What Matters Most (Galatians 6:11-18)

Every Tuesday night I teach a class. Last Tuesday was the first class of the term. I began to emphasize how important the subject of my class is, and why it’s really important. One of the students raised his hand and very tactfully reminded me that every teacher says that their subject is the most important. How, he asked, is he supposed to reconcile all the claims about what matters most?

By my calculations, I’ve preached five or six hundred sermons here, and now this is my last. I’m sure that over the years I’ve said that this is most important or that is most important. But by God’s grace my last sermon as your pastor actually does end on what is most important. I’m not just saying that as pastors do. Pastors lie all the time when they say, “This is the most important point.” They don’t mean to, but they’re lying. That’s not what I’m doing today. This actually is the most important thing. It is the thing that is most important for me to leave behind as I conclude my ministry here.

Notice how important it is. We’ve been studying the book of Galatians together since September. Up until now, Paul has dictated the letter through a scribe. But now look at what he says: “See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand” (Galatians 6:11). Paul now takes the pen in his own hand and pens the conclusion to this letter.

Now let’s pause here. Paul often concludes his letter by signing his own name. It’s like a signature. That way the recipients know that the letter really is from him. But this time Paul doesn’t just sign his name. He writes a conclusion and summary of the entire book. Notice that he does so in large letters. Why the large letters? Some people guess that it’s because of Paul’s bad eyesight. That’s possible. But it’s also possible that Paul is taking the pen in hand at the end of this letter and underlining and highlighting his central message. It’s the only time in any of his letters that he provides a concluding summary of his book in this way.

Let me tell you why this is important. One reason is that Paul thinks it’s important, and that’s a pretty good reason. But let me tell you also that it’s important because what he is going to say will make or break this church. What he says in this conclusion will make or break your life, actually. This is vitally important. There is really nothing that is more important than this.

So without further introduction, let’s get to what he says. What he says is this: What’s most important is that you avoid false gospels, and instead boast in the cross. What is most important for you individually, and you as a church, is two things: that you avoid the false gospel of self-salvation, and that you instead boast only and exclusively in the cross.

First: Avoid the false gospel of self-salvation.

The first thing that Paul says as he picks up his pen is that he warns us. He warns us against a tendency that we all have. He warns us of a danger that can and will seep into our churches. The danger is this: that we will want to contribute something to our salvation. The danger is that we will try to add to the gospel, and by doing so will actually subtract from the gospel and end up destroying our souls. It’s not that we try to blatantly replace the gospel. We simply add to it. And adding to it destroys it.

A.W. Pink once said, “The greatest mistake made by people is hoping to discover in themselves that which is to be found in Christ alone.” Or as Tullian Tchividjian says, "The most dangerous thing that can happen to you is that you become proud of your obedience." Think about that. Our greatest danger, our greatest mistake, is that we look to ourselves and our obedience rather than to Jesus Christ.

How does Paul say this? Look at verses 12-14:

It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh.

Paul says that there is a counterfeit gospel that will seep into our lives and into our churches. It is one of the greatest dangers we face. The counterfeit gospel is that we think we have to contribute to our own salvation, to our own acceptance with God, through our own efforts. All through Galatians, Paul has been warning against this danger. It’s a clear and present danger, and one that seems to be built right into our hearts.

Have you ever driven a car that’s out of alignment? The whole time you’re driving, the car wants to veer over here. You spend all of your time trying to keep the car on the road. The danger that Paul is talking about is the same. Our hearts are out of alignment and continually want to veer off toward self-salvation. It takes a lot of focus to resist this drift and to keep our eyes on the road.

The danger is that we will try to “make a good showing in the flesh,” Paul says. The danger is doing something external that contributes to our salvation. It’s doing something that, we think, adds to what Jesus has done in order to earn acceptance with God. In Galatians it’s circumcision and keeping the Old Testament law, but we have our own versions as well. John Ortberg writes:

The church I grew up in had its boundary markers. A prideful or resentful pastor could have kept his job, but if ever the pastor was caught smoking a cigarette, he would've been fired. Not because anyone in the church actually thought smoking a worse sin than pride or resentment, but because smoking defined who was in our subculture and who wasn't was a boundary marker.

As I was growing up, having a "quiet time" became a boundary marker, a measure of spiritual growth. If someone had asked me about my spiritual life, I would immediately think, Have I been having regular and lengthy quiet time? My initial thought was not, Am I growing more loving toward God and toward people?

Boundary markers change from culture to culture, but the dynamic remains the same. If people do not experience authentic transformation, then their faith will deteriorate into a search for the boundary markers that masquerade as evidence of a changed life.

This is the danger: that we will pick some external behavior as our contribution to our salvation. And slowly, without even realizing it, we begin to trust in our own righteousness rather than in the finished work of Christ at the cross.

What’s the problem with this? There are two problems. First, Paul says that the motivation is all wrong. The other day, Charlene and I were dividing duties. One of us had to drive one of our kids somewhere and one of us had to help the other one with homework. I didn’t really want to go for a drive, but when the options were laid out that clearly — drive or homework — I started looking for my keys. Paul sees the options here as gospel on one hand — trusting Jesus Christ alone for salvation — or some external self-salvation project, and he instantly recognizes that many of us will do anything we can to avoid trusting in Jesus Christ alone. With the Galatians, there was pressure to get Gentiles to measure up to the Jewish law to please Jewish Christians who wouldn’t understand. But there is something within all of us that balks at trusting in Jesus Christ alone. Our motivation is wrong. Our motivation is to avoid the harsh truth that there is nothing we can contribute in order to be accepted by God.

There’s a second problem. Paul says that those who are pushing for works-righteousness can’t themselves keep the standard they’re arguing for. “For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law…” We hear about this over and over again. A politician who battles corruption passes new laws, and within a few years is convicted of the very laws that he enacted. A pastor rails against a certain sin, and it eventually comes out that he’s secretly been practicing that sin for years. The irony is that the very people who argue for self-salvation are the very same people who don’t measure up to their own standards, because none of us do. The churches that have the strictest standards that you need to follow in order to measure up are also the churches that are filled with the biggest hypocrites, because none of us can keep the standards that we set in order to save ourselves.

Please hear me. The greatest danger this church faces is that it will veer off, without knowing it, to a false gospel. Will Willimon said, “Unable to preach Christ and him crucified, we preach humanity and it improved.” We’re always tempted to substitute a message of self-improvement and self-salvation for the gospel. But this is a false gospel. As Tullian Tchividjian puts it, the only thing that you contribute to your salvation is the sin that made it necessary. That’s it. We have nothing but need.

At the end of his letter, Paul picks up his pen to emphasize the importance of avoiding the false gospel of self-salvation. Avoid trying to earn God’s approval through your own righteousness.

What does Paul say we should do instead?

Boast exclusively in the cross.

Not only should we avoid the false gospel of self-salvation, but we should also boast exclusively in the cross. This is what's most important. Paul writes:

But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. (Galatians 6:14-15)

Last Sunday I woke up with an incredible sense of urgency. I began thinking of all the sermons I’ve preached here. I can relate to what a preacher said in the novel Gilead:

I think every day about going through those old sermons of mine to see if there are one or two I might want you to read sometime, but there are so many, and I'm afraid, first of all, that most of them might seem foolish or dull to me.

There is not a word in any of those sermons I didn't mean when I wrote it. If I had the time, I could read my way through fifty years of my innermost life. What a terrible thought.

I had a dream once that I was preaching to Jesus Himself, saying any foolish thing I could think of, and He was sitting there in His white, white robe looking patient and sad and amazed. That's what it felt like.

Well, perhaps I can get a box of them down here somehow and do a little sorting. It would put my mind at ease to feel I was leaving a better impression. So often I have known, right here in the pulpit, even as I read these words, how far they fell short of any hopes I had for them. And they were the major work of my life, from a certain point of view. I have to wonder how I have lived with that.

At the end of more than thirteen years, I think back over all the things I’ve said to you, and all the things that I wish I had said. I wish I could go back and make one thing clear so that it is the great theme of my preaching from beginning to end: that our only confidence, our only boast, our only hope is the saving work of Jesus Christ at the cross. Spurgeon said, “The best sermon is that which is fullest of Christ.” He said, “Preach Christ, always and everywhere. He is the whole gospel. His person, offices, and work must be our one great, all-comprehending theme.”

To understand this passage, we need to understand three things.

First, we all boast in something. We all boast in something: in some accomplishment, some characteristic, some relationship. We all boast in something. We’ve all been reading about Kim Jong-il recently. Jong-il, North Korea's "Dear Leader," was presented as larger than life by the media of the Stalinist state.

Reportedly, Kim took daily intensive memory training that involved memorizing huge amounts of information. Kim was quoted as saying, "I remember all computer codes and telephones that workers are using now."

At a meeting in 2002, North Korean officials said they were impressed when Kim recalled all of their phone numbers with "lightning speed."

Kim's memory was not the only amazing attribute he claimed. He wrote operas, piloted jet fighters, and produced movies. While those skills are believable, North Korean propaganda stretched credulity when it stated Kim's golfing prowess. The story goes that the first time he ever played a round of golf, North Korea's leader shot 11 holes-in-one.

We laugh at all of that. We shouldn’t. Kim Jong-il’s boasts are an extreme version of what we all do. We look to some accomplishment, some talent, to validate our importance, to say that we measure up. The boasts are ridiculous, but we all do it.

Boasting is more than bragging. It is, according to John Stott, “to boast in, glory in, trust in, rejoice in, revel in, love for” something. “The object of our boast or ‘glory’ fills our horizons, engrosses our attention, and absorbs our time and energy. In a word, our ‘glory’ is our obsession.”

Everybody boasts in something. It could be your popularity, intellect, appearance, influence, income, or job performance. It could be your religious accomplishments. We all boast in something. We all boast in something.

But we also need to understand something else. Our boasting, our obsession, our identity, should ultimately come from one place only: the cross of Jesus Christ. Paul says, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is strange. Today we think of the cross as something noble and beautiful. In Paul’s day, it was the ugliest thing possible. You couldn’t mention the cross in polite society. The Romans considered the cross to be “degrading, disgusting, despicable, detestable, and disgraceful” (Phil Ryken).

But Paul says that this is his boast. Paul looked at the cross and saw that God loved us enough to send his Son to die for us. He looked to the cross and saw his salvation. Christ has paid the full price for our salvation. We’ve been forgiven and justified. God’s wrath has been turned away, and we now stand innocent before God.

Don’t boast in anything else. Boast only in the cross. But there’s a problem. You can’t boast in the cross and yourself at the same time. If you glory in the cross, you have to stop trusting in your own merits and trust in Christ alone. "Only if we have humbled ourselves as hell-deserving sinners shall we give up boasting of ourselves, fly to the cross for salvation and spend the rest of our days glorying in the cross.” (John Stott)

So understand that we all boast. Then understand that it only makes sense to boast in one thing: the cross. And then understand what it does to us. When we boast in the cross, it changes everything. Paul says that the world has been crucified to him. The cross completely changes what we value and care about. Tim Keller puts it this way:

The gospel changes what I fundamentally boast in – it changes the whole basis for my identity. Therefore, nothing in the whole world has any power over me – I am free at last to enjoy the world, for I do not need the world. I feel neither inferior to anyone nor superior to anyone, and I am being made all over into someone and something entirely new.

The gospel completely changes what we boast in. It completely changes our identity and values. When the cross grips us, we begin to see it as the only thing that truly matters.

Friends, Paul wants us to get this. At the end of his letter he takes a pen in his hand. He wants us to get what matters most. And this is what he says: don’t you ever think it’s up to you to measure up. Put all of your confidence, all of your boasting, in what Jesus has done for you. If you’re going to brag about anything, brag about Jesus and his saving work.

So that’s it. Paul concludes his book with a few simple words:

For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God.

From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. (Galatians 6:15-18)

Here’s what he’s saying. This is all that matters. From now on, he says, let’s not have any more confusion about the gospel. Let nobody bother me with false versions of the gospel, he says. But he’s glad to be part of the people of God who get the gospel, and he prays that the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ would be with the Galatians as they avoid false gospels and boast in the cross.

I imagine Paul looking at the scroll. Having pointed to Jesus, his job is done. He puts the pen down and gives the nod to his scribe for the letter to be delivered.

Having brought your attention to our great Savior, I can say that I’ve done what I’ve been commissioned to do. My only desire is that you would see Jesus. My only desire is that you would glory in the cross; that Christ would be your greatest joy and your deepest glory. And, having done this, my job is done. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

The Gospel and Relationships (Galatians 5:26-6:10)

One of the most influential people in church history is someone you probably don’t know. His name as Simeon the Stylite. He was the first of the Desert Fathers. Around 423 A.D. he constructed a short pillar on the edge of the desert. He climbed on top of that pillar and lived on it for the next six years. He had many visitors come and visit him. Probably some of them came because they thought that he was out of his mind living on top of a pillar like that. The hermit explained that he was simply a Christian who wanted to commune with God in solitude, free from worldly distractions. Living on top of the pillar was his way of trying to do this.

We’re coming to the end of Galatians, and one of the issues we have to deal with is what it looks like to be transformed by the gospel. The reason I bring up Simeon is because we need a picture of what it looks like to be transformed by the gospel. No disrespect to Simeon, but I think Paul offers us a better picture.

Paul has been making hammering us with the gospel. Let me give you his message so far in two nutshells:

First, Jesus plus nothing equals acceptance with God. That’s it. Never add anything to Jesus, because you can’t add to Jesus without subtracting from him. Jesus plus nothing equals acceptance with God. That is the gospel.

Second, when you get the gospel, you’ll be free. But freedom isn’t living however you would like. Freedom is living in the power of the Holy Spirit to love and serve God and others.

That’s everything that he’s covered up to this point. But we still need to figure out what it looks like. What does it look like when you really get that it’s Jesus plus nothing, and when we use our freedom to love and serve others? That’s what Paul is going to show us today.

Let me give you one sentence that captures what Paul is going to tell us: The gospel frees us to love others. Did you get that? We need a picture of someone who has been transformed by the gospel and who understands the message of Galatians. Paul gives us one, and it’s not somebody living on top of a pillar for six years. It’s not a lot of things. It’s this: it’s a picture of being freed by the gospel to love others. Specifically, Paul gives us two broad categories of what this looks like. First, he says, the gospel frees us to love others spiritually. Second, he says, the gospel frees us to love others financially.

First, the gospel frees us to love others spiritually.

Read Galatians 5:29-6:5 with me:

Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another.

Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself. But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. For each will have to bear his own load.

Notice what Paul assumes here.

First, he assumes the Christian life is going to be lived in relationship with others. I love some church services. I love feeling like I’ve entered heaven’s throne room and communed with God. And then some Sundays I get out into the foyer, and within minutes of having been in the heights of communion with God, I’m dealign with someone who cuts me off in the lineup for coffee. Paul is saying that the Christian life isn’t about living alone on the top of a pillar on the edge of the desert with just God and me. The Christian life is lived in community.

Second, he assumes that this is going to be challenging. Notice what he says: don’t be conceited. Don’t provoke. Don’t envy. Why does he say these things? Because those are the things we’re all tempted to do when we’re relationship with others. If the Christian life is going to be lived in relationship, these are the issues we’re going to face. We’re going to be tempted to think we’re better than others. We’re going to be tempted to set them off. We’re going to be tempted to envy what they have. These are the dangers we face in relationships.

Third, the people we’re in relationship with are going to have problems. And when they do, we can’t say, “Their problems aren’t my problems.” That’s why Paul says, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). Here’s what Paul is saying: my sin is not just my business. Your sin is not just your business. Instead of being arrogant or irritating or envious of others, we are to look out for each other. And when we become aware of someone else’s sin, we should speak privately and gently to them in order to restore their fellowship with Christ.

Fourth, do so from a position of humility. Paul stresses here the importance of keeping your own affairs in order before God, watching the condition of your own soul. Why? You are not in isolation. You are not better than anyone else. You too may fall, and when you do you will drag others with you. Paul says, “For each one will have to bear his own load.” There’s a paradox here. Paul says that when it comes to others, their problems are your problems and you should offer help. But when it comes to yourself, you must take responsibility for your own actions.

What does the gospel look like when it’s fleshed out? It looks like this: loving others spiritually, making their problems our problems, all the while keeping watch over our own lives so that we don’t negatively influence others.

For fifteen months journalist Sebastian Junger followed a single platoon of U.S. soldiers stationed in a dangerous part of Afghanistan. Living and working in the midst of a war zone made Junger realize how much the soldiers had to rely on each other. What you do or don't do as a soldier affects everyone else in your platoon. Junger writes:

Margins were so small and errors potentially so catastrophic that every soldier had a kind of de facto authority to reprimand others—in some cases even officers. And because combat can hinge on [small] details, there was nothing in a soldier's daily routine that fell outside the group's purview. Whether you tied your shoes or cleaned your weapon or drank enough water or secured your night vision gear were all matters of public concern and so were open to public scrutiny.

Once I watched a private accost another private whose bootlaces were trailing on the ground. Not that he cared what it looked like, but if something happened out there—and out there, everything happened suddenly—the guy with the loose laces couldn't be counted on to keep his feet at a crucial moment. It was the other man's life he was risking, not just his own …. There was no such thing as personal safety out there; what happened to you happened to everyone.

Do you want to know what gospel-transformed living looks like? It looks like loving others spiritually.

Second, the gospel frees us love others financially.

Here’s where it gets even more convicting. Verses 6 to 10 say:

Let the one who is taught the word share all good things with the one who teaches. Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.

I told you that it gets even more convicting. The main idea of these verses is captured in verse 10: do good to all people, particularly to other believers. This sounds good until you realize that the good he’s talking about is to support others financially, caring for their practical needs in everyday life. Paul says in verse 6 that we’re to do this with our teachers, those who preach the gospel, so that they can be set free from having to raise money and instead can invest their time and energy in ministry. But he also applies this in general to others, especially believers in verse 10. We’re to do this as we’re able. God doesn’t expect more from us than what we have; but whatever we have, we are to use in service for others.

As one person puts it:

Christians, therefore, are particularly bound to do good to one another. Every poor and distressed man has a claim on me for pity, and, if I can afford it, for active exertion and pecuniary [financial] relief. But a poor Christian has a far stronger claim on my feelings, my labors, and my property. He is my brother, equally interested with myself in the blood and love of the Redeemer. I expect to spend an eternity with him in heaven. He is the representative of my unseen Savior, and He considers everything done to this poor afflicted brother as done to himself. For a Christian to be unkind to another Christian is not only wrong, it is monstrous. (John Brown)

I know what you’re thinking, because I’m thinking it too. How is this possible? This is so radical and demanding. How am I ever going to have enough for my own needs? My bank account is always going to be empty because I’m giving sacrificially to others? Paul says three things.

In verse 7 he says, in essence, this is where the rubber hits the road. God isn’t fooled by spiritual pretenses. This is really where the gospel has to free our hearts. God knows the motivations of our heart when it comes to money.

Second, he says that this is an issue of sowing and reaping. There are two ways of living. One is to sow to the flesh. This is about living in a way that’s selfish and stingy, and the result is that we reap corruption. The other way is to live according to the Spirit, freely loving and serving others, and if we do this we’ll reap generosity and spiritual life. Which do you want in your life? Whatever you sow, that’s what you’re also going to reap.

Third, he says that we will be rewarded. “In due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” One day we’ll receive God’s well-done for how we’ve used our resources to help others.

One man (Gerald May) wrote:

I sat briefly with an old dollar bill in my hand, feeling its softness, wondering where it had been. What other hands had grasped it or given it? What human toil had earned it, spent it, earned it again? What small human needs had it fulfilled in its time? Was it once stolen, lost, found? Had anyone ever noticed it?

For a moment, money seemed almost like breath, like the air that circulates among us all, continuously given and received, linking us in a deep, spiritual intimacy with God and one another. We are all familiar with how money can be an idol; how it so easily becomes a substitute for God, encouraging our attachment by promising security, happiness, and power. ... But could money really be an icon ... a vehicle for seeing and being seen by God?

The gospel, Paul says, frees us to help others financially.

You may have been wondering, as I was, where Paul was going with all of this talk about the gospel. What does it look like when the gospel gets hold of your heart and really changes you? What does it look like when you get the fact that Jesus plus nothing equals acceptance with God? What does it look like when you understand that freedom is not living however you’d like, but that it’s living in the power of the Spirit to serve and love? Paul tells us here. The gospel frees us to love others. It frees us to love others spiritually by restoring them. It frees us to love others financially by living generously.

You can’t fake this. The law is powerless to bring about what Paul is talking about here. Only the Spirit can take our hearts and change us from the inside out so that we’ll want to live this way. It’s only when we see the gospel and are joined with Christ that any of this is even possible.

Notice where it all begins in verse 1. It’s a single word: brothers. I would do stuff for my brothers that I wouldn’t do for anyone else. Well, that’s what the gospel has made us: brothers and sisters. There’s a whole theology in this one word. Josh Moody writes:

We are united in our fallenness, covered with dots and marks, but also now united in our reception of grace. Until we realize just how bad, scarred, broken, and in need of restoration we all are, and just how much grace we have received…

The Christian community, rightly and truly understood and experienced, is an outpost of heaven on earth, where we are all brethren with a common Father, all restored by a common Savior, and all seeking to restore each other. May we be increasingly a part of, and foster, a grace-filled community.

A New Year’s Plan: Consider and Act (Psalm 90)

A man went in for his annual checkup and received a phone call from his physician a couple of days later. The doctor said, "I'm afraid I have some bad news for you." "What's the news?" the man asked. "Well, you have only 48 hours to live." "That is bad news!" said the shocked patient. "I'm afraid I have even worse news," the doctor continued. "What could be worse than what you've already told me?" the patient stammered. "I've been trying to call you since yesterday."

That’s not a message that any of us want to hear, especially at the start of a new year. The first day of a new year is a day of optimism. But we all do ourselves a service if we remember that our time here is limited. All of us have a limited number of New Year’s Days. They may seem endless, but they’re not. One of the wisest things we can do at the beginning of the year is to live in light of this perspective.

If you go on Google Earth, you can see a picture of the whole earth spinning in space, as if you were looking at earth from a spaceship. Then, slowly, it finds your location, and it feels like you’re flying through space towards where you are. First you see your country, then your province, then your city, and then your street. Sometimes when you move to a new location, it’s still stuck in your old one, so you can press a button at the bottom that says “Find Me.” It will send you back in the air, shift you to your new location, and then zoom back in so you can see where you are.

What I want to do is to press the “Find Me” button in our lives today. To do this we’re going to use Psalm 90. The first day of a new year is a perfect time to think about where we are right now, and to chart a course for moving forward.

Psalm 90 is going to ask us to consider two things, and then to take two actions. That’s it. So let’s get going.

First: Consider two things.

This psalm has 17 verses. 11 of the 17 are spent getting us to consider two realities. In order to take the action prescribed in verses 12 to 17, we need to take in the realities this psalm presents us in verses 1 to 11. Before we can navigate to where we want to go, we need to understand where we are right now.

Notice that this psalm was written by Moses. It was written in the wilderness during the 40 years that Israel was wandering in the dessert. Some two or three million people left Egypt; a whole generation of people had to die as they made that 40-year trek. There would have been constant funerals. As Spurgeon said, you could track the progress of the nation by the graves they left behind. In the middle of this, Moses reflects on two realities that were true then, and they’re just as true today. It’s ironic that to find our location today, we need to turn to something written thousands of years ago. But there’s no better place to turn.

Psalm 90 wants us to find our current location by understanding two things.

First: God is eternal. Verses 1 and 2 say:

Lord, you have been our dwelling place
in all generations.
Before the mountains were brought forth,
or ever you had formed the earth and the world,
from everlasting to everlasting you are God.

Think about this. Moses zooms out to consider time. A couple of years ago, the Art Gallery had an exhibit on King Tut and Egypt. I remember walking through the exhibit, marveling at the age of what I was seeing. Some of the exhibits are over 4,000 years old. I couldn’t help but think about Moses as he grew up in Egypt.

We think Moses is old, but back then Moses zooms out and says helps us see time from another perspective. Before Egypt, before there were any mountains, before there was even an earth, God was God. God has no beginning. He was God before the mountains were brought forth. He is God from everlasting to everlasting, with no beginning and no end. God exists from eternity and to eternity.

Not only that, but enormous periods of time are insignificant to God. Read verse 4:

For a thousand years in your sight
are but as yesterday when it is past,
or as a watch in the night.

This is amazing. A thousand years ago, the Normans hadn’t invaded England. Vikings were establishing small settlements in North America. A Chinese artisan invented ceramic movable type printing. It was still the middle ages. It was a vastly different time from now. Moses reminds us that a thousand years ago to God is like yesterday to us. In light of God’s eternality, a thousand years is like a day to him.

Moses wants us to grasp the eternality of God. Consider this as we begin 2012. The past year has gone fast for a lot of us. Nobody here knows what the next year is going to bring. But God stands outside of time, and a thousand years is insignificant to him. For people living in tents in Moses’ day, or for people living in homes today, God can be our dwelling place in all generations, because God never changes.

Second: Your life is short and difficult. Moses next invites us to consider our lives. In contrast to God, who is eternal, Moses says two things about our lives. First, he says that our lives are short. Verses 5 and 6 say:

You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream,
like grass that is renewed in the morning:
in the morning it flourishes and is renewed;
in the evening it fades and withers.

A human life - even the longest of human lives - is insignificantly brief. It’s like a watch in the night, a flood, a dream, or some grass that sprouts in the morning and dies at night. When I lived in North Bay one summer, they had these things called shadflies that would come out. They were everywhere. You couldn’t drive your car without turning your windshield wipers on. But these shadflies live for only one day. In parts of the world, they’re called one-day flies. The psalmist says that this is a picture of our lives. Our lives are brief. God is eternal, but we’re only here for a fleeting moment, and then we’re gone.

Not only that, but Moses says that our lives are hard as well. Read verses 7 to 11. The point that Moses makes is that our lives are hard, and they’re hard for a reason. Why? Because of God’s anger. Remember why so many were dying in the wilderness. They had rebelled against God after the spies had returned from Canaan, saying that they could not enter. God said, “I, the LORD, have spoken, surely this I will do to all this evil congregation who are gathered together against Me. In this wilderness they shall be destroyed, and there they will die” (Numbers 14:35). They were living and dying in tents in the wilderness as the consequence of sin. We’re not living in tents and dying in the wilderness, but life is still unbearably hard. We are still dealing with the results of human sin, and the mess it has made in this world. We are still dealing with God’s righteous anger against human rebellion, high treason against his reign.

So consider this today. This goes against how most of us think most of the time, which is exactly why we need to hear it. Consider these two things, and you’ll be much better for it. Consider that God is eternal, and that your life is short and hard.

