Two Ways to Go to Heaven: Make Sure You Choose the Right One

Galatians 3:1-14

June 17, 2001 | Ray Pritchard

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With this sermon we turn a corner in our journey through Galatians. This short letter has three parts:

The Personal Section: Chapters 1-2

The Doctrinal Section: Chapters 3-4

The Practical Section: Chapters 5-6

As we begin the Doctrinal Section of the book, I need to tell you that there are some verses that are fairly intricate and some arguments that are hard for us to understand. But the main point of the entire letter is very clear. Paul returns again and again and again to one central question: Are we saved by what we do or by what Christ has done for us? Just keep that in mind as we work through this middle section of the book. Every verse and every argument ultimately makes its way back to that core issue. It’s faith versus works; Grace versus the Law of Moses. The very heart of the gospel is at stake in this discussion.

Better Than Uncle Joe

So let me begin with a simple theological quiz. Here’s a multiple-choice question: How good do you have to be to go to heaven?

A) Pretty good

B) Really Good

C) Better than Uncle Joe

D) Perfect

The answer is D. If you want to go to heaven, you have to be perfect. And I don’t mean “sort of” perfect, “mostly” perfect, or 80% perfect. Being 80% perfect is like being 80% pregnant. Either you’re pregnant or you’re not. Either you’re perfect or you’re not. The kicker in all this is that 99.9% of the world believes the answer is either A or B or C. Most people would say it’s A. If I’m pretty good on the relative scale of goodness, surely I’ll go to heaven. And most people are quick to compare themselves to Uncle Joe or Aunt Jane or those punk kids down the street. That’s always an easy comparison because we usually only compare ourselves to someone who isn’t as good as we are. But that’s not what God does. When God makes a comparison, he compares us to his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. We all fall short of his divine glory (Romans 3:23).

In the first 14 verses of Galatians 3, Paul puts forward three arguments that lead us back to the key question. How are we saved—by faith or by works? His answer is that human experience, the example of Abraham, and the curse of the law all lead us to the same conclusion. We are saved only by grace that comes to us through

I. Argument From Experience 1-5

“You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:1-5).

J. B. Phillips begins his translation of verse 1 with the words: “O dear idiots!” One writer suggests the word “numbskulls.” Paul wants to know who “bewitched” them. This is a Greek word that comes from the realm of black magic and refers to a spell or a hex or an “evil eye.” In Paul’s mind, it is so inconceivable that the Galatians would turn back to lawkeeping after having come to Christ by faith that he thinks they have been “bewitched.” How else do you explain leaving the freedom of grace for the slavery of the law? He then lists four consequences of this grave error:

First, by leaving grace to return to the law, the Galatians were ignoring the cross of Christ (verse 1). They had forgotten how clearly Christ had been portrayed or placarded or visualized by Paul’s preaching. So powerful was the truth that the Galatians had felt they had been there when he died. To leave grace was to abandon the Christ who died for them.

Second, by leaving grace they were contradicting their own experience (verses 2-3). Paul reminded them that they had been saved by grace through faith. Would they now conclude that God saves by faith but they must somehow continue it by their good works? Will they go to heaven because “God helps those who help themselves?” The very thought was absurd.

Third, by leaving grace they rendered their suffering meaningless (verse 4). No doubt these young believers had suffered much at the hands of their former friends in the pagan religions. Surely some had laughed at them, others had ridiculed, and perhaps some had been cast out of their homes for the sake of Christ. Will they now count that as meaningless by going back to the law as the means of salvation?

Fourth, by leaving grace they were denying the work of the Spirit in their midst (verse 5). God had worked miracles among them and in them personally. They had seen the power of God both internally and externally. Prayers had been answered, lives had been changed, old habits broken, bad relationships ended, broken lives mended, marriages saved, families restored, the lost saved, sins forgiven. And all this by the grace of God at work through the Spirit of God who came to them as a result of their faith in Christ. Will they give this up and deny it all? That’s the choice they were making.

Paul’s point in these opening verses is to remind them of all the wonderful things God had done for them in their conversion and in the days since then. All this had come by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Had they forgotten all this? They were saved by faith in Christ and they now lived by the power of the Spirit. How could going back to the Law possibly improve their position?

II. Argument From Abraham 6-9

“Consider Abraham: ‘He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’ Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. The Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: ‘All nations will be blessed through you.’ So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith” (Galatians 3:6-9).

For his second argument, Paul uses the example of Abraham. This was a masterstroke because the Judaizers would have considered Abraham the father of the Jewish people. Paul’s point in verse 6 is that Abraham was saved by faith when he believed God and his faith was counted as righteousness. This happened in Genesis 15. The chronology is important because Abraham was circumcised in Genesis 17 and the Law was given to Moses 430 years later. That means Abraham was saved by faith before the Law and before he was circumcised. Paul then expands the point in verse 7 by pointing out that anyone who believes the gospel is a true child of Abraham. In Paul’s mind, spiritual descent is more important than physical descent. Thus, there are physical descendants of Abraham who are not spiritual descendants because they don’t believe the gospel. And there are Gentiles who are true sons and daughters of Abraham because they do believe the gospel. When our children sing, “Father Abraham had many sons, many sons had Father Abraham. And I am one of them and so are you, so let’s just praise the Lord,” they are expressing the essence of this truth.

