Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory for ever and ever. Amen. I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned! Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God? Or am I trying to please men? If I were still trying to please men, I would not be a servant of Christ.
One night I began to count. I counted and counted and counted. And then I gave up. It wasn’t that I was lazy or uncaring. If I’m honest, it’s that I was a bit overwhelmed. Try if you’re up for a challenge. Grab your computer, tablet, or smartphone. Pull up Google Maps. Search “church” and navigate around Aiken County and then start counting. I quit when I got somewhere over 200.
There’s another local church planter that I ran into a couple of months ago and he said exactly what I was thinking. He said, “If you’re looking for a church with engaging preaching around here, you can find it. If you’re looking for a church with a younger crowd, you can find it. If you’re looking for a certain denomination, you can find it. Here in Aiken you can pick your church based on music style, liturgical style, preaching style, ministry style, or fill in the blank however you’d like.” He said, “I counted up all the churches in Aiken and I counted (this is where my memory is fuzzy so I’ll give you my best guess) 283 churches.”
So yeah – and I say this with all kinds of love in my heart for Aiken. I do love it here! – in a place where there are more options for churches than cereal in the cereal aisle at Kroger, today is the first preview service for Aiken’s newest church. How’s that for talking about the elephant in the room?
That’s not a new issue at all. Did you know that? Christians have always had choices about where and with whom they would worship. Always. They even had choices back in Paul’s day. Actually, Paul wrote a whole letter about it to these people who had options. These days we call it the book of Galatians.
Paul’s approach to the people to whom he was writing isn’t what you might expect. He doesn’t beg them saying, “Please, please, please come to my church. It’s really good. I think you’ll like it.” Nor does he say, “Let me lay out my vision for Galatians Church. It’s going to be amazing. Let me show you how it will be exactly what you need right now. I promise you. You won’t be disappointed.” There’s no begging. No vision casting. Nothing like that. Not one word.
In fact, instead of launching into what amounts to a longish commercial for his church Paul does the very opposite. He immediately launches into teaching mode. The second after he tells people who he is and, therefore, why he has any business teaching on the issue – he’s God’s spokesman, God’s apostle – he writes, “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.” (v. 3-5)
We can only notice how different that is when we compare it to Paul’s other letters. When Paul writes his letter to Philippi, he says, “Hey I’m Paul, the apostle, and, boy oh boy am I thankful for you!” When Paul writes his letter to Rome, he says, “Hey I’m Paul, the apostle, and boy oh boy am I thankful for you!” And when Paul writes his letter to a church in Corinth with problems taller than the Empire State Building he still writes, “Hey I’m Paul, the apostle, and boy oh boy am I thankful for you!” But Paul doesn’t say that here.
Please understand why. This isn’t a personality conflict or a lack of personal connection with the people in Galatia. He dismissed the pleasantries just as anyone would in an emergency situation. I was a lifeguard for eight summers and I made a number of saves in that time. I remember watching a kid with floaties in the shallow end flip over. His mommy wasn’t watching him so I jumped off the stand, ran up to the mom, and calmly said, “My name is Jonathan. It’s so nice to meet you.” Then after I greeted her appropriately I pointed to her flipped over son who was drinking the pool with his lungs and said, “May I go get him?” How ridiculous! Here’s what I actually did: I totally ignored the mom. I sprinted for the kid, and turned him right side up. In emergencies you dive in to save people. And that’s what Paul did. He dove right in for the save saying, “Jesus gave himself for our sins to rescue us.”
I know what you’re thinking. “But isn’t that elementary? I learned that when I was three. Why is Paul acting like this is such an emergency?” And that’s exactly how the Galatians saw it too. That was actually the problem. They were devastatingly wrong about that. This message, the gospel, is not just the church’s elementary basics. It’s also its advanced calculus. The gospel is not only the beginning for a church. It’s also the end. It’s not only the A of what we do it’s the Z. It’s not only the first thing a Christian believes after their conversion. It’s the last thing they believe before they meet Jesus. The gospel. The gospel. The gospel. It’s everything for a Christian. It’s everything for a Christian church.
The apostle Paul felt that so strongly about this that he said, “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let him be eternally condemned!” (v. 8-9) That’s enough to make a guy want to say, “Whoa, Paul, buddy, slow down! Why’d you have to go and bring angels into this whole mess? And why do you need to be cursing people like that? Nobody needs to be eternally condemning anybody. Don’t be so over the top.” Except he wasn’t being over the top. He really meant it. That’s why he said it twice. Paul is deadly serious that he wants anyone who is preaching anything other than the gospel, the gospel, the gospel to be eternally condemned.
The question is why. Why is he so fiery, strong, and powerful on this point? Paul knows that the minute we move on from God’s grace in the gospel, we start trying to climb heaven’s walls another way. There is nothing more seductive or exciting to us than a self-salvation project. I read a story recently of a girl at the check out counter of a grocery store. She was sitting in the cart with her little brother. Her dad was taking items out of the cart for check out, but the little girl wanted the yogurt. So she reached for it and her dad gave her hand a little slap. But still wanting that yogurt she reached again. Mimicking his dad, this time her little brother slapped her hand. But bound and determined to get that yogurt she reached out her hand one more time. And do you know what happened? She slapped it herself. She slapped her own hand. She knew she was breaking the rules and she instinctively wanted to redeem herself from that infraction.
