An Essay on Grace
Ok, this is a long one. it makes up for the lack of blogging I have done. You really are going to need to take about 30 minutes to read this and it might make you think really hard. This is by all means a theological essay written from a reformed perspective. If you have never really experienced the grace of Jesus in your life this might be hard to understand but I still encourage any comments or thoughts from anyone. Please pardon all the Christianese Lingo. I usually don’t like to use it but for the purpose of this essay I used it… so please be gracious and get a dictionary…
Let us begin
When the human nature encounters the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ, it cringes and tries everything it can to escape the powerful transforming grip of the Grace of God that threatens to squeeze out all worldliness and indulgence of the flesh. The enemy of the Most High God knows this, and in a desperate counter attack, he actually encourages the religion in a way that seduces the mind to fall into patterns of legalistic thinking and living. Eventually, such adherence to this temptation begins reshaping ones religion into that of a worldly nature that in fact has nothing to do with the Gospel of Christ. Though many of the words be the same, and the book be the same, such a gospel is in fact no gospel at all, but a mere heresy that completely tramples the Son of God under foot; discrediting his complete fulfillment of the law in our stead and denying the power of the cross to completely do away with sin once and for all.
Legalistic thinking, that is thinking that depends on the works of man to bring forth justification before a Holy God, has not ceased to plague the universal church since the time of its conception. Martin Luther battled it with the Catholic Church till the day he went to glory. The mighty Saint Augustine was still combating his opponent Pelagius and his followers on this topic as he lay on his deathbed. Of all the hero’s of this true gospel of Christ, the greatest warrior and most passionate objector to such legalistic thought was the apostle Paul. His constant reiteration of justification by faith alone can be found in nearly every one of his letters, and his persuasiveness on the matter brings forth an even greater appeal that his doctrine was not of him, but from the very mouth of God.
Paul’s letter to the Churches of Galatia walks hand in hand with the book of Romans on the topic of justification by faith alone in Christ alone. Though shorter and much more focused on this doctrine, this epistle is packed with power and fueled with genuine concern for the authenticity of the Galatians’ faith. (Galatians 1:6-10) (Scott, 114)
The churches spread across Galatia had fallen into believing a completely bogus gospel, and had slipped into a trap that ensnares many churches today. The gospel that the churches of Galatia were practicing had nothing to do with the gospel that Paul had preached to them at the conception of their faith. In verses 6 and 7 of chapter 1, Paul calls the Galatians’ gospel a different gospel. The Greek word for “different” is the word heteros, which in fact not only means “different,’ but “strange” and “altered.” Right from the beginning of his letter Paul addresses this serious deformity in the body of Christ. He openly and fearlessly opposes the obvious distortion of the gospel he originally taught them and declares anathema (a curse) on anyone who preaches this “different gospel,” (Scott, 115).
The mood of Paul as he begins diving into this rebuke, is not only harsh but extremely disturbed, like that of a father watching his child fall prey to danger. Martin Luther captures this feeling well in his commentary of Galatians. “Paul, with singular study and diligence had planted churches in Galatia, and yet he had scarcely set his foot out the door, but the false apostles overthrew some, whose fall afterward was the cause of great ruin in the churches of Galatia. This so sudden and so great a loss, no doubt, was more bitter to the Apostle than death itself (Luther, 44).” That they would be so removed from Him who called them not only infuriated Paul, but it also pained his soul. He loved his flock and wanted them to know the true gospel of Christ that does indeed bring forth authentic fruit by the power of the Holy Spirit (5:22-23).
The churches of Galatia falling into this heresy was not only a straying from Paul, who was their father in the faith, but more so a straying from their God, the creator of their eternal souls. Their gospel had nothing to do with the true God, and was a form of idol worship. It was no gospel at all, (1:7) but was a complete perverting and twisting of something beautiful and glorious into something crooked and crude (Henry, 1838)
One of the most interesting things about Paul’s approach in rebuking the churches of Galatia, is his complete lack of fear at wanting to please men above God. Paul realized this was going against man and standing up for truth. He knew he must please the creator above the creation (Scott, 114). Later, in the fifth chapter he explains that he is persecuted and yet will not compromise his gospel despite how odious it may become to man. Even in the face of persecution from those he thought were his brethren, he would not compromise the truth (Luther, 52).
