Outside of the village was a spring with crystal clean looking water bubbling up and spilling over into a steam that rushed through the forest, around boulders, and swallowed up fallen trees. All of those who walked through the forest to make their way to neighbor’s huts or to forage for food knew about the spring. The serene sounds could be heard from a quarter of a mile away. Its crystal clear waters enticed the thirsty and weary to stoop down and quench their thirst while they rested on its banks. The spring was inviting, but no one dared indulge their thirst. All of the villagers knew that the spring was tainted, its waters foul, and if anyone dared to drink they would never forget the sickness that would seize them.
Appearances were appealing, but appearances are not always what they appear to be. The sights and sounds of the spring were inviting, but there was no relief for the thirsty. The villagers could have built rest stops along the banks of the stream, put together a public relations campaign to change the spring’s image, and hired an attorney to sue anyone who spoke negatively about the spring, but that wouldn’t have changed anything – from a fouled spring flows foul waters.
What is true for the tainted waters of the spring is also true for all of humanity. We can wage a public relations campaign to boost our image, put together a video of all of our wonderful acts of kindness and noble deeds, and make sure that “self-esteem” is our top priority, but God’s Word teaches that the spring of our hearts is fouled.
We may observe our actions and come to the conclusion that they appear good and virtuous. We may listen to wonderfully stirring speeches, songs, or sermons and conclude that they sound good. We may focus on the exterior and declare that we are good…and getting better everyday. We would be wrong.
In Romans 3:23, Paul said, “…all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” Just four chapters later in his letter to the church in Rome, Paul wrote about our condition as he commented on his own predicament. Paul writes,
18I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. (Romans 7:18 NIV)
We have the desire, but we can’t sustain our desire with consistency. “Sin” is not simply an act or a behavior; it is a state of being. If you want to get down to the root of our problem then you need to look beneath our behavior. Our predicament is not so much that we “sin,” as much as it is that we are “sinners.” Dogs bark. Bees sting. Birds fly. Fish swim. Skunks smell. Sinners sin. It is not what we do, but who we are that has us in this helpless state of frustration and failure. In Isaiah 64:6, the prophet wrote these powerful words,
6 All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6 NIV)
What a picture you and I can get in our minds when we focus on Isaiah’s phrase, “…like the wind our sins sweep us away.”
I bet right about now you are thinking to yourself, “Boy, am I glad I came to church today.” This is just what you needed isn’t it? What you needed was another “downer,” right? What you needed was another reminder that you have fallen short, right? What you needed was something else to add to your list to work on, right? No, that is not where we are going this morning. You and I need to stop “working,” quit trying harder, stop seeking to “do” better. All of our best efforts will not get us over the hump. Giving it the “old college try” will not allow you and me to find our completeness and fulfillment in life. What we need is not a more concerted effort, but a total and complete transformation.
In our Scripture for today we are going to continue our study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. We need to review, to some degree, our last couple of times together so that our Scripture for today will make sense and flow from the situation going on in Antioch.
If you will remember Paul, Barnabas, and Titus took a trip to Jerusalem, to the Mother Church, to see the pillars of the Church – Peter, James, and John. The reason for their visit came about because Paul was moved by the Holy Spirit to make the trip in order to demonstrate that the mission of those in Jerusalem was the same as the mission given by God to Paul and Barnabas. Even though they were reaching different people groups, their efforts and their message were the same – they were declaring that people are made right with God through God’s grace and His grace alone.
After the meeting Paul and the gang went back to Antioch, a largely Gentile city of about 500,000 people. Peter made a trip to Antioch after being shown by God that His grace was reaching out even to the Gentiles. Peter stayed in Antioch for a while and witnessed firsthand the move of God among those whom the Jews had categorized as outside of God’s grace.
One day some men came from Jerusalem and Peter was scared of what they would think about him because he was eating and fellowshipping with Gentiles. Peter withdrew from his Gentile brothers and sisters and Paul spoke out against Peter’s hypocrisy. The pressure to draw back from the Gentile Christians was so great that Paul writes, “Even Barnabas was led astray.” (Galatians 2:13)
This brings us to our Scripture for today found in Galatians 2:15-21. Let’s take a look and get started.
