The Gospel Of Grace
Job’s question summarizes mankind’s endless attempt to get right with God. These attempts have varied in their details, but they share this in common: Every way (except God’s way) has depended on a person’s best efforts. Individuals and nations alike have attempted a host of complicated endeavors to earn God’s favor.
God’s way, by contrast, is not nearly so complicated. But it is distasteful to mankind in general, because it offers no place for any of those great efforts. God’s way is simply based on grace. Those who rely upon it find a solid foundation. But those who are insulted by God’s grace have always tried to undermine it. They suggest that grace is not enough – that it might be an acceptable first step, but further action will be needed for spiritual progress.
This was precisely the situation facing the early Christians in the region of Galatia. The apostle Paul was deeply concerned and, by divine inspiration, wrote a concise letter which outlines important truths about the gospel of grace.
Gospel Of Grace DEFENDED
Paul wrote nine letters to Christian assemblies, and every letter, except Galatians, opens with some statement of warm-hearted thankfulness for the believers’ testimony or service for the Lord. The opening of Galatians is almost shockingly stern: “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6). The gospel message they had trusted was being perverted. Well-spoken teachers with a poisonous message had infiltrated their gathering.
Therefore, Paul defends the divine gospel which he had preached to them. First, he declares the superiority of that message (1:8-10). It is so perfect and trustworthy as to never be given up. If an apostle or even an angel from heaven would stray from its precepts, he would be accursed, for any revision of God’s masterpiece would surely be diabolical (2 Cor. 11:14).
Next, Paul explains the source of his message (1:11-2:10). He reminds the Galatians of his vigorous persecution of God’s Church. After God’s grace took hold of him, he did not consult others about the Christian faith. Instead, he went to Arabia, evidently to spend time alone with God before returning to Damascus. It was three years before Paul spent any time at all in Jerusalem, where many well-known Christians lived – and even then he visited for only fifteen days and saw only Peter. On his next trip to Jerusalem, years later, Paul’s message remained the same, even after discussions with such “pillars” of the faith as James, Peter, and John. All these details combine to prove that the source of the message was not Paul’s intelligence or popularity, nor anyone else’s wisdom, but a divine “revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:12).
Paul also describes the strength of the true message to overcome wrong teaching (2:3-21). Paul had already experienced challenges in Jerusalem from “false brethren” (2:4) who had taught that circumcision according to the Law of Moses was required in order to gain full standing before God. But Paul emphatically declares that he and Titus “did not yield submission even for an hour” to these teachers who controverted “the truth of the gospel” (2:5).
Even Peter and Barnabas were later led astray by pride, as if their Jewish heritage somehow elevated them above Gentile believers. But why should Gentiles be required to be more like the Jews? It was only faith in Christ that justified any of them, not the works of the Law. Paul was unwilling to see Peter or the Galatians living as if God’s grace had room for human advantages or actions, whether for initial salvation or for the life of faith.
Gospel Of Grace EXPLAINED
Galatians 2:21 provides an important bridge to the next section of this letter: “I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died in vain.” Most likely the Galatian error did not try to eliminate Christ’s death as our means of salvation from sin’s penalty. Instead, the emphasis was probably on how the Christian’s daily life could be improved by following the Law of Moses. But this belief impacted the value of Christ’s sacrifice just as if His death had been set aside. If daily righteousness could be maintained by keeping the Law, then Christ’s death was in vain.
This is the line of teaching Paul uses to explain the gospel of grace. The Galatians knew they had received the Spirit of God by faith. Did they now think they would mature in Christianity by their works? “Are you so foolish? Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (3:3). Christians can only live for the Lord on the same principles by which they came to Him in the first place. It is not spiritually intelligent to think that salvation comes one way but Christian living is accomplished another way.
In Galatians 3 and 4, Paul shows that the works of the Law had been displaced by at least four different considerations:
First, faith had already been established as God’s way in Abraham’s life (3:6-14). Abraham believed God, and that was enough. If Abraham had attempted to use works for his justification, he would have been under the Law’s curse for not keeping it perfectly. Rather, Paul quotes from Habakkuk 2:4: “The just shall live by faith.”
Second, the Law is displaced by God’s promise (3:14-21). If a gift is simply promised, then it cannot be earned; otherwise the promise did not really mean anything. Similarly, Abraham was simply promised the Seed by whom blessing would come. The Law, which came through Moses more than four centuries later, did not annul God’s promise to Abraham; and Christians are the beneficiaries of God’s promised salvation by grace, as well.
