Every summer my friends bring their family down from Auckland to compete in surf competitions.
And so I wander down to the beach and watch. It’s a great sport.
They compete in rowing and its aggressive and fiercely competitive. And sometimes I wonder, if they had surf lifesaving in the 1st century would Paul, Mark and Peter have used lifesaving to explain how God rescued us.
Paul writes a letter to the brothers and sisters in the Galatian churches and almost the first words out of this mouth are “Glory to God who snatched us out of the world”.
Just like a surf lifesaver in an IRB, grasping us and pulling us out the of the water when we are drowning, God snatches & delivers us from the present evil age. And Paul glories in the powerful God who is a Saviour, who is a life-saver. He gives glory to God because he is more than a lifesaver, He is a Saviour who gave himself for our sin.
I am preaching from Galatians, because this year marks the 500th anniversary of the reformation. The Holy Spirit used Romans and Galatians to remind the church that salvation, that reconciliation with God is possible by faith in Jesus Christ and his atoning death through God’s grace.
As Presbyterians we know that the reformers are our spiritual ancestors, Martin Luther, the German reformer was an Augustinian Monk who lived in terror of the righteousness of God. The thought of God’s purity paralysed him with fear, as it should! So in preparation for this I took some time to read a little bit of Luther’s famous commentary on Galatians and what I found, to my surprise was a heart on fire for God. I am amazed at what Martin Luther learned from this simple introduction to Galatians that we read –
“Grace and Peace to you says Paul” – and Luther says even this greeting sets us apart from the world. Grace and peace to you. Who gives us grace and peace? “Our Triune God through the cross of Christ” says Luther. For Martin Luther, like for many of us, Grace and Peace were hard won. You know in his search for peace & righteousness he would flagellate himself – he would strip to his waist and whip himself. Here is a snippet of his words to his students: “But it is impossible for the conscience to be quiet and joyful unless it has peace through grace – that is, through the forgiveness of sins promised in Christ. Many people have conscientiously laboured to attain peace and quietness of conscience by seeking out various religious orders and exercises for that purposes; but by doing so, they have plunged themselves into more and greater miseries, for all such devices are only ways of increasing doubt and despair. Therefore, there will be no rest for my bones or your unless we listen to the Words of Grace and stick to it consistently and faithfully. Then our conscience will certainly find grace and peace”. And when we find grace and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, the longing to glorify our God will bubble up. When I spent some time with the Youth Group looking at the reformation we covered the great slogans that arose from the reformation.
Sola Scriptura – scripture is the foundation of our faith. Grace alone, Faith alone, Solus Christus – Christ alone as our one and only Saviour and Glory to God alone.
And then Simon asked me to speak here and I am honoured to do so but I am also scared because in the last 50 years the biblical scholars have been at war over what first century Jews actually believed and exactly what Paul means when he uses key words like justification and righteousness. Some would reject the work of the Luther and Calvin almost entirely. So, before we dig further into scripture we need to think about what the scholars call the New Perspective on Paul. It’s a huge topic – the debate has been going on for 50 years and I want to keep it brief. Be aware that historians of the first century tell us that Jewish belief at that time was very diverse, so we need to be careful about saying “the Jews believed this or that”.
Also we need to be careful not to read Luther or Calvin’s arguments against Rome back into Jesus’s disputes with the Pharisees or Pauls problems with followers of Jesus who wanted the Gentile believers to follow the law of Moses. They are different historical occasions. But when I read Luther and Calvin, I am humbled by the minds I meet. These men were fluent in Latin, Hebrew & Greek and had read the Church Fathers in a deep way that is almost unheard of today and listened to the mind of the Church. When you read Luther, you meet a heart on fire for God, when you read Calvin you meet the razor sharp mind and logic of an exceptional lawyer and a Pastor who carefully answers pastoral problems as he works through Christian doctrine. I am convinced that the Holy Spirit opened the reformers eyes to the glorious gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ who is the face of God for those who being saved, Jesus Christ was crucified for my sin and yours.
500 years ago the gospel, which had become hidden, was set free.
500 years ago Martin Luther a monk terrified by the Holy God we meet in Scripture, rediscovered the truth of the gospel.
Paul the apostle tells us that we can be dreadfully wrong about the gospel. It is possible to sincerely wrong in matters of faith. It is possible to lead others back into slavery. It is possible to be led astray. So we need to listen carefully to scripture and find out, “what is the gospel?” Martin Luther’s question – what is the gospel, the good news?