The thought is expanded further in verses 8-9 where Paul declares that God always planned to justify the Gentiles by faith. He uses an amazing phrase to set forth this truth. Scripture “announced the gospel in advance to Abraham.” The phrase “all nations will be blessed through you” comes from the call of Abraham in Genesis 12:3. In what sense is that the gospel? God’s original call had three parts: 1) the promise of a land for Abraham, 2) the promise of a great nation that would come from his descendants, and 3) the promise of a blessing that would come through Abraham and his descendants so that “all nations will be blessed through you.” If you fast-forward 2,000 years, you come to the very first verse of the New Testament, which reads “A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matthew 1:1). Jesus was a true “son of Abraham” in the literal sense that he descended from the line of Abraham. Before he ascended to heaven, Jesus told his disciples to go and preach the gospel in every nation (Matthew 28:19-20). That Great Commission joins the call of Abraham with the Christian gospel. It was always God’s intention that the Gentiles should be justified by faith. And it was always God’s intention to include the nations in his plan to bless the world.

We can draw several important truths from this. First, the plan of salvation in every age is always by grace through faith apart from human effort. God has only one plan of salvation—not two or three or four. Don’t let anyone tell you that in the Old Testament people were saved differently than in the New Testament. It’s always by grace, always through faith, and always apart from human efforts to attain righteousness.

No Room For Racism

Second, God’s plan to include the nations means there is no room for racism, bigotry or prejudice in the church of Jesus Christ. There is no room for excluding people on the basis of racial heritage, ethnic origin, language, appearance, skin color, or any other secondary issue. God never wanted a lily-white church. He has always intended to save people from every tribe, tongue, clan, kindred and nation. He wants his bride to be multicultural and multi-hued. God’s church is as big as God’s heart. He intends to save people from Bolivia, Cameroon, Nigeria, Finland, Greece, Pakistan, Cambodia, New Zealand, Panama, Canada, Russia, Wales, Egypt, Iraq, and every other nation on earth. And at its best, the church should reflect the bigness of God’s heart. That means an end to racist comments and prejudice against people who aren’t just like us. There ought to be no place for that in the body of Christ.

Third, this is the foundation for world missions. God always intended to draw people from every nation. And that’s why we send missionaries around the world. We have missionaries in Japan because God wants Japanese people in heaven. We have missionaries in Costa Rica because God wants Costa Ricans in heaven. We have missionaries in Kenya because God wants Kenyans in heaven. We have missionaries to the Muslim world because God wants Muslims in heaven. And so it goes throughout the earth. We send out our best and brightest because God has a heart for the nations of the world.

III. Argument from the Curse 10-14

III. Argument from the Curse 10-14

“All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, ‘The righteous will live by faith.’ The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, ‘The man who does these things will live by them.’ Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’ He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit” (Galatians 3:10-14).

Verse 10 explains why keeping the law can never save us. First, the law demands performance: You must do what the law commands. Second, the law demands complete performance: You must do all that the law commands. Third, the law demands continual performance: You must continue to do all that the law commands. Living by the law isn’t a buffet where you pick and choose the laws you want to obey. Either you keep all the law all the time or you’ll never get to heaven by keeping the law. God doesn’t grade on the curve. It’s a simple Pass/Fail. Keep the law perfectly 100% of the time and you go to heaven. Mess up just once and you go to hell. That doesn’t leave a big margin for error.

Swimming to Hawaii

Perhaps an illustration will make things clear. Suppose an eccentric rich man offers $1 million to any person who can swim from San Diego, California to Honolulu, Hawaii. The rules are simple. You have get in the water in San Diego and you can’t get out until you reach the beach in Honolulu. And you can’t stop or rest or have anyone assist you in any way. You can’t use any mechanical or electronic devices to help you. You have to swim straight through without stopping. If you do, you win $1 million. If you don’t make it or if you don’t follow the rules, you get nothing. On the appointed day, no one shows up because the challenge is impossible to meet. So the rich man raises the prize to $10 million. Still no takers. Finally, he raises the total to $100 million. On the appointed day 10,000 people show up because that’s a lot of money, and even if you can’t do it, you never know what might happen. The gun sounds and everyone hits the water at once. A few people turn back after 200 yards because they can’t swim and just wanted the money. A few others drop out after five miles because they’ve been bitten by sharks. Still others get tangled in seaweed and have to stop. By the 20-mile mark only 150 swimmers are left. By the 50-mile mark only ten are left. Five others drop out in the next 30 miles. At the 100-mile mark two swimmers are in still in the water. Then only one is left—a woman who won two Olympic medals for distance swimming. Finally she gives out after swimming an amazing 215 miles. When she is pulled into the boat, she tells the rich man that she deserves the money because she lasted longer than anyone else. When he refuses, she says he should give her a portion of the money representing the distance she swam. He refuses again, citing the rules of the contest. It was all or nothing. It matters not to him if she dropped out 100 yards from the Honolulu beach. In this case, missing by a little is the same as missing by a lot. The only way to win $100 million is to swim all the way from San Diego to Honolulu. There is no partial payment.