Paul’s Gospel, is not a gospel that came from him or any other man, but from the source of all human life, God Himself (Galatians 1:11-2:10, Scott, 115). He received the gospel he preached directly from Jesus Christ (Gal. 1:13-2:10). Paul knew he needed to validate all he was saying, therefore prior to beginning his teaching he thought it a necessity to prove his right to apostleship. He also gives us a quick glimpse of his resume to show he is no ignorant man (See Phil. 3:1-11, and Acts 7:58, 8:1, 9:1,2). He was a student of Gamaliel (Acts 5:34, 22:3) and at the top of the ranks within the Pharisitical system. Yet despite all of these claims and the impressive resume, Paul claims he was not taught by men, or even by the leaders of the church (Gal. 1:18-2:5). Paul had three years of learning by himself or possibly even being instructed directly by Christ… (Gal. 1:18-2:5, Scott, 118). He had had no communication with the churches of Christ and in fact, they had not even seen his face within those three years. Though they had not seen him, they had heard a report that he was saved, which in turn, brought them great joy and excited them to give glory to God (Henry, 1829).
Paul’s gospel was indeed approved by the other apostles and the church. Peter approves Paul’s doctrine in his book and strongly encourages believers to follow it. When Paul met all the disciples in Acts 9:27, thanks to the help of Barnabas, they affirmed him, as well as the gospel he was preaching (Scott, 119). Paul repeats numerous occasions in his writings, that Peter, James and John, who seemed to be the pillars of the church at that time, taught him nothing, yet completely approved of his ministry and the gospel that he was preaching (Galatians 2:9). They agreed that he received both the knowledge of the gospel and the commandment to take it to the Gentiles, of whom the Galatians are included. All the apostles had the same gospel, the one true gospel of Jesus Christ, confirmed and inspired by the Holy Spirit (Luther, 78).
Paul’s Gospel, the very gospel of his Savior, that he so passionately sought to establish to the churches of Galatia, has some very serious implications that nearly every church leader in history has had to reckon with and eventually yield to (Gal. 2:11-21). Even the apostle Peter fell into the trap of legalism and had to be dealt with strongly. Paul had to rebuke the “rock of the church” and remind him of the gospel in all its purest truth.
In Galatians 2:14, Paul lays down this powerful principle. He deals with Peter’s racial pride and cowardice by declaring that he was not living “in line with the truth of the gospel.” Peter had begun to excommunicate himself from Gentile believers who weren’t strictly keeping with the traditions and laws of the Old Testament. He had slowly been sucked into legalistic thinking and fallen prey to using the law and good works as a necessity for salvation.
Luther says, “The truth of the Gospel is the principle article of all Christian doctrine… Most necessary is it that we know this article well, teach it to others, and beat it into their heads continually.” Paul realizes the necessity and beats the gospel back into the brain of Peter as he reminds him why Christ had to die, and that it was Christ’s life and death upon which the church depended, not on the law. In verse 16 of chapter 2, Paul says: “Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”
One can imagine Peter’s eyes tearing up as he remembers that night when he denied Christ, and put the gospel aside for his own safety. Paul lovingly reminds him of the cross and that all of God’s elect were crucified with Christ and raised with him as well, and that the human race is no longer under the law but under grace. Christ did not die for nothing, as those still living under the law declare by putting the grace of Christ aside and seeking to accomplish righteousness within their sinful vessels by obeying the law.
Christ alone is the source of our redemption, and nothing done by our filthy hands could ever deem us worthy of receiving an inheritance from a Holy God. Christ redeemed us, not the law. The Galatians were foolish (3:1-7), and Paul was not scared to say it. They were refusing to respond in obedience to the gospel they had heard, and were in fact creating their own gospel. He calls them bewitched because they have forgotten that “before their very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified (3:1).” How could they forget such a love and count such a sacrifice as nothing, throwing the grace of God away and in their pride trying to attain and maintain their salvation through works? Paul asks them to think through the issue. When did they receive the Holy Spirit? When they were obeying the law or completely reliant on the grace of God in Christ (Scott, 127)?