Here’s a popular false gospel which is no gospel at all – God wants people to be nice to each other. The central goal of life is to be happy and feel good about yourself. God doesn’t need to be especially involved in your life, except when there is a problem. Good people go to heaven when they die. That is not the good news.
Here’s a variation – Spiritually of any kind will enable you to experience whatever is out there or in here. Christians go to Church, other people meditate, it’s all the same! – False
In Luther’s day many thought that spiritual disciplines could lead people to God. Luther found that all his spiritual disciplines did, was reveal how sinful he was. Spiritually is not the gospel. Trying to be good enough to get to heaven is not the gospel. Many people seem to think that believing in God will get them to heaven.
Believing in God is not the gospel.
And I am not even sure that going to heaven is the goal of the gospel.
Here’s a funny thing, there is one mention of heaven in the entire book of Galatians, and two mentions of heaven in Romans and none of them are especially relevant to the gospel.
So to borrow a work from the reformation, my thesis is that when we say something like “believe in Jesus and you will go to heaven” there is a possibility that in our eagerness to make the gospel simple and clear we have actually obscured it. We are in a missionary situation in NZ. There is a communication gap between us and our secular friends. Whatever we mean when we use words like faith, belief and heaven, we risk being misunderstood by the people we are talking to. For example, some of our friends use the word “belief” to mean “an untestable hypothesis” the same category as Santa Claus. Others will hear us saying that mere mental assent to the existence/belief of Jesus or the gospel events is what saves us. They hear us saying that, belief in a Jewish peasant is the dividing line between heaven and hell and it seems unfair. John Calvin would agree; we must investigate the true nature of faith because many people are dangerously deluded. He said that when people hear the term “faith” most understand nothing deeper than a common assent to gospel history. So if that’s not faith, what is? What is the gospel? We know from verses 1-4 that the gospel is a rescue operation that through Jesus’s death and resurrection we are set free from this evil age.
Let’s survey Galatians and see if we can find out more about what the rescue operation actually involves.
Chapter One – v7 there is only one gospel and the content is Christ, the content is Jesus.
V16 – the gospel was revealed to Paul when he met Christ. What does he preach? He preaches Christ.
Chapter Two – v15 we are put right with God by faith in Christ.
We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law because by works of the law no one will be justified.
Chapter Three – Faith in Christ involves my death and union with Christ.
V20 – I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who lives but Christ who lives in me. And this is key. Faith is your self dying with Christ. True faith is an invasion/indwelling of Christ of Jesus by His Spirit.
V26 – for as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. – Faith is putting on Christ.
Chapter Four – faith involves a great exchange.
V13 – Christ redeemed us from the curse by becoming a curse for us.
Chapter Five – the Holy Spirit generates and sustains faith
Chapter Six – The gospel of grace results in us being adopted as Sons and Daughters of the Living God. By the Spirit you are enabled to cry out Abba, Father. You are no longer a slave, you are a Child of God.
SO, this gospel – the good news, is far more than a mental belief, how do we preach that to ourselves? Well none of this works except by the Holy Spirit. In reliance on the Holy Spirit we must become people who know Jesus through the word read and preached. If we want to preach this good news to ourselves and others, we need to allow the metaphors inspired by the Spirit which describe grace dwelling in us. Union with Christ is unpacked throughout scripture by pictures of vines and grafting, of brides and grooms, in Christ, by the sacraments, maybe we could try and communicate the gospel through these pictures. Dwell on those things. This gospel of grace is communicated in the Bible through images of a battle, of a law court, a relationship, a prison, a hospital, a farm, a vineyard. Let’s be a people who the images of the gospel will speak into our hearts and minds and into the hearts and minds of those around us. You can see why I wonder how Paul or Peter would use surf lifesaving to convey the gospel of God’s grace. So Paul the apostle was sent by God the Father with a message. A message that in Jesus Christ, God has acted decisively, finally to rescue his people. We no longer need to be slaves to sin, death, despair, hatred or greed or fear or anxiety.
In Christ, we have grace and peace to the Glory of God. In Christ you are part of a family called to enjoy God forever. That’s the good news. Perhaps you are not yet in that space, perhaps you are still caught in the rip. You are struggling, you are fighting, you cannot swim out of it. There is a lifesaver! Will you trust the rescuer? Jesus is in the IRB, he’s leaning out, his arms are ready to wrap around you, will you continue to fight or will you trust him? Will you get in the IRB with him? Will you travel to shore with him where you are invited to celebrate in the surf club? Will you trust the life saver?
If you want to talk further or pray, I’ll be waiting under the blue cross at the end of the service