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Work of Grace

A sermon by Michael Cheuk, Pastor, University Baptist Church, Charlottesville, Va., on June 16, 2013.

Galatians 2:15-21

For the last two Sundays, I’ve been preaching a sermon series from the book of Galatians.  I’ve entitled the series “Gracebook,” because the theme of grace runs throughout the letter that Paul wrote to the churches in Galatia.  To recap, two Sundays ago, I preached on the Gospel of Grace, which is the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God the Father.

Last Sunday, I talked about how this Gospel of Grace invites us to live a life that testifies to God’s identity and purpose for our lives, so that we are freed from having to earn the validation of others.  As a result, our standing before God is not based on the approval of others, or by our good works.  In our lesson from Galatians for today, Paul puts it this way: “We have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law.”  The word “justified” is a common word in Christian theology.  In our everyday life, this word is commonly used when we’re typing on our computers, when Microsoft Word aligns or justifies the text on a page so that they are in a right relationship to the margins.  To extend this analogy a bit, because of sin, we’ve been out of line, so to speak.  However, because of Christ, we’ve been justified, aligned and made right in our relationship to God.  Justification is what happens when God in Christ saves us. 

That leaves us with this question:  On what basis are we justified and made right with God?  Paul’s answer to this question is found in this key verse in Galatians 2:16.  Paul writes, we “know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.”  The Greek phrase pistis Christou Iesou, is translated in the NIV and in almost all modern translations as “by faith in Jesus Christ,” with “faith” being understood as an inner, human act of whole-hearted trust.  For almost five hundred years, ever since Martin Luther’s translation of this Greek phrase, “faith in Jesus Christ” has become the standard, Sunday School answer to how we are justified or made right with God.  That’s why it was such a shock to me when I first learned that before Martin Luther, virtually all translations rendered that Greek phrase as “by the faith (or faithfulness) of Jesus Christ.”[1]  One small change in a preposition, from “in” to “of.”  Aren’t Bible scholars just splitting hairs here?  What difference can that make in everyday life? 

Well, let’s look at our scripture passage again.  Every time we see the phrase “by faith in Jesus Christ,” let’s translate it as “by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.”  So, verses 15 and 16 would read this way:  “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by the faithfulness of Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”  And verse 20: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by the faithfulness of the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” 

Reading this passage this way changes our understanding of what Paul is saying in subtle but important ways.  For most of my ministry, I’ve taught that Jesus died for us on the cross, but we need to have faith in Christ in order to be saved.  But if this reading has merit, then this passage from Galatians teaches that our standing before God is ultimately not dependent on our faith in Jesus Christ, but on Christ’s faithfulness to God!  We are made members of God’s family, ultimately, not because of our ability to have faith or trust in God.  NO, Paul was celebrating Christ’s faithfulness and loyalty to God in the mission that God had sent him to accomplish for humanity.  Therefore, to the question: on what basis are we made right with God and become full members of God’s chosen people?  The answer is not just our faith in Jesus Christ.  The deeper, fuller answer is that we are full members of God’s chosen people because of the faith or faithfulness of Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us on the cross!

A couple of years ago, I received an email from a college student, and in the midst of the message was this statement: “I’m really struggling in my relationship with God.  I don’t feel like I’ve got enough faith.  This has been going on for a while, but it’s become worse as time has progressed.”  Last week, I had a nice visit with one of our homebound senior adults, and in the midst of our conversation, he told me, “I listen to UBC’s worship services on the radio, but I also listen to the radio broadcast of other churches.  In one of those churches, the preacher seems so gung-ho, so animated and passionate about his faith, it made me wonder about whether my faith measures up.” 

I think we can all identify with these two folks, one young and one old.  Haven’t we all had times of doubt about how deep and strong our faith is?  Even the saints among us are not immune from these doubts and questions.  In October of 2009, a book was published entitled, Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light: The Private Writings of the Saint of Calcutta.  In this book, we discover that, for over fifty years, Mother Teresa had persistent doubts.  “Where is my faith?” she wrote early on as she began her work in Calcutta.  “Even deep down,” she wrote, “… there is nothing but emptiness and darkness … If there be God — please forgive me.”

