Sermon series: Christ the Center
Erma Bombeck used to tell a story that illustrates our "grace starved" culture.
One Sunday while attending church, she saw a young child struggling to keep the proper etiquette. He was squirming, humming, turning around in the pew, and smiling at other parishioners. Finally his mother jerked him by the arm and said in a course whisper that was loud enough to be heard by most of the congregation, "Stop that grinning." Then she gave the child a firm spank on his fanny as tears rolled down his cheeks.
Bombeck said she would not advocate misbehavior, but she wanted to hug that tear-stained child and tell him about a God who is happy and smiling. "My God has a sense of humor big enough to have created someone like me." She wanted to say to the mother, "You fool. You are sitting next to hope, light, and joy without even noticing. If you can't smile at church, where else can you go?" If you can't find grace find grace in the church, where else will you find it.
Unfortunately, many Christians are so concerned about avoiding hell that we forget that Jesus promised abundant life as we journey toward our heavenly home. In the book of Galatians, the apostle Paul addresses one of the most controversial subjects of Christian faith. While most Christians agree that salvation is a divine work of grace extended to those who respond to God's offer of eternal life through faith, numerous fights have plagued the Christian community about how to live once we are saved.
Mark Twain used to tell the story of putting a dog and a cat in a cage to see if they could learn to get along. They did fine after a few little adjustments. Then he tried a bird, pig, and a goat. They got along surprisingly well. Then Twain put a Baptist, Methodist, and a Presbyterian. In less than two days, nothing was left. The sad truth is that you don't have to mix denominations. Sometimes you can put three Baptists in a cage, and they would kill each other in matter of days.
We like to sing about Amazing Grace that saves us, but we once we're saved we like to sing Follow The Rules and Act like Me. The message of Galatians is difficult for many to accept because it cuts against the grain of what most have embraced all their life without ever questioning the validity of the rules for Christian behavior.
The specific violation described in Galatians is false teaching requiring Gentiles to observe Jewish laws passed down from Moses about such things as circumcision, diet, food sacrificed to idols, and observing Jewish holy days or festivals. We must be careful not to dismiss this text as something that just applied to the controversy between Judaizers and Gentile believers. The issue of requiring any law as part of Christian faith, whether from the Old Testament or from the 21st century, is contrary to genuine Christian faith.
Paul uses incredibly strong language, stating when you move away from grace you create a different gospel than what Jesus offers. Not only must we make the application to include 21st century legalism, but we must recognize that the issue threatening the church was not just salvation but Christian living. In his book, Grace Awakening, Charles Swindoll states, "If I had to name the greatest enemies of the Christianity, I would list legalism first." (Grace Awakening, p.77).
I. Possibility of straying
The recipients of this letter were followers of Christ. In chapter four, Paul writes, "In the past you were enslaved, but now you know God." Also included in this letter to the Galatians is the account of the apostle Paul rebuking Peter for participating with the Judaizers instead of standing firm upon the gospel of Christ. The book of Hebrews warns us, "See to it that none of you has a sinful and unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God" (Heb. 3:12). It is possible to stray from grace and desert the core principles of participating in the abundant life that Jesus desires for His followers. Knowing that it is possible, let's consider what deserting grace might look like in the 21st century.
Illustration: "Roscoe Illus"
Let's say Roscoe comes to you and says that he is trying to read his Bible and become a better person so that God would forgive his sins. You tell Roscoe the good news that Jesus died to save sinners. You share the incredible truth that we are saved by grace though faith, and Roscoe gets saved.
Then, you tell Roscoe the bad news. The good news is that we are saved by grace, but once you are saved it is time to get busy working in the kingdom of God. First, you have to go to church on Sunday and tell the preacher, so he can baptize you. After you have been baptized and join the church, you must start attending all services; Sunday school, Worship, Discipleship Training, Sunday night worship, Wednesday services, and Monday night outreach. If you can sing you need to join the choir because if you don't use your gift, you will lose your gift.
After establishing a habit of attending and working in the church, you must develop a discipline of personal devotion, or what mature believers call a quiet time. Read the Bible every day - 3 chapters from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament - so you can read the entire Bible in a year. In addition to the Bible reading, you should start praying for 30 minutes every day. Early morning is best because you want to start your day with God.
