Grace and Good News: Galatians 1:4-9

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast March 15, 2009


Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible class of Home Moravian Church. I hope that it was a good week for you and that you got to enjoy some of the springtime weather. I was on spring break from the university, but spent most of the week working as usual. I did manage to do our tax returns and mail them in. I lead such an exciting life. The capital campaign continues to go well here at the church. If you would like to see what the renovated sanctuary will look like, stop by the church office. There are a couple of events coming up that you may be interested in. There is a conference on immigration and the church next Saturday up in Valdese. During the last weekend in March there will be an art show featuring many of the artists of Home Moravian Church in the Fine Arts Centers at Salem College. Proceeds from the sale of the art will support social ministries. We are having communion services each Wednesday evening during Lent. At 11:00 a.m. each day there are special Day of Prayer services at different Moravian churches. I’m leading a Bible study on the seven signs in John’s Gospel at Fries Memorial on Wednesday evenings at 6:30. So, there are lots of good things for your Lenten pilgrimage. I suppose you heard the news reported this past week that Americans are losing their faith. For decades America was the most religious industrialized nation, but it appears that the secularization that has plagued Europe is now affecting Americans. There is no single cause for the decline in religious conviction and participation in faith communities, but it appears that disillusionment is one factor. With the scandals that rocked the Catholic Church and the partisan politics of evangelicals, many people no longer trust religious organizations. Traditional Protestant denominations have suffered decline for many years and have long ago lost their power to shape American culture. For years the mainline denominations have had difficulty recruiting and retaining members, and the current financial crisis is hurting those churches hard. Moravians know from their own history that churches can disappear and yet the people can remain faithful. I hope that this radio broadcast will help you draw closer to God and that you will be strengthened as you live as a Christian in a “post-Christian” society.


Grace: We are studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians, which was written to a new church trying to live faithfully in a “pre-Christian” society. They had rejected the religious beliefs and practices of their day and had embraced Paul’s radical proclamation of faith in Jesus Christ. Paul opens his letter with the word “grace,” which is one of Paul’s favorite words. He uses this word more than a hundred times in his letters, but it is only used about 50 times in the rest of the New Testament. The gospels of Matthew and Mark do not use it at all. Clearly Grace was a word and a concept especially dear to the Apostle Paul, and it lies at the heart of his letter to the Galatians. As such, we should take a few moments to think about it.

The Greek word that we translate as “grace” is “Charis” (which also appears as Chariti). It is closely related to the Latin word caritas, and it gives us our English word Charity, which means love. One of the strange things about the development of language is that for centuries we used our word Charity to translate the Greek word “Agape” rather than the word “charis” which we translate as grace. Now that charity has come to mean giving something to the poor, translators no longer use it for agape or charis. I mention this to remind us that language remains fluid and meanings can be hard to pin down.

Paul did not invent the word charis, but he helped define it as a specifically Christian term. In ancient Greek the word charis basically meant attractive or favorable, and we still use the word grace this way, such as when we say that someone is a graceful dancer or a gracious host. Grace is the opposite of awkward or clumsy. Someone who is gracious puts you at ease and makes you welcome. In ancient days, charis also meant a favor. To show someone grace meant to bestow a favor on them or to do something generous for them. Grace was something that evoked gratitude. You should be grateful to the graceful. You can probably see the connection between the ancient meaning of grace and the modern meaning of charity.

Sometimes the word charis was used to express gratitude for a gift. Someone was “graced” by someone else. The word Charisma means a gift given freely, or something given through grace, and it is another important word in Paul’s writing. When we Paul, we should keep in mind that grace refers to a blessing that is freely given. It is always a positive term that connotes something attractive and welcoming. Grace is a freely granted gift that brings someone into a beneficial relationship with the giver. Some biblical scholars think that the Hebrew word Hesed, which is normally translated as loving-kindness or mercy, could be translated by the Greek word charis. Charis is God’s loving-kindness. In biblical terms, then, grace includes love, generosity, kindness, and mercy. It is a very potent word.

For Paul, grace is almost synonymous with salvation, which is why is it so closely connected to peace in his salutation. Paul preached to Jews and Gentiles alike that salvation comes through the gracious mercy of God granted through the work of Jesus Christ. Since salvation is through God’s grace, it is a gift. It is not something that can be bought or earned; it can only be received with thanksgiving. It is a gift that brings the receiver into relationship with the giver.

