Faith (The Message of Galatians) Mark Dever

Introducing Galatians
  • The Source: God
  • The Means of Distribution: A Cognitive Proposition
  • The Fact-Checkers: The Galatian Christians
  • The Content, Part 1: Death of Christ
  • The Content, Part 2: Faith in Christ
  • It Changes Our Relationship with Our Teachers
    • Paul and the Galatians
    • The False Teachers and the Galatians
  • It Changes Our Relationship with God
  • It Changes Our Relationships with Each Other


EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT (This sermon was originally preached November 7, 1999, at Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C.)

American military forces used nerve gas on U.S. defectors during the Vietnam War. So reported Cable News Network and Time magazine. Chiquita Brands International, the noted banana grower and distributor, was riddled with improper business practices for years. So said the  Cincinnati Enquirer in a series of special reports. Both of these stories ran in major media in 1998.

But, in fact, the American military forces did not use nerve gas on U.S. defectors during the Vietnam War, and Chiquita Brands International did not have improper business practices riddling its organization. So the news organizations who made these reports placed retraction boxes and apologies on the front pages of their newspapers—a very unusual placement for a retraction. One star reporter and three producers at CNN were reprimanded. "The first rough draft of history," as the news has been called, is sometimes pretty rough.

Also in 1998, the Boston Globe newspaper fired two columnists for fabrications and plagiarisms. It was not a great year for the news business. And these events came on top of ten years of gradually declining readership num-bers. Not that the problem with plagiarism is new to the news media. Two hundred years ago, the great poet and hymn writer William Cowper, many of whose hymns we sing and love, called the newspapers of his days an "ever bub-bling spring of endless lies." (William Cowper, "The Progress of Error" (1782), in John D. Baird and Charles Ryskamp, eds., The Poems of William Cowper, vol. 1 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1980), 262.)

So where do we find news that is true, reliable, important, and useful? Well, have you ever thought of the church as a news organization? Fundamentally, that is what we are. We are a news organization.

This way of looking at the church may surprise you. For at least twenty years we have been told the news business is overwhelmingly filled with people who never attend church (except to write a story) and have remarkably secular worldviews. Indeed, earlier this year, columnist Robert Novak, a Jewish
convert to Catholicism, was quoted in the Washington Post as saying that "The news media reflect the culture of Washington. They are very non-spiritual." (Robert Novak, quoted by Sally Quinn in the Washington Post, July 12, 1999, page C2.)

Still, I think it is valid to consider the church, spiritual as it is, as a sort of news organization: We have a reliable source, a means of distribution, an audience; and most of all, we have some tremendous news. We are all about get-ting this news out. But unlike some of the other organizations around, the news we have is in no danger of being recalled. You will find no small-print boxes on our bulletins next week saying, "The church staff regrets to inform you an error was made in last week's sermon. Jesus Christ is not the answer to your problems. He is not the world's savior from sin." There is no danger of that happening.

There are many, many activities in the church that do not fit into the image of a news organization. Yet as you think about what the church is at the core, I want to argue for a moment that at least one appropriate image of the church is that of an organization devoted to publishing glad tidings, as the old hymn says, or to proclaiming good news. That is what we do when we sing, whether proclaiming the tidings in a new hymn or an old chorus. The news is also broadcast in our Scripture readings and in our sermons. And that is what I am doing now. I am proclaiming to you a certain message. And that is what you will do throughout this day and this week as you talk with others about Jesus Christ. You will be someone who is broadcasting this very message that is the reason for the church's existence.

What exactly is the news of Christianity? How would you summarize it? To answer that, we turn to a document that Martin Luther called "my own letter," not because he wrote it but because it was so important in his coming to understand the Christian gospel.


We turn, in fact, to one of the earliest written documents of Christianity. Perhaps the earliest. It is a little book—a letter, really—written by Paul to some churches he helped start in what is now Turkey. It is his letter to the Galatians.

