The Only Thing That Matters: Faith That Works By Love
August 5, 2001
These are the closing words of the Declaration of Independence:
We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions, do, in the Name, and by the Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly Publish and Declare, That these United Colonies are, and of Right ought to be, Free and Independent States; … And for the support of this declaration, with a firm Reliance on the Protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.
Last month our nation celebrated its 225th birthday, making the United States of America the longest-lasting democracy in history. Our existence as a nation goes back to that fateful day in July 1776 when 56 brave patriots signed the Declaration of Independence. I find it striking that twice in the closing sentences, the Declaration appeals to God, referring to him as “Supreme Judge” and “Divine Providence.” To read these stirring words is to recall that freedom is never free. This nation was founded by men willing to pledge “our lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” And the continuing price of freedom is eternal vigilance. What is purchased with blood can be quickly lost through careless disinterest.
John Brown’s Burial Site
This week Marlene and I traveled to Schroon Lake, New York, high in the Adirondack Mountains, where I was speaking at Word of Life Conference Center. On Wednesday afternoon we journeyed 40 miles north to visit Lake Placid, site of the 1980 Winter Olympics. After eating lunch, we strolled along the main street and did a bit of window-shopping. Later we stood on an observation deck at the end of the 90-meter ski jump and pondered the insanity of anyone who would jump off that ramp. As we were driving to the ski jump, I noticed a sign saying that John Brown’s farmhouse was nearby. Another sign mentioned that he was buried near his farmhouse. Since I am intrigued by all things relating to the Civil War, we made an unscheduled stop so I could tour the site.
John Brown was a fiery abolitionist who settled in the Lake Placid area hoping to help escaped slaves start a new life. Later he traveled to Kansas where he took up arms to ensure that the Kansas Territory would enter the union as a free state. He is most remembered for his daring raid on the armory at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in October 1859. He and a handful of men (including three of his sons) took over the armory, hoping to incite a general insurrection that would lead to the end of slavery. Eventually John Brown was taken into custody, tried, and sentenced to death by hanging. During his trial he defended his actions by referring to the words of Jesus in the New Testament about caring for “the least of these.” Then he said something like this: “If it be thought necessary that my blood should be mingled with the blood of millions of those who suffer because of wicked laws, then let it be so.” After he was hanged on December 2, his body was buried at his farmhouse near Lake Placid on December 8, 1859. In his lifetime and after his death, he was regarded by many people in both the North and the South as an unstable fanatic. But from the standpoint of nearly a century and a half later, we can see clearly that he helped light the fuse that led to the war that ultimately freed the slaves. War was probably coming in any case, but he forced the issue into the American consciousness in a way that could not be ignored. To stand before the grave of such a man leads one to reflect that freedom comes at a very high price indeed.
Fighting for Freedom
We have to fight for freedom. This is true in every sense. A man with cancer fights to be made well. A couple in deep debt fights to become financially free. Someone with an addiction to alcohol, drugs or pornography struggles desperately to be free. Sometimes we must fight to save the things most valuable to us. This week I met a young woman (I would judge her age to be late 20s or early 30s) who told me her husband left her and her children six months ago. Kind friends made it possible for them to go to Word of Life. While there, she learned that her husband had emptied their bank account, leaving her with only $23 dollars. He also broke into their home and stole many things. When we were leaving the campground on Friday, I encouraged her to stand firm in her faith. “Don’t let your husband steal your faith, too.” She smiled wanly and said she wouldn’t let that happen. She intended to fight for her marriage and to pray for her husband.
Of all the freedoms in the world, the most basic and the most precious is spiritual freedom. “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36). The freedom Jesus gives is freedom from sin, freedom from guilt, freedom from shame, and freedom from the burdens of a painful past. To those who trust him, he gives the freedom to know God, to love him, and to serve him with joy. When Jesus sets you free, you can be all you were meant to be. You are free to discover your destiny and to fulfill God’s purpose for your life.
This sort of freedom demands a choice. You have to stand and fight for what is right. Freedom doesn’t just happen. And that brings us to our text, Galatians 5:1-12. We have now entered the third and final section of the book. Galatians falls neatly into three sections:
Chapters 1 & 2: Personal
Chapters 3 & 4: Doctrinal
Chapters 5 & 6: Practical
The first 12 verses of Galatians 5 are like a lawyer’s closing statement to a jury. Here Paul summons all his rhetorical power to make one final assault on the Judaizers and their false gospel built around circumcision. As he presses for a decision, he uses extremely strong language. Verse 12 reveals the depth of his righteous anger against the Judaizers: “As for those agitators, I wish they would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!” Martin Luther paraphrased it this way, “I wish the knife would slip.” While that may sound strange to our ears, the words reveal the crisis enveloping the churches of Galatia. This was nothing less than a battle for the hearts of these new believers. Their liberty in Christ was at stake.
