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Living Without Rules

June 17, 2001

Galatians 2:15-21

by Tony Grant

I now invite you to turn in your Bibles to Galatians chapter 2 and follow along as I read verses 15-21. Hear what the spirit says to us.

15 We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles,

16 Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

17 But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.

18 For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.

19 For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.

20 I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

21 I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

Amen. The Word of God. Thanks be to God.

Take the Cart Back

Let me begin by telling you one of our family legends. A few years ago we went to Cumberland Island. Cumberland Island is down near the Georgia Florida border. It is a National Wildlife Refuge that has beautiful scenery and a great beach, but it can be reached only by ferry. So we took the ferry over to the Island and landed at a Ranger station. At the ranger station, they have two wheel carts that you can use to take your beach parephenalia—things like umbrellas, blankets, iceboxes, food, etc.--across the Island to the beach. There is a sign there that says you must return the cart after transporting your stuff across the Island. Now my brother and his family were there as well and me and my family; So we took all our stuff piled it on a couple of carts and rolled it half amile across the Isand to the beach that ids on the Atlantic side of the Island. Now we come to the problem. My wife is a strict constructionist when it comes to laws. I am sort of a loose constructionist. She takes every rule and regulation literally. I tend to interpret these things creatively. My interpretation of the ranger rule about carts was that we would keep the carts until we got ready to go back, and use the carts to transport our stuff back to the ranger station when we got ready to catch the ferry back to the mainland. My wife pointed out that the sign said that after we had transported our stuff to the beach, we must return the carts to the ranger station. To her that meant that we took the empty carts back right then as soon as we took our stuff out of the carts. She insisted that we must take the empty carts back to the station, and then we could walk back and enjoy the beach. We got into a pretty intense argument about this. finally, since I am a Christian, I gave in, and we took the empty carts back—but I never admitted she was right. Perhaps I was not that Christian. Now that happened years ago but we have rehashed that argument many times since and our conclusion is that Beth and I represent two different and distinct personality types. She is a Keep the Rules person. Whatever the rules say, that is what you do. You do not need to question it, you do not need to argue about it, just do it. Now I am not the opposite kind of person. I am not a break the rules person, but I am the kind of person who might on some occasions bend the rules a bit. Understand we are not talking about the law of God here. We are talking about the law of man. We are talking about rules and regulations and I tend to think that my interpretation of a rule that some nameless person made is just as good as theirs and perhaps better.

Let us talk about traffic rules and regulations. The most violated laws on the face of the planet. Let us talk about traffic signals. Stop lights. My wife says it is easy. You stop on red. I say, suppose you are halfway out in the intersection. You cannot stop under the traffic light, so you would have to go on through even if it turns red while you are under it. By the way, you have heard the real interpretation of traffic lights haven’t you? Red means stop. Green means go. Amber means go very fast. My wife would say that amber is to give you a chance to prepare to stop. I would say that it is to give you a chance to speed up so you can get through the light before it turns red. Let us talk about stop signs. Have you ever done a "rolling stop." Talk about a contradiction in terms. How can there be such a thing as a "rolling stop." But have we not all, or most of us at least, done it. You come to a stop sign and you have been slowing down, but you are still doing maybe ten miles an hour but you can see that there is no traffic. So you just go on. Well, I go on. My wife stops--Because the stop sign says stop. I obey the spirit of the stop sigh.

The Legalistic Trap

Now I tell you all this not to embarrass my wife or to make myself look bad, but to make a theological point. I sometimes think when I am acutely aware of my sinfullness and my bend the law attitude, that Christianity was designed specifically for people like me. Because God recognized that when it comes to rules and regulations that people like me are perverse enough that we are never going to get the rules and regulations right. Ultimately no one does. My wife and I are in agreement on this by the way. She recognizes as well as I do that when it comes to pleasing God, we are utterly dependent upon the grace and mercy of god. If we try any other way, we fall into a trap from which there is not escape. If I try to please God by keeping all his commandments perfectly, I must keep those commandments every second of my entire life, and if there is one failure, even the slightest failure, then all is lost. Of course no one can do that and no one does that. There have been people who tried. Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer was one. Tolstoy sincerely wanted to obey all the injunctions of God all the time. He came from a wealthy Russian family, he gave away all his worldly goods. He wore clothes like a peasant, ate the poorest of food, loved his enemies as well as his friends, desperately tried to live Christ in every thought and emotion, every moment--and failed miserably and the experience almost drove him insane.

