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Grace and Peace, or Works and Despair: Galatians 1:1-9

21 July, 2010

b picThese are some notes and observations on a sermon by Dominic Smart, available here, first posted 25 April 2009.

According to Acts 13-14, the churches Paul established in Galatia received a letter from him due to a massive problem within the community. It was a doctrinal problem, which fact is itself a challenge to so much of our contemporary sensibilities and assumptions about what constitutes a serious issue within the church. The problem was legalism.

Legalism is most commonly found in churches that are full of zeal. In the Galatian churches it arose from Judaizers, who taught that, in a certain sense, we have to ‘prepare’ ourselves or ‘fit’ ourselves for being acceptable to and accepted by God (justified), as a ‘supplement’ to what Christ has done for us and on our behalf.

Such a doctrinal stance is subtle, because it appeals to things that in and of themselves may be good or useful, but in other circumstances. Thus this approach had been accepted by some among the Galatian churches, and understandably many others were getting confused. Paul’s appeal (and warning) to the churches is to turn back to the gospel of grace.

Paul, an a apostle — not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead…

He expounds upon his ‘credentials’ (Gal 1:1-2) in order to drive home that what he’s saying is straight from God. Only God could send Paul the Pharisee of Pharisees as an Apostle to the Gentiles. Only from God and through Christ is there even a gospel to be announced and defended (v. 1).

In the following blessing (Gal 1:3-5), all the ‘grace and peace’ Paul desires for the Galatians comes only from God through Christ as well:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.

Who gets the glory if our path to heaven is laid by a string of false pearls of self-righteousness? Before he even gets to the almost indignant rebuke of vv. 6 and 7, Paul says, in effect, ‘You only ever heard of the gospel of hope, and you only ever embraced it, because of the pure grace of God through Christ.’ Now comes his rebuke:

I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.

‘I am astonished’ doesn’t mean ‘Oh, what a surprise!’ — Paul is horrified and incredulous at what he’s heard. For Paul the Galatians weren’t merely forgetting or neglecting a doctrinal box to be ticked, but the One who is the source and subject of the very gospel itself.

Why isn’t legalism a gospel, ‘no gospel at all’ (v. 7)? Because neither the Galatians nor we can keep the law — any law — in order to please God. If we attempt to do so, it’s not ‘grace and peace’ that’s the result, but works and despair, because of sin. Legalism is also no gospel becuae it limits (at least in the case of the Galatian Judaizers) the ‘cultural boundaries’ of God’s people to those who are Jewish or willing to put themselves under the burden of the Old Covenant. Further, it’s a perversion of the gospel of Christ, because as soon as Christians have thought we’ve deserved something from God, grace is no longer grace. God’s grace is in response not to our merit, but our demerit. Legalism, in short, makes Christ not enough. Thus Paul pronounces condemnation:

But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Paul’s anathemas or curses (Gal 1:8-9) are, because of the authority of Christ by whom Paul was commissioned as an apostle, a matter of everlasting weight and import. These anathemas speak to the very core of willful unbelief: I will not suffer God in Christ to be totally right in this, and myself totally wrong. To the extent that we advocate and practice legalism, just to that extent we set Christ to one side, and teach others to do the same.

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