Paul fires back by challenging the Galatians to make a decisive choice for Christ, for grace, for freedom, and for the cross of Christ. Let’s take a look at the choices as Paul sets them forth in this passage.
Choice #1: Slavery or Freedom 1
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). The most basic choice is between slavery and freedom. This verse tells us why Christ came—to set us free. It also tells us what we must do to maintain our freedom—stand firm. And it warns us about what we must avoid—the entangling yoke of slavery. The crucial point is that freedom comes at the cost of continual vigilance. If we would be free from the yoke of slavery, we must take our position in Christ every day and stand our ground against anything and anyone who would steal our freedom from us.
Underlying this is the reality that grace and works (as a means of gaining God’s favor) don’t mix. Either you are being saved wholly and only by God’s grace or else you feel you must do something to merit God’s favor. Those two options are mutually exclusive. The problem is that we live in a performance-based world. There are preachers who lay a yoke of guilt on their people by adding demands to the Christian life that do not come from the Bible. They enforce rules of conduct and make those rules virtually equivalent to God’s will for their followers. Those who refuse to follow the rules are regarded as less spiritual, as carnal, as backslidden, and perhaps even as unsaved. The biblical position is not that rules are wrong. All of us need rules to help us make wise decisions, but we must not think that merely by obeying human rules we have earned God’s favor. In the same way others may put us down, may say that we are unfit, unworthy, a total disappointment, and failures in life. They may write us off as unqualified. In that case we must not let their judgment on us become the way we judge ourselves.
While reading the biography of G. Campbell Morgan, the great British Bible teacher of a past generation, I discovered that as a young man he had been rejected as a candidate for the Methodist ministry. Although he went on to worldwide fame, he never forgot the sting of that rejection. When he cabled his father with the bad news, his father wired back this terse message, “Rejected on earth, accepted in heaven.” So it is for all of us. No one passes through life without feeling the pain of rejection by others. Standing firm in our freedom enables us to learn from our defeats while not being defeated by them.
It happens in marriage as well. Your spouse may send the message that you are loved conditionally as long as you meet certain expectations. Employers do the same thing. So do football coaches. Once when a place kicker was about to attempt a game winning field goal, he asked his coach, “If I miss this kick, will you still love me?” “I’ll still love you,” came the reply, “and I’ll miss you, too.”
How do we stand firm in our freedom when we live in a performance-based world? The answer must be that we continually remind ourselves (and do it several times a day) that while we may not measure up to our own standards, much less anyone else’s, God has already declared that we are “accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6 KJV). Because we are now “in Christ,” Christ now “lives in us” (Galatians 2:20). This is the basis for our assurance that we are the children of God, that our position in God’s family is secure, and that we have been set free from the guilt of sin, that we are being set free from the power of sin, and that some day we will be entirely set free from the presence of sin.
One of the implications of this verse is that it is impossible for us to be enslaved unless we voluntarily allow it to happen. No one can chain us up again unless we willingly surrender our freedom. So stand firm, fellow Christian. It is for freedom that Christ has set you free.
Choice #2: Law or Grace 2-6
The second choice involves law versus grace. In verses 2-4, Paul explains the disastrous consequences of choosing to go back to the law as a means of pleasing God. He uses circumcision as an example because that was the particular issue troubling the Galatians. No doubt his readers needed to hear these strong words because circumcision seems like a very small thing, a tiny operation, a small concession to the Judaizers. But when it comes to freedom, there are no “small concessions.” Tiny decisions have enormous consequences.
If you give in to the Judaizers …
A. Christ is of no benefit to you.
“Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Galatians 5:2). This verse needs to be compared with verse 6 where Paul says that circumcision itself doesn’t matter one way or the other. It’s not a meritorious act and it’s not a sin in and of itself. But to be circumcised under these circumstances would be to reject the gospel of the grace of God. It would be saying, “Christ is not enough for me. I need to be circumcised, too.” In that case, you have lost the benefits that Christ came to secure for you. You have turned from freedom into the chains of slavery to the law.
