One of the most explosive, hard-hitting, controversial, liberating, grace-saturated, salvation-clarifying, Christ-exalting, gospel-advancing, Bible-defending books in all of Scripture is Paul’s letter to the Galatians. It is the book that blew up the earliest major distortion of the gospel during the days of the apostles. And it is the book that blew up the prison that the Pope and councils and tradition had built for the Scriptures and where they had been held captive for almost 1,500 years. It’s the book that, alongside Romans, makes the gospel of justification by faith alone, on the basis of Christ alone, through grace alone, more clear than any other book in the Bible.
And so it is not surprising that this book of Galatians put steel in Martin Luther’s spine when he had to stand against the world, the church, and the devil on behalf of the supreme authority of Scripture and on behalf of the truth of justification by faith alone.
“I Can Do No Other”
Tuesday, October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation with Luther’s nailing of his 95 Theses to the door of the church in Wittenberg to call out the destructive errors and practices of the Roman Catholic Church. Three years later, in June of 1520, Pope Leo X condemned 41 of Luther’s 95 Theses. Luther publicly burned the papal bull and refused to recant. On January 3, 1521 he was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church.
“Sinners like us enter into a peaceful, permanent, right standing with God by union with Christ.”
He could have been executed at that point, but the German prince, Frederick III the Wise, arranged instead for a hearing at the city of Worms. The authorities declared to him the charges of heresy and gave him an opportunity to recant. After pondering and praying for a day, Luther gave an eleven-point response. The last one is most famous and most relevant for our topic this morning. Keep in mind, he was standing before people who had the authority to put him to death. He said,
Since your most serene majesty and your Lordships require of me a simple, clear, and direct answer, I will give one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the council, because it is as clear as noonday that they have fallen into error and even into glaring inconsistency with themselves. If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture, or by cogent reasons, if I am not satisfied by the very text I have cited, and if my judgment is not in this way brought into subjection to God’s word, I neither can nor will retract anything; for it cannot be either safe or honest for a Christian to speak against his conscience. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise; God help me! Amen.
Two Aims of the Reformation
What you can see here is that in the Protestant Reformation, two things were going on.
Defend Against Heresy
One was that the Reformers (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and dozens of others) were charged with doctrinal heresy. They were teaching things the church regarded as serious and destructive error. At the center of that cluster of “heresies” was the truth of justification by faith alone — namely, that sinners like us enter into a peaceful, permanent, right standing with God, where he is one hundred percent for us with no wrath against us, in the twinkling of an eye, by union with Christ through faith alone, apart from any kind of works whatever.
A transformed life of godliness follows that great event of justification, but not a whiff of that godliness is the means of God becoming one hundred percent for us. The foundation of that is the blood and righteousness of Christ alone. And the means of union with Christ is through faith alone. That truth was considered anathema by the Roman Church. That’s the first thing that was going on in the controversy called the Reformation: doctrines were being recovered that the church regarded as heresies.
Scripture Was the Weapon
And the other thing going on is that these doctrines were being defended on the final, decisive basis of Scripture alone. Not Scripture plus the Pope’s approval. Not Scripture plus the approval of church councils. You heard what Luther said, speaking for all the Reformers: “I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the council. . . . If, then, I am not convinced by proof from Holy Scripture . . . I cannot retract anything.”
So, one way to think about the Reformation is that the biblical foundation of church teaching was being cleared of all false claims to authority. There was one, final, decisive authority for church teaching. It was not the Pope, not the councils, not tradition. It was Scripture alone. And on that foundation, the Reformers were rediscovering the way of salvation — the way that sinners escape the wrath of God, enter into God’s perfect favor, receive power to live a life of love, and inherit eternal life.
And at the heart of that rediscovery was the greatest news in the world: the truth of justification by faith alone. Or you could say that it was the rediscovery of joy. Luther said, on the brink of his discovery, “If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy” (Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 315). And when he broke through to the discovery, he said, “I felt that I was altogether born again and had entered paradise itself through open gates.” Oh, how I hope you live in that paradise. Now. Today. Already. That’s what the gospel is for.
