Galatians #1 – Faith vs The Law

Galatians #1 – Faith vs The Law

Preached at 9am worship – Sunday 26th May
Preacher: Rev Phil Swain
Bible Reading: Galatians 3:1-14, 26-28

Before we had Noah and the Ark last week, we had been reflecting on Relationships … relationships with our family, our friends and the relationship we have with God.  The lectionary bible readings for this month explore the book of Galatians – which is all about our relationship with God, so I thought it might be fun and useful to look at Galatians for a couple of weeks. 

Who watched the video that I put in the weekly email or posted on the Facebook page on Galatians?  I thought it was an awesome overview but incase you missed it, let me give you my three minute summary of the context that Paul wrote his letter to the church in Galatia.

From Acts 16, the apostle Paul had come through the region of Galatia and preached the good news of Jesus – a message of love and grace that comes through the cross.  Many Galatians accepted this message and the church grew.

Paul moved on and some Judaziers (or followers of the Jewish religion) arrived in town.  They told the people that Paul was misguided and finding God’s acceptance was not that simple.  It was not about believing … it is also about what they do.  The Judaziers said that they had to follow Jewish laws and perform certain actions to show their faithfulness.  If they did this, then God would accept them.

The Galatians, not know quite what to believe, started following these laws and preforming the rituals.  When Paul heard about this, he was astonished and upset with what had happened and the letter of Galatians that we have in the Bible is Paul’s response.

They key issue that Paul is trying to address in this letter is the question of what a person must do to gain God’s favour.  How do we achieve righteousness – or how do you get right with God?  And as you would have seen if you watched the video, there were two different answers within the church in Galatia with strong people arguing on each side.

In the red corner, you had the law … the undisputed heavyweight rules and regulation from God that had been around for 1500 years!  The Judaizers were saying that to achieve righteousness you had to adhere to the law of Moses and the rituals and standards contained in them.  If you did this, then you would be right with God

In the blue corner, you had faith … Paul was saying that to achieve righteousness you didn’t have to do anything, but rather you just had to believe in Jesus.  It was faith that made you righteous in God’s eyes.

So the big showdown was set. 

From our perspective, it doesn’t seem much of a fight, but don’t underestimate the strength of the Judaizers argument.  After all, for 1500 years, people had been adhering to the law in the hope of gaining God’s favour.  And the law had some serious weight behind it.   For example, the law was from God – Given by God to the Israelites at Mount Sinai.

Moses in his famous “Choose Life” speech of Deuteronomy 30, tells the Israelites that they have a choice between life and death.  How do you choose life? By following the law and doing what the law says.

And for 1500 years this is what the Israelites did (or try to do).  Most of the Old Testament repeats this message.  The Psalms speak how wonderful is the law.  The prophets call people to obey to the law.  God sometimes sent punishment on those who disobeyed the law … for example the exile in Babylon was because the people turned from God’s law.

So for 1500 years people adhered to the God-given law in order to gains God’s favour and now Paul had come along and said that adherence to the law was not necessary because the law does not make us right with God.  Galatians 3:11, “it is clear that no one can ever be right with God by trying to keep the law.” 

Can you see why there was conflict in Galatia?  Paul is standing against 15000 years of understanding.  So who is right?  Can people be saved by obeying the law?  I have found a little skit by Adrian Plass that I really sums up this point.

[SKIT – Murgatroyd and Pratt]

MURGATROYD: We have a feeling some of you
Are feeling fairly sure
That all you really need to do
Is try to keep the law.
PRATT: You wish you knew for sure, though,
Can you break it once or twice,
And still get into heaven?
what you need is some advice.
MURGATROYD: You need some legal expertise,
And we provide just that,
We are your humble servants
Messrs Murgatroyd…
PRATT: And Pratt.
MURGATROYD: The law is rather difficult,
PRATT: There’s such a lot of it,
MURGATROYD: Perhaps you haven’t understood.
PRATT: Perhaps you are a twit.
MURGATROYD: If you decide to live by law
PRATT: You’d better heed our warning,
MURGATROYD: The first mistake that you will make
PRATT: Is waking in the morning.
MURGATROYD: The moment the alarm has gone
PRATT: You’ll make a tiny slip,
MURGATROYD: And by the time you’re out of bed,
PRATT: You’re in the devil’s grip?
MURGATROYD: You can’t be bad,
PRATT: Or sad
PRATT: Or rude
PRATT: Or greedy,
MURGATROYD: You’re not allowed to flash
PRATT: Your cash, (holds up wads of notes)
MURGATROYD: You give it to the needy. (takes cash from Pratt)
MURGATROYD: You aren’t allowed
PRATT: To shun the crowd
MURGATROYD: You’ve got to love them all,
PRATT: Especially if
MURGATROYD: They bore you stiff
PRATT: And drive you up the wall.
MURGATROYD: You mustn’t steal
PRATT: Or fight
PRATT: Embarrassed by your zits.
MURGATROYD: Or go along to swimming pools
PRATT: To look at naughty bits.
MURGATROYD: Can you forgive your cousin, Viv,
PRATT: And tell her so as well?
MURGATROYD: And stay with ancient Auntie May
PRATT: Despite the horrid smell?
MURGATROYD: And if you’re lending anything
PRATT: That you will sadly miss,
MURGATROYD: You’re not allowed to want it back
PRATT: For instance, lend me this! (Takes back cash)
MURGATROYD: And if you if do something right
PRATT: It’s no good saying, ‘Well!
TOGETHER: I am a little sunbeam now
MURGATROYD: That’s pride,
PRATT: You’ll go to hell.
MURGATROYD: We hope we have conveyed to you
PRATT: The danger you are in,
MURGATROYD: But please, you mustn’t worry,
PRATT: No you mustn’t, … it’s a sin.
MURGATROYD: You see, you’ll never keep the law,
PRATT: There’s not a chance of that.
MURGATROYD: We promise you can take the word of Murgatroyd
PRATT: And Pratt.

