"Living By Grace"
(Pastor Greg and his family are enjoying the Thanksgiving holiday with their family. In the meantime, please enjoy this sermon delivered at Bethany Bible Church on Sunday, January 9, 2000. All scripture quotes, unless otherwise noted, are from the New King James Version.)
Many professing Christians spend much of their lives with a sense of personal defeat, frustration and failure. They love Jesus -- they've trusted Him as their Savior; but they feel that the Christian life presents a standard that is so high and unachievable, that they'll never measure up in the eyes of God and be acceptable to Him. They don't feel that they have it in them to do what it takes to be really, genuinely pleasing to God; and so, they go along with the dismal belief that God merely tolerates them and is, in reality, very disappointed in them.
This isn't the sort of experience of the Christian life God intended for us to have. And the cause of such an experience boils down to a doctrinal error -- an inaccurate belief that frequently rises up within the Body of Christ. It is this: such Christians rightly believe that they are saved by God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ; but they then wrongly believe that they are kept righteous in God's eyes through their own efforts. They believe that salvation is a free gift of God, but that God's favor must be kept on the basis of performance.
The tragedy for those who have fallen victim to this error is how it robs them of the sort of joy, winsomeness, and sense of freedom that ought to be the true character of the Christian life. After all, there's no endeavor more hopeless, and no life-style more binding, than that of seeking to maintain favor with the almighty God on the basis of one's own performance -- constantly fretting over whether one should eat this, or not eat that; or whether one should celebrate this holiday, or not celebrate that; whether doing this thing would make one more holy before God, or doing that thing would make one less holy. Such an error always takes someone into either of two directions: it will either delude them into taking their eyes off God and to pridefully elevate themselves over others; or will leave them with a perpetual sense of failure and a depressing sense of unacceptance before God.
The apostle Paul deals with this error very strongly. He said in his letter to the Galatians, that to believe that we can be made more inwardly righteous before God on the basis of external performance is to believe a false Gospel -- "a different gospel", Paul called it (Gal. 1:6). Paul wouldn't even give it the dignity of being thought of as simply another approach to the true Gospel (v. 7); but rather spoke of it as a message utterly distinct from the true Gospel of Jesus Christ. He referred to it as a "bewitching" error (3:1), a "foolish" error (3:3), an error that puts God's people in "bondage", (4:9) and an error constitutes "estrangement from Christ" and "a falling from grace" (5:4). This "different" gospel of "righteousness by works" inspired Paul to say, in the strongest possible terms,
But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you then what you have received, let him be accursed (vv. 8-9).
Put in modern vernacular, he actually wishes damnation upon those who deceive God's people with such a "false gospel". Rarely -- in any of his letters contained in Scriptures -- do we find Paul speaking in such strong terms as we do when he speaks of this error!
I speak this morning to my brothers and sisters in Christ -- those who have placed their trust in Jesus and have believed on Him for salvation from their sins. Let me ask you this: you have received salvation as God's free gift; but do you believe that, now being saved, you must still preserve a state of righteousness before God on the basis of your own efforts? You have accepted the sacrifice of God's Son Jesus Christ; but do you believe you must achieve a certain level of perfection before the heavenly Father will fully accepted you? Do you believe that following a certain set of religious ceremonies and avoiding certain external things will make you a little more holy in the eyes of God than if you just trusted what Jesus did and nothing more? And do you believe that failing to do these things will make you less holy before God than faith in Jesus has made you to be?
If that's your case (and I mean this in genuine love) then according to Paul, you have fallen victim to a most insidious "false gospel" -- a completely different gospel than the true Gospel message that Paul preached.
The apostle Paul himself once lived under that dreadful burden of performance-based acceptance before God (and according to Philippians 3:4-11, he excelled in his pursuit of it far more than you or I could ever do). But though he was once under that dreadful burden, he rejoiced that he was now free from it. Now, he proclaimed that he had been made completely righteous in the eyes of God through what Jesus did on the cross -- and nothing else! Trusting in the righteousness of Jesus Christ alone, he ceased trusting in his own fleshly efforts to add one fraction to that righteousness -- knowing, as he said, "that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified" (2:16).
