So, what’s wrong with rules? Life couldn’t continue if we didn’t have rules to govern it. It’s good to teach your children to always say please and thank you. To knock before entering a room, to clean up after themselves. It’s important to know that blue and green should never be seen; that white wine is drunk with fish or white meat and red wine with red meat. That coffee will keep you awake, but milk will help you sleep. That when you get a cold taking vitamin C will help, if it doesn’t give you cancer in the process. There’s nothing wrong with knowing those sorts of rules is there?
But what about when the rules get more serious? What about when the rules begin to be promoted as the passport to life? That’s what was happening in the churches of Galatia. There was this small group of Jewish Christians, you see, who were trying to convince people that the Jewish rules were essential for salvation. "Unless you are circumcised according to the customs taught by Moses, you cannot be saved", was what they were teaching. For them rules weren’t just there to give guidance in living. They were there for absolute obedience. And so Paul spends a large part of this letter dealing with this question of rules. You’ll remember if you were here last week, that the way we understand this issue will affect how we think about ourselves, how we think about others and even how we think about God. So it’s a big issue. And so he goes on in today’s passage to deal at some length with this matter of legalism. He raises 5 main arguments to convince the Galatians that the key to a relationship with God is not rules, but faith.
1 Their Conversion (1-5)
The first thing he points to is their conversion. He says, "Think back to when you first heard the gospel. Were you first instructed about the rules that needed to be followed or were you simply told about what Jesus Christ had done for you? When you received the Spirit, was it the result of your obedience to a set of rules or simply because you believed the promise?" "You idiots!" He says, "How could you be so stupid as to be led astray by this new teaching."
You see when Paul first preached the gospel to them he told them of Jesus’ promise that they’d receive the Holy Spirit and when they accepted what he said that’s just what happened. The Holy Spirit was given to them as a gift, as the evidence of their conversion. So why would they now think of reverting to rules, if the gift of the Spirit is still theirs. Do they really think that God’s waiting for them to obey these rules before he’ll bless them some more? No, he blesses them because he promised to and they’ve believed the promise and the evidence of that is right before their eyes, in the miracles he works in their midst every day.
We talked a bit about this last week. The source of our ongoing life in Christ is the same as the source of our initial conversion. It comes from faith in Christ alone. It comes from the indwelling presence if the Holy Spirit in the believer’s life. Why would you want to introduce obedience to a set of external laws into that equation? As we’ll se in a moment that will only lead to frustration and in the end to a quenching of God’s Spirit.
2 The example of Abraham (6-9)
But what about the idea that Christianity is really the fulfillment of Judaism so those rules that separated the Jew from the rest of the world might still be relevant to the Christian? That was where these Judaizers were coming from, after all. Well, he says, think about where the identity of the Jewish people comes from. It doesn’t start with Moses and the law does it? No, it begins with Abraham. So where does Abraham fit into this whole argument?
How did Abraham achieve righteousness? Well, he says, it’s simple. Abraham "believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness." (v6) What was it that Abraham did that made him righteous in God’s eyes? Well, nothing. All he did was believe what God had told him and that belief was enough for God to credit him with righteousness, as a gift. God promised that he’d have more descendants than he could count, that he’d take him to a land that he was going to show him and that he’d be blessed, along with all the nations on earth. And what did Abraham have to do for all that to take place? Nothing. All he had to do was believe God. Well, he had to pack his camels and follow where God would lead him, but he didn’t have to achieve any of it by himself. Think about it. How was he going to have a son? What could he do about that part of the promise. He’d been trying for the best part of 60 years to have a son without success. He tried for another 25 years before God came to him again and told him he’d have a son. By then it was humanly impossible. Only God could bring about such a miracle.
What about the land that God took him to? Did he have to gather up an army and go in and drive out the inhabitants of Canaan? No! Joshua would do that 470 years later. All Abraham had to do was believe that God was faithful and would keep his promise. Abraham died without possessing any land apart from the cemetery plot where he’d buried Sarah, but he never doubted that God would keep his promise.
What about the promise to bless all peoples through him? Well, says Paul, that promise has been fulfilled as the Gentiles have come to believe the promises of God just as Abraham did. Those of us who have faith in Jesus Christ share in the blessings of the covenant God made with Abraham, because through our faith in God we become or are shown to be children of Abraham, the man of faith.