Galatians is short enough for me to quickly walk you through in summary form. If you follow along paragraph by paragraph in your NIV translation, I will summarize each paragraph in approximately a sentence. Here it goes:
Paul, an apostle not from men but from God, to the churches in Galatia (1:1-2).
Grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins (1:3-5).
I am astonished you are being confused by false teachers into believing a false gospel (1:6-9)!
And if it has been said that I am a man-pleaser, and that the gospel I preach is meant just to please men, this letter should put an end to that thought (1:10)!
The gospel I preach did not come from me, but from Jesus Christ (1:11-12).
You have heard my testimony and know this is true—I would not have come up with this (1:13-17).
The church leaders in Jerusalem did not make it up either; I heard the gospel years before I even met the leaders in Jerusalem (1:18-24).
I went to Jerusalem again four-teen years later specifically to ensure that we all were preaching the same gospel and to defend the freedom we, Jews and Gentiles, have in Christ (2:1-5).
The leaders in Jerusalem entirely approved of what I had been preaching to the Gentiles (2:6-10).
Now, Peter was confused at one point (2:11-13).
But I rebuked him (2:14).
This news to the Gentiles is the only saving message for Jews as well: jus-tification is by faith and not by observing the law (2:15-16).
Righteousness can-not be gained by observing the law but only by faith in the crucified Christ (2:17-21).
My dear brothers and sisters in Galatia, did you receive the Spirit and see miracles worked among you by observing the law, or by believing what you heard and then by receiving the Spirit (3:1-5)?
Let's go back and look at redemption history again: Abraham was justified by faith (3:6-9). The law and the prophets also testify that everyone—from Abraham to Gentile believers—will be justified by faith, not by the law (3:10-14).
And this was always the plan. The law, given 430 years after Abraham, was never intended to do away with the promise given to Abraham (3:15-18).
The law was merely added to expose sin for what it is until Christ had come (3:19-20).
The law has never been able to free sinners from sin—that blessing comes only through faith in
Jesus Christ (3:21-22).
The law served its purpose by leading us Jews to Christ so that we might be justified by faith (3:23-25).
So all of you who believe in Christ are together God's children by adoption, regardless of your nation, gender, or social status (3:26-4:7).
But now that you are no longer slaves to the law, why are you turning back, as if you wanted to be enslaved again (4:8-11)?
You used to treasure me. What happened (4:12-16)?
I am sorry I have to sound like this, but these false teachers just want to abuse you (4:17-20)!
Look, if you want to talk law, are you not aware that Abraham had both a slave son born
by natural means and a free son born as a result of the promise (4:21-23)?
This is a picture for us of those who are enslaved to the law, and of those who are miraculously freed by the promise (4:24-27).
You are free children of promise! That is why you are being persecuted by others, and that is why you should throw them out of your churches (4:28-31).
You have been set free, so don't exchange freedom for slavery again (5:1)!
If you cave in and begin to require circumcision, you have given up on grace; you have renounced faith (5:2-6). These false teachers are going to pay (5:7-12)!
Now, this freedom is not freedom to sin (in self-indulgence) but freedom from sin (to love one another) (5:8-15).
So follow the Spirit, not its enemy the flesh (5:16-18).
People who live in sin will not inherit the kingdom of God (5:19-21).
The Spirit's presence will show itself in your life (5:22-26).
Care for each other (6:1-5).
Care especially for those who teach you the truth (6:6).
We don't always see the consequences of sin immediately, but God will make sure that someday everyone will see the real results of sin. (6:7-10).
I am writing in big letters to prove that it is I who write these words (6:11).
These false teachers are just trying to be well-regarded by others—and at your expense (6:12-16)!
Respect my suffering for Jesus (6:17).
The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you (6:18).

There you have the letter to the Galatians summarized, and in this little letter is our news! Did you see what Paul says is important, what's at the heart of this message we proclaim?

In our study of this letter, we will divide the answer to that question into four parts. In the first chapter and a half, Paul asserts and defends the idea that his message, or news, is from God: the news is divine. In the main doctrinal section of the letter, from the last part of chapter 2 through chapter 4, Paul presents the news itself: we are justified by faith in Christ. In the letter as a whole, Paul conveys his horror at the thought of the Galatians deserting this message. After all, the news is vital. And finally, in parts of chapter 4 through chapter 6, Paul describes the impact of this news relationally: the news changes us.

As we move through these four parts, I hope that you will be left with a clear understanding of what our news is, and what a difference it should make.