Paul fiercely rejected this "false gospel" because it was tantamount to a denial of the sufficiency of faith in Jesus Christ. What's more, he strongly urged the Galatian believers to become has he had become; and to, like him, cease from their worthless efforts to earn God's favor on the basis of their own fleshly performance and to trust in Christ alone.
Please fix your attention to this morning's text. It's very good news to anyone who feels under the burden of "performance-based acceptance" in the eyes of God. Paul's personal affirmation of the sufficiency of God's grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone is found in Galatians 2:20 --
I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
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The believers in the ancient city of Galatia were gentiles who had trusted in Jesus as the Jewish Messiah and were saved by God's grace through their faith in him. But evidently, some false teachers had infiltrated the fellowship of these Christians and had begun to teach them that their faith in Jesus was not enough. They taught them that, in order to be 'perfect' before God, they needed to conform to the Jewish ceremonial laws and practices taught by Moses. They said that, to be in perfect favor before God, they needed to be circumcised, and adhere to the Jewish dietary laws, and carefully observe the prescribed feasts days and days of worship. These false teachers taught the Galatians that, so long as they failed to do so, they were imperfect before God and had fallen short of His full favor.
God had set these believers free by their faith in the grace that's in Jesus Christ. But slowly, progressively, these false teachers had succeeded in putting those same believers back under bondage to a performance-based relationship with God. And the Apostle Paul, who loved these Galatian believers very deeply, was furious about it. He wrote his letter to the Galatians to correct their error, and to call the believers in Galatia back to a pure, confident faith in the sufficiency of God's grace through Jesus Christ alone to not only make them right in God's eyes -- but also to keep them right in His eyes forever!
One of the principle causes of the error that they -- and countless believers after them -- fell into is a misunderstanding of the purpose of God's law. God's law -- embodied most concisely in the Ten Commandments, and expanded in the various laws, ceremonies and prescriptions that God gave Moses to pass on to the Jewish people -- is the expression of God's practical standards for holiness. They are, in fact, an expression of His own holy character and nature. They show us what 'holiness' looks like. We should never speak against the law or seek to set it aside; because it's of God. Jesus came, as He Himself said, not to do away with God's law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17).
But it's precisely here that people misunderstand the law's purpose. God never gave us His law as a standard of holiness for us to work toward and achieve on the basis of our own efforts. Rather, He gave it as a standard before which we will always fall short and fail in our efforts to keep fully. He never gave it to make us into holy people, but rather to make us into sinners that need to be made into holy people by God's grace through Jesus. He never gave it as the measure by which we cry out to God and say, "See what a good person I am, God? Don't you just love me?"; rather, He gave it as the standard before which we cry out to God and say, "Look at what a sinner I am, God! Please have mercy upon me!"
Paul explained this great purpose of the law to the Galatians. He told them that God made His wonderful promises to Abraham on the basis of grace through faith, and not on the basis of Abraham's performance. And God made these promises over four-hundred years before the law was given through Moses. And so, Paul asks:
Is the law against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. But the Scriptures has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore, the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Gal. 3:21-26).
Paul reminded them of how, before Christ came, mankind's experience with God's law was such that it placed them under bondage to "the elements of the world" (4:3). Like little orphans in a spiritual kindergarten, they were kept in line by slavery to a set religious rules and rituals and regulations that they could never fully keep, and that could never make them holy. Paul says,
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.
And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, "Abba, Father!" Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ (4:4-7).
By the Father's grace through His Son's sacrifice on the cross, these believers had been made completely acceptable to God. By faith, God placed His Holy Spirit in their hearts to testify to them that they had been adopted as His children. By faith, they had been made "heirs of God" through Christ.
How upsetting it was to Paul, then, that they believed they needed to go back into the spiritual kindergarten and contribute something to God's grace! Paul said,
But then, indeed, when you did not know God, you served those which by nature are not gods. But now after you have known God, or rather are known by God, how is it that you turn again to the weak and beggarly elements, to which you desire again to be in bondage? You observe days and months and seasons and years. I am afraid for you, lest I have labored for you in vain (4:8-11).
