Justification is by faith alone (Gal. 2:15-21)

The following is the sermon from this past Sunday evening service, November 25, 2012.

Justification is by faith alone

(Gal. 2:15-21)

The bible can basically be broken down into two parts or moods: law and gospel.  The law tells us what God requires of us, while the gospel tells us what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.  When it comes to our right standing before God – what the bible calls justification – the law and the gospel are opposed to each other.  They produce radically different outcomes.  Trying to keep the law, summed up in the Ten Commandments, cannot make a sinner right before God.  It only produces spiritual death.  While having faith in Jesus Christ alone produces spiritual life.
This distinction is vital to a proper understanding of the bible and what it means to be a Christian.  And yet, there is nothing that we tend to complicate and confuse more. No matter how long you have been Christian or how serious you are about pleasing God, none of us escapes the temptation to gauge one’s acceptance before God based on keeping the law – even if just a little bit.  Our default mode, even as Christians is to trust in ourselves.  Why?  Because as sinners we naturallyprefer the law to the gospel: we prefer to “just do it”.  The law is written on our hearts or conscience, and it calls for action.  The gospel, on the other hand, is something that comes as good news from outside of us.  It is foreign news from God: a message we would never come up with.  It tells us to cease striving and rest because everything necessary for peace with God “has been done” – just believe it!  Yet, our faith is often weak and we are prideful, and therefore we don’t always believe this message from God.
Brothers and sisters, our natural tendency to confuse law and gospel is the struggle of the Christian life, and the greatest danger to the church and its ministry.  The bible bears ample witness to this fact.  One place that provides striking evidence of this is the book of Galatians.  Here, Paul writes to Christians in the church at Galatia who are in grave danger at the hands of Jewish false teachers who are teaching that justification comes through keeping the law.  Therefore, he admonishes the church to return to the gospel of grace.
In Acts 13-14, we learn of Paul’s first missionary journey to the southern part of Galatia where he and Barnabas preached the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles.  However, since then certain Jewish Christians had perverted the gospel by mixing it with the law.  Paul distinguishes them from the rest of the congregation as false teachers or Judaizers.  In fact, he calls down nothing short of a curse upon them.  So subtle and powerful was the influence of these false teachers that we read in Galatians 2:11-14 that even Peter was tempted to believe the law as necessary for being right with God.  Friends, this fact should serve as a warning to us lest we think we are better than Peter, one of Christ’s foremost disciples.  Let us all therefore humble ourselves and heed Paul’s words – God’s Word of life – to us this evening.  * What the Holy Spirit wants to teach us from Gal 2.15-21 is that our justification before God is by faith alone in Christ alone, and not by the works of the law. *
Justification by faith and not by works (vv15-16)
Paul’s words in vv15-21 can perhaps be described as re-laying the granite foundation of justification for a church that has been sinking in the quicksand of false teaching.  In v15, Paul clears the way for the first layer of granite upon which he will build the rest of his argument.  He begins by affirming that he and Peter are like the false teachers in that they too are Jews.  Like God’s OT people, they too have enjoyed special treatment by virtue of their physical line of descent.  Remember, the Jews were God’s set apart and “holy” people, in contrast to Gentiles who have been strangers to God’s covenant, and were therefore considered by the Judaizers as unholy or unclean.  But Paul is interested in going beyond his Jewish ethnicity and his privileged OT background, which are things of the past.
Yes, Paul is an ethnic Jew by birth and this counts for something in this world.  But when it comes to being right with God, it counts for nothing.  Therefore, Paul is wholly unimpressed with the false teachers and their smug system of “do it yourself” religion, which ranged from circumcision to endless rules for bodily cleanliness, otherwise known as the OT ceremonial law.  Paul will have none of it in the church because he knows holy God cannot endure it.  The fundamental point that runs through this entire passage and the whole book of Galatians for that matter is this: When it comes to being right with God, he does not want our “good” works, whether we are Jewish or not, whether we are born into a so-called Christian nation, or a Christian family or not.  Rather, he wants us to trust in Jesus who has worked on our behalf so that our sins can be forgiven.