What is the point? Ultimately, when it comes to dealing with God, we deal in grace and mercy or we do not deal at all. But people have a hard time understanding that. Certainly first century Judaism did not understand it. Jesus grew up in a culture with more legal codes to throw at people than a state trooper waiting for an out-of-state city slicker on a rural back road. Flip through the pages of Leviticus and Deuteronomy for a colorful sample of regulations and more regulations.

Now no one ever kept all the laws of the OT. That is why they had the sacrifical system. If you were an OT Jew, when you failed to keep the law, you could go to the temple and offer a sacrifice for your sins and becleansed of your failure. But one thing we must say of most Jews in Jesus time: They did at least take the law seriously. Then comes Jesus, who plucked grain on the Sabbath and healed people on the Sabbath, and consorted with an array of unclean people from lepers to prostitutes. And he did it without remorse, to the utter infuriation of the Jewish establishment. Jesus was my kind of guy. I love him.

Jesus himself refrained from imposing the stiff penalties of the law upon others, choosing instead to pass out warning tickets with a grace so foreign to that culture that people staggered away from his presence with a mixture of bewildered relief and evangelical zeal. Once he even charged a law-abiding citizen to sell all he had and give it to the poor. Jesus let the sinners go with a word of encouragement, but challenged those who followed all the rules to make a dramatic leap of faith.

All of which brings us to a few observations: The church has a history of being legalistic. We enjoy the idea that there is some sort of litmus test for Christian spirituality. We would like to draw a moral or political line in the sand and say step over this and you have stepped out of communion with the body of Christ.

Unfortunately, our lines in the sand change over the years. Yesterday's heresy is today's orthodoxy, and, this being true, we tend to trivialize sin. For starters, we don't call it sin; we refer, instead, to our mistakes, shortcomings and failures. We regard ourselves as morally challenged, perhaps, but not sinners. Mistakes were made, but nothing that can't be fixed, by us.

The trivialization of sin results in a meaningless - or absence of - confession of sin. No point in confessing what we consider trivial stuff. Granted, we may read a printed prayer in unison as a part of the liturgy, but we are not likely to wrestle much with the spirit-crushing, soul-wrenching reality of our sin.

Today the therapist is likely to be the one to whom people go to pour our their problems and distress. And the therapist is likely to blame the mess we've made of things on some dysfunction or as-yet-unnamed syndrome. We prefer the jargon of psychobabble because it sounds reassuringly guilt-free. We rely on the latest pharmaceutical product because popping a pill is an easier fix than penance, or prayer.

We will be told that we are not sinners. We are suffering from a hereditary predisposition, a chemical imbalance, or temporary insanity.

Then the apostle Paul weighs in. Paul would say to us, the problem really is sin. The only solution to this problem is grace.

Galatians 2:15-21

Our text today is the crux of the apostle Paul's very theological letter to the churches of Galatia. His theme is simple. Salvation is only possible through the work of God in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Justification through faith in Christ and not through works of the law is a fundamental and recurrent theme through all of Paul's writings, and especially in Galatians and Romans.

Although the letters to the Romans and to the Galatians share a number of characteristics (e.g., justification through faith, a prominent role for Abraham, and heavy reliance on the OT), the contexts in which they develop those ideas were different. For example, today's lesson was written in the midst of an internal Christian controversy.

Some scholars believe that the opening lines (vs 14-16) of today's text are part of a quotation. They are a quotation from a letter that was Paul's response to Peter challenging the necessity or even suitability of observance of Jewish law by Christians. The specific point of debate was table fellowship between Jews and Gentiles. While Jewish law forbade (and forbids) observant Jews to eat Gentile meat, Paul accuses Peter of hypocrisy in his vacillation between separatism and union with Gentile Christians at meals. Back in v12, Paul says that at first Peter ate with Gentile converts, but then certain men came from James, certain strict Jews came up from Jerusalem, who looked down their noses at this kind of fellowship and Peter then drew back from such intimate associations with non-Jews. To Paul this kind of pretense of piety is just plain bad faith and is based on a total misunderstanding of the gospel.