The Lord Jesus Christ:            After wishing grace and peace to the Galatians, Paul reminds them of the content of God’s grace: “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.” There is a lot of theology packed into one sentence, and some biblical scholars think that Paul may be quoting an early Christian creed or hymn here.

The first thing to note is that Paul calls Jesus both Lord and Christ. The word “lord” (kyrios) could be used as a term of respect when addressing someone in authority, but it was also the word that Jews used to address God. Rather than saying the name of God (YHWH), Jews say adonai or LORD. This practice goes back to before the time of Jesus, and Greek-speaking Jews in Paul’s day used the Greek word kyrios to translate the name of God. In the gospels it is not always clear what people meant when they addressed Jesus as Lord. Were they calling him divine or just treating him with respect? There is less ambiguity in Paul’s writing. Jesus is called the Lord, and he is the only Lord. Scholars disagree over whether Paul viewed Jesus as fully divine, but there is little doubt that he viewed Jesus as uniquely the Son of God to whom one could pray. Jesus was the Lord for Paul.

Paul also calls Jesus “Christ,” identifying him as the Jewish Messiah. One of the big issues addressed in the gospels was whether Jesus really could have been the Messiah since he did not act the way a Messiah was supposed to act. Part of the scandalous message of early Christianity was that a man who had been crucified by Romans was indeed the promised Messiah. This was central to early Christian preaching, and Paul’s letters helped the church make sense of the paradox of a messiah who died on the cross. In Paul’s writings, the word Christ was almost like a second name for Jesus, but the phrase Jesus Christ remained pregnant with meaning and controversy. For Paul, Jesus was both Lord and Messiah even though he had been executed.

Died for Sins:                        Paul rejected the notion that Jesus was simply a victim of Roman imperialist oppression. Jesus’ death on the cross did not negate his identity as Lord and Christ; it confirmed his identity. Paul clarifies the meaning of the phrase Lord Jesus Christ by saying that this was the one who gave himself for “our sins.” This idea that Christ died for our sins was central to the preaching of early Christianity, and many would say that it remains the heart of the gospel. Missionaries have gone throughout the world preaching this message of Paul, and many millions of people have responded to this simple proclamation, but it has often been a source of controversy in the church.

In my theology class we have been discussing various attempts to make sense of this statement in Galatians. We call these attempts to explain how the death of Jesus is a saving event “atonement theories.” We can’t really go into details on the various atonement theories Christians have proposed through the ages, but one of the most common understandings of the atonement focuses on divine justice and punishment. According to the theory of substitutionary atonement, Jesus voluntarily accepted the punishment that we should have received from God because of our sins.

This is often cast in legal terms. Someone must pay for a crime, but an innocent person offers himself as a substitute for the guilty person who should die. This makes for some excellent literature, by the way. Variations on this idea of Jesus as a substitute who suffers the punishments sinners deserve has been the centerpiece of Catholic and evangelical theology for centuries, but there have always been theologians who were uncomfortable with some of the implications of this view. In modern times, many preachers felt that the church focused too much energy on the idea that Jesus died for the sins of the world and lost touch with the teachings of Jesus. Many contemporary preachers and theologians are so opposed to this theory of the idea of a substitionary atonement that they reject Paul’s statement that Jesus died for our sins. They see nothing good in Good Friday and would prefer that we skip from Palm Sunday to Easter. 

Christians have viewed the death of Jesus in different ways through the centuries, and there are several different atonement theories. We can’t solve the theological debates over the meaning of the atonement that continue to rage in the church this morning, but we should acknowledge that nearly every book of the New Testament, including the gospels, asserts that the death of Jesus was an integral part of his mission on earth. None of the New Testament authors viewed Jesus’ death merely as the tragic end of a good life. Every NT writer would agree to some degree with Paul that the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins.

Paul, like other early evangelists, probably understood the death of Jesus in terms of Yom Kippur or the Jewish Day of Atonement when the sins of the nation for the past year were reviewed and forgiven. A lamb was offered as a sacrifice to god for the sake of the community. The sins of the community were mystically transferred to the lamb. The notion of a sacrifice as a way to get rid of sin was so well accepted in the ancient world that Paul does not explain or defend his belief that Jesus died for our sins. Instead he urges the Galatians to remember that their Lord and Messiah is the one who died for them. Their sins have been erased by the sacrifice of Jesus, and they should live in the awareness of salvation. Paul tells the Galatians that Jesus gave himself for them. He was not a victim; he is the Savior.

