Sermon on Galatians 3:23-4:7, for the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, "Law. Justified. Faith"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. What can turn us from prisoners, slaves, or children under guardianship and into freed people, adopted sons, and full-fledged heirs of God? That’s the change our reading is about today. We’ll look closer to see how, but first of all realize this isn’t a status change we can accomplish by our power. Getting free from the power and slavery of sin is something only God can do by His grace. Only He can make us His heirs. This is about what God does for us, not what we can do for ourselves.
First, you should know the audience of this letter. Galatia was a Roman province in the middle of what is now Turkey, and Galatians is one of St. Paul’s most important letters. So urgent that he skips his usual formalities and launches sharply to the point. With fiery urgency he tells them the very Gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake. They’re surrendering the true Gospel for a counterfeit. His urgent message is sent to get them back on solid ground.
In order to understand this passage, we need at least three good definitions. The words law, justified, and faith. We’ll go in that order. “Law” can broadly cover all of Moses’ teaching—the first five books of the Bible. Sometimes we hear of the “Book of the Law”, or “the Law and the Prophets.” In that general sense, the word ‘Law’ is a catch-all for a lot of different elements, such as history, narrative, teaching, promises, prophecies, commands and rituals, etc. But then Paul also narrows the meaning down. More narrowly ‘law’ is the actual commandments and rules of God: the 10 Commandments or circumcision, or food and worship laws. To be precise, God’s “law” is what He commands us to do.
Knowing God’s law does something else. It shows our sinfulness and failure. A mirror for our guilt, it puts us under the severe judgment of God’s wrath. It shows that we are filthy, covered in sin. The law is a painful reality check. If you remember the acronym S.O.S.: the law “shows our sin.” When Paul uses this narrower definition of God’s law, it’s in contrast with the other Word of God: the Gospel or promises of God.  The Gospel is a different S.O.S….it “shows our Savior.” The Gospel gives no commands, it creates no guilt or fear of punishment—but the Gospel is the news of what God has freely done for you in Christ Jesus.
Think law—think obligation. Think Gospel—think gift. Think law—think: “Do this”. Think Gospel—think: “this is what Christ has already done for you.” Think law—think punishment. Think Gospel—think rescue. Think law—think sin and death. Think Gospel—think forgiveness and life. The point is not to build a negative idea of the law—it is God’s good law, after all! But the Law can’t save us. Our sin and brokenness make the reality check of the law hurt so much; not any failing in God’s law itself. The true purpose of the law is to imprison us make us accountable for our sin. The Law holds us as a guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. The Law is unable to do for us what only the Gospel can do.
The trouble in Galatia has been a human trouble for every generation, including ours: We  try to credit ourselves as worthy before God by our works or good deeds. We conclude: “I’m going to heaven because I’m a good person.” That thought can go along with others, ranging from “God will just overlook my wrongdoing” to “Thank God I’m not a dirty sinner, hypocrite, or fill in the blank, like that person”…a sense of self-righteousness, that fails to see our own sin. All these thoughts are wrong because they are dishonest. They don’t hold up in God’s presence. God knows without a shadow of a doubt that none of us are good enough to go to heaven. When you read what God has to say about our human condition, He blows over all those ideas like a house of cards. A few proofs from this letter to the Galatians: “By works of the law no one will be justified.”(Gal. 2:16b); “If righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (2:21); and “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.’ Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for ‘The righteous shall live by faith.’” (Gal. 3:10-11). There is a giant “WRONG ANSWER” sign fastened over the law and our works. Law and works have a very important role—but it is most definitely NOT in making us righteous to stand before God. That’s a NO-GO.
Jesus faces this same trouble in the parable of the tax collector. A proud, upright, and religious Pharisee, boasts before God of his goodness and righteousness. Nearby, a sinful tax collector thinks differently. Humbly and in distress, he cries out before God for mercy, repenting of his sin. Jesus said the tax collector went home justified. Jesus did not count the Pharisee’s self-justification or self-righteousness for anything before God. Even the religious Pharisee could not be justified by law.
