Good Shepherd Lutheran Church
State College PA
January 1, 2017
The Galatians were asking a similar question, and they were receiving a very definite answer from some teachers who had come into the area. They were asking, “what must we do to perform the works of God,” and these teachers were telling them: “be circumcised and submit to the law of Moses.” The people who questioned Jesus were looking for this sort of answer; it’s just the kind of thing they were hoping for: “If you want to perform the works of God, do this and everything will be fine.”
This question doesn’t seem as urgent to us, living in the 21st Century. We live in a very different kind of society, and “doing the works of God” is not as high on our agenda. But here’s a question we do ask: “how can I be successful?” “What do I need to do to become a success?” It really doesn’t matter what kind of success we’re concerned about: financial prosperity, personal happiness, a fulfilling career, a good reputation, or a leadership position in the church. We want to be successful; we don’t want to be failures. We want to know that our lives have counted for something. And when we come into God’s presence, very often the most pressing question on our minds is this: “what do I need to do to become successful?” That’s one reason there are so many self-help books in Christian bookstores. We want to know how to succeed in life.
Eugene Peterson makes this interesting observation: “Among the apostles, the one absolutely stunning success was Judas, and the one thoroughly groveling failure was Peter. Judas was a success in the ways that most impress us: he was successful both financially and politically. He cleverly arranged to control the money of the apostolic band; he skillfully manipulated the political forces of the day to accomplish his goal. And Peter was a failure in ways that we most dread: he was impotent in a crisis and socially inept. At the arrest of Jesus he collapsed, a hapless, blustering coward; in the most critical situations of his life with Jesus, the confession on the road to Caesarea Philippi and the vision on the Mount of Transfiguration, he said the most embarrassingly inappropriate things. He was not the companion we would want with us in time of danger, and he was not the kind of person we would feel comfortable with at a social occasion” (Traveling Light, p. 95).
The teachers at Galatia are telling the churches there how to become successful before God, but they’re off track because they don’t really understand the purpose of the law in God’s plan of redemption. They’re telling the Galatians how to become successful by using the law, when the purpose of the law is to show them their failure. The law has a place in God’s work of redemption, but it’s different than they’ve been assuming. The law, in God’s purposes, is not the main thing. God’s primary way of dealing with His people is through the promise; the purpose of the law is to show us our neediness. The purpose of the law is not to give us the secrets of success; the purpose of the law is to underscore our failure and show us our need.
Paul points out, in verses 15-18, that the promise was given long before the law. Paul was being accused of starting a new sect. The false teachers were accusing him of departing from the teaching of the Old Testament, of laying aside God’s revelation in the past. So Paul wants the Galatians to know that this is not true at all. God dealt with Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, on the basis of promise, not law. And God not only made a promise to Abraham, but to his descendants as well. The law, which was given more than 400 years later, can’t override God’s promise to Abraham and his descendants. The Judaizers who were teaching in Galatia were assuming that law is God’s primary way of dealing with His people. They had made obedience to the letter of the law the fundamental thing that defined their relationship with God. So Paul shows here that they’re off track. God’s primary way of dealing with His people is through the promise. The law can’t be the primary thing, since it was added so much later. God is faithful to His Word; when He gave the law to Moses, He wasn’t canceling out His promises to Abraham.
Why do we have binding contracts drawn up by lawyers who exercise great care trying to eliminate loopholes and escape routes? Why are so many marriages disintegrating in our society (which means that people who’ve taken a solemn vow to remain together ‘till death do us part’ have decided to lay aside their promises)? Why are so many children embittered toward their parents for promises they’ve made, but haven’t kept? We’re not faithful to our promises. We say we’re going to do something, but then we find that it’s not as easy as we expected, so we change our minds. Sometimes we fail to keep our promises though simple human weakness; we find that we’ve promised to do something that we’re unable to do. But much of the time we’re just unfaithful. God isn’t like this. He is true to His word. He’s not going to change His mind in the future, and He’s not going to be hindered by weakness in the way we are. God began His work of redemption with a promise to Abraham and his descendants. When He gave the law, 400 years later, it wasn’t that He said to Himself, “well, I can see that this isn’t working; I’d better try something else.” The law doesn’t cancel out the promise in that way. God’s fundamental way of dealing with people in this fallen world is through the promise.
There’s a reason God doesn’t deal with us through the law. Paul makes this point in verses 19-22: “if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” The problem is that the law can’t impart life. But the problem is not with the law. The problem is with us: “What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions.... But the scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin.” The law can’t give us life, because we are sinners; we’re people who are guilty of violating the law. The law can’t save us, because we’ve broken it.
Suppose we could take hold of ourselves and begin faithfully obeying the law from now on until the end of our lives. That’s the idea of legalism: we save ourselves by faithfully observing the law, without any lapses, until we stand before the judgement seat of Christ. Well, suppose we could do that. Would it do any good? We’ve already broken the law, so what we’re hoping is that our obedience in the future will outweigh our disobedience in the past. But the law doesn’t give us that hope. The law condemns us as sinners. The law shows us how many times we’ve failed to keep it. Even if we obey more than we disobey over the course of a lifetime, the law calls us to account for our disobedience. There’s no provision in the law that says “five acts of obedience cancel out one sin.” And, of course, the problem is not only with past sins. No matter how hard we try, we continue to fail in our attempts to obey the law. When we try to save ourselves by obeying the law, we only lead ourselves into deeper condemnation. The law is always there to show us how many times we’ve failed to keep it. Martin Luther discovered this; he was diligent in trying to do everything he could to live in obedience, but he ended up coming to the point where he said he hated God and saw Him as an impossible taskmaster.