The reason Paul’s letter to the Galatians is so relevant and so powerful in controversy is that the first two chapters deal directly with the issue of authority — the foundation of our doctrine. And the second two chapters deal with the central doctrine of the Reformation — justification by faith. And the last two chapters, roughly, deal with application. So the very structure of Galatians — authority issues, justification issues — made it the book of the hour. Let’s look together at Galatians 1:6–9.
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. 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.
These last two verses are staggeringly important. He does not say, “If false apostles come from Jerusalem with a different gospel, let them be accursed.” He doesn’t say, “If Peter or James or John preach a different gospel, let them be accursed.” He raises the stakes higher — much higher. He says in verse 8, “If I — I the apostle Paul — or if an angel from heaven, come with a different gospel than the one I preached to you, let me and that angel be damned.”
“If I could believe that God was not angry with me, I would stand on my head for joy.”
He has raised the stakes all the way to heaven. If an angel in glowing white garments appears to you and says, “Paul got the gospel almost completely right. He just left out the necessity of circumcision to complete your right standing with God,” Paul responds, “Let that angel go to hell.”
One Gospel Forever
Someone may respond, “What about you, yourself? Surely, if you yourself with your apostolic authority decide that the gospel you preached was flawed, you will change your message, right? And this new Paul is the one we should believe.” No. Look at verse 8: “Even if we . . . should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him [that is, me] be accursed.” In other words, no matter who this new Paul is, calling the first Paul a preacher of a false gospel, I don’t know him and would never own him.
Why? Because of verses 11–12:
For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel. For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
This is not man’s gospel. It is Christ’s. And my declaration of it to you in his name, under his authority, is the final court of appeal. Let all deniers be accursed.
One Final Authority Forever
Where did the steel in Luther’s doctrinal backbone come from when he said before the emperor, “I don’t submit to popes or councils — I submit to the apostolic word of Christ”? It came from Galatians 1:8. Here’s what he wrote on this verse:
For the overthrowing of this their wicked and blasphemous doctrine, thou hast here a plain text like a thunderbolt, wherein Paul subjects both himself and an angel from heaven, and doctors upon earth, and all other teachers and masters whatsoever, under the authority of the Scripture. This queen ought to rule, and all ought to obey and be subject under her. They ought not to be masters, judges, or arbiters, but only witnesses, disciples, and confessors of the Scripture, whether it be the Pope, Luther, Augustine, Paul, or an angel from heaven. Neither ought any doctrine to be taught or heard in the church besides the pure word of God, that is to say, the holy Scripture; otherwise accursed be both the teachers and hearers together with their doctrine. (Commentary on Galatians)
Luther was not right about everything. But about Galatians 1:8, he was unquestionably correct. And you can see it. He would want you to see it. And not take his or my word for it. The apostolic word of Scripture is the final, decisive authority about what the gospel is and all its implications.
And when that Scripture was released from the prison of pope and council and tradition and Latin into English and German and other languages (at the cost of many lives!) the good news of justification by faith ran through the nations and triumphed with joy in the hearts of thousands.
Solid Ground for Salvation
In the grace of God, Luther had discovered the gospel of justification because the year before, 1516, a printed version of the Greek New Testament was made available for the first time in history. Direct access to the words of God, as they were written in Greek and Hebrew, blew the door off the prison of the gospel. Luther said,
Without languages we could not have received the gospel. . . . If the languages had not made me positive as to the true meaning of the word, I might have still remained a chained monk, engaged in quietly preaching Romish errors in the obscurity of a cloister; the pope, the sophists, and their antichristian empire would have remained unshaken. (Martyn, 474).
So the great value of seeing in Galatians 1:8 the final foundation of truth in “Scripture alone” is not that we can be strident with our doctrinal beliefs, but so that we can be saved by the gospel. We need a foundation for the sake of salvation. We need solid ground under our feet for the sake of the saving gospel in our hearts.
Scripture Alone Serves Faith Alone
Notice how verse 8 serves verse 7:
Not that there is another one [another gospel], but there are some who trouble you and want to distort [change, dilute, corrupt] the gospel of Christ.
