You may have heard on the news about a teacher who bought a lottery ticket in the summer. He had bought the July 8 ticket at a Shell gas bar on Dupont St. in Toronto, put it on his fridge and took off for a summer vacation with his girlfriend, backpacking in Europe and “counting my pennies,’’ oblivious to the fact he had millions of dollars waiting for him at home. It wasn’t until he was back teaching at school that he decided to check a stack of tickets at a grocery store. At first he thought he’d won $21,000 and that made him pretty happy. Then he talked on the phone with lottery spokesman who said, no, it was $21.4 million. He dropped the phone. “I was frozen. I couldn’t believe it,’’ he said. He played hooky Tuesday to pick up his prize.
I really like that image of something that’s worth $21.4 million dollars hanging on the fridge. It sits there for months as just a piece of paper. But eventually it’s recognized as something of value, but not enough value to change one’s life. But it’s only later that the full value of that ticket is realized, and everything changes.
Today we’re coming to one of the most important passages in the book of Galatians. The apostle Paul has been writing about the value of the gospel and how it changes everything. I want you to think of a similar picture. For many of us, we’ve picked up the gospel at some point in our lives, but some of us have put it on our fridge and basically forgotten about it. We’re living our lives counting pennies. The truth of the gospel – that Jesus Christ has made a way for us to be accepted by God through his sacrificial death – is hanging there on our fridge, but we haven’t seen its value. It hasn’t yet become real to us in any way.
But I hope that some of us have reached the stage where it’s starting to get real for us. There was a point that the teacher thought that his ticket was worth $21,000. That may be the case for some of us with the gospel. When you win $21,000, you can have some fun, but you don’t go changing your life. You can buy a car or a new HDTV, but you’re probably not going to quit your job. Some of us have the gospel, and it’s been a nice addition, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed everything about our life.
Today’s passage is about getting to the next level, where the gospel isn’t something just hanging on our fridge, or something that we think is valuable but not life-changing. This passage is about getting to the next level so that we realize that the gospel changes everything. This is a hard level to reach, and we’re going to see how easy it is today to not be there. But my goal today is that you’ll see how important it is.
The message of this passage is this: Don’t just believe the gospel. Cash it in so that you live in line with the gospel. And in this passage we’re going to see two things. First, we’re going to see how easy it is to believe the gospel, but not live in line with it. And then we’re going to see that we must convince ourselves of some key facts so that we don’t just believe the gospel, but that we live in line with it.
First, thought, we see this in the passage in front of us:
It’s easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t.
Remember when the teacher thought he had a $21,000 winning ticket instead of a $21.4 million dollar ticket? That’s the stage I’m talking about here. It’s easy to know the gospel, and in fact to be a believer in Jesus Christ, and even to be a leader in the church, and not live fully in line with what the gospel is. Paul shows us this in verses 11 to 14:
But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
So here’s the situation. We’ve already read of one meeting that took place between Peter and Paul. Paul visited Jerusalem, which has Peter’s home turf, and there they agreed that they were on the same page when it comes to the gospel. We are accepted by God on the basis of Jesus and his finished work, and nothing else. You don’t have to add anything to the finished work of Christ at the cross. They both agreed with this, and they also agreed that this applies equally to everyone.
Now we read of a second meeting that takes place, this time on Paul’s home turf. Peter has come up to Antioch, which has a healthy population of both Jews and Gentiles. If there’s ever a city that has to deal with how the gospel applies both to Jews who keep the Jewish law and Gentiles who don’t, then Antioch is such a city. And it’s here in Antioch that Peter faces a problem. He’s previously eaten with Gentiles. This was a huge deal if you were Jewish. The dietary laws were incredibly strict, and Peter flaunts them knowing that the dietary laws of the Old Testament no longer apply. But now Peter gets some pushback. Some people come and pressure Peter to eat separately and to keep the Jewish dietary laws, and Peter does. Remember, Peter is a key leader in the church. All of a sudden the barrier that Jesus has torn down between Jews and Gentiles is being built again. Peter absolutely believed the gospel, but in his behavior he was acting as if he didn’t.
