June 2, 2013
“A certain ruler asked [Jesus], ‘what must I do to inherit eternal life’” (Luke 18:18)?
Evangelical Christians think such a question to be absurd. We don’t do things to earn salvation and with it eternal life, it is given as a free gift from God. Yet, if we read Luke 18, we have to acknowledge that Jesus does not tell the man salvation and life cannot be earned. The man asked what must I do? Jesus tells him what he needs to do. He has to sell his possessions, give the money to the poor, and follow Jesus. We doubt that Jesus would give the same answer if another person asked about eternal life. The context is clear; Jesus was speaking to this man’s idol – his wealth. He has to get rid of the wealth he worshiped so it would not prevent him from following Jesus.
But even with that caveat, it still sounds like something the seeker does: remove an idol and follow Jesus. We say salvation is a gift from God. Is that consistent with the Biblical accounts? Or are there requirements and if we fail to meet them then do we have no hope?
A few years ago, a popular book called Love Wins by Pastor Rob Bell raised all sorts of controversy. Many readers decided that Bell, in the book, had discarded the Biblical view of Hell. The critics accused Bell of universalism – the notion that in the end all people go to Heaven. In numerous interviews, Bell tried to defend his writing and beliefs. He maintained that he does believe there is a Hell. He asserted that his views are in line with the Bible. Two extremely popular pastors – David Platt and Francis Chan – did short videos responding. Neither named Bell, but both were clearly refuting his ideas.
The conversation boiled down to a question. Who is in? When it is all said and done, who gets to be with God for eternity? Who is consigned to Hell – eternal separation from God and the people of God? These two questions have tormented the conscience of men and women for centuries. Who is in? What must I do to make sure I am in?
In theological terms, these basic questions come up in the centuries old debate over justification. I won’t spend a lot of time on that term. I will though add to our discussion a late 20th century version of this debate. It centers on the writings of the Apostle Paul.
Paul is unquestionably the author of Romans, 1st & 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, 1st Thessalonians, and Philemon. The New Testament also lists Paul as the author of 2nd Thessalonians, Ephesians, Colossians, 1st & 2nd Timothy, and Titus. Some scholars doubt he wrote the letters in that second set. In most cases, I tend to think Paul was the author or extremely influential over the one who actually penned the letter. What is clear is that this Christian, after Jesus, was the most important in terms of forming Christian thought in the first century.
The debate of the last 30 years is over what exactly Paul was saying in terms of who’s in. Was Paul more concerned with what we need to do to be saved? Or was Paul answering the question who is in and who is not in? In other words, was Paul worried about a single individual? What does Joe Smith need to do to make sure Joe Smith goes to Heaven? Or was Paul dealing with groups? How do we know the Jews are saved? How do we know if non-Jews can be counted among the people of God?
Bible scholars get pretty worked up over the finer points in these conversations. We’re not going to join the argument per se. We’re not going to debate how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.
The letters Paul wrote were to specific churches. Sometimes he wrote theological treatises. Romans and Ephesians are this type of writing. Paul also wrote very pointed letters in which he was responding to things he had heard. First and 2nd Corinthians fall in this category. Reading these texts so many centuries later, we are disadvantaged in that we don’t know what Paul was responding to. We have to read his letters along with the rest of the New Testament, especially Acts, and we try to piece together the situation to which he responded.
In Galatia, where there were several churches, there was crisis. Paul had preached the gospel of salvation in Jesus Christ. He founded those churches on the idea that a person acknowledges sin and then receives forgiveness and new life from God. The individual is baptized in the name of Jesus and that’s how salvation comes about. It is an act of receiving what God gives.
Paul built the church on this gospel of grace, and then he went on to other places. After he departed, another group of evangelists visited the Galatian believers. They agreed with Paul that it is necessary to put one’s faith in Jesus. But they then added an additional requirement. The believer must be circumcised and must keep the Law of Moses.
Were these other evangelists saying that one has to earn salvation by keeping the law? Or were they saying that one has to keep the Moses tradition to be counted among the people of God? The war scholars wage in lectures and the pages of journals is a worthy one. It drives the church deep into the pages of scripture, where we need to be. But we don’t need to settle this debate.
