute towards your salvation shows that you don’t understand the nature of God's holiness. Do you really think that a perfectly pure and holy God would be appeased by our empty rituals and self-righteous good deeds?
It is wrong because trying to contribute towards your salvation reveals that you don't understand human sinfulness. Our attempts to earn God's acceptance are rooted in our own selfishness and pride. Our hearts are incapable of true good and need God's cure.
Most significantly, it is wrong because trying to contribute towards your salvation demonstrates that you do not see the true beauty of the life and death of Jesus. Jesus lived the perfect so that God could treat you as if you always perfectly obeyed God. Jesus died a sacrificial death so that we could have the punishment for our sin taken from us. Is that not enough to earn God's acceptance for you? Do you think that you need to add rituals and works to the finished work of Jesus? What rituals did the thief on the cross perform in order to be accepted into paradise? You are far worse than you ever dreamed you are, but the life and death of Jesus is sufficient to deal with the worst of sinners.
2. Why can’t I earn God’s acceptance? (3-4)
Paul says that if we try to earn God’s acceptance we nullify the gift of grace. The only attitude which receives grace is the one that can sing, ‘nothing in my hand I bring, simply to the cross I cling.’
Why is it that we can’t earn God’s acceptance?
Again I declare to every person who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from God; you have fallen away from grace (3-4).
Some of the Galatians were trying to earn God’s acceptance by obeying the Law of Moses. But the only way you could obey God’s acceptance through law keeping was to obey all of the law, all of the time. If you broke one bit of the law then the law showed you that you are a law breaker. It was like a sheet of old glass, whereby when you break one piece the whole thing smashes into smithereens.
The Law of Moses, which was in place from the time of Mount Sinai until Jesus, was designed to expose people’s sin and point them to their need of free grace. Law exposes our short-comings. Have you always loved the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength all of the time? We need grace! When you look back on your past don’t you see an uncountable number of ways in which you have done what is wrong? We need grace! Haven’t you failed him already today? We need grace!
The wonderful news of grace is that Jesus never turns away anyone who comes with an awareness of their moral brokenness, repentance and simple faith. Isn’t it obvious that our only hope is grace?
3. What about the fact that I still sin? (4)
I think that many people can accept the fact that when they come to Christ their past is forgiven, but they worry about the sin that they have committed as a Christian. They worry about today’s sins and tomorrow’s sins. They need to realise that the grace that saves us also keeps us. This is implied in our fourth verse. 'But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope' (4).
Paul is acknowledging what we all know. We know that we are not yet what we ought to be. We are not yet what we will be when we go to be with Jesus. Tim Keller calls Christians, ‘saints who sin.’ The great reformer Martin Luther talked about being simultaneously justified yet sinful.
We are now legally righteous, but we often act unrighteously. We look forward to that time when we will be both legally and actively righteous. We look forward to when we see Christ face to face and are no longer troubled by the sinful nature. We look forward to that time when we are at home with Jesus and are no longer able to sin. In the meantime we go on depending on the grace of the God who keeps us even when we sin.
4. Does grace mean that it doesn’t matter how I live? (5-12)
‘But what about obedience—are you saying that it doesn’t matter what I do? After all, I can’t earn God’s acceptance, and God will no longer condemn we even when I sin.’ When you ask that question you show that you simultaneously understand and fail to understand grace. You get the fact that grace is free, but you don’t understand what it means to be free!
Paul has some strong words for the false-teachers. They say that you can be justified by obedience. They say, ‘God will accept you if you are good and obey the law.’ Their message leaves people dead in their sin. They talk about circumcision. I which they would go the whole way and castrate themselves (12).
But far from giving us an excuse to sin, grace gives us the true motivation to obey. We no longer obey God to earn his acceptance. Our obedience is no longer selfishly seeking to buy our way into heaven. Our obedience is not the reluctant and insecure cowering of the condemned before a severe judge. Our obedience is the Spirit-empowered delight of a beloved child. Our faith expresses itself through love (6b). Obedience is no longer what we resent doing. It becomes what we want to do.
5. How can I love as God calls me to love?
I want to finish where I began, by showing that we cannot exercise love unless we are experiencing grace.
The false-teachers were obsessed with the Law of Moses, but they failed to see that the law centred on love. You, my brothers, are called to be free. Do not use you freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather serve one another in love. The entire law is summed up in a single command: “Love your neighbour as yourself.” If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other (13-15).
Next week we will see that such love is the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work in our lives. What I want to point out now is that such love is fanned into flame when we see how secure we are in grace. As the Holy Spirit opens up your eyes to see how much the Father loves you, how much the Son has achieved for you, and how you are cherished and secure then change will come. The most obvious change will be love.
Grasping the grace that saves us will inevitably transform us. As one writer says, ‘God not only accepts you. He wants you to know that he accepts you. Because you will never see liberating breakthroughs to new levels of personal holiness except in the reassuring atmosphere of grace …’ (Ortland). Far from providing an excuse for sin, grace is God’s means of changing us!