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Dear brothers and sisters in Christ, God's call to us through His servant Paul is that we trust fully in the work of Jesus Christ on the cross for us -- not only to wash us clean of our sins and to make us righteous in God's sight, but also as that which is sufficient to keep us righteous in God's sight. God calls us to live a life like Paul's -- a life of freedom under the grace of God. He calls us to declare as Paul did, "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me"(Galatians 2:20).
Paul's description here of his own life shows us a life lived under the principle of God's grace. What a life of liberty it is! Once you've truly experienced it, you'd never want to go back under that horrible bondage! Just look at Paul's description of the life of liberty he enjoyed.
I. It's a life based on spiritual union with Christ.
If you were to imagine Paul reaching up to the very heights of heaven, and grasping ahold of the highest levels of spiritual truth -- and yet doing so while he kept his feet firmly planted on the solid ground of practical living -- you'd have a pretty good picture of this verse. In this one verse, he is both as doctrinally spiritual and as functionally practical as he could possibly be. The first half of this verse deals with the lofty spiritual truths that make the Christian life so practical.
Notice the spiritual truth with which he begins: "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me ..." If what Paul said here were not true, they would be the blasphemous words of a mad-man. But if true -- and if reckoned to be true in personal experience, as Paul asserts -- they are the most liberating words any sinner could ever hear!
The spiritual doctrine Paul asserts in the first half of this verse is that of the believer's unity with Christ. He's saying that it's not true that Jesus' death on the cross is to have only a moral and emotional impact on him -- as if His death is to serve simply as an example that's meant to inspire him. Rather, it's the idea that, from God's perspective, when Jesus suffered on the Cross, Paul actually suffered with Him. When He died, Paul died with Him. When He was buried in death, Paul was buried in death Him. And when He was raised, Paul was raised from the dead with Him. Paul spoke of our spiritual unity with Christ when he said, in Romans 6:3-7
... Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life.
For if we have been united together in the likeness of His death, certainly we also shall be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old man was crucified with Him, that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves of sin. For he who has died has been freed from sin (Rom. 6:3-7).
The truest thing that can ever be believed about anyone is what God says is true of them. And concerning the man or woman who believes on Jesus, God declares that they have died with Him on the cross. They are no more condemned by the law than a dead person would be. The religious rules and regulations that hold dominion over sinners through condemnation, bondage and guilt, can only have dominion over someone for as long as they live (Rom. 7:1). Death terminates all such dominion. That's why Paul could ask the Colossian believers, in another letter,
Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations -- "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," which all concern things which perish with the using -- according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2:20-23).
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Someone might hear that and think, "Well then; if I've died with Christ and have been released from bondage to the law, then wouldn't this mean I could do whatever I wanted? It wouldn't matter how I lived." But that's not at all what this verse would teach us.
The doctrine of our spiritual union with Christ doesn't teach us that we now have nothing any longer to do with the Law of God -- but rather that Jesus Himself lives His life through us and fulfills the Law in us. Notice that Paul not only says, "I have been crucified with Christ," but he also says, "it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me ..."
The grammar of Paul's original words in the Greek are very important to our understanding of this. When Paul said, "I have been crucified with Christ"; he used the tense of the verb that communicates a past-completed act. And its nuance is such that it's an action that has been done to Paul by someone else. It's as if he were saying, "I, as a once-for-all, never-to-be-repeated act, have been placed by God on the Cross with Jesus and have been made to die with Him. It's a completely 'done deal' -- performed by God." But now, he uses a different tense of the verb -- one that speaks of an ongoing, continual practice. "It is now no longer I who continually -- as an ongoing practice -- live, but Christ -- as a continual, ongoing practice -- lives in me. Jesus' act of living through Paul wasn't a one-time-only act, but rather an ongoing, ever-present reality.
You and I could never live the sort of life that would please God and earn His favor. Not even Paul could. We're not released from the moral obligation of the law; but neither can we keep the law to God's satisfaction. But the good news is that it's not up to you or me to do so. "It's no longer I who live", Paul says, "but Christ lives in me." Jesus Himself, by virtue of His perfect union with us, lives in us the life that is pleasing to God. He never fails to keep God's requirements perfectly; and by grace, He condescends to live His perfect life before God in us! That's why Paul could elsewhere say,
Now if we died with Christ, we believe that we shall also live with Him, knowing that Christ, having been raised from the dead, dies no more. Death no longer has dominion over Him. For the death that He died, He died to sin once for all; but the life that He lives, He lives to God. Likewise you also, reckon yourselves to be dead indeed to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 7:8-11).