3 The inevitability of human failure (10-12)
But then Paul goes on talk about the futility of using the law as a means of gaining righteousness before God. He says: "For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who does not observe and obey all the things written in the book of the law." The reality of our situation is that we’re constitutionally unable to keep the law. As we said last week, no matter how determined we are to do the right thing, no matter how hard we work on our bad habits, on our responses to the people around us, on the things we allow to come into our minds, there’ll inevitably come a moment when our defences will be weak, when someone will say something that will trigger a reaction that’s less than godly. And where are we then? According to Deut 27:26, we’re cursed because we haven’t kept everything that’s written in the book of the law. It’s no good thinking of the law like you would an exam paper. When I was a student, I once got 54% in an exam for a subject I didn’t particularly enjoy. I remember thinking at the time that I’d obviously put in 4% too much effort on that particular subject. But that isn’t how God’s standards work is it? He expects 100%obedience, 100% of the time. So trying to gain righteousness by obeying the law is futile.
In fact Habakkuk understood this. He said that the one who is righteous will live by faith. If that’s the case then the law has nothing to do with it. Faith has nothing to do with keeping the law.
Now before we go any further there’s a little exercise I’d like you to do for a couple of minutes. I’d like you to read vs19-25 and ask yourself the question that Paul himself poses: "What then, was the purpose of the law?"
The law was given to look after us, like a nanny or a tutor. Its job was to keep us under control until a means of freeing us from our limitations could be found. But it was also meant to show us how much we need to be saved. v24 tells us that the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. One of the functions of the law you see is to show us that we need something beyond the law. The frustration we feel in trying to keep the law is part of its design. We’re meant to be frustrated so we’ll look beyond the law to faith in Jesus Christ
Mind you, that isn’t to say that when God gave Moses the law he was trying to trick us. Certainly if we could keep the whole law then we would live by it. But in fact only one person has ever achieved that. And that person was Jesus Christ.
4 The meaning of the Cross (13-14)
That brings us to the fourth argument for salvation by faith rather than works. What was it that Jesus did for us? Having lived a life of perfect obedience, he then gave himself up to death on a cross. And through that death on the cross he became a curse for us, thus saving us from the curse of the law.
Notice that the cross is central to this whole argument about salvation by faith. Jesus death on the cross achieves something that the law could never do. Through his death on the cross Jesus took on himself the curse that should have been on us, so that the blessing that Abraham was promised might come to all people, through faith in Jesus’ death on the cross.
This is central to the whole argument because if Christianity were just a religion of rules, of moral behaviour, of niceness, then the cross would become irrelevant. At most it would be relegated to the status of a great example of sacrifice. Or it might become the ultimate model of a life devoted to God and the service of others. Jesus gave up all in order to show us how to serve others. So it becomes just another religious symbol to encourage us to keep the rules. That I think is the danger in the way our Primate wants to dispense with the concept of Jesus death as substitutionary. But Paul is saying exactly that. Jesus takes on himself the curse so we can be delivered from the curse. The cross isn’t an incentive to law keeping. Rather it’s the solution to our lawbreaking. It doesn’t change how we feel about our sins, but how God feels about them. Jesus takes our place so that God can look at us and see the righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ alone.
That happens when we exercise faith in Jesus Christ. It happens when we receive the promise of his Holy Spirit who fills us with God’s presence, who gives us the righteousness that comes as a gift as we believe the promise.
5 The priority of the Promise (15-25)
And that leads us on to the fifth argument for the primacy of faith over law keeping. That is that when God promises something, his promise is going to be kept.
He says let me give you "an example from daily life: once a person’s will has been ratified, no one adds to it or annuls it." Once a contract has been signed there’s no going back on it. It has to be acted upon. And if that’s true of a human contract, it’s even more true of a divine covenant. If God promises something, you can be sure that he’ll do it. But that raises a question about the place of the law. You see the original promise to Abraham was given some 430 years before the law was given. So what effect did the law have on the original promise? Well, it can’t have had any effect on it can it? The promise came first. No, as we’ve already seen, the law was given for another reason altogether. The promise to Abraham continued to stand even after the law had been put in place to regulate how the people of Israel lived. That’s the nature of a promise isn’t it? A promise once given continues to hold true. Let me tell you a story.
Once upon a time in a land far away, there lived 2 childhood sweethearts. One was the daughter of a wealthy count and the other a humble shoemaker’s son.. But their love for each other was strong, so they swore a secret vow to each other that when they came of age they would marry; and as a token of their pledge they exchanged rings.
