I was telling somebody this week that this is an example of a passage that I never would have chosen to preach unless it was part of a series. When I began to look at it this week, I honestly wondered what I was going to say about it. Tim Keller says that he’s never heard this passage read at a wedding, and he’s never seen anybody cross-stitch their favorite verse from this passage. But as I’ve looked at it this week, I’ve realized that this passage has a very important message for us. I’m glad that we’re being challenged to wrestle through it.
So here’s the problem. Some people were arguing that in order to be accepted by God, you needed Jesus plus something else. In order to be accepted by God, you need to put your faith in Jesus Christ and what he has done for us. But you also need to [fill in the blank]. In this case, they said that you needed to be circumcised according to the Old Testament Jewish laws. In Acts we read a description of the issue:
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1)
But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.” (Acts 15:5)
Notice the common ground. At first glance this doesn’t look too serious. They absolutely believed that it was essential to respond in faith and repentance to Jesus Christ. They would agree with Paul and others that the gospel is of great importance. They would probably agree with a lot of the formulations of the gospel that we talk about. So it would be easy to look at this and to say that it’s not really a big deal. No need to create a fuss; there’s a lot of common ground.
On top of that, the church was growing. Churches were springing up all over the Roman empire. The last thing that you need when you’ve got momentum is to interrupt things with a great big theological debate.
But notice in this passage that this is a big deal to Paul. Paul says that the idea that you need Jesus plus something else in order to be accepted by God is actually a very serious issue that threatens the very freedom of the church. He uses very strong language here. For instance, look at verse 2:
I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. (Galatians 2:2)
Paul had been ministering for fourteen years at this point, and he says that what’s at stake threatens to invalidate everything that he’s worked for. It’s not like Paul thinks that he could have been wrong about the gospel. He already told us that he got the gospel directly from Jesus, so he’s not really worried that he’s got it wrong. But he knows that if the church splinters into groups, and if the Jerusalem apostles send out an edict saying that Paul’s gospel was untrue, then it would invalidate a lot of his ministry. It would do a great deal of damage to the church, not because the Jerusalem leaders disagreed with him, but because it was possible that they could have caved into the pressure and made the wrong call.
Paul also says that adding something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God is something that takes away our freedom, and actually robs us of the truth of the gospel. Read verses 4 and 5:
Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.(Galatians 2:4-5)
What’s at stake here is freedom and truth. You don’t get any more basic than that. Paul is saying that if you get this issue wrong, three things happen:
- A great deal of ministry to real people is going to be undone
- We are going to lose our freedom and become slaves
- We are going to exchange the truth for a lie
So this is kind of a big deal. There’s a lot at stake here. This is why this is such an important deal for us as well, even though most of us wouldn’t have recognized it as such before we started looking at this. If we add something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God, ministry is undone, we become slaves, and we lose the truth for a lie.
We're tempted to believe we need Jesus plus something else to be accepted by God. This damages ministry and makes us slaves who believe lies. We can’t go there.
This can sound very academic, but it’s not. Paul gives us two examples of how this plays out. The first and most obvious example is Titus. Read verses 1 to 3:
Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. (Galatians 2:1-3)
Paul shows a lot of wisdom here. It’s one thing to discuss abstract theological issues; it’s another thing to see how they apply to real people. Paul brings Titus so that everyone knows they’re talking about people. When you’re debating whether you need Jesus plus something else, that is not a debate that only matters to armchair theologians. We’re talking about something that’s going to affect Titus. In fact, it’s an issue that affects everyone here as well.
Titus was one of Paul’s coworkers. He played a major role in churches like Corinth. Paul later writes to him and calls him “my true child in a common faith” (Titus 1:4). Paul brings Titus with him as a case study, a test case. Titus has trusted in Christ. He’s resting in God’s work. Is Jesus enough, or does Titus need something else in order to be accepted by God? Is Jesus enough? Everything was riding on the answer.
And here’s what happened. They didn’t force Titus to be circumcised. They agreed with Paul that Jesus is enough. They agreed with Paul and endorsed his ministry. That’s the first case study here.
The other example is actually a little more subtle, but you see it if you look carefully at this passage. In Jerusalem you have Peter, the disciple of Jesus Christ who spent three years with the Lord. Jesus called him a rock and appointed him to feed his sheep. Peter preached a sermon in which three thousand people responded and were added to the church. Then you have James and John, key leaders in the church. They had spent all kinds of time with Jesus. On the other hand, you have Paul who’s met Jesus only once, who had almost no contact with the Jerusalem church, and who in fact had opposed the church.
Here’s the question: Is there any ranking before God? There’s no doubt that Peter, James, and John had prestige and status. But look at what Paul says in verse 6:
And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. (Galatians 2:6)
Paul is reminding us again that when we stand before God, nothing apart from Jesus matters. Our rank, our status, our reputation, and our accomplishments don’t do anything for us. The only thing that we have that impresses God is that we are in Christ. We can’t add anything to what Jesus has done, even if you are close personal friends with Jesus. With God there is no partiality. The gospel is the grounds of our acceptance with God; nothing else matters. Hear that again: The gospel is the grounds of our acceptance with God. Nothing else matters.
Paul was able to raise the issue with the leaders in Jerusalem, and the result was that they were unified around the gospel that they hold in common. And now Paul is writing this letter to make sure that the Galatians know that you don’t need anything other than Jesus to be accepted by God. It’s a message that is vitally important for us here today as well.
Why This is Important to Us
Would it surprise you if I told you that this is a very important message for us today as well? When I began this sermon, I admitted that this is probably nobody’s favorite passage. As I said, I doubt that anyone has ever cross-stitched, “But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised.” But this is a problem that we continue to face all the time. We’re continually tempted to believe that we need Jesus plus something else in order to be accepted by God.
