Galatians 3:1-9 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. 2 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? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? 4 Have you suffered so much for nothing—if it really was for nothing? 5 Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard? 6 Consider Abraham: “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” 7 Understand, then, that those who believe are children of Abraham. 8 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.” 9 So those who have faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
There was an article that I read a couple of weeks ago that rocked my little pastoral world. It reported on a study where a Christian denomination found out that a full 85% of its membership either A. wasn’t sure they were going to get into heaven or, B. was sure for unbiblical reasons like I tithed, was church president, taught Sunday school, etc. Did you hear that? 85% of people, in short, didn’t know the gospel. Or, to say it another way, 85% of people were identifying Christianity with something other than the gospel.
Like how people act. I read an anecdote recently about a famous comedian named Louis C. K. He’s a very famous, important comedian. It’s said he’s one of the top five grossing in the world. At any rate, after one of his shows he was talking to a young Christian who was lamenting that his jokes were so blue streak. She said, “I just don’t understand why you can’t be funny and be more Christian?” Later, he started playing with a duckling that someone had smuggled in for him – I guess it was a pet for him or something – and that same young Christian said, “Now you’ve got it! You’re being funny and you’re being a Christian.” Now don’t get me wrong. I’m all for acting like a Christian. That’s a great thing. I love that. God loves it, but there’s nothing more deadly to Christianity or to a Christian church than believing that Jesus came only or primarily to help us act more like a Christian.
None of this is new. The battle for the heart and core of Christianity is ancient. It’s dated. Paul lived it. And he understood the battle for what it was. It was a battle for people’s souls. Would they continue to rest their souls on Jesus? Or would they move on? For the Galatians, it was the latter.
So Paul goes to battle. And he took up his weapon of choice. Out and out confrontation. Listen to what Paul says, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.” (v. 1) Yeah, that’s pretty jarring, isn’t it? I really do understand if you’re sitting there in your chair thinking, “Foolish? Bewitched? What happened to not calling people names? What happened to being gentle and down to earth and nice? Why doesn’t Paul tone it down a little bit and show a little tenderness here?” Great question with a great answer.
The company Dove knew what Paul knew. They knew that if you want to change deeply held beliefs you must directly confront them. Dove found that only 4% of women consider themselves beautiful. Or, if you want to look at it another way, 96% of women thought their appearance was somehow seriously flawed. How would they change those deeply held beliefs? They weren’t subtle. They didn’t say nice things about women. They weren’t even terribly gentle. They hired a forensic artist – you know the kind who draws pictures of people from verbal descriptions – and had women come in and describe themselves to him. He drew them just as they described themselves with their flawed high foreheads, their problematic crow’s feet, their tired eyes, and their thin lips. He drew them just as they described themselves. Next they had another person come in and describe how they naturally looked. Then they had each woman stand before the two portraits side by side: the portrait with the overemphasized flaws and the natural portrait. They were confronted. That’s when the women got it. Confrontation is a powerful way to change deeply held beliefs.
So Paul calls the Galatians foolish. It was a choice word, a biblical word. A fool is someone who fails to use their mind. And that’s important to notice. Paul wasn’t calling the Galatians nasty names like you might think he was. If he were, he would have used a different word that talked how they weren’t smart or lacked IQ or something like that. But that’s not what is going on here at all. Paul isn’t calling them names. He is simply pointing out that they weren’t using their God-given minds to understand God-given information.
How were they not using their God-given minds? That’s what Paul talked about next. “Before your eyes Jesus Christ was portrayed as crucified.” (v. 1) Do you see what was at issue in Galatia? The gospel was. Whatever it was that Jesus Christ accomplished in his crucifixion, that’s what the issue was in Galatia. The Galatians just didn’t realize that. They hadn’t yet thought it all through. They hadn’t yet used their God-given mind to understand this God-given gospel. Not yet.
But they had to now. People had come in to that Galatians church who were apparently so persuasive and powerful that even the Apostle Peter had kowtowed to them. This is what they said: “Jesus is great. We like him. He’s really is great. He saves you if you follow the Old Testament rules.” Sounds biblical, right? “Follow the rules here in the Bible and you’ll be in with God.” How does that not sound nice and convincing and good and Christian? It’s a line of thinking that has a long, long history.
People have always thought that righteousness is something we win and then they offer up to God. Ever since the very beginning that’s what all religious pursuits have been about. It’s why humans sacrifice to gods. It’s why we jihad and meditate and pray our way to religious righteousness. We want to have something to offer up to God. Truthfully, even secular, irreligious people have the same impulse. They just don’t know what to do with it. I met someone just recently who told me how he went away to college and dumped Christianity while he was there. I asked him about it and this is what he said: “Life’s really about being a good person. That’s what I’m doing now.” Everyone has a natural, core belief that we must make ourselves righteous. It’s sturdy. It’s strong. It’s durable.
It goes way, way back to the first human beings. You maybe even remember the history. The first humans ate the forbidden fruit. And don’t be naïve about what that meant. It wasn’t the fruit that suffered the greatest damage, nor was it the shape of the fruit that underwent the greatest change. What suffered the greatest damage was the human soul. What underwent the greatest change was the human belief system. It got flipped. It did a 180. Adam was a guy who celebrated that God had created him righteous and he had the joy of showing that gift to the world. But Adam’s descendants were people who believed that righteousness was something we must muster up so we could bring it to God. It’s proven to be a very durable belief. The Galatians here were merely continuing in a long, long human tradition of trusting themselves for righteousness.