Secondly, take two actions.

Nobody really wants to be told that God is eternal and that your life is short and hard, unless it’s for a reason. And in Psalm 90 it is for a reason. This psalm is meant to get us to take action. Specifically, two actions.

First: Number your days. Verses 10-12 say:

The years of our life are seventy,
or even by reason of strength eighty;
yet their span is but toil and trouble;
they are soon gone, and we fly away.
Who considers the power of your anger,
and your wrath according to the fear of you?
So teach us to number our days
that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Andy Stanley tells the story of a man who bought 1,300 marbles on his 50th birthday. He figured that, if he lives to be 75, he would have about a 1,300 Saturdays left. So every Saturday he goes and takes a marble out of that jar and throws it out. It’s a reminder to him that time is fleeting, and that he only has a short time left.

I don’t know what you need to do, but how will you remind yourself to number your limited days? To remember that your life is short? Steve Jobs once said:

Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything—all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure—these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important.

Second: Seek God’s mercy. Read verses 13 to 17:

Return, O LORD! How long?
Have pity on your servants!
Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love,
that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.
Make us glad for as many days as you have afflicted us,
and for as many years as we have seen evil.
Let your work be shown to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and establish the work of our hands upon us;
yes, establish the work of our hands!

In light of the brevity and difficulty of life, Moses asks for three things:

First, pray that God would relent in his anger. Look at verse 13. This is really a prayer for the gospel. This is a prayer that God’s anger would not be the final word, that God would not pay us as we deserve. It’s a prayer that God would show us grace. It’s a prayer that has been answered in Jesus Christ, who bore the punishment for our sins and has given us grace upon grace. If you haven’t put your trust in him and his gospel yet, then do so today. Thank God that he has already answered this prayer in Jesus Christ.

Second, pray that we would be satisfied by God. This is one of the best prayers you could ever pray. Our hearts were meant to find their ultimate delight in God. I love how John Piper puts it: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him. Or, as C.S. Lewis put it, “God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing." You’ve just come through Christmas. Christmas has all this build-up. It promises that we will find happiness in gifts and family and food. And every year we’re a tiny bit disappointed as we come out of Christmas, because as good as these things are, they’re not enough to really satisfy us. So pray this year that you will find your heart’s deepest hungers met in God, because he is the only one who can truly satisfy.

Finally, pray that God’s favor would rest upon your life. Pray that God would show you his favor in the coming year. Ask for God’s blessing on your life, that God would establish the work of your hands. Without his help, you can do nothing.

There is no better way to begin 2012 than by considering two things: that God is eternal, and that our lives are short and hard. And then there’s no better way to respond than by numbering your days and praying for God’s mercy on your life. God’s eternal, and you’re not. So make the most of your limited time, and seek God’s mercy.

The With-Us God (Matthew 1:18-25)

Most Christmases, when it’s time to read the Christmas story, I end up reading the story from Luke. It’s familiar to us, and it has a real beauty to it. I’m not used to reading Matthew’s version, but it’s really too bad. Matthew is written from Joseph’s perspective. It’s short and it’s full of meaning.

Today what I want to do is to look at the Christmas story. Here’s what I want us to see from this passage: Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins.

First: Jesus is unexpected.

Can you see the surprise in this passage? Back then, you wouldn’t date and get engaged and get married like we do today. Your parents would find a spouse for you. How would you like that? And then you would enter into a binding agreement before witnesses that you would marry this person. This would be called betrothal, and once you were betrothed you were in between. You weren’t married yet, but the only way you could end the betrothal would be through divorce. And then a year later you would actually get married.

In this passage we read that Joseph was betrothed to Mary. His parents had arranged the marriage. They had already committed to get married, probably a year down the road. And now all of a sudden before they’re married, Joseph discovers that Mary is four months pregnant. He’s surprised, to say the least. He has a choice. He can marry her as planned and ignore the fact that she’s pregnant and that he’s not the father. He can make this a public matter, and Mary will be disgraced and maybe even stoned to death. Or he can deal with the matter quietly and divorce her. He chooses to do the last when an angel appears to him and stops him in his tracks.

Do you see here: Jesus is unexpected. Jesus is not the result of any human initiative. Nobody thought Jesus up. God took the initiative completely to bring about the birth of Jesus Christ to save his people from their sins.

Jesus has been surprising people ever since. He was unexpected, and he continues to show up unexpectedly in people’s lives even today. I love when Jesus shows up unexpectedly, as he has in many of our lives. We weren’t looking for him. He hadn’t even crossed our minds. But then, through the strangest of circumstances, God takes the initiative and shows up in the middle of our lives. It may be that Jesus is unexpectedly showing up in your life even this morning.

So Jesus is unexpected.

Second: Jesus is miraculous.

Read verse 20 with me:

But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:20)

This is incredible. This would have been a surprise to anyone back then, just like it is to us today. God the Holy Spirit came upon Mary, not as the biological father, but as the all-powerful God who was able to do the miraculous. Jesus is not like the rest of us who were born in the normal way. Jesus was born miraculously. Jesus is not just unexpected; he is also miraculous.

In his work The Person of Christ, Donald Macleod writes:

The virgin birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further.

Why is it important? David Mathis gives us four reasons:

  • It highlights the supernatural nature of Jesus’ birth.
  • It shows us that we need a salvation that we can’t bring about ourselves.
  • It shows us that God takes the initiative.
  • It hints at the fully human and fully divine natures united in Jesus’ one person.

Wayne Grudem writes:

God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary’s womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus’ birth was completely unexpected. It was also miraculous. God took the initiative and did the impossible, just like he takes the initiative and brings about a salvation that we can’t achieve ourselves.

Jesus is unexpected; Jesus is miraculous.

Third: Jesus is God-with-us.

Read verses 22-23:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

This is absolutely shocking. The angel says that Jesus’ name is Immanuel, which means God-with-us, or the with-us-God. Matt Woodley writes:

It means that Jesus is God with us as he swims in Mary’s amniotic fluid, wiggles in the manger’s straw, feeds the hungry and heals the sick. Jesus is God with us as he takes the bread in his hands and says, “This is my body broken for you.” Jesus is God with us as he hangs from a cross, gasping for breath and shouting, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” He descends into our messy world, standing in solidarity with human sufferers, plunging ever deeper into our pain and apparent abandonment.

Back then, Greeks could never have thought about God taking on a body. One Greek philosopher sarcastically asked, “How can one admit (God) should become an embryo, that after his birth he is put in swaddling clothes, that he is soiled with blood and bile and worse things yet?”

Even today, people struggle with this. A Muslim professor says that he can’t comprehend that God would become small, tiny, and weak. Kenneth Cragg, a scholar on Islam, says that although Muslims have a “great tenderness for Jesus” and they find the nativity story “miraculous,” they still see the incarnation as simply an impossible concept.

But we see here that Jesus is God-with-us. Jesus is God coming to us first as a fetus, then as an unplanned pregnancy, then as a baby, and later a twelve-year-old boy, and then later as a teacher, and then as a condemned criminal stripped naked on the cross, and then as the risen and ascended Lord. The writer to the Hebrews says:

Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:17)

Matt Proctor puts it this way:

Here's the point … God himself has felt what we feel. In the Incarnation, he chose not to stay "completely Other." He got down at eye-level, and in the Incarnation, God experienced what it's like to be tired and discouraged …. He knows what it's like to hurt and bleed. On the cross, Jesus himself prayed a psalm of lament: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (Psalm 22:1).

In your pain, you may be tempted to say, "God, you have no idea what I'm going through. You have no idea how bad I'm hurting." But God can respond, "Yes, I do." He can point to your wounds and then to his own and say, "Look: same, same. Me too. I have entered your world, and I know how you feel. I have been there, I am with you now, I care, and I can help." That is what Christmas is all about.

Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God.

Finally: Jesus saves us from our sins.

We learn in verse 21 exactly what Jesus came to do: “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” In Jesus we have the solution for our sin problem. Jesus came to live the perfect life that we couldn’t live. And then we went to the cross and bore our sins. And he rose from the dead to give us new life. Jesus is the solution for our sin problem Jesus came to save us from our sins.

You know what it’s like to have someone visit you when you’re not ready. Mike Silva describes when this happened to him:

Most people would be a little embarrassed to have unexpected company when their house was a mess. My family was staying at a hotel in Nigeria, West Africa, one time when I heard a knock on the door. I opened it and found a smiling Nigerian gentleman ready to clean our room.

I was so embarrassed! My family had travel bags, curling irons, and crumpled clothing sprawled across our unmade beds. Wet towels were all over the bathroom floor. I apologized profusely, but the young man replied graciously, "No problem, sir. For this reason I have come, to put your things in order."

The Bible says this is exactly what Jesus Christ came to do for us. To put our lives in order! He doesn't demand that we first straighten up our mess. Instead, He offers to clean up for us.

Jesus came into our world to save us from our sins, to clean up the mess we couldn’t clean ourselves. This is the reason that Jesus came.

Friends, this is what Christmas is all about. Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins.

After returning home from a long tour, Bono, the lead singer for U2, returned to Dublin and attended a Christmas Eve service. At some point in that service, Bono grasped the truth at the heart of the Christmas story: in Jesus, God became a human being. With tears streaming down his face, Bono realized,

The idea that God, if there is a force of Love and Logic in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself by becoming a child born in poverty … and straw, a child, I just thought, "Wow!" Just the poetry … I saw the genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this … Love needs to find a form, intimacy needs to be whispered … Love has to become an action or something concrete. It would have to happen. There must be an incarnation. Love must be made flesh.

In Jesus Christ, love found a form. In Jesus Christ, love became something concrete. At Christmas, love was made flesh. Jesus is the unexpected, miraculous with-us God who saves us from our sins. It’s the reason we celebrate Christmas today.

The Book of the Genealogy of Jesus Christ (Matthew 1:1-17)

Of all the ways to start a book, this isn’t one of them. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham…” I mean, come on. At the start of a book, you have to grab the reader.

Here’s how you start a book. Here’s the first line from Tolkien’s The Hobbit. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” See? Only ten words, and you’re hooked. Another famous book begins with the author’s daring escape from the brutal prison Devil’s Island. Right away you’re in the middle of the action. You can’t wait to see what happens next.

So why does Matthew begin the Christmas story with a genealogy? I bet that many of you are tempted to skip verses 1 to 17 and go right to verses 18, which says, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.” But that would be a mistake. The beginning of the Christmas story in Matthew has an important lesson for us. Three of them, actually. Here they are, and then I’ll take you through each one.

  • The birth of Jesus is a new beginning.
  • The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.
  • The birth of Jesus includes all of us.

I got all of that from a genealogy? I did. And I hope you’ll see how I did soon as well. So here it goes.

First: The birth of Jesus is a new beginning.

Matthew is a skilled author, and he knows exactly what he’s doing in verse 1 when he begins, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ.” We’re supposed to read that and think, “This sounds familiar somehow.” In the Greek, the first two words are biblos geneseos which we translate “the book of the genealogy” - but they are also the Greek title for Genesis. Genesis is the Old Testament book that refers to the creation and beginning of all things. So Matthew plants these words here because he wants us to do a double-take.

What does this mean? Matthew wants us to begin reading his book with a sense of déjà vu. He wants to take us all the way back to the beginning and see his book, beginning with the birth of Jesus Christ, as a fresh start and a new beginning.

I went to the mall the other day. Part way through my trip I realized that I had dropped something. What I’d dropped is worth about $100. I began to retrace my steps. I went to mall security and all the stores I’d been in to see if I could find it. But it was gone. I went home feeling good about what I’d bought, but also wishing that I could rewind back to the beginning and be more careful and not lose something that was pretty valuable to me.

Have you ever wished that you could hit the pause button on your life and rewind and go back to the beginning? Have you ever wished you could have a do-over?

Matthew is saying in this verse that this world has two beginnings. The first one took place a long time ago in Genesis 1 when God created the heavens and the earth, and everything was good. But we know how that story ended up. In Genesis 1 and 2, everything is really good. But in Genesis 3, sin enters the world, and then there’s nothing but trouble from Genesis 4 to 11 and beyond.

Do you ever wish that we could pause history and rewind back to Genesis 3 and undo all the damage that sin has brought in the world? There’s good news, Matthew says. That is exactly what the birth of Jesus does. It’s a new beginning. In Matthew 1 the world begins anew. We get to start all over again. We had creation; now in Jesus, we have re-creation. The original creation, which is damaged, flawed, and broken, is now being restored and transformed in the person of Jesus Christ.

That’s the really great news Matthew is telling us. The birth of Jesus is a new beginning. It means that the slate is wiped clean.

And so for all of us who are longing to start again, who are longing for a fresh start, and who are longing for everything in this world to be put right, the birth of Jesus is what makes this possible. I don’t know what has happened in your past, but the birth of Jesus marks a new creation. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17). “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). The birth of Jesus is a new beginning for all of us, and for the whole world.

Second: The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises.

So picture this. You get an envelope in the mail. You open up that envelope, and you find a single piece of paper printed on really nice paper. It has someone’s name and contact information, followed by headings that say “Employment History,” “Education,” and “References.” What do you have? You’d recognize it as a résumé. It’s what we write when we’re trying to give a potential employer some basic information about ourselves.

Picture someone two thousand years ago getting that same piece of paper. They would probably look at it strangely as they tried to figure out what in the world it’s all about.

That’s really what’s happening as we read the genealogy. Matthew’s readers would have been very familiar with this form, and they would have understood its purpose. They would have been captivated by what Matthew wrote. In the ancient world, genealogies did a couple of things.

First, they grounded you in history. I was in England one time when I came across a monument for where the missionary Augustine of Canterbury met King Ethelbert of Kent in 597. It’s one thing to read about it in the history books; it’s another thing to realize that it happened right here. That’s what Matthew is doing as he gives us the genealogy. He’s saying that the story of Jesus is grounded in history. He’s descended from particular people who really lived. It’s not a made-up story. It really happened in time and space.

But the genealogy also served another purpose. Back then it functioned as a kind of résumé. It would tell you who a person is and where they came from. It established your heritage, your inheritance, your legitimacy, and rights. It would establish your legal claim to certain rights and properties that had been passed down through the generations to you. The closest thing I’ve experienced is when I sat with someone at a seminary breakfast in Boston. I asked the person how long they’d lived in Boston; he replied that King George had granted them the land back in the eighteenth century. It was important for him to be able to trace things back. It established who he was and what he was entitled to.

In this genealogy, Matthew traces Jesus’ bloodline to two specific people. What’s interesting is that promises were made to both of them. What Matthew is doing here is showing that Jesus is the legitimate heir and fulfillment of the promises made to these two particular people, promises that looked like they had been lost forever. Not only does Matthew include them in the genealogy, but he underlines them in verse 1 so that we don’t miss them. “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham.”

What does it mean that Jesus was the son of David? David was the greatest king in Israel’s history. God had promised David, “And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever” (2 Samuel 7:16). God had told David that his descendants would reign forever. That seemed like madness. Israel had no king. Herod was king when Matthew wrote this, and he sure didn’t like the thought of anyone else claiming to be king. You sure didn’t go around bragging about being part of a royal family. But that’s what Matthew does here. He says that Jesus is a son of David. That’s a claim to royalty. Matthew is saying that Jesus is qualified to be the king promised to David, the king whose throne is established forever.

But there’s more. He’s also the son of Abraham. God had promised Abraham:

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2-3)

Here, Matthew is saying that Jesus is qualified to be the fulfillment of this promise to Abraham. Jesus is the one who fulfills the promise to be a blessing to the whole world. Matthew is making sure that Jesus’ résumé states clearly who he is qualified to be: the promised king, the one who will bless the whole earth.

Matthew is saying that Jesus is the fulfillment of two thousand years of God’s promises. All the promises of the Old Testament are fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Paul wrote, “For all the promises of God find their Yes in him. That is why it is through him that we utter our Amen to God for his glory” (2 Corinthians 1:20).

You thought that this was a boring genealogy? It’s nothing of the sort. It’s already told us that the birth of Jesus is a new beginning, and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. But there’s more.

Third, the birth of Jesus includes all of us.

My grandfather used to talk about being descended from pirates. I have no way to know whether this is true or not, but I kind of hope so. The truth is that all of our family trees have some shady characters. But Matthew goes out of his way to include shady characters in this list.

On one hand, you have kings on this list. That’s pretty cool. Matthew is saying that the story of Jesus includes those who have power and prestige and position.

But Matthew gives us the other side as well. It’s clear in reading this list that Matthew has been selective in terms of the people he includes. He leaves some in, and he leaves some out as well. So it’s striking that he included some people that most would have left out. Most ancient genealogies didn’t include women, unless they were famous great women. But Matthew lists four women who are prominent and anything but great:

  • Tamar in verse 3 - In Genesis 38 we read that Tamar acted as a prostitute and tricked her father-in-law into making her pregnant so that she could continue the line of her husband.
  • Rahab in verse 5 - She was a prostitute and a foreigner who courageously rescued the Hebrew spies.
  • Ruth in verse 5 - She was another foreigner, a Moabite under the Old Testament curse against Moabites found in Deuteronomy 23: “No Ammonite or Moabite may enter the assembly of the LORD. Even to the tenth generation, none of them may enter the assembly of the LORD forever” (Deuteronomy 23:3). She was a descendent of the incestuous Lot.
  • Uriah’s wife in verse 6 - She was the woman involved in David’s scandalous affair and cover-up.

So in this list you have great people, but you also have people with a past. You have men, women, adulterers, prostitutes, heroes, and Gentiles. Jesus is Savior of them all. Right from the start, Matthew is telling us that Jesus is immersed in the gritty and seamy side of fallen humanity. No matter who you are, people like you are already part of Jesus’ story. Right from the start, God chooses the most sinful, broken, and unlikely people - people like you and me.

Five hundred years ago, Martin Luther preached a sermon and said:

Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners—in fact, he even puts them in his family tree! Now if the Lord does that here, so ought we to despise no one … but put ourselves right in the middle of the fight for sinners and help them.

That’s great news. Christ is the kind of person who is not ashamed of sinners.

The genealogy tell us that the birth of Jesus is a new beginning and the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. It also tells us that Jesus is not ashamed of sinners.

Friends, don’t let this genealogy fool you. Don’t think it’s the boring prelude to the exciting stuff that’s going to come later. This is story-telling at its best. Right from the beginning, Matthew wants us to understand that the birth of Jesus marks a new beginning. The birth of Jesus is the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. The birth of Jesus is good news for all kinds of people, people like you and people like me.

Two responses this morning. First, be amazed. It’s amazing to think that God would give us a fresh start, that he would begin to undo all that’s wrong in the world. It’s amazing that he would choose to do this by sending his Son as a baby to be born in Bethlehem. It’s amazing that he would choose to fulfill all the promises he’s made through Jesus. And it’s amazing that he would choose to include messed-up people in all of this. Yet that’s what he’s chosen to do. Worship him this morning. Marvel again that God would choose to do something this amazing.

Second, join the story. I hope you’ve put your faith in Christ. I pray that you’ve had that fresh start through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I really pray that you’ve seen all of God’s promises reach their fulfillment in Christ. And I pray that you’ll realize that this story includes you, no matter how unlikely a person you may be.

In his commentary on this passage, Matt Woodley writes:

One day in a hole in the Milky Way called planet Earth, among an odd group of people, Jesus the Messiah came to his people. It’s a true story that reads like fiction. What adventures, dangers and delights will Jesus encounter? And if we follow him, what adventures shall befall us? Where will this Gospel of mercy lead us? Hold on, we’re in for the tale — and the adventure — of our life.

True Freedom (Galatians 5:13-26)

Every year Macleans comes out with its list of top Canadian University. You can read the reviews and all the rankings that go along with them. And every year other publications come out with their own reviews of universities based on very different standards. They are lists of the top party schools. If you’re wondering which Canadian schools have made the list, by the way, I know of two: McGill University, in Montreal and the University of Western Ontario,in London, Ontario, are the only Canadian schools to have made the list.

Here’s how it works. Before you go to university, you are not free. If you live at home, you probably have these things called rules. It seems that no matter how old you are, if you live at home, you live under certain conditions and rules enforced by these things called parents.

But one day many of you will pack the car, and you will arrive at university where you have freedom. There is nobody to tell you to go to bed anymore. You can decide when to get up and when to go to bed, or whether to go to bed at all. You can decide how many classes to attend and how many to skip. All the rules and restrictions that were placed on you as a minor are now no longer in place. You now have freedom.

The question is: how do you use the freedom? Do you use the freedom to party and have a great time? Or do you use the freedom to pursue the best possible education? Or do you fall somewhere in the middle? Freedom from rules is only one side of the picture. You have to ask yourself not just what you’re free from, but what you’re free to do on the other side of that freedom.

This morning, that’s exactly the issue that we’re going to look at. It’s not just an issue for university students. It’s an issue for every single person here as well.

Ever since September, we’ve been looking at the book of Galatians. Somebody’s called it the Magna Carta of the Christian life. It says that we’re free. We are no longer obligated to keep the law in order to be accepted by God. We are set free from keeping the law as a means of salvation. We do not have to add anything to what Jesus has done in order to be accepted by God. Jesus has paid the entire price.

But there’s a problem, and I know that some of you have seen the problem, because you’ve talked to me about it after the service. The problem is this. If we don’t have to obey in order to be accepted by God, does that mean we can live any way we want? If it’s “Jesus + nothing = acceptance with God,” then what’s to stop us from living a life of debauchery and evil? If we’re not under the law, what should guide our conduct? That’s the question we’re going to try to answer this morning from this passage.

I want to show you three things from this passage. First, I want to show you what true freedom isn’t. And then I want to show you what true freedom is. And then I want to show you what we can do with this knowledge.

First: Let’s look at what true freedom isn’t.

Ali was a young man with little money and no wife. This was all the incentive he needs to take the ninety-minute bus ride from his village to Baghdad. As soon as he arrives, the 21-year-old Iraqi heads straight to Abu Abdullah's. There it costs him only $1.50 for 15 minutes alone with a woman.

The room is a cell with a curtain for a door, and Ali complains that Abu Abdullah's women should bathe more often. But Ali sees the easy and inexpensive access to women as a big improvement over the days when Saddam Hussein was in power. The dictator strictly controlled vices such as prostitution, alcohol, and drugs. The fall of the regime gave rise to every kind of depravity. In addition to brothels, Iraqis have their choice of adult cinemas, where 70 cents buys an all-day ticket, and the audience hoots in protest if a non-pornographic trailer interrupts the action.

Referring to all the newly available immoral activities, Ali grins and says, “Now we have freedom.”

Some people, reading Galatians, think that this is what Paul is talking about. We are not under the law, so we now have freedom to do whatever we’d like. Paul knows that this is what some are going to think he’s saying, so in this passage he makes it clear. He says in verse 13: “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.”

And then, in verses 19 to 21 he makes it even clearer. This is what freedom is not about. He writes:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21)

I think it’s going to help to make a list. Here’s what the Christian life is not about. The Christian life is not about keeping the law. It’s not about keeping a series of rules. Why not? Well, we’ve looked at this. Paul said back in Galatians 2:16, “By the works of the law no one will be justified.” Later on in Galatians 3:10 he says, “All who rely on the works of the law are under a curse.” In verse 3 of this chapter he says that keeping part of the law obligates you to keep the whole law. So the Christian life isn’t about keeping the law. It doesn’t work. Nobody is good enough. It’s a losing proposition. The message of the Bible isn’t that you should be good, and God will accept you. That’s an unbiblical message right from the pit of hell.

But we need to make a second column here. Let’s call this license. License means living any way that I please. The Oxford English Dictionary defines it as “a liberty of action, especially when excessive; disregard of law or propriety; abuse of freedom.” This is freedom without responsibility. It’s trusting in God’s grace and then living however they please.

D. A. Carson, a professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, used to meet with a young man from French West Africa for the purpose of practicing German. Sometimes they’d had enough, so they would go out for a meal together. He learned that this man had a wife in London training to be a medical doctor, while he stayed in Germany to learn the language. He also learned that once or twice a week this man disappeared into the red-light district of town to pay money and have his woman. Eventually he got to know this man well enough that he asked him what he would do if he discovered that his wife was doing something similar in London.

“Oh,” he said, “I’d kill her.”

Carson challenged him. “That's a bit of a double standard, isn't it?” Carson asked. “You told me you were raised in a mission school. You know that the God of the Bible does not have double standards like that."

The man gave Carson a bright smile and replied, “Ah, God is good. He's bound to forgive us; that's his job.” Or, as someone else put it, “God is a great forgiver; I am a great sinner; what a great combination!”

That’s not what Paul is talking about here. Notice what he says. “Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh.” The flesh does not mean your body. The flesh means your fallen, sinful nature. Do not use your freedom from the law as an excuse to live any way you’d like, and to indulge your sinful nature, Paul is saying.

Then he makes it very clear what he’s talking about in verses 19 to 21. He gives us a list of vices. These are what come naturally to our fallen human nature, and it’s not a pretty list. It doesn’t take a genius to realize where all of this comes from. Some of them are behaviors: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, sorcery, drunkenness, and orgies. A lot of people pat themselves on the back and feel pretty good about themselves at this point. They’re not guilty of these. But then Paul gets to what someone calls “respectable sins,” sins that don’t look as bad, sins that we tolerate: anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions. Many churches won’t put up with orgies, but they’ll put up with anger and division. Paul puts them on the same list.

Then he says, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Wait a minute! I thought that it was “Jesus + nothing = acceptance with God.” Now you’re telling me that if you trust in Jesus and do these things that you’re out? Yes, Paul says. Why? Because good works aren’t the basis of our acceptance with God, but they are a result of it. If Jesus is truly in our lives, then he will transform us so that this list doesn’t characterize our lives. As somebody’s said, God accepts us the way we are, but he doesn’t leave us there. And if this list characterizes your life, it’s a sign that you really haven’t experienced the grace of God in your life.

You see, true freedom doesn’t mean that we live however we’d like. This isn’t true freedom at all. Jesus said in John 8:34, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.” If you use your freedom from the law as an opportunity to sin, you’ve just entered a different kind of slavery. You’re no longer a slave to the law; you’re now a slave to sin.

These two lists, by the way, are the two ways to be lost. One is the religious way: to live according to rules and the law. This isn’t what it means to be a Christian. It’s dangerous, because it looks like you’re good, but you’re not. The other way to be lost is to indulge the sinful nature and to do whatever you’d like. Paul says that neither of these are what he’s talking about. Neither one is true freedom. Both of these are forms of slavery. True freedom is not doing whatever we please.

Let’s look at what true freedom really is.