I came across a really good book last year with a really great title: Good News for Anxious Christians: 10 Practical Things You Don't Have to Do. The author talks about the anxiety many of us feel:
Sometimes the Christian life can get to be like that: trying to live like Christians just seems to add one more layer of anxiety to our lives. We have our work, our families, our friends to worry about, and then on top of that we worry about getting our Christian lives right. And if being a good Christian is at the center of our lives, then this worry can settle into the depths of our hearts and turn everything we do into something to be anxious about.
I know what he’s talking about. I am continually hearing from people who feel like they’re doing the Christian life wrong. They have this ongoing sense that they’re a disappointment to God and that they’re not measuring up. They have this sense that you come to Jesus Christ and he gives them eternal life, and then says, “Go, make something of yourself now!” And ever since then God has been watching and shaking his head in disappointment. They may even have the idea that one day God will accept them in heaven, but only because he has to. He won’t be happy about it, because he’s pretty disappointed by what they’ve done with their lives ever since they became Christians.
Phillip Cary, the author of the book I just mentioned, tells us what the problem is. It’s not that we’re not trying hard enough. It’s not that we have to do better. The problem is theological. He says:
It’s about bad theology, the kind of theology that, when it’s preached and taught and made part of our lives, makes us worried and miserable. The good news is…it’s not in the Bible and you don’t have to believe it…What the gospel of Christ does is give us Christ, and that is enough. We can let everything else be what it is - hard work, worthwhile work, works of love, and heartaches that come with all of that. And we can let our feelings be what they are, whatever that may be. What matters is Jesus Christ, and the gospel tells us that all is well on that score: that we are our Beloved’s and he is ours.
You know our problem? Many of us are trying to add something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God. We do this all the time, and it kills us. It makes us anxious. It robs us of our freedom and turns us into slaves. Whenever we look to anything other than Jesus for our acceptance before God, we’ve lost our grip on the gospel and we’re believing a lie. This is not some obscure problem that Paul faced hundreds of years ago; this is the problem that we all face everyday.
I think I’ve told you before about Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, who pastored in London in the last century. People would often come to him with problems. He was very good at trying to get to the heart of their problems. Sometimes he would ask them, “How do you know that you’re a Christian?” Do you know what they would answer many times? “I’m trying!” That would set off alarm bells in his head. What they were saying is, “I think I’m a Christian because of Jesus plus my efforts.” They were trusting in something else other than the finished work of Jesus Christ for their salvation. They were making the very same mistake we read about in this passage.
John Gerstner said, “There is nothing that separates us from God more than our damnable good works.” When we put our faith in our good works, it separates us from God. The famous preacher George Whitefield said:
Before you can speak peace in your heart, you must not only be made sick of your original and actual sin, but you must be made sick of your righteousness, of all your duties and performances. There must be a deep conviction before you can be brought out of your self-righteousness; it is the last idol taken out of our heart. The pride of our heart will not let us submit to the righteousness of Jesus Christ. But if you never felt that you had no righteousness of your own, if you never felt the deficiency of your own righteousness, you cannot come to Jesus Christ. There are a great many now who may say, Well, we believe all this; but there is a great difference between talking and feeling. Did you ever feel the want of a dear Redeemer? Did you ever feel the want of Jesus Christ, upon the account of the deficiency of your own righteousness? And can you now say from your heart, Lord, thou mayst justly damn me for the best duties that ever I did perform? If you are not thus brought out of self, you may speak peace to yourselves, but yet there is no peace.
One story, and then one challenge for you this morning. It’s a goofy story, but it makes a very good point.
A man was standing at the gates of heaven waiting to be admitted. To the man’s utter shock, Peter said, “You have to earn a thousands points to be admitted to heaven. What have you done to earn your points?”
The man replied, “I’ve never heard that before: but I think I’ll do alright. I was raised in a Christian home and have always been a part of the church. I have Sunday school attendance pins that go down the floor. I went to a Christian college and graduate school and have probably led hundreds of people to Christ. I’m now an elder in my church and am quite supportive of what the people of God do. I have three children, two boys and a girl. My oldest boy is a pastor and the younger is a staff person with a ministry to the poor. My daughter and her husband are missionaries. I have always tithed and am now giving well over 30% of my income to God’s work. I’m a bank executive and work with the poor in our city trying to get low income mortgages.”
“How am I doing so far?” he asked Peter.
“That’s one point,” Peter said. “What else have you done?”
“Good Lord…have mercy!” the man said in frustration.
“That’s it!” Peter said. “Welcome home.”
Do you get it? We will never be able to achieve God’s approval by trusting anything else but what Jesus Christ has done for us. All that’s needed is Jesus, and that is enough. At the cross Jesus did everything that was needed in order for us to be made right with God. Jesus is enough. Depending on Jesus plus something else is a lie that kills and that robs us from the truth of the gospel.
Two questions for you today.
When you look at others, how do you see them? The problem is that some in the church were looking at Gentiles who believed in Jesus but hadn’t been circumcised, and saw them as deficient. It’s the same problem that we face today when we look at someone who’s trusted in Jesus Christ but looks or acts differently than us. We have a tendency to judge them based on external factors, when in reality Jesus is enough. There’s no favoritism with God. Do you get that? The newest Christian with tattoos and nicotine stains and all the wrong stuff stands beside the most mature believer who’s a pillar of the church. Before God there’s no difference. The grounds of their acceptance is Christ. Depending on anything else is deadly.
One other question: Are you sick of your damnable good deeds? Have you gotten rid of the last idol to be taken out of the heart, which is the idol of self-righteousness? Have you realized that God does not accept you based on how well you’re doing, but that he accepts you purely on the basis of what Christ has done?
Jesus plus nothing equals everything. Jesus plus anything else is slavery, and it will kill you.