Third, Law is displaced by the Christian position of sonship. The Law was like a tutor, teaching us as children what we should and should not do, at the same time revealing how weak we actually were to do right. “But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (3:25-26). Galatians 4:1-7 repeats the point: The redeemed are adopted as sons and possess a new, more intimate relationship with God. This is not earned by keeping the Law; it comes when we are freed from the Law.
Fourth, Law is displaced by the principle of freedom (4:21-31). Paul reminds his readers that Abraham had two sons. Ishmael was born to a servant, Hagar. Isaac, the son of promise, was born to Sarah, who was not a servant but a free woman, Abraham’s wife. The bondwoman pictures the bondage of the Law, whereas Sarah illustrates that God’s true children stand in freedom. Therefore, any principle that brings Christians back toward the enslavement of the Law is in direct opposition to the standing God has already established.
The Galatians, however, had begun to be enchanted with a law-keeping way of life. Elements of the Old Testament Law, such as circumcision (5:3) and various calendar events (4:10) were presented as obligations to live by. Perhaps occasions such as sabbaths, seasonal feasts, and so on were being enforced, as if they would develop more maturity. It’s one thing to appreciate how God provided these national events for Israel’s blessing and enjoyment; it’s quite another to insist upon those regulations to be accepted by God today.
It’s absolutely true: God expects us to grow in faith, service and understanding. Those who remain spiritually immature are criticized (Heb. 5:11-12). But it is not correct to say, “You must prove you are a good Christian by doing this or that.” When certain actions are required for us to be considered mature Christians, we can be sure that man’s ideas, not God’s, are at work.
The false teachers in Galatia used an interesting strategy to make their doctrine attractive. They excluded most of the believers, evidently forming an elite group of only a few. As a result, everyone wanted to get into that group. “They want to exclude you, that you may be zealous for them” (4:17). If we observe small groups of believers forming, in which only the “best and brightest” are accepted, it is almost always a signal that some kind of legal element is at work. Those who can attain a certain standard are enticed, while those who can’t or won’t are scorned. We can ask ourselves, “Am I trying to reach some artificial level of Christian achievement? Am I seeking acceptance by some influential believers?” If so, then we are in danger of succumbing to the Galatians’ problems.
Gospel Of Grace APPLIED
What, then, does the true gospel of grace look like? The answer is in the final chapters of Paul’s epistle. Two key words in chapter 5 are “stand” and “walk.” Paul first encourages the Galatians to “stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free” (5:1). He condemns those promoting circumcision and law-keeping with some of the strongest language found in the New Testament. These teachers were troubling the Galatians, who were becoming debtors, estranged from Christ, fallen from grace, and hindered from obedience (5:3-12). But the truth is liberating. Christians who appreciate the gospel of grace can stand in that liberty, fully accepted by God through Christ.
Liberty, however, must not become an opportunity for the flesh to be satisfied. Therefore Paul next exhorted the Galatians to walk in the Spirit and be led by Him (5:16,18,25). Remember that they had “begun in the Spirit” (3:3); now there was to be continuous progress by walking daily under His control.
Many detailed examinations have been written about the Spirit-led life and Spirit-produced fruit. Perhaps it is enough to observe here that the works in which the Galatians were trusting would lead only to all sorts of lawlessness. On the other hand, believers who are empowered by the Holy Spirit will display Christian graces that can be appreciated by both God and man.
This would contrast strongly with the elitist attitude of false teachers who wanted to influence others in order to boast about all their followers (6:12-13). Living by the gospel of grace, however, the Galatians would not become conceited or jealous (5:26). They would seek to restore erring believers in gentleness and humility (6:1-2). They would not think highly of themselves but would thank the Lord for any service they could do, seeking approval from Him and not from others (6:3-4). They would realize that decisions have consequences, and not believe themselves to be above those consequences. They would be generous and helpful according to their abilities (6:7-10).
Equally for us as for the Galatians, the ultimate perspective of ourselves and others comes from the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. There we see that our best efforts are completely judged and removed; Christ had to die in order for us to be accepted. But His death has completely established our acceptance with God, so that we do not need to pursue the world’s approval any longer. This positively influences the way we live, for that “rule,” or measuring guideline, promises peace and mercy to those who walk by it (6:16).
By Stephen Campbell
With permission to publish by: Sam Hadley, Grace & Truth, 210 Chestnut St., Danville, IL., USA. Website: www.gtpress.org