We begin by noticing the nature of this good news, this gospel: It is divine. The
gospel of Christianity is not merely a personal disposition. It is not merely a
tug on your heart. The gospel is a message from God. And this is what the first
chapter and a half of Paul's letter is all about.
We join Paul in this letter mid-controversy. These Galatians had formerly
heard Paul's message, and now they were hearing a different message from a
group of false teachers. These false teachers, who had shown up in Paul's
absence, seemed to insinuate that anywhere Paul's message disagreed with their
own, it could not be trusted. Paul made a lot of this stuff up, they said, or at
least he got it from a couple of the apostles in Jerusalem. And the apostles in
Jerusalem were a bit off. "We are telling you the real story now," these false
teachers said.
The Source: God
It is in response to these claims that Paul begins his letter. The message the
Galatians initially received from him is not his own. Paul is not the story's
"source," God is. "The gospel I preached is not a self-generated, false mes-sage," Paul says. "It is the truth from God."
Paul makes this point in the very first sentence: he was "sent not from men
nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father" (1:1). His apostolic mis-sion to the Gentiles was not a human idea. The risen Christ himself called him
on the Damascus Road and commissioned him for this enterprise. He states in
1:11-12, "I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not some-thing that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it;
rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ." So do not accuse Paul of
simply trying to be a people-pleaser. A rough paraphrase of 1:10 might read, "If
it's been suggested that I am a toadying people-pleaser, this letter should show
that it is Christ, and certainly not people, that I am trying to please. My tone here
is hardly calculated to win people over by being all sweetness and light."
Paul then recounts his personal testimony to the Galatians and points out
the absurdity of claiming that someone like him would suddenly show up on
the scene and begin preaching the news of a crucified Messiah to nations of
Gentiles. He was an ultra-nationalistic Pharisee. He was successfully climbing
the Pharisaical career-ladder. He even persecuted Christians! Therefore the
claims against him are just absurd (1:13-17). And in case anyone says Paul was
in cahoots with some apostle or teacher in Jerusalem, he points out that three
years passed after his conversion before he even met the church leaders in
Jerusalem (1:18). Before that, he was unknown to them (1:22). It is true that
fourteen years later he did go to meet with the leaders in Jerusalem about ques-tions that had arisen concerning his ministry. But he used that visit as an oppor-tunity to defend the freedom both Jewish and Gentile believers have in Christ
(2:1-5). And the leaders in Jerusalem entirely approved of his message:
For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was
also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Peter and John,
those reputed to be pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship
when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to
the Gentiles, and they to the Jews (2:8-9; cf. 2:6-10).
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This is how Paul begins his letter, by defending the divine veracity of his news.
In recent years there have been some embarrassing examples of award-winning newspaper articles and even books that have turned out to be inac-curate, as we considered at the beginning. Some were deliberately and entirely
fabricated. Paul's point here is, "My preaching has not been like that. This
story is not made up. Come on! If I were going to make up a story, would I put
a crucified Messiah at the center?" Would Saul, who was a Christian-persecuting Pharisee, have concocted a message that encouraged Jews to aban-don the cherished mark of their identity, circumcision; invited all the Gentiles
to join the party; and so put at jeopardy the survival of his own people as a
distinct community! Make no mistake, Paul says. This message is from God.
Recently, at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, I was giv-ing a defense of the "Southern Baptist Prayer Guide for the Jews" to a gather-ing of Jewish rabbis and reporters from the secular press. It was an enjoyable
time, and we had a good discussion. At one point, we were considering the
exclusivity of Jesus Christ, and I noticed that a few people were beginning to
appear offended, albeit in a kind and courteous manner. One questioner in par-ticular seemed disconcerted by Christianity's claims. Finally, I simply said to
her, "You know, it's not that we Christians sit around and try to think up what
will really offend people. We don't go scheme in a corner before lunch and say
to ourselves, 'What can we say that's really going to upset people? Let's believe
that!' No, we don't preach this gospel because we think it is going to be pop-ular. We preach it because it is true. We come to you saying that you are going
to hell and that you need this salvation offered by Jesus Christ not because we
think it is going to be immediately pleasant to your ears but because we know
it is true."
Beware of thinking the truth will always consist of ideas that are immedi-ately appealing to you. Why on earth do you think the truth is something you
will like? Who taught you that liking something is good evidence for its fac-tuality? Has every fantasy you have ever had come true? Has everything that
has happened to you been exactly what you wanted? What about the "D" you
got in that class? Or the hurtful thing your father said to you? I could go on
and on: Your most recent evaluation at work. The number on the scales when
you look down. Your friend's stinging comment on the phone. Your bank bal-ance or the doctor's advice. None of these things are generated by whether we
like them or not. They are simple realities that are diminished in no way
because we dislike them. Only our foolish imaginations would make us think
that because we do not like something, it must not be true.
Paul says he did not make up this gospel—he would not have done so any-way. It came from God.
The Means of Distribution: A Cognitive Proposition
Before moving on, we need to notice a couple of important implications that
come from the fact that the gospel is God's news. First, the Christian message
has a specific cognitive content. It can be stated as a proposition.
A particular set of cognitive propositions are essential to the gospel. Paul
writes in the first chapter,
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the
grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at
all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to per-vert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach
a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned!
As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a
gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! (1:6-9).
The fact that Paul tells them they are being confused into believing a false
gospel is significant. There could be no false gospel if there were no cognitive
content to the gospel in the first place—definite, distinct, definable claims that
comprise it. Therefore, the Galatians should regard anything that contradicts
this defined content as error. The gospel as given to Paul by Christ supersedes
tradition or even angelic revelation. Paul writes, "But even if we or an angel
from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you,
let him be eternally condemned!" (1:8).
When a new message does not match the original, regardless of the iden-tity of the messenger you throw it out. It could be your favorite preacher or
Sunday school teacher. It could be the long-standing church in Rome. It could
be an earnest Muslim or Mormon or Jehovah's Witness at your door. It could
be, as Paul says, an angel from heaven. (Interestingly, Mormons do refer to an
