In the first chapter of Galatians the Apostle Paul told us he was concerned about false teaching. He also told us that the Lord had told him what the true gospel was. He did not “learn” the gospel from others. He told us he was given the gospel by revelation. Paul was also sent to the Gentiles by God. Paul did not even meet or consult with the disciples of Jesus until three years after his conversion.
In chapter 2 Paul continues his personal story. It is always good to remember that the Bible was not written using chapters and verses. All of Galatians is a singular letter. Paul is not beginning a new subject in chapter 2. He continues what he was saying.
Then fourteen years later I went back to Jerusalem again, this time with Barnabas; and Titus came along, too. 2 I went there because God revealed to me that I should go. While I was there I met privately with those considered to be leaders of the church and shared with them the message I had been preaching to the Gentiles. I wanted to make sure that we were in agreement, for fear that all my efforts had been wasted and I was running the race for nothing. 3 And they supported me and did not even demand that my companion Titus be circumcised, though he was a Gentile.
We have to do a little detective work to try to determine when this visit to Jerusalem was made. There are five trips to Jerusalem by Paul listed in the book of Acts. The first one was an introductory visit three years after Paul began teaching. The second had to do with famine relief and the third was an all church meeting to talk about the requirements for salvation due to the controversy Paul was addressing in Galatians. The visit 14 years after his conversion may have been the second or third visit.
I think Paul is talking about the third visit to Jerusalem where this issue of salvation by grace through faith ALONE was addressed. I think the words that follow harmonize nicely with what we read in Acts 15.
4 Even that question came up only because of some so-called believers there—false ones, really were secretly brought in. They sneaked in to spy on us and take away the freedom we have in Christ Jesus. They wanted to enslave us and force us to follow their Jewish regulations. 5 But we refused to give in to them for a single moment. We wanted to preserve the truth of the gospel message for you.
6 And the leaders of the church had nothing to add to what I was preaching. (By the way, their reputation as great leaders made no difference to me, for God has no favorites.) 7 Instead, they saw that God had given me the responsibility of preaching the gospel to the Gentiles, just as he had given Peter the responsibility of preaching to the Jews. 8 For the same God who worked through Peter as the apostle to the Jews also worked through me as the apostle to the Gentiles.
9 In fact, James, Peter, and John, who were known as pillars of the church, recognized the gift God had given me, and they accepted Barnabas and me as their co-workers. They encouraged us to keep preaching to the Gentiles, while they continued their work with the Jews. 10 Their only suggestion was that we keep on helping the poor, which I have always been eager to do.
Paul’s point is this: The gospel of grace is not unique to Paul. This is not some wacky teaching. Paul’s message was confirmed and embraced by the entire church. In Acts 15 Paul and Barnabas told of their journeys. Peter also gave his testimony of seeing Gentiles genuinely converted and filled with the Holy Spirit without having to be circumcised first. The church leadership agreed that non-Jews did not need to be circumcised (or anything else) in order to be saved.
Paul points out that Titus (a full Gentile) went to Jerusalem with them. He came as a fellow believer and no one in Jerusalem required him to be circumcised before they would welcome him as a brother in Christ.
If you have followed along, you may be asking at this point: “So What?” Why should this matter to me at all? The answer is that what is being addressed is the definition of what it means to be a Christian. What is required for a person to be made new in Christ? Are there things you have to correct before God will save you? Are there behaviors you must embrace? Are there practices you need to learn or experiences you need to have? The answer to those questions is a resounding “NO!” All that is necessary is that you recognize Christ as the one who has come to rescue you and embrace Him as your Savior.
Let’s look at some of the things we learn from this text.
The Gospel is All of Grace
The gospel that says we are saved by God’s grace alone. This is not Paul’s unique perspective . . . it is the position of the church! Anything we add to grace; anything that we list as a requirement for salvation in addition to grace undermines the truth of the gospel.
