As we track the creation and supernatural growth of the Church of Jesus throughout the book of Acts, quite often we find miraculous events, or aspects of the church life, that leave us wistfully wondering whether the days of the “perfect” church are over. Other times we stumble upon passages that cause us to realize, “wait a minute- even the first-century church had issues!”
I wonder sometimes if we’ve not so convoluted the idea of following Jesus that what we now do wouldn’t even be recognizable by the early Church. I know, I know. We can’t necessarily take descriptive passages from the book of Acts and claim them to be prescriptive to the church today. I know this.
At the same time, I also know that many pastors long to see the Spirit of God at work in their churches and throughout their communities. I certainly do. But in the midst of our easy-chair version of Christianity, it’s easy to both see and sense a disconnect from our model of church and the one found throughout the pages of Scripture.
I’m increasingly convinced that one of the greatest struggles of the American Church is our seeming inability to step outside of our comfort zone to tell someone else about Jesus. Admittedly, this isn’t remotely true for many people who call themselves followers of Jesus, but it’s something the rest of us struggle with.
Last night in our weekly community group meeting, we discussed our seemingly natural propensity to find our highest satisfaction apart from Jesus. Sometimes we stupidly pursue overtly sinful things. Other times we misuse things in our life that are neither good nor bad, such as sports, games, food, etc. Still other times we pursue intentional obedience to God, yet with the wrong motivations. Whatever our bent may be, the common denominator is that we were finding our highest satisfaction apart from Jesus. We’d taken our eyes off of Him and placed them elsewhere.
When I was in my late teens, early twenties, I used to work for a construction company based in my hometown. On one particular job I learned two pretty important lessons. Number one, never trust the measurements of a guy whose nickname is “Pert Near.” The second lesson I learned was to never fall into my own habit of measuring and cutting things “pert near.”
I once mis-measured and (naturally!) wrongly cut wooden spacers designed to hold a steel door jamb in place so that the brick masons could go ahead and lay their block walls. Problem was, when the door arrived it simply would not fit.
We wound up having to bust a couple feet of wall out from one side of the jamb, install the door, and have the masons come back to repair the wall we destroyed because I didn’t take the time to do my job right. I learned that when it comes to hanging doors, your work is either right or it’s wrong. There’s not much in-between.
When it comes to construction work, a mistake can set you back in time and money. But what happens when the gospel you’ve entrusted your soul to is no gospel at all? When happens when the thread you’re clinging to as you swing out into eternity snaps?
Paul wanted to ensure that the churches in Galatia didn’t experience this, hence his letter.
Paul had a keen awareness of the grace of God, and while Jesus is beckoning the Galatians into a covenant relationship with Him, Paul is stunned that what they’re choosing to do is desert Jesus and add Moses back into the mix.
Here’s why this is so devastating. Any departure from the biblical gospel is a departure from the only gospel that saves. It’s not a modified gospel- it’s no gospel. Paul says, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…not that there is another one.”
I believe that the primary distortion of the Judiazers in Galatia is the same distortion being propagated in many churches even today, that distortion being the insufficiency of the work of Jesus on our behalf to actually work.
That when Jesus said, it is finished, he didn’t really mean it.
That we have to add to Jesus’ work to be made right with God.
The heretics in Galatia were saying “You most definitely need Jesus, but to be made right with God you must also keep the Law of Moses.”
Paul’s response was this: any gospel that is not grounded in the finished work of Jesus on your behalf, resulting in your complete forgiveness and closeness with God, is not the gospel.
And this is what Paul says about those teaching a false gospel: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.”
“Accursed” in the Greek is anathema. It means “to be damned.” Paul, one of the most grace-based individuals in history, the one who said that he would suffer an eternity of separation from God if it meant that the entirety of Israel were saved, says to these Galatians that anyone preaching another gospel can go to Hell.
Because that’s where a false gospel comes from. And that’s where a false gospel leads you.
So what gospel are you clinging to? The sufficiency of Jesus’ work on your behalf to make you perfectly right with God…or another gospel?
There is only one true Gospel- and it’s centered upon the person and work of Jesus in our place. Anything else is worthless.
It’s easy to disbelieve the Gospel and settle for something far inferior, isn’t it?
Some of us are convinced that God’s love for us is driven, determined, and dictated by our own behaviorism. If we perform well, God loves us. But if we perform poorly, God’s love wanes. His pleasure towards us fades. But this isn’t the Gospel.
Others of us wrestle not with the idea of earning God’s love, but with the idea that we’re too busted for God to love us. We’ve done too much wrong. We’ve blown our chance. God cannot love me. Not me. The Gospel says otherwise.