If true freedom isn’t about indulging the sinful nature and doing whatever we’d like what is it? Read verses 13 and 14:

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Galatians 5:13-14)

Later on, Paul gives us a description of the type of things we’ll notice in our lives as we live by the Spirit’s power in true freedom. He writes in verses 22 to 23: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

What is true freedom? True freedom is not about satisfying selfish desires. True freedom expresses itself in serving and loving through the Spirit.

We have these three columns. One is law; the second is license. Let’s make a third column and call it true gospel freedom. And let’s notice two things about this true gospel freedom.

One: It begins in the heart. It’s inside-out. Paul talks about love. He says that this is the fulfillment of the whole law. In an sense, every command is basically a version of this. Want to love your neighbor? Don’t kill him! Don’t steal his wife! Don’t lie to him. Every command is really about loving your neighbor. But you can keep all the commands and still not really love your neighbor from the heart. That’s why the law isn’t enough. That’s why we need the gospel; the gospel gives us a new heart so that the change comes from the inside-out. We’re free from the law as an outward observance; instead, we end up with love that springs from our hearts from the inside-out. It’s really about a renovation of the heart that comes through the Spirit.

Second: it’s the work of the Spirit. Notice the fruit of the Spirit in verses 22 to 23. Notice that it’s called the fruit not of the disciple. It’s the fruit of the Spirit. This is what the Spirit produces in our life as we yield to him. True freedom is experiencing the Spirit’s power as we are transformed from the inside out. John MacArthur the Spirit’s provision of fruit to a man on a ladder picking fruit, and dropping it into the basket below. The only way to receive the fruit is stand under the ladder with the basket ready. The only way to receive the fruit of the Spirit is to stay close to the Spirit and to trust that he will give us the fruit of the Spirit in our lives as we depend on him.

This is true Christian freedom. It’s not about indulging our sinful nature. True freedom expresses itself in serving and loving through the Spirit, not in satisfying selfish desires. You see, the law becomes something good when we’re transformed by the Spirit. Spurgeon put it this way:

What is God’s law now? It is not above a Christian — it is under a Christian. Some men hold God’s law like a rod, in terror, over Christians and say, “If you sin you will be punished with it.” It is not so. The law is under a Christian for him to walk on, to be his guide, his rule, his pattern….Law is the road which guides us, not the rod which drives us, nor the spirit which actuates us. The law is good and excellent, if it keeps his place.

So let’s look again. We’re not under the law. We’re also not free to indulge the sinful nature. Instead, we’re free to love and to be changed through the power of the Holy Spirit.

To put it differently, we don’t obey God in order to be accepted. But we do obey as a result of being accepted. Having been accepted, give God your all. As the song says: love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.

What do we do with all of this?

Nice theory, but what do we do with this? Three things.

One: keep the gospel central. Remember: Paul’s point is that we truly change as we encounter the gospel. So stand firm in the freedom that is yours in Christ. Don’t move on from that. That is the basis of our justification, but it is also the foundation of your growth in holiness. Dwell there. Keep returning to what Christ has done. Make that the major theme of your life.

Two: Paul tells us in verse 24: “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Here’s what this means: You have been crucified with Christ. When this happened, your sinful nature was dealt a fatal blow. Your sinful desires are still there, but they are mortally wounded. They no longer rule and reign over you. So remember they’ve been dealt a fatal blow. Consider them dead. Don’t administer first aid. Don’t put it on life support. Consider it dead. Whatever sins you struggle with: remember that they were dealt a fatal blow at the cross. Remember that they’re as good as dead, and treat them that way, because that’s what they are.

Finally: verse 25 says, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” Have you ever marched in formation? I used to in a boy’s club I had joined. The leader puts his left foot forward; you do as well. You march as one together. We saw this in August in Ottawa. We stayed by Parliament. We thought we’d sleep in. Every morning we’d hear this marching band. We’d look out and we’d see these soldiers marching right past our hotel room on the way to the changing of the guard. It started to get old the third day; we’d rather sleep in. But I did notice that they were in lockstep. That’s what Paul says we’re to do here. Keep in step with the Spirit. Stay in formation; depend entirely on him. Keep up with his commands, and march side by side with others who are following him as well.

This is freedom. If you want freedom in playing the piano, you practice. It’s the only way you can sit down at a piano and be able to play whatever you want. If you want a fish to be free, don’t break the aquarium and release the fish to the air so it can be free. It needs the water to be free. The same thing is true for the Christian. Freedom does not mean the absence of any restrictions. It means the right kind of restrictions. It means that we’re set free to love through the transforming power of the Spirit and to be changed from the inside out.

No law, no license, but love through the Spirit. That is true Christian freedom. True freedom doesn’t mean indulging the sinful nature; it means changing through the Spirit’s power.

Stand Firm In Your Freedom (Galatians 5:1-12)

I used to think that I was an easy child to raise. Looking back I now realize that I was a parent’s nightmare. I’ll give you just one example. I used to always get lost. I was once banned from all school trips for the remainder of the year because I got lost from the group. My mother would take me shopping, and she’d turn around and I’d be gone. That by itself would be annoying. What made it worse is that a few minutes later my mother would hear this announcement in the store: “Would a lost mother please report to the customer service booth.”

I couldn’t seem to get through my head two fundamental rules. One: don’t get lost. When you’re out with your mother, stand by your mother. I also seemed to forget a second important rule: If you get lost, stay in one place. You’re much easier to find then. My mother would continually remind me that I needed to stand firm when lost, and if I did this she would find me before very long.

We’ve been going through Galatians together. Paul says in this passage: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

There are two parts to what he says here. One is that if you are a follower of Jesus Christ, you are free. You’re free from the penalty of sin, from the power of sin, from the law as a system of salvation. You’re free form superstition and from all that enslaves you. John Stott does a good job of explaining what this freedom is all about. It’s not the freedom to do whatever we want. It’s John Stott defines true freedom: "freedom from my silly little self in order to live responsibly in love for God and others.”

Paul says we’re free, and he says this emphatically. He literally says that it’s for freedom that Christ has freed us. Freedom is both the verb and the noun. Jesus’ whole mission was to free us. Paul tells us in the clearest terms that in Jesus Christ we have been freed.

But then he says, “Stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Do you realize that this is one of the most important tasks that we have as followers of Jesus Christ? What is it? To simply stand firm. He’s saying what my mother said to me. Whatever you do, don’t get lost. Don’t wander off, Paul is saying, from the freedom that is yours in Jesus Christ. Stay in one place. One of the biggest tasks in the Christian life is to guard against wandering off from the freedom that has been won for us through the saving work of Jesus Christ. You’re free, emphatically free. Now stand firm in that freedom and don’t wander off.

Paul mentions a specific way that we can tend to wander off. It’s what we’ve been talking about as we’ve worked through the book of Galatians, and we come to it again today. He says at the end of verse 1, “Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” What’s he talking about? In those days, slavery was a very real thing. It’s not the same type of slavery as we think of from North American history, but it was still bad. If you were a slave and then became a free person, you could buy property. You could schedule your own activities. You could earn and spend and live however you wished. It would be unthinkable to return once again to slavery. Yet Paul says that’s exactly what happens when we depart from the freedom we have in Christ.

When Paul talks about the yoke of slavery, he’s talking about the Old Testament law. Paul gets very clear in this passage that the issue the Galatians were facing is circumcision. Some people were teaching that it wasn’t enough to have faith in Christ’s saving work. You also need to keep some of the Old Testament law. In other words, you’re saved by trusting Jesus plus by keeping God’s law.

Think about this for a minute. This doesn’t sound so bad at first. It actually sounds very reasonable when you think about it. In fact, it’s hardwired in our nature. How do you become a Christian? We can all agree that it begins by realizing that you have sinned against God and violated his standards. And we can agree that it involves trusting in what Jesus Christ has done for us: that he lived a perfect life, and that he bore the punishment for our sins at the cross. He took our sins and gave us his righteousness. So far, so good.

But it would also seem reasonable to say that on top of trusting Christ, you also have to contribute something to your salvation. That sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But do you see what Paul says here? When we do this, we’re doing exactly what I did as the world’s most annoying kid. We’re getting lost. We’re departing from the freedom that Christ has won for us. In fact, we’re allowing ourselves to become enslaved to a yoke of slavery. It’s deadly, and Paul says we can’t let it happen. Tullian Tchividjian says, “It’s not that Christians seek to blatantly replace the gospel. What we try to do is simply add to it.” And this is fatal.

Don’t get me wrong. Paul isn’t saying that it’s wrong to obey Christ. We’re going to see that obeying Christ is essential. What he’s warning us against is thinking that we contribute to our salvation through our obedience. Again, Tchividjian writes, “The most dangerous thing that you can happen to you is that you become proud of your obedience.” Think about that. The most dangerous thing that can happen to you is that you trust in your own obedience rather than in the perfect work of Jesus Christ.

This is so important. Stand firm in your freedom, Paul says. Don’t budge from the freedom you have in Christ.

That’s all fine, and I hope you agree. But Paul doesn’t just leave it there. In the rest of this passage he gives us two ways that we can stand firm in the freedom we have in Christ. Let me give you the two ways, and then let’s look at each of them. Stand firm in your freedom by realizing what’s at stake, and by rejecting those who want to enslave you.

First: Stand firm in your freedom by realizing what’s at stake.

I’m reading a book right now about an expedition to the top of Everest that went horribly wrong. In ordinary life, you can take some wrong steps and things don’t go too badly. On the top of Everest they realize what’s at stake with every step they take. One wrong step, one careless move, and you could be killed, and you can take some people with you too. There’s a lot at stake when you take one wrong step at the top of Everest.

In this passage, Paul wants us to realize what’s at stake when we take a “Jesus + something else = acceptance with God” understanding of the gospel. What’s at stake? Three things:

Christ and his work will be of no value to us. Read verse 2: “Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision, Christ will be of no advantage to you.” This is shocking. If we trust in Christ plus our own obedience, we lose all the benefits of trusting in Christ. This is not a minor issue. The story that helps me understand this is that of a man who got a baseball autographed by Babe Ruth. The man realized that the signed baseball might be valuable, so he decided to sell it. But he was worried because he could see that the signature on the baseball was faded. He decided to try to make that autograph clearer, so he took out that baseball and carefully traced over the letters with a marking pen: “BABE RUTH.” By trying to add to what Babe Ruth had done, he destroyed what Babe Ruth had done. By the time he had finished, he’d taken something priceless and turned it into something worthless.”

That’s exactly what we do to Jesus’ work when we try to add to it. “His finished work cannot be refinished; it can only be destroyed” (Phil Ryken). As the Puritan William Perkins said, “He must be a perfect Savior, or he is no Savior.” It’s either Jesus Christ in his perfection or our own works. There is no middle ground. If we trust in our own obedience, we deface the work of Christ. Jesus and his gospel will be of no value to us.

We become debtors to God’s entire law. Verse 3 says, “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” Let me try to explain what he’s saying here. I have a thing for mustard. For instance, I love the hot and sweet mustard that comes with Hickory Farm gift boxes. The problem is that you can’t buy that mustard unless you buy a gift box. You can buy the mustard, but you can’t buy it by itself. It’s a package deal.

That’s what Paul is saying here. You can’t pick and choose from the law and add a bit of obedience. It’s a package deal. Once you try to pick up a bit of the law, you have to pick up the whole thing. You can’t pick and choose.

The problem is that if you pick up God’s law, you become a debtor. Gamaliel II was an old Jewish rabbi who lived around the time Galatians was written. One day he was reading Ezekiel, which talks about a man who “is righteous and does what is just and right” (Ezekiel 18:5). When he finished reading, he began to cry, saying, “Only he who keeps all these requirements will live, not he who keeps only one of them.” He realized that he could never meet the perfect standard of obedience required in God’s law.

The minute you begin to rely on your obedience, you become obligated to keep the entirety of God’s law. The problem is that nobody, except for Jesus Christ, can keep God’s law. So we become hopeless. We become debtors to God’s law with no hope of repayment.

We're cut off from the grace of Christ. Verse 4 says, “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” If you try to justify yourself before God based on your own obedience, then you cut yourself off from God’s grace.

Why is this? Because grace and self-justification are mutually exclusive. You have to choose. The minute you try to accomplish your own salvation, you’re removing yourself from the grace and mercy of Christ.

What’s the alternative? Galatians 5:5-6 says:

For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

This is what it means to follow Christ. Instead of relying on our own obedience, we wait for God to give us righteousness by faith. It means looking to Christ instead of to ourselves. We’re waiting for God’s final verdict of righteousness on the last day. One day God will appear and declare us righteous based on the finished work of Jesus Christ. That is a whole lot better than relying on our own righteousness! This is really what matters. The issue isn’t circumcision or keeping the law; the issue is whether our faith is in Jesus Christ rather than in ourselves.

This is how you stand firm in your freedom: you realize what’s at stake. This is an Everest issue. When you take a step away from the freedom that’s yours in Christ, you’re taking a step that could be spiritually fatal. When you say that it’s Jesus plus something, then Christ is of no value, you become a debtor to the entire law, and you’re cut off from the grace of Christ. One of the ways that we stand firm in our freedom is to realize what’s at stake if we don’t.

So get clear on this. Realize that this is not a minor issue. Stand firm in your freedom because you realize what’s at stake if you don’t.

Second: Stand firm in your freedom by rejecting those who want to enslave you.

Read verses 7 to 12 with me:

You were running well. Who hindered you from obeying the truth? This persuasion is not from him who calls you. A little leaven leavens the whole lump. I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view, and the one who is troubling you will bear the penalty, whoever he is. But if I, brothers, still preach circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed. I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

Paul doesn’t mince words here. He speaks very clearly of the danger that comes from people who teach what God doesn’t. This teaching doesn’t come from God, Paul says. “This persuasion is not from him who calls you.” And it’s dangerous. There are four problems with these people:

They're meddlers - Paul uses the image of someone who cuts you off in a race. The Galatians were running well; these false teachers have cut in and tripped them up, and now they’re in danger of being disqualified.

They’re not God’s messengers - They’re not teaching what’s true. They’re teaching false doctrine.

They contaminate the gospel - Paul uses the example of leaven. Bread doesn’t rise unless it has yeast. It only takes a little yeast to do the job. Paul here is saying that it only takes a pinch of law to thoroughly contaminate the gospel. This is why doctrine is so important. It only takes a little bit of heresy to do a lot of damage.

They misrepresent Paul - They seem to be misrepresenting Paul, saying that he teaches circumcision as well. Paul challenges this and says that nothing could be further from the truth.

The good news is that Paul says they won’t succeed. “I have confidence in the Lord that you will take no other view,” he says. But in the meantime, these people are causing all kinds of problems.

There is great danger in believing what is not true about God and his gospel. A lot of difficulties in the Christian life come from not believing what’s true about God and his gospel. Paul is clear that we will continue to face false teachers. We have to take this seriously. One of the ways that we can stand firm in the faith is to reject anyone who tries to pull us away from the truth of the gospel.

A.W. Pink once wrote, “The great mistake made by people is hoping to discover in themselves what is to be found in Christ alone.” Don’t ever let anyone lead you to look away from Christ to look at yourself. Look at what he has done. He is our only hope for freedom.

In the last days of the Civil War, the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia, fell to the Union army. Abraham Lincoln insisted on visiting the city. Even though no one knew he was coming, slaves recognized him immediately and thronged around him. He had liberated them by the Emancipation Proclamation, and now Lincoln's army had set them free. According to Admiral David Porter, an eyewitness, Lincoln spoke to the throng around him:

"My poor friends, you are free—free as air. You can cast off the name of slave and trample upon it …. Liberty is your birthright."

In a similar way, Paul says, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”

Stand firm in your freedom by realizing what’s at stake, and by rejecting those who want to enslave you.

The Gospel and Two Sons (Galatians 4:21-5:1)

Just when you think you’re through the hardest part of Galatians, you get to what someone says is one of the most difficult passages not just in Galatians, but in the New Testament! This is a difficult passage for a lot of reasons:

  • It’s sordid.
  • Paul’s interpretation raises all kinds of interpretive issues.
  • It seems somewhat harsh.
  • It’s foreign to us, and it really seems to be far removed from the way we think.

As a result there have been all kinds of studies done on this passage. People read it and get kind of confused. And it’s easy to miss the main point of this passage because we get caught up in all the details, so that we miss the point.

But I want to most of these issues today. What I want to do is this: I want to tell you a story. Then I want to tell you why this story matters to us. And then I want to tell you how this story prepares us for communion this morning, which we’re going to celebrate together right after the sermon.

So first, let me tell you a story.

So here’s the story. But I need to warn you that it is one of the most troubling stories found in the entire Bible. There are worse stories, but this one definitely rates up there somewhere.

God had promised Abram:

Now the LORD said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father's house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3)

When God made this promise to Abram, Abram was 75 years old, and his wife Sarai was just a little bit younger by about ten years (Genesis 17:17). You don’t start a family when you’re 65 and 75 years old! But God had made this promise. And he repeated it later. In Genesis 15 Abram was starting to doubt this promise. He said, “O Lord GOD, what will you give me, for I continue childless…” and God answered, “Your very own son shall be your heir” (Genesis 15:2-4). But years went by. Ten years later there were still no children. Picture if I was childless. Picture that I waited another 40 years, and that you talked to me one day. You ask me if I have children, and I say, “No, but any day now I expect that my wife and I are going to start a family.” It’s hard not to see that Abram was beginning to wonder how God’s promise was going to be fulfilled with the clock ticking, and with no discernible progress even though a decade had gone by.

They say that God helps those who help themselves, so at the age of 85, that’s exactly what Abram did. In those days there’s evidence that it was sometimes customary to use a surrogate mother. Abram was 85, but that’s not too old to be a father. So Sarai arranged for her servant Hagar to bear a child on her behalf. Abram basically says, “I’m going to help God out by taking matters into my own hands. I’m going to make my own contribution to God’s promises.” The result, of course, is disaster. Abram married Hagar. Hagar bore him a child. Sarai hated it and treated Hagar harshly, and Hagar ran for her life with her son Ishmael.

Later on - about 15 years later - Sarai does indeed have a child. We read in Genesis 21:

The LORD visited Sarah as he had said, and the LORD did to Sarah as he had promised. And Sarah conceived and bore Abraham a son in his old age at the time of which God had spoken to him. Abraham called the name of his son who was born to him, whom Sarah bore him, Isaac. (Genesis 21:1-3)

So you have these two children with a lot in common:

  • Both are sons of Abraham. They both had the same biological father.
  • Both were circumcised.
  • Both grew up in the same home.

But there were some pretty big differences between these two children as well:

  • One was the result of human scheming; the other was the result of God fulfilling his promise.
  • One was born a slave because his mother was a slave; the other was born free, the heir of a free woman.

You have this really weird story of two sons. It’s a very disturbing story with all kinds of hurt and family dysfunction. It reminds us, by the way, that the Bible is not full of great stories of great people who earned God’s approval because of their greatness. It’s a record of broken people who messed up repeatedly and are recipients of God’s great grace.

So that’s the story. Now I want to ask:

What does this story mean for us?

If you remember, Paul is writing in Galatians about what it means to be accepted by God. Some were teaching that you need Jesus plus your own obedience in order for God to accept you. Paul was arguing that acceptance by God requires Jesus plus nothing else. Every time you add to the gospel, Paul says, you subtract from it. You destroy it.

Why does Paul bring up this ugly story from Abraham’s life? One of the big issues that Paul is dealing with is that some were teaching that you have to keep Old Testament rules and regulations to be accepted by God. Only by keeping God’s law could you be considered one of Abraham’s offspring. So you see this come up over and over again in Galatians. Paul keeps dealing with the question of who is a true child of Abraham. In other words, who is it that is fully accepted by God? In the passage we have before us, he uses a form of argument that would have been used by rabbis in his time. In other words, Paul uses the argument being advanced by his opponents and turns it on his head. In doing so, he shows us that the story of Abraham’s two sons has a much greater meaning for us as well.

What Paul shows us is that there are two ways to relate to God. He’s been telling us about these two ways all the way through Galatians. One is Jesus plus nothing. The other is Jesus plus something else. In this passage he tells us that these two ways can be understood through the story of Ishmael and Isaac. These two sons show us two ways to relate to God, and what happens depending on which we choose.

One way relies on the flesh; one relies on the promise (Galatians 4:23). These two sons are perfect examples of the two ways we relate to God. Both ways have the same end in mind. Both want the blessings that God has promised. One way is to take matters into our own hands. Abraham decided he would help God out by relying on his own efforts to accomplish God’s purpose, and the result was disaster. Paul says that this is a good example of what happens when we rely on our own efforts to win acceptance with God. It’s really no different than when Abraham took Hagar as his wife so that he could create his own heir. It wasn’t what God had in mind, and it didn’t accomplish the purpose that God intended.

On the other hand, Isaac represents the other way to relate to God: to rely on what only God can do; to realize that we have nothing to offer God but our inadequacy. All that Abraham and Sarah had to offer God were old bodies that were far beyond their ability to produce the life that was promised to them. It was impossible. There was nothing in them that was capable of producing life. And that’s exactly the way that God designed it. Ishmael represents what we can do on our own efforts, and it’s a mess; Isaac represents what only God can do by his grace, and it’s amazing.

One way is slavery; the other way is freedom (Galatians 4:25-26). Paul actually says that the two ways of relating to God are also represented by the two sons. Both Ishmael and Isaac had the same father. But Ishmael was born to a woman who was a slave, and so he was born into slavery. Paul says that is exactly what happens when we try to add to what Jesus has done through our own efforts. We become slaves. We take things into our own hands, but what we produce is enslaved because we are enslaved. So we never get the freedom that we long for.

This is the irony of those who try to earn God’s approval through their own efforts. No matter how hard you work, you’re still enslaved. You never know whether you’ve done enough. You’re always left wondering if you’ve obeyed enough or whether you’ve repented enough. You’re never quite sure if you’ve measured up to God’s expectations. You’re enslaved. Whenever you think you need to earn your standing with God, you end up enslaved just like Ishmael. You never taste the freedom that God intends.

But that’s not the way it is with Isaac. Isaac was born into freedom. He was the result of only what God could do. Paul is saying that when we rely on God’s gracious gift of salvation through Jesus Christ alone, we are spiritually born into that same freedom. There’s no going back. It’s much better than Ishmael’s situation. When we receive God’s gracious gift of salvation, we receive a freedom that can’t be taken away.

We also see that there’s hostility between these two ways (Galatians 4:29-30). This is so important. What do we see here? Ishmael couldn’t stand Isaac. He persecuted Isaac because he couldn’t stand that Isaac had freedom when he didn’t. Paul said that this is just like today. People who are trying to earn God’s approval through their own efforts can’t stand all this talk about grace. It makes them angry. That’s what was happening with the Galatians, and it’s happening today. Grace sounds outrageous, and it makes people angry. It especially makes people angry who are adding something to Jesus. They can’t stand people who rely only on Christ and nothing else.

But it goes both ways. Paul says that Ishmael has to be kicked out because Ishmael isn’t compatible with Isaac. Do you see what he’s saying? He’s saying that this has to be dealt with. You can’t permit people to stay in a church and teach that you need Jesus plus something else in order to be accepted by God.

But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” (Galatians 4:30)

You can’t have a church that teaches both. Isaac and Ishmael are incompatible with each other. You can’t have a church that preaches and denies the gospel at the same time. Grace and legalism are hostile to each other. They’re like oil and water.

Paul is pulling out all of the stops to tell us that there are two ways to relate to God. One is through our own efforts. But this makes a mess of things, and it leaves us enslaved and hating grace. The other way is to realize that we can’t do anything to contribute to what God has promised. We have nothing to offer God but our inability. And God chooses to keep his promises to people like this by fulfilling his promise as a gracious gift. And this way leads to freedom, and there’s nothing like this.

I have three applications for us as we come to the end of this sermon.

First, realize why Paul is saying this. There’s a story that’s been told numerous times of the great Reformer, Martin Luther. In the church that he was pastoring, preached the gospel to his congregation, week after week after week after week. His people wondered why they couldn’t move on. Surely we get the Gospel by now, Pastor! Why do you keep preaching the gospel every week? His answer: “Because every week, you forget it.”

We never move beyond the gospel because the gospel is what saves us. It’s not just the beginning of the Christian life; it’s the middle and the end as well. That’s why Paul keeps circling back and reminding us of the gospel. He uses every tool in his disposal to help us see the gospel and its beauty as opposed to trying to earn our standing with God on our own. All we bring to God is inability; he gives us everything we need as a gift through Jesus Christ.

Second, see the promise of verse 27. Paul quotes Isaiah 54:1 in verse 27.

For it is written,
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
(Galatians 4:27)

This is the upside-down nature of the gospel. Those who are barren, like Sarah, those who have nothing but need, receive all that God has promised. Sarah was barren. There was no way that she could produce the child that had been promised to her. But God kept his promise. In Isaiah’s time, Isaiah was prophesying that Israel would return from its barrenness and flourish once again. And now Paul is writing to Gentiles who had nothing to offer, and he’s saying that it’s just like God to give everything to those who have nothing. If you come empty-handed this morning, with nothing to offer to God but your need, then you’re in a good position to receive the blessings of the gospel found in Christ.

Finally, heed the warning of Galatians 5:1. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” This is the whole reason that Paul wrote. Don’t ever go back to trying to earn your acceptance with God through your own effort. Embrace the freedom that is yours in the gospel, and never look back.

We’re not saved by what we do; we’re saved by relying on what only God can do. Anything else is slavery.

The Gospel Alarm (Galatians 4:8-20)

If you went to the Clarke’s house, you would meet their dog Shadow. You would quickly come to realize that Shadow is a people-dog. Shadow is very happy to see you when you go to visit. If you ever feel that nobody cares about you, you should go visit their house, because you will quickly realize that this dog doesn’t even know you, but still thinks the world of you.

But one night last week, Jonathan came home late. And that evening, Shadow was anything but welcoming. Shadow sounded the alarm that somebody was coming up the driveway, and let the whole household know.

Question: Why did Shadow sound the alarm? What happened to Shadow’s friendliness?

Parallel question: We’ve been in Galatians, and Paul is clearly agitated. You’ll remember that the issue is what it takes to be accepted by God. Paul is saying that it’s Jesus plus nothing. Others are saying that it’s Jesus plus something else. It doesn’t take long to realize that Paul is agitated over this issue. He basically says that he’s ready to beat up an angel who preaches that we need Jesus plus anything else to be saved. So here’s the question: Why is Paul sounding the alarm? This morning’s passage gets to the heart of this question. And it’s important because we’re going to see why we need to sound the alarm as well whenever the gospel is lost, whenever anyone adds anything to Jesus in order to find acceptance with God.

So here’s the big idea. I’ll give it to you and then we’ll unpack it. Sound the gospel alarm because of what’s at stake, and because of love.

First: Sound the gospel alarm because of what’s at stake.