How would you respond to each of these situations?  If it is our faith in Christ that makes us right before God, then our lack of “faith” and the presence of doubt might easily lead us to fear that our standing before God and our status in God’s family are at risk.  We would be anxious when our “faith” does not measure up to the faith of others.  We would be concerned about the eternal destiny of people like Mother Teresa.  To remedy this problem, we would find ways to bolster our faith.  We would work harder to find faith, to downplay our doubts or to keep them a secret.

But what if it is the faithfulness of Christ that makes us right before God?  Then our status in God’s family is NOT dependent on our “faith” as understood as an inner feeling of trust or an intellectual understanding of doctrine.  In other words, it is not our work of faith, but Christ’s faithful work of grace that ultimately makes us right before God.  Therefore, to the student who doesn’t feel like she has enough faith, I would answer, “You’re right, your faith is not enough.  If your faith was enough, then Christ died for nothing.  The good news is that the faithfulness of Christ is enough.”   To the senior adult who feels his faith does not measure up to the “faith” of a preacher, I would answer, “The only measuring stick is the faithfulness of Christ.  The faith of this preacher and any other preacher falls short of Christ’s faithfulness.  The good news is that it is the faithfulness of Christ that God will measure on our behalf.”  To Mother Teresa’s situation, I might respond, “The life we live in the body, we live by the faithfulness of the Son of God who loves us and gave himself for us, even in the midst of our doubts and our deep feelings of emptiness and darkness.”  

All this sounds good, you might say, but if Christ’s work of grace is all that is needed to make us right before God, why would anyone bother to come to faith in Christ?  And what about our sin and our need to repent?  Couldn’t we just keep on sinning so that God may show more and more of God’s grace?  Good questions.  I believe Paul addresses these questions later in the book of Galatians, and you’ll just have to come back for the rest of the sermon series! 

The good news for today is that it is not our work of righteousness, our work of the law, or even our work of faith that makes us right before God.  The good news is that it is Christ’s work of grace, the faithfulness of Christ, that justifies us in the eyes of God.

Several years back, I spent time with my dad in St. Louis, while Mom was away visiting her dad in Hong Kong.  My sister Lisa and her family lived down the street from my parents and one night, I visited with her.  While the rest of her family was asleep, Lisa and I reminisced on old times.  We joked about our teenage years.  I laughed and said, “Oh yeah, those were my cave man years.”  I recall that during those years, I pretty much kept to myself in my introverted ways.  As I remembered it, my cave man years weren’t terrible; it was just a short phase. 

That was not how Lisa remembered those days.  Lisa said, “I remember how you would stay in your room for hours at a time, and you would ignore Mom and Dad at the dinner table when they tried to engage you in conversation.  You would literally grunt!  Mom and Dad were so worried about you that they asked me if I knew whether there was something wrong!” 

I was shocked by Lisa’s recollection since it was so different than mine. 

“How long was I like this?”  I asked incredulously.

She replied, “You were like that for years!”

That night, Lisa’s words kept playing in my head.  I had no recollection that I acted in such a disconnected way during my teenage years.  Maybe that’s because neither Dad nor Mom scolded or berated me for going through my cave man years.  I was still their son, even though in so many ways I did not act like one.  It was the faithfulness of their love as parents that gave me the space and freedom to work through my own issues of identity.  Were they worried and concerned?  You bet.  But despite their worries, their faithful love never wavered. 

On this Father’s Day, I am so thankful for my Dad, who modeled the love of my heavenly Father.  During my cave man years, my status as a member of the Cheuk family was never in doubt.  Dad’s patient acceptance of me was a work of grace.  Eventually, as I grew older, I fully and freely embraced my family, so much so that I helped to organize our first ever family reunion last summer. 

On this Father’s Day, we come to give thanks to our earthly fathers for their patient, faithful love.  But most of all, we come giving thanks to our heavenly Father, who sent Jesus Christ to earth, so that out of His faithfulness, out of His work of grace on the cross for us, we may be made right as children of God.  Amen. 

[1] George Howard, “Faith in Christ,” in Anchor Bible Dictionary (ed. D. N. Freedman et al.: New York: Doubleday, 1992), 2:759, cited in Douglas Harink, Paul among the Postliberals: Pauline Theology Beyond Christendom and Modernity (Brazos Press, 2003), p. 26.