The same is true in the spiritual realm. While it’s true that some sinners are relatively better than other sinners, that doesn’t make any difference. Suppose a person could somehow be good enough to end up six inches from heaven when he dies. Where does he go? He goes to hell because if you’re outside the gates, you’re not inside and being inside is all that matters. Close counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. It doesn’t count at all when it comes to going to heaven.

Cursed by God

Paul uses a strong word to describe the situation of those who try to achieve salvation by keeping the law. They are “cursed.” That means they are under a divine sentence of death. They are rejected, judged, condemned, and sentenced to eternal death. That applies to everyone without exception. The whole human race is under a curse because of our failure to keep the law perfectly. Apart from divine grace, we are all by nature spiritually dead, lost, separated from God, rejected and condemned. We are in a truly hopeless condition. This is the end result of trying to go to heaven on your own merit.

God’s way is the way of faith: “The just shall live by faith.” And by faith we receive the promises of the Holy Spirit. How is it that God can give us salvation on the basis of simple faith in Jesus Christ? The answer is in verse 13. Christ became a curse for us. The last part of verse 13 quotes Deuteronomy 21:23, which says that anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse. In the Old Testament criminals were often put to death by stoning. Later the people of God hanged the dead body on a tree as a visible sign of their rejection. The verse from Deuteronomy says that the dead body must be taken down from the tree before nightfall or else the land will be desecrated. When Christ died, he took upon himself the curse intended for us.

He took the pain.

He took the shame.

He drank the cup of God’s wrath.

He bore the punishment meant for us.

He stood in our place.

He suffered for our sin.

He paid a debt he did not owe.

At the climax of his sufferings, he cried out, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” Those mysterious words mean that in that terrible moment, the Father turned away from the Son. The Father became Sonless and the Son became Fatherless. The Trinity was ruptured because of our sin. This was the cost of our salvation. He set us free from the curse by taking the curse upon himself.

He was rejected that we might never be rejected.

He was forsaken that we might never be forsaken.

He was punished that we might never be punished.

He took the curse that the curse might be lifted from us.

The Cesspool of Sin

Imagine that somewhere in the universe there is a cesspool containing all the sins that have ever been committed. The cesspool is deep, dark, and indescribably foul. All the evil deeds that men and women have ever done are floating there. Imagine that a river of filth constantly flows into that cesspool, replenishing the vile mixture with all the evil done every day. Now imagine that while Jesus was on the cross, that cesspool is emptied onto him. See the flow of filth as it settles upon him. The flow never seems to stop. It is vile, toxic, deadly, filled with disease, pain and suffering.

When God looked down at his Son, he saw the cesspool of sin emptied on his head. No wonder he turned away from the sight. Who could bear to watch it? All the lust in the world was there. All the broken promises were there. All the murder, all the killing, all the hatred between people. All the theft was there, all the adultery, all the pornography, all the drunkenness, all the bitterness, all the greed, all the gluttony, all the drug abuse, all the crime, all the cursing. Every vile deed, every wicked thought, every vain imagination—all of it was laid upon Jesus when he hung on the cross.

Our Sin Infuriates God

If we ask why such a drastic remedy was necessary, it is because our sin infuriates God. What seems small to us is huge to him. That fury must either be poured out on us or else it must be poured out on Jesus. As John Murray put it: “The question isn’t how can God, being what he is, send us to hell, but rather, how can God, being what He is, not send us to hell?” Someone must pay the price.

The cross is the true dividing line of history. It is the “hinge” of history, the most important event since the creation of the universe. We must never minimize the cross or speak of it in light terms. All that God has done to save us comes to fruition in the bloody cross of Jesus Christ. And because the cross is so important, salvation therefore must be by believing and not by achieving. It’s not what we do that saves us; it’s what Jesus has already done 2,000 years ago. Let us look to Christ and to him alone for our salvation.

This means that anyone can be saved anywhere, anytime. Since salvation is free for the asking, the gospel message now goes out across the earth. But that leaves each of us with a choice to make. Verse 13 says that Christ redeemed “us” from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for “us.” Who is the “us” of that verse? The “us” is anyone who trusts in Jesus Christ for salvation. That leaves me with one important question: Are you in the “us” of that verse? Or are you still on the outside looking in? You aren’t in the “us” just because you go to church every Sunday. And you aren’t in the “us” just because you are good person. The only people in the “us” are those who have turned from their sin and trusted in Jesus Christ. So I ask again: Are you in the “us”? When I preached this sermon, I asked folks to turn to the person next to them and ask, “Are you in the ‘us’?” Then I said, “If you’re not in the ‘us,’ you better get on the bus that goes to the cross.” Don’t make the mistake of thinking that being religious will save you. Run to the cross. Make sure you are in the “us.” That’s the only way to go to heaven. Amen.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?