Justified By Faith Alone
Topic: The Gospel Passage: Galatians 2:15–2:21
We probably all know the unhappy experience of being somewhere we were unwelcomed. The silence when you show up, the looks, the uncomfortableness. Conversely, we all know what it’s like when we show up at a place where we are most welcome! We love it here, where as the song to the old television show “Cheers”, “Everybody knows your name. And they’re always glad you came…”
Well, the gospel is God’s enormous welcome to a lost, broken, sinful world. The gospel is the Father’s glad embrace of all who come to him through his Son Jesus Christ. And when the Father welcomes us, we want to welcome others. Romans 15:7 says,
Welcome one another, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
The gospel, if we believe it, really does have to make contact with real life. And the most profound way it makes contact with real life is by touching our relationships with other people. When we experience the massive, loving, glad welcome of God, we find our hearts opening to others in ways we never imagined. We may even be surprised at who our hearts are opened to.
Remember the conflict going on in this passage. It is eluded to in verse 21, when Paul says,
I do not nullify the grace of God. For if righteousness were through the law, Christ died for no purpose.
Nullifying the grace of God! Christ dying for no purpose! Martin Luther in his commentary said, “There is no sin more horrible. Still there is no sin more common.” And it was Peter, the great apostle, who was guilty of such an offense. Not because he denied the gospel in his words, but because he denied the gospel by his actions when he drew back from the non Jewish Christians at Antioch. Paul calls his actions “hypocrisy”.
So this is a warning to all of us. If it was possible for an apostle to do this and if, as Luther said, there is no sin more common, it is possible for us. More than possible. We probably do it. But we want to live in God’s grace for the undeserving. We want to rejoice in the death of Jesus on our behalf. We want the way we happily sing about the finished work of Christ on the cross for us also be the happy way we live in its power! I think that’s why you are here today!
How do we live in the power of the grace of God? We are instructed here in Galatians 2:15-21. In these verses we see how the gospel of God’s grace for the undeserving shapes and forms our hearts, empowers our lives, so that we are those with hearts wide open in welcome of one another as Christ has welcomed us. In light of what happened in Charlottesville last weekend and what is happening all over the country; in light of human nature, this is very relevant.
So I want to step through these verses and make a few observations:
How are we accepted with God?
First, how do we find acceptance with God? How do we receive this rich, glad, massive welcome into the loving heart of God? Verses 15 and 16 show us it is through faith in Jesus alone without adding work of our own.
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.
There is nothing better than being accepted by God. To be ready to stand before God in judgment safe and secure. Not because you have attained to his standards or because he lowered his standards, but because you have simply believed in Jesus Christ. This is called justification by faith alone. To be justified means for God to pronounce, in the face of your sins, “not guilty, innocent, righteous.” And this comes by faith and not by works of the law - not by keeping the 10 commandments. The most damaged sinner, through simple faith in Christ, before he does a single good work, can be declared justified, innocent, not guilty in God’s sight!
This is so counterintuitive to us. We think, “I’ll get my act together and God will be happy and accept me”. But Paul says three times, we are justified “not works, not works, not works!” He’s making a point! Faith in Jesus alone! Jesus, the eternal Son of God, became man, lived the perfect life we couldn’t, died in our place for our sins, and rose again. And through simple faith, his perfect obedience is counted as yours so that God sees you as though Christ’s righteousness was yours! You perhaps have heard the easy to remember saying, “justified means: just as if I never sinned.” Amen! I would simply add, “And just as if I always obeyed!”
Every other religion has a message that you must either earn or cause God’s acceptance and blessing. Buddah’s dying words, “Strive without ceasing.” The dying words of Jesus were “It is finished.” Not sure about you, but I’ll take Jesus!
What can you do to improve upon or diminish the righteousness of Christ anyway? The obvious answer is nothing. When John Bunyan, the author of Pilgrim’s Progress learned this truth, it changed his life:
One day, as I was passing into the field, this sentence fell upon my soul: “Your righteousness is in heaven.” And with the eyes of my soul I saw Jesus at the Father’s right hand. “There”, I said, “is my righteousness!” So that wherever I was or whatever I was doing, God could not say to me, “Where is your righteousness?” For it was always right there before him. I saw that it was not my good frame of heart that made my righteousness better, nor yet my bad frame of heart that made my righteousness worse, for my righteousness is Christ. Now my chains fell off indeed… and I lived sweetly at peace with God.
And so through simple faith in Christ, we are justified (his righteousness is counted as ours) and we are totally accepted, totally welcomed!
A surprising question and Paul’s answer
But this raises a question, which may seem surprising, but actually makes sense when we think about the radical implications of grace.
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!