The whole point of that skit is the same as what Paul was making – that no one can actually keep the law.  In order to be made right with God, we have to rely on the grace of God and God’s forgiveness and mercy that comes through Jesus. 

Paul actually uses a couple of different approaches to show that it is grace that is important – not the law.  In Galatians 3 verse 2 he asks the Galatians, “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?”

You see, when Paul started the church he preached the way of Jesus and the Galatians heard the good news, believed in Jesus and received the Holy Spirit.  Paul was now rightly pointing out that they had received the Holy Spirit before these Judaizers had even mentioned the law.  They had received the Spirit by faith, not by adherence to the law.

Secondly he used an example from Scripture.  Paul points out that the law was given to Moses in 1500 BC.  So what about all the people who lived between creation and Moses … how did they get right with God?  How were they made righteous?  After all, they had no law to follow … it was just them and God.

Paul quotes the Scripture from Genesis. God promised Abraham that he would have a skyfull of descendants and in Genesis 15:6 it says, “Abraham believed the Lord, and the Lord declared him as righteous because of his faith.”

Did you catch that?  This is 430 years before the law was written, and the Lord has declared Abraham righteous, or right with God, because of his faith.

Paul argument is clear – we are saved by faith and not by adherence to the law.  But if this is the case … then what’s the point of the law????  If we can’t be saved through the law, then why did God give us the law in the first place?  What’s the point?

In Galatians 3:19 that the law was given “to show people how guilty they are.” The law was given to be like a mirror and when people how it up to themselves, the law shows that we are not right with God. 

After all – how can Jesus be our saviour unless we realise that we need help?  Paul is saying that the law was given to show people that they need God in their lives, that they need to have faith in God.  It was to show the need for Jesus.

Paul was basically encouraging the church in Galatia to – as one commentator I read said, “to work out how to be followers in Jesus in their particular context” … and this is where the law becomes so helpful.  Paul in Galatians 3:24 refers to the law as “our guardian and teacher”.  The law and commands and the biblical narrative that goes along with them are like teachers to help us and guide us in working out how we are going to be faithful followers of Jesus.

I am going to explore this more next week – this is what next week’s sermon is all about … the interaction between being saved through faith and the way the law helps us to live with integrity as Jesus followers. 

But to finish, I just wanted to go back to this debate in Galatia about what people had to DO to be made right with God.  We have been brought up hearing so many times that we are saved by faith … we don’t have to DO anything to be saved. 

And yet, sometimes we struggle with how that plays out in our church communities.  I was on a youth camp one time when the speaker was challenging us to think about our response to this idea – what does a person have to do to be made right with God. 

The speaker walked up to the communion table and asked the question … “Who is accepted at this communion table?”

This table is a table representing God’s grace as shown through Jesus body being broken and Jesus blood shed.  Who is welcome at this table?

Would a child be welcome? 

What about someone with an intellectual ability?

Of course, we would say?

What about a Muslim?  Or an atheist?  Are they welcome?

Or what about the local drug dealer who has no intention of stopping?  Does a person need to do anything so that they can receive communion?

I have to say, there were challenging questions.  If the question was whom can walk through those doors … we would say that all are welcome.  If I asked whom does Jesus welcome … we would say that Jesus accepts you just as you are.  But you throw the communion table in and then suddenly we hesitate … it becomes complicated.

And this is the exact problem that the church in Galatia was struggling with.  The Judaizers were saying that you needed to “do” stuff before you were acceptable to God, you had to do stuff before receiving his blessing but the good news of Grace is that God accepts us just as we are.  Therefore, we have to be communities of grace and this table is a table of grace. 

“But,” I can almost hear people say, “what about the standards that God gives us to live by.  What about the teachings of Jesus about behaviour?  Do we just throw them away and allow people to do whatever they want to do – as long as they have faith in Jesus?”

This is the crux of the matter.  If we say that we believe that people are made right with God through faith and not through good actions or the law, then do we need to do any good actions or follow God’s laws at all?

This question is about freedom in Christ.  Through faith in Christ we have been given freedom from the law, but what does freedom actually mean in practice? 

[To be continued]

I’m sorry to end on a cliff-hanger but we will explore that question next week.  But for now let’s just focus on the good news of Grace that Paul is proclaiming so clearly in Galatians… and that this table also proclaims…

That Christ has saved us through the cross and redeemed us from the curse of the law that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.