15″We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16know that a man is not justified 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 observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. 17″If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. 19For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. 20I 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. 21I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (Galatians 2:15-21 NIV)
In our Scripture for today Paul doesn’t even attempt to show his ability to entertain or impress with inspirational stories or soul-stirring phraseology. Peter’s hypocrisy sets the stage for Paul to teach the most basic truth in all of Scripture – the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.
I want to forewarn you. To understand this section of God’s Word will require you and me to give our utmost attention and focus to our time of study today. It will require you to take a pen and paper and make notes to be reviewed and learned over and over again in the coming days and weeks. We may think that the doctrine of salvation by grace through faith is the stuff of elementary Sunday school class discussions, but I will tell you that no teaching of our faith is more neglected or less understood today than this treasure, this cornerstone on which the rest of our faith is built.
For those who believe I may be too dramatic I would challenge you to go back to your office, your foursome on a Saturday morning, or your friends who gather at the pool and ask them this simple question: “How can I know that I will go to Heaven when I die?” I will guarantee you that the answers you will hear more than any other is this – “Be good. Do good. Try harder.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Let’s take a look at our Scripture
15″We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ 16know that a man is not justified 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 observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified. (Galatians 2:15-16 NIV)
Now remember the context of Paul’s words. Peter, Barnabas, and all of the good Jewish Christians were withdrawing from the lowly sinners…the Gentiles. Paul addressed them by saying that even those who were born Jews, the Chosen people of God, know that we are not justified by keeping the law, but by trusting in Jesus Christ.
Did you notice the distinction in verse 15? “Jews by birth” and not “Gentile sinners.” Paul wasn’t trying to teach about the moral behavior of the Gentiles, he was drawing a distinction between those who were born with every religious privilege and those who were born without the law. John MacArthur gives us a good understanding of the Jewish perspective on Gentiles in his commentary. Let me read it to you.
In referring to the Gentiles as sinners, Paul was not using the term in the behavioral sense of public immorality (as it is often used in the gospels), but in the legal sense in which it was frequently used by Jews. In the minds of most Jews, Gentiles were sinners by nature because they had no law to guide them in right living and in pleasing God. But with or without the law. Paul was saying, no person is saved who has not believed in Christ Jesus. (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Galatians, p. 56)
The Gentiles were not given the law, but God had given the Jews the law to lead and guide Israel’s obedient walk with God. The law came from God through Moses and yet Moses never taught the people that the law would make them right with God. The means of coming to God has always been God’s grace.
It is easy for us to pick on Peter and the other hypocrites who withdrew from the Gentiles because of their snooty, sanctimonious clinging to the law as the path to God, but we need to take a good hard look at ourselves. Through the law, the Ten Commandments, the teachings of Jesus, and our own devised divine plans we come up with ways to make us “more” right with God than others. There are some things that we do that we believe are godly. We shine a spotlight on these treasures of our righteousness and look down at folks who do not follow our path to godly living. There are other things that we refrain from doing, like the Jews refrained from eating certain foods, and conclude in our minds that we are more spiritually mature or godly than the godless people who indulge in the things we refuse. We end up building altars around our actions instead of worshipping God for His grace. Let me give you an illustration to show you what I mean.
Life is like the mighty Mississippi. It is wide and deep and can easily do you and me in if we do not know how to navigate its waters. So that we can live lives that will keep us from destruction and on the path of God’s plans for our lives, the Lord has set stepping stones in the waters of life for us.
Many would plunge into the waters with no regard for what lies beneath the murky current and they get swept away. Many would deny the need for the stepping-stones and try to construct their own means of fording the river. Others simply decide to sit on the bank. It is the grace of God working through the Spirit of God that calls us to step out into the waters one stone at a time. It is not the stepping-stones that keep us from being swept down river, but the grace of God that guides and leads us to the other side.
What we so often do is place our emphasis on the stepping-stones. Rather than praising God for His gracious hand that leads us to safety, we decide to form a committee to study each stone. We want to know the circumference of each stone. We study its texture. We measure the distance from one stone to the next stone and make rules and regulations to ensure that the stones are placed precisely where they belong and that only the ones that are the right size, color, and shape are used. We make the stepping-stones of primary importance rather than the grace of God that makes our footing sure and rescues us when we slip and fall into the treacherous waters.