Hence, that base slab of granite slides irreversibly into place in v16 with the words: YET, we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Christ.  Here Paul explicitly introduces the language of justification.  Now we must understand that justification – being forgiven by God – is a legal and moral matter.  What this means is that because God is perfectly righteous and just, he can only accept those who are perfectly holy.  In other words, he will only enter into an eternal relationship with those who are perfectly obedient to his law.  So, the scene that Paul is creating for us here is something like this.  Paul is putting the false teachers on trial in God’s courtroom of justice with rest of the church looking on from the gallery, including you and I.  The Judaizers are being judged for taking the law into their own hands and are defending themselves before God on the basis that they can “do it.”  In their pride, they believe they have acceptable evidence to prove that they are doers of God’s law, and therefore acquitted of guilt before God on the basis of their works.
But Paul knows that the Judiazers and the evidence of their religious efforts will never survive God’s judgment.  Why?  For one, “works of the law” include Jewish ceremonial laws that are no longer applicable to Christians in the NT.  Therefore, the false teachers are focusing on keeping rules that were for the OT only.  What is more, the Judaizers fail to understand that “works of the law” extend beyond ceremonial laws to include God’s moral law that is summed up in the Ten Commandments.  The moral law calls us to love God with all our heart, soul strength, and our neighbor as ourselves.  The moral law of God cuts right to the heart and demands everything of us: total obedience from our heart and our hands.  God’s law demands, exacts, will settle for nothing less than perfect, perpetual obedience.  Holy God will accept nothing less.  So, how do the false teachers shape up?  Pathetically!  Why?  Because they can do not better than any sinner since the Fall of man, which is to offer up works corrupted by sin that don’t even start to measure up to God’s holy bar of justice. Therefore, the law leaves all mankind guilty as charged, separated from God and spiritually dead.
This is why Paul is so emphatic that justification does not come through keeping the law, but “through faith in Jesus Christ.”  Do you see how the two different “grounds” for being right with God – obedience to the law and faith in Jesus – cannot be more diametrically opposed to each other?  Instead of working to satisfy God, Paul calls us to receive and rest upon the works of another who did satisfy God, which is Jesus Christ.  Doesn’t it seem naturally absurd?  Think about it?  The world turns on the basis that reward follows human effort and bad things come to those who don’t perform well.  And our conscience confirms this.  But the gospel turns this thinking on its head!  God calls us to stop working, and rather believe and trust.  The gospel message tells us to stop looking within ourselves, but instead by faith look outward to Jesus Christ alone for our salvation.
Death and damnation through the law (vv17-19)
So, in v16 Paul has put back in place the foundational slab of gospel granite under the feet of the Galatians who have been sinking in the quicksand of false teaching.  Are your feet perhaps slipping?  Are you perhaps sinking because you are thinking too highly of your own good deeds and at the same time thinking too lowly of the demands of God’s law?  Have you perhaps never repented of your sins and put your trust in Jesus?
In vv17-18, Paul continues to reinforce his foundational defense of justification by faith alone by clearing up another point of confusion on how law and gospel relate to one another.  His particular concern in these two verses is how the lawworks.  In v17 Paul addresses one of the errors of the false teachers by forcing them to consider their faulty logic in light of God’s Word.  He reasons as follows.  If Paul and Peter – Jews – have turned their backs on “works of the law” for justification in Jesus, and in doing so show that they are no better than dirty Gentile sinners, does this, as the Judaizers claim, make Jesus the author of sin? (x2) In other words, because Paul’s choice to follow Jesus makes out so-called “holy” Jews to be no better than filthy Gentile sinners, does this then make Jesus a “servant of sin”?   Has Jesus become the aggravator or provoker of sin?  Paul states emphatically: “Certainly not!”
