Receiving the Gospel
Scripture: Galatians 3:1-14
This morning, we continue our study of Galatians. Paul begins chapter 3 by speaking directly to his Gentile brothers and sisters. The tone of his words speak volumes:
1 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.
The word “crucified” is in the perfect tense. It means something has been completed and still provides benefits or results. For instance, we dug a well and it’s still providing water. We planted a field and it’s still providing food. Jesus was crucified and his finished work is still enough for us.
And so, we could say this verse another way. How stupid can you people be? What spell are you under? We gave you a clear explanation of what Jesus accomplished and how it still benefits you. Have you lost your mind?
2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?
Paul assumes these people have received the Spirit. That they were already believers. But they have obviously forgotten how that happened. What was their role in the process? Did they enter the kingdom by doing good works or be responding to the finished work of Jesus?
3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Again, he questions their judgment. How stupid can you be? You started the Christian life by the Spirit. Are you now being perfected by works?
4 Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain?
5 Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—
Why does God bless us? Is it because we have earned His blessing by doing good? Or is it by responding to the finished work of Jesus?
6 just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”?
The New Testament references this verse, Genesis 15:6, three times. It’s an incredibly important verse, because it demonstrates that God aways intended to accomplish salvation in this way – justification by faith.
This is a whole-Bible doctrine – not a Paul doctrine. Faith in God counts as righteousness. We can escape the condemnation of God by trusting God to provide righteousness on our behalf. That’s specifically what Jesus accomplished.
This was an important argument for Paul because the Jewish Christians had no counterargument. This was written before Moses was born. There was no Mosaic law. And Abraham would not receive the sign of the covenant, circumcision, until two chapters later!
7 Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.
8 And the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.”
9 So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.
Not only was faith revealed to Abraham, so was the ultimate plan of God! The promise of faith was not exclusive to Israel. The Jews considered themselves to be the sons of Abraham. But Paul argues that God always intended to bless the Gentiles through faith. They also had the right to be called “sons of Abraham” – not because of law keeping, but because of faith.
10 For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”
The law condemns. Remember that. The law condemns.
11 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”
Faith justifies. The law condemns. Faith justifies. The law condemns.
12 But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
These two ways of living are mutually exclusive. That’s his point. You can try to live by works or you can live by faith. You can’t do both.
13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—
That’s from Deuteronomy 21:23. When someone committed a capital crime in Israel, they were stoned to death. Afterwards, they hung the body on a tree for a few hours to signify the judgment of God. It was purposefully displayed to demonstrate the curse of sin. It was difficult to ignore the consequences. Sin brings death. It brings the curse of God.
But consider Jesus. He was nailed to a cross – publicly displayed as a curse, even though he committed no crime. Beaten. Bloodied. Nailed. Hung. Gasping for air in pain. Becoming a curse. For us.
14 so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
The key word is “receive”. That’s the only word that describes our role in the story, our part. We passively receive it. Empty handed.
In fact, we must be careful not to think of faith as a work. Faith is not something we do. Faith is only a means, or a conduit, by which we receive Jesus.
Our confession describes saving faith as accepting, receiving, and resting. Those are all intentionally passive words, because we are being careful to say – as Paul says here by using the word “receive” – that God is the One doing all the work.
The law says, “Do.” Jesus says, “Done.” Faith justifies. The law condemns.
I appreciate the illustration Cyril Chavis uses in his new book to explain the blessing of justification. He says imagine that you receive an invitation directly from God to attend the greatest feast in history. As you read the invitation, you notice these words: “Dress to impress, or no entry.”
Knowing that God is perfect and holy, you visit every store in Memphis looking for the perfect outfit. You find the most expensive, most extravagant outfit in the city. You show up at the party feeling good about your choice.
But when you arrive, God looks you over and says, “You didn’t finish reading the invitation, did you?” At the bottom of the invitation, in bold print, it reads: “I will provide the attire.” And then God gives you the most amazing clothes you’ve ever seen – bright white and shining like the sun.
And that’s exactly the picture God gives us in Revelation 19 – it has been granted believers to wear fine linen, bright and pure. Our righteousness is a gift from God, received by faith in Jesus.