The Present Evil Age:            Paul adds that Jesus gave himself as a sacrifice in order “to rescue us from this present evil age,” or as one scholar translated it “so that he might snatch us out of the grasp of the present evil age” (Louis Martyn). The notion of an evil age is closely connected to Jewish apocalyptic thought around the time of Paul. Some of the Jews in those days believed that world was under the authority of the forces of evil, which is why God’s faithful were suffering under Roman occupation. The Messiah or perhaps “the Son of Man” would appear on day and bring an end to this period of human history by destroying evil. A new age of righteousness and peace would be the result. There were lots of apocalypses written in the century before and after Jesus, but only one was included in the NT. There is a strong consensus among biblical scholars today that Jewish apocalypticism profoundly shaped early Christianity.

It is evident in the NT that many of the first Christians believed they were living in an apocalyptic moment when the age of evil was ending and the new age was breaking in. They believed that Jesus’ resurrection from the dead marked the beginning of the new age when creation would be transformed. Paul, like many early Christians, believed that Jesus was going to return soon and reign as king of kings and lord of lords. Until he returned, his followers had to continue living in the present evil age, but they were no longer subject to its corruption. Though they were living in a cruel and unjust society, the Galatian Christians believed that they had been rescued from the evil around them and they were living in a foretaste of the eschatological kingdom of God on earth.

Paul tells the Galatians that Jesus was more than just a scapegoat for sin; he had already defeated the power of evil through his death and resurrection. By dying and rising from the dead, Jesus had overcome the power of death, sin, and destruction. He was not a victim; he was triumphant. Jesus had overcome evil and made it possible for others to be saved.

Deserting the One:                        Paul has to put all of this on the table, so to speak, at the beginning of his letter, because this is the ground on which he will base the rest of his argument. Paul is reminding his audience that becoming Christian was not the same thing as joining a club or a civic organization; it was a fundamental reorientation of a person’s life and understanding. The Galatians were Christians because they had been rescued from this evil age by the death and resurrection of Jesus. They had believed this Gospel that Paul had preached, and they had created a community that was to be a living expression of this new reality.

Paul reminds them that they were not saved from the evil of the world through their own efforts or their own merits but by the self-sacrifice of Christ who was their Lord and Savior. This was all the work of God for them, and so the proper response is doxology or praise to God. Paul ends his salutation with the traditional language of worship to which the people say Amen.

While that “amen” is still echoing in the sanctuary, Paul accuses the Galatians of turning away from God’s grace by embracing a different conception of the proper relationship of sinners to God. The word he uses to describe this defection is one that was used to describe people who left one school of philosophy and embraced another. It is similar to the word for changing one’s mind or way of thinking, but it is a negative term. The connotation is that the people are turning away from the truth and choosing error. For Paul, this was not a matter where there could be a diversity of opinion. By endorsing the ideas of the new missionaries, the Galatians were in danger of losing the gospel and their salvation. He accuses them of deserting God who had called them to a new life through grace in Christ.

The Gospel:                        The word we translate as Gospel is evangelion. It basically means the proclamation of good news, especially military victories. There is an inscription from about 9 BC that proclaims that the birthday of Caesar Augustus should mark the beginning of each year for the whole world because his birth was the “beginning of the glad tidings” or evangelia. The writers of the NT disagreed with the Roman Empire over which gospel was truly glad tidings: the birth of Augustus or the death and resurrection of Jesus. Our word “gospel” comes from the old Anglo-Saxon and means “god-spell,” which either good story or god’s story. Christians used the word Evangelion or Gospel to describe stories about Jesus, but we should remember that the Gospel of Jesus Christ preceding the writing of the gospels according to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. The apostles were first and foremost evangelists, which was the Christian word for one who proclaims the good news. The Gospel is not confined to a book; it is the proclamation of the glad tidings about salvation in Christ.

Paul tells the Galatians that it is the message that is important, not the messenger. It is the gospel that saves souls and creates a new community of love and self-sacrifice. It is the gospel that frees individuals from anxiety over sin and death. It is the gospel that reconciles us to God and to one another. It is the good news of grace and joy in believing. And this is the gospel that the Galatians are turning away from, according to Paul.

Next week, we’ll explore in more detail Paul’s opposition to the preachers from Jerusalem.

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