And verse 8 comes in to say that we need not worry. These false teachers are wrong. The gospel does not change. There is one gospel. And when they claim to add only a little bit to it, know that this is a distortion and it is not the same gospel. And it doesn’t matter if an apostle from Jerusalem or an angel from heaven is making these little tweaks to the gospel. It is firm. And unchanging. The foundation in verse 8 serves and secures the gospel way of justification in verse 7. The Reformation recovery of “Scripture alone” serves the Reformation recovery of “faith alone.”
You Cannot Pay Your Way
“The apostolic word of Scripture is the final, decisive authority about the what the gospel is.”
Look with me at Galatians 2:21: “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” I know we are jumping in the middle of the stream here. But you can see this. Paul is answering the question, What is the righteousness that a sinner needs in order to be totally accepted and forgiven and justified by God? What kind of righteousness must we have for God’s wrath to be totally taken away, and for God to be one hundred percent for us? And he answers here in 2:21:
I do not nullify the grace of God [that is, it would nullify the grace of God] . . . if righteousness were through the law [through law-keeping, for], then Christ died for no purpose.
You can bank on Christ and his death for you for your righteousness, or you can bank on your law-keeping. And if you are led to trust in law-keeping for your justification, you treat Christ as though his death were pointless.
But might somebody not say, “No, no, Paul, that’s not what the teachers from Jerusalem are saying. They’re not saying the death of Christ is in vain. They are saying, it’s necessary. But so is circumcision. You’re wrong to caricature their position as trusting Christ alone versus trusting law-keeping alone. What they are saying is, ‘The choice is between trusting law-keeping alone versus trusting Christ along with a small amount of law-keeping.’”
A Little Law-Keeping Leads to Death
What is Paul’s response to that? Look at Galatians 5:1–3. This is a stunning and radical answer. It turns the world upside down.
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Look: I, Paul, say to you that if you accept circumcision [just that one act of law-keeping], Christ will be of no advantage to you. I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.
This is astonishing. If you choose to rely just a little bit on law-keeping as a way of getting justified — as a way of getting into the position where God is one hundred percent for you — then Christ will be of no advantage to you at all.
Paul says that if you want to go the route of justification by any amount of law-keeping, you must go the route of justification by total law-keeping — perfection. Galatians 5:3: “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.” In other words, he must succeed in total law-keeping.
Two Ways of Justification
There are two ways of justification: the way of law-keeping — which requires your perfection — and the way of faith — which requires Christ’s perfection, including the final obedience of death. These two paths into the position where God is one hundred percent for you are so distinct that they cannot be mixed.
If you are trusting Christ for a righteous standing where God is one hundred percent for you, you cannot mix in one quiver of effort to establish your own righteousness. And if you are seeking to establish your own righteousness — your own record of virtue — as the basis of God being one hundred percent for you, then you can’t stir in a little faith in Christ. It is one or the other: law-keeping to establish my righteousness or faith alone to rest in Christ for his righteousness.
Here’s the way Luther says it with passionate warning:
It seems to be a light matter to mingle the law and the gospel, faith and works, together; but it does more mischief than a man’s reason can conceive, for it not only blemishes and darkens the knowledge of grace, but also takes away Christ with all his benefits, and utterly overthrows the gospel. (Commentary on Galatians)
A Fork in Your Road
So the message of God to you this morning is that you stand before two paths. Your heart will take you on the one or the other. One path is self-reliance and doing the best you can with law-keeping to escape the wrath of God and get into his favor. The other path is total reliance on Christ to remove the wrath of God and get into God’s favor where he is one hundred percent for you and never again against you.
“God’s wrath against you disappears instantly in the moment your heart embraces Christ alone as your forgiveness.”
Justification is not a process. If it were, you would be doing things to gradually work your way into a justified state. It doesn’t work that way. God’s wrath against you disappears instantly and his being one hundred percent for you is bestowed instantly — in the moment your heart ceases to rely on self and your works, and instead embraces Christ alone as your forgiveness, your righteousness, your acceptance, your wisdom, and your supreme treasure.
He is a great Savior. And this is a great gospel. And your persuasion of it rests on a great foundation: God’s word — alone. I urge you: Receive Christ as your forgiveness, your righteousness, your wisdom, your Lord, your friend, your supreme treasure.