Look at verses 8 to 11:

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

In these few verses Paul tells us what’s at stake. This is so important for us to see, because we don’t easily see what’s at risk when we add something to Jesus in order to be accepted by God. So Paul gives us three pictures in these verses. He gives us a picture of what we’re like before Christ. Then he gives us a picture of what we’re like when we trust Christ. Then he gives us a picture of what we’re like when we add something to Christ in order to be accepted.

Before Christ - Paul says, “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods.” This is a very insightful description. Paul says that before Christ, we’re enslaved to false gods. He’s talking about their pagan idol-worship. He doesn’t name their false gods, but they would have known the various gods worshiped in the temples. But Paul says something radical. Worshiping anyone or anything other than God through Christ is slavery. He says in 1 Corinthians 10:20:

No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. (1 Corinthians 10:20)

This is our before picture. We’re all by nature worshipers. We’re hardwired to attribute ultimate worth to someone or something bigger than ourselves. It could be a religion. It could be anything: a hobby, a political system, a philosophy, a sport, a job. Everyone worships someone or something bigger than themselves and looks for ultimate meaning.

Paul says that two things are true about all of our worship before we come to Christ. First: it’s demonic. That’s shocking, but think about it. The demons know we’re built to worship, and they’re delighted if we worship anyone or anything other than Christ. They really don’t care what it is as long as it’s not God. Second: it’s enslaving. Whatever we worship other than God will enslave us. Tim Keller says, “If anything but Jesus is a requirement for being happy or worthy, that thing will become our slavemaster.” David Powlison puts it like this:

“[Your] idols define good and evil in ways contrary to God's definitions. [They spin out a whole false belief system.] They establish a locus of control that is earth-bound: either in objects (e.g. lust for money), other people (e.g.‘I need to please my father’), or myself (e.g. attainment of my personal goals). Such false gods create false laws, false definitions of success and failure, of values and stigma. Idols promise blessings and warn of curses for those who succeed or fail [their standards]. ‘If I [make enough money], I will be secure. If I can get these certain people to like and respect me, then my life will be valid.’....”

Let’s just pause here because this is so important. This is the picture of everyone who does not know Jesus Christ. We’re all worshipers. We all look to someone or something other than God for our ultimate meaning. And we’re all enslaved to whatever that is. The demons love for us to worship, as long as we’re worshiping someone or something other than God.

When we trust Christ - But then Paul gives us a picture of what happens when we come to know the power of the gospel. He says, “But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God…” Before, we didn’t know God. When we heard the gospel, we came to know God. Know doesn’t mean just head knowledge. It means to know personally and relationally. It’s the knowledge that comes from friendship, not from reading a set of facts.

But I love what Paul says here. He does say we came to know God, but then he stops himself and says, “or rather to be known by God.” This reminds me of the ending of Tim Keller’s excellent book The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism. A woman prayed “God, help me find you,” but she never seem to get anywhere. One day a friend told her to try praying, “God, come and find me.” And he did. God finds us more than we find him. Before we ever knew God, God knew us. God chose us. We became the objects of his love. We know God because God knew us first. He loves us and graciously chose us to be his own.

So that’s the before picture: enslaved to false gods. Then we have the gospel picture: knowing God because he first knew us. Then we have one more picture.

When we add something to Christ - He writes, “…how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?” Don’t miss what Paul is saying here. Paul is saying that adding anything to Jesus in order to be accepted by God is another form of idol-worship. This is shocking! Trying to earn God’s approval by our own efforts is no better than paganism. Justification by works is just as demonic and enslaving as idol-worship.

What Paul is saying is that there are two ways to be lost. There are two ways to reject God, and the demons are happy with either one. One way to reject God is to worship idols and look for our ultimate meaning and satisfaction in anything other than God. The other way to be lost and enslaved is to be religious and to base our acceptance on anything other than Jesus.

Do you see what Paul is saying? He’s saying that there are a lot of people who think they’re Christians who are no better off than idol-worshipers. He’s saying that the demons are quite happy if we come to church and read our Bibles and be really good people, as long as we’re basing our acceptance on our good behavior rather than on the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. It’s demonic and it’s enslaving, and the demons are thrilled with this version of Christianity. Nobody’s put it better than Michael Horton:

What would things look like if Satan actually took over a city? The first frames in our imaginative slide show probably depict mayhem on a massive scale: Widespread violence, deviant sexualities, pornography in every vending machine, churches closed down and worshipers dragged off to City Hall. Over a half-century ago, Donald Grey Barnhouse, pastor of Philadelphia's Tenth Presbyterian Church, gave his CBS radio audience a different picture of what it would look like if Satan took control of a town in America. He said that all of the bars and pool halls would be closed, pornography banished, pristine streets and sidewalks would be occupied by tidy pedestrians who smiled at each other. There would be no swearing. The kids would answer 'Yes, sir,' 'No, ma'am,' and the churches would be full on Sunday ... where Christ is not preached.

Do you see what’s at stake? We’re in danger of embracing something that looks like Christianity but is basically just a Christian version of paganism. Why should we sound the gospel alarm? Because when we get fuzzy on the gospel, when we begin to trust our own performance, when we lose sight of the cross, it’s actually more dangerous than when we were pagans because we don’t even realize what’s going on.

Paul is saying that there are two ways to be demonically enslaved. One is to reject Christ and Christianity and find ultimate meaning in worshiping something or someone else. But the other way is to attend church and sing hymns and worship God but trust in something other than Christ in order to be accepted by God. If you do this, you’re just as lost, and the demons are just as happy.

There’s only one way to avoid being demonically enslaved: to put your hope in Jesus and nothing else for your salvation; to look to Christ and the cross as your only hope. This is why Paul sounds the alarm. There’s so much at stake. It’s why we have to sound the alarm as well.

There’s a second reason why we need to sound the gospel alarm.

Second: Sound the gospel alarm out of love.

The next few verses are some of the most intimate and painful verses to read in all of Paul’s writings. In these next verses Paul sound the alarm not just because of what’s at stake; he sounds the alarm because he loves the Galatians. We see that one of the reasons we need to speak up is because he loves the Galatians and he wants them to experience the gospel in all its dimensions.

To go back to Shadow: it’s sometimes hard to see much love in a bark. A bark can be annoying. That’s why they sell bark collars. People get tired of hearing dogs bark. When we first moved into our current house, the dog next door would sometimes bark well into the night. We repeated a phrase when we heard the dog bark a lot: Shoot the dog. We never did, but we seriously thought about it. Barking isn’t always welcome, and it’s hard to see much love in a bark. It’s the same with Paul. Paul has raised the alarm, and it may have been hard at first to see Paul’s heart. But in this passage he opens his heart, and we see nothing but love. Love is the reason that Paul is so concerned about the Galatians losing the gospel.

You see Paul’s love for the Galatians in three ways in this passage. You actually get a beautiful picture of what ministry is like from this passage. It applies whether you’re a pastor or a youth leader or a Sunday school teacher.

Ministry involves entering people’s worlds. “Brothers, I entreat you, become as I am, for I also have become as you are” (Galatians 4:12). Paul was a Jew, a Pharisee. He was very committed to the law. But the Galatians were Gentiles. To reach them, Paul became as they were, free from the Mosaic law. Paul, even though he was Jewish, became like a Gentile, and now he’s amazed that they as Gentiles are trying to live like Jews. But here you see the lengths to which Paul was prepared to go to reach them. He entered their world and lived in it. You can’t minister from a distance. You need to get close enough and enter into their lives.

Ministry involves reciprocity. You see in verses 13 to 15 that the relationship became a mutual one. The Galatians received Paul and cared for him. They were prepared to sacrifice for him. They loved him. They welcomed him with joy, and his presence gave them a blessing. You see that. Ministry is highly relational. Not only did Paul serve the Galatians, but the Galatians also served him.

Ministry involves anguish. You see this in verses 16 to 20. The false teachers wanted to benefit from the Galatians so that they could receive flattery in return. When you need someone to need you, then you can’t give them what they really need. In contrast, Paul was willing to give the Galatians what they need even if caused him anguish — and it did. In verse 19, he compares what he’s feeling with the anguish of childbirth. Paul, a man, compares himself to a mother who’s giving birth to them for the second time. I’m certain that most mothers here would say that one birth per child is about all that you can take. As wonderful as your children are, you don’t want to give birth to any one of them more than once. But Paul’s saying that it’s almost like going back to the beginning, going through all that pain again. He finds himself in anguish and perplexed because of what is going on.

I like what somebody said about writing. Writing is simple; you just open a vein and bleed. The same is true about parenting. It’s incredibly simple. You just have a child and then devote the next 40 or so years of your life sacrificing everything for them. Simple. Paul would say the same thing about ministry. All that it takes is entering their world, loving and being loved, and being in anguish for their sakes.

Paul is concerned because of what’s at stake, but he’s also concerned because he loves them. Paul wants the best for them. I’m glad that he included this part of the letter because it gives us a window into his heart.

I’m glad this passage came up, because it really gets to the heart of why I wanted us to look at Galatians this Fall. This passage really gets at the heart of why we’re spending so much time going through this book.

First, there’s so much at stake. I hope you see the importance of the gospel. I hope you understand that there are two ways to be lost. One is to reject the Christ and the gospel. The other is to appear to accept it, but then to add to Christ. Both are demonic. Both lead to enslavement. The devil is delighted with both. I hope you are seeing that the gospel is different from either option. Whenever you add anything to Jesus, you subtract from him. I hope you are getting the importance of the gospel, which is that Jesus has done everything necessary for us to be right with God. He is the only basis of our acceptance with God.

Second, I hope you know how much I love you. That’s my concern. I’ve been here 13 years. What Paul says, I think I can say. We have a history. I’ve sacrificed for you; you’ve sacrificed for me. I’ve been in anguish many times over you. That’s why I care.

If you want to know why I’m barking mad about the gospel, those are the two reasons why. I’m sounding the gospel alarm because of what’s at stake, and because of love.

The Law and the Promise (Galatians 3:15-25)

I want to take you back a number of years. I was a fairly new and inexperienced pastor in my first church. One day we had a couple show up. They were from another church, which they said was legalistic. They wanted to know if we were a church that believed in grace and didn’t believe in the law.

Talk about a gift! It’s always exciting to get new people out to church. I assured them that we were a church that believed in grace, and that we wouldn’t put up with legalism.

A while later it came out that the male in the couple was engaged in some sin in his life. I confronted him about it, and he was aghast. He said, “I thought that this wasn’t a legalistic church!” They left the church and I never saw them again. I think they went to a new church and complained about me.

But as a young pastor, it made me think. Here’s the issue: if we are saved by grace through faith, then what is the law of God all about? What’s up with the 613 commands of the law in the Old Testament? More practically, does it mean that we can live however we please from now on? You get the idea: if the gospel is Jesus plus nothing is all we need, then we really don’t need the law. We may as well chuck it and just live by grace. There’s a lot of confusion over this issue, and I have to admit that it’s easy to end up muddled over this issue.

Let me give you an example. The psalmist wrote:

Oh how I love your law!
It is my meditation all the day.
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies,
for it is ever with me.
(Psalm 119:97-98)

So the law is good. We should meditate on the law. It can make us wise. It should always be with us. But then you have what we’ve been reading in Galatians that seem to be pretty negative about the law. So we’re left confused. Is the law a good thing, or a bad thing?

Well, this is not a new question. And it’s not just an abstract discussion for us as well. The guy who came up to me at my first church got this wrong, and it led him into sin and confusion. He completely dismissed the value of the law. But you can also make the opposite mistake and become legalistic in your thinking. John Piper says:

Legalism is a greater menace to the church than alcoholism…Alcoholics are in a tragic bondage. And we must do all we can to help. But legalism is more subtle and more pervasive and, in the end, more destructive. Satan clothes himself as an angel of light and makes the very commandments of God his base of operations. And the human heart is so inveterately proud and unsubmissive that it often uses religion and morality to express its rebellion.

So what about the law? Is the law important to Christians or not? Paul answers this question by telling us two things in this passage. We need to understand both if we’re going to get it right. First, he says that the law was never meant to replace grace. Second, he says that the law does have a purpose in the Christian life: to lead us to Christ. So let’s look at each of these. What I want to do is to explain what Paul says, and then tell you what it means for us.

First: The law was never meant to replace grace.

Here’s the question Paul was dealing with in this first section in verses 15 to 19. The implied question is this: Why all these years did God require Israel to follow the law and to be circumcised? It seems like a pretty major change. All of a sudden Paul comes along and says that you need Jesus plus nothing else in order to be accepted by God. That’s fine, but what about the entire Old Testament? What do you do with Moses who received the Ten Commandments directly from God? It seems like they have a pretty convincing argument here. And if they’re right, then we have a pretty big problem here, because it would seem that we need Christ plus the law in order to be accepted by God. Paul’s entire argument would come crashing down, and we would be put back under the power of the law once again.

The question is really about when God began to come up with a way to save people who are sinners. There’s actually a bit of a legal question here.

Years ago my father loaned one of my brothers some money to buy a house, to be repayable to his estate upon his death. Because of the nature of the agreement, we got together and agreed how things were going to be handled. It’s one of those situations in which it’s better to avoid any possible confusion right up front. So we drafted a one-page agreement on how this was going to be handled. We filed it away in a safe place. We knew that one day we would all have to pull out this binding agreement. If somebody tried to make something up, we could all point to this piece of paper and say, “Look! We’ve already decided how all of this is going to happen.”

That’s essentially what was happening with the Galatians. Paul was talking about grace and faith. Some were pulling out what they thought was a binding agreement between God and his people, and the binding agreement basically said, “Keep the law! Be circumcised!” They thought they had Paul backed into a corner.

To top it off, covenants are unbreakable. Once a covenant is made, you can’t go back and just change it.

So what is Paul going to do? How is he going to answer this?

Read verse 15:

To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.

Just stop there for a minute. You can picture some of Paul’s opponents, the Judaizers, nodding, and saying, “Uh huh! Even Paul agrees that the law given to Moses can’t be annulled or added to once it’s been ratified.” It really looks like an airtight case at this point.

But go on. Verses 16 to 18 say:

Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

This is amazing. Look at what Paul does here. He gets us to agree that if God makes a covenant, that it’s a binding one. Then he reminds us that the covenant we need to pay attention to is not the covenant with Moses (the law) but the covenant with Abraham. What’s the covenant with Abraham? In Genesis 22, God said to Abraham:

I will surely bless you, and I will surely multiply your offspring as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of his enemies, and in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed, because you have obeyed my voice. (Genesis 22:17-18)

So what’s Paul’s point? Paul actually has three points:

First: The promises of grace made to Abraham come before the requirements of the law, and they can’t be changed. Paul is actually arguing that God gave Abraham the gospel long before he ever gave Moses the law. So the gospel is not something that Paul just invented. The gospel has been there all along, all the way back to Abraham.

Second: The promises of grace have been all about Jesus right from the beginning. This is mind-blowing. What did God promise Abraham. That by sheer grace, “in your offspring shall all the nations of the earth be blessed.” Paul notices here that offspring is singular. What Paul realizes is that before God ever gave us the law, God gave us a promise: that a singular descendent of Abraham would bless every nation in the earth. God’s whole plan right from Abraham’s day was to send one person who would bless all nations. Do you see what Paul says in verse 16? “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, ‘And to your offspring,’ who is Christ.” God’s intention all along was to save us not by the law, but through the gracious gift of his Son. This isn’t new, Paul says. The gospel goes all the way back to Abraham.

Third: the law is subordinate to God’s promise to bless the world through Abraham. Why? Because it was given first, and can’t be annulled. Also, in verse 20, because the promise to Abraham was given directly by God to Abraham, whereas the law was given through intermediaries. The promise, therefore, is in every way superior to the law. The law has always been subordinate to grace. That’s the way it’s been right from the beginning.

Look, this seems hard to follow, so stick with me for a minute. The question is an important one: Is our relationship with God based on the law, which we break, or is it based on the free gift of grace that comes from God? Paul says it’s always been about the promise of grace. It’s always been about grace, not by the law. This is not a New Testament invention. It’s been that way right from the beginning. It’s always been about Jesus; it’s always been about being accepted by God on the basis of grace through faith.

This makes all the difference in the world to us. Almost everything we do in life is based on performance. If you go to school, you get grades based on your papers and tests. If you work, you get reviews and you get measured against standards. We’re hardwired to judge ourselves based on performance. Brett Favre, holder of many NFL passing records, three-time MVP, and 10-time all-pro, Super Bowl XXXI champion, said, “You're only as good as your last pass.” That’s the way we are tempted to live. But Paul tells us that it was never meant to be this way.

Here we see the sweetness of the gospel from which we derive great comfort. We are not right with God by our obedience but by our faith in God’s promise…The law says: Do this. The gospel says: Accept this…The devil wants to discourage you and tell you that you can never be right with God because of your failures. But the gospel says that we are right with God because of God’s promise of life in Christ. (Thomas Schreiner)

Or, as Philip Ryken put it, “Salvation in Christ does not rest on a law that we inevitably break; it rests on a promise that God cannot break.”

Let me give you an example of how we can apply this. A student came to a Christian professor at a university. He confessed that he was a practicing homosexual. “I feel like a slave,” he said. The professor responded, “You are a slave.” He began to teach him about how to gain freedom from sin through Jesus Christ.

The student loved this. But one thing held him back: he really believed that he wasn’t good enough for God. How could God forgive him for everything that he had done? He said to the professor, “First I must become a Christian like you. Then God will love me.”

The professor replied, “I’m no better than you are, except for the love and power of God. He loves you now as you are.” Do you see that? God does not deal with us based on our performance, but on the basis of his promise. No matter who we are, no matter what we have done, we hold on to the promise that God made before the law. Pull out the irrevocable promise that God made before he gave the law, that points to Jesus Christ, and remind yourself that it cannot be broken. Salvation is by God’s grace. We don’t have to work to receive it.

So that’s the first thing that Paul is telling us. The law was never meant to replace grace. Grace always comes first. It’s been that way right from the beginning.

You can picture what some people are thinking. If this is the case, then what good is the law? Why did God give us the law then in the first place? Paul answers this question in verses 19 to 24.

The law was given to lead us to Christ.

Let me see if I can explain this. Paul says, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions…” Several years ago they built a high-rise hotel in Galveston, Texas, overlooking the Gulf of Mexico. They sank pilings into the gulf and built the structure out over the water. When the hotel was about to have its grand opening, someone thought, What if people decide to fish out the hotel windows? So they placed signs in the hotel rooms, "No fishing out the hotel windows." Many people ignored the signs, however, and it created a difficult problem. Lines got snarled. People in the dining room saw fish flapping against the picture windows. The manager of the hotel solved it all by taking down those little signs. No one checks into a hotel room thinking about fishing out of the windows. The signs, though well-intentioned, created the problem. That’s what happened with the law. In a sense it provokes us.

Let me put it this way. I have some allergies. Every couple of years I have to go to an allergist. They put some different irritants on my skin and then prick my skin with a needle. They’re trying to provoke a reaction in me. Why? Because provoking an allergic reaction is the only way to reveal what allergies I have. That’s very similar to what the law does. It pricks our skins and causes a reaction that reveals the condition of our sinful hearts so that we can see what’s wrong with us. Martin Luther said:

The true function and the chief and proper use of the Law is to reveal to man his sin, blindness, misery, wickedness, ignorance, hate and contempt of God, death, hell, judgment, and the well-deserved wrath of God.

That’s why Paul gives us two images here. First, he says, the law is like a prison in verse 22. The law can’t make us right with God. It can only imprison us. But in prison we begin to long for freedom. We begin to long for a Savior. The law helps us recognize our need of Christ.

The other image he gives is in verses 24 and 25. This one needs a bit more explanation. In wealthy Greek families back then, children were raised by guardians or pedagogues. This pedagogue would serve as the child’s protector and disciplinarian from the age of six to adolescence. Drawings usually depict the pedagogue holding a rod or a cane to administer punishment. The relationship was often very close, but it was disciplinary, and it was temporary. One great writer said, “When a boy ceases to be a child, and begins to be a lad, others release him from his ‘pedagogue’ and from his teacher; he is then no longer under them, but is allowed to go his own way.” In the same way, Paul says, the law was needed for discipline on a temporary basis until Christ came.

So the law isn’t contrary to the gospel. The law anticipates the gospel. It helps us realize our need for the gospel. It isn’t opposed to grace; it actually leads us to grace. That’s why we still need to know God’s law. John Stott said:

Not until the law has bruised and smitten us will we admit the need of the gospel to bind up our wounds. Not until the law has arrested and imprisoned us will we pine for Christ to set us free. Not until the law has condemned and killed us will we call upon Christ for justification and life. Not until the law has driven us to despair of ourselves will be ever believe in Jesus. Not until the law has humbled us even to hell will we ever turn to the gospel to raise us to heaven.

For two summers, the Chicago Cubs showed us what this looks like. They first traded for Vance Law and started him at third base. A few months later, they brought up first baseman Mark Grace from the minor leagues. So they had Law and Grace, right next to each other in the batting order. They even had them in the right order: Grace came first, and then Law. They stood in opposite corners on the baseball diamond, holding down first and third base. “Opposing batters would smash the ball to third, where Law would knock it down and throw it over to first for the out…Law to Grace to retire the side.”

Philip Ryken says, “Law and grace are not opponents; they are teammates working together for the salvation of God’s people. The law leads to grace, which can be found only in Christ.”`

That’s why if someone came up to me today and said, “Do you believe in grace?” I’d say, “Yes!” I’d tell them that grace is where it all began all the way back to Abraham. I’d say that salvation does not rest on a law that we inevitably break; it rests on a promise that God cannot break.

But then if they asked me if I was opposed to the law, I’d say, “Absolutely not!” The law is designed to lead us to Christ. It provokes us so that we realize what we’re really like, and then it drives us to Christ. It can’t save us, but it drives us to someone who can.

The law wasn’t meant to replace grace; it was meant to lead us to Christ.

Finish the Way You Start (Galatians 3:1-14)

In 1859, the famous tight-rope walker Charles Blondin traveled to Niagara Falls. He stretched a three-inch wire over the gorge. There, suspended on this wire, he walked 1100 feet from one side to the other. He did this a number of times: blindfolded, in a sack, pushing a wheelbarrow, on stilts, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelet and standing on a chair with only one chair leg on the rope.

But that’s not all. He also carried a man on his back over that tightrope. This must be one of the best examples of trust ever placed by one human in another. It’s either brave or stupid. Blondin carried his manager on his back from one side of the Falls to the other. I don’t care if it was his manager; that goes beyond an honest day’s work.

Imagine if halfway across the manager had said to Blondin, “Look, I appreciate that you’ve taken me this far, but I really don’t trust you anymore. I think I’ll do the rest myself. Let me down, and I’ll take it from here.” Can you imagine? He’d be a dead manager from that point on. Having been carried that far, why in the world would he think that he could get the rest of the way across by himself?

It sounds ridiculous, but that is the very situation that Paul addresses in this passage. This is possibly one of the greatest misconceptions about the Christian life. I hope you’re clear that you’re accepted by God based only on Jesus and nothing else. I hope that if you’ve been with us so far, you’ve got that. But I sense that there is a lot of confusion going on. Once we’re Christians, how do we grow? How do we get the rest of the way? Having been justified (declared righteous before God), how are we sanctified (made holy)? There’s a lot of confusion and debate over this issue.

Let me tell you why this is an important question. One of my pastor friends went to see a famous chef in Toronto recently. Somebody asked him a question about what it was like to be on TV and to have published books that are read by millions of people. He said that it’s frustrating. Why? Because all these people are watching his TV show, and reading his books, and they’re still not eating well. They’re still eating garbage food that’s not healthy. All these people are hearing his message, but they’re not changing. My pastor friend leaned to his wife and said, “I know how he feels.”

That’s the problem, isn’ it? We know what it takes to become a Christian, but we’re not always growing as much as we’d like. We need to know not just how to begin the Christian life, but how to change.

Here’s the most common answer to that question if we’re going to be honest, and it’s the mistake that Paul is confronting in this passage. A lot of us act as if we’re saved by grace through faith, but then it’s up to us to grow. We believe we get into the Christian life by God’s grace, but then it’s up to us. It’s like we get to the middle of the tightrope and say, “I think I’ll take it from here.”

This is a crucial question, because we need to know how we grow. So let me walk you through this passage. We’re going to see three things in this passage.

  • First: that the entire Christian life is based on faith, not performance
  • Second: that this is the way it’s always been
  • Third: that there could be no other way

First: The entire Christian life is based on faith, not performance.

Paul begins this passage by saying, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?” He’s saying, “Are you completely out of your mind? What in the world are you thinking?” He’s looking at the Galatians, and he’s incredulous. Here’s the issue, according to the rest of verse 1, right down to verse 3:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

What Paul identifies here is actually one of the greatest issues we have to face. This is absolutely profound. Paul is talking about when the Galatians first heard the gospel and became believers. The power of the Holy Spirit was clearly at work in their lives. The Bible clearly teaches that, when we become Christians, at conversion, the Holy Spirit is poured into our hearts, and that those who are genuine Christians have the Spirit living within them. The Holy Spirit is God’s seal and guarantee that he will complete his work (2 Corinthians 1:22).

So here’s his question: How did you become a Christian and receive the gift of the Holy Spirit? The answer that they would give is, “I became a Christian and received the Spirit because I heard the gospel message with faith.” The gospel is the good news that Jesus Christ has made a way for us to be accepted by God through his death and resurrection. To use the tightrope analogy, you became a Christian not by thinking you could cross over that chasm by yourself, but by placing your trust in Christ to do what you couldn’t do for yourself. Did they receive the Holy Spirit because they were circumcised, or kept the works of the law? No! The Holy Spirit never takes up residence in our lives because we’ve cleaned ourselves up and because we’re good enough. No, the Holy Spirit entered our lives when we heard and received the gospel message by faith. We are not saved by doing, Paul says. We’re saved by hearing. We don’t become Christians by doing anything to earn God’s acceptance. We become Christians when he hear the gospel preached and place our faith in Christ.

Given this, Paul then asks, “Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” The answer of course is, “Duh, no.” What Paul is saying is this: Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. Anything else would be ridiculous. It would be foolish to start one way and finish another. God had promised in the Old Testament:

And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. (Ezekiel 36:26-27)

Now that God has kept this promise, and given us the Holy Spirit to live within us and change us from the inside-out, it would be foolish to think we could improve on this with a new strategy. It would be utterly foolish to think we reject the Holy Spirit and rely on our own steam to get the job done.

Here’s the main question. Are we saved by the Spirit and faith, and then we move on to progressing in the Christian life through works and human effort? Absolutely not, Paul says. We are saved by the Spirit and faith, and then we progress in exactly the same way. We progress by the Spirit working in our lives, and as we in faith return to the gospel message and put our full and complete trust in Christ in every area of our lives.

