Sunday, October 22, 2017

Sermon: Galatians 3: 1-14 Freedom from the Law

In 1936, Dale Carnegie published one of the first self-help books. It contained a series of principles on how to handle and deal with people, how to get on in business and in the home. The title? ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People.’ The promise is that if you follow these steps, then you’ll succeed by making friends, and influencing people to come round to your way of thinking.

The very first principle is simply this: ‘Don’t criticise, condemn, or complain.’ That’s the first step to winning friends and influencing people. Well, as we open up to Galatians 3, it’s quite clear that Paul hadn’t read How to Win Friends and influence People. Don’t criticise, condemn or complain? ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’

I’m fairly sure Carnegie wouldn’t advise calling the people you’re trying to influence - fools! But this is to show us how desperate Paul is to bring them back from the brink, to shock them out of their foolishness. If you’re jumping into Galatians for the first time, or if you’re fairly new around here, don’t worry, we’re not in the habit of calling people fools as directly as Paul does here. The reason he does it is because he’s so concerned for the Galatians. Paul had originally planted the church there, but now they were listening to false teachers, who were urging them to observe the law and be circumcised in order to be truly accepted by God.

Paul has already showed them that listening to the false teachers would be dangerous and wrong, now he says that they’re being foolish. They haven’t thought things through. So he’s going to get them to think about their experience of becoming a Christian, and their experience of being a Christian. And so he sets a question before them in verse 2. Here’s what he wants to know: ‘Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?’

In asking the question, he’s saying that they do have the Holy Spirit living and working in them. If you’ve been listening carefully, you’ll have noticed that this is the first time the Spirit is mentioned in Galatians. But it won’t be the last time we hear of the Spirit. In fact, the presence of the Spirit in the Christian is a big deal for Paul, and should be a big deal for us as well. The third person of the Trinity, living and dwelling in us, giving us power to live for God and become more like the Lord Jesus. Over the next few weeks we’ll see more of the Spirit’s work in our lives, but for now, the question is, how did they receive the Spirit? Was it by observing the law, or by believing what they heard? What do you think? (It’s like Who Wants to be a Millionaire - a 50:50 chance of getting it right, or 100% chance if you know what Paul has been saying).

In verse 3, he asks them again are they foolish? After they began with the Spirit, were they now trying to finish off by their own efforts? As if the Holy Spirit is like jump leads when your car battery is flat - just get me going and I’ll be ok by myself after that. They had even suffered because they were Christians, because the Spirit was in them - was that all for nothing now that they were turning their back on the Spirit and trying to do it themselves?

Again Paul asks in verse 5: ‘Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?’

To help them answer the question, he points them to the Old Testament, and to Abraham. ‘Consider Abraham: He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Abraham (or Abram) was minding his own business, when God called him to follow him. God made promises to him - promises of descendants, and a land, and great blessing. And in Genesis 15, the promise of a son hadn’t yet come about. Abraham was 75 by now, and Sarah his wife was 65. But God told Abraham to go outside, and said that Abraham’s descendants would be as numerous as the stars.

Abraham believed the promise, and God credited to him as righteousness. Abraham took God at his word, and God counted Abraham as his friend. And Paul says that as Abraham looked at the stars, he was seeing his children pictured - he was seeing... us. Abraham was the man of faith, and we become his children by believing God’s promise as well.

That’s how the gospel was preached in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ The Gentiles are being justified by faith, we’re being made right with God in the same way that Abraham was - as we believe God’s word and depend on it.

Now, just to make absolutely sure that the Galatians know how they received the Spirit - by faith, not by the law - Paul shows the futility of depending on the law. You’ll notice that in verses 10-13, Paul quotes a bit from the Old Testament in each of those verses. ‘For it is written... because... on the contrary... for it is written.’ Paul’s argument is grounded in the Old Testament to show that it’s by faith, not by observing the law.

If you were to take Dale Carnegie’s principles on how to win friends and influence people, it wouldn’t matter if you only did one or two of them. You can take them or leave them. But with the Old Testament law, their demand was total commitment. Verse 10: ‘All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law’.

When I was studying at the Church of Ireland college, our degree was simply pass or fail. And the pass mark was... 40%. But with the law, the pass mark is 100%. Break any one of the 623 laws, and you’re under the curse. Just think of that - you’ve managed to keep 622 of them, but you fail in just one, and you may as well have broken all of them.

We just can’t do it; we can’t be justified by the law - declared in the right - because, (Hab 2:4) ‘the righteous will live by faith.’ This was the verse that caused Martin Luther to kickstart the Protestant Reformation. He had tried to be the best monk ever, in fact, he said later, ‘If ever a monk got to heaven by his monkery, it was I.’ But in trying to keep the rules of his monastery, he only knew despair, and failure. But when he realised that the righteous will live by faith, his life was transformed.

But the law doesn’t give comfort, only challenge - ‘The man who does these things will live by them’ (Lev 18:5) - to live by the law, you needed to perfectly obey it. but we can’t do that. Rather, we’re all under the curse. We’ve all sinned. We’ve all missed the mark. We can’t do it by ourselves.

We needed someone to do it for us. Someone to take away our curse, by suffering the effects of the curse himself. And that’s what Jesus has done for us - his gracious act of loving us and giving himself for us. We see it in verse 13:

‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”’

To redeem is to buy back. And Jesus redeemed us from the curse, by becoming a curse for us. He had perfectly obeyed the law; he didn’t deserve to die; yet he died so that we could live. He died under the curse of Deuteronomy 21:23 - cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree - the cross. This was the message Paul had portrayed to the Galatians (see verse 1). And the word of the crucified Christ is the message of freedom from the law, freedom from the curse that condemns us, freedom to live.

But Paul says something which might be a bit surprising in verse 14. How would you complete this sentence: Christ died so that ...?

Christ died so that we could be forgiven.
Christ died so that we can go to heaven.
Christ died so that we can have hope / peace / joy.

All those answers are right, and good, and they’re the answers I would have given. But Paul tells us something else that Christ died for in verse 14.

‘He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.’

Now that’s a big sentence. But what Paul says is that through the death of Jesus, Gentiles like you and me can receive the blessing given to Abraham. We can share in Abraham’s blessing through Jesus. And what is that blessing? ‘So that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.’

Paul asked the Galatians how they had received the Spirit - by law, or by believing? It is by faith that we receive the promised Holy Spirit. God’s plan was always that his people would have the Holy Spirit living in them, empowering them to live in God’s way. And through Jesus, the promise given to Abraham is fulfilled in you and me.

As you trust Jesus, you have the Holy Spirit living inside you, helping you to live. It would be entirely foolish to start with the Spirit and then go back to our own efforts. This blessing is for you today - for the first time as you come to Christ and trust him for salvation; - or as you realise what you have already received, but have never experienced.

Thelma Howard died in 1994, just before her 80th birthday. She lived simply, frugally, and when relatives gathered to have her will read, they didn’t expect much. But Thelma had been a housekeeper for the Walt Disney for more than 30 years. She was paid her wages, given free board and lodging, and for Christmas and birthday, she was given bits of paper. She didn’t understand them, but kept them all safely in a box. It turns out they were stocks and shares in Disney. And at the time of her death in 1994, her shares were worth $9.5 million. She had this great resource, yet she never realised, and never used it.

As you trust in Jesus, you are given something even more valuable than Disney shares. You are given the Holy Spirit, living in you, the fulfilment of the promise to Abraham, the outworking of Christ’s redemption. Realise your blessing today, receive your inheritance - given freely as you believe.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 22nd October 2017.

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