We’re going to begin a new series this morning going through the little letter of Galatians, possibly, Paul’s first letter. A brilliant letter, the favourite letter of Martin Luther, and quite an urgent letter because it appears that some wolves have come into the Galatian flock. And have brought in a very seductive message which you can see if you look at Chapter 1:6, is causing people to desert God and there’s nothing more serious than deserting God.
Paul is as outraged as he looks at this, as we would be if a pack of dogs came into the preschool. So, we’re going to try and follow this letter, and if you want to study it yourself, personally, or with your small group, I recommend the commentaries by Tim Keller or John Stott in, The Bible Speaks Today.
The Bible Speaks Today commentary on Galatians by John Stott, it’s the first Christian book I ever read, and it did me a power of good. I’ve never in my ministry preached through the letter of Galatians, and you hardly ever hear a series of sermons right through the letter of Galatians. I think part of the reason is that the whole idea of adding some weird ritual to your faith doesn’t appear to us on the surface to be a really significant issue.
But if we were to fall into the trap of thinking that Galatians is not an urgent letter for us, that would be a great trap to fall into, because in Galatians the heresy is not how to be saved, almost everybody here in this building knows how to be saved.
The heresy in Galatians is how do you get completed, how do you get established, how do you arrive?
The letter of Galatians is not facing a trap for non-Christians, it’s not coming along to non-Christians, and saying, “If you’re good you’ll be saved.” The letter of Galatians is coming to Christians and saying, “You know that you’re saved by faith, what’s changed in your mind?
Why has that been obscured and lost?” The question in Galatians is not how to get into the Christian life. The question in Galatians is how do you arrive, how do you secure your fellowship.
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The Galatian heretics are not so foolish as to turn up and tell people to do good work to be saved, but they are telling the Galatians they need to do one more thing to really be established.
To put it more subtly, it’s as if they’re saying to the Galatians, you’ve got your relationship with Christ, that’s great, but how are you going to keep it, how are you going to guarantee it, how are you going to make sure that you are one of God’s favoured people?
So, Galatians you see is not a mini Romans, when God put the New Testament together, He didn’t just give us a big Romans and a little Romans. Romans sets out the way of salvation, Galatians is for people who’ve left the way of salvation.
Romans is kind of like a proclamation, Galatians is like a protest, why did you leave? If you think this is irrelevant to us, I wonder why it is that the joy of salvation seems to disappear. Why does it happen that a person comes to know Christ and has great happiness even if their circumstances are dreadful?
Instead of growing in appreciation for Christ, they lose appreciation. Dr Llyod-Jones, late in life said this,
“If you’re to ask me to give a definition of a Christian, I should say that he is one who since believing in Christ, feels himself to be the happiest man in the world, and longs for everyone else to be equally happy.”
Now, you could read that and think that’s a very superficial way to speak of a Christian, but it’s actually a very profound way to speak of a Christian because if the joy of salvation, impacts, and invades and infiltrates your heart. Then you really do spill over into a whole lot of other areas of life, in terms of honouring God, and witnessing, and serving, and being a blessing to your home, and a joy to yourself.
Why is it that when God is powerfully at work, God’s people tend to get excited by the gospel and everything else seems pretty second-rate, but when we lose the significance of the gospel, we get excited about other things?
I wonder if any of you here this morning have lived through what people call special seasons of God’s blessing?
I wonder if you’ve actually experienced what it is to see a sort of a quickening of the church, where things accelerate, and people are getting converted, and people are coming, and keen to a very wonderful season to be in.
We can’t expect it or demand it because a lot of the Christian life is the ordinary walking by faith. But if you’ve been in any of those seasons of great blessing, you know that there come times where people are so aware of the wonder of the gospel that it overshadows everything else, and everything else looks small.
I don’t know what brings joy to an end for you, it could be that sin brings the joy of salvation to an end, or worldliness, or something like this.
But I wonder whether it isn’t a spiritual hijack that takes place in our Christian lives, where we get our vision blurred, and we don’t actually see the fortune that is Christ, we just can’t see it. Some spiritual cataracts have come over, and we can no longer see that He is actually the fortune, so there’s distortion.
I say this because I don’t think our progress as Christians is meant to get more boring. Salvation according to the Bible is not like a painting that sits on your wall, and you just get used to it, and you forget it. Salvation is not like a harbour view that you get used to. Salvation is much more like a perfect museum where you move from room to room, to room and it just goes on and on.