I like how John Piper puts it:

The essence of the Galatian heresy is the teaching that you begin the Christian life by faith, and then you grow in the Christian life by works, that is, by drawing on powers in yourself to make your contribution to salvation. One modern form of the heresy is: "God helps those who help themselves." … Faith is the only response to God's Word which makes room for the Spirit to work in us and through us. Flesh, on the other hand, is the insubordinate, self-determining ego which in religious people responds to God's Word not with reliance on the Spirit but with reliance on self. It can produce a very rigorous morality, but it nullifies grace and removes the stumbling block of the cross.

I hope you can see that the essential mark of a Christian is not how far you have progressed in sanctification, but on what you are relying to get there. Are you striving for sanctification by works? Or are you striving for sanctification by faith?

There could be some confusion here, so let me clarify. Paul is not saying that we should passively sit and do nothing while we wait for God to change us. This is not passive at all. The issue here is how we’re going to change. And Paul says that the power to change doesn’t come from ourselves; it comes from the Spirit. It still takes effort, but it’s grace-driven effort.

This is so important. Verse 3 is one of the most important verses for the Christian life. I love how Thomas Schreiner says:

As Christians we need to relearn the gospel every day. We are prone to wander, as the old hymn says, and hence we may act as if a spell has been cast over us. The Christian life is a battle to rely on the gospel, and even as Christians we are inclined to look to ourselves and trust in our own achievements rather than relying solely on the cross of Christ. In our counseling and our preaching and our teaching we must summon people over and over to the cross of Christ and call them to look away from themselves and focus on Christ. We may slowly drift from the gospel, just as the Galatians did. The problems Paul addressed in Galatians remind us all that the Christian life cannot be lived on autopilot, that there is a daily struggle to grasp the gospel.

That’s the principle that we have to grasp. You continue the Christian life the same way that you started it: by grace through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. We grow by grace.

Paul also shows us:

Second: This is the way it’s always been.

This gets to the heart of one of the biggest mistakes we make when we’re reading the Bible. It’s one of the reasons we have the wrong idea about how to grow in the Christian life. If you ask most people what the Bible is about, they’ll tell you it’s about how to live a good, moral life. It’s about how to be a good person. If you ask about the stories of the Bible, many will tell you they’re stories that show you how to be a good person. The Bible becomes a how-to book that provides examples of people we should imitate.

There’s a problem with this approach though. It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the Bible is all about. You see that in this passage as it relates to Abraham, who is the father of the Jewish people, and to whom many of the most important promises were made. Paul writes: “…just as Abraham ‘believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness’”. This is so important. When we look at Abraham’s life, what should we learn? You could focus on Abraham as an example of good works. He picked up and moved when God told him to. He was ready to give up his son when God asked him to. Was Abraham saved because of his good works? Is that the lesson we’re supposed to take away from his life? No, Paul says. Paul was saved exactly the same way that we were saved. He was saved by grace through faith. And through faith, he was counted righteous before God.

The term Paul uses is an accounting term. I went to the bank the other day with a check. The check was from someone who normally doesn’t write checks to me, and the amount was large enough that they were nervous about it. She told me she’d have to put a hold on the check, and that it would take days to clear. I asked her to check with the manager. She did, and she came back, and she typed all these things in the computer. I’d love to know everything she was typing; it looked like she was writing a novel. Then she smiled and handed me the receipt. That money was reckoned to me. It was deposited to my account.

That’s what happened to Abraham, Paul said. Abraham was not saved by depositing his good works, even though he did some good things. No, he was saved when by grace he trusted God. His faith was counted to him as righteousness. Paul is saying that Abraham was saved exactly the same way that we were, by God’s grace, not by his own righteousness. God has always operated this way. There are not two ways to get to God. There is only one way, and it’s through faith, and not through good works.

That’s why we need faith if we’re going to belong to Abraham’s family. Remember, Paul is writing to Gentiles who are being pressured to be circumcised, to become Jewish, if they want to be saved. Paul writes:

Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Do you see that? Twice Paul says, “It it those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.” He’s saying that it’s not circumcision that makes you a spiritual child of Abraham. There are many people who are circumcised who are not part of God’s family. It is faith that makes us part of Abraham’s family, and the recipient of the promises made to Abraham. Our right standing before God comes from believing what God has given us in Jesus Christ. We are not saved by what we do; we’re saved by believing in God. There is only one way of salvation.

Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. That’s the way it’s always worked.

One application: if this is the story of the Bible, we need to change the way we read the Bible! The Bible is not a book full of heroes we should emulate. God is the hero. Abraham and every other person we call a hero is actually a recipient of God’s grace. This completely changes the way we read Scripture. Instead of seeing them as people who were good enough, we can begin to see them as people who trusted God. And we can begin to see how this worked out in their lives. The Bible communicates that we grow through our faith, and it does so from start to finish.

There’s one more thing we need to see in this passage if we’re going to get the message:

Third: There could be no other way.

This is why it’s so important to get this through our heads. If we try to live the Christian life by our own strength, we’ll only end up condemned. We’ll never measure up. There is no way we can live on our own strength and succeed.

In verses 10 to 14 he contrasts two ways of trying to get God’s approval. One way is to try to keep the law. The problem is that God has pronounced a curse on all who break his law.

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” (Galatians 3:10)

That is a huge problem. Our efforts to keep God’s law always fall short. God pronounces a curse on all who fail to keep all that the law requires. Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed be anyone who does not confirm the words of this law by doing them.” When the Levite priests said this to the people, the people responded, “Amen” or “so be it.” But that leaves us in big trouble. Those who don’t do everything required by the law are cursed. No one does everything required by the law. Therefore, trying to earn God’s approval through keeping the law leads to a curse.

This isn’t very good news! At least not until Paul finishes his thought in verses 13 and 14:

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

We’re under a curse. The only way for that curse to be removed is through what Christ accomplished at the cross. Jesus became cursed in our place. He received our curse so that we could receive his blessing. We have all the blessings of being Abraham’s spiritual dependents through Christ. Nothing else is necessary.

It begins with the cross. It all begins when we hear the gospel message of what Christ accomplished on the cross. It continues the same way. We don’t progress in the Christian life by pulling ourselves up by our own effort. We continue the same way we began; through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. This is how we grow in the Christian life; not under our own steam, but through Spirit-enabled working out of what Jesus did for us at the cross.

If you’re like me, you’re sometimes frustrated by the lack of progress that you see in your own life. Do you ever feel disappointed with yourself? Do you ever find yourself not living up to your own intentions? Do you ever get frustrated with your lack of growth?

Here’s the key. Stop trying to improve yourself. The way you grow is the same as the way you became a Christian. We need to relearn the gospel every day. Again, Thomas Schreiner says:

Focusing on our sinfulness could depress us and discourage us, but God does not intend for us to live with a constant feeling of failure and condemnation. Our sins should drive us to the cross of Christ, where the full payment was made for our sins. God’s love, therefore, becomes exceedingly precious in the way we think and feel in our everyday lives. We acknowledge our sins daily, but we cling to the cross of Christ as the means by which we are forgiven. Hence, when Satan accuses us, we remind ourselves that we are free from all guilt and condemnation (not because we are so good, but because God is so loving and forgiving).

Continue in the Christian life the same way you started: by grace, not performance. Remember that it's always been this way. If you try to live according to your own strength, it will only lead tho condemnation. Live the rest of your Christian life the way you started, through continual trust and dependance in the Holy Spirit and a continual focus on the cross as you live to please him.

In Line With the Gospel (Galatians 2:11-21)

You may have heard on the news about a teacher who bought a lottery ticket in the summer. He had bought the July 8 ticket at a Shell gas bar on Dupont St. in Toronto, put it on his fridge and took off for a summer vacation with his girlfriend, backpacking in Europe and “counting my pennies,’’ oblivious to the fact he had millions of dollars waiting for him at home. It wasn’t until he was back teaching at school that he decided to check a stack of tickets at a grocery store. At first he thought he’d won $21,000 and that made him pretty happy. Then he talked on the phone with lottery spokesman who said, no, it was $21.4 million. He dropped the phone. “I was frozen. I couldn’t believe it,’’ he said. He played hooky Tuesday to pick up his prize.

I really like that image of something that’s worth $21.4 million dollars hanging on the fridge. It sits there for months as just a piece of paper. But eventually it’s recognized as something of value, but not enough value to change one’s life. But it’s only later that the full value of that ticket is realized, and everything changes.

Today we’re coming to one of the most important passages in the book of Galatians. The apostle Paul has been writing about the value of the gospel and how it changes everything. I want you to think of a similar picture. For many of us, we’ve picked up the gospel at some point in our lives, but some of us have put it on our fridge and basically forgotten about it. We’re living our lives counting pennies. The truth of the gospel - that Jesus Christ has made a way for us to be accepted by God through his sacrificial death - is hanging there on our fridge, but we haven’t seen its value. It hasn’t yet become real to us in any way.

But I hope that some of us have reached the stage where it’s starting to get real for us. There was a point that the teacher thought that his ticket was worth $21,000. That may be the case for some of us with the gospel. When you win $21,000, you can have some fun, but you don’t go changing your life. You can buy a car or a new HDTV, but you’re probably not going to quit your job. Some of us have the gospel, and it’s been a nice addition, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed everything about our life.

Today’s passage is about getting to the next level, where the gospel isn’t something just hanging on our fridge, or something that we think is valuable but not life-changing. This passage is about getting to the next level so that we realize that the gospel changes everything. This is a hard level to reach, and we’re going to see how easy it is today to not be there. But my goal today is that you’ll see how important it is.

The message of this passage is this: Don’t just believe the gospel. Cash it in so that you live in line with the gospel. And in this passage we’re going to see two things. First, we’re going to see how easy it is to believe the gospel, but not live in line with it. And then we’re going to see that we must convince ourselves of some key facts so that we don’t just believe the gospel, but that we live in line with it.

First, thought, we see this in the passage in front of us:

It’s easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t.

Remember when the teacher thought he had a $21,000 winning ticket instead of a $21.4 million dollar ticket? That’s the stage I’m talking about here. It’s easy to know the gospel, and in fact to be a believer in Jesus Christ, and even to be a leader in the church, and not live fully in line with what the gospel is. Paul shows us this in verses 11 to 14:

But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

So here’s the situation. We’ve already read of one meeting that took place between Peter and Paul. Paul visited Jerusalem, which has Peter’s home turf, and there they agreed that they were on the same page when it comes to the gospel. We are accepted by God on the basis of Jesus and his finished work, and nothing else. You don’t have to add anything to the finished work of Christ at the cross. They both agreed with this, and they also agreed that this applies equally to everyone.

Now we read of a second meeting that takes place, this time on Paul’s home turf. Peter has come up to Antioch, which has a healthy population of both Jews and Gentiles. If there’s ever a city that has to deal with how the gospel applies both to Jews who keep the Jewish law and Gentiles who don’t, then Antioch is such a city. And it’s here in Antioch that Peter faces a problem. He’s previously eaten with Gentiles. This was a huge deal if you were Jewish. The dietary laws were incredibly strict, and Peter flaunts them knowing that the dietary laws of the Old Testament no longer apply. But now Peter gets some pushback. Some people come and pressure Peter to eat separately and to keep the Jewish dietary laws, and Peter does. Remember, Peter is a key leader in the church. All of a sudden the barrier that Jesus has torn down between Jews and Gentiles is being built again. Peter absolutely believed the gospel, but in his behavior he was acting as if he didn’t.

So look what Paul does. He confronts Peter publicly to his face. This was such an important issue that Paul doesn’t deal with it privately. Paul gets to the heart of the issue in verse 14: “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…” This is the crux of the issue. You have the truth of the gospel: that we can only be accepted by God on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for us at the cross. Then you have the challenge of walking straight in line with the gospel. You can believe the gospel, and yet live like you don’t, Paul is saying. The picture Paul uses is that of walking straight. You know that when an officer suspects you may be drunk, they sometimes make you walk on a straight line. Paul is giving us a gospel sobriety test. He’s asking us to look at how we live to see if we are walking straight in line with the truth of the gospel. And in Peter’s case, he isn’t, and it’s causing tremendous damage.

Think about this. Peter is one of the leaders in the church. If anyone gets the gospel it’s him. And yet he doesn’t fully get it. This shows us how hard it is to fully bring ourselves in line with the gospel. The best of us get it, and at the same time we really don’t. This passage shows us how hard it is for us to really bring our lives - everything, the way we think, feel, and act - in line with the profound truth of the gospel. Tim Keller says, “Christian living is a continual realignment process of bringing everything in line with the truth of the gospel.”

That’s the first thing we see in this passage. It’s so easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t. Even the most mature Christian can lose his or her grip on the gospel and begin to walk out of line. We can do this with ourselves: we are continually tempted to become our own savior and lord rather than trusting Jesus as our Savior and Lord. We can believe that we have to earn God’s approval rather than understanding that our approval has already been won based on what Christ has done for us. And we can do this like Peter did with other people: to begin to create divisions based on non-gospel issues, and to begin to force others to conform to standards that have nothing to do with the gospel.

This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face: of believing the gospel in our heads, but not really working out all of the implications of the gospel in our lives. It’s easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t.

So what does Paul do here? What Paul does in the rest of the chapter, beginning in verse 15, is to tell us one thing:

Convince yourself of some key facts so that you don’t just believe the gospel, but that you live in line with it.

What Paul does here in the rest of the chapter is to tell us how to not just believe the gospel, but to actually walk straight in accordance with the truth of the gospel. He’s telling us how to take the ticket off of our fridge and actually cash it in so that we receive it’s full value. This is really the theological heart of Galatians. There’s so much here that we could spend months talking about it, but let’s focus on the big picture and make sure we understand the broad outlines of what Paul is saying.

How do we move from just believing the gospel to living in line with it? Three things.

First, get it through your head that nobody is accepted by God based on his or her own performance. This gets to the heart of the issue. The problem we have in living in line with the gospel is that we have a really hard time believing that we are completely accepted on the basis of what Jesus has done rather than what we have done. We live like we have to earn God’s approval, rather than really believing in the depths of our being that Jesus has already done this for us. So Paul says in verses 15 and 16:

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

So here’s the fundamental problem that we have. Everyone wants to be justified before God. To be justified means to be declared innocent by God when we stand before him at our judgment. Every single person here wants to stand before God on that day and hear, “Not guilty. This man, this woman, is innocent.”

Now here’s how it works. Most of us understand, at some level, that we are justified before God based on what Jesus Christ has done at the cross. We’re declared righteous not because we have lived perfect lives, but because Jesus has lived a perfect life and paid the penalty for our sins at the cross. But we still live as if we have to earn God’s approval. That’s the very truth that Peter was compromising when he refused to eat with the Gentiles. He was living as if the old rules still mattered, even though he believed that we’re saved by what Christ has done. We keep on slipping back into religion, of thinking that it’s up to us. So the first thing we have to do is to beat into our heads that nobody is saved by what they do. The only hope that we have, no matter who we are, is what Jesus Christ has done. Nobody will stand before God one day and be vindicated based on their own righteousness. Not Peter, not Paul, not Billy Graham. Nobody. We have to beat this into our heads. Nobody is accepted by God based on his or her own performance. That’s the first step we have to take in order to truly live in line with the gospel; stop trying to earn God’s approval through your own effort.

Second, realize that when we try earn God’s approval through our own performance, we’re sinning. Here’s where it gets really serious. It’s not just wrongheaded to think that we can earn God’s righteousness. It’s actually sinful. When we try to live as if we have to earn God’s approval, and when we make others think they have to do certain things on their own to earn God’s approval, we’re not just making a mistake. We’re sinning. Read what Paul says in verses 17 to 19.

But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.

Let’s see if we can make sense in this. Paul is saying that all of us want to be justified, and we have now come to realize that in order to be justified before God, we have realized that we are all sinners. There’s no advantage to being Jewish or religious; everybody is a sinner apart from Christ’s work at the cross. So what happens when we realize this? What happens when good religious people start hanging out with people who are sinners? Does that make Jesus complicit in sin? When religious people start realizing that they’re no better than unwashed sinners, doesn’t that somehow contaminate us? Paul says no. He actually says that when we try to keep the barrier up between us and everybody else, we’re sinning. When we think that some are saved by pure grace, but that we’re saved by grace plus our efforts, then we’re sinning in two ways.

One, we’re sinning by bringing back a set of standards that no longer exists. If Jesus has done away with the law, it’s a sin to bring it back. We’re rebuilding what has been torn down. We’re trying to stay married, as it were, to something that has died. This is complete stupidity, and it’s stupid.

Second, we’re sinning because the standards we’re trying to bring back will condemn us. The problem is that if we try to justify ourselves by our performance, we’ll end up condemned by the very standards we’re trying to bring back. It’s like the politicians who work at passing strict new laws and then end up getting busted by the very laws they’ve created a few years later. Paul says that the very standards we’re trying to bring back are the standards that are going to end up condemning us.

So when we lose the gospel and begin to earn God’s approval through our own efforts, we’re not just wrong, we’re sinful. We try to do this all the time, and Paul says to stop. Don’t make the sinful error of trusting in your own righteousness rather than trusting in what Jesus Christ has done for you at the cross.

That’s what Paul has been saying so far. How do we not just believe the gospel, but live in line with the gospel? Realize that nobody is saved by his or her own performance, and realize that to even try is sinful.

Finally, get the order right. This is so important. J. Gresham Machen pointed out that the real issue in this passage is the order in which things happen. It’s the logical order, not so much a matter of timing as logic. Here’s how it goes. Paul is saying that things go in this order: You put your faith in Christ; you’re accepted by God; then you do good works. The false teachers are putting the order this way: You put your faith in Christ; you do good works; then you are accepted by God. Which is it? It seems like such a small difference, but it makes all the difference in the world. Do we put our faith in Christ and find acceptance and then do good works, or do we believe and do good works and then get accepted by God? Paul says that it’s the first. We simply put our faith in Christ - our complete surrender and trust - and then we’re justified before God and begin to do differently. Look at what he says in verses 20-21:

I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

Here’s what he’s saying. We don’t believe in Christ and then try our best to live pleasing lives, and then we’re accepted. That would be foolish. No, what we do is that we put our faith in Christ. We come to the cross and see what he’s done. At that point we’re not only justified and accepted, but we become so wrapped up in what Jesus has done that we die with him and then Christ begins to live in us. And when we obey it’s not because we’re trying to earn God’s approval; it’s because Christ is living within us. We can’t take any credit for what we’re doing; it’s all because we’re living by faith, and that makes all the difference in the world. John Piper puts it this way:

You don't attain the benefits of the gospel by doing a little moral clean-up job on your life. You attain forgiveness and joy and peace and power through daily reliance upon Jesus Christ who loved you and gave himself for you. But that faith, when it is genuine, creates a rhythm of life that is in step with the truth of the gospel.

Paul is saying that one of our greatest problems is that we believe the gospel, but we live as if it wasn’t true. We believe that we’re saved by faith in Jesus Christ, but we live as if we need Jesus plus our own efforts in order to be saved. Paul is telling us to take that ticket off the fridge and cash it in, to not just believe that we’re saved by grace through faith, but to live that way too. And it will make all the difference in your world.

Look, even Peter got it wrong. Even Peter needed to be corrected here. Maybe you do too.

That teacher had a ticket on his fridge. At first he didn’t even know he had a winner, and he was living on pennies. Then he realized that he had a winning ticket, but he didn’t know how much it was worth. Then he found out what he had, and he dropped the phone in astonishment.

The same thing happens with the gospel. I hope you’ve taken the gospel and realized that you have something valuable there. But some of you think it’s only $21,000 when it’s really worth much more. $21,000 doesn’t change your life; it just let’s you have some fun. The $21,000 gospel doesn’t change your life. But you have a gospel of infinite value that changes everything. Don’t just believe the gospel; live in line with it. Understand that we all stand equal as sinners, and that nobody can earn God’s approval based on our own righteousness. Celebrate the right order: that we can put our faith in Christ, and then be accepted by God, and then have the very life of Jesus Christ living in us so that we’re completely new people. That’s the good news that can completely change your life.

Jesus Plus Nothing (Galatians 2:1-10)

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:

  1. A great deal of ministry to real people is going to be undone
  2. We are going to lose our freedom and become slaves
  3. 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.

Two Examples

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.

Says Who? (Galatians 1:10-24)

It’s not always safe to admit it in a place like this, but some of us have occasionally wondered if this Christianity thing is all true or whether it’s just a human invention. I thought about this as I read the story of Frederica Mathewes-Greene. She had a very strong faith at an early age. She wanted to go into the ministry when she grew older. But when she turned 12 or 13, she had a crisis of faith.

When I was 12 or 13, I began to doubt the entire Christian story. I felt almost as if I'd had somebody try to cheat me. They had fed me this long, complex story about virgin birth, born in a manger, died on a cross, came back to life. It just sounded preposterous to me. I thought that it was something that no normal, sane person could be expected to believe, and I'd been made a fool.

She began to consider atheism, agnosticism, and various other religions. She was really sure that she wanted to reject Christianity, but she really didn’t know what to believe. She eventually chose Hinduism because it seemed to be the most intriguing and colorful of all the different world religions.

I can relate to this because I too had a strong faith as a child. But I remember reaching a point where I began to ask, “Is this for real? Do I just believe this because it’s my mother’s religion?” You discover that there are lots of people who are willing to help you doubt Christianity. As comedian Ricky Gervais put it:

I used to believe in God. The Christian one that is. I loved Jesus. He was my hero.

[But later on] I was sitting at the kitchen table when my brother came home...I was happily drawing my hero [Jesus] when my big brother Bob asked, "Why do you believe in God?" Just a simple question. But my mum panicked. "Bob," she said in a tone that I knew meant, "Shut up." Why was that a bad thing to ask? If there was a God and my faith was strong, it didn't matter what people said.

Oh ... hang on. There is no God. [My brother] knows it, and [my mom] knows it deep down. It was as simple as that. I started thinking about it and asking more questions, and within an hour, I was an atheist.

Is this whole thing a human invention? That’s the question we have to wrestle with, because if it is we’re wasting our time. If it isn’t, then everything changes.

In fact, that is the very question that this morning’s passage deals with. The question of the passage this morning is quite simple: Where did Christianity come from? Is it a human invention?

Let me tell you a little bit about what’s behind this passage. The apostle Paul is writing to churches that he’s planted. He had visited their area - south-central Turkey - and had told them about Jesus Christ. In particular, he had told them about Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who had died in the place of sinners so that all could become part of God’s people. This was a radical message. You didn’t have to be one of Abraham’s descendants to be included; Jesus opened the way for everyone.

But Paul is no longer on the scene. And some other teachers had come in, and they were saying something like this: “We’re well connected with the church, and we need to tell you that Paul did not give you the whole story. He’s given you the gospel on the cheap. Gentiles can become part of God’s people through faith in Christ, but you still have to obey the law of Moses.”

All of a sudden you have two competing versions of the gospel. The problem with two competing versions of the gospel is that you’re now in the realm of human opinion. We’re then left with something that’s very subjective. “Is Paul right? I don’t know, what do you think?” If Christianity is something subjective, then pretty soon we’re left wondering whose version of Christianity is really right.

Look, here’s the deal. You’re in a Fellowship Baptist church this morning. There’s a whole other Baptist denomination in our city that’s different from us. That’s not to mention all the other Baptists. And Baptists are only part of the picture. You have independent churches, and all kinds of other denominations as well: Anglicans, Presbyterians, Pentecostals, AGC, Alliance. And those are only the Protestant denominations. You also have the Roman Catholic church and the Orthodox church. And those are only the Christians. You also have other religions: Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism. And you also have atheism and agnosticism, not to mention the custom-made, do-it-yourself belief systems. Who’s to say we’re right?

Don’t feel guilty asking these questions! These are the very questions that you should be asking. The good news is that Paul is going to help us sort this out. He’s going to tell us three things about the Christianity this morning. First, it’s not a matter of human opinion. Second, it didn’t originate from any human source. Finally, he’ll help us understand why there are so many churches despite the fact that there is only one gospel.

Here’s the first thing we need to know:

One: The gospel is not a matter of human opinion.

This is so important. If we don’t understand what Paul says here, we won’t have any confidence in the gospel, because who’s to say which gospel is right? Who knows whether Paul is right, or his opponents? Who’s to say that the gospel we preach is right? Paul helps us get past this problem, because the first thing he tells us here is that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion. It’s not a debate between different scholars and denominations.

Look at verse 10 with me:

For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.

There’s a very important lesson in this verse. When it comes to the gospel, how much does human approval matter? Paul tells us here: it counts for nothing. Remember: Paul is countering the charge that he is preaching a gospel that’s catered to a particular audience. Paul defends himself by saying that you can’t cater the gospel to a particular audience without losing it altogether. You face a choice: please God by sticking with the gospel, or displease God by tweaking the gospel? You can’t do both. Paul is saying that human opinion doesn’t even factor into the gospel he’s preaching, because his concern is fidelity to what God has revealed. Human opinion about whether or not people like the gospel doesn’t even enter into it.

Read what Paul says in verse 11:

For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man's gospel.

Paul says that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion. The gospel did not come from anyone’s opinion, including his own. You could translate last part of verse 11, “The gospel I preached is not of human origin.” Literally, it’s not from flesh and blood. Jesus once said to Peter, his disciple, “For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 16:17).

Paul is saying that the gospel is not a matter of human opinion, because it doesn’t come from any human. What’s more, human opinion doesn’t even factor into it, because you can’t please God if you’re concerned about tweaking the gospel to please others. C.S. Lewis said it well: “Christianity must be from God, for who else could have thought it up!”

Here’s what it means: we don’t get a vote on what the gospel is, because the gospel doesn’t originate from any human being. The gospel is not something that changes according to the poll numbers. The gospel is not a matter of human opinion.

Two: The gospel comes from God himself, not from any human source.

We’ve seen Paul hint at this already. If Paul says that he didn’t get the gospel from any human source, where in the world did he get it from? If it didn’t come from church councils or secret meetings of key leaders in the church, how does Paul even know what the gospel is? Look at verse 12:

For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.

This is shocking. Paul was not somebody who was going along trying to figure out what the gospel is. On the contrary, verses 13 and 14 detail his life before he encountered Jesus Christ. He was determined to wipe out the church. He hated the gospel and he wanted to eradicate the church. He was a young and rising star in Judaism and had absolutely no interest in the gospel at all.

But something happened, according to verses 15 and 16. It’s not something that happened as a result of some fluke or coincidence, according to Paul. It happened because God intended for it to happen before Paul was born. It wasn’t a matter of Paul’s doing; it is completely because God took the initiative. By the way, that’s exactly how God works in our lives too. If you’ve responded to the gospel and put your faith in Christ, it’s not the result of some fluke or coincidence. God set you apart from before you were even born, and he took the initiative.

