It’s Reformation Day!
Five-hundred years ago today Martin Luther publicized ninety-five propositions for debate–points where he said the church was in error and in violation of what was taught in the Bible. His arguments centered around the practice of indulgences, the idea that forgiveness could be secured with money. He argued that this practice short-circuited genuine repentance of the heart and declared that only God could forgive sins. This was only the start of all he would come to see but it sparked the Reformation of the church to embrace the doctrine of justification by faith rather than works.
What a perfect day to be arriving at the book of Galatians! I couldn’t stop with just the first chapter, as per my reading plan. I love this book. I NEED this book. My Pharisaical tendency is to measure my goodness by how I perceive I’m doing with rule-keeping rather than by faith in the goodness of Christ. I need these vigorous words of Paul on a regular basis! So I devoured the first three chapters, jolted to attention by the New Living Translation’s way of interpreting Paul…
Paul was himself shocked to see the Galatians trotting gladly back down a path that pretended to be good news but was indeed very very bad news. Having started their lives in Christ by the Spirit through faith they were now trying to become perfect by their own human effort.
Sounds too familiar.
What happens, I think, is this. We come to Christ. We believe He died for our sins. We repent and start fresh, empowered by the Spirit to live a life that loves God and delights to live according to His design. But sin is not absent…We don’t love like Jesus does. Or we are still tempted by our pet comforts. Or we…whatever!
At some point we realize we are still sinners.
“But what if we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then find out that we are still sinners?” (2:17)
There are a number of options. This is the one I am most familiar with:
Feel guilty. Kick yourself. Doubt that you are saved, or, if you’ve already worked through that, then assume that you are just an exception to those saints who have found permanent favor with God. You’re still working to earn that smile, to erase His perennial disappointment…
And then, when you’ve had enough of that form of self-inflicted penance, resolve to do better next time. To be different than you are. To learn to imitate Jesus, somehow! Probably some sort of ‘system’ will help. And if self-discipline fails, well, hope that your best intentions will earn you a better standing…
And what does Paul say to that?
“Have you lost your senses? After starting you Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort?” (Gal.3:3)
He spends the whole letter to the Galatians laying out a better way, the truly good news of the Gospel–
First he points out that the old system of using self-effort to try to conform to God’s law will only prove that we can never earn God’s approval. The law only demonstrates that all have sinned and only dictates that the sinner must die! But behold! Jesus took our sins and did just that. The Law holds no case against us now. Guilt is only meant to drive us back to faith in Christ! This is the good news of the Gospel and it remains our only hope of living a truly Christian life. Jesus has died to give us a new quality of life–the eternal kind, that is born of faith by the Spirit and is continually empowered by that same Spirit, through faith.
Paul puts it in a nutshell this way:
“I have been crucified with Christ. I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. So I live my life in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” (2:19,20)
There remains no place for confidence in what I can do without Him. By believing He died for me, I am consenting to my own death and taking on a new life, His. This is the life that matters, Christ alive and well by His Spirit living in and through me. Me saying ‘no’ to the demands of the old nature and ‘yes’ to the Spirit’s promptings.
Anytime I rely on my own ability to be good enough apart from this dependence on the Spirit, I treat the grace of God as meaningless. I don’t need grace. I’m doing just fine. Grace is for the weakling.
What’s worse, this independence will always lead to guilt and defeat with its endless cycle of trying harder. The Law is made for this. It shows up our dependence on a power beyond ourselves.
“The Scriptures have declared that we are all prisoners of sin, so the only way to receive God’s promise is to believe in Jesus Christ” (3:22)
And so we arrive at the place Luther arrived now five-hundred years ago. The only way to live a righteous life is by faith. Or as he put it:
‘“the righteous man draws his life out of his faith,” and faith is that because of which he is counted righteous before God.’*
Let us believe, and keep on believing, that God’s promises are yes and amen! in Jesus. There’s no point in expecting the flesh to improve. The life we now live, this kind that stretches to all eternity for the glory of God, is His gift and the work of His Spirit in us. He will lead us through the perils of living in a body that’s destined to die. And as we follow His promptings, saying ‘no’ to what the flesh wants and ‘yes’ to what God wants, we will live! And when we sin, we needn’t cower before the Father. We are His children still. He’s given us an advocate–Jesus who died that we may have life. He’s given us a Helper who prays for us in keeping with all God has for us and who leads us ever away from sin and toward truth and life. What more could we need?
“So, dear brothers and sister, you have no obligation whatsoever to do what your sinful nature urges you to do. For if you keep on following it, you will perish. But if through the power of the Holy Spirit you turn from it and its evil deeds, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” (Rom.8:12-14)
I will leave you with Martin Luther’s own thoughts in his commentary on Galatians. I hope they will spur you on, as they have me, to believe what we do not always feel and to fight the good fight of faith till we stand forever grateful before God’s throne!
“If we could be fully persuaded that we are in the good grace of God, that our sins are forgiven, that we have the Spirit of Christ, that we are the beloved children of God, we would be ever so happy and grateful to God. But because we often feel fear and doubt we cannot come to that happy certainty.
“Train your conscience to believe that God approves of you. Fight it out with doubt. Gain assurance through the Word of God. Say: “I am all right with God. I have the Holy Ghost. Christ, in whom I do believe, makes me worthy….”
“….Let us never doubt the mercy of God in Christ Jesus, but make up our minds that God is pleased with us, that He looks after us, and that we have the Holy Spirit who prays for us.” (–Martin Luther, Bible Commentary on Galatians)
*from Martin Luther’s A Treatise on Good Works
Oh, and just one more thing. You mustn’t miss this, especially if you have children in your life somewhere, but even if you don’t! It’s a delightful video featuring Playmobil figurines retelling the life of Martin Luther and the good news he found. Enjoy!