angel named Moroni, while Muslims refer to their great prophet Mohammed.)
Regardless of who the messenger is, Paul says, it is not the gospel if the mes-sage is other than what has already been laid out and what is laid out again in
this letter. It is not the truth. In fact, Paul even says we should judge him if he
preaches something other than this gospel.
Clearly, this is helpful instruction if we expect to sort through all the con-flicting truth claims that have been made throughout history and today.
The Fact-Checkers: The Galatian Christians
Because of all these conflicting truth claims, we must understand what exactly
the truth looks like—just as bank tellers have been trained to detect counter-feit currency not by learning what the counterfeits look like but by learning
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well the look of real currency. This leads to a second interesting implication.
Paul regards the Galatian Christians as being competent to recognize and
expunge the errors. If the gospel is a simple cognitive message, it should be rec-ognizable by common Christians. Therefore, Paul appeals to the Galatians to
judge their teachers.
He does not write directly to the false teachers and try to convince them,
assuming all the while the laity is incompetent to consider doctrinal definitions.
He writes the Galatians themselves. "I am astonished that you are so quickly
deserting the one who called you!" (1:6). You should know better! The gospel
is not that complex, he is saying. The fact that you have been a Christian for
only a few months or a few years should not hinder you from understanding
it. It is not something just for smart people.
These young Christians in Galatia are asked to recall the simple message
that Paul had preached to them—the message of trusting in Christ's work on
the cross—and to recognize the difference between that message and the false
message they are now hearing. They are then to reject whatever message is
being preached to them that differs from the true gospel. I am lingering on this
point in order to ask the question, is there not a kind of congregationalism
implied by the fact that Paul writes this letter to the congregation, urging them
to judge their teachers? He is not asking a church council to intervene, or refer-ring the matter to the bishop of Jerusalem. He confronts the congregation and
assumes they are competent, even responsible, to handle the matter.
Have you ever considered your own responsibility to guard against false
teaching in the church in which you are a member, in which you regularly sit,
learn, and give money? I think the way Paul writes this letter suggests you
should. The Reformation doctrine of the perspicuity, or clarity, of the
Scriptures and of the gospel itself suggests something about how we in the
church are to watch over the gospel together.
From the latter half of chapter 2 through much of chapter 4, Paul goes on to
clarify exactly what the gospel is. This is the heart of the letter to the Galatians.
What exactly is the gospel message? What's the big news? It is this: Justification
is not by the law but through faith in Christ.
If we get nothing else right, we must get this right. The heart of the gospel
message, the whole reason the church exists, is that every one of us has sinned
and separated ourselves from God. But God, in his tremendous and incredible
love, has taken on flesh in Christ, lived a perfect life, and died on the cross in
the place of every sinner who turns and trusts in him. And he calls us now to
repent and to believe in him.
The Content, Part 1: The Death of Christ
The gospel centers on the fact that Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins, which
Paul mentions near the beginning of the letter. He prays that the Galatians
would receive grace and peace from "God our Father and the Lord Jesus
Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age"
(1:3-4). Christ's substitutionary death for sinners is the only hope any of us has
for salvation, or "rescue," as he puts it here.
It does not appear that the false teachers who infiltrated the Galatian
churches rejected Christ out of hand. They were not what we might think of
as Orthodox Jews today, who reject any special role for Jesus. Rather, it seems
that they did accept Jesus as the Messiah. And we make that conjecture based
on the fact that Paul does not try to correct anyone for saying that Jesus was
not the Messiah. In one way, at least, these false teachers were like the people
who call themselves Messianic Jews today. They could say, "Yes, Jesus is the
Christ. He is the Messiah." But, unlike Messianic Jews today, they also said
that all of God's people must continue to observe the law. To be a Christian,
you must first become a Jew, particularly through circumcision. So, yes, they
said, you must recognize Jesus as the Messiah, but you must do something else
as well.
The Content, Part 2: Faith in Christ
The boiling issue among these Galatians seems to have been, "How do the ben-efits of the salvation obtained by Christ become available to us?" And Paul says
clearly that we are justified unto salvation not by observing the law but by faith
in Jesus Christ. You could put the question another way: "Do you need to
become a Jew first in order to become a Christian?" This is what the false
teachers were telling the Galatians, and what Paul addresses in the large mid-dle section of his letter.
Beginning in 2:15 he writes:
We who are Jews by birth and not "Gentile sinners" know that a man is not jus-tified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our
faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observ-ing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we our-selves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If
I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law
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I died to the law so that I might live for God. 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
faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside
the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ
died for nothing!
[Chapter 3] You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your
very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn
just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by
believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit,
are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so
much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and
work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe
what you heard?
Consider Abraham: "He believed God, and it was credited to him as righ-teousness." Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham.
The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and
announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: "All nations will be blessed
through you." So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man
of faith. All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written:
"Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book
of the Law." Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, "The righ-teous will live by faith." The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, "The man
who does these things will live by them." Christ redeemed us from the curse of
the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is
hung on a tree." He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham
might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive
the promise of the Spirit (2:15–3:14).
Paul clearly argues in the first two verses of this passage that justification
by faith in Jesus Christ is not just for the Gentiles; it is not just a special thing
God added, saying, "Now I'm going to lower the bar a little bit so that all the
nations can come in." No, Paul specifically says it has always been this way, even
for the Jews. Faith is the only way for Jews to be justified, too. Otherwise
