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They say a person can live without food for about a month, but can only go without water for three days. On this planet, where you find water, you find life. Where you don’t, life is scarce. In this sense, water is the source of biological life.
Jesus is the source of spiritual life. Where you find his gospel message, you find people who have been brought into a right relationship with God. That’s what spiritual life is—a restored relationship with the Almighty.
But just as a water source can be poisoned, the gospel can also be tainted. In our sermon meditation today, we continue our study of Paul’s letter to the Galatian Christians. In this section Paul helps us to understand how the pure message of Jesus can be poisoned, and how to prevent that from happening.
Quick review. Paul was the apostle who brought Jesus’ message to the Roman province of Galatia. As people in that area began to trust in Jesus as their Savior from sin, a number of congregations were formed.
After Paul left the area, false teachers began to undermine the gospel in these new churches. The gospel of Jesus says that because God’s Son suffered and died in our place, for our sins, we stand forgiven. This forgiveness is a free gift from God, which comes through Jesus. But the false teachers in Galatia were saying that Jesus didn’t do enough to save sinners. What Jesus did had to be supplemented with an individual’s actions for complete forgiveness . If you kept certain worship laws properly you could earn the part of forgiveness that the cross didn’t cover. That was the poison they were mixing into the pure gospel of Christ.
Paul begins his letter to the Galatians by emphasizing the truth of the gospel, that all our sins have been completely forgiven in Christ. That there is nothing left for us to do. And then Paul begins to defend his ministry as an apostle of Jesus’ soul saving gospel. We continue our study at…
Galatians 2:11-21 (ESV)
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but 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. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
There’s a lot of things here. I’m going to start with the last paragraph. I’ll address the first two in a bit, but I’m going to focus on the last paragraph to begin with because this is the heart of the matter.
We’ve been calling this series on Galatians, “First Things First”. In the last paragraph here, Paul speaks about the gospel like it’s the headwaters of a great life giving river. It is the “first”, the “beginning”, the “source” of a Christian’s spiritual connection to God. But in Galatia this river was being poisoned.
Look at verses 17-18. Paul writes…
“17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (Galatians 2:17-18 ESV).
The false teachers in Galatia were evidently followers of Judaism. Judaism taught that a person reaches God through carefully keeping His commandments and regulations. Keep His commands and God’ll let you into heaven.
Now, because their hope of being accepted by God was based on their actions, followers of Judaism weren’t real big on confessing their sins. Instead, they gravitated toward keeping outward appearances up. Looking really good and holy to everyone around them. Being first in line at church, always putting something in the collection box, etc, etc.
When they saw Christians, they just didn’t understand. Why do these people confess their sins openly? These are things they should hide!
That’s perhaps where that accusation came from that Christ was a “servant of sin”. These Christians openly confessed their sins, almost like they were bragging about them!
But bragging wasn’t the point of confession in these churches. Jesus teaches us to open up our hands and show God our sins. Not like show-and-tell. Not because we’re proud of the bad things we’ve done. Christ teaches us to confess our sins to God and to each other, because then God can tell us, “Those sins have been forgiven. Your Savior suffered that one, and that one, and that one, and… well, all of them. You’re really forgiven. Completely.”
The followers of Judaism didn’t understand this because they were still trying to use the laws of God as a ladder to heaven. “If we just keep the commands of God we’ll make it!” Confessing their sins was the last thing they wanted to do! That would mean they had failed to keep the law of God and weren’t going to make it.
Now it may sound a little crazy that they could actually believe that it was possible to keep God’s law perfectly, but they did. In Luke 18 we hear about a man that approached Jesus one day during his ministry. This man asked what he had to do to get to heaven. Jesus said…
“20 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’ ” 21 And [the man] said, “All these I have kept from my youth” (Luke 18:20-21 ESV).
Wow. This man actually thought he had kept God’s law perfectly. Jesus told the man to sell everything and follow after him. But this made the man sad, because he was rich. In this way, Jesus showed him that he hadn’t even kept the first commandment. He loved his possessions more than God.
You see, the law of God is good. The Ten Commandments, all the other commands he gives us in the Bible. But the laws of God can’t save a sinner. That’s not what they’re for. They only serve to show us that we ARE sinners who need a Savior.
That’s what Paul tries to communicate in verse 19. There he writes…
“19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God” (Galatians 2:19 ESV).
What this means is, when Paul thought the law was a ladder to heaven, he tried hard to keep the law. But he failed. He sinned. And as he studied the Bible, it was clear that God’s standard was perfection. Only the sinless would be pure enough to dwell with God forever. And this realization killed Paul. The law killed Paul’s hope of heaven. Oh, he tried to march on and keep doing better, but in his heart there wasn’t any real peace. And this was necessary! This is what the law was meant to do to Paul. It was meant to drive him to despair of ever earning his way to heaven. When a person is at rock bottom, when they know they can’t do ANYTHING to earn God’s forgiveness, that’s when they’re ready to hear about Jesus.
The law kills us, so that the gospel can make us alive. The law condemns us, so that Jesus can tell us that he has saves us.
Paul sees Christ as the only source of life that exists in him. Look at verse 20 again. Paul says…
“20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me…” (Galatians 2:20a ESV)
If you take anything away from this sermon, take this image away. It’s so powerful. Repeat this after me. Can you do that? Repeat after me, “I have been crucified with Christ”, “It is no longer I who live”, “but Christ lives in me”.
