Galatians Part 5: JESUS + NOTHING is An Excuse to Sin

Our study in Galatians brings us to the end of Chapter 2 and some of the best known verses in the Bible.  Earlier in the chapter, Paul recounts how he had to rebuke the apostle Peter “in front of them all” for drifting back into legalism, or what I call Jesus-plus-something.

The problem in the Galatian churches was the influence of conservative Jewish Christians who believed, “Yes, Jesus is the Messiah.  He died on the cross, and yes, you must give your life to him, but you also have to be circumcised like Abraham and follow the laws of Moses.”

Coming from a Jewish home and culture, it was difficult for Peter to let go of these convictions so essential his former faith (see Acts 10), and when pressed about these matters, Peter “fell from grace” and “began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles, because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision party.”

In our last e-news, I suggested that Galatians 2 presents at least four nasty symptoms of legalism:

1. Separation from others for good, godly reasons. Think carefully about this.  Peter was being influenced by brothers with strong convictions.  I’m sure they believed he was compromising his relationship with God by eating with uncircumcised Gentile Christians.  So he joined the hypocrites, as Paul called them, and distanced himself from other believers. The truth, though, was that Peter and his legalistic friends were actually the ones who were compromising!  They were diluting the gospel of grace!  When our gospel is Jesus-plus-something, it’s always the “something” that makes Jesus less than everything, and it’s always the “something” that becomes our point of division with other Christians.

2. Fear. Fear is the motivation of religion without Christ.  But the Bible tells us, “There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (1 John 4:18).  Paul affirms this in Romans 8:15:  We have not received “a spirit that makes [us] a slave again to fear, but [we] received the Spirit of sonship.  And by him we cry Abba, Father.”

3. Hypocrisy. Legalism always breeds pretense, because when you can’t be perfect, you have to put on a perfect face.  You have to pretend to be perfect.  Or you have to dumb down perfection, make it easier to be “perfect,” and live up to that.

4. Man pleasing instead of God-honoring. “Even Barnabus was led astray.”  Bad religion affects even the nicest people.  Everyone begins to worry about what others are thinking, even those who are deeply rooted in God’s grace, like Barnabus.  Barnabus, “the son of consolation,” a basically tolerant man, became intolerant.

So it doesn’t matter, then, who we hang out with?  Or what we do? Or how we live our lives?  Because God loves us no matter what? Doesn’t Jesus-plus-absolutely-nothing imply there are no rules, period? Is that what you’re saying, Paul?  Gary?

Before we consider specifically how Paul responds to this legitimate concern, just why would Paul ask, “What shall we say, then?  Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?” (Romans 6:1) In fact, in Galatians and Romans, where Paul teaches us about unconditional grace, he routinely expects people to object (see also Romans 3:5,8; 6:15; 7:7; 9:19; Galatians 2:17; 3:21).  Paul’s concern about being misunderstood tells me three things:

(1)  Paul knows that absolutely unconditional grace, Jesus-plus-absolutely-nothing, is problematic.  Before he actually wrote Romans and Galatians, Paul probably had multiple and extended discussions with Christians who dismissed his idea of grace as being too loose, too open-ended, too forgiving.  That it gave people an excuse to sin.  It’s the same reason I’ve heard people talk about “balancing” grace with responsibility.  Yet Paul makes no effort to do this.  He absolutely will not back down on absolutely unconditional grace, even though he knows his readers will say to him, “Why don’t we sin more so grace can abound more?”

(2)  Think about this:  We hardly ever hear objections like this in Christian circles today.  Could it be that pastors and teachers are not explaining grace the way Paul did?  Yes. If you’re teaching Romans or Galatians, and your particularly religious listeners aren’t offended in the same way Paul’s readers were offended, if your listeners don’t object that your view of grace leaves the door open for sin, than you are probably “balancing” grace–making it less potent than Paul’s grace, less controversial, less amazing.

Paul says it this way in Galatians 5:11, “Brothers, if I am still preaching circumcision [Jesus-plus-something], why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offense [Greek: skandalon] of the cross has been abolished.”  Jesus-plus-nothing is scandalous. To me (and Paul) grace is amazing only when it’s controversial.  In so many of our churches grace is good, grace is necessary for salvation, but grace is notamazing.

(3)  Like Paul, I won’t back down on amazing, utterly unconditional, start-to-finish grace.  Like Paul–because of Paul–I also believe Jesus-plus-nothing is absolutely not an excuse to sin, which brings us to Galatians 2:17, where the apostle writes,

If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!

Simply, my relationship with Jesus, who loves me unconditionally now and forever, does not “promote sin.”

Paul continues:

18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. 19 For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.

This verse is difficult to understand, and I think Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Messageis helpful:

If I was “trying to be good,” I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.  What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man.

In other words, Jesus-plus-something is just another attempt to rebuild the same old rickety barn that came tumbling down when I met Christ.  Before becoming a Christian, Paul had worked so hard on his relationship with God.  He called his former self “a Jew of Jews, a Pharisee of Pharisee,” but came to realize that all his religious effort wasn’t just an old barn.  It was more like what you smell in an old barn.  Dung.

Paul’s strenuous religious efforts just killed him.  He gave up and gave in.  He “died to the law” and began living by faith one day at a time.  No, grace is not an excuse to live badly.  It’s a reason to live well.  Paul says it brilliantly in one of the most powerful statements in the Bible:

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

How can you not love and serve a God who loves you unconditionally?  You’ve been crucified with Christ and he lives in you!  Theologians refer to this as the doctrine of identification.  When Jesus died, he took my sins away.  Christians are usually clear on this.  But he did more.  When Christ died, my old nature literally died with him.  In Christ, my sin was judged and I was condemned, and when he rose in victory over sin and death, because my sin was crucified with Christ, I rose with him.  (See also Romans 6:1-4).

My Christian life is not about God on one side and me on the other.  Like somehow God is waiting for me at the finish line.  No, everything about my faith is rooted in Christ, my only hope of glory.  I’m not saved by my righteousness.  I’m not keptsaved by my righteousness.  It’s not Jesus-plus-nothing at the starting line and Jesus-plus-something along the way.  It’s Jesus-plus-nothing all the way.  Jesus is the author and finisher of my faith.

He’s the alpha and omega of my salvation, and I am confident that God who began a good work in me will carry it on to completion (Philippians 1:6).  It’s grace, grace, grace.  Jesus-plus-nothing from the moment I’m born-again till the day I walk through heaven’s gates.  That’s why Paul adds,

21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

Remember, Paul is not writing to unbelievers who need to “get saved.”  He’s appealing to believers who think that on-going relationship with God is based on Jesus-plus-something. These are strong words:   “I do not set aside the grace of God.”  In the old King James Version, it reads:  “I do not frustrate the grace of God.”  In other words, as soon as I start adding my own works, I stand in the way of God working in me.  I frustrate God, and I frustrate myself.  God doesn’t give up on me, but the treadmill of human effort takes me down.

I can hear Paul raising his voice, “If becoming fully righteous depended on my effort, Christ died for nothing.”  In other words, Jesus-plus-something means that the death of Jesus wasn’t enough.  It fact, it means he died for nothing.  In contrast and in amazing clarity and simplicity, the writer of Hebrews declares, “By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:14).

Continue reading: Galatians Part 6: Idiot Christians

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