I’m hoping that you’ll pray for this little series and that you’ll pray that God will help me and us to say significant things, and to hear significant words, and to re-appreciate significant things so that the weight of the gospel takes its proper place and we feel it.
There are two things from Galatians 1:1-10, the first is what we’re going to call the wonder of the gospel, verses 1 to 5, and the second verses 6 to 10 is a terrible hijack, the wonder of the gospel, a terrible hijack.
The Wonder of the Gospel
Look at verse 1, see how Paul answers the wolves who’ve come in, who claim that they’re representing God, but Paul is not representing God.
Look at what he says, he says, Paul, an apostle, sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead. So, the apostle begins by saying, “I’m an Apostle, I was confronted by Jesus, I was changed by Jesus, I was commissioned by Jesus.”
If you ask the question, what’s the source of my Apostleship? It isn’t, says Paul, that I woke up in the morning and said, I think I’ll be an Apostle. Nor, says he, did some university give me the diploma or some denomination, it was Christ.
“And then if you want to know who the agency was, who actually contacted me, it wasn’t an angel, it wasn’t a bishop, it was Christ who confronted me.” And you’ll see the sequence in verse 1 is remarkable because he actually puts Jesus before the Father, which I think is his experience, “I came face to face with Jesus,” says the Apostle Paul. Now, friends, how can he say this? Now, why should we believe him? It’s easy to say, “Why should we believe him?” Well, he’s going to give us two proofs in the weeks to come, one of them in Chapter 1 from verse 11 to Chapter 2 verse 10, he’s going to show that he had no contact with Christians pretty well for the first 14 years of his Christian life.
When he eventually turned up to the Jerusalem headquarters and compared theological frameworks, they were identical. So that’s the first thing, he’s going to show us that he had no contact with Christians pretty well for the first 14 years. The second thing he’s going to show us is that when he preached the gospel of Jesus and his death, people came to life, the spirit entered into people’s hearts, the Galatians, for example, came alive. You can’t do that with human techniques. So, the Apostle is going to show that his non-contact and his ministry are proof of Christ. You cannot really understand the Apostle Paul because he’s so weak and he used to be a persecutor, except through Christ, and you can’t understand his ministry because he’s so weak except through Christ.
If you look at verses 3-5, you’ll see he summarizes the gospel so simply, and so beautifully, he puts it like this, “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins, to rescue us from the present evil age, to whom be glory in forever and ever.” “The Lord Jesus,” says Paul, “gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.”
That’s it, that’s the gospel.
See how cleverly he does this, he doesn’t give any instructions at all, he doesn’t want them to get the idea that there’s something that they should do to finish what Christ has already finished. There’s no secret initiation that’s going to take them from B to A or into the inner circle. Christ gave himself to rescue us, praise God.
If we’re to ask some questions of these few verses, and we ask the question, who organized this? Who orchestrated the gospel? The answer is God our Father and the Lord Jesus, the work of salvation is the work of God from start to finish. There’s nobody outside the Trinity who contributes anything to salvation.
The idea that we should do something to get in or to get on in our salvation, the idea that we should do something to win God over, and then the idea that we should do something to really win God over is insulting.
What did Jesus actually do? He gave himself for our sins, the sins which cannot be counted because they’re so many, and the sins which can’t be controlled or stopped, which affect us and infect us. The evil which is below the surface which can’t be seen on a Sunday morning, but is really there driving and wrecking so much in us, that evil, that sin, Jesus took for us. He so gave himself at the cross that he’s cancelled that evil, that sin, he’s cancelled the consequences. He’s carried the consequences himself at the cross. And therefore, you notice that substitution is at the heart of the gospel, he gave himself for us.
Some people hate substitution, they feel as though it’s insulting to them, but actually, substitution is essential because somebody has to pay, and Jesus was willing to pay.
And you notice this lovely little word, “For our sins,” what a lovely word that is, our sins. Not just the person across the pew, whose life seems to be really worthy but for the unworthy.
