Sermon: Justification by Faith

I invite you to open your Bibles with me to Galatians, chapter 2, beginning in verse 15. Galatians 2, beginning in verse 15. Galatians is in the New Testament – Romans, Corinthians, Galatians, Ephesians. Galatians 2:15-21.

This summer, we have been journeying through Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia, listen for what the Spirit is saying to this church. As Paul unfolds the reality of the gospel, we will see that God’s love and grace in Jesus Christ ushers us into a new place of freedom, and in doing so, places us into a new set of relationships – first with God, and then with all those around us.

Already, we have heard about the temptation to either pollute the gospel or pull back from mission. We heard how the Galatians believed false teachers and turned to a gospel which turned out not to be good news, but terrible news. Then, we heard about Peter and the Galatians falling into the temptation to pull back from grace, to pull back from the mission to those outside the walls of the Jewish community. They settled for a gospel that promised grace, but turned around and placed burdens on the backs of believers. They settled for a gospel that proclaimed freedom, but ended in slavery, which, as Paul says, is really no gospel at all.

This leads us into our passage this morning. Galatians 2:15-21. But before we hear God’s word this morning, please take a moment to pray with me. 

Father, may your Word be our rule, your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ our single concern. Amen

These are the very words of God:

We who are Jews by birth and not Gentiles sinners know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law, because by the works of the Law no one will be justified.

But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

For through the Law I died to the Law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the Law, Christ died for nothing.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God

After detailing his encounter and rebuttal of Peter, Paul launches into a beautiful, masterful presentation of the gospel. We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.

We know this.

The way to get right with God, to receive forgiveness, to stand innocent before the mighty throne of God is not by our righteousness born of obedience, but because of the righteousness of Jesus Christ. The way to be justified is not to work harder, to buckle down and suck it up, to spend our days pursuing a perfection we, in our sinfulness, will never achieve – no, the way to stand just and pure before God is to place our trust in Jesus Christ alone.

So we, too, Paul says, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

Paul begins by saying that we know all this. We know that the only way to stand before the judgment of God is on the strength of Christ’s righteousness, not ours. We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.

We know.

But do we?

Do we know how a person can be right with God? Do we know?

I’m afraid to ask, because I’m not always sure I want to know the answer, but I feel compelled, driven to ask, because the stakes are so high.

Do we know how to be justified before God?

Between 2003 and 2005, researchers conducted the largest study ever undertaken on the religion and spirituality of young adults in America. The National Study of Youth and Religion, as it was called, surveyed and then interviewed high school students about their religious convictions. This is Olga and my generation. We were in high school when this study took place.  What they found was striking.

The dominant belief system of young people was not Christian or Muslim or Buddhist, or even atheist. In fact, they found that these students were largely open to religion as far as the concept is concerned. Cutting through all different backgrounds was a common set of beliefs shared by the vast majority of those interviewed. The researchers called it “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” or MTD for short. Lee, could you put that up on the screen. These are the core beliefs of MTD. Say it with me:

CREED OF MORALISTIC THERAPEUTIC DEISM

  1. A god exists who created and orders the world and watches over life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God is not involved in my life except when I need God to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die.

When high school students, who are now my age, were asked to describe their faith, this is what they said. Now, no one said it this succinctly, but it was there. Anyone feel uncomfortable? I don’t notice any elders mumbling to each other because we just publicly recited this creed. Anyone feel like something just isn’t quite right?

Let’s look quickly at what this creed says and what it doesn’t:

First, this set of beliefs is described as ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ – It is moralistic, because all God wants from you is to be a good person. It is therapeutic, because God exists to solve your problems. God is like a cosmic therapist or butler, who helps you solve your problems, but isn’t much use otherwise. And it is also ‘deist,’ which is a way of saying that God is generally not involved in the world, but just lets it run itself. God is there when I need him, but otherwise I do my own thing.

Additionally, we should notice that this is a self-centered story. The goal of life is our happiness, God exists to help us achieve that, and all of that comes about by ‘being a good person.’

This should already be setting off warning bells in your head, but even more striking is what is not there. There is no mention of sin – no mention of salvation because there is nothing to be saved from. There is no Jesus – no cross, no resurrection. No Holy Spirit. Other than God creating and being helpful, there is nothing there about this God. No holiness, no love, no justice, no mercy, no faithfulness. The Bible is mentioned only casually as a source of moral teaching. In short, everything that is true and central about the Christian story is gone. All that is left is this empty husk of ‘being a good person.’

That was tenet #5 – ‘Good people go to heaven when they die.’ If that is all that Christianity is about, then no wonder they aren’t interested.

I get emotional about this, because the people they interviewed are my age. They are my people, my friends, my family. And as one person put it, they worship at the church of benign what-everism. I get emotional, because I want them to know the gospel of the grace of God in Jesus Christ, because it is the only hope we have here, now, and for the life to come.

But I also get emotional because I want someone to blame – the youth leaders, sunday school teachers, and pastors for this shallow, blasphemous theology of MTD. But I am haunted by one of the conclusions of this study. Maybe, it is not that we are doing a bad job of teaching young people, “but that we are doing an exceedingly good job of teaching youth what we really believe: namely that Christianity is not a big deal, that God requires little, and the church is a helpful social institution filled with nice people focused primarily on ‘folks like us’ – which, of course, begs the question of whether we are really the church at all” (Dean 12). I cannot stand and blame anyone else for the state of Christianity in our nation, or for the spread of the heresy of MTD, if I am not willing to stop and listen to the gospel for myself.