So look what Paul does. He confronts Peter publicly to his face. This was such an important issue that Paul doesn’t deal with it privately. Paul gets to the heart of the issue in verse 14: “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel…” This is the crux of the issue. You have the truth of the gospel: that we can only be accepted by God on the basis of what Jesus Christ has done for us at the cross. Then you have the challenge of walking straight in line with the gospel. You can believe the gospel, and yet live like you don’t, Paul is saying. The picture Paul uses is that of walking straight. You know that when an officer suspects you may be drunk, they sometimes make you walk on a straight line. Paul is giving us a gospel sobriety test. He’s asking us to look at how we live to see if we are walking straight in line with the truth of the gospel. And in Peter’s case, he isn’t, and it’s causing tremendous damage.
Think about this. Peter is one of the leaders in the church. If anyone gets the gospel it’s him. And yet he doesn’t fully get it. This shows us how hard it is to fully bring ourselves in line with the gospel. The best of us get it, and at the same time we really don’t. This passage shows us how hard it is for us to really bring our lives – everything, the way we think, feel, and act – in line with the profound truth of the gospel. Tim Keller says, “Christian living is a continual realignment process of bringing everything in line with the truth of the gospel.”
That’s the first thing we see in this passage. It’s so easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t. Even the most mature Christian can lose his or her grip on the gospel and begin to walk out of line. We can do this with ourselves: we are continually tempted to become our own savior and lord rather than trusting Jesus as our Savior and Lord. We can believe that we have to earn God’s approval rather than understanding that our approval has already been won based on what Christ has done for us. And we can do this like Peter did with other people: to begin to create divisions based on non-gospel issues, and to begin to force others to conform to standards that have nothing to do with the gospel.
This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face: of believing the gospel in our heads, but not really working out all of the implications of the gospel in our lives. It’s easy to believe the gospel, but live like we don’t.
So what does Paul do here? What Paul does in the rest of the chapter, beginning in verse 15, is to tell us one thing:
Convince yourself of some key facts so that you don’t just believe the gospel, but that you live in line with it.
What Paul does here in the rest of the chapter is to tell us how to not just believe the gospel, but to actually walk straight in accordance with the truth of the gospel. He’s telling us how to take the ticket off of our fridge and actually cash it in so that we receive it’s full value. This is really the theological heart of Galatians. There’s so much here that we could spend months talking about it, but let’s focus on the big picture and make sure we understand the broad outlines of what Paul is saying.
How do we move from just believing the gospel to living in line with it? Three things.
First, get it through your head that nobody is accepted by God based on his or her own performance. This gets to the heart of the issue. The problem we have in living in line with the gospel is that we have a really hard time believing that we are completely accepted on the basis of what Jesus has done rather than what we have done. We live like we have to earn God’s approval, rather than really believing in the depths of our being that Jesus has already done this for us. So Paul says in verses 15 and 16:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
So here’s the fundamental problem that we have. Everyone wants to be justified before God. To be justified means to be declared innocent by God when we stand before him at our judgment. Every single person here wants to stand before God on that day and hear, “Not guilty. This man, this woman, is innocent.”
Now here’s how it works. Most of us understand, at some level, that we are justified before God based on what Jesus Christ has done at the cross. We’re declared righteous not because we have lived perfect lives, but because Jesus has lived a perfect life and paid the penalty for our sins at the cross. But we still live as if we have to earn God’s approval. That’s the very truth that Peter was compromising when he refused to eat with the Gentiles. He was living as if the old rules still mattered, even though he believed that we’re saved by what Christ has done. We keep on slipping back into religion, of thinking that it’s up to us. So the first thing we have to do is to beat into our heads that nobody is saved by what they do. The only hope that we have, no matter who we are, is what Jesus Christ has done. Nobody will stand before God one day and be vindicated based on their own righteousness. Not Peter, not Paul, not Billy Graham. Nobody. We have to beat this into our heads. Nobody is accepted by God based on his or her own performance. That’s the first step we have to take in order to truly live in line with the gospel; stop trying to earn God’s approval through your own effort.
Second, realize that when we try earn God’s approval through our own performance, we’re sinning. Here’s where it gets really serious. It’s not just wrongheaded to think that we can earn God’s righteousness. It’s actually sinful. When we try to live as if we have to earn God’s approval, and when we make others think they have to do certain things on their own to earn God’s approval, we’re not just making a mistake. We’re sinning. Read what Paul says in verses 17 to 19.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.