When your conscience convicts you and you feel horrible about something you’ve done. Some sin. Some shameful and embarrassing thing that you don’t want anyone to know about. When your conscience brings that sin up you can say, “Oh, I’m sorry, that person is dead. That person, and all the sin connected with him, went away a long time ago when he died with Christ on the cross.”
Faith connects us to Jesus. We were there on the cross. We get credit for what we didn’t have to experience. And because Jesus rose from the dead three days later, now we live. He lives in us.
You could say it like this—the old me died on the cross. The new me lives with the risen Jesus. All guilt and shame and accusation can go to the cross. I live in the sunshine of Jesus’ grace.
When Martin Luther started preaching the gospel as the Bible states it, his enemies in the established church were appalled. They said, “You can’t go telling people that God has forgiven all their sins, past, present, and future! What will make them behave?”
That idea was alive in Paul’s day also. The idea that Christians will use the gospel of Christ as a license to indulge in sin.
In Romans 6 Paul writes…
“…you are not under law but under grace.
15 What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (Romans 6:14-15 ESV).
In our sermon reading Paul lays out the right attitude between gospel forgiveness and our daily life. In verse 20 Paul writes,
“…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” (Galatians 2:20b ESV).
For Paul, daily life was no longer a run on the treadmill of earning God’s love. He no longer lived in fear of the law’s punishment. Instead he lived in the security and peace that is the Son’s grace.
There’s a big difference between walking with the sidewalk perched precariously above your head, and walking with the sidewalk leading the way beneath your feet. Through Christ’s sacrifice we are placed above the law. Safe from hell, we can move freely and without fear, living to praise and serve the Savior who rescued us. (see 2 Corinthians 5:15)
Now we get to one of the most important verses in this whole section, verse 21. Paul writes…
“21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21 ESV).
If we could earn heaven by doing “good things” then why did God’s Son become human? Why does the Old Testament speak of the Messiah suffering for the sins of others? Why did Jesus tell people their sins were forgiven through faith in Him? If we could earn our own forgiveness by keeping the law of God, why did Christ do what he did?
But the truth is, being holy before God has absolutely NOTHING to do with our efforts, and EVERYTHING to do with what Christ did in our place.
This is the water of life. This is what Jesus was talking about when he told that woman on the other side of the well…
“…whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (John 4:14 ESV).
Jesus is the source of spiritual life, a relational connection to the Divine, that does not end.
But the gospel of Jesus can be poisoned. It can be altered, contaminated, made deadly. That’s what Paul is talking about when he says,
“I do not nullify the grace of God” (Galatians 2:21 ESV).
How is the gospel nullified? How is the message of grace poisoned? Made deadly to the soul instead of healing to the soul?
We begin to nullify God’s gift of forgiveness when we imagine that we have helped God to save us. When we think that forgiveness hinges on what we do, and not on what Christ has done. That’s how we poison our own well.
DON’T do this. Let a gift be a gift. Just say thank you and move on. Forgiveness is your possession in Christ. He is the spiritual life within you, RIGHT NOW. There is nothing left for you to pay.
Sadly, we can also nullify the gospel in lives of others. We poison our fellow Christian’s well when we suggest that their sins aren’t completely forgiven in Christ. When we suggest that their forgiveness somehow hinges on what they do, instead of on what Christ has done for them.
That’s what Peter did in Antioch at the beginning of today’s reading.
Before Christ came, Jews didn’t eat with non-Jews. They didn’t worship with Gentiles. They didn’t even like to associate with Gentiles. But when the Gospel of Christ came along, it became clear that it was for the Gentiles also. That through the cross of Christ the sins of the Gentiles were also forgiven. And then something started to happen that had never happened before. Jews began to worship with non-Jews because they both looked to Jesus as their Savior. They began to eat together in their homes because they were all on the same level. They were sinners forgiven through Christ.
When Peter came to Antioch he openly associated with the Gentile Christians who were part of that congregation. At first anyway. But when some more legalistic Jews showed up from Jerusalem, Peter took a step back. He started to treat the non-Jewish Christians a little differently. And the rest of the congregation followed his lead. They stopped dining with Christians who were Gentile-born.
And like Paul said, this wasn’t in line with the gospel. This whole behavior suggested that Gentile Christians were a little less holy than the Jewish Christians. That MAYBE their sins weren’t all forgiven. They had a little more work to do before God could fully forgive them. And so Paul stood up to Peter and called him out for this anti-gospel practice.
Peter apparently accepted Paul’s rebuke. Later on there was no bad-blood between him and Paul. Peter knew that he had acted rashly. That he had not acted in line with the gospel. Verse 16 says…
“…we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16 ESV).
So on what basis would we have to divide up our fellowship according to which Christians are the “really good ones”, and which are the “lesser Christians”?
Dear Christians, nobody is going to stand before God on the last day and get his stamp of approval because they did a good enough job. God’s law can’t save us, ‘cause we can’t keep it. It just shows us that we’re sinners.
Your source of life is Christ Jesus, and what he did on the cross in your place. That gospel is your spring of spiritual and eternal life. Guard it carefully. Keep it pure. And take care how you treat the wells of other Christians.
The Gospel is pure, and life giving. May God help us to keep going to the Gospel well to renew our life, and may God help us to keep it pure.