Christ's sacrifice would be useless: "I do not set aside the grace of God, for if
righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing" (2:21).
And the Galatians should know this. If they were to reflect back on their
own experience, they would remember that the Spirit of God came upon them
not when they successfully observed the law but when they believed what they
heard (cf. 3:1-5). It is interesting how God always seems to associate his Spirit
and his Word. With the coming of the Word, we have the coming of the Spirit.
The Holy Spirit enters the believer's life through the ear.
Not only do the Galatians' personal histories tell this story, redemption his-220 THE MESSAGE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
tory itself says the same. How did an individual become a believer in Old
Testament times? The answer is easy. The father of the Jews, the head of it all,
the source of the nation, Abraham, is our great example of one who was jus-tified by faith (3:6). Genesis 15:6 proves the point. Abraham received salva-tion not by trusting the law, which had not yet been given, but by trusting in
the promise of God. Then Paul ushers the law and the prophets into his argu-ment and gives them four opportunities to speak.4 And they say the same thing:
the law justifies no one. It only brings a curse. Justification has always been by
faith in Christ (from Abraham to the Gentiles), who removed the curse by
becoming the cursed one himself (3:10-14). The law served its purpose by lead-ing the ones who were given the law, the Jews, to Christ so that they might be
justified by faith (3:24). So every circumcised or uncircumcised Jew or Gentile
who believes in Christ is God's child by adoption (3:26–4:7). Later in chapter
4, Paul reminds the Galatians that Isaac was born as a result of the promise,
and that a Christian's situation is like Isaac's. A Christian has been miracu-lously born by the promise of God (4:21-27), a rebirth that is certainly a gift
of grace. Paul concludes his letter, "The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with
your spirit, brothers. Amen" (6:18). The grace of Christ is central to the gospel.
Now this is news! If you are a non-Christian and have any uncertainty
about this, ask a Christian friend or a pastor. This is the reason why Christians
are Christians. It is because of this news that we are justified—declared righ-teous and acceptable before God. By faith alone in Christ alone we are forgiven
by God and admitted into his fellowship. It is crucial to get this story straight.
I have been pointing to examples of inaccuracy in the media. Accuracy is
always important in reporting. Yet it is particularly important that the news of
Christianity be reported accurately. Therefore when you talk to people about
Jesus this week, if you have any hope for them at all, you must be clear that
their sin can be forgiven by God only by their trusting in Christ and what he
has done on the cross. There is no other way. We must get the story straight
and not garble the news.
When I began as a pastor at Capitol Hill Baptist, a reporter for the local
Baptist newspaper, Capitol Baptist, came and interviewed me. He took a pic-ture of me, against my suggestion, and placed it beside the article with a cap-tion underneath. During the interview, he had asked me what my strategy was
for helping this church, to which I responded, "Really, I don't have any plans.
I'm just going to try and preach the word." What do you think the caption
underneath the picture was? "Dever Says, 'Preach the World.'"
I do not think the mistake was deliberate, though it is telling. We garble
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4 3:10, from Deut. 27:26; 3:11, from Hab. 2:4; 3:12, from Lev. 18:5; 3:13, from Deut. 21:23.
the message to great consequence. If you were to watch a movie of your last
month, especially the conversations you have had with other people about
Jesus Christ and the message of salvation in him, would you hear yourself say-ing something that is not wholly true? Not that you intended to speak falsely,
but were you absolutely clear in your conversations that God saves sinners
through faith in Christ alone, or were you saying something slightly different?
The other night, I heard a song that said, "Lord, when it's time to judge
me, take a look at these hard-working hands." What an absolutely miserable
hope. Can you imagine turning up before the throne of God, looking at him,
and saying, "I've had an admirable work ethic"?
What if the Lord began to ask you questions about that work ethic? "Why
have you worked so hard and faithfully?"
"Well, Lord, it's been because I wanted to be able to provide for my
"Good, that's no bad thing. What else? Why did you want to provide for
your family?"
"Well, Lord, it's just the right thing to do."
"Really, is there nothing else in it?"
"Well, Lord, I've never thought about it this much, but, I guess, in pro-viding for my family, it's kind of the best thing for me, too."
"Anything else?"
"No, Lord, not that I can think of. I just kind of thought it was the right
thing to do."
Do you realize we draw breath and go to work so that we can give glory
to God? He created us. He gives us the gospel of Jesus Christ so that we can
bring him honor and glory. Our hard-working hands do not honor God sim-ply by working, though certainly we should work. Ultimately, our work hon-ors him only when the worker trusts him, and him alone. Do you think your
work, these things you do and practices you observe, obligates God to save
you? Do you think you can do something that makes the Lord of the heavens
better disposed toward you?
I haven't heard of many churches today requiring circumcision as the ini-tial step for committing to Christ. So how do we lose the message today?
Maybe if I ask the question in a less religious way, it will help: What makes
you feel good about yourself? Think about that for a second. What genuinely
makes you feel good about yourself? A productive day at work? Your chil-dren's growth and success? Your husband's care and affection? The admira-tion of colleagues? Your parents' approval? Consistent quiet times? The ability
to articulate your theology well? If you find the answer to what makes you feel
good about yourself, you will be close to finding what causes you to confuse
the gospel. And there will be something here for every one of us.
The gospel message, our news, is this: We are saved only by faith in Jesus
Christ, who died for us and took our punishment upon himself. Only when
we believe and trust in Christ will he apply to our hearts the perfect righ-teousness and forgiveness he won for us. The point is never what you do. The
point is what God has done. The point is for him to get the glory. We do not
fight our way into heaven by faithful religious observance. It is God who, in
his great love in Christ, reached down low to find you. And in this tremendous
love he picked you up in Christ and holds you up for the entire world to see
as a testimony, not to your greatness, but to his greatness and love.
The good news is divine. It is about faith in Christ. And notice a third thing:
it is vital. Throughout his letter, Paul expresses his horror at the thought of the
Galatians deserting this message.
The idea of forsaking the gospel is inconceivable to Paul. Why would any-one turn away from it?
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the
grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel
at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion (1:6-7).
It is as though they are turning back to slavery: "Do you wish to be enslaved
. . . all over again?" (4:9). Paul therefore pleads with them not to submit to
slavery but to live according to the freedom that is theirs for the taking: "It is
for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let your-selves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you
that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at
all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obli-gated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have