I know it’s difficult to hear. But that’s so ingrained in us even after we become Christians. A couple years ago, I sat with a young, Christian parent who was struggling to raise her kids. She was frustrated and sad. She told me about this problem and that problem. This issue and that one. And each time, she’d tell me how she handled it. I sat there quietly taking it all in, trying to understand her, and suddenly the light bulb went on. She wasn’t in my office to get advice on how to raise her kids. Not really. If she were, she’d be asking me for that. There was something far more fundamental going on here. She was trying to justify herself. She was trying to find out from me if she was a good mom. She wanted to know if she was righteous. So I asked her, “Do you think you’re a good mom?” She never answered the question. She just cried.
You know what she needed more than anything else? She needed a gospel tune-up just like we all need from time to time. She needed someone to confront her with questions just like Paul did with the Galatians. Not to harm her, but to heal her. To help her work through her mind the implications that gospel has for her. So I did. Before I dove for the Kleenex, I asked her, “What do you think it means that Jesus died?” Do you see why I did that? That mom didn’t need me to give her advice about how to be a better mom. She didn’t need platitudes about how hard I’m sure she tried or what a good person I thought she was. She knew deep down that she wasn’t the mom she wanted to be, nor the mom that God requires her to be. She knew it and I knew it too. She needed the gospel. She needed me to help her unfold the gospel for her life. And do you know how I know that’s true? Because when I asked her that question, she quieted. She thought. She believed.
See, that’s the great task and the great joy of the Christian church – to take people into the heart of the gospel. We have to work so hard at that. It’s where Christian churches have historically struggled. Churches do a pretty decent job telling people about Jesus to start them off, but once they become a Christian it quickly becomes about learning the right rules and principles of actually becoming more Christian. As I was writing this sermon, I found something that illustrates this perfectly. I was checking out my Facebook feed and I noticed that one my friends got engaged. I’m really happy for him. They’re a great couple. What I found interesting was one of our Christian phrases that he grabbed. And believe me, I’m not picking on him. I’ve probably used it before too. He said, “She makes me a better Christian.” There’s that idea again. If we have the right program or the right rules or in this case the right person, then we can be better Christians.
But that’s not the main task of the Christian church. I want to say again what I already said. The great task of the Christian church isn’t to take people beyond the gospel. It’s to take them more deeply into it. Paul is the master at this. When those Galatians were off on the hunt to win more righteousness, he refused to let them hunt. Instead he said, “If you guys want more righteousness, I’d be happy to show you where you can get it: God.” And then he illustrated it with Abraham. “He believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.’” (v. 6) Super, simple stuff. Abraham believed God. God credits him righteousness. That’s how righteousness has always worked. It’s something that comes from God to us. And it comes to us through faith. Abraham believed God. And that faith was credited to him as righteousness.
I have a friend who has what I think is my favorite t-shirt right now. It says, “Meh.” Just meh. Let me tell you how that applies to the righteousness of faith. The gospel doesn’t merely claim that Jesus forgives people. It doesn’t just say that Jesus paid off our debts. It doesn’t only mean that God looks at us and says, “Meh. He’s ok. At least, he’s not sinful anymore.” The gospel says so much more. It not only means that Jesus forgave people. It also means that he transferred to them the merits from his holy life. It not only means that Jesus paid off our debts with God. It also means that Jesus filled our personal bank accounts with more worth than all of the world’s stock markets combined. It means that God not only looks at me and says, “Not only is he sinless, but he’s got a lifetime of good works in his account that is screaming, ‘Hey, God, I’m righteous.’” The Christian gospel says so much more than meh. The Christian gospel says that there is a trade that happened at the cross. Jesus’ righteousness for our sins. Jesus’ perfection for our transgression. Jesus’ holiness for our guilt.
Understand the implications of that and revel in it. According to the gospel, you can’t be a better Christian. According to the gospel, you can’t be more holy. According to the gospel, you can’t be more perfect than what you already are. When you believe God, you get Jesus’ righteousness. That’s a truth that’s so difficult for us to get our heads around. I preached a sermon about this over in Georgia a couple of weeks ago and a fella who has been a Christian most of his life walked up to me and thanked me for telling him how Jesus helps him be more righteous. I died a little inside. Don’t do that to me today! The gospel isn’t saying that Jesus helps you be more righteous. The gospel is saying Jesus has declared you righteous already.
Maybe that matters to you today. Maybe it informs you. Maybe it thrills you. Maybe it finally helps you see that in Christ not only are there no skeletons in your closet, but there’s no closet either. You really are righteous before God because of Jesus. Did you know that truth launched the greatest movement in human history? It’s now called Christianity. It literally set the world on fire.
I’m counting on that. I’ll tell you this much: there is nothing more exhilarating or terrifying than uprooting my family from a small town in Wisconsin and moving to a city I’d never seen in my life to live with people I’d never met in my life. But we did it. Why? Because we believe people still want to hear about the righteousness of faith. Because we believe the gospel still makes hearts skip a beat. Because we believe people still want to gather around that gospel in a Christian church. And because we also believe it’s possible that you might be one of them. Amen.