Law or Promise?

How reliable are promises? When God makes a promise, you can count on it! It won’t change. In Galatians 3:17–18 Paul contrasts two ways of salvation. The teachers in Galatia saw human efforts at keeping the law as the way to God’s favor. But Paul points you to the unshakeable promise of God.

God has made a gracious promise of salvation. God promised salvation to Abraham. God’s promise is unchangeable, v. 15. Paul begins with the concept of the covenant, an idea that is basic to Scripture. The Old Testament uses the word berith for covenant, a sovereign administration of law and grace. The New Testament term originally refers to a will, but also translates the Old Testament term. A human will, properly established is (or is supposed to be) unchangeable. How much more unchangeable is God’s covenant! That promise has its focus in Christ, v. 16. God made his covenant with Abraham. It included the land, an heir, and being a blessing to the nations, but the heart of it was to be a God to Abraham and his descendants. The God whose word is always truth underlines the certainty of his promise by taking an oath as he reassures Abraham of his covenantal faithfulness. The reference to Genesis 12:7 and the distinction between singular an plural stresses the authority and verbal accuracy of Scripture. “Seed” can be collective, but in this case it has its focus in one person, not just Issac, but ultimately on the Messiah, Jesus Christ. This promise is part of a covenant relationship, v. 17a, and thus it is permanent. Continue reading

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Abraham, the Man of Faith

DNA testing has become a popular way of tracing ancestry. The false teachers in Galatia considered descent from Abraham important. In Galatians 3:9 Paul tells you the good news that the true descendants of Abraham are those who share in his faith—regardless of their physical ancestry.

Abraham believed God. Abraham was justified by faith. The Judaizers had appealed to Abraham’s example. Their pride lay in being Abraham’s children, John 8:33. Indeed, Abraham was the father of the Old Testament people of God. To him, in the history of redemption God gave circumcision as the sign of the covenant. Therefore, said these teachers, you must be circumcised in order to be God’s people. But, Paul counters, Abraham was not justified by what he did. The Old Testament covenant sign was important (as baptism is today), but as a sign and seal, not as a work that earns righteousness, Romans 4:11. God reckoned Abraham’s faith as righteousness, Genesis 15:6. This imputation (reckoning to an account) is described in Romans 4. All Abraham’s life was by faith: the promise of the land, his son, and the sacrifice of that son. Continue reading

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Bewitched!

Why this sermon title? Not because this is the last Sunday before Halloween! Rather, in Galatians 3:1-5, Paul uses the term figuratively, showing how foolish the Galatians were to be turning away from the Christ who had been so clearly preached to them. Paul can’t talk about Christ and his work without also talking about the Spirit.

Who bewitched you? Christ was crucified. You know that Christ died. Christ had been portrayed (clearly set forth) as crucified. Paul has in mind the preaching he had done in Galatia. Billboards are obvious because they seek to communicate. Ancient Pompeii had billboards painted on walls. That is the kind of clarity with which Christ’s death had been presented. Christ’s death is a crucial part of his work. Paul is concerned about the way the Galatian Christians are living, but he deals with that problem by emphasizing doctrine. There is no dichotomy between doctrine and evangelism. Paul has not hesitated to remind the Galatians of the substitutionary atonement, Galatians 1:4; 2:20. Paul had not literally painted a picture for the Galatians, but his teaching was so clear that the Galatians could see Christ as crucified. Continue reading

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Alive in Christ!

How important is the resurrection of Jesus Christ? How often do you think of yourself as having been resurrected? In Galatians 2:20 Paul focuses no only on the death of Christ, but also his resurrection. He ties it to his life and, by implication, to your life as well.

You died with Christ. You are dead to the law. Don’t underestimate these words. Paul is saying more than that you are dead to the ceremonial law. You are dead to any kind of law-works salvation, whether it is the ceremonies of the Judiazing teachers in Galatia, or the decisionism of some modern evangelism, or the salvation by good character that characterizes modern American suburbia. The heart of the gospel, the principle of salvation by grace alone, is at stake here. “This verse is the key verse of the Epistle to the Galatians; it expresses the central thought of the Epistle. The Judaizers 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 to Christ’s completed work; you cannot do both; you cannot combine merit and grace; if justification even in slightest measure is through human merit, then Christ died in vain.’” (Machen’s Notes on Galatians, p. 161). Yet, Paul is not against the law of God. The law is important. It remains as the standard of conduct, Galatians 5:22; Romans 7:12. To be dead to the law involves being alive to Christ. Your death to the law happened when Christ died in your place. Paul is talking about Christ’s death, but can say “I died to the law,” Galatians 2:19. You are free from the penalty of the law, not because you have somehow removed yourself from the jurisdiction of the law, but because Christ died in your place, taking upon himself both your guilt and the penalty you earned. Continue reading

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Justified by Faith

Imagine a dispute between two of the apostles—and that in public! In Galatians 2:15–16 Paul gives what lies behind his strong rebuke of Peter, which he describes in the last half of Galatians 2.

You are not justified by observing the law. The question about justification arose because of Peter’s actions. Justification, as Paul uses the term here, refers to God declaring sinners not guilty, or just in his sight. We’ll come back to the concept in a few minutes. One of the reasons, a subordinate one, for Paul bringing up this conflict that had taken place in the past, was to emphasize that his apostleship was not dependent on the earlier apostles. Not only had his call as an apostle come directly from the Lord Jesus, but he was not subordinate to the other apostles. Acts 11 contains the account of the church expanding at Antioch to include Gentiles as Christians. And there the title “Christian” was first used. A huge barrier between Jews and Gentiles were the dietary laws of the Old Testament. In Acts 10 you have the record of the vision the Lord gave Peter to show him that he could go to the home of the Gentile centurion, Cornelius. In Antioch, Peter first ate with Gentile Christians, but when some Christians from Jerusalem arrived, he withdrew, and ate only with Jewish Christians. (The men coming from James does not imply that James approved their actions.) Paul is concerned about Peter’s action, strongly enough concerned to rebuke him to his face. While we must pursue the peace of the church, it is not peace at any price. Some sins and errors are serious enough to warrant public rebuke. Not only was the unity of the church threatened, but the truth of the gospel was at stake. “A man who tries to earn his salvation, or to do anything towards earning it, has, according to Paul, done despite to the free grace of God.” (J. Gresham Machen, Machen’s Notes on Galatians, p. 143). Continue reading

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