Paul was reminding Peter that it is not the stepping-stone of the law that makes us right with God, but our faith in what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Paul went on to ask Peter a question. He wanted Peter to think about this point: If we are justified in Christ alone, but revert back to trusting in our good works, or the regulations of the law, should we conclude that Christ is a minister of sin?
Paul was using the situation going on in Antioch to challenge Peter. If the false teachers were right in saying that a person had to keep the food laws of God to be right with God, then Peter and Paul and the other Jews who were sharing a feast of pork loin, shrimp cocktails, and ham loaf were sinning even before the Jews showed up. If justification with God was based partly on keeping the law then Peter and the others had fallen into sin when they ate with the Gentile Christians. Paul writes in Galatians 2:17-19.
17If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! 18If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. 19For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.
We are justified by Christ alone! We can only stand before God because of what God has done for us in Christ Jesus, not because of anything that we have done.
If they were sinning before the Jews showed up and Jesus is the One who called Paul and Peter to fellowship with the Gentiles, then is Jesus, the One who led them to share with the Gentiles, the minister of sin? Paul says, “Absolutely not!” It’s not Jesus who is in the wrong, but our turning back to works, turning back to the law, turning to anything other than what Christ has done for us to make us right with God.
Do you see how trusting in our works or trusting in the law condemns us at every turn? Both will blind us to the true source of salvation and justification. Both are used to show ourselves to be better than others, but they will also prove to us that we can’t even live by our own standards. The law condemns us and will never set us free! Martin Luther once wrote,
The law condemns and kills us, but Christ justifies us and restores us to life. The law drives us away from God, but Christ reconciles us to God and makes a way for us to come to him boldly. He is the Lamb of God who has taken away the sin of the world. Now, if the sin of the world has been taken away, it has been taken away from me too, if I believe in him. If sin has been taken away, then the wrath of God, death, and damnation have been taken away too. And righteousness take the place of sin; reconciliation and grace take the place of wrath; life takes the place of death; salvation takes the place of damnation. Let us learn to practice this distinction, not just in words but in life and in experience. Where Christ is, there must be joy of heart and peace of conscience, for Christ is our reconciliation, righteousness, peace, life, and salvation. Briefly, whatever the poor afflicted conscience desires, it finds abundantly in Christ. (Martin Luther, Galatians, p. 96)
Luther is so right! The law condemns us and shows us that we can’t live up to God’s righteousness, but Christ has come to transform us, to indwell us, to replace the sure sentence of death with salvation! What a glorious Savior we serve!
Paul is not saying in Galatians 2 that the law has no purpose, that it isn’t good, or from God. Paul’s condemnation of the law stems from the baggage that was attached to the law as man gave more attention to the law than to seeking God. Paul is so passionate about our justification through grace alone that he is willing to speak with absolute certainty about the failure of the law to save or justify. J. Gresham Machen once wrote,
Paul is contending in this great epistle not for a ‘spiritual’ view of the law as over against externalism or ceremonialism; he is contending for the grace of God as over against human merit in any form. (J. Gresham Machen, Machen’s Notes on Galatians, p. 156-157.)
Paul is fighting a battle for the grace of God over and against any form of humanity’s good works to try to and get on God’s good side. The grace of God at work in an empty vessel is a powerful instrument in the hands of God, but for the grace of God to fill that vessel, it must be empty. Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20 one of the most well known verses in the Bible. Take a look with me.
20I 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. (Galatians 2:20 NIV)
To be crucified with Christ means that we are dead. Our entire orientation to live life as we see fit has been nailed to the cross. Paul says that now he lives by faith in the Son of God. Paul has no confidence in his ability or his good deeds to make him right with God. Paul’s passion is this: Christ lives in us!
His will is to be manifest in our lives over our will. His life is to be witnessed by those around us rather than the life we lived before we came to know Jesus. Wouldn’t it be great if, when we surrendered our lives to Christ, that our will and desires really were put to death? I’m sure you are like me and each and every day you struggle with your flesh, your desires, and what you would like to see happen in your life. I have come to discover something in the years that I have known Christ as my Savior. The more I die – the more He lives. John said, “He must increase and I must decrease.” That is so true for you and me. His will is to show His life through you and me. Our coming to Christ is marked by faith and our abiding in Christ throughout the rest of our lives is marked by faith as well. Faith, not in our ability to do what’s right, but in the finished work of Jesus Christ upon Calvary’s cross.