It wasn’t by human efforts; it was by faith that those of us who believe were justified before God and counted as objects of mercy instead of wrath. Just like Abraham was counted righteous not by his works, but by his faith. “Abraham believed and it was counted to Him as righteousness (3:6).” Perfect faith in a perfect God and in His perfect atonement for our sins through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is indeed our truest form of worship, our chief duty, our chief obedience and our chief sacrifice (Luther, 143-177). To truly give glory to God is to completely believe in Him, and trust that we are indeed clean and righteous before Him because of Christ. Like the father in Mark 9:24 who says he does believe but asks Jesus for help with His unbelief, so should our hearts be inclined to desperately cry out to God “give me faith!” The purer our belief, the more glory God receives.
To remain under the works of the law as a condition for salvation is to remain under its curse (Galatians 3:8-10, Deut. 27:26, Scott, 128). If we wish to avoid the curse of the law we must lay hold of the promise of blessing, the faith of Abraham. If we do not have such faith we have no choice but to suffer from the curse (Luther, 159).
The beauty of the gospel is that Christ Jesus hung on a tree and became our curse. He bore the curse of the law for us (Galatians 3:11-14). The strange method that God used to redeem a people of His very own, was putting skin on Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, and dying on a cross in order to take our curse upon Himself. He was made a curse for us (Henry, 1841).
Can anyone who is under the law be saved? Yes, but they must fulfill it completely to be justified as Romans 2:13 tells us (Luther, 163). Romans 8:4 says that Christ met all of the righteous requirements of the law so that we might be found in Him righteous before God. Christ did for us what was impossible for us to do ourselves so that all that are in him might have eternal life and receive complete salvation (Luther, 159). Romans 3:9-20 shows us that not one of us can fulfill this law and therefore we are under its curse and cannot use obedience as our path to a Holy God. Galatians 3:10 says, “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.’” Luther makes a strong argument that even those who strive to fulfill the law to the best of their ability will be just as much under its curse as those who completely break and dishonor it (Luther, 159). James 2:10 says, “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.”
Even Moses, admits his own sin and declares that anyone who does not fulfill the law completely is cursed (Exodus 34:9). Without faith it is impossible to please God, and if that faith is not placed in the righteousness of Christ and His atoning work on Calvary, then it is no faith at all (Luther. 166).
If we try and hold anything we do up before God and convince ourselves we are pleasing him though our works, we are actually displeasing him even more because we are breaking the first commandment. Martin Luther reiterates this well. “All those who do not in all their works or sufferings, life and death, trust in God’s favor, grace and good-will, but rather seek His favor in other things or in themselves, do not keep the [First] Commandment, and practice real idolatry, even if they were to do the works of all the other Commandments, and in addition had all the prayers, fasting, obedience, patience, chastity, and innocence of all the saints combined (Luther, Treatise Concerning Good Works (1520)).”
Jesus himself set the tone for such doctrine in Mathew 5:17-20. He clearly shows that the law is there and must be obeyed perfectly in order to enter the kingdom of heaven. One who is born from above is born under the perfect fulfillment of the law accomplished in Christ. Not only did Christ take our punishment, He lived our life, and in fact is our life. “For me to live is Christ, to die is gain, (Philippians 1:21)” takes the gospel and sets it apart from religion with its “do this,” or “do that” mentality. As a follower of Christ, obedience does not consist of an attitude of ‘doing,’ but rather an attitude of ‘being.’ It’s an attitude of living out who we already are in Christ by the power of His Holy Spirit given to us that miraculous day when our hard and dead hearts were regenerated and made alive. We so often focus only on the death of Christ, and forget the perfect life of Christ that He lived for us. If Christ hadn’t perfectly fulfilled the law, then he could not have died for our sins. If he hadn’t met every righteous requirement, then his death would have been invalid and insufficient for redeeming mankind and quenching God the Father’s justice.
