You all know the story of the wise man who built his home on the rock and the fool who built his home on the sand. The rains came and the waters rose and only one of the houses fell. But what would you think if I told you that the man who built on the sand decided to try again. Not rebuilding on rock this time, but putting his house right back where it was washed away. Rebuilding the same house, on the same sand but expecting a different outcome. You would rightly say that it is the height of foolishness to rebuild what wasn’t working! You would probably further say that he deserves what will come with the very next storm.
But we sinners do it all the time. Living foolishly hoping that the things that have failed us in the past will somehow work this time around. Trusting that our feelings won’t lead us astray this time; listening to that friend who only ever leads you into trouble; falling back into all the old habits and arguments that led you to heartache in the first place. Even the wisest of us is guilty of foolishly going back to what we know doesn’t work, in the hopes that maybe, just maybe this time it will, where it never has before.
Indeed the Galatian Christians were in the process of doing just that. Freed from the failure of the Law to grant them salvation, they were listening to false teachers telling them the Gospel was not enough … telling them they needed to go back to the Law which had already failed them … Or rather, which they had failed to keep sufficiently. “Are you so foolish? Paul asks them. Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being completed by the flesh?” (3:3). And here, Paul says, is why going back to the Law for salvation is so very foolish:
3:10For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 11Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” 12But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.”
Can anyone here truly say that they have done good works enough to live by them? Abided by all the things written in the book of the Law? As St. James warns, 2:10For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. Is anyone here foolish enough to think that they haven’t failed God even once? Are you willing to make that kind of gamble with your salvation? Is this what you are willing to build your Christian hopes upon? That tomorrow you may be perfect where every past day of your life you most certainly were not.
Luther wasn’t. As He explained: Now the true meaning of Christianity is this: that a man first acknowledge, through the Law, that he is a sinner, for whom it is impossible to perform any good work. For the Law says: “You are an evil tree. Therefore everything you think, speak, or do is opposed to God. Hence you cannot deserve grace by your works. But if you try to do so, you make the bad even worse; for since you are an evil tree, you cannot produce anything except evil fruits, that is, sins. ‘For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin’ (Rom. 14:23).” Trying to merit grace by preceding works, therefore, is trying to placate God with sins, which is nothing but heaping sins upon sins, making fun of God, and provoking His wrath. When a man is taught this way by the Law, he is frightened and humbled. Then he really sees the greatness of his sin and finds in himself not one spark of the love of God; thus he justifies God in His Word and confesses that he deserves death and eternal damnation. Thus the first step in Christianity is the preaching of repentance and the knowledge of oneself.1
The first step in being free from the curse of the Law is to recognize that on our own we can’t be! Any house of righteousness we can build is so unstable, full of holes, and utterly decrepit that it will come crashing down at the first hint of wind or rain. So what, then, is the hope for fools like us? It is found in the faithfulness of Christ.
2:19For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose …
As Luther continued: The second step is this: If you want to be saved, your salvation does not come by works; but God has sent His only Son into the world that we might live through Him. He was crucified and died for you and bore your sins in His own body (1 Peter 2:24) … The Law only shows sin, terrifies, and humbles; thus it prepares us for justification and drives us to Christ. For by His Word God has revealed to us that He wants to be a merciful Father to us. Without our merit—since, after all, we cannot merit anything—He wants to give us forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal life for the sake of Christ. For God is He who dispenses His gifts freely to all,42 and this is the praise of His deity.2
Or as St. Paul himself told the Galatians: 3:13Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— 14so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. 2:16yet we 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.
No one can be justified by works of the Law, but everyone can be justified (is justified) by the works of our Lord Jesus Christ. The Law serves only to point us away from our own foolish notions and actions. It serves only to point us to Christ and His life, death and resurrection for our forgiveness and salvation. You can’t have both, either we live for the Law and Christ died in vain, or we live in Christ and we are dead to the curse of the Law. Which One will it be? Will you be foolish or will you seek the one who is faithful?
A Christian is not someone who has no sin or feels no sin; he is someone to whom, because of his faith in Christ, God does not impute his sin. This doctrine brings firm consolation to troubled consciences amid genuine terrors. It is not in vain, therefore, that so often and so diligently we inculcate the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins and of the imputation of righteousness for the sake of Christ, as well as the doctrine that a Christian does not have anything to do with the Law and sin, especially in a time of temptation. For to the extent that he is a Christian, he is above the Law and sin, because in his heart he has Christ, the Lord of the Law, as a ring has a gem. Therefore when the Law accuses and sin troubles, he looks to Christ; and when he has taken hold of Him by faith, he has present with him the Victor over the Law, sin, death, and the devil—the Victor whose rule over all these prevents them from harming him.3
Which one will it be? The foolish pursuit of could’a, should’a, and would’a. The vain attempt to live by ought’a and gott’a. Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being completed by the flesh? Is that what makes you Christian? Is that what your hopes are built upon? Is that what you will trust in the day of temptation, or the dark night of the soul? The lure of works is always present. Do it again. Do it better this time. Try harder and you’ll get there. But that is foolish talk. Because you and I know better, and so did the Galatians. Only Jesus was faithful in what he ought’a do. Only Christ completed what he gott’a do. He and He alone is the true rock that the wise build their life upon. Foolish or faithful? Which one will it be?
1 Luther, 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 2:17). Saint Louis: Concordia Publishing House.