B. You are obligated to obey the whole law.
“Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law” (Galatians 5:3). The law is not a cafeteria where you can say, “I’d like a helping of circumcision but I don’t want any sacrifices. I’m going to hold off on the feast days but I’ll take an extra helping of the Levitical priesthood.” It doesn’t work that way. The law of God is an all-or-nothing proposition. As James 2:10 reminds us, if you offend in one point of the law, you’re guilty of breaking the whole law. The law is like a chain of many links that joins earth and heaven. Break just one link and it’s as if you’ve broken them all. So, Paul says, don’t go in the door of circumcision thinking you can stop there. Once you walk through that door, you’re obligated to keep the whole law—all of it, all the time.
C. You have abandoned the gospel of grace.
“You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4). In evaluating this verse, it’s important to remember that this is not a statement about personal salvation. Paul’s concern here is about the implications of following false doctrine. It’s not about personal sin but about the danger of substituting law for grace. Once you turn back to the law as a means of pleasing God, you have abandoned the gospel of grace. This verse is like a sign in the road proclaiming, “Danger. Bridge out. Turn back before it’s too late.”
Our greatest problem with this passage is that in the 21st century it’s hard to get worked up about circumcision one way or the other. I’ve never met anyone who taught what the Judaizers were teaching. For that reason, it’s easy to think this doesn’t apply to us. But the principle remains that small decisions often have big consequences. For Paul, circumcision under these conditions was a “hill to die on.” The gospel itself was at stake. Motivational speaker Zig Ziglar likes to say that “a man who will compromise will do it again.” Paul would agree with that sentiment, which explains why he wrote this letter in the first place.
Choice #3: Circumcision or the Cross 7-12
In this passage Paul turns from addressing the issue of circumcision itself. He now addresses the issue of the false teachers and their bad influence on the Galatians. In the next few verses he points out the five dangers of living by the law instead of living by grace.
A. It stops our spiritual progress.
“You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth?” (Galatians 5:7). Here the picture is of a runner who was doing well until someone cut in and knocked him off stride. This is what the Judaizers had done. It is sobering to realize that all of us are either helping or hindering our friends in their race for the Lord. Ask yourself this question: “Does my example bring my friends closer to Christ or am I pulling them farther away from him?”
B. It pulls us away from God.
“That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you” (Galatians 5:8). This is the logical consequence of a bad example. Paul wants the Galatians to know that though the Judaizers claimed to be speaking for God, it was not true. As he says elsewhere, where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty (see II Corinthians 3:17). It is God’s will that his children be free, not bound once again in the chains of a suffocating legalism.
C. It leads to other errors.
“A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough” (Galatians 5:9). Here Paul reminds them that one act of disobedience soon leads to another. Just as you have to tell a second lie and a third and a fourth to cover up for the first lie, even so one sin (even a small one) leads on to other errors. In this case, taking even a tiny step toward the law soon leads to total enslavement.
D. It produces spiritual confusion.
“I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view. The one who is throwing you into confusion will pay the penalty, whoever he may be” (Galatians 5:10). It seems clear that Paul did not personally know the Judaizers who were misleading the Galatians. He only knows that they will be judged by God for teaching false doctrine to impressionable young Christians. Their emphasis on circumcision had led to enormous spiritual confusion and caused many of these new believers to waver in their trust in the Lord.
E. It removes the stigma of the Cross.
“Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense of the cross has been abolished” (Galatians 5:11). Paul could have avoided the controversy that dogged his steps if only he would stop preaching the cross of Christ as the only hope of salvation. If only he would start preaching circumcision, his critics would be happy and would leave him alone. But that was something Paul would not do. The cross was the center of his faith. Let others preach circumcision. He would preach Christ crucified. In the cross there is forgiveness, freedom, liberation, new life, abundant life, access to God, membership in God’s family, redemption, reconciliation, peace with God, eternal life, and the hope of heaven. Why would anyone exchange that for the tattered rags of a failed legalism?
Paul was persecuted because he preached the cross as God’s way of salvation. Some did not want to hear that message so they attacked the messenger. The world has not changed its opinion in 2,000 years. The cross is still repugnant and offensive. In the last few years news reports have told of employees being threatened with dismissal if they wear a cross to work. Such a symbol is “offensive” to others who see it as some sort of threat that creates a hostile work environment. I heard of that happening to a chaplain here in Oak Park just a few weeks ago.
But that should not surprise us. The cross is always controversial and there will always be those who are offended when we boldly proclaim the cross of Christ. To which our response should be a sanctified, “So what?” If people get offended because we preach the cross, let them be offended. This is not a call for rude or offensive behavior or for unkindness to those who do not believe as we do, but it is a call for Christians to “come out of the closet” about our faith. After I preached this sermon, a friend commented that we need to get “a little cocky” about our faith. I don’t know that I would put it that way, but I think she’s got a point. Being quiet and timid in face of opposition hasn’t worked so well, has it? “Cocky” isn’t the word I would choose; “bold” comes to mind.