Tim Keller writes, “The gospel is ‘I am accepted through Christ, therefore I obey’ while every other religion operates on the principle of ‘I obey, therefore I am accepted.’ Martin Luther’s fundamental insight was that this latter principle, the principle of ‘religion’ is the deep default mode of the human heart. The heart continues to work in that way even after conversion to Christ. Though we recognize and embrace the principle of the gospel, our hearts will always be trying to return to the mode of self-salvation, which leads to spiritual deadness, pride and strife and ministry ineffectiveness.”
This was the problem with the churches of Galatia. They fell back into the default mode and Satan’s best trap for Christians. They let the religiosity of their sinful natures take control and become the driving force behind their beliefs. In order to not make the same mistake, we must constantly reinforce the truth of this new covenant established in Christ; not a covenant of works, but a covenant of grace. Christ alone is the seed of this promise (Galatians 3:15-29) (Scott, 129).
The promises of this perfect covenant were made to Abraham and his seed (Galatians 3:15-29). God made a deal with Abraham and promised to keep His covenant even if it meant death to Himself. He would indeed redeem for Himself a people of His very own, and it did end up costing Him His only Son. The law came 430 years after Abraham, and didn’t negate God’s promise but rather affirmed it. All the laws given to Israel had no effect on the promise made to Abraham (3:17-18). In His foreknowledge, hidden in the beautiful mystery of the gospel, the Triune God knew of Calvary and the glorious triumph that would occur that day for the redemption and adoption of every generation chosen in Him.
“But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son; and since you are a son, God has made you also an heir (Galatians 4:4-7).
Believers in Christ must never return to bondage (Galatians 4:1-31). How can we go back to being slaves to the law, trying to achieve salvation based on our own merit after believing such a glorious gospel and experiencing such an amazing sacrifice on our behalf (Scott, 132)? Galatians 4:9 says: “But now that you know God–or rather are known by God–how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again?” And in verse 15, “what has happened to all your joy?” Trying to live under the law does nothing to bring joy, but rather it eventually brings shame and discontent. If through self discipline, rigorous routine, and intense accountability a person quiets their flesh for a time, and has victory over their impulses, does that not bring pride and a self sufficient attitude of achievement? When such a religious system begins to crumble, as all man-made religion eventually does, the defeated individual’s pride is destroyed and any happiness or joy they had found in their temporary achievements is quickly buried and gone with everything else. One will constantly feel like a failure and feel the burden of his failures weighing him down and forcing him into a deeper pit of legalistic thinking and self-dependence. Eventually, such doctrine leads to hopelessness and an even deeper desire to fulfill the flesh. Complete hypocrisy is born and a new Pharisee is made. The outside of the cup may look clean, but the inside is filled with the filth of hell.
Paul describes himself in Philippians 3 as a Pharisee, legalistically righteous and faultless according to the religious structure upon which he had built his life. He boasted in his works, in his persecution of the church, and in his education. But when He encountered Jesus on the road to Damascus, the light of the gospel blinded his physical eyes, and opened his spiritual ones. One of the greatest and holist men to ever walk the planet boasts his complete existence in the cross of Christ. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world (Galatians 6:14).” All of those who have indeed been born from above and encountered the living Christ have nothing to boast about in themselves. We have nothing to take pride in apart from the fact that we have been set free from slavery to the devil and brought into an eternal covenantal relationship with the God of the universe through the cross of Christ.
Since we are no longer in bondage, doesn’t that mean we should act as those who have been set free from the curse of the law and death? Romans 6 tells us that we are dead to sin and alive in Christ. Why should we live in our sinful ways and patterns of our flesh any longer? Why should we fall back into the dying principles of this world? Why should we ever go back and eat from the dumpster when we have been given a seat of honor at the King’s table?