All through their childhood they rejoiced in the hope of that wedding day to come but as they grew older the young man began to have some doubts. Oh, his desire to marry the young woman was as strong as ever, but the older he got the more he became aware of the differences in their social standing.
"I can’t marry you just as I am, a mere cobbler’s son!" He told her.
"Of course you can!" she replied. "Your lack of noble blood makes no difference to me."
But the boy could not believe her. "No," he said. "Before we can be married I must do something to prove I’m worthy of you." So he left her weeping and set forth to seek his fortune in the wider world.
He thought at first he’d try the army, thinking that if he returned a decorated hero he’d be worthy of her love. But sadly he was no hero. He fled from the first battle he faced and was stripped of such minor rank as he’d achieved and was discharged from the army in disgrace.
Next he thought he might enter commerce and become a wealthy businessman, but alas he had no head for business either, and within six months the dot.coms he’d invested in were bankrupt as was he.
’Well,’ he thought to himself, ’there’s only one alternative left. I’ll enter the university and become a great scholar. Then I shall be worthy of her love.’ But sadly the boy was no better as a student than he had been as a soldier and a businessman. He failed his first year exams with the lowest grades on record and was expelled for academic incompetence.
In total despair he trudged his weary way home. Years had passed and he had achieved nothing but humiliation and failure. How could he face his beloved now. There was no hope that they could ever marry after all he’d been through. But as he entered the city the count’s daughter saw him from the palace window. She had heard of all his disappointments but her love for him was as strong as ever. Joyfully she sped down the stairs and out into the city square to meet him.
’It’s no good,’ he wailed as he saw her. ’You can’t want to marry me now. I’ll never be worthy of your love.’
’But I do want to marry you,’ she said. ’I’ve always wanted to marry you. Look at your hand.’
There on his finger, worn and so tight that he couldn’t remove it, was the ring that she’d given him when they’d made their childhood vows.
’I promised to marry you,’ she reminded him. ’Nothing you’ve done or failed to do can alter that. As far as I’m concerned a promise is a promise.’
It’s important to realise you see, that real love is not a tribute. It’s a promise. When 2 people marry they’re asked will you take this person to be your lawfully married husband/wife. And they answer ’I will’. That’s what love is: a voluntary personal commitment to somebody.
And that’s the sort of promise that God made to Abraham. If you look at vs 19-20 there’s a fairly difficult little section there that contrasts the promise made to Abraham with the law given to Moses. What he’s saying I think is this. The promise to Abraham and the law given to Moses are 2 totally different things. One is a covenant made by God alone, where God makes a series of promises directly to Abraham. The other is a bilateral agreement between God and his people, put into place by an intermediary. This latter agreement is conditional. If you keep the law you’ll receive the blessings that go with the law. If you don’t keep it you’ll be cursed. By contrast the first covenant had no conditions. God simply promised certain things to Abraham.
But the most important thing in all this is that the promise came first. It is primary. It’s the promise to Abraham that creates a relationship with God, not obedience to a law that comes 430 years later.
So it is with us. Our relationship with God comes about through his promise. It comes through Jesus’ death on the cross. It comes about as we believe that promise and put our faith in Jesus Christ.
Too often, you see, we behave like the shoemaker’s son. We know that God loves us, but we strive and strive to be worthy. We’re so overwhelmed by our failure that we can’t enjoy our relationship with God. We want to be Christians, but have to prove ourselves worthy of the name. So we go to church but only out of duty. We say our prayers but only out of habit. We live an upright life, but only for the sake of respectability. And all the time what we’re working on is really just our self-esteem.
And when we think about the last day when we’ll stand before God on his judgement throne, we’re not quite sure if we’ll measure up, if we’ll be found worthy. In fact we’re a bit worried that our hypocrisy and sinfulness might be shown up for what it is and that what we’ve achieved in this life will turn out to be very little at all.
If that’s how you feel then learn the lesson of Galatians. Don’t rely on rules, on performance. Rely on God’s promise. God has promised that when you stand before him your slate will be wiped clean, your clothes washed white in the blood of the lamb, your name entered in he book of life. On what basis? That you believed the promises of God. That you put your faith in Jesus Christ and his victory over sin and the curse of the law. If that’s the basis on which you stand you can have confidence both now and on the last day that God loves you and will take you to be with him forever. If that’s the basis on which you stand then it’ll make a difference right now as you enjoy the freedom in the relationship you now have with him.
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