by Jason Micheli
Galatians 2.15-21 (click to see Scripture text)
In case any of you were wondering, I don’t dress like this on Sundays in order to get girls.
And I’m not up here Sunday after Sunday because I’m an extrovert.
Truth be told, I hate public speaking.
It’s why I never eat before worship.
I have felt physically ill every Sunday morning for twenty years this September.
I’m up here, I do this, because I believe.
I really do.
Like I preached a couple of weeks ago, I don’t just believe God raised Jesus from the dead, I know Christ is alive because I’ve met him.
Or rather, he met me.
The Risen Christ encountered me and upended my life.
I really do.
I believe the Risen Christ is the Crucified Christ who died for me.
I believe that he is my full and final forgiveness.
I believe his permanent perfect record is mine.
I believe he’s Lord.
I have faith in Christ.
But not always.
The first time I lost my faith—
I was a second year student in seminary, and I’d been a solo pastor for three months, when a member of my tiny little United Methodist congregation outside of Princeton, New Jersey went home one Sunday after the ten o’clock worship service, climbed downstairs to his basement, spread out the plastic tarp that was still dirty from a long ago family camping trip, unlocked the deer rifle with which he’d once taught his son to hunt in the Pine Barrens, sat down in a wrought iron lawn chair, and with a single flick of the finger he managed to pull down all four corners of the sky onto his family.
His name was Glenn.
Sitting in Glenn’s kitchen that Sunday afternoon, I noticed the appointments and To-Do’s written on a Philadelphia Phillies calendar next to the black rotary phone on the wall.
A shopping list was scotch-taped on his fridge door next to faded 3×5 photos and postcards.
He needed eggs and creamer.
I sat there with my hands on the pink formica tabletop acutely aware that I was in no way prepared to do anything for them not only because I had such little training but because, suddenly, I had such little faith.
In my homily a few days later I said exactly what the family had ordered me to say.
You would’ve thought Glenn had died peacefully in his sleep after a long and happy life.
I preached about the importance of faith, about not losing faith in the providential purposes of God, about keeping faith in the love and mercy of God who shares our grief in Jesus Christ.
I was about eight minutes into my first ever funeral sermon when I realized that what I was saying wasn’t true.
True for me.
It felt like my faith had been amputated from me.
I could remember what it had felt like to have it as a part of me, and now all I could feel was its not-there-ness.
After a while I realized that could be problem for a preacher.
Nothing changed for a couple of months.
I didn’t know what to do.
I thought about dropping out of seminary.
I applied to teach school in New York City.
I applied to work at a dude ranch in Montana— seriously.
I made the mistake of sharing my dilemma with my ordination mentor here in Virginia; he very helpfully suggested that maybe I shouldn’t be a pastor after all.
I confided to a retired minister who didn’t seem to understand and who, without a trace of irony, suggested that if I’d lost my faith I could at least teach at a seminary.
What they didn’t understand was that I wasn’t worried about my career.
I just wanted my faith back.
That was the first time I lost my faith, but it’s hardly been the only time.
It vanished again one afternoon a few years ago.
After a year of surgery and seven rounds stage-serious chemo, when all was supposed to be on the mend, I was standing in a hotel bathroom that overlooked the Birdland Jazz Club on 44th street in New York City, and I discovered yet another new lump on my body.
I turned on the shower and the fan so my kids wouldn’t hear me crying, and then I sat down on the cold tile floor and I did what Job’s wife dared her husband to do.
I cursed God.
A few years before I got cancer, I was at Opening Day with my boys.
When we got back home, I got a call that one of my confirmation students, a sixth grader named Jack, was in the ER at Mt Vernon Hospital.
“Maybe it’s already too late,” the neighbor said.
When I got there, he was gone. Jackʼs mom was on the bed with her arms around him and was telling him how much she loved him, how much everyone loved him.
For I donʼt know how long, I held Jackʼs hand and rubbed his hair and tried to get the words out.
I tried to tell him how funny and special and alive I thought he was.
“Jason, would you pray?” Jack’s mom asked, looking up at me desperately.
And only because I didn’t have the heart to refuse her, I prayed.
I prayed to the God in whom my faith was suddenly in very short supply.
I share those stories not to be dark or lurid but because we all have seasons in our lives when, as Bilbo Baggins laments to Gandalf, we “feel thin, sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread.”
Maybe you’re a college student, who was recently thrown into the deep end of science and history and philosophy and you can’t help but wonder that maybe Christianity is stuck on the shallow side of the pool.
Perhaps you just lived through a global pandemic that’s killed millions of the world’s most vulnerable people and, like Woody Allen, you suspect that God, if he exists, is basically an underachiever.
You could be an African-American struggling with this faith after seeing so many who share it lured away by the idols of racism and Christian nationalism.
You might be a news junkie who has grown disillusioned with the faith after discovering the hypocrisy and greed and abuse and partisanship of so many Christian leaders.
Maybe it’s as simple as your kids are out of the house, and now you’re not so sure if what you thought was faith was actually more of a habit.
Unless you are Jesus Christ himself, we all have times in our lives when our faith feels as empty as a dial tone. For many of us, most of the time, our faith feels as fragile as a house of cards.