Now that you are saved, Roscoe, you must be a soul-winner because this is the great commission. You should average at least one soul saved per month. And I almost forgot the most important thing: Here are your tithing envelopes because you must give 10 percent of your income to the church.
Roscoe is now experiencing a grace hemorrhage, but you don't even notice the bleeding because that is what you been attempting to do all your Christian life. You have never been able to live up to that standard, but you would never admit it to a new believer. You secretly hope Roscoe will loose his enthusiasm and settle into a mediocre faith that doesn't make anyone nervous. After sharing the personal growth disciplines, you move to the next item of business of acceptable behavior for a good Christian church member. These mostly consist of Nos.
No alcohol, or eating where they serve alcohol
No sports on Sunday
No tobacco or gambling, unless you are a Kentucky Baptist because they believe even God loves the Kentucky Derby
No R-rated movies, unless you wait for them to come out on TV or rent them for home viewing
No rock or rap music
No two-piece bathing suits at the beach (not a problem for Roscoe, but a good Christian lady would never wear such an abomination)
No expensive jewelry or cars
No voting for anyone other than the candidate endorsed by Christian right-wing conservatives
Here are some examples that hit closer to home for our church: No drums, No electric guitars, No dinners in the "sanctuary", No clapping, and the list goes on. It may make you feel better to say, "Well, that is just how I feel" or "That is how I was raised." But the truth is that your list is nothing but legalism.
Steve Farrar, former pastor and author of the best-selling book Point Man, shares how his view of Halloween clashed with the legalistic views of members of his church.
Because of the pagan origin of Halloween, several families did not let their children raid the neighborhood for candy, and they certainly would not give candy to children, which would mean supporting paganism. "My reply was that Halloween did have pagan origins. But in my family we are not thinking anything pagan. We're just thinking about how much candy we can accumulate in about two hours. We have the mentality of chipmunks gathering acorns before the winter. We want to get as many Hershey bars as we possibly can before the long cold winter ahead. Our goal is to plunder the neighborhood the way the children of Israel plundered the Egyptians before they headed out for the Promised Land.
My kids have Christian teachers who told them Halloween is the Devil's day. I did not appreciate the legalism. According to 1 Corinthians 8, some Christians eat meat sacrificed to idols, while others do not. That's not a big deal in our culture, but it was in theirs. Some Christians get steamed over Halloween, others plunder the neighborhood in the name of Jesus." (Point Man, p. 48)
I am convinced if the apostle Paul visited most churches today, He would say the same thing to us that he did to the Galatians: "Why have you deserted grace?"
There are several contributing factors for deserting grace.
A. False teachers
Paul clearly states one of the reasons he wrote the letter was to correct the false teaching that was leading people away from grace.
B. Vain tradition
First Peter 1:18 says we are not redeemed with vain traditions, but with the blood of Jesus. Often in the church we adhere to a tradition that may have once served a definite purpose, but now the church is enslaved to the tradition instead of the purpose of ministry (e.g. the 11:00 a.m. service, which was designed for an agriculture-based community).
We like to achieve, so we set measurable goals that feed our selfish pride of doing something for God.
Because we don't understand who we are or what we have in Christ, we live to establish our identity by certain behaviors. I am a prayer warrior, I am a soul-winner, I'm a deacon, I am a Sunday school teacher, I am a tither.
Christians live in shame that they are not measuring up. They understand that Jesus paid a high price for their salvation, so they get busy to prove that they love God and appreciate what He did for them.
F. Hope of acceptance
Some struggle not from false teaching, but they just have not fully embraced who they are in Christ, so they work hard to earn God's favor not realizing that they already have God's favor and acceptance.
II. Power in the Savior
After Paul expresses his surprise that the saints have deserted grace, he shares some personal testimony to establish his credibility as an apostle. Then, he makes some incredible statements about how we should live our life on this earth as a follower of Christ.
Verses 18-20 reveal that we should not live according to the law, but we should live as though we have crucified the flesh with the source of life coming from Jesus Christ. Most of us think keeping the commands or adhering to some rules are keys to knowing Christ better. We have heard Jesus say, "If you love me you will keep my commandments," but we apply the verse incorrectly by trying to keep the commands to show our love for Christ. We have missed the point that love enables us to follow Christ.
