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Sustained by Faith

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

June 16, 2013

Galatians 2:15-21

Whenever I get discouraged by my own spiritual transformation, or lack thereof, I remember that not even the big boys of scripture were immune from backsliding.

Take the Apostle Peter and the Apostle Paul’s frequent colleague in ministry, Barnabas. Both Peter and Barnabas were giants in the early church. Peter preached his first sermon and thousands came to Christ. Barnabas led the early church in financial stewardship, selling private property and giving the proceeds to the church. Both Peter and Barnabas, along with Paul, were absolutely vital to the spread of the gospel.

But Paul concluded that both these spiritual giants acted like spiritual pigmies when they refused to sit down over a meal with Gentile Christians. Why would Peter and Barnabas commit such a social faux pas? Because they didn’t want to offend certain Jewish christians who insisted that Christ-followers had no business associating with uncircumcised Gentiles, even if they were Christians!

Paul was furious that Peter and Barnabas caved into this pressure, and he had a “come to Jesus” moment with both of them. As far as Paul was concerned, neither Peter nor Barnabas was practicing the very gospel of Jesus Christ they preached. So as Paul writes his letter to the backsliding Christ-followers of Galatia, he uses his dispute with Peter and Barnabas as a pretext for discussing how people get right with God in the first place.

Last week we began a series of sermons based on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We acknowledged that Paul’s purpose in writing this letter is best expressed in Galatians 4:19 where Paul admits he is laboring like a mother in childbirth until Christ is formed in (his Galatian friends). Paul will do and say whatever it takes to see that goal accomplished, including calling good friends like Peter and Barnabas on the carpet.

Paul writes like a man possessed, because he is…by the transforming Spirit of the Living God. Paul is not perfect either, and sometimes we see flashes of his old temper flare in his testy letter to the Galatians. And yet, Paul is vastly different from the man he was in a former lifetime named Saul, a fire-breathing, law-enforcing lieutenant of  Judaism who relished the prospect of stoning lawless Christians into oblivion.

Talk about transformation—the old persecutor of Christians named Saul had become the new apostle of the Christian church named Paul! Now Paul wants to spend every waking moment telling people how Jesus can change them from the inside out and make them new creations in Christ. And he wants to be crystal clear that soul transformation does not result from keeping the 613 laws ofMoses. In fact, fanatically obeying the Law ofMoses can have devastating results, as his own life demonstrates.

If you find yourself confused about how Paul views the law, join the club! In Roman 7 alone, Paul seems to contradict himself repeatedly regarding the law. First he celebrates that Christians are no longer under the law because the law has the ironic effect of arousing us to sin—as soon as somebody tells you you can’t do something, you say to yourself, “Oh yes I can!” Then Paul says, “But this doesn’t mean the law is sinful, because after all the law reveals sin for what it is.”

Even so, Paul adds that trying in your own power not to sin is ultimately fruitless, and has a deadening effect on the soul. “And yet,” says Paul, “the law is holy and just and good, and in my deepest self I delight in God’s law. But the truth is, no matter how hard I try, I cannot do what I know is right according to the law, and I inevitably end up in a very dark place feeling utterly condemned when I fail.”

No wonder Christians are all over the map on this law business. Some Christians say in Christ we are no longer bound by any law of the Old Testament, including the Ten Commandments and the law of tithing. Other Christians say not so fast, the law in its essence is good, and we need it to guide us for holy living.

Which is it? Suppose we let Paul speak for himself.

“We (Peter, Barnabas, and Paul) are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” In other words, we were born among the chosen people of Israel, not among the outsiders. Unlike Gentiles we’ve been circumcised and we grew up knowing and obeying the Law of Moses. “Yet, we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.”

It’s hard to state just how shocking these words were for the Jews of Paul’s day. Paul is utterly repudiating the system they have lived by for centuries. It’s not that the Law ofMoses was bad in itself. In fact, the law served several purposes. It revealed God’s holiness and our sin. And it offered a rule of conduct for God’s people.

But if you will recall, God’s people still went off the rails after God hand-carved the Ten Commandments in tablets of stone. Israel wound up in a very dark place, and so, said Paul, did he, for one simple reason. The law cannot make you right with God…it can only expose your failure. And the law can’t change you from the inside out…it can only make you miserable about your own sinfulness.

Thank goodness, says Paul, God did what we could never do through his son, Jesus. In one climactic act—Jesus’ death on the cross—we were justified, made right with God in a way that obeying laws, performing rituals, and engaging in a lifetime of good works could never do. And it is our faith in Jesus—not just our belief in him but our childlike trust in him—that rightly positions us to live with God.

God doesn’t love us because we are good, because we could never be good enough.

God loves us because we are precious in his sight. And because we are precious to him, God gave what was most precious to him…his son…that we might have life, abundant and eternal.

And so, Paul writes in Romans 10:4, “Christ is the end of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes.” This statement literally takes your breath away if you are a law-abiding Jew. Christ is the end of the law. The Christian life is not about earning your keep, it’s about grace. It’s not about complying with Old Testament law, it’s about faith in the New Testament Jesus.

What’s interesting to me is how many of us still want to keep Christianity a “Believe in Jesus and keep the law” proposition—much like Peter and Barnabas. If you’ll notice, there are still lots of Christians out there who are more than willing to spell out all kinds of rules we must follow, political positions we must support, people we must avoid if we are to be genuinely Christian. The urge to keep the law is as alive and well in the 21st century as it was in the 1st.

Why are people so drawn to the law? Because people want clarity. Don’t tell me to follow Jesus. Just give me a clear-cut rule, and I’ll be fine. Because people want control—when you are earning your way into God’s approval, you can still be in charge.

Because people love the ego-rush of adrenalin they feel when they compare  themselves to others who fall short of their standards. For all these reasons and more, I have concluded there will always be people who are in more in love with the law than the Lord of the law.

Paul will have none of it. He charged down the road of the law like gangbusters, and learned that road only gets you so far. And besides, if it’s obeying the law that gets you right with God, then Christ died for nothing. No, it’s faith in Jesus that launches you on to the journey of spiritual transformation. And it’s being crucified with Christ that sustains you on that journey.

Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is 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.

Once again Paul leaves us breathless. Maybe you thought you were off the hook because God in Jesus Christ did all the work for you, and you can relax. No laws to obey, no rules to keep. Just one big romp in the roses.

Not quite. See, it’s not just Jesus that is crucified on a cross. So are those who follow him. You and I are called to willingly allow our ego-driven, always-in-control false selves to be nailed to the cross, so that the truest part of ourselves—the part that trusts God, wants to be intimate with God and willingly surrenders to God—has a chance to bloom and flourish.

Does being crucified with Christ happen in one fell swoop, one conversion experience? No, it takes place over a lifetime as we engage in spiritual practices that give God time and opportunity to transform us. It’s not the practices that change us—that would just be another form of salvation by works. It’s God working through the practices that makes the difference, so that over time our false, rebellious selves shrink in size, while our truest, Christ-like selves expand in size. And over time we find ourselves walking more closely with Jesus, more in sync with his Spirit.

When Christ is being formed in me day by day, I no longer require a list of 613 laws to live by. I can be informed by the law. But I follow Christ, who is the fulfillment of the law. The law says, “Do not commit adultery.” Jesus says, “That’s setting the bar too low. I say to you never treat each other as sex objects. Love each other as I would love you. Respect each other as I respect you. Then adultery will not be an issue.”

Friends, I know it sounds too good to be true, but it is! You are no longer bound to the law. You are bound to Jesus, the fulfillment of the law, and the Spirit behind the law. Put your faith in this Jesus, and he will sustain you day after day, come what may.