Luther says, “Learn this pronoun ‘our’, that this one syllable being believed may swallow up all your sins, and you may know that Christ has taken away the sins, not of certain men but yours.” And we do need to learn that little pronoun ‘our,’ otherwise what we’ll do is we’ll nod to the gospel intellectually, and then we’ll go on reassuring ourselves that our life and our behaviour is what’s going to really make us hopeful and secure for the future. And the result of this is that Jesus rescues us from the present evil age, the age, the age that we’re part of which is going to disappear when you become a Christian, it has no more leverage to make you do what it wants you to do, and one day it will have no more influence on you at all.
The worst thing in the world as far as Paul is concerned is to be in bondage, bondage to sin, guilt, death, and judgment. The best thing in the world is to be rescued from your sin, from death, judgment. That’s why as Gordon Fee says in his little commentary, “It doesn’t get better than this.”
So Paul in verse 5 bursts into praise and he says, “To whom be glory forever, and ever, and ever, Amen.”
I want to give you an example of somebody converted which comes from the Ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones when he was a young pastor in Wales, and he was in a working-class area in Wales. Martyn Lloyd-Jones was a young doctor, left medicine went into ministry, took a position in Wales and most of the time in the ’29, ’30, ’31 people were out of work and there was great deprivation, and sadness, and trouble.
In the middle of that, the gospel was preached, and there was a tremendous increase and blessing. I would just read you one story,
William Thomas or Staffordshire Bill, as he was commonly known was drinking at the working men’s club in Aberavon one Sunday afternoon. As usual, he was by himself, for even men who had few moral standards had long since learned to avoid his filthy language and general unpleasantness whenever they could.
In the words of Mrs Lloyd-Jones here he was drinking himself into his usual sodden condition, and as he afterwards confessed feeling low, hopeless, and depressed, trusting to the drink to drown those inward pangs and fears which sometimes disturbed him. There were several men in little groups of twos and threes in the club drinking and talking, and suddenly, he found himself listening at first involuntarily, but then anxiously to a conversation between two men at the table next to him.
He caught a complete sentence that was to change the whole of his life, ‘Yes,’ said one man to the other, ‘I was there last Sunday night, and the preacher said that nobody was hopeless, he said there was hope for everybody.’ Of the rest of the conversation, Staffordshire Bill heard nothing, but he said to himself, ‘If there’s hope for everybody, there’s hope for me. I’ll go to the chapel and see what that man says.’
Well, on the first Sunday he turned up and he was too nervous to go in, so he went home and waited another week. And on the second week he turned up, and the hymn singing had begun already, and so he felt that it would be too noticeable for him to walk in, and so he went home and he waited another week. And he turned up the third Sunday and he was at the gate, wandering nervously, what he should do, and one of the congregation welcomed him with the words, ‘Are you coming in Bill, come and sit with me.'”
That same night Staffordshire Bill passed from condemnation to life. ‘He found,’ said Mrs Lloyd-Jones, ‘that he could understand the things that were being said, he believed the gospel and his heart was flooded with a great peace, old things have passed away, all things have become new. The transformation in his face was remarkable.’
As he walked out that night someone said, ‘Mrs. Jones, this is Staffordshire Bill.’ I shall never forget the agonized look on his face, for he flinched as though he’d been struck a blow, and he said, ‘Oh, no, that is a bad old name for a bad old man, I am William Thomas now.’ Well, they’d seen William Thomas driving his fish cart and occasionally so drunk that he’d fallen backwards into the fish, as the horse pulled the cart home, but now at the age of 70 converted, he thought nothing of walking the 3 or 4 miles up to the church, twice on Sunday, prayer meetings, Wednesday night fellowship.
Staffordshire Bill had three years before he departed this life, Dr Lloyd-Jones arrived at his bedside, and it was clear from the high fever and the breathing that the end was not far off, he was dying from double pneumonia. And Mrs Lloyd-Jones has reported what the doctor told her, he was lying in his bed he was far away, but he responded to a greeting and a prayer.
He was obviously at peace and all the pieces of evidence of the old sinful violent life were smoothed out of a new and childlike face. The minutes passed and became an hour, and suddenly, the painful sound of the difficult breathing seemed to stop, the old man’s face was transformed to light and radiant. He sat up eagerly with outstretched arms and a beautiful smile on his face, as though welcoming his best of friends. And with that, he was gone to the land of pure delight where saints immortal reign.” That’s the gospel.