But then Paul tells us where he got his understanding of the gospel. Read verses 12 and 15 16 together:

For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ...But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me...

Acts 9 tells the story. Paul was on his way to Damascus when Jesus Christ appeared to him. It wasn’t a vision; Jesus himself appeared. Paul saw the risen Jesus Christ on the Damascus road, and “the gospel in all its glory and beauty was disclosed to him” (Thomas Schreiner). Paul didn’t get the gospel second-hand or third-hand; he got the gospel right from Jesus Christ himself.

I was sitting with some friends a while ago discussing a fairly famous incident that had taken place among some prominent people years ago. I began to wonder out loud what some of the famous people involved in the incident would say now. I had some guesses because I’ve read books about the incident. One of my friends said, “It’s interesting you should ask that. I asked that person the very same question when he was at my house a few months ago, and here’s what he said.” It really ended the conversation. We could guess what someone said; my friend could tell you because he had heard directly from that person.

We can sit around and wonder, “What do you think the gospel really is?” Paul could say, “Well, when Jesus stopped me in my tracks and changed the direction of my life and ministry, this is how he explained it to me.” It really does kill the debate. Paul’s opponents were questioning whether or not Paul had the gospel right; Paul could say that he got it directly from Jesus himself. The gospel really isn’t a matter of what we think. Why? Because Paul got the gospel directly from God, directly from Jesus Christ himself, not from any human source. Not only that, but God appointed Paul to preach this gospel, so that Paul is acting as a messenger on behalf of the originator of the gospel, so that when we hear the gospel from Paul, we’re hearing it from someone appointed by God to proclaim that very message. We can have confidence that what Paul says about the gospel is a message from God himself.

Think of the confidence that this gives us. We come not to hear what I think about the gospel. Paul’s got it right. Who cares about what I think the gospel is about? We come to open the Word of God together, to read the words of someone who got the message directly from Jesus Christ himself. That is why we’re here. It’s not a subjective judgment of what you or I think; it’s about “our common salvation...the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 1:3). It’s a gospel that comes directly from God himself.

You may be thinking, “Well, that’s great, but how do you account for all the different denominations that are out there? If there’s one gospel, then why are there so many different churches?” Great question, and one that leads us to the last thing that Paul tells us in this passage.

Three: The church doesn’t create the gospel; it’s created by the gospel.

I need to unpack this a little as we come to the end of this passage. What Paul says is that the church doesn’t create the gospel; it’s created by the gospel.

Remember that Paul’s opponents were saying that Paul got the gospel wrong. Part of their argument seems to have been that they were well-connected to the Jerusalem church and so they had the official version, like the authorized version of the gospel. Paul actually makes a strange counterargument in this section. You’d think he’d argue that his version of the gospel is especially sanctioned by the most important people in Jerusalem, by the apostles who knew Jesus Christ personally. Instead he makes a completely different argument. He says that he’s only had limited contact with the apostles and those in Judea. It’s not like his gospel contradicts theirs; they know him and they’ve compared notes. It’s just that Paul didn’t get the gospel from them. He got the gospel directly from Jesus, and it lines up with their gospel very well.

So in verses 18 to 20 he says that he’s relatively unknown to the apostles. He’s spent very little time with them. And in verses 21 to 24 he says that he’s relatively unknown by the church in Judea. They know only of him by report. In other words, Paul’s credentials don’t come because he’s been approved by some official body. His credentials come from God himself. The church didn’t create the message that Paul is preaching; in fact, the church doesn’t create the gospel; the gospel creates the church. The church is the product of the gospel, not the originator of the gospel.

That means that some in the church will get it wrong, like Paul’s opponents. That’s why there are so many denominations. It’s not because the gospel is in confusion and the church can’t agree. We’re going to see in the next chapter that some of the pillars of the church themselves can get confused about the gospel. Over the past two thousand years the church has had lots of opportunities to get confused about the gospel. But there is this thing called the gospel. It’s the plumb-line that the church can use to bring us back into alignment with the gospel. That’s why we keep coming back to the Word. I guarantee that we as a church will get all wonky and drift from time to time. That’s what my car does too, by the way. Do you know what I do with my car? I take it in for a wheel alignment. Do you know what we have to do as a church? We need to continue to bring ourselves into alignment with the gospel. That’s our job: to bring our lives and ministries back into alignment with the gospel that never changes.

Two implications for us this morning.

First: It gives me a lot of confidence to know that the reason we’re here isn’t because of some cleverly invented stories created by the church years ago. I remember wondering years ago if I could believe the gospel, or whether it was some fairy tale I needed to reject. It’s very unsettling to wrestle wit this question. I’m sure many of you have wrestled with it as well. It does me good to consider what Paul says in this passage. The gospel, the news that Jesus Christ died for sinners so that we could be saved, is not a human invention. Nobody could make this up. I love the hymn: “How firm a foundation, ye saints of the Lord, Is laid for your faith in His excellent Word!” Cling to this message. It’s a message from God. Realize the duty we have to guard the good deposit of the gospel that’s been entrusted to us.

Second: This morning I urge you to respond to this message. You may have been wondering if this is something for you. I hope that you will wrestle with what we’ve talked about and see that the message of Jesus Christ is not an invention. It’s good news that comes directly from God, and that demands a response from us.

I began this sermon talking about Frederica Mathewes-Greene, who wanted to go into the ministry but who one day decided that the whole thing is preposterous at the age of 12 or 13, and who eventually chose Hinduism. Let me give you the rest of the story:

[What ultimately led me out of Hinduism] was a strange experience. I was with my husband on our honeymoon, hitchhiking around Europe. He was an atheist who had been assigned in one of his classes to read a gospel. And he kept saying, "There's something about Jesus. I've never encountered anyone like this before. I know that he's speaking the truth. I'm an atheist. But if Jesus says there's a God, there must be a God."

It was a very scary experience for me, because I didn't want him to be a Christian. He was not ready to make a full commitment to Christ at that point, but he was curious and wanted to study more...

She began to feel her heart drawn toward Christ. She began reading the Bible. Gradually she came closer to the point of placing her faith in the gospel she had chosen to reject so many years earlier.

Gradually we were able to come into faith. It was several months later that a friend of ours said, "Well, have you ever given your hearts to Jesus? Have you ever asked Jesus to be your Lord?" You have to picture that both of us grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, him Episcopalian, me Catholic, and our response was, "We're not Southern Baptists." Our association with that kind of talk is that you have to be Southern Baptist for Jesus to be your Lord.

He said, "Actually, it's for everybody."

We said, "Well, you know, we're in graduate school."

"No, even for you."

So the three of us knelt down together and prayed and asked Jesus to be our Lord, having no idea what that would mean but wanting so much to find out.

I’d love nothing more than for you to do the same thing: to come to faith in Jesus Christ who died for you. Let’s pray.

Don’t Lose the Gospel (Galatians 1:1-9)

A few years ago I was sitting in a cabin at a camp on one of the bunks. I was playing with my wedding ring, which is something you do when you’re fidgety. Suddenly the ring went flying off of my finger and across the cabin. I was on the top bunk and couldn’t see exactly where it landed. Remember, it’s a cabin. There are holes in the floorboards and little cracks where the sheets of plywood meet. I jumped down and began a frantic search for that ring. I’m happy to say that I found it, and it’s on my ring finger this morning.

What’s the worst thing that you’ve ever lost? A ring? A passport? Your wallet or purse? Do you remember the feeling of panic as you realize that something valuable has gone missing? Sometimes what you lose is replaceable. Other times it’s not − a family heirloom, like your grandmother’s wedding ring passed down to you. There are some things that you just don’t want to lose.

This morning I’d like to talk about not just the things that are hard to lose, but some of the things that are fatal to lose. This morning, right now, you’re breathing at a rate of somewhere around 12 to 18 breaths a minute. If you lose your ability to breathe, you have only minutes left. Right now, your heart is beating every second. Some of you are really fit so your heart is taking the odd second off. Some of you are sitting beside somebody you really like, so your heart is beating a bit faster. But if you lose your heartbeat, you only have seconds to live.

You see, there are some things that you hate to lose, like a wedding ring. And there are some things that are fatal to lose, like your breath or heartbeat. But this morning we’re going to see that there are some things that are fatal to lose, and one of them, according to the passage we’re about to read, is the Gospel.

But let’s back up a second. Let me introduce the book that we’re about to look at together. This morning we’re beginning to look at Galatians, a book written to a group of churches planted by the apostle Paul on his first missionary journey. They’re in what we would call today south central Turkey. Paul had come to this area a few years earlier, an area full of the worship of local gods and goddesses with a smattering of monotheistic Jews. This quirky guy, the apostle Paul, came to town, and began to teach that there is one God, and that this one God had unveiled his plan for the world through a Jewish man named Jesus. He was executed by the Romans, but Paul argued that God had raised Jesus from the dead. And now God is building a new family with no divisions between different racial groups. Paul has taught this, and people have believed. And by the time Paul moves on, churches have started all over the area filled with people who have accepted the good news of this Jesus Christ.

But now a few years have passed. Others have come in who claim to know a little more about Jesus. They have said something like this: Paul is a good man, but he doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. Paul, they say, has some funny ideas. He’s muddled. We’ve talked to the real authorities, and here’s the real scoop. You need a little bit more if you’re going to be a good Christian. Yes, you need to believe the gospel, but there’s more. It’s Jesus plus something else.

Paul gets wind of this, and that’s where we find ourselves as we start this letter. I want you to notice two things before I tell you why this is important to us this morning.

First: Paul is ticked. Have you ever received an angry letter in the mail? You have to use oven mitts or tongs to hold the letter? This is one of those letters. Now, don’t misunderstand. Paul hasn’t blown his lid. This isn’t a letter that he’s going to regret having written later. No, this is a reasoned and well-thought out letter. But make no mistake: Paul is ticked here. Letters like this usually begin with a prayer of thanksgiving for the recipients. Paul skips that and gets right down to business, and he doesn’t mince any words. He’s very honest about the problems with a Jesus plus something else approach.

Second: Paul goes to great lengths in verses 1 and 2 to establish is authority. Here’s why this is important. I’m a pastor, and I sometimes get love letters from people. Actually, some of them aren’t full of a lot of love. One of the first things I do is to look at who wrote the letter. If it’s anonymous, I honestly don’t pay too much attention to it. I still read it, but it doesn’t come with a lot of authority. But if it’s written by the chair of our elders, I pay a lot more attention. Paul writes, and he’s not just any schmo. He is “an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father.” He is an apostle hand-selected by God and by Christ. He is writing with divine authority here. What’s more, he writes with “all the brothers who are with me.” Paul isn’t some lone ranger who’s off by himself. Paul’s coworkers are united with him and what he teaches. He has credibility among the leaders of the church. Paul is someone that they need to pay attention to.

Here’s why this is important. We need to receive this letter as one that comes with divine authority. This is not somebody’s opinion; this is the apostolic message handed down to us, and we had better pay attention. Here’s another reason why we need to pay attention to this message: because we face the same danger that the Galatians faced, which is a lack of clarity on the gospel. And if we lose the gospel, it’s not like losing a ring or a passport. It’s a fatal loss. If we lose the gospel, we lose everything.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “What is this gospel that you’re talking about? If it’s so important, then define it.” And, “Come on, get real. How can you say we’re in danger of losing the gospel?” Both are good questions, and both are actually the questions that Paul answers in this passage.

Here’s what he does in this passage. He says two things: the gospel has content, and don’t lose it by adding to it. By looking at what Paul says I’m hoping we’ll grasp the gospel, and then we’ll grasp the very real danger we face of losing the gospel by adding to it.

So let’s look at the first thing that Paul says:

First: the gospel has content.

Read verses 1 to 5 with me:

Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead—and all the brothers who are with me,

To the churches of Galatia:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Haddon Robinson, a renowned Christian leader and professor of preaching, says something very sobering:

We don't preach the gospel! As I listen to some preachers, if I were an outsider, I honestly wouldn't know what I was to respond to…We want to reach people, but the clear terms of the gospel are seldom enunciated. It's probably an exaggeration, but I don't think in my lifetime I've heard twenty messages that I would say were clear gospel messages. If you didn't know any jargon, didn't have any religious background—if you came to church and wanted to know how to have a relationship with a holy God—the sermon would not tell you.

Think about that. That scares me as a preacher. It’s very easy to be unclear about the gospel, and to do a bad job of communicating it. So Paul’s going to do us a very big favor in this passage. He’s going to define it for us. He’s going to give us a gospel nutshell. What do I mean? Martyn Lloyd Jones, a great preacher from the last century, observed that there are “thirty or forty gospel nutshells” in the Bible, and this is one of them. Verses 3 to 5 give us a snapshot of the gospel, or the gospel in a nutshell:

Here it is. Three parts to what Paul says:

What Jesus did - He “gave himself for our sins” in verse 4. The word “for” here means “on behalf of” or “in place of.” The heart of the gospel is right here: what Jesus Christ did at the cross. He gave his life in our place. He was our substitute. At the cross, Jesus suffered and died in the place of sinners so that they could be forgiven of their sins. This is the heart of the gospel. The gospel takes us right to the cross.

What the Father did - Verses 1 says that God the Father “raised him from the dead.” Verse 3 says that we have “grace” and “peace” from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. The gospel is also the good news that God the Father accepted what Jesus accomplished for us at the cross. When God the Father raised Jesus from the dead, it was evidence that he accepted Jesus work and that a new age has dawned. As a result, we have grace (God’s unmerited favor) and peace (God’s blessing of well-being) in our lives.

Finally, why he did it - Verses 4 and 5 say, “to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” God’s intention was to rescue us, to deliver his people from this present age in which there is evil and opposition to God. And he did all of this ultimately for his glory. “God’s glory and honor and praise are displayed supremely in Christ and the cross…Indeed, God will be praised forever because of his saving work in Christ” (Thomas R. Schreiner).

I hope this is clear. I’ve heard interviews with pastors in which they’ve been asked to define the gospel. Many of them fumbled around and really didn’t have a clear answer. Some of them actually had a wrong answer, like the golden rule (to love others as yourself) or the Great Commandment (to love God and your neighbor as yourself). That’s not the gospel; that’s law. It’s good; it’s just not the gospel.

The gospel is the news that Jesus gave himself for our sins; God has accepted his work so that we could be saved, and that we have grace and peace to his glory. The gospel is the good news of what Jesus Christ did for us at the cross. The worst person can be completely forgiven and made right with God through the substitutionary death of Christ at the cross; we must respond by trusting in what Christ has done for us. The gospel has content, and this content takes us right to the cross.

But then Paul tells us something that we need to know:

Don’t ever add to the gospel, because if you do you’ll lose it completely.

Don’t ever add to the gospel, because the gospel plus is no gospel at all. You can add to your house and you won’t lose it. You may actually improve it. You can add to your education, and you’ll just have more education and more degrees. But don’t ever add to the gospel, Paul says, because if you do, you’ll lose it completely, and losing the gospel is fatal to churches and to individuals.

Read verses 6 to 9:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

What’s the problem? There were some people in this church saying that Paul’s gospel was incomplete. It was good as far as it goes, but you have to add something to it. In their case, they were adding obedience to the Mosaic Law and covenant. They wanted people to become Jewish and to obey Jewish laws like circumcision. But Paul says they’re not simply adding to the gospel; they’re deserting it. Look at the words Paul uses: deserting, distorting. He says that they’re turning to not just a slightly wrong version of the gospel but to a different gospel, one that’s contrary to the correct one, one that is no gospel at all. Paul goes so far to say that if anyone - even an apostle, even an angel - comes preaching a different gospel, let them be accursed. What’s shocking is that accursed is the harshest possible term you could ever imagine. It mean to be finally condemned and destroyed. If anyone preaches a different gospel, Paul says, let them be irrevocably punished by God and completely wiped out.

What Paul is saying here is very important for us to hear. He’s given us the gospel very clearly. Now he says that if we ever add to that gospel, then we completely lose it. Any gospel that makes anything else other than the what Jesus did at the cross the basis of our relationship with God is deadly. If anyone tells you it’s the gospel plus your behavior or the gospel plus doing something else, then they’re telling you a false gospel. We’ve got to be clear on the gospel, or else we’ll lose it completely.

Two applications for us this morning.

Do you know how easy it is to drift? I’ve told you before about swimming in the ocean when there are strong currents. I look and see our beach umbrella and think, “Okay, I’m good here.” I look up a few minutes later and I’ve drifted hundreds of feet down the beach. I’ve drifted with the current. The same thing can happen so easily in our churches and in our lives. Thomas Schreiner writes:

The clarity and the truth of the gospel could easily be lost. So many other things may clutter our minds, hearts, and lives that we may forget about the gospel, thinking all the while that we have not strayed from it. In our churches we may begin to concentrate on what it means to be good parents, to have a good marriage, to form meaningful relationships, and to make an impact on the world (all good things of course!), so that we slowly and inadvertently drift from the gospel of free grace.

It’s so easy. The gospel is accepted —> The gospel is assumed —> The gospel is confused —> The gospel is lost. I hope you realize this morning how easy it is to drift from the gospel. Remember the beach umbrella? I knew I’d drifted when it was no longer in front of me. I’m suggesting that we use the cross of Christ as our marker. Any time that it’s not right in front of us, any time it’s not front and center, let’s just assume that we’ve drifted and that we’d better get back urgently, because to drift from the gospel is to lose it altogether.

Second, I want to ask you if you are clear on the gospel yourself. Do you understand that the heart of the good news is not that you must be a good person, or that you must try harder, or that your good deeds must outweigh your bad deeds? Do you understand that coming to church and being a good person or even being a Sunday school teacher or deacon or pastor does not make you a Christian? The gospel is the good news that Jesus has taken our place, that he has given himself for us, so that we could be delivered and have grace and peace to the glory of God. This morning you can look to the cross for the first time and put your trust in the one you took your place. That is the gospel. That is our hope.

The gospel has content, and that content is the cross. Don’t lose it by adding to it.

The Harvest is Plentiful (Matthew 9:35-38)

Before we go any further, welcome back! It’s been a long time since I’ve seen many of you. It’s good to see you again, and I’m ready to get going this Fall. It begins with a message that I’ve been waiting to give for some time now.

In November 2010, a wedding party in Australia, was unexpectedly called into action right after the wedding ceremony. While they were posing for pictures on a scenic ledge, a woman unrelated to the wedding fell into the water and started drowning. Dressed in his tuxedo, the best man jumped in and brought the woman back toward shore. Then the bride, a trained nurse, waded into the water and started administering CPR. By the time the Surf Life Saving volunteers had arrived, the woman had regained consciousness. But according to one safety official, "[The victim] was very lucky that the bridal party was there and they acted quickly and got her to the shallows." After the daring rescue operation, the drenched but heroic best man and the bride happily rejoined the wedding reception and continued with the festivities.

That’s the picture I want you to keep in mind this morning. We're dressed up for a party (celebrating worship), but at the same time we're also prepared to dive into mission, even when it's inconvenient and dangerous. This morning I want to look at a passage of Scripture in which Jesus challenges us to look out and to take a specific action.

Today I’d like to talk to you about something very specific. It’s a dangerous thing to talk to you this morning, because a response is going to be required. In just a few minutes, you are going to be confronted with a choice, a response you’re going to be asked to make. There’s a lot riding on this response, not only for you but for this world as well. So this is a scary time. There’s a lot riding on the next few minutes.

A Pivotal Passage

The passage we’re going to look at this morning is a hinge passage, a pivotal passage. What’s a hinge passage? A hinge is the swing point between two objects. A hinge holds together two objects. And the passage we’re looking at today holds Jesus’ ministry together with our ministry. That’s why the Scripture we’re going to look at today is so important, because it’s all about us having a similar ministry to Jesus.

So let me read the passage for you, and then let me lead you to the response that Jesus requires from us.

We read in Matthew 9:35-38:

Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness. When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. Then he said to his disciples, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

As I said, this is a pivotal point in the book of Matthew. Up until now, it has been all about Jesus’ ministry. Jesus has been traveling all throughout Galilee, teaching and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom. Not only that, he’s been healing diseases and casting out demons. Epileptics, paralytics, and even a mother-in-law have been healed! Jesus has calmed a storm. The blind have received sight. A young girl has been raised from the dead. The mute are speaking again. As the crowds watch this, they rightly say, “Nothing like this has ever been seen in Israel” (Matthew 9:33). That’s what you call an understatement. Can you imagine what it would have been like to see this? It would have been extraordinary. That’s all of what has been happening up until the passage that we just read.

But something happens right afterwards. Up until now it’s all been about Jesus ministering in power. But a strange thing happens after the passage that we just read. In Matthew chapter 10:1 we read, “Jesus called his twelve disciples to him and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every disease and sickness.” So what’s happening here?

We’re right at the moment when Jesus makes the switch from preaching and teaching and healing himself, to commissioning his disciples to go out to preach and teach and heal. What’s going on here is that Jesus is about to commission his followers to do what he’s doing. He preached; he’s about to get them to preach. He’s taught with authority; he’s about to send them out to teach with authority. He’s driven out evil spirits and healed all kinds of diseases and sicknesses; he’s about to get them to drive out evil spirits and heal all kinds of sicknesses and diseases.

So you have a before and after picture, and in between you have this section. So what does this tell us? It tells us that whatever happens here is critical for us to have the same type of ministry that Jesus had. If we are to be doing the same type of thing that Jesus did, then what takes place in this pivotal passage is extremely important. So let’s look at what takes place in this passage that is so important to having the same type of ministry that Jesus did.

A Window into Jesus’ Heart

The first thing that this passage does is that it gives us a bit of a window into the heart of Jesus. If we’re to have the type of ministry that Jesus had, it’s going to be because our heart is becoming like the heart of Jesus.

We read in verse 36, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them.” The compassion of Jesus is a theme that keeps coming up in the book of Matthew. Matthew 14:14 says, “When Jesus landed and saw a large crowd, he had compassion on them and healed their sick.” In chapter 15:32, Jesus said, “I have compassion for these people; they have already been with me three days and have nothing to eat.” In chapter 20:34 we read, “Jesus had compassion on them and touched their eyes.” What we discover is that compassion is at the heart of Jesus.

Compassion is a pretty strong word here. You would think that the reason for Jesus’ compassion would be because of the sicknesses that he’s encountered. Everywhere he turns, there are people blind, epileptic, paralyzed or even dead. That is certainly worth our compassion. There are a few days every year that I can barely listen to the radio. It’s the days that they have a telethon to raise money for The Hospital for Sick Children. I’m filled with compassion and I can barely take it when I hear the stories of the sicknesses of these children. It makes sense to be moved with compassion when we encounter the sick.

But what moves Jesus here isn’t the physical illnesses that he’s encountered. Verse 36 says, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” What moved Jesus - and what doesn’t move me as much as it should - was the great spiritual need of the people. Their lives had no center, their existence seems aimless, and their whole experience was one of futility.

You see, the prophet Micah had written:

But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.
(Micah 5:2, quoted in Matthew 2:6)

God had said through Ezekiel: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd” (Ezekiel 34:23). But the situation, as Jesus saw it, was close to what the prophet Ezekiel had prophesied earlier in the same chapter: “My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them” (Ezekiel 34:6).

As a result, Jesus saw the people as harassed, confused, bothered, and unable to help themselves. And this, even more than the illnesses that he saw, moved him with compassion.

I said earlier that if we are to serve like Jesus served, we must have a heart that is becoming like the heart of Jesus. This means that we begin to feel compassion for those we encounter who have not been placed under the great Shepherd Jesus Christ. It means that we look around us and see people the way Jesus does, and feel compassion for them the way that he does.

Two Responses

But that’s not really the heart of the challenge that is ours this morning. I said that this would be a dangerous talk, and it is. This is a pivotal passage, and it’s all about bridging the gap between Jesus’ ministry and ours, so that we have the same kind of ministry that he had. I’d love to have the compassion that Jesus had, but that’s not what Jesus talks about. Jesus speaks to the disciples at this pivotal moment and gives them something to believe and something to do. And as we read this passage today, we are likewise given something to believe and then something to do.

First, we’re given something to believe. Jesus says in verse 37, “The harvest is plentiful but the workers are few.” What does he tell us to believe? Jesus switches metaphors here from shepherding to farming. And what he tells us is that the harvest is ready. In other words, people are ready to receive the good news of the kingdom. The problem isn’t that people are unready to receive the good news; the problem is that we aren’t ready to tell them. “The workers are few.” Imagine a farmer with fields ready to be harvested, but workers who are AWOL or non-existent. Jesus looks around him and he sees people who are helpless and harassed and ready to hear the good news of the gospel. The problem is that there’s nobody to tell them.

So let me ask you: do you believe that the harvest is plentiful? The harvest is plentiful all around us. Do you believe that? Jesus gives it to us as something for us to believe. One of the greatest lies of the devil is to convince us that people aren’t interested, that it’s a waste of time to tell them. The harvest is plentiful. God has prepared them. There are many yet to be reached with the gospel of the kingdom, and there’s an urgency. They’re ready to hear. This is what he tells us to believe. Do you believe it?

A recent book captures the urgency of evangelism very well, and calls us to respond. It’s:

  • theologically urgent because of what God has revealed, including the truth that there is a heaven and hell
  • spiritually urgent because people are utterly spiritually lost apart from Christ
  • physically urgent because death is coming for all, and with it the opportunity to respond to the gospel will be past
  • statistically urgent because the vast majority of people in our community have not yet heard the gospel or been invited to respond to it
  • strategically urgent because God has chosen to use the church as his strategy of reaching the lost
  • personally urgent because each of us must respond

He’s given us something to believe - that people are ready. Now he gives us something to do about it. Wouldn’t you expect that Jesus would say, “So get out there and tell them!” But that’s not what he said. Surprisingly, he said, “Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field.”

Why would Jesus tell us to pray instead of doing something? It’s not like Jesus is against action. In the very next chapter, remember, he’s going to instruct his twelve disciples, and then send them out to preach and teach and do the things that he’s done. But he knows that before we have the ministry that he has, we must have the same prayerful reliance on the Father that he does. Before we have the compassion of Jesus, we must have the connection with the Father that Jesus has.

Warren Wiersbe says, “When we pray as He commanded, we will see what He saw, feel what He felt, and do what He did. God will multiply our lives as we share in the great harvest that is already ripe.”

It’s one thing for us to go and do. It’s another thing altogether to plead with God that he would raise up people - either through conversion or growth - who are ready to go; to pray that God would give them a spirit for the work, call them to it, and give them wisdom and success. Matthew Henry said, “It is a good sign God is about to bestow some special mercy upon a people, when he stirs up those that have an interest at the throne of grace, to pray for it.” God is up to something when we begin to pray like Jesus commands in this passage.