I can well remember the day when I accepted Christ as my Lord and Savior. I knew I possessed absolutely nothing that would be appealing to God and cause me to catch His attention. I knew then that it was His grace alone that had reached out to me and drawn me to Himself. I knew that it was His action and nothing I had done that had saved me.
The problem is that the longer we walk with the Lord and the more we learn, the more tempted we are to begin to believe that we are getting the hang of the Christian life. We begin to focus on the stepping-stones that God has set before us that have helped to guide our lives and deepen our understanding of God. We have a quiet time with God. We attend church and Sunday morning Bible study. We tithe. We know the hymns without looking in the hymnbook. We go to Bible College or Seminary. We attend FCA at school. We go on mission trips with the youth group. We read our Bible. We listen to Christian music. We begin to draw our worth, our value, from what we do rather than the fact that we are still sinners saved by grace. We derive our identity from the Christian accessories we have accumulated instead of His Sovereign hand of mercy that keeps us.
As a result of all of this we begin to look down upon others around us who aren’t as “righteous” as we are. We pull out of our driveway on Sunday morning and talk about the neighbor who sleeps in or attends First Church of the Eighteen Holes on Sunday morning. We question the faith of those who aren’t as demonstrative in their faith as we are. We wonder if folks are “saved” because they don’t act like us, talk like us, or pepper their conversations with “Amens,” or “Praise the Lord,” or Scripture quotations like we do.
We may never say these things out loud, but we know who we don’t want to be around. We avoid them like the Jews avoided the Gentile sinners. This leads us to an ever-shrinking crowd of friends and acquaintances and we Christians end up talking to ourselves! God help us!
My friend I don’t know what stepping-stones in your life you have built altars around, but I do know that God is calling you this very morning to take your hammer in hand and demolish ever stepping-stone that you have trusted in to make you more appealing to God. I believe that God has spoken to some of us today and shown us that we’ve been trusting in works of death, but it is time to surrender to a life of faith. God sent His Son so that we could step off of the stepping-stones of self-righteousness and follow the Living Stone with absolute surrender and passion.
If you have the courage to take that step this morning then you will join a great company of men, women, boys, and girls who have tossed their credentials to the wind and placed their faith in the Son of God who loved them and gave Himself for them.
One of those in the company of grace is a man you might know. After Jesus shared His last meal with His followers He told them that He was going to be handed over to men who would kill Him. Jesus said that they would scatter like sheep when all of this took place. This poor man, this noble man, spoke up and said, “Never! I will die with You before I will ever forsake You.” Let me read you the story found in Mark 14.
26When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. 27″You will all fall away,” Jesus told them, “for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep will be scattered.’ 28But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.” 29Peter declared, “Even if all fall away, I will not.” 30″I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “today-yes, tonight-before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.” 31But Peter insisted emphatically, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the others said the same. (Mark 14:26-31 NIV)
Peter would never forsake the Lord. Oh, the other disciples would probably fail Jesus, but Peter was cut from a different bolt of cloth. He was faithful! He was committed! That rooster crowed like he had never crowed before when Peter’s faithfulness failed…and he was a failure. Peter’s good intentions fell short like my good intentions so often fall short.
The Lord taught Peter over and over during his life that he couldn’t trust in his good deeds to get him to Heaven. We just studied one of the other painful lessons Peter had to go through when he shrunk back and pulled away from the Gentiles. Vacillating between the Cross of liberation and the stepping-stones of good works Peter failed again and again. It’s impossible to cling to the Cross with an armload of stepping-stones my friend. The day came when Peter made his big break. He renounced every stepping-stone and threw himself upon the Cross of his crucified Savior. Peter wrote these words,
4As you come to him, the living Stone-rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him-5you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ. 6For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” (1 Peter 2:4-6 NIV)
I pray today that you will leave the stepping stones of your own self-righteousness and throw yourself upon the Living Stone, rejected by men, but cherished and worshipped by all whao know they don’t have what it takes to present themselves to God. Won’t you invite Him in?