Monday, February 12, 2007

Falling from grace: A Sermon preached in Magheralin Parish Church on 11th February 2007. Galatians 5:2-10

In these days of celebrity exposure on TV and magazines, we’re all too familiar with the fall from grace. Someone who was popular, or important, or influential does something or says something, and suddenly, they are dropped, ignored and forgotten. Think of Kate Moss, after the drugs scandal, or Jade Goody after her alleged racism on Big Brother. They’re out in the wilderness, and their position is lost.

As we come to our passage in Galatians 5, Paul warns his readers in verse 4: ‘you have fallen away from grace.’ So what does Paul mean when he says that they have fallen from grace? How did they get into that position, and what were the alternatives? And what will it mean for us? Is there a danger that we could fall away from grace?

So let’s first see what Paul means when he says that the Galatians have fallen away from grace. It is certainly a serious situation – to fall away, or remove yourself from grace – from God’s favour. Are we right to think that it is a position of being removed from God’s favour? Yes – look at verse 4 again. Not only does Paul describe it is falling away from grace, he also sees them as being ‘alienated from Christ.’

Remember, these are Christians Paul is writing to. This is a terribly serious situation – no wonder Paul uses such strong language right through the letter. If you know Galatians at all, you’ll have come across his outbursts, cursing those who try to preach a different gospel (1:8-9), his confrontation with Peter (2:11-14), his words in 3:1 (‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’). Then just after our passage ends, he exclaims that he wishes that ‘those agitators… would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!’ (5:12).

So how did the Galatians get into this position? Why does Paul say they have fallen from grace? Look to verse 4 again – ‘You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.’ (5:4). The foolish Galatians were trying to be justified by law. So what does that mean? Quite simply, they were trying to be right with God by keeping the law. Verses 2 and 3 point us towards circumcision – as symbolising the law.

It seems that after Paul had visited Galatia and preached the gospel there (and moved on), other teachers came in to the church who were teaching something different. No longer was it salvation by faith alone, as Paul had taught. They were teaching that to be right with God, the Gentiles had to first become Jews before becoming Christians. And so, they insisted on circumcision for the Galatians, in order to be right with God.

Imagine you were a Christian in Galatia. Paul had taught them the basics of the faith and moved on. Then the other teachers arrived – maybe even claiming to have connections to the church in Jerusalem – who say that you have to submit to the Jewish customs and law in order to be fully right with God. Well, what do you do? You’ve no idea where Paul is now – he could be in Philippi or Thessalonica or Corinth… And you want to make sure you’re doing it right. So the Galatians bought into the new teachers.

But now Paul has heard of it, and he’s furious! Cue the curses and outbursts. Why is he so furious? Well, it’s simply the case that the Galatians were putting their hope and confidence in something other than Jesus. Their focus and attention was shifting from Christ alone, to Christ plus circumcision.

If they were hoping to be made right with God through the law (and through circumcision), then they weren’t looking to Jesus alone for their salvation. Call it an insurance package or whatever – you know, just to make sure, we’ll cover all bases and all possibilities for salvation – but really, it was to their condemnation and shame.

Why was this? Well, because if they are circumcised, then Christ is of no value to them. Christ won’t make any difference to them, because their confidence is in their circumcision. And yet, they’re not in a good position – verse 3 says that ‘every man who lets himself be circumcised … is required to obey the whole law.’ By submitting to the law, they were required to obey all of it, if they aimed to be right with God through it.

Yet they could never achieve this. No one (except for Jesus), could keep the whole law. So if they were trusting in their law-keeping, then they were condemned already. Remember what James said – ‘For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it’ (James 2:10).

The Galatians were tempted by the Jesus plus circumcision package of the false teachers. Perhaps they were looking for that extra security or assurance. But in reality, they had exchanged freedom in Christ for the slavery of the Law. Isn’t that the point of 5:1, which we didn’t read tonight, but provides a key to the passage: ‘It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.’

The Galatians had been under the slavery of sin. Jesus then freed them through his death on the cross for them, and by their coming to faith in him. But now they were exchanging their freedom in Christ for a new slavery under the law.

