“Choose this day whom you will serve … As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.” so spoke Joshua to God’s people at Schechem. They had been called from slavery and death, given a new identity and now they had claimed a homeland. Any good story book would love to have an ending that tied things together so well, with everything working out for the good guys. But Joshua’s words show that the struggle wasn’t over. It was only just beginning. God had saved them and delivered them, but now the real work would begin. And it would begin with a question: “Which One will it be?”
Sadly, we know that for most of those gathered there that day the answer was NOT the Lord, but the world around them. Just as it has been for many dear children of God who have rested on their laurels, bought into the lie, and chosen cheap counterfeits to the truth and teaching of God. Just as it was for the congregations of new Christians throughout the province of Galatia. Saved by the cross of Christ, called to faith by the Holy Spirit and freed from the works of the Law by an Apostle who himself had been chained by it, they were now ready to live the storybook ending of “they all lived happily ever after.” But they didn’t, because like the ancient Israelites they chose wrongly in their freedom. That’s why Paul writes this masterful epistle beginning with these scathing words:
6I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel — 7not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.
Certain teachers, trouble makers had come to the churches of Galatia with a message of accommodation. They pressed just a few strains of man’s good works – in particular, circumcision in order to be saved. They said this would please certain Jews in the congregations. Their underlying argument was this: Shall we have the gospel which excludes everyone but on such very limited terms (ie through grace in Christ alone), or couldn’t we have instead a revised gospel broad enough to please many?
It is a question and a temptation that still plagues the Christian Church to this day. Do other religions, spiritualities, beliefs, and pieties, offer more or add something? Should the gospel be “updated,” made more palatable to a wider range of people, a bit more modern and contemporary and inclusive? Can’t we make it just a little bit easier to swallow by saying that Jesus is Good, and Jesus is our Saviour, and Jesus is the One we look to BUT you still have to live in obedience to the law. You have to do this or not do that before you can be worthy before God. You must offer something to God! That’s the kind of religion that sells. The kind that is self-empowering, that acknowledges the basic goodness of its followers and allows them if not pride, at least a little self-respect!
But while it may offer such things in a limited way and for a limited time (as long as no one looks too closely at themselves or their life) it cannot offer true grace or peace because it is not the real Gospel. For the true Gospel says that real Grace and Peace come only through God. As Paul himself says: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, and 6him who called you in the grace of Christ.
Real and lasting peace cannot be had through any work of our hands or intention of our hearts, for each is corrupted by sin down to the core. Peace can’t be gained through the workings of this world or of any government for they are just as corrupt as the sinners who make them up. Peace can’t be earned before God. It must be given as a gift – a grace.
As Luther wrote: Grace and peace—these two words embrace the whole of Christianity. Grace forgives sin, and peace stills the conscience … These two words, “grace” and “peace,” contain a summary of all of Christianity. Grace contains the forgiveness of sins, a joyful peace, and a quiet conscience. But peace is impossible unless sin has first been forgiven, for the Law accuses and terrifies the conscience on account of sin. And the sin that the conscience feels cannot be removed by pilgrimages, vigils, labors, efforts, vows, or any other works; in fact, sin is increased by works. The more we work and sweat to extricate ourselves from sin, the worse off we are. For there is no way to remove sin except by grace. This deserves careful notice. For the words are easy; but in temptation it is the hardest thing possible to be surely persuaded in our hearts that we have the forgiveness of sins and peace with God by grace alone, entirely apart from any other means in heaven or on earth.1
Knowing how much our sinful hearts fight against this grace St. Paul lays it all out in these profoundly plain and simple words: 3Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, 4who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, 5to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.
Grace and peace come to us sinners only through Jesus’ death and resurrection. Through His innocent suffering and death our sins are paid for and burden of works is released. Through Christ’s glorious resurrection and ascension we are delivered from this present evil age, given the hope of everlasting life and a guaranteed place in heaven – despite all our works or lack thereof. And all of this is not based on what we promise to do with it, but simply by the will of the Father and to His glory. Your works cannot earn it, nor can your lack of works lose it. Salvation is yours because Christ won it, the Father grants it, and the Spirit gives you the faith to cling to that promise no matter what your heart says.
9As 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. … 11For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. 12For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ. So dear Christians, as the celebrations of Christmas and Easter are now behind and the non-festival season of the church year begins the time for real work begins. Which one will it be? Will you hold to the Gospel of Christ or the substitute good news the world and your own sinful pride would hold forth?
Choose carefully which one you will trust. For the gospel of salvation by grace alone through Jesus Christ, if changed, is a perverted false gospel. To hold to such an altered accommodating gospel will sever you from Christ altogether! As Luther also noted: Either the law and righteousness by works of the law abide, and Christ perishes; or Christ and his righteousness must abide, and the law perishes.
Which one will it be? Put away from us all things hurtful, and give us those things that are beneficial for us. Let us hold to the only true Gospel and the everlasting grace and peace only it can bring!
1Luther, M. (1999, c1963). Vol. 26: Luther’s works, vol. 26 : Lectures on Galatians, 1535, Chapters 1-4 (J. J. Pelikan, H. C. Oswald & H. T. Lehmann, Ed.). Luther’s Works (Ga 1:3). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.