It’s when I consider that I was one of these lost sheep, and that I came to know the Great Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep, that I begin to be motivated to pray. It’s as I look at the cross and see the Shepherd willingly lay down his life for me so that I could become his sheep that I begin to think that the least I can do is pray for others.

And when we start to believe that the harvest is plentiful and pray that he would send out workers, you never know if we may become the answers to our own prayers - that we would be the workers commissioned by the Lord of the harvest himself.

So two questions, and the stakes are high for both you and for the world. Will you believe Jesus when he says that the harvest is plentiful? And will you pray, beginning today, that God would raise up people - maybe even you - to do his work?

This morning I’d like you to respond. First, I invite you to respond to the free offer of salvation given to you in Christ. It may be that you’re here this morning, and you’ve never done so. Today is your day to come, to respond to the One who gave his life as a sacrifice for your sins.

But I’d also like you to respond on behalf of those who don’t yet know Christ. Today the invitation is to first believe that the harvest is plentiful. And then the invitation is to pray. We can begin that God would raise up new evangelists within his church, but be careful. The answer to that prayer may be you. We can pray in particular for people we know who are part of the harvest, that they may come to know Christ.

Let’s do what Jesus asks us to do right now.

A Psalm of Praise (Psalm 8)

Well, given that it’s Labour Day weekend, and that school starts in a couple of days, I thought it might be fun to start with a quiz this morning. So here it is. It’s a multiple choice question with only two options.

The question: What is worship?

A. Songs that we sing (sometimes badly) in church before the pastor gets up to preach
B. Something so powerful that, even when done by infants, is used by God to slay his foes

Which one is it? If I was honest, I’d have to say that I normally think of worship in terms of A. Worship, we think, is something we do on Sunday mornings after the announcements and before the sermon. We have worship teams and a worship budget. We’ve had worship pastors. Some weeks it goes well, other weeks we sit too close to someone who doesn’t know how to sing, and we make a note to ourselves to sit somewhere different the next week. For a lot of us, worship is this sometimes enjoyable, sometimes okay time of singing songs to praise God before the pastor gets up to speak.

Until I put up the choices, none of us would have said B. If I asked you coming in what worship is, I bet none of you would have said that worship is so powerful that even when done by the person who has the least competent worshiper packs a punch that’s big enough for God to use against his enemies. But that’s what this psalm says. Read verse 2:

Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.

What does that mean? “Out of the mouth of babies and infants…” Here the psalmist is talking about the age of children when they’re helpless and completely dependent on adults. I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to sing with kids that age. It sounds fun until you do it. It reminds me of what one author said about primary school concerts, thinking of his music teacher:

The audience exploded into applause as our conductor and teacher, Mr. Martin, walked in. Parents regard band teachers with a combination of awe and respect, the way you might a war hero. How could any human being spend eight hours per day enduring the acoustic violence created by fifty children playing their instrument all at once?..In the hands of the untalented, a clarinet is a lethal weapon. There are states that allow the sale of automatic weapons but ban the use of clarinets at school concerts. (Jesus, My Father, The CIA, and Me: A Memoir...of Sorts)

That’s kind of what it’s like to worship with kids. You don’t do it for the quality. If someone tells you that you sound like a baby when you worship, it’s probably not a compliment.

“Out of the mouth of babies and infants, you have established strength because of your foes to still the enemy and the avenger.” This means that God chooses to use the weak and pathetic worship of his people as the means of triumphing his most powerful enemies. The praise of the weakest Christian, this psalm is saying, is stronger than all the strength of God’s most powerful enemies. If we could invite the most strident atheists and line them up here, and then invite our preschoolers to come in and sing a song over here, this psalm says that the atheists wouldn’t stand a chance. The worship of God’s people, even when done poorly, is stronger than all of God’s enemies. God “brings onto the field of battle the poor and spirit against the arrogant hordes of wickedness in order to slay their intolerable pride in the dust.”

I don’t know what that does to you, but that makes me want to worship more than I do. It makes me want to worship poorly even, because it’s not the worship of the eloquent that God needs It’s worship period, even done by people like me.

And so having shown us what our worship does, the psalmist gives us big reasons why we should worship. So this morning it’s pretty simple. Worship is about the most important thing we could ever do: point one. When you worship and you’re weak, you’re still stronger than when you’re doing anything else at full strength. That’s point one. Point two: so worship. David doesn’t waste a lot of time developing theories of worship. He just says that it’s important, and then leads us in worship, giving us two really big reasons why we should worship.

So this morning: I give you permission to worship as I preach. This isn’t a lecture on worship. This is going to be a practice session. We’re going to begin and end as David does: “O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!” That’s how David begins and ends this psalm. The LORD, our Lord, has a majestic name, not just in where he is worshiped, but in all the earth. He alone is worthy of our worship. Our ultimate purpose is to bring him praise because he is supremely worthy.

Then David gives us two reasons why we should praise God in this psalm. The first is for the staggering enormity of his creation. The second is for his surprising care for humanity. Let’s look at both.

First, praise him this morning for the staggering enormity of creation.

David may have been inspired by looking up one night into the sky and marveling at what God had created. We went camping a couple of years in a remote spot. One night in particular we went out and lay down on the beach. I’ve seen stars before, but never before like this. We lay there for over an hour and we weren’t bored for a minute. It was far better than any entertainment I can think of. When you get a glimpse of what God has created, and the beauty of what he’s done, you can’t do anything but praise him. So David writes in verses 1-4:

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory above the heavens.
Out of the mouth of babies and infants,
you have established strength because of your foes,
to still the enemy and the avenger.
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Most pastors don’t have to preach a passage like this with an astrophysicist in the room, so Barth, forgive me if I make any mistakes here. David didn’t know what I’m about to tell you. He simply looked and saw the glory of God reflected in the skies. I hope you get a chance to look into the sky and do the same thing. It’s hard to do in the city, but I hope you get to do it sometime and somewhere. It’s staggering.

...If the Milky Way galaxy were the size of the entire continent of North America, our solar system would fit in a coffee cup…This vast neighborhood of our sun - in truth the size of a coffee cup - fits along with several billion other stars and their minions in the Milky Way, one of perhaps 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. To send a light-speed message to the edge of that universe would take 15 billion years. (Prayer: Does It Make Any Difference?)

What’s more, none of this was hard for God. As somebody’s said, “All this vast, enduring monument to the creative power and art of God is but child’s play to the divine creator - spun off the tips of his finger without even breaking a sweat.”

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It is truly staggering. So often I lose perspective. My life and my concerns seem so huge. Then I realize that I am one of 6.8 billion people on this earth. And this earth is just a relatively tiny planet in a vast solar system. And this solar system is just a small part of our galaxy. And our galaxy is just one of 100 billion such galaxies in the universe. How could you not praise the God who created all of this, and who holds it together, and is Lord over all? So praise him! Say with David, “How majestic is your name in all the earth!”

The enormity and the beauty of God’s creation is one of the ways that he displays his glory. Francis Collins is a scientist. He headed up the Human Genome project and has all kinds of credentials. He’s a world famous scientist, but he was also an atheist. After a long period of searching, which included grilling a pastor and reading C.S. Lewis, Collins finally came to Christ after watching the beauty of creation. This is Collin's description of that life-changing encounter:

I had to make a choice. A full year had passed since I decided to believe in some sort of God, and now I was being called to account. On a beautiful fall day, as I was hiking in the Cascade Mountains during my first trip west of the Mississippi, the majesty and beauty of God's creation overwhelmed my resistance. As I rounded a corner and saw a beautiful and unexpected frozen waterfall, hundreds of feet high, I knew the search was over. The next morning, I knelt in the dewy grass as the sun rose and surrendered to Jesus Christ. (The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief)

David would like this, I think. Take a walk outside in a remote place, look up, and worship the God who created all of this. Look at the beauty of what he’s created all around us, and then bow down and surrender your life to him. And realize as you do this that the praise of the weakest person is stronger than the most powerful of God’s enemies. Praise him for the staggering enormity of creation. And then:

Second, praise him for his surprising care for humanity.

The explorer William Beebe wrote about what happened when he used to visit Theodore Roosevelt at his home:

... At Sagamore Hill, Theodore Roosevelt and I used to play a little game together. After an evening of talk, we would go out on the lawn and search the skies until we found the faint spot of light-mist beyond the lower left-hand corner of the Great Square of Pegasus. Then one or the other of us would recite: "That is the Spiral Galaxy in Andromeda. It is as large as our Milky Way. It is one of a hundred million galaxies. It consists of one billion suns, each larger than our sun."

Then Roosevelt would grin and say: "Now I think we are small enough! Let's go to bed."

That’s the thought process that you go through as you grasp the enormity of what God has created. Who are we? We’re nothing. We’re small. David reflects this as he considers what God has created. Look what he writes in verses 3 and 4:

When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?

Great question. If God is to be praised for the vastness of what he has created, where does that leave us? Why would God pay any attention to what’s going on in a tiny corner of the universe? But he does. David goes on, and what he says next is basically commentary on Genesis 1:26-28, which is an account of when God created humanity. Look at what he says in verses 5 to 8:

Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
all sheep and oxen,
and also the beasts of the field,
the birds of the heavens, and the fish of the sea,
whatever passes along the paths of the seas.

Despite our size in the universe, David says, there is something utterly unique about us. If you created a continuum of every creature that’s ever been created, from bacteria all the way up to angels, we would be right next to angels. We’re not even far below, the psalmist says. Out of all that God has created, it is men and women alone who have been made in his image and crowned with glory and honor. We have a unique role within the universe. We’ve been given dominion over all that he’s made.

This summer we visited Rideau Hall, the home of the Governor General of Canada. Canada has a monarchy. We have a Queen. But the Queen does not live in Canada, so she has appointed a Governor General who represents her in Canada and acts on her behalf. When the Governor General is appointed, he or she has an audience with the Sovereign before being sworn in before being seated on a throne. That’s a pretty good picture of what the psalmist is talking about. This world is part of God’s kingdom, but God has chosen humanity to have dominion over his kingdom here on earth. We have been given his image and have been charged with the responsibility of acting on his behalf. It is an amazing thing.

Here’s the thing that amazes David. Out of all that God has created, God is mindful of us. He does care for us. It causes David to worship, and it causes me to worship too. What an amazing God. We live on a speck of dust in all that God has created, and yet he’s chosen to crown us with glory and honor. He’s given us his image. He’s mindful of us, and he cares.

When you put this all together, it leads you to worship. When you realize that the praise of the weakest Christian is more powerful than the strength of God's most powerful enemies, it leads us to worship. When you see the vastness of what God has created - the beauty of the milky way, the knowledge of the vastness of the universe - it makes you want to worship. When you think that out of all that God has made, that he’s zeroed in on us, it makes you want to worship.

But there’s more. Hundreds of years after David wrote this psalm, God himself became a man and lived on this speck of dust. Not only was he mindful of us, not only did he care for us, but he became one of us. And out of infinite love he offered up his life for us so that we could be made right with God.

Did you know in the New Testament that this psalm is quoted many times in reference to Jesus? Here’s the reason. Verse 6 says that God has put all things under our feet. We know that because of sin, not everything is under our feet. We’re not in control of this world. We had a tornado in Goderich and then a thunderstorm a couple of couple of nights later that reminded us of that. But when Jesus became one of us, he became our forerunner, and everything is already at his feet. He’s already been crowned with glory and honor. Hebrews 2 quotes this psalm and then says:

But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (Hebrews 2:9)

We have not fulfilled God’s plan to put everything under our feet, but there is one who is singlehandedly fulfilling God’s plan on our behalf, and that is Jesus. I love how Dale Ralph Davis puts it:

That is the point of Hebrews 2. It says: Psalm 8 is not a pipe dream. We don’t yet see it full-blown. But we see Jesus — one man is already reigning! And that is the assurance that redeemed man, his brothers and sisters, will one day rule as well. “He has made them a kingdom, priests, to our God, and they shall reign on earth” (Rev. 5:10). How can you doubt your royal future when the Man Jesus has already begun enjoying it? The Way of the Righteous in the Muck of Life: Psalms 1-12

So two things: First, surrender your life to this great God. Put your trust in Jesus who has done this for you. Second, say with David:

O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

A Prayer When Slandered (Psalm 7)

I would like this sermon this morning to be a practical one. I want to address a problem that all of us are going to face eventually. You may be facing it right now. The problem is slander.

Three preachers were on a fishing trip when they began to discuss various topics to pass the time. One preacher said he thought it would be nice if they confessed their biggest sins to each other and then prayed for each other. They all agreed, and the first preacher said that his biggest sin was that he liked to sit at the beach now and then and watch pretty women stroll by. The second preacher confessed that his biggest sin was that he went to the horse racing track every so often and put a small bet on a horse. Turning to the third preacher, they asked, "Brother, what is your biggest sin?" With a grin, he said, "My biggest sin is gossiping."

That’s not what I’m talking about. Gossip is a serious problem, but it’s different from slander. Sometimes people will say negative things about us. When they do, we have to admit that they’re right. In fact, sometimes they don’t know the half of it. Dealing with accurate criticism or the problem of people who repeat unsavory details of your life is a problem, but it’s not the problem I want to talk about this morning.

No, the problem I want to talk about is the problem of slander. Slander is when someone makes an untrue and unjust accusation against you. It’s a false and malicious statement that damages your reputation. The problem with slander is that you can’t address the issue they’ve raised against you. If someone says that I stole their car and I did, I can return the keys and apologize. But if someone says that I stole their car and I didn’t, then I can’t return the keys. You can’t repent for what you haven’t done. But the damage of the accusation can stick and do all kinds of damage.

Quite a while ago, two people I know well were victims of slander. Serious accusations were raised against them. These accusations were so serious that they tainted their names. Their protestations of innocence only made them look like they were unwilling to take responsibility. The accusations were investigated and found to be untrue, but not before they did tremendous damage. That is the nature of slander. It’s deadly, and it’s very difficult to know how to respond when it happens.

The psalm we’re looking at this morning deals with this very topic. We read at the top of the psalm, “A shiggaion of David, which he sang to the Lord concerning the words of Cush, a Benjamite.” We don’t know the particular situation it’s talking about, but we discover pretty quickly that David had been slandered. David even describes how damaging this is. He says in verses 1-2:

O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,
lest like a lion they tear my soul apart,
rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.

Slander is not some benign non-issue that you should just shrug off. David says here that it’s serious. Look at the image he gives us. He doesn’t say that the slanderers are like annoying flies buzzing around his ears. No, he compares them to lions that could tear his soul apart. David is a hunted man here. He is in serious trouble.

So what should we do when we’re slandered? Buckle your seatbelts, because David shows us how to do four things.

First, lay yourself before God.

Read verses 1-5:

O LORD my God, in you do I take refuge;
save me from all my pursuers and deliver me,
lest like a lion they tear my soul apart,
rending it in pieces, with none to deliver.
O LORD my God, if I have done this,
if there is wrong in my hands,
if I have repaid my friend with evil
or plundered my enemy without cause,
let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it,
and let him trample my life to the ground
and lay my glory in the dust. Selah

David begins by laying himself out before God. He begins with full disclosure. There’s something to be said sometimes for playing your cards close to your chest. You don’t want to disclose everything to everyone. But when David is the victim of slander, he goes running to God, and he doesn’t hold anything back. He lays down his cards before God.

Look at how David begins: he says that he’s found refuge or shelter in God. Men go to ridiculous lengths to assert their independence. The ideal man, according to some, never goes to the doctor, never takes medicine, never asks directions, and never has an emotion (only allergies). When they suffer, they suffer alone and barely admit it. They certainly don’t need a refuge. David isn’t that kind of ideal man. David shows us that the ideal man is someone who recognizes that he needs a shelter, a refuge. Don’t miss that David doesn’t say, “I’m now going to take refuge in you now that I’m in trouble.” He actually says that he’s taken refuge in God before the trouble hit. We can learn from that. Don’t wait until you’re in the middle of trouble to find your refuge in God. Admit your need for God, and take refuge in him now.

Then David lays two things before God in verses 1-2. Full disclosure. First, he lays out the danger that he’s in. We’ve already seen this. David is helpless. Even having found refuge in God, he feels that he’s in real danger. He doesn’t sugarcoat the situation. He doesn’t put the best spin on it. He simply lays out the facts and his vulnerability before God.

But then David lays out a second thing before God: he lays open his heart for examination. This is one of the hardest things to do. David lays out his conscience before God. He’s examined it as best he can and, as best as he can tell, it’s clear. But he lays it before God as well and says that if the slanders are true, and if the accusations are accurate, and if he’s done wrong, then let God take the side of his accusers, and let David suffer the consequences. “He realizes that he stands under God’s gaze and knows that God will know him truly” (Dale Ralph Davis).

I was recently on the receiving end of some pretty severe criticism. It’s always difficult when this happens, because you want to learn from the criticism. As I thought about it over a few days, I realized that there were some things I could learn. But my immediate impulse was to be defensive, to withdraw into myself. David doesn’t do that. He turns to God who is his refuge. He lays out his danger before God, and then invites God to examine his heart. He shows us that when we’re slandered we can lay ourselves out before God in complete honesty, inviting him to examine the situation including our hearts.

So David begins by showing us that when slandered we can lay ourselves out before God.

Second, ask God to act.

Read verses 6-9:

Arise, O LORD, in your anger;
lift yourself up against the fury of my enemies;
awake for me; you have appointed a judgment.
Let the assembly of the peoples be gathered about you;
over it return on high.
The LORD judges the peoples;
judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me.
Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God!

We’re going to run into this type of prayer a few times in the psalms. Does this bother anyone? David asks God to unleash his fury upon David’s enemies. Some people say, “Well, that doesn’t sound very Christian. Why can’t David be more forgiving?” It seems unfair to ask God to rise up in anger and judge people who have wronged us.

But let’s think about this. People say, “How could a good and loving God be filled with wrath?” But at the same time we recognize that there are all kinds of good reasons to be filled with wrath. This past week you’ve read about the rioting in England. Prime Minister David Cameron came on TV and said, “Well, let’s not get angry here. Hooligans aren’t bad people.” No, he got angry. He promised to ensure that every looter was caught, brought to court, and sentenced, and that "phony human rights" concerns would not get in the way. “The whole country has been shocked by the most appalling scenes of people looting, violence, vandalizing and thieving," Cameron said at the beginning of his statement to what appeared to be a full house of parliamentarians sitting on long rows of green benches. "It is criminality pure and simple. And there is absolutely no excuse for it." That’s entirely appropriate. If he had stayed on vacation and hadn’t come back and done something about the crisis, then he wouldn’t have been doing his job. People expect him to act and respond to injustice.

That is exactly the same with God. When injustice is taking place, it would be a travesty to think that God was sitting by and doing nothing. It is entirely appropriate for God to take notice of wrong and to act, and that’s exactly what David is asking God to do. David is asking God to take note and to respond appropriately. Becky Pippert makes the point that the more that you love somebody, the more you care, the more you get angry when they’re the victim of injustice. She then says, “If I, a flawed, narcissistic, sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.” It’s like C.S. Lewis put it: “The absence of anger, especially the sort of anger which we call indignation, can, in my opinion, be a most alarming symptom.”

In other words, we can actually find hope in God’s anger. When you’re being battered and pursued, when it looks like people are out to get you, and you can’t do anything about it, you can find hope in the fact that God sees and that God will set things straight. N.T. Wright puts it this way:

The word judgment carries negative overtones for a good many people in our liberal and post-liberal world. We need to remind ourselves that throughout the Bible God's coming judgment is a good thing, something to be celebrated, longed for, yearned over. It causes people to shout for joy and the trees of the field to clap their hands. In a world of systematic injustice, bullying, violence, arrogance, and oppression, the thought that there might come a day when the wicked are firmly put in their place and the poor and weak are given their due is the best news there can be. Faced with a world in rebellion, a world full of exploitation and wickedness, a good God must be a God of judgment.

So it’s entirely appropriate for us to ask God to act and to set things straight. So lay yourself out before God. Don’t play your cards close to your chest. Lay the situation out before God clearly. And then ask God to act. Say, in effect, “Are you seeing this? Do something!” Ask God to act justly to set the situation right.

Third, remind yourself of who God is.

Notice the change in verse 8. Up until now David has been speaking to God. In verses 8 to 11 he switches and talks about God as well as to God. What’s happening here? Somebody’s said it’s as if he’s seen God in his mind rise up and take action. It’s as if as David is praying that he senses God has heard, and has risen up in answer to his prayer. It just could be that David shifts his focus. He begins to focus on God.

We travelled to New York back in July. New York has to be one of my most favorite cities. You have this sense as you’re walking around what’s happening on the ground. You go through different parts of the city. In some places it’s so packed you can barely move. In other places it’s quieter and more businesslike. Wherever you are, you get the sense of what the city is like in that place, knowing that it could be very different a block over.

But then one day I went to the Top of the Rock, the top of the Rockefeller Plaza. From the 70th floor things look very different. You can see the city in a way that you can’t see from the ground.

That’s what happens in this psalm. David has been at street-level dealing with slander. Then in verses 8 to 11 he gets a very different perspective as he’s elevated, as he gets a larger picture of who God is. He says:

The LORD judges the peoples;
judge me, O LORD, according to my righteousness
and according to the integrity that is in me.
Oh, let the evil of the wicked come to an end,
and may you establish the righteous—
you who test the minds and hearts,
O righteous God!
My shield is with God,
who saves the upright in heart.
God is a righteous judge,
and a God who feels indignation every day.

See David’s focus here? His focus is on a God who judges the peoples. The picture David has is that God is sovereign over all the earth, and that nothing happens without his knowledge our outside of his control. What’s more, David sees God as one who brings an end to evil, and who establishes the righteous. He is not without emotion. He is a good, David says, who feels indignation every day.

What we really need, David shows us, is a vision of God. We need to get off the street level to where we can see the bigger picture, when we can remind ourselves of who God is and how it relates to what we’re going through. A few years ago Timothy Stoner wrote a book with a funny title: The God Who Smokes: Scandalous Meditations on Faith. I was so put off by the title that I almost never read it. But title, The God Who Smokes, is actually a reference to God as a consuming fire, God as one who has a holy and passionate love and anger. He writes:

God really believes that he is the most worthy, most majestic, magnificent, glorious, stunningly beautiful being in the universe. And he is fixated on the certainty that only he deserves worship – that to him alone belong honor, glory, and praise forever and forever. With red-rimmed, stinging eyes and burning hair, all we can say is – he is right. He is astonishingly beautiful, utterly majestic and perfect in the symmetries of justice and righteousness, knowledge, and wisdom. He is as hypnotically compelling as a surging forest fire and ten times as dangerous. He is out of control – ours, not his.

That’s what we need. We need to see God for who he is: the most majestic, magnificent, glorious, stunningly beautiful being in the universe. He alone is worthy of honor, glory, and praise. He is astonishingly beautiful and utterly majestic. He is right. As we get this picture of God, things will start to look very different at street level.

This plays out as David looks back at those who are slandering him. David turns from gazing upon God to the slanderers, and he says:

If a man does not repent, God will whet his sword;
he has bent and readied his bow;
he has prepared for him his deadly weapons,
making his arrows fiery shafts.
Behold, the wicked man conceives evil
and is pregnant with mischief
and gives birth to lies.
He makes a pit, digging it out,
and falls into the hole that he has made.
His mischief returns upon his own head,
and on his own skull his violence descends.

As David’s perspective changes, he sees the slanderers differently too. Before they looked like lions that were about to devour him. Now they look very differently. They look like victims of God’s imminent justice. They actually look kind of pathetic: like someone who falls into the whole that he dug for someone else. He lays a booby-trap but sets it off himself. It may take some time, but their evil will destroy themselves.

Years ago Paul Allen - a former youth pastor here - told me something I’ll never forget. He said, “Sin always overplays its hand.” Here’s what he meant: sometimes it looks like sin has the winning hand. But sin always gets too cocky and takes things too far. That’s exactly what David sees here. The slanderers won’t ultimately be victorious. In fact, they’ll suffer God’s judgment. Even if they don’t, they’ll do themselves in.

The thing that makes all the difference is that David gets a view of God. He lays himself before God, asks him to act, but then sees God for who he is, and it changes everything.

Finally, praise Him.

That’s the thing. Once you’ve seen God for who he is, you have to praise him. David starts this psalm in crisis, but he ends this psalm in praise. Verse 17 says:

I will give to the LORD the thanks due to his righteousness,
and I will sing praise to the name of the LORD, the Most High.

David doesn’t just theorize about God. He gazes on him and worships him. I know a Bible scholar who attended a meeting of academics who study the Bible. They can talk about Scripture endlessly, but only as a theory. Many of the them study Scripture, but don’t believe in God. One troubled person heard about this meeting. She was going through a hard time and wanted to speak to someone about God. If she talked to most of the people at the conference, they wouldn’t have been able to help her. But she found the Bible scholar I knew, and he was able to help. Why? Because he knew about God, but he also knew God. There's a big difference between knowing about God and actually knowing him.

That’s what David shows us here. David doesn’t just rehearse facts about God. That won’t do anything. David thinks about God, and can’t help but bow before him and worship him. He starts this psalm as a wounded man. He gets a glimpse of God. And that leads him to bow down before God. He starts this psalm with a whimper but he ends this psalm singing.

What should we do when slandered? Lay yourself before him, ask him to act, remind yourself who he is, and then praise him.

Two things this as we close.

First, I don’t know what you’re going through. But I invite you to leave street level and to glimpse God. See who he is. Don’t just look at him; worship him. Take in his beauty. Let him move you. I guarantee you that things will look different at street level once you’ve done this. Take the steps that David’s showed us in this psalm. Lay out your situation before him; ask him to act; remind yourself who God is, and then praise him.

Second, remind yourself of God’s justice. Remind yourself that God is a consuming fire. Remind yourself that God’s justice. Then look in amazement at the cross, where Jesus took the justice that we deserved. Remind yourself that God is just - but that God has satisfied his justice in Jesus for all who trust him. Throw yourself at his feet and worship him.

A Prayer for Dealing With Sin and Guilt (Psalm 6)

We all struggle with sin. There’s an old term that I can relate to: besetting sin. To beset means to harass, to constantly trouble or attack. So a besetting sin is one a sin that continually trips us up and troubles us and leaves us feeling defeated. As somebody has written:

In the life of every individual, there is a "besetting" sin that can tower like a mountain between the individual and God. This is "the sin which doth so easily beset us", and it differs according to the person. What is a besetting sin to one person may not trouble another at all. Sometimes this sin, or persistently assailing evil, is quite obvious to others, while in other cases it is hidden in the heart and known only to the individual and God. In either case, it is perplexing and harassing, and, if allowed to linger and grow, it may end in tragic moral failure. Practically every believer wrestles with an habitually assaulting sin, even those whose service to Christ is of outstanding quality.