“Judaizers” is the name usually given to Paul’s antagonists. They believed a person had to follow the Jewish rites and rituals to be a true believer. Paul taught that this “requirement” distorted and even destroyed the real message of the gospel. As someone has said:
All other religions of the world focus on what you need to DO
Christianity focuses on what has been DONE
When you add a bunch of requirements to what it means to have faith in Christ, then it is no longer a gift of God’s grace; it is a reward for whatever it requirement you met. The Bible says God, understanding our broken and irreparable state, sent Christ to make us completely new. It is all His work and He deserves all the praise.
The Gospel Message Brings Freedom
Paul said the Judaizers were trying to take away the freedom that belonged to us in Christ. It is a freedom we take for granted.
The true gospel is free from cultural restraints. What I mean is, in order to follow Christ you don’t have to become Jewish, American, or anything else first. The Gospel applies to each person within the culture they already belong to. In other words, you don’t have to become a clone of someone else before you come to Christ.
You don’t have to be part of a certain kind of church, worship a certain way, sing certain songs or anything else like this. The goal is to submit to the true Christ in a way that brings honor and glory to Him.
This is an important truth whenever we share our faith in a culture different from our own. Our goal is not to get people to conform to our culture . . . it is to bring them to Jesus. Even in our own culture we don’t have to teach others to worship the same way that we do only the same Lord. The goal is to worship Christ together, not the same.
Second, there is emotional freedom. You don’t have to “get your act together” before you can come to faith. You can come to Him as a person who is high-strung or low-key, one who is always happy or one who is grumpy. You don’t have to solve all your “issues” before you come to Jesus.
I hope you see the importance of this truth. As Christians we are often guilty of imposing all kinds of conditions on whether or not a person can be a believer . . . or at least whether or not the will be accepted as part of the Christian community. Let me give you some real pertinent examples. We convey to people that they are not welcome in the faith community until they
- Stop living together outside of marriage
- Give up being Gay
- Repent of your excessive drinking
- Change political parties
- Return to your estranged spouse
- Stop hanging out with your current friends
It is unfortunate that Christians tend to be known more for what we are against instead of what we are FOR. To the outside world Christians who believe in salvation through Christ seem like an angry lot of people. This is not the way of Christ!
Are there things that we do that God calls sin? Yes. However, the Bible promises that God will help his children to grow in holiness. People don’t have to change to come to the cross. The CROSS (or the Savior on the cross) will change us but this change is not immediate. It comes over the course of time. We come to Him as we are.
The person who is trying to measure up to some external standard will find themselves on an endless treadmill of guilt and insecurity. They will feel guilty whenever they fail and they always wonder when the next time will be. They will feel disapproval much more than they feel support. This person will never be confident of their salvation. This is because they are not trusting God, they are trusting their performance.
Third, I have already alluded to this: even in our discipleship, we obey the Lord in freedom and not obligation. Both those who trust performance and those who rely on grace will point to the Ten Commandments as a good place to start for serving the Lord but our motives are entirely different. One sees the commandments as a cruel and relentless taskmaster that constantly condemns. The other sees it as a guide that leads to the best life we can live here as part of God’s kingdom.
The Gospel aims to set us free to be the people that God created us to be. He wants to empower us rather than shackle us. Those who add to the gospel are trying to exert a measure of control. They will keep us looking over our shoulders rather than reaching forward to what God has for us.
True Marks of Unity
The early church understood the idea of reaching out to the world with the gospel. They had learned to . . .
- Open their Minds and Heart to those outside the faith. The early church understood that Christianity is not a commodity to be protected (by keeping people out). It is good news that needs to be shared with everyone.
Philip Yancey has written a superb book titled, Vanishing Grace. It is about the loss of grace in the church today. Yes, the same grace that we rely on for our salvation and for new life in this world. Yancey observes
I came across four common complaints about Christians in a magazine published by Christianity Today:
- You don’t listen to me.
- You judge me.
- Your faith confuses me.
- You talk about what’s wrong instead of making it right.