been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace" (5:1-4). Given
the terrible choice the Galatians were about to make, it is no wonder Paul
writes with such urgency.
The gospel is precious enough to divide over. Now, as a pastor, I have a
vested interest in keeping divisiveness out of the church. However, let me
encourage you to be divisive when it comes to the gospel. In a local church,
threats to the gospel must be fought. Indeed, an important part of Paul's min-istry was such loving correction. He publicly rebuked Peter for behavior that
threatened to confuse the message of the gospel (2:11-14). And he certainly
Galatians: Faith 223
does not shrink back from writing a sharp letter to young, wavering Christians
in Galatia. This whole letter is a loving rebuke, in which he essentially says,
"Hold tight to the gospel, and warn others about turning loose of it!" The news
is to be cherished, and it is to be contested for.
Do you ever do this? Would you? Under what circumstances? Is the gospel
rooted well enough, clearly enough, and firmly enough in your heart that you
would challenge a friend or someone else in your church about the content of
the gospel?
Finally, as with all of Paul's letters, the letter to the Galatians not only contains
propositional truth, it describes what that truth looks like when it is lived out.
Christianity carries the great insight that propositional truth and personal rela-tionships are not unrelated topics, nor should they be pitted against each other.
The head and the heart should not and indeed cannot be divided. What you
think and how you act are integrally related. So we are not surprised that Paul
turns in the last chapters to how we live. The good news has practical impli-cations for both our individual lives and our life together.
It Changes Our Relationships with Our Teachers
The hot relational issue among the Galatians is their relationships with their
teachers. You see this in chapter 4 and a bit in chapter 6.
Paul and the Galatians. Paul, of course, loves the Galatians, and has been
loved by them. He has an openly self-sacrificial concern for them, evident even
in the letter's tone and passion. In chapter 4, he recounts with great feeling his
first time among them:
As you know, it was because of an illness that I first preached the gospel to you.
Even though my illness was a trial to you, you did not treat me with contempt
or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were
Christ Jesus himself. What has happened to all your joy? I can testify that, if you
could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me.
Have I now become your enemy by telling you the truth? (4:13-16).
Some scholars speculate that Paul had trouble with his eyes, both because of
this comment and because of his comment in chapter 6, "See what large let-ters I use as I write to you with my own hand!" (6:11). Whether Paul had eye
problems or not, the Galatians had been quite kind to him. They had cared for
him, and he had cared for them.
Paul's motive for caring about them is clear. In the next to the last verse in
the letter he writes, "Finally, let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body
the marks of Jesus" (6:17). In other words, Paul is a servant of Jesus. By serv-ing the Galatians, he was serving God. So he can give himself over entirely for
their good.
The false teachers and the Galatians. How different Paul's love is from
that of the false teachers, who have exploited the Galatians for their own gain.
Paul writes, "Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What
they want is to alienate you from us, so that you may be zealous for them"
(4:17). The false teachers boast in the flesh, while Paul boasts in Christ:
Those who want to make a good impression outwardly are trying to compel you
to be circumcised. The only reason they do this is to avoid being persecuted for
the cross of Christ. Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they
want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh. May I never
boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has
been crucified to me, and I to the world. Neither circumcision nor uncircumci-sion means anything; what counts is a new creation (6:12-15).
The false teachers are trying to be well regarded by others, and at the Galatians'
expense. Even if their words are sweet, their tongues are treacherous.
Let me be perfectly clear about something we often miss in our culture
today: Teaching truth is loving. Teaching error is unloving, even abusive.
It Changes Our Relationship with God
The Galatians' relationship with their leaders may have been the raging issue,
but their relationship with God was, of course, the deeper issue. And here
Paul's assumption may surprise some of us. He assumes the legalists in Galatia
have not seriously considered the consequences of their sin, which may sound
like the opposite of what you would expect from legalists. After all, we nor-mally associate legalism with anxiety-producing moral standards and moun-tains of guilt for the slightest peccadilloes.
Yet Paul has another agenda. He wants people to understand that no
amount of legalistic law-keeping can justify sinners before God and save us
from his certain judgment. Only Christ's work on the cross satisfies God's just
wrath, and only faith in Christ's propitiatory work justifies the sinner: "Clearly
no one is justified before God by the law, because, 'The righteous will live by
faith' . . . Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse
for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'" (3:11,13).
And Christ was hung on a tree, taking the curse of the law upon himself!
The justification we gain through faith in Christ's work changes our rela-Galatians: Faith 225
tionship with God most remarkably. All the rich blessings God promised to
Abraham will "come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus"5 (that's us, if we are
Christians!). We become the people who bear God's name and know God's
presence! We become "heirs according to the promise" (3:29). We become free
from the law's condemnation (4:4-7, 21-31; 5:1-5). Like the children of
Abraham, we are called sons of God: "You are all sons of God through faith
in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed your-self in Christ" (Gal. 3:26; cf. Ex. 4:22; Hos. 11:1; Matt. 2:15). Not only that,
God gives us his Spirit: "Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son
into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, 'Abba, Father'" (4:6). Practically
speaking, the person who has God's Spirit is the one who lives by the Spirit:
"So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful
nature" (5:16).
Do you see then why legalism is so dangerous? Ultimately, legalism is sim-ply one form of walking according to the sinful nature and not the Spirit: "For
the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is
contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other" (5:17). On
the one hand, legalism leads to terrible self-deception. It causes us to think we
are "pretty good" or "good enough," when really, our least sins condemn us
before a perfectly holy God. Borrowing from Deuteronomy, Paul says, "Cursed
is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the
Law" (3:10; cf. Dt. 27:26; emphasis added). On the other hand, legalism—and
the sinful nature behind it—enables us to pursue all sorts of sin while main-taining this sense of being "good enough":
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and
debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, self-ish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like
And the end of such actions is dire: "I warn you, as I did before, that those
who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God" (5:21b).
Therefore, any false teaching that offers something other than the true
remedy—the forgiveness and new life we have in Christ by faith—must be
avoided with all our might. "Get rid" of those who wish to reintroduce the law,