But how is this so?  In v18 Paul explains from his own ministry as an Apostle.   Remember, once upon a time Paul persecuted the church because he believed that keeping the Jewish law, as opposed to believing the gospel, made him right with God.  Philippians 2 tells us that Paul excelled all his peers in observing the Old Testament law.  And yet all this changed with Paul’s conversion experience on the Road to Damascus.  Since then Paul’s life ambition and ministry to the church has been to tear down the faulty foundation of “works of the law” and replace it with the granite foundation of the gospel.  Therefore, Paul reasons that if he were to rebuild the sandcastle of works that he had torn down, he would “prove himself to be the transgressor or sinner.”  Why?  Because in so doing he would be going back to his pre-gospel days, in which he was a minister of the law and not the gospel!  This would mean he and the rest of the world would be left helplessly exposed as sinners and without hope.  This would make Paul the minister of sin and death.  But this conclusion is ridiculous to Paul.  Hence, the false teachers are wrong on two accounts: neither Jesus nor Paul is the author and aggravator of sin.  So, who or what is?
Paul provides the answer in v19: “For through the law, I died to the law, so that I might live to Christ.”  Here again Paul speaks from his own experience, an experience of the Holy Spirit common to all Christians, but all too easily obscured by our pride.  Basically Paul says that he came to know himself to be a sinner through the law.  Therefore, it is not Jesus or Paul, but the law that exposes sin in us.  It is the law, with its relentless expectation of perfect obedience that penetrates right to the heart, which provokes us to sin.  The law tells us what to do, but we cannot do it because we are sinners.
Through the law, Paul realized he was guilty as charged in God’s courtroom of justice.  The law stripped him of his fig-leaves of self-righteousness so that he stood filthy before God on account of his sin – with no personal defense.  As a result, Paul “died to the law” as a means of justifying himself before God.  Paul gave up on trying to use the law to become right with God.  Why?  Because it exposed nothing but sin and death in him.  Contrary to the false teachers, Paul claims that his knowledge of sin and his death through the law, actually led him to find life in God.
Do you see the dramatic way in which Paul has turned the tables on the self-assured false teachers?  They thought that they could find spiritual life in the law, and therefore promoted it zealously in the church.  But in reality they were the hopeless transgressors and ministers of death and condemnation.  They had failed to understand the proper role of the law in justification.  For Paul argues in Galatians 3 that the law is like a teacher or schoolmaster that exposes sin us and drives us out of ourselves: so that we might truly “live to God.”  The law shows us the deadness of our own works so that we might find eternal life in Jesus Christ.
Life and justification through Christ (vv20-21)
So if Paul has given up on the law and has condemned the false teachers for trusting in it for forgiveness, how exactly has God dealt with the problem sin in us that the law reveals?  Paul tells us in v20.  Our problem of sin has been overcome because we have “been crucified with Christ.”  At the cross Jesus endured the wrath and judgment of God due for our sin.  He was condemned for our guilt and cursed for our lawbreaking.  And we, through the power of the Holy Spirit have become participants in Christ’s crucifixion by faith, and also in his resurrection unto life.  For Paul goes on: “It is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me.”  For Christ did not remain under the power of death, but he was raised to new life at the right hand of God.  In his resurrection Jesus justified himself before the father.  He fulfilled his mission of keeping every last jot and tittle of the law and dying for the sins of mankind, and being raised in victory, thereby overcoming the power of sin and death.  Jesus has therefore become the source of life for sinners, for us.  This is why Paul can say, v20b, that “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.  And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself up for me.”
Friends, if you believe in Jesus this evening, Christ’s justification has become your justification, and therefore Christ’s life has become your life.  It is all of grace and not at all by works of the law.  This is Paul’s message to the Galatians, to us this evening, which cuts through our natural tendency to confuse law and gospel, and our impotent efforts to earn favor with God.  Are you still trusting in yourself to be right with God?  Do you think, perhaps very subtly that God might be impressed with your spiritual devotion and discipline, your love for your neighbor and your good deeds?  If you are, you are in danger of nullifying the grace of God.  For Paul says in v21, “if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.”  To trust in the law is to deny the gospel, and to go back under the law and its relentless demands that we can never meet and its damnation we can never endure.  This is sinking sand.
Let us rather renew our faith this evening in God’s Word from Paul, which is the granite of the gospel beneath our weak and faltering knees.  Let us find our rest anew in God’s free grace, and therefore cease working for our justification this day and forevermore.  For it is only once we believe that we have been forgiven in Christ alone that we can truly please God in our Spirit-empowered obedience to the law in faith and out of gratitude for his mercy.  Amen.
Simon Jooste
RCSS evening service, November 25, 2012