And that might be a very big problem because today the scripture declares that everything comes down to faith.
“Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the Law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
The Apostle Paul here is rebutting the false teachers who’ve led the churches in Galatia astray from the Gospel and convinced them that, having put their faith in Christ’s shed blood, their acceptance by God now depended on keeping the commandments.
The reason we can never assume the Gospel and move on to our preferred topics and personal projects is that even the best of us are attracted to false gospels.
As Paul noted in our text last Sunday, even Peter— even Peter, the rock on whom Jesus said he will build his Church— when pressured by the false teachers to add to the Gospel fell away from the true Gospel.
In our text today, the Apostle Paul’s rejection of the false teachers’s Gospel takes the form of a rebuke of Peter:
“We ourselves [as, you and I, Peter] are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know [from our scriptures and from our personal experience] that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”
As the Anglican evangelical author, John Stott, writes, “Nobody has understood Christianity who does not understand this word justification.”
It’s δικαιοῦται in Greek.
It occurs as a verb three times in verse sixteen today and again as a noun in verse twenty-one. It’s a term borrowed from the law court.
Justification is the opposite of condemnation.
In the Bible, it refers to God’s act of unmerited favor by which God puts a sinner right with God, not only pardoning him or acquitting him, but treating him as innocent, even as righteous.
Justification names God’s gracious intervention in Christ to bring us back into alignment with himself.
It’s about restoration of relationship.
Apart from being justified, you and I are not in right relationship with God.
No, that puts our circumstances benignly.
As Paul asks rhetorically in 2 Corinthians 6.14, “What partnership have righteousness and iniquity?”
It doesn’t square with the watered-down, cotton candy Christianity of our culture, which basically says God loves and accepts you just the way you are, but the teaching of the Bible, from beginning to end, is that, apart from being justified, we are all under the judgment— the just sentence— of God, alienated from his fellowship and banished from his presence.
Have a nice day.
We all love the verse where Jesus declares that he did not come into the world to condemn the world.
We forget the very next verse where Jesus explains that he did not come into the world to condemn the world because the world already stands condemned.
That’s you and me Jesus is talking about.
That this is so means the most urgent question for us is the one Bildad asks Job, “How then can a mortal be justified before God?”
The false teachers in Galatia said— and a whole lot of progressive and conservative churches today say— believe in Jesus and do everything God commands and abstain from everything God forbids.
In other words, have faith and make yourself righteous by performing the works of the Law. This is what Paul refers to in Romans 10 as “seeking to establish a justification of [our] own.”
“How then can a mortal be justified before God?”
The false teachers said: Believe in Christ and keep the commandments.
The Gospel says: Faith.
Through faith alone you are justified.
And only through faith are you justified.
Faith is the sole, single, solitary means by which the just sentence of God is lifted from your head.
Exclusively by faith does God, who is righteous, accept you, who is unrighteous.
Here’s my question, and it brings us back to our original dilemma.
Is this good news?!
Is it a comfort that the Gospel takes away all other avenues of being justified and leaves only the narrow door of faith?
Does it ease your anxiety at all that Paul takes all the chips and pushes them to the center of the table and bets the house on faith alone?
Faith is not a constant for any of us.
Faith cannot be forced— we cannot will ourselves to believe something we don’t believe.
Nor can we prevent doubt and unbelief from overwhelming us like the Nothingness that comes creeping over everything in the Never-Ending Story.
If your enoughness hinges on faith only, then is that good news?
How do you know if you really have faith?
How much faith is saving faith?
Is it your faith today that justifies you?
Is it faith on your best day that justifies you or is it your faith on your last day that matters?
I get approached by people all the time about redoing their baptism because they’re not certain they really believed when they first believed.
But who can ever be certain?
The Bible says we are strangers to ourselves.
And what about those people— and there are a lot of you here, I know— who want to have faith, who’ve prayed for faith, but who, for whatever reason, find that faith eludes them?
Is it really good news that the Gospel takes away the works of the Law, good deeds we can do and see done and measure and quantify?
Is it really good news that the Gospel instead makes our acceptance by God hang on as delicate a thread as our faith in Jesus Christ?
Is that what the Apostle Paul is really saying here?
The first time I lost my faith it went missing for months. Eventually, I confessed the dilemma to theology teacher I trusted, Dr. Darrell Guder. I lingered after class one day.
“You look like a gentleman who has something on his mind,” he said, gesturing me sit back down.
Dr. Guder had a thick Magnum PI mustache and the crooked accent of an American who taught in Germany for most of his career.
At first I just told him everything I’ve told you.
I guess what I was expecting was for him to pull some psychological method from his pastor’s toolbox to break my spiritual logjam.
I expected an Ordinary People, Good Will Hunting sort of breakthrough.
Instead he gave me the shortest, most important Bible study of my life.
“I’ve lost my faith,” I told him, wrapping up my story.
And he just smiled and chuckled and patted me on my knee and said, “Don’t worry, Jason, it’ll come back to you. In the meantime, thank your lucky stars that it’s not your faith that justifies you.”
It’s not your faith that justifies you.