Paul says (4:30). After all, "A little yeast works through the whole batch of
dough" (5:9), and the church, as the holy, unleavened loaf, must get rid of the
leaven that quickly spreads and spoils. As for the false teachers' attempt to
5 3:14; cf. Gen. 12:1-3; 17:7.
require circumcision, Paul exclaims, "I wish they would go the whole way and
emasculate themselves!" (5:12).
The most serious consequence of sin—God's final judgment—is hidden
from view in this life. Yet the promise of his judgment is like the gravity that
anchors our feet on the ground. Without it, we become morally confused and
directionless, like astronauts shorn of their weight in space. Even if his judg-ment is invisible now, it is certain. Therefore, Paul sharply warns the Galatians
not to take the future for granted: "Do not be deceived: God cannot be
mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful
nature, from that nature will reap destruction" (6:7-8). Do not think you can
continue to sin, believing that you will never face judgment simply because you
have not faced it yet. That is not a good argument.
In 1662 Edmund Calamy, a faithful English pastor, was unjustly forced to
resign from his church, along with hundreds of other pastors on one dark
Bartholomew's day. Preaching on God's promise to judge David for disobedi-ently numbering the Israelites, Calamy told his congregation in his final ser-mon, "Maybe some will say, I have committed many . . . sins, but am not
brought into any strait [difficulty]. Remember, it was nine months after David
had numbered the people before he was in this strait; but as sure as God is in
heaven, sin will bring straits sooner or later; though one sin a hundred years,
yet shall he be accursed; maybe thy prosperity makes way for thy damnation;
and this is thy greatest distress, that thou goest on in sin and prosperity."6 Have
you ever noticed in Scripture that God will let some individuals continue in
prosperity and wealth in order to prevent them from seeing the judgment that
waits just over the next hill? Do not assume your prosperity means that God
favors you. Seek the forgiveness that comes by grace alone through faith in
Christ alone. Christ's work on the cross is the only thing that will save us from
God's terrible judgment.
It Changes Our Relationships with Each Other
The deep issue of the Galatians' relationship with God, Paul says, will show
itself in their relationships with one another. The Galatians should live as
Christians. And, as in many of his letters, Paul concludes this letter with prac-tical pastoral instruction about what it means to live as a Christian.
The Galatians' freedom in Christ is not a freedom to sin as they please.
Self-indulgence and failure to love others are always dangers when people
Galatians: Faith 227
6 Edmund Calamy, "Farewell Sermon," in  Farewell Sermons: Preached by the Ejected Non-Conformist
Ministers of 1662 to the Congregations on the Day of Their Ejection (London: Gale and Fenner, 1816; repr.
Soli Deo Gloria, 1992), 11.
begin to understand grace but do not yet really understand it. Yet Paul is not
preaching a libertine, antinomian gospel. Their freedom was a freedom from
sin (5:8-15). We must reject the idea that being saved by grace means it doesn't
matter how we live. We are to follow the Spirit, not its enemy, the flesh (5:16-18). The Spirit will show himself in our lives through his fruit: "the fruit of the
Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness
and self-control" (5:22-23a).
Paul exhorts the Galatians to help one another fight sin and face life's
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him
gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's bur-dens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is
something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own
actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to some-body else, for each one should carry his own load (6:1-5).
Paul then makes particular mention of the special care they should demonstrate
toward faithful teachers: "Anyone who receives instruction in the word must
share all good things with his instructor" (6:6).
Paul knows the Lord Jesus taught that we should love one another, and
that our love for one another is an important part of our testimony to the world
of his love. If you happen to be a theology hound, perhaps you enjoyed read-ing the earlier parts of this chapter where we discussed justification by faith but
have been tempted to "tune out" as we consider chapters 5 and 6. After all,
they are all about love and kindness, and everybody believes that; we don't
really need any sharp teaching on that stuff, right? Beware. It is possible to
mentally affirm and even enjoy doctrine but to not believe it, at least not in the
biblical sense where God's love in Christ engulfs your heart and you find your-self beginning to love other people as you have been loved.
Beware of mere cognitive Christianity! Even in a letter where he argues
strenuously for a particular propositional message, Paul knows it is possible
to get the words right and still have an unregenerate heart. I know people who
can argue about doctrine until they are blue in the face yet whose lives lack the
tenor of love and tenderness that bespeaks a heart truly familiar with Christ.
So beware if you are one of those people. Caring a lot about doctrine is a good
thing; it is not a bad thing. But do read the last two chapters of Galatians. And
pray that God would grant you the kind of love in your heart that you defend
so well with your mouth.
I hope you can see that the news of Christianity makes a difference, unlike so
much of the news that is consumed in this world today. How do you know if
you have Paul's—no, God's—message? First, by what you say. The message
depends on the right cognitive content. We are not saved by circumcision. We
are saved by faith in Christ. Second, you know you have God's message by how
you say it, and how you live it out. Are you saying the message clearly? Are
you living it clearly?
In February 1989, the East German border guards at Potsdamer Platz in
Berlin shot to death a man trying to escape from the East into West Berlin. But
on November 9 of that same year, after dividing far more than just one city for
twenty-eight years and ninety-one days, the Berlin Wall fell. Over the subse-quent months, cranes and bulldozers finished tearing down the wall, along
with scholars and tourists like my good self who took crumbly bits of the wall
Do you remember where you were when you watched the pictures of the
mobs of people swarming both ways through the gates, and the bewilderment
of the guards? Why were there swarms of delirious joy? Because Germany was
reunited? Yes, in part. That is what the media emphasized. But there was
another, more mundane answer: the daily lives of millions of people in East
Germany would change drastically and immediately, and very rarely does dras-tic change occur in a single life, let alone in thousands or millions of lives. One
hotel porter interviewed the next week said that the people in East Berlin
changed immediately. "Now people are standing up straight. They are speak-ing their minds. Even work is more fun. I think the sick will get up from their
hospital beds."7
Now imagine if you were one of the people who walked away from the
nation that had been controlled by wrong-headed communist ideologues, that
had justified horrible atrocities in the name of false doctrines, that had domi-nated its citizenry with the fear of secret police. Now, imagine that, after some
time of living in freedom, you tried to get back into that nation, forsaking the
freedoms you had struggled for. It doesn't make any sense, does it?
That is what Paul is saying these Galatians were doing, when they traded
away the wonderful freedom they knew in the gospel of Christ for some set of
standards they were supposed to fulfill in order to know God. Are you in dan-ger of doing that?
Apparently in the last months of the regime, Erich Honecker, the East