A Terrible Hijack
That’s our business at St. Thomas’s. That’s what binds us together at St. Thomas’s, it’s the gospel. And that is the beginning, the middle, and the end of the Christian life, the gospel, we keep going back to it, we keep standing on it, it gives us our reason, it saves us from being hijacked. But people have come into Galatia and have brought a hijack, and that’s our second brief point this morning verses 6 to 10. What do you say when somebody changes the gospel and the church becomes a human boasting club, of who’s in and who’s out, and who’s made it and who hasn’t made it, and who’s done this and who hasn’t done this. Well, you say something like verse 6, “I’m astonished that you’re so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ, and are turning to a different gospel.” Notice in verse 6, very, very shocking, he doesn’t say you’re just leaving the Creed, he doesn’t say you’re just leaving the doctrine, he doesn’t say you’re just leaving the local church, he says you’re leaving the one who called you. You’re leaving God when you leave the gospel.
If you add to the gospel you subtract from the gospel.
This is not falling into a sin which we all do, and we stay saved and we stay secure, but we learn to repent and walk back to Christ. This is leaving the gospel of salvation, no wonder Paul is upset.
Martin Luther, who was a very plain speaking man said, “A man may labour 10 years to see a church rightly taught, and then creeps in some mad brained idiot who overthrows the work, who would not be outraged?”
Paul puts it even more strongly in verses 8 to 9, he says, “If we or an angel change the gospel, well, let us be anathema, let us be cursed by God.”
And again, we ask the question, “How can Paul say this? How can Paul say that if an angel turns up and gives us another gospel, he Paul, can say to the angel, ‘You should be cursed,’ how can Paul do that?” Well, the answer is, one, he’s an Apostle, he’s been sent by Christ.
The second thing is, he’s got a very powerful gospel which changes people’s lives, and gospel and works don’t change lives and don’t enable progress. And the third thing is the logic.
If you add to the gospel you subtract from the gospel. If you add a third party to your marriage you subtract from your marriage. If you add a surgeon to your surgeon, you subtract from your confidence in your surgeon. If you add to the sufficiency of Christ, you subtract from the sufficiency of Christ. And that’s why Paul can say with absolute authority. If you desert the gospel of grace, you arrive at the curse of God.
Therefore verse 10, is he trying to please people? Well, he’s obviously not trying to please people because he going to preach grace, and grace demolishes boasting, and grace demolishes bragging, and grace demolishes self-congratulation, and name-dropping.
The same man who wrote 1 Corinthians 13, “Love is patient, love is kind,” wrote Galatians because love is concern for people to be safe.
I want to finish this morning by just telling you how this might apply. I want you to notice that Paul is not saying anything probably you don’t know. But I want you to notice that Paul is saying something that he incredibly strongly believes, and it affects him completely. That’s what we are in need of. We’re in need of the invasion of what we know, I’ll just give you some examples.
Is it possible that there’s somebody here this morning, and you’re quite threatened by somebody else because they are not giving you what you need or you want, and so you’re threatened because they’re not doing what you want? The gospel delivers us from this, how can a person rob us from what we really need when we have salvation in Christ. If we’ve received from God oceans of security, and oceans of love, and oceans of sufficiency, how can the teacup that somebody else might give to us really secure us?
Let me mention another area, luxuries. Is it possible that you look across at somebody else and you think, “Well, I’m a Christian, but look what they’ve got, their life is so palatial, their life is so luxurious. I’ve really missed out.”
The gospel really answers this because once you know that you have received the riches of Christ, how can you really be envious of somebody who’s sitting in a slightly bigger chair, eating another prawn with a cloth napkin, looking at a temporary view. How can you be overwhelmed by something which is so little compared to what you’ve received?
Let me mention another area, think of people who say things which appear to be really important and really exciting, and you’re just a Christian, the Bible answers this, doesn’t it? The person for whom the biggest event in the world is the football game last night is a very tragic person in many ways. The person who’s got a big project on and that’s their biggest story, what a poor person they are?
But the person who is able to talk about the eternal dimensions of the gospel has the biggest story, the biggest event in the universe, and is the recipient of that.
So, let’s pray for the preaching of the gospel and the word, let’s pray that it’s done with weight and significance, and we hear it with weight and significance.
Let’s ask God to take away spiritual cataracts, so we really are as happy as the gospel intends.