Read This Page in My Language
Sermon: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Pentecost 6 – July 21, 2019 – Rev. Steven J. Radunzel
From the time of Abraham, who lived about 4000 years ago, it’s thought-provoking that approximately every 500 years there occurs a major, history-altering event in God’s relationship with his Old Testament people and then with the New Testament Church. The LORD called Abraham and made his promises to him around 2000 B.C. A little more than 500 years later Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt to the Promised Land. Go forward another 500 years to 1000 B.C. and the nation of Israel is at its zenith under the leadership of King David and King Solomon. At around 500 B.C. a remnant of the Jewish people returned from Babylon and rebuilt the temple. And then of course 500 years later Jesus was born.
You might note the same 500 year pattern in New Testament history as well. Around A.D. 500 Christianity, after it had ascended as the official and only allowable religion in the Roman Empire, ironically began to descend into corruption and abusive behavior. Around A.D. 1000 there was a major split between the Western church and the Eastern church, that is, the Orthodox church which of course remains today. Five hundred years later came the Reformation, essentially fracturing the Western church, the Roman Catholic Church, creating the Lutheran Church and several Protestant denominations.
About a year and a half ago we celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. That might indicate that we’re a little overdue for another one of those history-altering events. But before we leave the Reformation in the past we might ask today what was the Reformation all about? We could say that theologically the Reformation was about justification by grace alone through faith alone. But we can even more precisely say that the ultimate theological issue of the Reformation was the proper, or biblical, relationship between faith and good works.
The Apostle Paul lived 1500 years before the Reformation, but already in his letters, and particularly in our text today from Galatians, he writes about that crucial relationship between faith and good works. His words encourage us today to
LIVE LIKE YOU’RE FREE FROM SIN – BECAUSE YOU ARE!
Galatia was a province in the central part of present day Turkey. Paul traveled there on his 1st missionary journey establishing Christian congregation among Jewish believers. Not too long after Paul had left these congregations Jewish teachers came to Galatia teaching that, while it was necessary to have faith in Jesus, it also remained necessary for new Christians, particularly Gentile believers, to uphold the Old Testament Law of Moses, particularly circumcision.
Do you understand what was so critically wrong with that teaching? At first you might think there’s nothing wrong with teaching people to uphold the Law of Moses. The Galatian Christians certainly, and sadly, didn’t see the problem. But Paul saw the problem, and he was appalled. These Jewish teachers, called Judaizers, were really saying that faith alone in Jesus Christ was not enough to save you. You also had to satisfactorily keep the Law of Moses. These false teachers were confusing law and gospel. They were not correctly distinguishing between faith and works. They didn’t understand the crucial and biblical relationship between faith and good works, what we already identified as the critical issue in Reformation theology.
Paul was so upset that he wrote this letter to the Galatians and seriously scolded them for being so foolish to listen to the teaching of the Judaizers and forget all about justification by grace alone through faith alone. He spends the first four chapters of this six chapter book reteaching them, and us, that we are saved simply and only by faith in Jesus Christ. In other words because of Jesus’ holy life and innocent death on the cross God has declared sinners justified, not guilty of their sin. Sinners are personally justified and saved when they believe this truth about Jesus Christ. And that salvation is by faith alone, absolutely, and not even partly because of keeping the Law of Moses or the Ten Commandments or because of any good works or actions.
This teaching of the Bible about our eternal salvation was the teaching that Martin Luther and other reformers rediscovered in the Reformation. It was a teaching that properly distinguished the law from the gospel. It once again made clear the relationship between faith and good works. You and I are justified, declared not guilty and free from sin, only because God the Father declared us justified on Jesus’ account. That justification and eternal salvation is our personal possession when we believe that Jesus is our Savior.