Galatians: Faith 229
7 Cited in Timothy Garton Ash, We the People: The Revolution of 89 Witnessed in Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin,
and Prague (Cambridge, UK: Granta Books, 1990), 63.
German tyrant prime minister, ordered the East German secret police to qui-etly round up dissidents, present them with completed application forms to
emigrate to the West, and give them the choice of emigration or prison. The
political strategy was obvious—deplete the opposition. But personally, can you
imagine being faced with that choice? As one dissident said who was arrested
and confronted with this choice: "It was like being forced to choose between
heaven and hell!"
Is that the choice you need to make today? To live in the freedom we have
in Christ or to continue living under your own cobbled-together morality? One
woman who recently found Christ and joined our congregation remarked to
me that what struck her when considering Christianity through the witness of
our church was a phrase we often use—"newness of life." She thought, What
clever writers this church must have!
Of course we got it from the Bible. But just imagine: you can actually have
a new life. That is what all of us who are true children of God have experi-enced. We have a new life in Christ. Doesn't the news of your sins being for-given sound too good to be true? If this hits you like a dull thud and all you
can think about right now is finishing this study and having a bite to eat, I'm
not talking to you. I'm talking to those who are entranced by the thought that
their sins can be forgiven by faith in Christ. To them I say, turn from your sins,
and trust Christ for what he has promised.
May we hear the urgent message of Galatians: keep hold of the gospel. The
gospel was not made up by me or by any church, by some committee or some
bishop, by Paul or the apostles. It is from God. And you will certainly give an
account to him for having heard it.
So, what laws have you observed, thinking you would thereby gain God's
favor? You always put some money in the plate? You never use that word, at
least not when he is listening? You are faithful, honest, good, and true? Friend,
you must ask yourself, have you constructed your understanding of the world
so that you think you are not a sinner? That you have no guilty stains? That
you are not vile before God? That you have no need of a Savior?
That is what the Galatians were in danger of doing long ago—and of being
hoodwinked into thinking a little surgery could bring salvation. What about
you? Have you quietly struck your own deal with God, and worked out some
way you can give him a little less than everything and still be his?
You can be certain of your sins. That is a given. But you can be certain of
your rescue, as Paul calls it in this letter, only by believing in Jesus Christ as
your Savior and by trusting in him. That is what this little letter is all about.
That is what the church is all about. And that is supposed to be what your life
is all about. Is it?
Let us pray:
Lord God, we pray that you would work in our hearts an awareness of our
own sins, as well as a sense of how insufficient our imaginary agreements with
you are for dealing with these sins. Work in us an understanding of our state
before you and of our need for a Savior. And then, Lord, when you have con-fined us to despair, show us hope and joy in Christ. Lord, teach us to put all
of our hope in him alone. We pray for Jesus' sake. Amen.
Questions for Reflection
1. We know better than to trust any newspaper or magazine entirely, because
we have witnessed too many errors. Christianity makes quite a claim when it
asserts that the Bible is wholly true and without error. How do you respond to
someone who says, "The Bible is just like any other book—part history, part
mythology, and full of contradictions"?
2. Have people-pleasing tendencies ever tempted you to soften the message, or
leave out certain aspects, when sharing the good news? When?
3. If God is the author of Scripture, and if God is truthful and cannot lie, what
does that suggest about the accuracy and truthfulness of Scripture? On the
other hand, if God is the author of Scripture and the Scriptures are not accu-rate, what does that suggest about God?
4. As Christians, what is our motivation for proclaiming a gospel that can be
difficult for people to hear?
5. Some suggest that what people are looking for today from churches is not
abstract truths about God so much as  authentic experiences  of God. How
would Paul respond?
6. According to Galatians, what message should be at the center of our church
7. Following up on questions 5 and 6, we might say that Paul became angry
with Peter because the church's most important message did not translate into
action in his life (2:12-14). What message was Peter forgetting? How did he
fail to put what he knew into practice? What lessons does this central message
and Peter's failure have for how you relate to others in the church?
Galatians: Faith 231
8. When false gospels come, will they be wearing a sign that says "Warning:
False Gospel!"? If not, how will they be packaged? How will you recognize
them? What structures are in place that will enable your church to detect them?
9. As we have seen, Paul does not address the congregation's leaders about the
false teachers. He doesn't even address the false teachers themselves. He
addresses the congregation. What implications might this have for how we
govern our churches? Whom does Paul treat as having the final authority in
the local church?
10. Following up on question 9, Paul's frustration with the congregation at
Galatia presumes that they have a clear understanding of the gospel and that
they should be able to recognize departures from that gospel. What responsi-bility does that mean you have in your local church?
11. If a friend told you that she was a Christian because she believed Jesus died
on the cross on her behalf, but that she was not willing to let go of her sinful
lifestyle, how would you respond?
12. What was the main dispute between Paul and these false teachers?
13. Explain what "justification by faith" means without using some form of
the word "justification" (see Galatians 2:16, where the phrase is used in con-text).
14. Christians often wonder how people were saved in Old Testament times.
After reading Galatians 3:6-10, can you answer that question?
15. Standing before the throne of God on Judgment Day, what will you say in
your defense?
16. What obligation does God have to save you? If your quick answer is
"none," consider, are you ever tempted to think otherwise? Do you really
believe God has no obligation at all to save you? After your profession of faith
and baptism? After your years of "walking by faith"?
17. What makes you feel genuinely good about yourself? A productive day at
work? Your children's growth and success? Your husband's care and affection?
The admiration of colleagues? Your parents' approval? Consistent quiet times?
The ability to articulate your theology well? Finding the answer to that ques-232 THE MESSAGE OF THE NEW TESTAMENT
tion will help you discover what is at the core of your identity, and what you
prize above all things. And it will help you see what may cause confusion for
you regarding what the gospel is all about.
18. Following up on question 17, if you are a teacher of the Bible in any capac-ity (for a congregation, for a small group, for your children), what are you con-sistently teaching people to feel good about? Week after week, they walk away
from their time with you feeling encouraged because . . . ?
19. As we have seen, teaching truth is a loving thing to do. Teaching error is
unloving, even abusive. In what ways are we tempted to forget this, both in
our personal lives and in our church lives with other Christians?
20. Should prosperity and success make us think God's favor is on us? Why or
why not?
21. What does it mean to have "freedom" in Christ (as in Galatians 5:1)? Does
it mean freedom to sin?