Reviewing these complaints, it occurs to me that Christians fail to communicate to others because we ignore basic principles in relationship. When we make condescending judgments, or proclaim lofty words that don’t translate into action, or simply speak without first listening, we fail to love — and thus deter a thirsty world from Living Water. The good news about God’s grace goes unheard.
I doubt God keeps track of how many arguments we win; God may indeed keep track of how well we love. When I ask, “Tell me the first word that comes to your mind when I say Christian,” not one time has someone suggested the word love. Yet without question that is the proper biblical answer. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another,” Jesus commanded his disciples at the Last Supper. He said the world will know we are Christians — and, moreover, will know who he is — when his followers are united in love.
If we are truly going to be God’s people; if are genuinely going to preach the gospel faithfully to others, then we have to be people of grace. We have to stop being mean and begin showing love to those who are outside the church. If you will, we need to be characterized as those who love their enemies and love each other.
Is that how people look at our church? We should want this place to be the friendliest place in town. People should want to come here if for no other reason, because they know they will be greeted warmly and loved as they are and not for who we hope they will become.
- True Unity Recognizes that we have different callings. Peter was called to minister to the Jews and Paul was recognized as having a unique calling to the Gentiles (or non-Jews).
God calls each of us to serve Him in unique ways. In order to embrace this reality, we must stop trying to fit everyone into the same mold. We must believe in the same Jesus but how we serve Him, and how we express that belief and love can take many different forms.
This goes for churches as well. Certainly we should be concerned that each church does not lose it’s focus; in other words, we must be concerned that our focus doesn’t become “being cool” over being faithful; or being big over being true to the Word of God. These things are a concern for two reasons,
- It is easy to lose sight of what we should be doing. Just like the early church we need to periodically ask, “What is it that God has called us to do?” Has God called us to develop a “brand” or has He called us to develop and build disciples? I hope the answer is obvious. The more we promote US the less we are serving HIM.
- It is the Lord alone who truly changes lives. We can certainly get people enthused. We can get them to “buy” our product with good marketing but . . . to really change the heart, there must be an encounter with the Word of God and the power of His Spirit working in us.
Having said this, we need to also remember that different styles of worship, different approaches to outreach and different styles of church management do not necessarily mean one is right and the other is wrong. I believe the Bible teaches us there is an endless variation in ways to serve and honor Him.
- There is a unified attempt to alleviate suffering. A Christianity that talks about love should be showing love in the way that we respond to hurting people. One of the requirements the church felt was important was to alleviate suffering.
The Christian community should be a balanced community. We must maintain Biblical faithfulness while at the same time being people who are involved in practical ways to help hurting people. These will be people in our own church and people in our community.
One of the best ways to reach the world is by showing them the love of Christ. So, as a church I want to encourage you to think about practical ways we can help others. Mind you, I am not asking you to come up with ways you think the Pastors can help others (although those suggestions are welcomed) but ways the body of Christ (and that includes you) can help reveal the love of Christ.
Let’s wrap this up with four principles we can draw from this text.
- Give God room to work. Be open to the fact that God can reach people we think are unreachable. Our job is to love even the most difficult people with the love that comes from a spirit of grace.
- Remind yourself that differences are healthy. God made us as people who possess great and wonderful variety. Instead of feeling threatened by differences in personality, experience and calling, let us embrace those differences and learn from each other. We must never be different in the essentials of the faith (who Jesus is, how we are saved, where our authority comes from) but our expression of Biblical faith can have a wide variety of expressions.
- Guard against imposing yourself as the standard by which to measure others. This is a very human tendency. It is almost as if we feel that if someone is different from us one of us has to be wrong . . . and we know WE are not the one who is wrong.
- We must seek to be defined by what we stand FOR rather than by what we stand AGAINST. People dismiss the fantastic message of grace and new life because they believe they are going to get beat up by Christians.
May this church, and may God’s people be known as people who have great news for broken people. May we continually remind others that we all are broken. None of us has it all together but when we come together, God can do things in us that will change us and the world around us forever.
 Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace: What Ever Happened to the Good News? (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2014).