If you really want to understand this, you’re going to have to personalize it. Consider your own story. Think about the things you have pursued in your life. Career. Strength. Beauty. Athletics. Relationships. Hobbies. Think about the things we spend our time doing. There’s a universal human experience in all of those things. We never feel like we’ve done enough.
For instance, professional body builders reach the highest level of physical performance possible for human beings. We look at them and we marvel. But they look in the mirror and they see some muscle group that needs to be better. It never feels good enough.
And that’s exactly how it feels living under the law. My friend Ricky describes it as a feeling that God is like a policeman in the rearview mirror waiting for a reason to turn his lights on. He felt like that even when trying so hard to be good. Listen to how Ricky described his college years:
“In college, I awoke at six every morning and attended five Bible studies a week, plus prayer meetings. All it ever did was cover me with even more guilt because I wasn’t everything, I thought I ought to be. One summer I worked at Christian camp and felt guilty about it because I thought I wasted my summer trying to help rich kids. The next summer, I signed up to help poor kids, which was a disaster. I desperately wanted those kids to love me, to see my sacrifice for them, and appreciate me. I didn’t know it at the time, but I was just using them to fill a void in my heart. Once, when I saw how little they respected me, I got so angry that I threw a basketball at one of the kids. The true nature of my service was revealed: I was there only for myself.”
I can relate to every word of that. It may not have been religious works for you, but it has been something. Some effort that never felt like enough. You’ll never earn enough money. You’ll never be talented enough, or smart enough, or pretty enough, or good enough, or healthy enough. I’m not talking about what other people think about you. I’m talking about how you see yourself. That’s the curse of the law.
It’s not only that you are guilty in the courtroom of God. You’re guilty in the courtroom of your own soul. It’s never enough. And we do this to our kids without even trying. It’s second nature. We push them to perform. It may not be the law you grew up with, but you’ll replace it with some other law – some other way of life that’s the best way of life. We all do it. And it’s a curse. And we keep passing it on, generation after generation.
The very thing we don’t want to do, we inevitably end up doing. All you have to do is look at human history.
If you’re a parent, then you know how difficult it is to watch your own child suffer. And yet, that is also a universal experience. We’ve all been there. I’ll never forget sitting with my son for hours after he severely burned his hand in a fire. He was in immense pain. I remember thinking how much I wanted to take that pain on myself – how badly I wanted to trade places with him so he wouldn’t have to suffer. Given that option, I’d have done it instantly. No hesitation.
This is what makes the Gospel so remarkable to me. God the Son took the curse in my place. He traded places with me. And yet, Jesus did hesitate. Only for a moment, and probably only for our benefit – so that we might better understand what He chose to do.
Hours before the cross, Jesus was in deep emotional distress as He prayed to the Father. He said these words, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
The emotional distress of Jesus in that moment had nothing to do with the torture of the cross or even death. Like a parent loves a child, Jesus was ready and willing to suffer and die in our place. No… his distress was something else. He called it the cup. What cup?
He’s talking about the cup of God’s anger for sin. He’s talking about drinking judgment. He’s talking about that curse.
Try to put this in perspective. Any decent parent would willingly trade places with their own suffering child. But raise your hand if you would let your only child suffer unjustly in the place of people who deserve it?
None of us, and in fact we would consider that to be a weird form of child abuse. The only way it works in the Gospel is because The Father and the Son are One God. The lender Himself is the One paying the debt.
But consider exactly what that means! Why would Jesus willingly place Himself under a curse for us? The only answer is unconditional love expressing itself through sacrifice. A gift like that can never be earned. And in fact, to try and earn it is to mock the sacrifice by making it look conditional. That is the good news at the heart of Paul’s argument.
All we do to be justified is passively receive the good news.
But what’s the opposite of passively receiving something? Actively rejecting it. And that’s the default condition of every human being until God changes our posture by grace. You’re either passively receiving Jesus or actively rejecting Him. There is no middle ground. There can’t be.
Faith justifies. The law condemns. Faith justifies. The law condemns.
Will you today passively accept, receive, and rest in what God offers you in Christ?