The root of all these ideas is the premise that God’s love is driven by us, and Paul would tell us we’re all wrong. And he would know.
When Stephen, the first Christian martyr, was stoned to death, Luke tells us “the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” After approving the murder of Stephen, scriptures go on to tell us that Saul “was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.”
That’s what Saul made his life’s goal. To wreck the church. To crush this foolishness before it got out of hand. Think you’ve sinned against God? You’ve got nothing on Saul. Saul was the ISIS of his day.
But on his way to Damascus something radical happened. Saul encountered the risen Christ. As a blindingly bright light knocked him to the ground, “he heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?’ And he said, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But rise and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’”
Saul tasted grace. The voice of Jesus? Void of condemnation. Instead, full of compassion.
Half the New Testament is penned by Paul, this former persecutor of the church, and the reality of the Gospel and the New Covenant between God and His people shaped the way that Paul viewed everything.
The problem at hand in Galatia was this: Jewish Christians have infiltrated these primarily Gentile Christian assemblies with this message: what Jesus did was great…but unless you become Jewish in practice, you cannot be saved. You cannot be right with God.
Jesus and Jesus alone isn’t enough to give you everything that God has for you- you must also bring something to the table.
Or we can baptize it, dress it up, put a suit and tie on it, and say it like this: your relationship with God is only as secure as your behavior towards God.
Or perhaps…we simply say this…keep the rules, keep the fellowship.
And all of a sudden we’re back within the constraints of the Old Covenant God had established with Israel, aren’t we? Man’s performance producing God’s promise.
The Galatians bought into this lie- perhaps you have as well.
But what if the Christian life isn’t based on rules and regulations? What if, through the Gospel, we’re not bound to the Law of Moses? What if Jesus died to set us free from the curse of the Law, from the power of sin…free to live in Christ?
“Grace to you and peace from God,” is how Paul begins his letter, immediately clarifying two things. It’s grace, it’s not effort. It’s grace, not something you’ve earned. And because it’s not based on us, but rather is grounded in the work of Christ on our behalf, we can truly be at peace with God.
In His cross, Jesus forever removed from his people the wrath of God abiding on their sin, and in our conversion his work is applied to us, meaning that right now I stand sinless before God. This is what the New Covenant means.
There is now no condemnation to those in Christ. We have been made new. We have been delivered from this present evil age, and God no longer relates to us on the basis of our pitiful performance, but Jesus’ perfect performance on our behalf.
If there’s only one thing you remember this week, let it be this: the Gospel is enough to save you, and it’s enough to sustain you.
I don’t believe that the Bible teaches universalism, or the idea that the entirety of humanity, being redeemed by Jesus, having had their penalty paid in full, having Jesus bear the guilt and wrath of God on behalf of their sins as their substitute, are therefore to be in Heaven with Jesus for all eternity.
I wish that were true. There’s something wrong with the follower of Jesus who relishes the idea of hell and eternal separation from God.
But I don’t think that universalism is what the Bible teaches. Eternal life is for those who believe in Jesus. The Kingdom of God is for those born again. Heaven is for those who love Jesus. And the Bible says that on the day of judgement, “if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”
So you can see the problem. If we say “Jesus died to save all people,” and yet we affirm that not all are saved, then what we’re really saying is that Jesus failed to do what he set out to do. “It is finished” doesn’t really mean it is finished. It means “I tried my best.”
In the wake of the tragic hate-motivated massacre in South Carolina this month, along with the blatant racism that has trickled through my newsfeed from proponents of both sides of the confederate flag issue, my sermon prep seemingly on its own accord revolved around gospel-centered racial reconciliation. As I said yesterday, we’d be fools to think that the tides of racism have receded from our culture.
If you’re anything like me (and it’s not a bad thing if you’re not!), you may wrestle occasionally with the frustration, fear, and anxiety that comes with not seeing God act in the manner you may have expected of him. For me, the primary concern revolves around Grace Church.
Maybe for you the question is this: “God, when are you going to bring healing to this relationship? God, when are you going to bring a degree of sanity to my life? God, when are the pieces finally going to fall into place with my job? When are you going to expand my family?“
I hate oversleeping. There’s something about it that just straight-up irritates me. It’s not that I’m one of those people who kind of set a mental alarm clock, only to have it fail. No, I use real alarms.
Where I err, though, is leaving my phone within arm’s reach. ‘Cause see, there’s a demonic little function on my phone called “snooze,” and I’ll play tag with that thing. Next thing I know, it’s seven-something instead of five-something, and I feel like my entire day is shot.