On his website the Christian author, Philip Yancey, has posted a very insightful comment about this instinct to self-redeem. When asked about a gospel of grace that many fast growing churches don’t have, this is what he said: “It’s doesn’t surprise me at all to hear of successful ‘Ungrace’ churches. We humans like someone to tell us, ‘If you just follow these rules in this program, you’ll do the right thing and be accepted by God.’” Yancey is getting at something important. We are attracted to ungrace messages because we naturally like a good self-salvation program. That’s why it’s so seductive to keep on hearing what we should work on next.
Nothing more seductive except grace. What if grace were an attitude in God that wasn’t based on your performance? What if God sent someone to achieve your turn around in your place? What if that person made sure you were forgiven before you ever even sinned? What if you were loved and accepted just because here you sit existing and being? What if God’s heart belonged to you in the biggest, hugest, and most beyond understanding way even if you deserve it less than Judas the Betrayer himself? What if that were true? What if it was grace that saved you? What if it were grace that first captured your heart? What if it was grace that would lead you home?
Do you see it? That’s why God would rant and rave and shout and holler to the highest heaven against anybody who preaches anything other than grace, grace, and more grace. That’s why he’s willing to curse people who say anything different. That’s why he’ll adamantly, powerfully, and strongly talk about all his grace for you. He is that serious about it.
He is serious enough about grace that in Galatians he would dispense with all the normal, introductory kind of pleasantries and just dive into the teaching grace. So instead of his normal, “Hey I’m Paul, the apostle. And boy, oh boy, am I thankful for you guys.” Paul launched into, “Hey I’m Paul, the apostle and I want you to know right here, right now, and forever that ‘the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us.’” That’s grace and only grace. There’s no mention of how wonderful the Galatians were; how faithful in suffering; how plentiful in good works. In fact, these were the exact Galatians who were currently running off the rails away from grace. And yet, they still had grace. They had the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for their sins. He had rescued them - from their own self-salvation project.
Except that’s not what the verse said, is it? The verse doesn’t talk about the Galatians being rescued from their sins. The verse talks about being rescued from our sins. Ours. I suppose it’s pretty dry, boring and grammatical stuff to talk about this, but ours is different from theirs by a long shot. Theirs is totally impersonal. Ours is totally personal. It’s one thing to say that their dog got loose and was hit by a car. It’s another to say that our dog got loose and was hit by a car. One’s totally impersonal, outside, and away from you. The other is totally personal, inside, and about you. And that’s the point. Jesus' grace isn’t theirs. It isn’t impersonal, outside, and away from you. Jesus' grace is ours. It's something totally personal, inside, and about you. It’s yours personally. It’s ours corporately. Jesus rescued us - us! - from our wretchedness.
That’s how a guy named John Newton captured the thought. There’s a reason why they talk about swearing like a sailor. But John Newton’s lifestyle was so depraved and bad - not just in the way he spoke - but in life that he even had his fellow sailor's jaws on the ground. That’s how bad it was for him. And this when his very Christian mother had taught him so much better. Years later, while he was writing a New Year’s sermon for his church he thought about King David’s words spoken later in life, “Who I am that you have brought me here?” And John Newton answered that question for himself: a wretch, a sinner, a nothing. But there he sat in the moment loved, forgiven, and rescued. He wrote a hymn that day. We still sing it today. Do you know what it’s called? It’s called Amazing Grace. John Newton knew what Paul knew. God is all about grace. Grace for the Galatians and grace for you. Grace to begin and grace to lead us home.
That’s the goal right there. I’ve sat by many a bedside of a person whose time had come to meet Jesus. I remember when I visited Bernice. She woke up and looked at me when I came into her room that was so softly lit. And then she slowly and between heavy breaths said, “Pastor, it’s good to see you.” She would always say that when I came. I knew it was hard for her to talk so I told her right way, “It’s ok, Bernice. You don’t need to talk. I have something to say to you.” And this is what I said, “Bernice, I want to tell you something you’ve heard so many times before. Your sins are gone. You’ve been rescued. You have grace to go and meet God.” And that’s all she needed to hear. That's it. She smiled sweetly and said, “Yes, pastor I know.” She fell asleep just seconds after she said that, exhausted and spent from the effort. It was just a few hours later when she fell asleep in a different way. Grace carried her home.
I tell you that story because sometimes it’s best to look toward the goal so we know how to start. There are well over 200 churches in this county. You can choose a church because of its music style, its engaging preacher, its fabulous this, or its fantastic that. I’m sure you get the picture. Choices, choices, choices. This is what I’ll say to you. Peace Lutheran will work to have the best music we can. We’ll work to have the most engaging preaching we can. We’re going to try really hard. But don’t join this church or invite your friends or family to it for any of those reasons. Be about this church because this church is about the grace that Jesus died to win. We are beginning with grace because we want grace and grace alone to lead us home. Maybe you’re like John Newton. Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you need a church like that. If you do, then welcome home! Amen.