(Sermon preached at Cromer on 28th January 2018)
How do you make sure God accepts you as one of his people, now and always? Is it simply by trusting him? Or do we have to try to obey all his commands? Or both?
The Jews in Paul’s day would say that you became one of God’s people by being born a Jew or becoming a Jew, and by accepting the Jewish law – the commands about circumcision, worship, what to eat and how to behave. Some Jewish Christians believed that you became one of God’s people by accepting Jesus as the Messiah who has given you forgiveness and a new relationship with God, but then you had to become a Jew if you were not one already, and accept all God’s commands. Paul’s message was that you become one of God’s people only by trusting Jesus for forgiveness and a new life with God. That made you one of God’s people. You did not have to be a Jew or become a Jew, you were already one of God’s people. You did not have to win acceptance with God by trying to obey his commands – you were accepted simply because you had put your trust in Jesus. (He talks about the place of the law later in his letter to the Galatians.)
Let me give you an illustration.
On 30th June, 1859, a French tightrope walker, Charles Blondin, walked across a rope that was 1100 feet long, stretched across the Niagara Gorge just downstream from the famous Falls. He repeated the feat several times afterwards, each time with a different theatrical twist: blindfolded, in a sack, trundling a wheelbarrow, on stilts, sitting down midway while he cooked and ate an omelette, or standing on a chair with only one of its legs balanced on the rope. Once he carried a man on his back, his manager, Harry Colcord. Imagine that the rope stretched into the kingdom of God. How could you get into the kingdom? You could try and get there yourself – just walk across the rope. Or you could climb onto Charles’ back and trust him to take you. Halfway across, would you dream of saying, ‘Right, I’ve now got to do the rest by myself – tell me what to do, and I’ll try and do it’? Of course not. By the way, obedience would be important even while on Charles’ back – if he said, ‘Stop wriggling around so much,’ you’d stop. But you’d know that the only way to get to the kingdom side was to trust Charles.
That was Paul’s message to the Galatians. ‘You have put your trust in Jesus to save you and give you the blessings of God’s kingdom. How can you think of now trying to complete the task in your own strength?’
Paul backs up his message in this passage with three arguments: first, the message of the cross, second, the Galatians’ experience, and third, the Scriptures. Let’s look at these the other way round – let’s look first at the argument from Scripture in Galatians 3 verses 6-14.
In vs 6-9 Paul considers the story of Abraham, the founder of the faith. When God promised him descendants, land, and blessing, Abraham believed him. And because Abraham believed him, God accepted him as a worthy recipient of all he promised to give him. And that has been God’s way ever since: he accepts all who trust him. The people God looks on as children of Abraham aren’t the physical descendants – some of them were very wicked indeed. The true children of Abraham are the people who follow Abraham’s example and trust God. And Paul points out that the promise God made at first, that all nations would be blessed through Abraham – all nations, not just his descendants – is a promise that is fulfilled by the good news of Jesus. All who put their faith in Jesus are counted by God as children of Abraham, and are recipients of all the blessings God has promised.
So what about the law, vs 10-14? The trouble with law is that it is law – if you break a law and are found out, there will be nasty consequences. Don’t break the speed limit. That’s a good law. If you are caught speeding, you’ll pay for it. That’s the curse of the law. God’s law is good; if a person keeps all his commands, God will accept them. But if you break one of God’s laws, you are bound to be found out, and will have to pay for it, as Deuteronomy says. And human nature being what it is, we cannot rely on keeping the law to win acceptance from God. Do you feel you have to do such and such to keep on the right side of God? Or that you’re not a first class Christian because…? That you’ve got to try harder? Or even that you can live a good life without God’s help? That’s living under the law. But the prophet Habakkuk says, ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ Faith is the key, faith in Jesus Christ.
Why? What has Jesus done? The answer is in vs 13 & 14: Jesus has redeemed us from the curse of the law, by giving himself up for us to be crucified. Crucifixion was not only the worst death penalty the Romans could devise; to the Jew it meant that the criminal was also cut off from God, for the law said ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’, and a cross was an artificial tree. Jesus ‘became a curse for us’, took upon himself our curse, the penalty we all deserve for breaking God’s laws, as God promised in Isaiah: ‘Each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity, the sin, of us all.’ ‘It is finished!’ Jesus shouted on the cross. ‘It’s all paid for! You are redeemed from the curse of the law! No-one can condemn you!’ And Jesus did it so that anyone, Jew or not, who puts their trust in him, might be given all the blessings God promised Abraham and his spiritual descendants. Especially, the promise of the Spirit, the holy Spirit of God who can now come to live in the hearts of his people. The Galatians had already experienced the Holy Spirit. Let’s look at that now, vs 2-5.
Paul asks a series of rhetorical questions – the answers are obvious. But notice this: Paul can only ask these questions because he knew that the Galatians had experienced the Holy Spirit when they first believed. The Holy Spirit was real to them, and played a vital role in their relationship with God from the first. They saw the Spirit working miracles among them – long before anyone came to them and told them they must become Jews. If God’s Spirit was in them, of course God had accepted them!
What about us? Do we know that we have received the Holy Spirit? Miracles aren’t the only sign of his presence. There are lots of other manifestations of the Spirit, as we read in 1 Corinthians 12. But the main thing is that the Spirit is God himself living in us, revealing God to us, guiding us, empowering us, making Jesus real to us, above all giving us the sense that God is our Father and we are his dear children. Whenever we experience any of those things, that is an experience of the Holy Spirit.
How did the Galatians receive the Holy Spirit in the first place? Not by doing anything. They simply believed what they heard. What had they heard? A clear portrayal of Jesus Christ as crucified, v. 1. If you are not sure that you have received the Holy Spirit, listen with faith to the message of the cross. Jesus says to you: I have redeemed you, ransomed you! I love you, and paid the price, the terrible price, to set you free! I have freed you from the law and its condemnation for your failures, so that you are as free to live with God as I am! I have freed you from the power of the world, the flesh and the devil, so that you are free to live as a citizen of my kingdom! I have freed you from death itself, so that you can live with me in peace and joy for ever! You are now free to live with me as a beloved child of God, and to be about the Father’s business, today and always. My cross has set you free! I have paid the price in full, there’s nothing left for you to pay! Believe it! Trust me! Receive the Holy Spirit!