If our performance counts for nothing and we as lawbreakers are declared innocent, does Jesus promote sin? Is Jesus an enabler? We have all experienced that rosy eyed parent who believes their little Johnny can do no wrong. “My little Johnny would never hit, lie, steal…” and everyone else knows little Johnny is a rascal! Well, if the most unrehabilitated sinner can be forgiven, justified (not guilty) simply by believing in Jesus Christ, is Jesus an Enabler? Paul’s answer is emphatic. Certainly not! The KJV says, “God forbid!” But why? He let’s the guilty go free. He supports his answer in verses 18-19:
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.
In verse 18, Paul says it is a great sin against God to presume that you can climb your way up a ladder of morality into his favor. That by keeping a list of do’s and don’ts, you can earn God’s blessing. When we believe in Christ, the law as a ladder to climb up into the favor and blessing of God is torn down. We cannot be accepted this way, but through faith in Jesus alone. So if we rebuild this ladder that was once torn down through faith in Christ, we prove ourselves to be sinners. This is a great temptation for us. In an age where a good self-esteem is the highest good, we want our performance to get kudos. Jesus tells a story of a Pharisee and tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. We can approach God based on human performance or divine mercy. God rejected the Pharisees’ self-righteous attempts to impress Him and accepted the tax collector’s plea for mercy.
Paul gives further support in showing the true nature of the law. The law was never meant to make us feel morally superior to others; it shows us where we fall short. JI Packer in Knowing God says,
The law speaks not of privilege and achievement, but only of failure and guilt.
In other words, we don’t hold up the law and say, “Look how good I am doing. God sure must be impressed!” It plainly reveals that we don’t measure up. I once did an exercise with the youth group in which I went through the 10 commandments… So verse 19 says the only way forward is to die to the law as a way to climb up into God’s favor so that we can truly be alive to God. Martin Luther, again says, “To live unto the law is to die unto God. [However] to die unto the law is to live unto God.”
When you believe in Christ the law is torn down as a way to curry favor with God. So we must die to this way of thinking and living. Our performance adds nothing to the finished work of Christ.
The life of Christ in you exceeds your ability to keep rules
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.
This is actually the third reason Paul gives to the question, “Is Christ an Enabler?” We understand rules. I got my list of things I do and things I don’t do. I get my act together, clean myself up, try harder. What is harder for us to understand is true reality with someone we don’t see. But real Christianity is as Ray Ortlund says, “Christ in you, Christ with you, and Christ for you!” Reality with Christ. Jesus is not an absent theoretical Savior.
So there is a new power to live. Paul says, “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” The old egotistical “I” needed to die. The old I that said, “My way!” needed to die. And it did. And now Christ lives in us. Then Paul says, “And the life I now live in the flesh is by faith in the Son of God…” So Paul wants to make it clear, we do still live. Just the old person needed to go! And where does the power come from to live? Moment by moment trust in the living, present Christ. This is what Paul describes “I live by faith.” Is your life described as a life of faith? It can be! This is how powerful, though sometimes slow change happens in our lives. The external coercive power of rules to threaten and guilt us into behavior modification cannot change our hearts. But the risen Christ in us can!
Verse 20 also gives us a new motivation for life. Live by faith in the Son of God, “Who loved me and gave himself for me…” This is personal. This is deep. This is ultimate reality! Our lives are lived by faith in the massive love of God through Christ. And we love because he first loved us!
Again laws can coerce us to do the right thing. And there is a place for that. We need traffic laws. We just don’t call that Christianity. Real Christianity is living by faith in the real, present, personal, gracious Christ who loved you and gave himself for you. And he is in you, with you, and for you.
Why go back to rule keeping?
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Remember, Luther said this is a common sin. But don’t do it. Rather live moment by moment by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you. To go back to rule-keeping is to nullify the grace of God, to act as though Christ didn’t even need to die. Resist the temptation to want to pat yourself on the back for how good you are and just start going bonkers for how good your Savior is! An important theologian in the 20th century named J. Gresham Machen said this,
This verse is the key verse of the Epistle to the Galatians; it expresses the central thought of the Epistle. The [false teachers] attempted to supplement the saving work of Christ by the merit of their own obedience to the law. “That,” says Paul, “is impossible; Christ will do everything or nothing: earn your salvation if your obedience to the law is perfect, or else trust wholly in Christ’s completed work; you cannot do both; you cannot combined merit and grace; if justification even in slightest measure is through human merit, then Christ died in vain.
If Christ doing everything doesn’t make your heart jump for joy… it is because you are still looking at yourself for your acceptance with God. You are still trying to justify yourself by impressing God with the things you do. Today’s mantra is, “You just have to believe in yourself.” That’s the problem. Will you stop believing in yourself and start living by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you? His arms are open.
Just two final thoughts.
First, if you are as welcomed and as accepted by God as Jesus is, you can handle other people not accepting you.
Second, if you have received such a rich and warm welcome through Jesus, welcome one another. If he has opened his heart to the undeserving, then do the same. Romans 15:7, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”