Let’s see if we can make sense in this. Paul is saying that all of us want to be justified, and we have now come to realize that in order to be justified before God, we have realized that we are all sinners. There’s no advantage to being Jewish or religious; everybody is a sinner apart from Christ’s work at the cross. So what happens when we realize this? What happens when good religious people start hanging out with people who are sinners? Does that make Jesus complicit in sin? When religious people start realizing that they’re no better than unwashed sinners, doesn’t that somehow contaminate us? Paul says no. He actually says that when we try to keep the barrier up between us and everybody else, we’re sinning. When we think that some are saved by pure grace, but that we’re saved by grace plus our efforts, then we’re sinning in two ways.
One, we’re sinning by bringing back a set of standards that no longer exists. If Jesus has done away with the law, it’s a sin to bring it back. We’re rebuilding what has been torn down. We’re trying to stay married, as it were, to something that has died. This is complete stupidity, and it’s stupid.
Second, we’re sinning because the standards we’re trying to bring back will condemn us. The problem is that if we try to justify ourselves by our performance, we’ll end up condemned by the very standards we’re trying to bring back. It’s like the politicians who work at passing strict new laws and then end up getting busted by the very laws they’ve created a few years later. Paul says that the very standards we’re trying to bring back are the standards that are going to end up condemning us.
So when we lose the gospel and begin to earn God’s approval through our own efforts, we’re not just wrong, we’re sinful. We try to do this all the time, and Paul says to stop. Don’t make the sinful error of trusting in your own righteousness rather than trusting in what Jesus Christ has done for you at the cross.
That’s what Paul has been saying so far. How do we not just believe the gospel, but live in line with the gospel? Realize that nobody is saved by his or her own performance, and realize that to even try is sinful.
Finally, get the order right. This is so important. J. Gresham Machen pointed out that the real issue in this passage is the order in which things happen. It’s the logical order, not so much a matter of timing as logic. Here’s how it goes. Paul is saying that things go in this order: You put your faith in Christ; you’re accepted by God; then you do good works. The false teachers are putting the order this way: You put your faith in Christ; you do good works; then you are accepted by God. Which is it? It seems like such a small difference, but it makes all the difference in the world. Do we put our faith in Christ and find acceptance and then do good works, or do we believe and do good works and then get accepted by God? Paul says that it’s the first. We simply put our faith in Christ – our complete surrender and trust – and then we’re justified before God and begin to do differently. Look at what he says in verses 20-21:
I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Here’s what he’s saying. We don’t believe in Christ and then try our best to live pleasing lives, and then we’re accepted. That would be foolish. No, what we do is that we put our faith in Christ. We come to the cross and see what he’s done. At that point we’re not only justified and accepted, but we become so wrapped up in what Jesus has done that we die with him and then Christ begins to live in us. And when we obey it’s not because we’re trying to earn God’s approval; it’s because Christ is living within us. We can’t take any credit for what we’re doing; it’s all because we’re living by faith, and that makes all the difference in the world. John Piper puts it this way:
You don’t attain the benefits of the gospel by doing a little moral clean-up job on your life. You attain forgiveness and joy and peace and power through daily reliance upon Jesus Christ who loved you and gave himself for you. But that faith, when it is genuine, creates a rhythm of life that is in step with the truth of the gospel.
Paul is saying that one of our greatest problems is that we believe the gospel, but we live as if it wasn’t true. We believe that we’re saved by faith in Jesus Christ, but we live as if we need Jesus plus our own efforts in order to be saved. Paul is telling us to take that ticket off the fridge and cash it in, to not just believe that we’re saved by grace through faith, but to live that way too. And it will make all the difference in your world.
Look, even Peter got it wrong. Even Peter needed to be corrected here. Maybe you do too.
That teacher had a ticket on his fridge. At first he didn’t even know he had a winner, and he was living on pennies. Then he realized that he had a winning ticket, but he didn’t know how much it was worth. Then he found out what he had, and he dropped the phone in astonishment.
The same thing happens with the gospel. I hope you’ve taken the gospel and realized that you have something valuable there. But some of you think it’s only $21,000 when it’s really worth much more. $21,000 doesn’t change your life; it just let’s you have some fun. The $21,000 gospel doesn’t change your life. But you have a gospel of infinite value that changes everything. Don’t just believe the gospel; live in line with it. Understand that we all stand equal as sinners, and that nobody can earn God’s approval based on our own righteousness. Celebrate the right order: that we can put our faith in Christ, and then be accepted by God, and then have the very life of Jesus Christ living in us so that we’re completely new people. That’s the good news that can completely change your life.