Jesus is the source of our ability to keep the commands. Paul lived his life by grace though faith. He did not do great things for God. Rather, Christ did great things though him. Jesus practiced the same principle. Do you agree that Jesus did great works? That is a trick question. Consider the following passages:
John 14:10 - "I do not speak on my own, but the Father abiding in me does His work."
John 5:30 - "I can do nothing on my own."
John 8:28 - "I do nothing own my own initiative."
Acts 2:22 - "God did signs, miracles, and wonders through Christ."
Genuine Christian living is simply expressing the power and presence of Christ. We did not work hard to get saved, and we don't keep the faith by working hard at obedience. Colossians 2:6 says: "As you received Christ so walk in Him" (Col 2:6). You received Christ by grace through faith, so walk by grace through faith.
The major point that Paul is making in these first two chapters of Galatians is that it is not only difficult to live the Christian life by following a bunch of rules, it is impossible. We can only honor God and follow Christ by allowing his power to work though us by grace through faith. Our goal is not to live for Jesus, but to live in Jesus and allow Him to live through us. Instead of asking God to bless all that we do for Him, we should pray for God to work in and through us today. Paul declared, I am not living, but Christ is living in me. I am not doing things for God, but Christ is doing incredible things in me and through me.
III. Paradox of serving
Knowing that we are saved and kept by grace creates a beautiful paradox. Because we do not have to serve, we are motivated to serve. This is a difficult concept to embrace, because often the person living by grace is doing the same things as one living by legalism. But their motivation is different. This is described in the Old Testament when God rebuked Israel by saying He was sick of their blood sacrifices. Even though they offered the sacrifices according to the rules passed down by Moses, God rejected their sacrifice because their hearts were hard.
The Bible says that God accepts the sacrifices of a broken spirit and a contrite heart. Our goal or motivation must never be to gain something from God, but to glorify Christ who empowers us to serve.
To understand the paradox of serving by grace, we need to consider three important questions.
Are there Christian disciplines and commands that define our faith?
YES! Just a casual reading of the New Testament reveals numerous commands and disciplines that define our journey of faith as a Christ-follower.
Do you have to keep the commands to remain in good standing with the heavenly Father?
NO! We are saved by grace, and we maintain our relationship with God by grace.
Should we keep the commands?
Please note that this is the wrong question. Asking if we should keep the commands in attempting to follow Christ is like asking, "Do I have to kiss my wife or hug my kids?"
Listen to the testimony of Steve McVey shared in his book Grace Land:
Suppose I were to ask you for some marital advice. The imaginary conversation might go like this. "I travel a lot with speaking engagements, so I was wandering about something. When I come home, do I have to kiss my wife?" You say, "You should probably kiss your wife." My response is, "Should it be a little kiss on the cheek or on the mouth?" You say, "Probably, on the mouth." Then I say, "Can it be a short little peck on the lips, or does have to be one of those long, wet, romantic, movie kisses?" At this point you're thinking, there must be something wrong with my marriage. (Grace Land, p.141).
Think about your relationship with your spouse or children. Do you know all the laws about marriage or parenting? Did you study, or do you keep up with the laws against child abuse? Do you know what are the legal requirements for proper nutrition, or the punishment for failing to care for your child in an appropriate manner? How can you possibly raise a child without knowing all the laws? Because of love!
The right question to ask when considering any Christian discipline is: Do I Love Christ? Or: Am I obeying this command as an expression of love? Jesus said if you love me you will keep my commands. In John 15, Jesus uses the analogy of friend and a slave. Friends do the right things for each other out of love, but slaves do right things out of obligation. Jesus said we are His friends, therefore we keep His commands. Often in Baptist churches we have perverted this principle by saying and living by a legalistic motto: If you keep the commands then you can become a friend of Christ.
As we bring this message to a close, consider the following questions:
When you teach, is it because you like being in charge of a class or because you love Jesus?
When you sing, is it because you enjoy the applause or because you love Jesus?
When you witness is it because of obligation or because you love Jesus?
When you give, is it because you believe that God will shut the windows of heaven if you don't tithe or because you love Jesus?
Are you living by grace in the power of Christ or living by legalism having deserted the grace of God?