Sermon – November 19, 2017
It is vital to know what is of central importance in your life. What is the one thing that you are unable to give up? What is the one thing that holds everything you know and believe together? For Christians, as it certainly was for Paul, Galatians 2:15-16 seems to be that answer. These verses contain the central and core confession of Christians, it is here that we find, above all other things, what Christ has done for us. As we think through this great work of Christ, let us clarify some things:
1. The concept of justification
What does Paul mean when he says that “a person is not justified…” and “we believed in Christ Jesus in order to be justified”? Justification can be a difficult and contentious term. It is related to the idea of “righteousness”, although English confuses that fact. The idea both in the OT and in wider Greco-Roman thought was that justified was related to a court-room setting, and the pronouncement of “innocent” – if you are innocent, you are justified from all charges. Paul is arguing that it is only through faith that we can receive a verdict of innocent before the great judgment of God. Hence it cannot come through…
2. The phrase “works of the law”
Again, the meaning of this term is debated. Some take it to indicate a strict legalism, the desire of the Jews to have their good works make up for their bad works. This hard-form of legalism does not quite match with many Jewish beliefs in the first century, leading others to believe that it refers only to the “boundary markers” of circumcision, food-regulations, and Sabbath observance. The best way to understand it, though, is to assume that Paul means the keeping of the precepts of the law. It is simply what the law demands out of you.
3. The problem and the solution
We have argued, as we have gone through Galatians, that the problem in Galatia was of people thinking that circumcision was somewhat necessary for the Gentiles, effectively making them into Jews, or at least providing for them a link to Jewish heritage. But Paul here seems to think that the problem is sin, and takes up the issue of justification. These two general streams have confused scholars, because the solution doesn’t seem to fit the problem. The problem is identity, but it centers around what sin does to identity. Thinking that any culture, race, ethnicity has a leg up on another is a radical misunderstanding of our sin problem before God, misconstrues the gospel, pollutes God’s holy purposes for the church, and is worthy of damnation.
Belief in Christ is the only thing that can justify sinners. Your wisdom, nobility, ethnicity, work ethic, kindness, works of any sort, cannot for your sin atone. Sin keeps you from God, and Christ has brought both parties near. Seek to be justified in him alone, for no flesh will be justified by works, even those of the law.