So, what is the purpose of the law? If it was given so much later than the promise, and if it’s unable to rescue us from our sinful condition, why did God give it at all? Paul explains this in verses 23-25: “Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” The purpose of the law is to lead us to Christ.
Paul uses an interesting word to describe the law’s function: “He calls the law a custodian: ‘The law was our custodian until Christ came.’ The meaning of the Greek word paidagogos that lies behind the English word custodian often loses something in translation. Greek families that were well enough off to have slaves chose one of them, usually an old and trusted slave, to be in charge of their child or children from the ages of six to sixteen. This custodian went with the child to school to see that no harm or mischief came to him. He was not the schoolmaster. He had nothing to do with the actual teaching of the child. It was only his duty to take him safely to the school and deliver him to the teacher. That, says Paul, is how the law works: it delivers us to the place of faith, to Christ” (Peterson, Traveling Light, pp. 104-105). This idea comes across clearly in The Message: “Until the time when we were mature enough to respond freely in faith to the living God, we were carefully surrounded and protected by the Mosaic law. The law was like those Greek tutors, with which you are familiar, who escort children to school and protect them from danger or distraction, making sure the children will really get to the place they set out for.” The purpose of the law is to keep us oriented to God, and to point out our need, our failure, which points us to our need of grace and mercy through Jesus Christ. The purpose of the law is to lead us to faith in Christ.
Maybe you’re not asking the question, “what must I do to work the works of God.” If you’re like many today, you’re far more interested in learning how to live successfully. Here are some phrases from church advertisements I’ve seen: “What if there was a church... where... real life issues are discussed?” “Real life issues,” not all that religious stuff that most churches talk about. “At [our church] we believe that finding real answers for life’s toughest problems is important” (and the context of this phrase makes it clear that they’re talking about the practical “how-to's” of ordering our lives successfully). This same church advertised a new sermon series: “How to Succeed at the Speed of Life.”
The message of the gospel is not “how to succeed.” The message of the gospel is “you’ve already failed in more ways than you know, and you’re going to fail again in the future (and you’ll fail even more if you try to do anything worthwhile), but God in His mercy has provided for this. Listen to the law, and acknowledge the truth about yourself, then come to Jesus Christ to receive mercy and grace. Trying to pretend that you’re a success (either at obeying the law or at having all of life figured out) will lead only to bondage.” The Galatians were being told how to be successful in God’s sight, and it was leading them into bondage. The free life of the gospel is a life lived in recognition of the truth about ourselves.
Eugene Peterson sums it up like this: “There we live by faith and failure, by faith and forgiveness, by faith and mercy, by faith and freedom. We do not live successfully. Success imprisons. Success is an unbiblical burden stupidly assumed by prideful persons who reject the risks and perils of faith, preferring to appear right rather than to be human” (p. 106). People who are obsessed with success are also inordinately concerned with appearances. Too often how we appear is more important than the truth of what we are.
In the middle of the 20th century, A.W. Tozer made this observation: “Much that passes for Christianity today is the brief bright effort of the severed branch to bring forth its fruit in its season. But the deep laws of life are against it. Preoccupation with appearances and a corresponding neglect of the out-of-sight root of the true spiritual life are prophetic signs which go unheeded. Immediate ‘results’ are all that matter, quick proofs of present success without a thought of next week or next year. Religious pragmatism is running wild among the orthodox. Truth is whatever works. If it gets results it is good. There is but one test for the religious leader: success. Everything is forgiven him except failure” (The Root of the Righteous, pp. 8-9).
The Corinthian church was full of pride. They were a “successful” church. So Paul decided to remind them of the truth: “Take a good look, friends, at who you were when you got called into this life. I don’t see many of ‘the brightest and the best’ among you, not many influential, not many from high-society families. Isn’t it obvious that God deliberately chose men and women that the culture overlooks and exploits and abuses, chose these ‘nobodies’ to expose the hollow pretensions of the ‘somebodies’? That makes it quite clear that none of you can get by with blowing your own horn before God. Everything that we have – right thinking and right living, a clean slate and a fresh start – comes from God by way of Jesus Christ. That’s why we have the saying, ‘If you’re going to blow a horn, blow a trumpet for God” (1 Corinthians 1:26-31, The Message). We’re not successes, and when we pretend otherwise we dishonor God. God is glorified when we acknowledge the truth. God’s way of redemption is to lead us to salvation in Jesus Christ by first showing us our failure to keep the law.
“This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent” (John 6:28-29). “There we live by faith and failure, by faith and forgiveness, by faith and mercy, by faith and freedom.” The law brings us into bondage, whether it’s the Mosaic law or a current Evangelical law about how to live a successful and happy middle class American life. Life in this world is full of sorrow and failure. Our vision of the Christian life needs to be in touch with this reality, and the foundation of our Christian lives is this: God has dealt with us, not as successes, but as failures. God knows all the truth about us. We don’t need to pretend. The law condemns us, but it doesn’t leave us in a state of condemnation; it leads us to a life of freedom in the grace of Jesus Christ. That’s the most fundamental reality of our lives as Christians. It’s not that we’ve learned the secret of living successfully. It’s that we’ve been reconciled to God and are in a relationship with Him which begins in this life and will continue throughout eternity.