I don’t know what your besetting sin is. But I know how it feels to feel defeated and guilty and full of shame as a result of sin. I came across this description of what it feels like. It’s written by people who struggle with pornography, although I think the same words could be written by those who struggle with other sins. In his book Closing the Window: Steps to Living Porn Free, Tim Chester shares the following quotes from men who have struggled with the guilt and condemnation that comes from viewing pornography:

"It's made me want to hide from God .... It makes me doubt my salvation, and then the depression comes and with the depression comes temptation to sin again."

"I feel crap about myself. I don't feel worthy to serve God. And I don't believe I can break the habit."

"I feel dirty and unable to approach God after looking at porn .... So often I feel unable to come to him in repentance, even though I know my sin is already dealt with."

"I couldn't talk with God about my problems. My picture of him was that he would accept me if and when I had 'scrubbed up' enough."

So here’s the question. What do you do when you’re at this point of having failed God again? What do you do when you want to hide from God in shame, doubt your salvation? When you feel like crap and that you can’t approach him because of your guilt?

In this psalm, David shows us what we can do. When you’ve sinned, he says, get honest with God, plead with God and then rest in his forgiveness.

First, David teaches us, get honest with God.

David writes in verses 1-3:

O LORD, rebuke me not in your anger,
nor discipline me in your wrath.
Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
heal me, O LORD, for my bones are troubled.
My soul also is greatly troubled.
But you, O LORD—how long?

This psalm has traditionally been classified as one of seven penitential psalms found in the Psalter. A penitential psalm is one in which the psalmist confesses sin, expresses sorrow for that sin, describes the effects of guilt, and requests and celebrates God’s forgiveness. Don’t forget that the psalms are not just private correspondence between the psalmist and God. They’re placed here to teach us how to pray when we are in the same situation as the psalmist. So the implication is that we need to be taught what to do when we sin. The assumption is that we’re going to need this. There are times that we’re going to be caught in sin.

Ed Stetzer, a pastor and researcher in the States, writes of the time that his family moved from New York City to Florida. They lived in a house that grandfather owned. Because the house was in a rural area, it wasn’t serviced by the city sewer system. That meant it had a septic tank. The septic tank system worked fine most of the time, but occasionally there were problems. On such an occasion, Stetzer’s grandfather would do what any old and wise man would do. He asked Stetzer to meet him in the yard. He’d bring a metal bar to pry open the lid, and he’d bring a shovel to pry out whatever was stuck in there. One day his grandpa thought it would be funny to act like he was going to push him into the septic tank. And it was funny, at least until he lost his balance. Before he knew it, he was standing knee deep in sewage. That’s a pretty good picture of the situation that David’s in as he writes this psalm. So how do you pray to God from the middle of the septic tank?

Well, David does three things. First, he’s honest about his situation. He asks God not to rebuke him in anger or discipline him in wrath. Notice that David doesn’t deny that he deserves a rebuke and discipline. Clearly he does. David tacitly admits that he’s sinned against God and that he’s the septic tank, so to speak, because he put himself there. He shows us that we don’t have to clean ourselves up before we approach God. We can pray to him even when we’re in the middle of the septic tank of our sin.

Second, David is also honest about what he’s feeling. He talks about being frail and weak. He says that his bones are shaking. He’s terrified and wants to know how long his suffering will continue. His soul is troubled. David is not doing well here. He’s dealing with the effects and consequences of sin. Some people think that he’s literally sick here. I think he’s describing the anguish of his guilt in very dramatic terms. Psychologists talk about the negative effects of guilt. We know this. David is experiencing God’s displeasure and the shame and guilt that come from sin, and he’s honest with God about what it feels like. It’s like what one person’s said about sin: “Sin will take you farther than you want to go, keep you longer than you want to stay, and cost you more than you're willing to pay” (Steve Farrar).

But then notice that David asks God for mercy. He asks God not to rebuke him in anger; not to discipline him in wrath. Notice what David doesn’t say. He doesn’t ask God not to rebuke or discipline him. Spurgeon writes:

The Psalmist is very conscious that he deserves to be rebuked, and he feels, moreover, that the rebuke in some form or other must come upon him, if not for condemnation, yet for conviction and sanctification...He does not ask that the rebuke may be totally withheld, for he might thus lose a blessing in disguise; but, “Lord, rebuke me not in thine anger.”...So may we pray that the chastisements of our gracious God, if they may not be entirely removed, may at least be sweetened by the consciousness that they are “not in anger, but in his dear covenant love.”

Now listen. Some of us are struggling with guilt. We are in the middle of the septic tank. David shows us that we can approach God even when we’re dealing with the crushing effects of sin. We can cry out to God even when we’re experiencing all the guilt and shame of our failure. This is so important because when we’re in this state, the last thing we want to do is to come to God. We want to hide from him, like Adam and Eve did, because we’re ashamed. When you’ve sinned, David teaches us, the first thing to do is to get honest with God. But that’s not all.

Second, plead with God.

Some of you have kids who do this all the time. Sometimes I think that kids show signs of becoming great case lawyers in the future. You know that if a child wants something, they will come up with arguments and then present those arguments with great force before his or her parents. Did you know that this is what we are to do with God? David is caught in the middle of sin. But he doesn’t hide from God. He’s honest with God. But then he pleads with God. Again, let me quote Spurgeon:

The ancient saints were given...to ordering their cause before God. As a petitioner coming into court does not come there without thought to state his case on the spur of the moment, but enters into the audience chamber with his suit well prepared, having also learned how he ought to behave himself in the presence of the great one to whom he is appealing, so it is well to approach the seat of the King of Kings as much as possible with premeditation and preparation, knowing what we are about, where we are standing, and what it is which we desire to obtain...The best prayers I have ever heard in our prayer meetings have been those which have been fullest of argument. Sometimes my soul has been fairly melted down where I have listened to the brethren who have come before God feeling the mercy to be really needed, and that they must have it, for they first pleaded with God to give it for this reason, and then for a second, and then for a third and then for a fourth and a fifth until they have awakened the fervency of the entire assembly.

We need to learn how to do this, especially when we are dealing with sin and guilt. David pleads with God using three arguments here.

First, he pleads on the basis of God’s character. In verse 4 he says, “Turn, O LORD, deliver my life; save me for the sake of your steadfast love.” The word for “steadfast love” is one of my favorite words in the entire Bible. It means God’s unchanging covenant love. It’s a devoted love that promises to never let go no matter what happens. David doesn’t build an argument on his own character; he builds an argument based on God’s unchanging character and his covenant promise of love. God delights when we do this, when we plead with him based on who he is and what he has promised to do.

Second, he pleads with God on the basis of the praise that he wants to bring God. This is interesting. In verse 5 he says, “For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who will give you praise?” David is not giving a full-blown theology of the afterlife here. What he’s saying is that while he is alive, he lives to praise God. But when he’s dead he will no longer be able to do this. Graveyards are quiet places. David wants the opportunity to praise God’s name. By the way, this gives us a hint as to one of the main reasons we live: to bring praise to God. God delights in being exalted. David pleads on the basis that his restoration would allow him to continue to live and to praise his great God.

Finally, he pleads on the basis of his suffering. David says in verses 6-7:

I am weary with my moaning;
every night I flood my bed with tears;
I drench my couch with my weeping.
My eye wastes away because of grief;
it grows weak because of all my foes.

What is this? Is this just complaining and whining? Somebody journaled through the psalms and wrote, “What is it with these psalmists anyway? They’re such a bunch of whiners!” Well, it can seem that way, but David is doing more than whining here. He’s again making an assumption about God’s character. The assumption is that God cares about what David is experiencing, even if it is a result of his sin. He’s presuming on God’s compassion and care for his people.

He is making an assumption about the mercy of God. He is assuming that all of this really matters to God and that Yahweh will be touched with pity over his condition. He assumes that our misery arouses God’s mercy, touches God’s heart. A prayer like this assumes that the Father is like Jesus - always going around being moved with compassion.

So David teaches us that when you’ve sinned, get honest with God, and then plead with God. Argue with him. Lay hold of God’s character and reputation and his care for you, and then build on that. Use arguments in prayer. Make a case to God based on who he is and what he’s promised. Because we know what Christ has done for us, plead based on Christ having paid the penalty in full for your sin at the cross. Trust that he is interceding for you as well.

When you’ve sinned, get honest, and then plead your case. But there’s one more thing.

Third, having done all of this, rest in his forgiveness.

I love how David ends this. Listen to what he says in verses 8-10:

Depart from me, all you workers of evil,
for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
The LORD has heard my plea;
the LORD accepts my prayer.
All my enemies shall be ashamed and greatly troubled;
they shall turn back and be put to shame in a moment.

Some churches regularly hold a time of confession as part of their worship services. Together the congregation confesses sin to God. For instance:

Dear friends in Christ, here in the presence of Almighty God, let us kneel in silence, and with penitent and obedient hearts confess our sins, so that we may obtain forgiveness by his infinite goodness and mercy.

There has never been a time when I’ve lacked things to confess at that moment. After a time of confession, the officiant then stands up and says something like this:

Almighty God have mercy on you, forgive you all your sins through the Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen you in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep you in eternal life. Amen.

I need that. I need not just the confession but the assurance that God has heard my confession and forgiven my sins, and that I’m cleansed and ready to go.

That’s what happens in this psalm. Having come to God, acknowledged his sin, and pleaded his case, David know shows us the assurance that we can have. Prayer lays hold of God and his forgiveness so that we receive the mercy that we need. David says, “The LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.”

Today you can come to God and get real about your situation. You don’t have to hide from him. You can tell him exactly what you’ve done and how it’s made you feel. You can then plead with him based on his character and his promises. And then you can leave this morning knowing that God has heard your prayer and has pardoned your sin.

But then you can also deal with your enemies. David has some enemies in mind here who aren’t letting him forget his sins. But we can also deal with Satan, the accuser, who tries to unsettle us and rob us of our assurance and peace in the gospel. In his book By Grace Alone: How the Grace of God Amazes Me, Sinclair Ferguson identifies four major "fiery darts" Satan uses to unsettle believers:

Fiery Dart 1: "God is against you," Satan says. "He is not really for you. How can you believe he is for you when you see the things that are happening in your life?"

Fiery Dart 2: "I have accusations I will bring against you because of your sins," Satan argues. "What can you say in defense? Nothing."

Fiery Dart 3: "You can say you are forgiven, but there is a payback day coming—a condemnation day," Satan insinuates. "How will you defend yourself then?"

Fiery Dart 4: "Given your track record, what hope is there that you will persevere to the end?" Satan asks.

But we can respond, “Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.”

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, writes of an encounter he had with Satan.

Satan, either in reality or in a dream, appeared in the depth of the night, and addressed him in the following terms: "Luther, how dare you to pretend to be a reformer of the Church? Luther, let your memory do its duty - let your conscience do its duty: you have committed this sin - you have been guilty of that sin; you have omitted this duty, and you have neglected that duty: let your reform begin in your own bosom. How dare you attempt to be a reformer of the Church?

Luther, with the self-possession and magnanimity by which he was characterized, (whether it was a dream or reality, he himself professes not to decide,) said to Satan - "Take up the slate that lies on the table, and write down all the sins with which you have now charged me; and if there be any additional, append them, too." Satan, rejoiced to have the opportunity of accusing, just as our blessed Lord is rejoiced to have the opportunity of advocating, took up a pencil, and wrote a long and painful roll of the real or imputed sins of Luther.

Luther said, "Have you written the whole?" Satan answered, "Yes, and a black and dark catalogue it is, and sufficient to deter you from making any attempt to reform others, till you have first purified and reformed yourself." Luther said, "Take up the slate and write as I shall dictate to you. My sins are many; my transgressions in the sight of an infinitely holy God, are countless as the hairs of my head: in me there dwelleth no good thing; but, Satan, after the last sin you have recorded, write the announcement which I shall repeat from 1 John 1:7,"The blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth from all sin." Luther in that text had peace; and Satan, knowing the source of his peace, had no more advantage against him. (Rev. John Cumming, 1854)

A hymn puts it this way: “Well may the accuser roar, of sins that I have done; I know them all and thousands more, Jehovah knoweth none!” When you’ve sinned, get honest with God, plead with God and then rest in his forgiveness.

We started out this morning talking about the shame and weight of sin, of how people feel when they’re caught in besetting sin. I gave the example of people who said:

"It's made me want to hide from God .... It makes me doubt my salvation, and then the depression comes and with the depression comes temptation to sin again."

"I feel crap about myself. I don't feel worthy to serve God. And I don't believe I can break the habit."

"I feel dirty and unable to approach God after looking at porn .... So often I feel unable to come to him in repentance, even though I know my sin is already dealt with."

"I couldn't talk with God about my problems. My picture of him was that he would accept me if and when I had 'scrubbed up' enough."

Without condoning the sin of viewing porn, Tim Chester offers the following words of hope to people who are struggling with pornography, and for all of us who are struggling with any sin:

Jesus lived God's welcome to sinners. He embodied God's mercy. He was known as the friend of sinners. The religious people didn't like it, because it turned their proud systems of self-righteousness upside down. But Jesus sat down to eat with prostitutes, adulterers, and porn addicts .... On the cross, God treated Christ as a porn user .... [Paraphrasing 2 Corinthians 5:21], "God made Jesus, who never looked with lust, to be a porn addict for us, so that in him we might become sexually pure."

Or, to put it differently, using the words of the guy who fell in the septic tank and who was standing neck-deep in sewage:

I am forever thankful the waste wasn’t any deeper that day. I could easily have been submerged rather than knee deep. But consider Christ, who was not knee deep and not even submerged, but who actually ingested the sin of mankind. (Ed Stetzer)

Because of Christ and what he’s done, we can stand before God and know that he’s heard our prayer. When you’ve sinned, get honest with God, plead with God and then rest in his forgiveness.

A Prayer for Tight Spots (Psalm 4)

We’re spending some time this summer going through some of the early psalms. Today we come to Psalm 4, and I’m going to call this one a psalm for tight spots. The reason why is because of what David says in the first verse of this psalm: “Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness! You have given me relief when I was in distress. Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” The middle phrase in this verse, “You have given me relief when I was in distress,” could literally be translated, “In a tight corner, you have made room for me.” We don’t know what situation David was facing when he wrote this psalm, but we do know that he was in a tight spot. In fact, it’s almost better that we don’t know what situation David was facing. In a way it doesn’t matter. This is a psalm for any of us who are finding ourselves in a tight spot of some kind.

You know what a tight spot is. I’ve driven through some tight spots recently. Have you ever driven through a narrow space, watching your side-view mirrors so that you don’t lose them? You know what it’s like to be in a tight spot. Maybe you’ve been stuck at some point in your life. You thought you could wedge your body through a space that turned out to be a little too small. Well, then, you’ve also been in a tight spot. I picture someone walking through a narrow rock formation that’s hardly big enough to squeeze through. There’s no room to maneuver or turn. There’s nowhere to go. I hate the feeling of being constricted and squeezed. But that’s exactly the situation that David faces as he writes this psalm.

Some of you know exactly what David is talking about. It could be that right now you’re in a tight spot in your life. I don’t know what that tight spot is, but you feel hemmed in and trapped. You don’t have a lot of options for getting out. You feel constricted, restricted, closed in, with nowhere to turn. You love the picture of being given room to move, as David says in this psalm.

So the question is: what do we do when we find ourselves in a tight spot? What do we do when we’re hemmed in with nowhere to turn and nowhere to go? David teaches us how to respond in this psalm. How do we respond when we’re in a tight spot? With confidence, honesty, and peace, he says. Let’s look at each one.

First, when you’re in a tight spot, respond with confidence to God.

Confidence is almost too tame a word to describe verse 1. You could call it gutsy confidence. You can call it audaciousness or boldness. Whatever you call it, David is incredibly bold in addressing God as he faces his tight spot. Read what he says:

Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
You have given me relief when I was in distress.
Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!
(Psalm 4:1)

What I find amazing about this verse is how David approaches God. He comes with a bold confidence in God. He’s bold in approaching God. He basically says, “Listen up! Hear me!” He demands an active response from God. He does not come as someone who is unsure of God. He comes with a bold expectation that God will hear and respond.

There are two concepts here. One is the expectation that God is willing to hear David’s prayers. David has no doubt that even when he’s in this tight spot that God can and should turn his ear and listen. Bill Hybels, a pastor near Chicago, talks about his father who was a very busy man. He traveled all over the world. To get through to him, you had to go through his staff first. But he had a private number that rang the phone right on his desk without having to go through any intermediary. Only a few select people, including his children, had that number. He still remembers the number to this day: 345-5366. No matter how busy he was, they could call him any time on that direct line.

Hybels says, “No one's voice sounds sweeter to God than your voice. ‘Hello, Father.’ There's nothing going on in the cosmos that would keep him from directing his full attention to your conversation or your request.” David got that. David had an bold expectation that God would hear him. He had the audacity to say, “Listen up, God!” and to expect that God would actually listen.

But there’s more. There’s also a confidence that God would not only listen but answer. He approaches the God who has made space for him in tight spots before and prays, “Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!” You know that there’s a type of listening that seems sympathetic but is anything but. If you tell me your problems this morning, I can nod and say “uh huh” as you speak. You might walk away thinking that I’m a great listener. That’s important, but I really haven’t helped you. David is approaching God. He definitely expects God to be a good listener, but he’s looking for more. He expects God to answer his prayer, to come through again and help him out of this tight spot. David has a bold confidence in God, that God would listen and that God would answer his prayer.

Tim Keller tells the story of Alexander the Great, who supposedly had a leading general whose daughter was getting married. Alexander the Great said that he'd be happy to contribute to the wedding. He said that he knew it would be expensive, so just ask for something. The general wrote out out a request for an enormous sum, a ridiculous sum. When Alexander's treasurer saw it, he brought it to Alexander and said, "I'm sure you're going to be cutting this man's head off now for what he's done. The audacity of asking for something like this! Who does he think you are?" Alexander said, "Give it to him. By such an outlandish request, he shows that he believes that I am both rich and generous." He was flattered by it.

God desires prayer that is bold, even shameless, in coming to him. When you read the prayers of the Bible, they're bold. They argue with God. Jesus talked about it as asking, seeking, and knocking. N.T. Wright says:

[Jesus] is encouraging a kind of holy boldness, a sharp knocking on the door, an insistent asking, a search that refuses to give up. That's what our prayer should be like. This isn't just a routine or formal praying, going through the motions as a daily or weekly task. There is a battle going on, a fight with the powers of darkness, and those who have glimpsed the light are called to struggle in prayer...

That’s the first thing we see in this psalm. Are you in a tight spot? The way to respond is first to come to God with a bold confidence and expectation that he will hear you and answer your prayer. Don’t come passively. Come boldly and expect God to hear you.

But that’s not all:

Second, respond with honesty to those who are in error.

So here’s the thing that I’ve discovered: most tight spots have to do with people. David begins by talking to God, but in this psalm he also turns his attention to the people who seem to be causing him grief. So he says in verses 2-5:

O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah
But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him.
Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the LORD.

This is kind of unusual. Many of us are used to psalms in which the psalmist speaks to God. You may not have realized that sometimes the psalmist speaks to others besides God in the psalms as well. By the way, the songs we sing in our corporate worship should do the same. It’s entirely appropriate to sing to God, but there’s also a time in which we should sing to each other. Paul called this “addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart” (Ephesians 5:19). There’s a place for singing to God; there’s also a big place for addressing each other in the songs we sing, and in the psalms.

So what people does David address? In verse 2 he says “O men.” The word that David used seems to refer to those of elevated social rank. So whatever situation David is facing, he’s not just talking to ordinary Joe. He’s talking to people who are in positions of influence and power.

And what does he say? Three things. First, he tells them off in verse 2. “O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame? How long will you love vain words and seek after lies?” “How long?” implies that David is running out of patience. They’re dragging his name and reputation through the mud, and David has had enough. But then he indicts them. He doesn’t just focus on the damage they’re doing to his name and reputation. He charges them with loving vain words and seeking after lies. They’re delusional. They love what is empty and worthless. They don’t just engage in worthless activity; they actually hate it. There is a time to look at someone and to tell them that what they’re doing is harmful and empty. David has no problem doing this in this psalm.

Second, he reminds them that God responds to the faithful. Remember that David’s name is being dragged through the mud. His honor has been turned to shame. It probably looks like everyone has abandoned him. But David reminds his enemies that God has not turned his back. He says, “But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself; the LORD hears when I call to him.” You may have heard about a couple driving down the street in Vancouver. They look to the side of the road and see a couple of hitchhikers. The guy is dressed like Bono of U2. They pull over, and sure enough it is Bono and his assistant. Turns out, he and his assistant had gone out for a walk when it started to rain, just before they happened upon them. Bono and his assistant sat in the back with the couple’s dog. Bono isn’t accustomed to sticking out his thumb at the side of the road, but no matter where he is he’s still Bono. Nothing’s changed even if he’s stuck on the side of the road.

Contrast this with a story from a couple of hundred years ago. Thomas Jefferson went to a Baltimore hotel to ask for accommodation. He was in working clothes and splattered with mud. The proprietor looked him over and said, “We have no room for you, sir.” Jefferson left. A friend soon came in and told the proprietor that he had just turned away Thomas Jefferson, the Vice President of the United States and a signer of the Declaration of Independence. He thought he was dealing with a dirty farmer. But just because someone thought he was a dirty farmer didn’t change who he really was. “The weapon against slander is to remember how God regards you, to hold on to what he has said about you...Those who despise us may regard us as a step above scum but that does not alter the fact that we are covenant ones whom Yahweh has set apart for himself” (Dale Ralph Davis).

So David says to them, in essence, that he might not look like much to them. He may look like a hitchhiker on the side of the road, or like a dirty farmer. But God knows who he is. He is God’s. God has set him apart for himself. God hears his prayer.

But finally, David calls for repentance from his enemies. Verse 4 says, “Be angry, and do not sin; ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD.” It’s actually hard to translate the first part of verse 4. “Be angry” is actually “Tremble with fear.” I know this is hard to believe, but one time I got in trouble in school and was sent down to the principle’s office. I don’t remember trembling with fear in the school playground, but as I got closer to the principle’s office I became a little more concerned. Here David hauls them into God’s office and says that they should tremble with fear and stop sinning. They’re in an untenable position rebelling against God. He tells them to ponder their situation on their bed, to get right with God, and to offer right sacrifices to God, and to trust him.

So David does three things here as he speaks to his enemies. He indicts them. He reminds them (and himself) that God hasn’t abandoned him; God knows him no matter what they think. And he calls them to realize they’re in deep weeds, and to get right with God.

Canadian humor writer Phil Callaway recently accepted the challenge to live for a year without telling a lie or fudging the truth. He chronicles his journey in his new book called To Be Perfectly Honest: One Man's Year of Almost Living Truthfully Could Change Your Life. No Lie.. He says:

I've always avoided confrontation. I golfed with a man for years whose marriage was falling apart and I didn't once summon the nerve to say, "Hey, what's happening?" Some of us are terrified of offending others, but I don't know one single leader who can't point to someone who offended them with the truth about themselves. It can be transforming.

In his Focus on the Family magazine article entitled "The Problem with Nice Guys," Paul Coughlin insists Christians must avoid passive and aggressive extremes, opting instead for assertiveness. He offers the following example from pop culture to illustrate what Christian assertiveness looks like: “Three major personality types are found among the judges of the popular reality TV show American Idol. Passive Paula Abdul is gracious but not always truthful. Aggressive Simon Cowell is truthful but rarely gracious. Assertive Randy Jackson is often truthful and gracious. Be like Randy.”

When you’re in a tight spot, there may come a time for you to be honest with the people in your life who are problems. One of the best things we can do sometimes is to go to others and call them on their behavior; remind them of who we are in God; and call them to repentance. That’s what David does in this psalm. He’s in a tight spot, so he responds in confidence to a God who hears him, but then he also responds in honesty to the people around him.

Finally, when you’re in a tight spot, having spoken to God and others, find your peace in God.

David’s already reminded us of who he is in God. He finishes this psalm by contrasting two ways of relating to God. Read verses 6 to 8 with me:

There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!”
You have put more joy in my heart
than they have when their grain and wine abound.
In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.

There are two ways of relating to God. The first way is dependent on circumstances. People say, “Who will show us some good?” There’s maybe a bit of crass pragmatism here. “What’s in it for me?” This way of relating to God is highly circumstantial. When things are good, then God is good. When things are bad, then things aren’t so good with God. This type of relationship depends on good times, when “grain and wine abound.” We’ve all been here, haven’t we?

But there’s a different way of relating to God. This way of relating to God doesn’t depend on circumstances. David says “You have put more joy in my heart than when they have their grain and wine abound.” He then says he’s able to go to bed at night and sleep well despite all the problems. Why? The end of verse 8 explains why: “for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.” David ultimately finds his safety in God. This is enough for him. He has a deep peace despite the circumstances. Ravi Zacharias said, “Faith is confidence in the person of Jesus Christ and in his power, so that even when his power does not serve my end, my confidence in him remains because of who he is.”

One of the most moving examples of this for me is the story of Nicholas Ridley. He was a British clergyman caught in controversy in England in the 1550s. The was scheduled to be burned at the stake in Oxford for his faith. The night before his execution his brother offered to stay with him in his last hours. But Ridley refused. He said he was going to bed, and that he was going to sleep as soundly that night as he ever did in his life. That’s exactly what David says in verse 8: “In peace I will both lie down and sleep; for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety.”

Three applications for us this morning.

One: please realize who you are in Jesus Christ. If you are a follower of Jesus Christ, then you can have the same confidence that David enjoyed no matter what circumstances you face. You can know that God has set you apart for himself; that God hears you when you call him. This will enable you to know for sure who God is even in the middle of horrible circumstances. You may want to even post some of this psalm where you can see it this week to remind you of who you are in Christ; to know that you’ve been purchased by his blood; that he has set you apart and that he cares about you. If you don’t know God through Jesus Christ, then I encourage you to pursue this. Make this a priority in your life. God invites you to come into a relationship with him. He’s sent his Son to provide the way for this to be possible. Pursue God as he pursues you. I’d love to talk to you about this if you’re interested.

Second: God may be calling some of you to a new level of honesty. It may be that you need to speak to some people in your life as David did in this psalm. Tell them the truth about what they’re doing and how this relates to God. You need to work through how to do this. I’m not saying to get all preachy. You can figure it out. But some of us are too scared to really speak honestly to others. David shows us that we can, and sometimes we should.

Finally, this morning, come to God boldly with whatever you’re facing. He wants to hear from you. And take confidence from the fact that he does, and then sleep well tonight knowing that God makes you dwell in safety no matter what’s going on around you.

How do we respond when we’re in a tight spot? With confidence in God, honesty to others, and then peace.