Never be ashamed of the cross of Christ.
Never fear to own his name in public.
Never back down when questioned about what you believe.
Let’s stand up for Jesus and lift high the banner of the cross. We don’t need to get angry when others disagree with us. If anyone gets angry, let it be those who do not love our Lord. But let the people of God rally round the cross of Christ and there proclaim the message of salvation.
I suppose someone could ask why we are so insistent on what we believe. Why do we fight so hard for the truth of the gospel? I find the answer in Galatians 5:5-6. “But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” Our hope is in the Lord alone. All that we need comes from him. The righteousness we need is found in Christ. And that righteousness comes to us by virtue of his bloody death on the cross. God doesn’t care whether or not we are circumcised. The only thing that matters is true saving faith that expresses itself in a life motivated by love.
Let’s wrap up this message with three simple conclusions:
1) When it comes to the gospel, there can be no compromise.
This is Paul’s whole point in Galatians. We will gladly discuss lesser issues, such as the proper mode of baptism, the correct form of church government, and the timing of the rapture in relation to the tribulation. And while we’re at it, we’ll also cheerfully debate worship styles and the all-important issue of hymnals versus Power Point. But where the gospel itself is concerned, there can be no compromise. There’s nothing to discuss. We believe the gospel of the New Testament—that Christ died for our sins, that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day. We believe that apart from true faith in Jesus Christ there is no salvation and that no one can be saved who does not trust in Christ. We preach salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. In this we stand with Protestant believers of every stripe and of many different denominations. We will not water down the message and we will not back down simply because some people find the gospel offensive. We seek to live in such a way that our conduct makes the gospel beautiful. But we will not change the message to conform to the political whims of the day.
2) Even a small compromise in this area produces disastrous results.
Circumcision seems like a minor issue, and it is until it is made into a requirement for salvation. Then this “minor” act becomes a major heresy. Nothing can be added to the value of the blood of Jesus Christ as the ground of acceptance with God.
What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
3) The only thing that matters is knowing Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
In the end it is faith in Christ that moves the heart of God. When you tell the Father that you are trusting his Son as your Savior, you are saved, born again, redeemed, reconciled, welcomed into God’s family, adopted, justified, regenerated, and given eternal life. And it all comes as a free gift from heaven on the simple and single condition of wholehearted trust in the Lord Jesus Christ.
A few years ago a young woman in our church asked the pastors to pray for her mother’s salvation. Her mother was ill and although she was very religious, she did not know Christ as Savior. There were various family issues that made the situation more difficult. Her mother’s heart seemed very hardened against the Lord. For a long time, nothing seemed to be happening. Then a few months ago, word came that her mother was beginning to listen to the message of the gospel. Yesterday morning when I came to the church, I saw a large group of people in the parking lot. Walking over to see what was happening, I encountered the young woman. She came up to me with a big smile and said, “My mother accepted Christ this week.” Then she hugged me. One day last week she had witnessed to her mother and this time her mother prayed the sinner’s prayer, trusting Christ as Savior. The next day the young woman went back to see her “just to be sure.” Her mother knew why she had come and told her clearly she had asked Christ into her life. With a smile that seemed to go on forever, the young woman declared, “It’s a miracle.”
Indeed it is. Every conversion is a miracle, but sometimes the miracle is very obvious. I draw two lessons from this story. First, never give up on your friends and loved ones. Those who seem so hardened against the Lord today may by God’s grace be drawn to the Savior tomorrow. Keep on praying and keep on believing for a true miracle of conversion. Second, the way to heaven is simple because God has made it simple. Anyone, anywhere can be saved anytime.
The only thing that matters is knowing Jesus Christ as Savior through faith that works by love. Do you know him? Are you trusting him? This week I heard about a cartoon that depicts Regis Philbin standing at the gate of heaven. God has just asked him something like, “Why should I let you into my heaven?” and Regis has just given his reply. Then God says, “Is that your final answer?”
What will you say when you stand before the Lord and he asks why he should let you into heaven? Will you reply with one of these answers? “I was raised Catholic.” “I’m a fourth-generation Presbyterian.” “I attended a Lutheran school.” “Pastor Ray baptized me.” “I do good deeds.” “I give money to charity.” “I was a deacon.” “I sang in the choir.” “I am a good person.” You’ll need to have a better answer than any of those if you want to go to heaven.
Make Jesus your final answer and the gates of heaven will swing open for you. Amen.