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Not Our Works, but Our Faith

Expanded remarks from the Church of Our Saviour at Oatlands, June 16th, A.D.2013 - Rev'd Elijah White
First please read Galatians 2:11-21 and 1940 Hymnal # 65

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

The only final hope we have is given in the Epistle appointed for today, ‘the Magna Carta of Christian liberty,’ St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, chapter 2 verse 16, “one is not justified – δικαιούται, pronounced and treated as if righteous, and thus put into right relationship with God – one is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ… because by works of the law shall no man be justified…” and, verse 21, “if justification were through the law, then Christ died in vain” (to no purpose, quite un-necessarily).

These words seem clear enough, but what do they mean? It helps to know the background: on Paul’s second missionary journey he and young Timothy founded small congregations in Galatia, what’s now central Turkey. Sometime later some nominally-Christian heretics, “false brethren” [2:4] , came to that isolated region claiming that Paul’s message was incomplete, that they had the real, full, Gospel “straight from Headquarters” in Jerusalem {as if the Church’s headquarters were anywhere but Heaven}.

Their primary heresy was that for a Gentile to become a “real” Christian he must also become a fully-practicing Jew, including all 613 of that faith’s complex ritual and dietary laws including eating only kosher foods, separate dishes for milk and meat, never eating with non-Jews, circumcision for every male, &c, &c. These particular heretics were known as “the Judaizers.” Their “different Gospel” [1:6] claiming the authority of Headquarters confused and badly split the Galatians, some of whom understandably stopped attending services rather than be involved in a spat.

When news of this reached Paul, the great apostle of freedom in Christ [5:1], he had one holy, righteous and most absolute conniption fit! He started dictating this letter so quickly that its Greek syntax remains a challenge to this day – though his point in clear in 3:1, “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?”

Even in the Church’s brief history, he reminds them, the Judaizing notion had already been discredited in a knock-down drag-out showdown between Paul and Peter before the ‘authorities’ in Jerusalem, a key theological struggle recorded by Luke in Acts chapter 15 and referred to in today’s Epistle verses 11-14 – because in Antioch, far from Jerusalem, Peter at first had freely eaten together with uncircumcised Gentile Christians… until some Judaizers arrived and accused him of being less than kosher – and Peter, vacillating just as he had after Jesus’ arrest in Matthew 26:69-75, reversed himself 180-degrees and shunned uncircumcised Gentiles as at best second-class Christians. {So much for papal infallibility, remember only declared dogma in 1870.)

Paul called Peter on his hypocrisy to his face, they argued it out before the high council in Jerusalem, and Paul’s understanding of Christian freedom from the Jewish Law was basically upheld by those very elders whose authority the Judiazers claimed.

So what’s this to you and me today? Does this controversy about circumcision, kosher food and such, make any difference to us? You bet your bottom dollar – in fact, you bet your soul… and I mean that quite literally.

You see, the Judaizers were like subsequent super-Christian ‘perfectionist’ heresies over the centuries and today – beware, for your soul’s health flee from, anyone who says that to be a “real” Christian you have to have “faith+plus any other requirement.” These false brethren declared that in order for individuals to be in right relationship with God they had to earn that through one’s own perfect obedience to every jot and tittle (the smallest Greek letter, smallest Hebrew stroke) of the 613 precepts of the Mosaic Law as expounded and vastly expanded by generations of rabbis and – Domine, defende nos! – lawyers, the ‘scribes’ in New Testament times.

“All” you had to do was (in addition to faith in Jesus Christ) to be perfect in doing all the works of the Law, while not doing anything contrary to the Law, and then God would evaluate and appraise you (have to appraise you?) as ‘acceptable.’ Could you stand in the Judgment of such a standard, such an appraisal?

No! Know this: the Grace of God is always and only a free gift, never a ‘reward.’
Can you imagine anything more diametrically opposite the Gospel Good-News of Jesus Christ? What skeptics call the “bad” news of the Gospel, {which we must hear and understand before we can hear, understand and appreciate its “good” news} is that no one can make him/her/self so absolutely flaming ‘perfect’ as to ‘earn’ God’s acceptance and love – but the good news is that we don’t have to, because for our faith God accepts us in Love, not of Law; not for our good works, but from His good will.

If you want the Gospel in one sentence, try that – put positively in verse 16, “a man is not justified by works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ” or negatively in verse 21, “if justification were though works of the law, then Christ died in vain.”

That is to say, if we could save ourselves, make God-as-divine-bookkeeper accept us for our own clean record and purity of legal goodness – if you and I could do that, then who needs Jesus Christ? Whose death on the Cross therefore becomes, not the one “full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world” – do you pay attention to these words every week? -- but instead died “in vain,” a pointless and quite unnecessary stupidity on His part and His Father’s.

I mean, face it: if you and I are capable of saving ourselves by doing everything perfectly, theologically as well as behaviorally, then if we are not that perfect (and have not always been that perfect) then we have no hope at all – right? If you and I can [and therefore have to] ‘earn’ and deserve individual salvation, our only choices are absolute perfection or absolute despair: I know where I’d stand in that dichotomy…what about you?

Fortunately for us, in Christ Jesus God has abolished the seductive chimera of justification by works no matter how good, giving us instead His New Testament New Covenant [same word in OT Hebrew and NT Greek] sealed in Christ’s Blood [Mt. 26:27-28] – freely giving us His Covenant of Grace which is not of our doing but His own free gift to us.

The Gospel Good News is not that you and I can (and therefore must) make ourselves sinless, but rather that [Romans 5:8] “God shows His love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” The authentic Gospel saves us, delivers us, frees us from the Sisyphean task of making ourselves “good enough for God:” as we’ll sing in Hymn 65 in a moment, “There was no other good enough / To pay the price of sin / He only could unlock the door / Of Heaven and let us in.” Let us in… let us in…let us in…

Not that Paul or Jesus, unlike false brethren today, were anarchists (opposed to all authority) or antinomians (opposed to all law and regulation) – far from it! They know that anyone who truly loves God will strive to show that love by doing His will to the smallest particular: the saving Gospel is that the obedience we practice and manifest, by what we do and what we abstain from doing, is not the cause of God’s love for us but one result of that love.

This is crucial, no pun: in John14:15-24 Jesus did not say “If you keep my commandments I will love you” but “If you love me you will keep my commandments.”

Got that? Never forget it. The Gospel of Jesus Christ frees us from the temptations to, and the eventual damnation of, self-righteousness so that we may live and work and revel only in the righteousness of God.

In every Holy Communion we say that “we offer and present unto thee, O Lord, our selves, our souls and bodies” – do we mean it, are we paying attention? – we offer up our self-centeredness, our selfishness, to do God’s will whether we ‘like’ it or not, not to ‘earn’ His love by doing so but rather because He has already offered us His love long before we ever thought of even trying to do His will: First John 4:19, “We love, because He first loved us.”

Not our merit nor deserving, not our virtue nor works no matter how good… only God’s love for us, is the saving Good News of the Gospel, and our only final hope,

in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.