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Grounded in Grace

A sermon by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, N.C.

June 9, 2013

Galatians 1:1-12

If you’ve ever been around anybody giving birth to a baby—or even watched movie scenes of women in a delivery room—you know it can be a highly charged, emotional experience. And women who choose to give birth naturally, with little if any pain medicine, can get downright animated along the way! Prospective moms have been known to blow out prospective dads, doctors, nurses, and anybody in sight as their bodies go through the powerful contractions of labor.

Of course, the Apostle Paul never gave birth to a child. But reading his letter to the Galatians, you could be forgiven for thinking Paul sounds like a prospective mother in labor, barking and braying at the Galatians with a white hot passion that seems over the top, even for the temperamental Paul. Not once but twice Paul curses and condemns to tell those who preach a different and perverted gospel that teaches, among other things, the necessity of circumcision to be a Christian. And my own personal favorite slam in

Galatians is when Paul wishes aloud that those so keen to circumcise others would castrate themselves! (If you think I’m making that up, read the letter!).

Why is Paul foaming at the mouth at the Galatians? Because they feel like his own children, children for whom (he is) again in the pain of childbirth until Christ is formed in (them) (4:19). Paul labored mightily to give birth to committed Christ-followers in Galatia, and thought he had succeeded. Now, he’s watching his Galatian children desert the gospel and the God behind the gospel, trading away their freedom in Christ for slavery to the Old Testament Law.

By the way, did you notice that Paul speaks not of our growing in Christ but Christ growing in us? Paul pictures every new born Christ-follower to be like a mother who’s just become pregnant. Over time, Christ grows and forms in the soul of that Christfollower just like a baby grows and forms in the womb of its mother.

It is this growing and forming of Christ in us that is the driving force behind this early letter of Paul. Galatians is a “tough love letter” from Paul to people he cherishes about how to have Christ formed in them. I confess that for the most part I have understood Galatians to be an in-your-face treatise by Paul about freedom, a treatment of freedom so passionate that it promptedMartin Luther to break away from the ponderous, works-laden faith of the Catholic Church. But now I understand the letter to be about freedom in Christ that leads to spiritual formation in Christ, which makes Galatians all the more exciting to me!

For the next few weeks we will be working our way through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And hopefully in the process, Paul will get under our skin in all the right ways as he gets in our faces about faith in Jesus.

Paul knows the gospel of Jesus Christ will never flourish if it is rooted in the wrong soil. During his first missionary journey, Paul planted the seeds of the gospel of Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, all about Galatia (modern-day Turkey).

Apparently, several small Galatian congregations were just beginning to take root when a group of Jewish Christian missionaries followed behind Paul and undid much of his work by proclaiming a “a different gospel”. That different gospel was a muddy blend of the old wine of Jewish Law and rituals mixed together with the new wine of faith in Jesus.

These “missionaries” accused Paul of being a fake and a quack, out to win friends and influence people by peddling an easy, effortless gospel that required far too little of

God’s people. Yes, of course you needed to believe in Jesus. But you also needed to adhere to many of the Jewish laws and traditions, most of all circumcision. Without  these rituals and laws, the missionaries said, you weren’t Christian at all.

Much to Paul’s chagrin and astonishment, the Galatians bought this “different gospel”, hook, line, and sinker. And in no time, they traded in a loving God of grace for a demanding God of the Law.

And the whole thing made Paul want to throw up, like a mother with morningsickness. Here’s why.

Paul had already tried the earn-your-way into God’s approval thing, and found that approach ultimately failed. And he should know, because he did it far better than most.

In Philippians 3, Paul reminds us that when it came to self-help, by-your-own bootstraps religion, he was valedictorian of the class. If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more; circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of the Hebrews; as to the law a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless (vv. 4-6).

In Galatians 1, Paul sounds a similar theme, reminding the Galatians that he used to

persecute Christians for a living. I advanced in Judaism, he writes, beyond many among

my people of the same age, for I was far more zealous for the traditions of my ancestors

(v. 14). When it came to following Judaism to the letter of the law, nobody bested Paul…nobody.

But a funny thing happened to Paul on his way to stardom for the God of the Law—he was ambushed by the God of grace on his way to Damascus. The Risen Christ literally stopped this fire-breathing man of the Law in his tracks, and convinced him that he was born for another purpose—to become an apostle who would take the gospel of Jesus to the four corners of the world, including the Gentiles. And he was to do this not to earn Jesus’ love, but because Jesus already loved him, and had died for him on the cross.

Eventually, Paul realizes that long before he was born, God had set him apart for this mission and called him through his grace (v. 15). All this time Paul thought he was pulling his own weight and making his own way to glory when in reality he was headed down a dead-end alley until God in his grace turned him around by revealing to him the boundless love of the crucified and Risen Christ.

So Paul is now doing his level best to prevent his Galatian friends from making the same mistakes he did. He knows how seductive it sounds to hear a gospel that says you are good enough to earn God’s salvation if you’ll just do these five or ten or fifteen things. Over time if you are at all successful you think you really are God’s gift to the world, really are in control of your own destiny, and it feels so good to your ego. Of course, you try not to dwell on the fact that you can’t even keep the original Ten Commandments all the time, much less the 613 additional laws eventually adopted by Judaism.

The reason Paul blows out his Galatian friends is he loves them too much to see them go down this road to nowhere. He knows they can be the best in the law-keeping, circumcising business and still miss the whole point of God’s kingdom—to serve the Jesus who saves you by grace, and leads you in love. After all, why circumcise yourself to become a child of Abraham when you are already a child of God? Why obligate yourself to follow the jot and tittle of hundreds of laws when Jesus has already secured your salvation on the cross?

And besides…how many people do you know who have been transformed from the inside out by obeying the law? Laws are good in their own right, and we need laws to keep order in society. But no law against discrimination ever turned a bigot into a person who loves everybody, regardless of color or class. Only something on the inside can spark that kind of change, and that something is grace.

Friends, hear me say that until or unless you grasp how much God loves you, and how he demonstrated that love for you on the cross, you will not be ready to be spiritually formed. There will always be a part of you trying to earn your own way to prove your own worth. I know. I’ve tried that way myself, and was actually pretty good at it.

But it was not until I realized that God loved me more than I could ever imagine that I was really ready to have Christ formed in me. And if you’re not confident of that love, my friend, then you’re still following that false gospel Paul fumes about in Galatians.

Brennan Manning tells the story of an Irish priest who, on a walking tour of a rural parish, sees an old peasant kneeling by the side of the road, praying. Impressed, the priest says to the man, “You must be very close to God.” The peasant looks up from his prayers, thinks a moment, and then smiles, “Yes, God is very fond of me.”

Do you have any idea how fond God is of you? I hope so, because real spiritual transformation begins when you embrace this God of love, and his gospel of grace.