Paul emphasized his own Jewish identity, saying in v15, "we ourselves who are Jews by birth." He emphasized this identity in order to emphasize how futile this identity is in establishing any sort of relationship with God. He speaks of the Gentiles as "Gentile Sinners." This is pretty harsh language, and we might think that this was not very sensitive of Paul since a large part of his audience in Galatia was probably Gentile.

Paul's journey to the cities of Galatia (e.g., Derbe, Lystra, Iconium) during his second missionary journey around A.D. 51 introduced, probably for the first time, converts to Christianity directly from the Gentile population who had no background in OT religion at all. So the "Gentile sinners" that Paul is talking about were people that he personally had led to Christ. It seems likely then that Paul is writing ironically. An orthodox Jew would have referred to a Gentile as a sinner. What Paul is saying is that neither "we Jews" nor those so-called "Gentile sinners" are going to get to heaven by trying to keep a bunch of rules and regulations.

In v16, Paul takes up the term To be "justified" (or "reckoned as righteous"). This is a prominent doctrine in Galatians. Every time Paul mentions this doctrine, he contrasts the futile attempts of those who seek to justify themselves by or through works of the law, as opposed to being justified by God's graciousness through faith in Jesus Christ. For the apostle Paul, faith in Christ is a sinner's personal reaching out in love to embrace the good news of God's reconciliation of the world through Jesus' saving life and work. Paul’s point is that "we Jews" and those "Gentile sinners" are just alike. Sin has separated all of us from God, and the only way that any of us can be justified, or reckoned as righteous, by God is through Christ.

In v18 Paul emphasizes that he will not "build up again the very things" he once tore down. That is, he will not return to his former state of captivity to the law from which his faith in the Son of God has freed him. In this context, Paul's faith in Christ is his renunciation of the world, and that includes a renunciation of the world’s idea of what we must do to be saved. Paul expresses that renunciation in v19 as his having "been crucified with Christ." This term—"crucified with Christ"—expresses the utterly profound nature of conversion. What Paul is saying is that there is a radical difference between the old life (which thought in terms of "we Jews" and Gentile sinners) and the new life in Christ.

Paul concludes this portion of his argument by casting in absolute terms the contrast between justification through faith and justification through works: If the law justifies, then God's grace has been nullified and "Christ died for nothing" (v. 21). The center of Paul's theology of salvation by grace is the sacrificial death of Jesus as an expression of God's gracious will. It is in acknowledging that act and allowing its resultant sanctifying grace to transform his life that Paul is able to say, as the ultimate affirmation of the new life in Christ, "it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me" (v. 20).


Judaism is primarily keeping the Torah, the law. That means that most of the energy of Judaism must be spend defining what the law is to people like me who might try to bend it a little bit. For example, take the law about no work on the sabbath day. What is the sabbath day—exactly when does it begin and end, and what is work. If I walk a hundred yards is that work, if I walk a mile is that work. If my wife cooks dinner, is that work? If a doctor works on the sabbath is that work? In Judaism, the rabbis have spent incredible amounts of time and intellect answering questions like that. And if keeping the law is your method of salvation, every such question has to be answered. You must spell out every detail, because if you fail in any detail, you are lost.

Thank God that in Jesus Christ, we have a better way. Through the sanctifying grace of God, our lives are transformed and God reckons us, God accepts us, as righteous. Wow! Is not that great? Imagine that you are a first century Jew, and you have been taught that you must do all this stuff, you must keep all these rules, to have any hope, any slight chance of pleasing God, then you hear the gospel. Our acceptance is based on Christ not on all these rules. I would convert in a split second.

And right now. If I was not already a Christian, I would become one, because that is the best news I have ever heard. Amen.


If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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