It is a tragedy to return to the old bondage, to put on the chains of death that Christ freed us from by pouring out His blood at Calvary (4:8-20). As Paul writes this to these churches, he is extremely hurt that they would believe a gospel that makes them slaves to fear and weakness. How much more must our Savior hurt when those he has redeemed discredit His sacrifice by trying to earn favor with God by their actions? When we do this we are subjecting ourselves to the same bondage we were in before Christ called us, and we are acting as though we were never converted. We are throwing away our spiritual birthright, forgetting who we are, why we are here, and where we are going (Galatians 4:21-31). It is indeed a tragedy, and a tragedy that will continue to happen in this fallen world until the day of judgment. We must fight it as we put on the spiritual armor of God and take offensive action by wielding the sword of the Spirit, the Word of God. We must preach this gospel to ourselves everyday, and remind ourselves that Jesus, the Son of the Most High God, came to earth, lived a perfect life, and died on our behalf so that we might experience the abundant life. He died so that our joy may be made complete, and so that every aspect of our lives here on earth, as well as our lives after death, might be an eternal offering of praise that worships and magnifies the living God.
This gospel cannot help but produce real authentic fruit in a regenerated heart. A heart that has been born from above and is being fed daily with the gospel of Christ is fertile soil; prime ground for the Holy Spirit to grow His fruit. If we are letting the law define us, we are in constant danger of the flesh being the ground from which our fruit grows. If this is the case we only bear fake fruit that does not bring glory to God, but rather merely satisfies our religious instincts and feeds our pride. The churches of Galatia were struggling with this kind of thought and were bearing fake fruit in abundance. On the outside it may have looked real, and even delicious, but on the inside it was rotting. It was fruit that was gratifying their sinful nature and feeding their own wickedness. Eventually such fruit will lose its outer skin and be exposed for what it is, the heart of sinful man.
Galatians 5:16-18 says: “So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.” If you are under law, then how can you be led by the Spirit? Why does it seem we always end up gratifying our sinful nature? It is because we aren’t led by the Spirit but are rather under the law. When a person is under the law, the fruit of the sinful nature is nourished and begins to ripen. “The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19-21).”
The fruit of the Spirit is in complete contradiction to the fruit of the flesh (Galatians 5:22-23). Real fruit of the Spirit cannot be grown authentically within a person’s life unless the soil is fertilized by the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is the core of every fruit, and it is this gospel that gives the fruit its delicious taste. Jesus says in John 15:4b: “No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.” The more we recognize Christ living in us and as us, the more we are enabled by His strength to obey God and practice in thought, word and deed the genuine love, joy, peace patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self control of Christ. The more connected we become to this vine through the sanctifying work of the gospel, the more authentic and abundant the fruit of the Spirit in our lives will be. We will by nature work harder for the good of all mankind as we live as new creations. We will bear one another’s burdens as Christ has born ours (Galatians 6:1-3). We will daily be loving our neighbors as our self, and we won’t grow weary in doing good. Rather, holiness will become our joy, and mortification of our old man will indeed bring us great pleasure. We will carry our load without complaining and daily pick up our cross as we follow our King Eternal. We will work as if working for the Lord (Colossians 3:23), rejecting the laziness of our flesh and rejoicing always in ceaseless praise to the worker of our salvation.
From this we see that the Christian life is indeed a process of renewing every dimension of our lives. “We renew our spiritual, psychological, corporate, and social lives by thinking, hoping, and living out the “lines” or ramifications of the gospel of Jesus Christ. This gospel must be applied to every area of thinking, feeling, relating, working, and behaving (Keller).” As we grow in this infinite truth, then will our hearts find true joy and true satisfaction and then will the Triune God receive the most glory.
Henry, Matthew. Commentary on the Whole Bible; Genesis to Revelation. Grand
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Keller, Tim. “Keller on Preaching in a Post-Modern City”. The Movement, June issue,
Luther, Martin. Commentary on Galatians. Grand Rapids; Fleming H.Revell, 1988.
Scott, Jack B. “Paul’s Letters to Trouble Churches”. Adult Biblical Education Series,
V. III, Book 7. Decatur; The Committee for Christian Education and Publication,