We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.

Do we know this?

Because the evidence suggests that the vast majority of our churches and the vast majority of people sitting in those churches believe that all we need to set us right with God is to be a good person. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

But I’m here to tell you this morning that God’s word exposes this teaching as a lie. And it is an incredibly dangerous lie, because it threatens your very soul. If the default position of our culture was ever anything remotely resembling biblical Christianity, it is certainly is not now. If we are to have hope and a future, if we are to stand before the face of our holy God, we cannot resort to the defaults of our culture or common, popular religion. We need to examine exactly how God himself says he has made a way for us.

How are we made right with God?

How can we be justified? (Lee can you put that up on the screen)

Justification. When a law was broken and people came before the judge, they either stood “justified” (innocent) or “condemned” (guilty). The language of justification itself comes from the context of the courtroom, in the context of a broken relationship between us and God. How do we stand innocent before God when we have repeatedly broken our relationship with Him?

Luther claimed that the doctrine of justification was the doctrine upon which the church stands or falls. Either we stand on the grace of God in Christ alone according to the Word of God, or we fall into the abyss of fear, uncertainty, and ultimately judgment.

In our passage this morning, Paul lays out two supposed paths to justification. On the one hand, there is the path of ‘the works of the law.’ This is the path of complete obedience, of always doing exactly the right thing, so that we can be pure and right on our own. This is the path of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. It says ‘God simply wants us to be a good person and good people go to heaven when they die.’ At the time of Paul, people wanted faith with good works, faith with obedience as required for salvation, but Paul exposes all of it as really a project of saving ourselves.

If salvation is like baking an apple pie and you need 15 apples in order to bake it, if you and God both have to contribute apples, then whether the pie gets baked is ultimately up to you. Whether you say God contributes half or 14/15 apples, our contribution is what counts, what is necessary to actually bake the pie.

If salvation requires our obedience, if it requires our good works, even in addition to God’s grace, then ultimately we determine our own salvation, we save ourselves. And then, ultimately, as Paul tells us in verse 21 – Christ died for nothing.

If salvation is about being a good person, if there is a way to make up for our sin by our good deeds, then we don’t need Jesus. In fact, then Jesus’ death was tragic, because it wasn’t necessary.

But, if what Scripture says is true, If it is true that “no one can be justified by the works of the law.” If it is true that not only are we not saved by being good people, but we are, in fact, not good people, but selfish, rebellious sinners, then we need a different way.

One path – the path Paul’s opponents suggested, the path we see vividly on display in the religion of our culture, the path of ‘being a nice, good person’ is completely bankrupt. To walk that path, to put our trust in our goodness, our morality, our deeds, is to write a check with our mouths that our body can’t cash.

But there is another way. It is a way, that out of his great love, God has made for us. Three times in the first few verses of our passage this morning, Paul contrasts the way of works with the way of faith. And three times he emphatically states that God’s way is that of faith.

We who are Jews by birth and not Gentiles sinners know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law, because by the works of the Law no one will be justified.

How are we justified before God? How can we, who are unholy, stand before the Holy One of Israel? Not on our own strength. The only way we could stand before a holy God is if God himself came and made a way for us. The only way we could be righteous before God is if we were declared righteous on the strength of another. The only way we could be innocent is if the innocent one took our place. And the only one who could do that was God himself, come in the flesh in Jesus Christ.

Thus, either our salvation rests in our hands, on our strength, on the goodness of our deeds, or it rests in Jesus Christ, who loved us and gave himself for us. 

When the core of the gospel is at stake, there can be no compromise. Either salvation is of our making, or of God’s.

We who are Jews by birth and not Gentiles sinners know that a person is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.

We know.

It is only through the cross of Christ that sinners can be forgiven. And what we need is that forgiveness.

And if this is true, no, since this is true, we are called to give up on all our projects of trying to save ourselves and place our trust in Jesus Christ. Because in our works, in trying to get ourselves right and put ourselves straight, there is only anxiety, fear, and exhaustion. But in trusting Jesus Christ, there is life and joy and peace. We are told that in Jesus Christ, that old life with all its old desires and selfishness has been put to death. Now, Christ lives in us and we live by faith in him. When we place our trust in Christ, trust his death on our behalf, then God by his Spirit works in us to change our hearts to follow Christ.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

The contrast between the faith of this world, the faith of MTD, the faith of ‘being a good person’ and true faith in Jesus Christ is stark. One leads to life and the other to death. One is filled with peace and hope, the other is doomed to despair. This contrast is seen vividly in the difference between the creed of MTD and the gospel as proclaimed in the Heidelberg Catechism. Join me in confessing the Christ faith.

What is your only comfort in life and in death?

That I am not my own, but belong – body and soul, in life and in death – to my faithful savior, Jesus Christ.

He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil. He also watches over me in such a way that not a hair can fall from my head without the will of my father in heaven; in fact, all things must work together for my salvation.

Because I belong to him, Christ, by his Holy Spirit, assures me of eternal life and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready from now on to live for him.

Friends, believe in Christ, place your trust in him alone for your salvation, and be at peace.

In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.

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