He didn’t even crack open a New Testament or cite Galatians 2.16, but that ten second Bible study, for me— it’s been like that scene in the movie Twister, when Bill Paxton ties himself with his belt to a well as the tornadoes pass all around him.
It’s been an anchor, and it’s held every time.
According to the translation you heard read this morning, it sounds like Paul is saying that it’s our faith in Jesus Christ that justifies us.
But there’s two problems with that understanding.
The first problem is that it makes your faith into a work, thereby replicating the Galatian heresy.
If it’s something we do (faith) that justifies us, then, by definition, we’re self-justifying.
The second problem with this understanding is that it does not comport with the literal meaning of the text; that is, it’s not what Paul says in the original Greek.
You’re going to have to do some work now.
The relevant words in Greek are Pistis, Christou, and Iesou.
Now, there is a way in Greek to communicate our faith in Jesus Christ.
It’s eis Christon Iesoun.
And Paul knows how to speak of our faith in Jesus Christ because eis Christon Iesoun is how Paul puts it in the middle of verse sixteen:“In Christ Jesus we have believed.”
But eis Christon Iesoun is not the construction Paul uses at the beginning and end of verse sixteen.
In those others instances where Paul speaks of our justification by faith, it’s dia pisteos Christou Iesou and ek pisteos Christou Iesou.
Even though many contemporary versions of the Bible get it wrong, any first semester Greek student can attest to this— in terms of grammar, pisteos Christou Iesou is a subjective genitive; meaning, Christou Iesou is the subject of the word pistis not the object.
Christ Jesus is the subject of the word faith.
He’s not the object.
It’s a subjective genitive.
At the top and bottom of verse sixteen today, Paul’s referring not to our faith in Jesus Christ but to the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
Skeptical? Don’t believe me? Allow me to phone a friend, a very impressive friend. Listen to the King James Bible:
“We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, 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.”
Paul’s not saying that it’s your faith in Jesus Christ that puts you right with God.
Why would Paul say that?
That would make you your own savior.
Paul is saying that it’s the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that justifies you.
It’s not: Believe in Jesus Christ and you’ll be justified.
It’s: In Jesus Christ, you’re justified. Believe it!
And of course that’s what Paul would say because his whole gripe with the false teachers over adding works to the Gospel is that Christ alone is the saving work, and that his work is reckoned to you not as your wage but as a gift.
Paul’s entire point is that those who worry about cheap grace and add oughts and shoulds onto the Gospel— they actually cheapen grace because the basis on which God lifts the just sentence against you and accepts you, sinner that you are, is the faithfulness of Jesus Christ.
And nothing else.
His faithful life stands in as your own obedience to the Law— as though you yourself had done it.
And his faithful death serves as the substitute for your own disobedience— as though he himself had done it. This is why T.S. Elliot called the cross of Christ the still point of the turning world. Because it’s the faithfulness of Jesus Christ that puts things right.
Like I said at the top, I’ve been preaching now for twenty years, long enough to know the question many of you will ask next: If it’s the faith of Christ and not my own faith that justifies me, then what good does my faith do?
Faith grasps ahold of Christ’s faithfulness.
That’s actually the meaning of that middle phrase in verse sixteen, eis Christon Iesoun.
Literally, it’s “into Christ Jesus we have believed.”
In other words, faith grabs onto the Faithful One, Jesus Christ.
As Martin Luther put it, “faith clings to baptism.”
What is baptism?
Baptism is the faithful work of Jesus Christ applied to you; such that, now, no matter your sin, no matter your doubts and unbelief, no matter your spotty performance as a disciple, no matter if your puny faith makes a mustard seed look like a mountain, by his faithfulness applied to you, through water and the word, you are in Christ now.
Believe in that. Put your faith in that. Cling to that.
When life sends twisters swirling all around you, grab ahold of that.
What good is your faith?
John Stott answers,
“Faith has absolutely no value in itself; its value lies solely in its object. Faith is the eye that looks to Christ, the hand that lays hold of him, the mouth that drinks the water of life. And the more clearly we see the absolute sufficiency of Jesus Christ’s divine-human person and sin-bearing death, the more incongruous does it appear that anybody could suppose that we [with our faith] have anything to offer.
Two years ago—
I was on my way home one Sunday after worship when a distraught stranger wandered into the atrium and, in broken English, explained that he was looking for a place to bury his newborn niece.
A few days later, outside in the church cemetery, I threw down a fistful of dirt, intoned “earth to earth, ashes to ashes,” and made the sign of the cross over her casket. And then I watched and waited and waited and waited as family members pulled her weeping mother away from the short, open grave.
If the Kingdom had come that afternoon and everything hinged on my faith, the odds were not in my favor. But if everything depends on Christ, on his faithfulness, then I’m pretty confident. Even in my doubt and unbelief, I can be certain.
Hear the Good News:
If the faithfulness of Jesus Christ is your enoughness before a holy and righteous God— if the faith of Jesus Christ is your enoughness—then you never need to worry about whether or not you have enough faith.
Get out of your insides, and grab ahold of him.
15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. 17But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. 19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; 20and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.21I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
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