In those first four chapters of Galatians Paul teaches us what God has graciously done to save us from our sins. In chapter 5 he begins to talk about how we are to live our lives as believing Christians. He begins to talk about what we do, our good works. Or we might say in the first four chapters of Galatians Paul writes about saving faith. In chapters 5 and 6 he talks about good works, how we are to live. Like a skilled theologian, he clearly makes the proper distinction between faith and good works, the proper relationship between faith and good works.
So he begins in chapter five, in the words of our text, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not allow anyone to put the yoke of slavery on you again.” In other words God forgave them and us, justified them and us, set the Galatians and us free from sin and guilt. God forgave us our sins. Now Paul told them not to go back to the faith-destroying idea that they were saved even partly by their good works. That was a spiritual yoke of slavery.
But Paul had more to tell them. It’s not that the Galatians were not supposed to do good works. As a matter of fact they were to do good works and live as godly Christians. Paul wrote, “After all, brothers, you were called to freedom. Only do not use your freedom as a starting point for your sinful flesh [‘or as freedom to indulge the sinful nature’]. Rather, serve one another through love.” In other words Paul was telling them, “You have been set free from sin and guilt. You’re justified. You’re saved. But don’t use that freedom now to just carelessly sin, to live any way you want to.”
Paul really nails down this distinction between faith and good works most precisely in his letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 2 he writes words that many of us have memorized: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” Note how Paul specifically emphasizes that we’re saved by faith alone and not by works, but then he immediately follows up those words with these: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” In other words God didn’t save us and free us from sin by our good works, but he saved us for the purpose of doing good works that praise and thank God for salvation.
Let me put it this way: Are you motivated to do good works and live a godly life so that God will save you, or, are you motivated to do good works and live a godly life because God has already saved you? If you understand Paul correctly you understand that the second part of that question is the true part: We Christians are motivated to do good works and live godly lives because God has already saved us.
Professing Christians today, all of us, need to relearn, review, and embrace this teaching and live by it as much as the Galatian Christians did, as much as Christians in the Reformation, as much as Christians anytime in history. It has become way too easy to excuse sin, to use the sinful nature as an excuse, to carelessly sin, to indulge the sinful nature but not recognize how serious sin is or what an offense it is to God. It’s way too easy to sin and thoughtlessly and thanklessly say, “I believe in Jesus,” or “God forgives me,” or “I’m just a weak sinner. So is everybody else.”
Paul leaves no room for those deadly excuses. “What I am saying is this: Walk by the spirit, and you will not carry out what the sinful flesh desires. For the sinful flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit, and the spirit what is contrary to the sinful flesh.” Paul is actually telling us something here that we already know, and we know it by experience. As Christians we have a new, believing, and holy nature raised up in baptism. We also still have the old sinful, unbelieving nature that we were born with. And we painfully know that they’re in constant conflict with each other. These two natures make the Christian life a real struggle.
Paul lists a number of the sins of the sinful nature: “Now the works of the sinful flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, complete lack of restraint, idolatry, sorcery, hatred, discord, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissensions, heresies, envy, murders, drunkenness, orgies and other things similar to these.” Sound familiar? Paul could condemn America in 2019 for the same sins. And he warns us all: “I warn you, just as I also warned you before, that those who continue to do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
But then he adds, “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” He even adds the extreme understatement: “Against such things there is no law.”
Paul’s admonition is clear. Live by the spirit. Live according to your new nature. Make the effort to live a godly life. Every Christian, every day, needs to stop, take a step back, look at their life, repent of yesterday’s sins, and say, “Today I’m going to make the effort to live by my new nature, to do those fruits of the spirit, to live a godly life.” And Paul gives us the encouragement to do that very thing: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the spirit, let us also walk in step with the spirit.” Keep crucifying your sinful nature. Keep drowning it each day in the waters of your baptism. And let your new and holy nature rise to the surface. Feed it on the gospel, and let it live.
It’s easy to be justified. Jesus already did that for us. He forgave us, justified us, and set us free from sin and guilt. Make the effort now to do good works to thank God, to live a godly life, to love God and love your neighbor. Live like you’re free from sin – because you are! Amen.