How does this affect us today? After all, we don’t have teachers going about saying that we need to submit to circumcision and the Jewish law and customs to be saved. That particular testing isn’t a problem to the modern church. I’m not sure it would gain much popularity anyway, if teachers came today preaching the need for circumcision.

Yet we face similar problems. For the Galatians, the teaching was implying that to be saved, they had to trust in Jesus and be circumcised. It was ‘Gospel Plus’. Trust in Jesus, yes, but you also have to fulfil all these other criteria too. What do we see around us in churches and denominations? Fill in the sentence – to be saved, you must trust in Jesus and …… - abstain from alcohol, or vote unionist, or whatever.

Are there problems with this approach? Yes, absolutely! The offer of free salvation in Christ becomes perverted and distorted to fit the other agendas of the individuals concerned. Suddenly, the gospel isn’t a free offer, when the other conditions (which may not be biblical) are added to it. And so easily, the focus can shift from faith in Jesus to that external thing which is noticeable.

But there’s another issue that arises as we seek to apply this passage today. The Galatians had been confused and led astray by the teaching they had received. Look at verse 7: ‘You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?’ It was their teachers who had cut in on them – that image of the athlete running, and someone getting in their way, diverting them. Paul is rightly harsh on the false teachers – affirming that they will pay the penalty (10).

And yet the Galatians were partly to blame for being led astray. I’m not saying that there’s a possibility of being led astray by those who teach here – not even when your new curate arrives – but how careful are you to check what you are being taught? Do you accept what is said from the pulpit without thinking, or do you check that it is what the passage is saying, and in line with the Scriptures?

Having looked at the position the Galatians were in – that of having fallen from grace; and considered how they had ended up in that situation – we should ask – was there an alternative? What was Paul urging on the Galatians?

Look again at verse 4, and read on into 5. In 4, we see ‘you’ and ‘you’, whereas in 5 we see ‘we’ and ‘we’. There’s a change and a contrast there, ushered in by the first word of verse 5: ‘but’. Let’s read it – ‘You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (4-6).

What is the alternative Paul urges? Rather than being alienated from Christ, the true believer is ‘in Christ Jesus’. Rather than trying to be justified, there is the hope and eager expectation for the true righteousness. Rather than working for justification by the law, their righteousness comes from faith. Rather than being right with God through something done to the flesh, the true believer is right with God through the Spirit.

So what is the position we should be aiming for? ‘For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love’ (6).

Paul has already been arguing that circumcision has no value – but he goes further here to say that being uncircumcised is no better. Just as those who were circumcised had nothing to boast about, so those who hadn’t been circumcised had nothing to boast about. Tom Wright suggests that the word for ‘value’ can also mean power – there’s no power in being circumcised or not being circumcised.

So to return to our earlier application of seeing other churches where we might see ‘Gospel Plus’ in operation – it won’t do us any good to boast that we aren’t like that, or that we don’t make additional demands.

The only thing that counts, Paul tells us is this: ‘faith expressing itself through love.’ How are we made right with God? Through faith. But it isn’t a dry intellectualism – in simply assenting to a series of beliefs. No, the faith is living and active – expressing itself in love. Being seen by what it does.

We don’t do the works to be saved. But the works we do show that we have been saved by faith. This is, for Paul, the key to Christian living – as he will go on in the rest of the chapter to write of the fruit of our faith – the fruit of the Spirit, those things that can be seen and are evidences of our faith – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

So having seen the options available to the Galatians, we have to ask – what way are we going? Are we, like the Galatians running well? Will we continue to run well, not allowing anyone to cut in on us? How do we keep it going? Let’s pray that we will continue to have faith expressing itself through love, rather than trusting in any sort of Gospel-plus system.

If you’re still in slavery to your sins, and have never known freedom, then Christ offers freedom to you tonight, as verse one reminds us. Come to him, and be set free! And if you do know Christ, and have been freed by him, then I urge you to continue to run well, in freedom.

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