What we find in Paul’s words, which we believe were inspired by the Holy Spirit and are thus a word from God, is that we are saved by grace. And it is by grace that we, every one of us who follows Jesus, are counted among the people of God. The gift we hold is the Word. The Word of God came about, in the case of Paul’s letter to Galatia, because He has to clarify his Gospel in the face of a serious challenge. His response stands before us and shows us what it means to receive the Gospel of Grace.
Grace is a tricky word. It is a popular name for girls, a beautiful name. It is something said before meals. A simple definition of grace is it is something we receive as a free gift, with no strings attached and nothing required of us. But is that a uniquely Christian definition? What does the Bible mean by the idea of grace? We are going to spend the next six weeks looking at this.
The problem Paul faced confronts Christ followers all time. We give lip service to salvation as a gift. But in our minds, we label others as “good” or “bad,” and we determine one’s eternal destination based on how we have categorized them. Oh, and we also have ourselves and the people we love in the “good” category.
Someone spends his life drinking, goes through two divorces, skips out on child-support payments, never darkens the door of a church, and never prays. At his funeral, his old drinking buddies gather around his casket. “Well, he was a good man,” one says. Another chimes in, “At now least he is in a better place.”
We verbalize salvation by grace through Jesus Christ, but in actuality, we live with a good-bad, salvation by works mentality. And we convince ourselves we’ve done enough. Paul responds, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ” (Galatians 1:6a). For Paul the issue of Gospel – the right Gospel or a false gospel matters. For us it is of eternal significance.
Thankfully, in his opening remarks in Galatians, Paul lays the groundwork for the Gospel of grace. Imagine that what he is writing to the first century believers in Galatia is also to us, 21st century believers in North Carolina. The Holy Spirit has given life to Paul’s words so that his writing is God’s word to us.
“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father” (1:3-4).
What do we mean when we say word ‘grace?’ We mean Jesus gave his life for us. His act of doing that has set us free from sin. A light is shed on the works argument. What do I need to do? Well, there’s nothing I can do, but there is something Jesus did and did with us in mind. He went to the cross. He gave himself for us. We are free from sin’s grip. No matter how dark the days in which we live, we are free from the evils of this age. Grace means Jesus gave His life for us.
It also means we are in the family of God. Paul declares we are all members of God’s family (1:2). He will go on to introduce adoption as a concept for understanding our place with God. He legitimate adoption as a way of being family and he sets it as the way of understand our standing with the Lord. Over and over Paul refers to God as father and “our father” (1:1, 4). Grace means that in Christ, we are related to one another. To suppose the thickest connections among people are blood relations is a worldly way of thinking. Paul implies that our connection in Christ runs much deeper than any blood kinship.
His energies reach their peak as he writes, “I want you to know that the gospel [I proclaimed] … I received through a revelation of Jesus Christ” (1:11, 12). Human wisdom is not in play. This idea of grace as God giving himself by become human and dying for all is a God-originated plan. The only way we can know it in any sense is if God gives it. Grace is something revealed by God in Jesus. Any other definition of grace – a free gift; given something I do not earn; or any other is OK. It is valuable. But grace as a description of the Gospel of Jesus Christ must be understood in these terms.
It is Jesus giving himself for us.
It is a declaration that in Him we are related; brothers and sisters in Christ.
It is something revealed. We only know it because God shows us. We only have it because God gives it.
So now we turn back to our opening questions. What must I do to receive eternal life? How do we know who’s in with God at the end?
I can’t do anything, but Jesus has done what was needed by giving himself on the cross. So I receive what he gives. And all who do this regardless of ethnic background, gender, education, or social status are in with God, forever.
This morning we’ve barely scratched the surface of Paul’s thought. We have in the most general terms summarized grace. What’s the next step? Between now and next Sunday, I want each one here to read 1000 or so pages on the idea of grace. I will provide reading lists. Or you can find your own sources.
Of course we probably won’t accomplish that. I am sure I won’t. So, read Galatians. And with every verse, seek Jesus. In your quiet moments, seek Jesus. In your most difficult conversations, seek Jesus. He is the giver of divine grace. Ask Him to reveal it to you.