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06.02.13 Paul’s Gospel: Freedom Galatians 1.1-12 Sermon Summary

by on June 3, 2013

Wow, Paul’s letter to the Galatians has some harsh things to say about our churches today. Too bad we don’t recognize it because we’ve been misreading it since the Reformation.

Summary Points

  • The Difference Between Luther and Paul
  • Paul, Salvation, the Law, and Faith
  • The Place of Ritual in Salvation
  • Three Applications
  • Questions for Discussion and Reflection

Since the Reformation of the Western church begun in the 16th century, the interpretation of Galatians has emphasized individual salvation. The question Martin Luther was asking had to do with how a person is saved. Is it by good works or by faith, as he had begun to believe? This question became the defining question for Roman Catholics and Protestants. They, particularly the Protestants, read Galatians in such a way as to equate Jews with Roman Catholics with salvation by works; and Paul with Protestants with salvation by faith.

But Paul’s question was not Luther’s question, and Paul’s concern was never how individuals attain salvation. For Paul, that questioned had been answered—if anyone is saved they are saved by God in Christ. Faith, for Paul, is simply recognizing that God has done this. Rather, Paul’s question was what is expected of us after we have faith. Or to put it another way, What does faith look like practically?

Paul sees that how we practice faith affects salvation, but not salvation in the individual sense. Rather it affects our experience of God’s salvation in Christ in the cosmic sense. Instead of individual salvation, the issue is access to God, or from another perspective, experiencing God’s presence. This is the question Paul is answering in Galatians.

Before the revelation in Christ, Paul, like all Jews, experienced God through the law. To access God, one obeyed the law, beginning with circumcision which is a sign of the whole law. And so Psalm 119:1, the longest chapter of the Bible, consisting of 176 verses comprised of twenty-two 8 verse refrains exalting the law begins, “Happy are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord.” What if you disobeyed the law? You made sacrifice, which was again, according to the law.

The law was a gift from God whose role was to guide us in a hostile world, a world hostile to God, a world hostile to goodness. This hostility ultimately triumphed in death. Ours was a world enslaved to sin and death. This is what Paul refers to as “the present evil age” in which we live: ”Jesus Christ, gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (Gal. 1:4).

But what was revealed to Paul in Christ is that sin and death were conquered in Christ’s resurrection. So work it backwards: Christ’s resurrection overcomes death; death is the ultimate consequence of sin, so the resurrection overcomes sin; it therefore makes accommodation to sin unnecessary; therefore the law no longer is necessary to access or experience God.

Paul puts it this way in Galatians: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us— for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:14-15). “But the scripture has imprisoned all things under the power of sin, so that what was promised through faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).

Salvation, that is access to God, that is experiencing God, is no longer mediated by law. Salvation is now by faith. The law is still good in Paul’s mind, for it guides us in God’s way through a hostile world. (More on this in two weeks.) For now it is important to recognize that for Paul, it is possible to experience God through the law, but experiencing God no longer requires the law.

This is what is revealed in Christ. This is what matters to Paul. This is why his opponents in Galatia are wrong. In a summary statement Paul writes, “For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything!” (Gal. 6:15) What matters is the new creation, not bound by sin and death—a whole new creation which includes us.

This is why Paul is astonished that anyone would want to act as a slave to sin and death again. “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?” (Gal. 4:8-9) The Galatians were submitting again to circumcision, to food laws, and to ritual holidays in addition to faith. Paul attitude is you can do them, but you don’t have to do them.

This is what we misunderstood in the Protestant Reformation. Paul saw value in ritual as an expression of faith. Some Reformers argued ritual was evidence of non-faith. Some Reformers cried “faith alone, no ritual.” Paul cried “Faith is the foundation, then do ritual in faith.” The key is that we experience God through faith—faith that Christ has overcome sin and death, that Christ is Lord of all. The Roman centurion understood this, and Jesus commended him for his faith.

How does this apply today? Three ways.

(1) We so often do the same thing as Paul’s opponents in Galatia. We proclaim a gospel of “faith-and”: Faith and church attendance, faith and volunteer service, faith and financial giving, faith and traditional worship, faith and clean living. We, like Paul’s opponents, judge other Christians with this “faith-and” attitude. Worse, we judge ourselves with the “faith-and” attitude, never measuring up, still trying to be better Christians, to earn God’s presence. Worse yet, we repel others from Christianity with this “faith-and” attitude. Worst of all, we abandon the gospel of Christ who opened access to and experience of God to all people through faith alone, not through “faith-and.”

Instead, of “faith-and” we need to embrace a gospel of “faith-then”: Faith then joining a community, faith then serving others, faith then supporting God’s mission, faith then openness to however God will lead—for some that will include ritual, but not for all. Before we can embrace “faith-then” we have to confess and repent of “faith-and” with words such as these: God our Father, you resurrected our Lord Jesus Christ, and in doing so overcame sin and death. You freed us from the present evil age that we might live as your children, beloved even as Jesus was beloved, free to approach you in faith and not fear. We confess that we have not rejoiced in this Spirit of adoption, but have instead tried to make ourselves lovable by our religious activities. We confess that we have imposed our religious activities on others, and distanced them and ourselves from your love for us in Christ. Forgive us once again, and fill us with your Spirit, that we may be restored to your image as you created us, and view others with the same grace with which you adore us. In Christ’s name we pray.

(2) Whatever binds us today—hopelessness, addiction, cynicism, fear, bitterness, regret, self-hatred, prejudice, etc.—these are part of this present evil age. They are powers of sin and lead to death. Christ has overcome them. We now have the power of God in faith through the Spirit. We can continue to fight these demons in the power of God through faith. When we approach the Lord’s Supper, we can bring these to the table, receive the body and blood of Christ, and leave these other things on the altar of worship to be consumed by the fiery power of God. (See the OT reading for today.)

(3) The world “out there” also has been liberated from its “bondage to decay” (Romans 8:21). So when we see sin and death—poverty, immorality, dishonesty, environmental exploitation, etc.—we can remember that Christ has overcome them. Then we should join the work that is God’s redemption of this world, for we are set free to do this work in faith, just like Jesus.

Questions for Discussion and Reflection

  • Talk about the differences between Luther’s questions and Paul’s questions, and how Luther used Paul’s answers to answer his questions. Share if you’ve ever been part of a Bible study that equated Paul’s opponents with either “the Jews” or Roman Catholics.
  • How does the perspective that God’s salvation in Christ is as much (or more?) about saving the cosmos as it is about saving individuals change your understanding and experience of salvation? How can your experience of salvation interact with the salvation of the world?
  • What is the role of ritual in your spiritual life? Are there activities you engage in as an expression of your faith? Are there things you engage in to somehow impress God or to try to earn salvation? How can you better relate your ritual life to faith? How can your faith take on more meaningful ritual?
  • How can the “faith-then” attitude help you be more patient with yourself and with others?
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