That’s our next word to define. It could lead us into a whole lengthy discussion and debate. But for a simple definition, ‘justified’ means “declared righteous or innocent”, like in a courtroom. The judge hands down the verdict: innocent or guilty! “Justified” is innocent. “Condemned” is guilty. God is judge; it’s His courtroom, and His Law rules. God set the terms and limits of His Justice. His Holy and Just commands spell the difference between good and evil, right and wrong. God’s Law expresses His perfection and holiness and justice. If we miss that perfection in the least degree—which all of us sinners do, by a mile and much more—then we can never be “justified” by His Law. No one has credible grounds to claim pure, undefiled innocence before God or total obedience, measured by God’s Law. Rather, we must follow the tax collector’s example: plead guilty and ask for mercy, if we hope to be justified. Because God cannot violate His justice without violating His very self.
Consider a poor analogy: you have an earthly judge. They have a good reputation; known for fair decisions. Then, all of a sudden, they start accepting bribes and ignoring the law. They would be unfit to serve as judge anymore. God is a righteous, holy, and just Judge. To ignore His own justice would go against His holy and just nature. But God was not going to leave us all doomed to condemnation under His law. The reading says, “when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” This is a question of how does God interact with His own law? Does He just hand it to us from the top down? No, rather, He comes to earth so that He can also obey it from the ground up. This is the most amazing truth in the Bible—God’s Son Jesus became human so that He could be ruled by the very same law He required of us!!. Some people imagine God is a cruel and unfair taskmaster who makes arbitrary laws and wants to see humans suffer in a corrupted world. Far from it! God “took His own medicine” and came under the law just as we are, and obeying it completely in Jesus Christ. Jesus was fully obedient to God’s law, for us. So God fully upholds His justice as a true Judge, but also grants mercy to all sinners.
This is our redemption—freedom from the prison and slavery of sin. Jesus rescues us from being judged and imprisoned under the law—guilty prisoners deserving death—to freed children of God. On the cross Jesus bore all the crushing, driving, accusing weight of the law. Our sin, pinned One Innocent Man down. But He was there willingly, not as a helpless victim, but taking our guilt so that we could be justified, declared innocent. Redeeming us from the curse of the law so we could get free.
The last definition I promised you was “faith.” We’ve talked about the law and “justified.” The law can’t justify us. But on account of Jesus’ perfect obedience and death in our place as a substitute for our guilt, He justifies us by faith. The word “faith” here, means to believe or trust in Jesus. When you trust someone, you can give yourself over to their care and protection. One of my NT professors describes faith as “honesty about dependence.” We recognize that when it comes to our slavery or captivity to sin—we are bound and helpless. The honest truth is we can’t cut ourselves free from those chains—we depend on outside help—Jesus. But if we are “dishonest” with ourselves, we will always think we can do it on our own, like the Pharisee. We might struggle and strain, but even if we convince ourselves that we are free and independent, we are still deceiving ourselves. We inevitably fail to recognize just how deep the power of sin is, polluting even the thoughts and motivations of our hearts. It’s like we say at the beginning of worship: “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” But God wants honesty before Him. He wants us to fully recognize our sin before Him. “But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”
Faith is the honesty that says, “I am a sinner, guilty before a holy and righteous God. There’s nothing I can do to save myself”. Faith clings to God’s mercy and promise in Jesus Christ, like the tax collector: “God be merciful to me, a sinner!” Faith is not disappointed, because Jesus says, “whoever comes to me I will never cast out” (John 6:37). He does not turn us away when we come in faith. When we are honest and humble before God …when we approach His grace in need—God is not stingy with His grace or forgiveness. He pours it out generously! He rejoices to give you the very gift He most wants you to have!
Our reading says that whoever is baptized into Christ is clothed with Christ. That means by faith God dresses you with the pure and spotless innocence of Jesus. God, and only God grants your verdict: justified by faith—innocent. By the law, God would have to judge you guilty for all your sins. But by the Gospel, by Jesus’ perfect substitution for you, He judges you by Jesus’ life and worthiness. Baptism dresses you with this pure robe of Christ. You are no longer a slave to sin or a prisoner in old rags—you are no longer the child needing supervision and the guardianship of the law. Now you are a baptized child of God—cleansed, forgiven, and a full heir of His promises. By faith in Jesus Christ, you stand ready to receive God’s promises—forgiveness, His innocence, salvation, and the joy of living in Him. This is a wonderful honesty to live in—the honesty of faith, and the dependence on the mercy of Jesus Christ. All glory and credit be to Him alone! Amen.


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