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To live under the principle of grace, you must first cease to live under the principle of law; and the only way to be released from the principle of God's law is to die to it. You and I will never, ever be able to live with a genuine sense of freedom and liberty before God -- we'll never be able to enjoy a sense of full acceptance before Him, and a sense of release from the bondage of the curse of the law -- until we see ourselves as having ceased from living. We must reckon it to be true of us -- we must consider it to be a true fact in our case -- that we have died with Christ, and that it is no longer we who live, but Christ lives in us. Spiritual union with Jesus Christ is the basis of living under the principle of God's grace.
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Now, in the second half of the verse, Paul deals with the practical implications of that great spiritual reality. Paul shows us, through his own life, that living by the principle of grace is not only based on our union with Christ, but it's also maintained by faith in that same union. It's here, more than anywhere else, that the principle of grace becomes the most freeing. It's here that we experience, in a practical way, the joy and winsomeness that God intended to be characteristic of our walk with Christ.
II. It's a life maintained by faith in that union.
Now once again, someone may read all that and think, "Well I may have been made to die in Christ; and it may be true that it's no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. That's very good 'theology' and all; but when I look in the mirror, I don't see Jesus -- I just see me. When I go off to work in the morning, it's me that has to go and work with those awful people. And when the bills come in the mail, they're not addressed to Jesus -- they're addressed to me. I'm still the one doing all the living, it seems. So, how does this business of spiritual union with Christ work out in practice?
Paul answers that in the second half of the verse; "I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me." (Galatians 2:20).
Paul doesn't advocate that we all drop out from real life. We're still in the same body. He speaks of the life he lives in "the flesh" or "the body". But notice that he speaks of a different life. It's "the life I now live in the flesh ..." It's a life that's distinct from the life he used to live -- back when he was still under the bondage of the religious rules, rituals and regulations. Back then, he tried to live in a practical pursuit of God's favor on a performance basis. Now, he lives with the confidence that he is already, perfectly, completely accepted and loved by God on the basis of faith in what Jesus did on the cross. As Paul says, "I live -- right now -- by a practical, ongoing faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."
Notice the details. Paul has faith in Jesus' identity: that He's "the Son of God." Paul lived, worked and walked about in this world with the confidence that he was fully accepted and loved by God because of Who he was connected to. He was united to "the Son of God." Second, notice that Paul has faith in Jesus' love. He didn't merely rest in the fact that he was connected to the Son of God; but also in the fact that this One who is the Son of God also loved him. Finally, notice that Paul had faith in Jesus' substitutionary sacrifice. Paul could have no confidence in standing accepted before God (and I say this with the utmost reverence) if he was only connected to Jesus and only loved by Jesus, but was still under the condemnation of guilt for his sins. Paul lived the life he lived by faith in the Son of God who loved him and gave Himself over to the cross to suffer the penalty of death for him -- thus making a full satisfaction before God of the penalty of sin, and removing forever the curse of the law.
Before we leave this verse, I'd like to call your attention to the most personally applicational aspect of it. Please take notice of how much Paul talks about himself in it. It is -- as far as I can tell -- the most self-focused verse in all of Paul's letters. Paul makes, in the original Greek, seven specific references to himself in it. It's filled with 'I's and 'me's.
There's something very instructive in that fact. Paul was able to live under the grace of God -- with a perfect sense of acceptance and love from God -- because all of this had become very personal for him and he had embraced it as being true of himself as a individual man before God.
If we personally trust in these things, and claim these spiritual realities to be true of ourselves, then let Paul's bold instruction to the Galatians also be taken to heart by us as well; "Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage" (Gal. 5:1). Praise God that we no longer have to earn His favor! Praise God that His Son lives a life through us that's pleasing to His Father! Praise God that He perfectly loves and accepts us in His Son Jesus! Praise God for the freedom that comes through living by grace!!
(copyright 2000 by Pastor Greg Allen and Bethany Bible Church. Reproduction without permission, in whole or in part, is strictly prohibited.)