Justification by Faith

Justified in Christ – Galatians 2:15-21

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast April 19, 2009

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this first Sunday of Easter. It is a shame that we generally feel a spiritual letdown after Easter, although there are churches that observe the tradition of holy laughter on this day. It is certainly understandable that we are tired this week, especially those Moravians who spent every night in worship during Holy Week, but Easter is not supposed to be the ending climax of a divine drama. It is the beginning of a new life. We do not proclaim our Easter faith just with our songs on Sunday; we proclaim it with our lives every day. Easter is a yearly affirmation of the extraordinary notion that the future does not have to be determined by the injustice of the past. Easter calls us to live without fear of death or fear of failure. Rather than retreating to the comfort of our homes and jobs, Easter calls us to be engaged in the world around us.

There are several things I want to make you aware of in the life of the church and the community. Beginning today, worship at Home Church will be in the Fellowship Hall until the sanctuary renovation is complete. We are putting in a new heating and air conditioning system and refurbishing the pews and floors in the sanctuary. Many Home Church members are participating in special summer projects as part of our “Finding God in the Other Place” program. Pastor Harris will begin his sabbatical on May 1, and will be away for five months. Most of the Sunday School classes have been cancelled for the summer, but the Adult Bible Class will continue to meet. Next Friday and Saturday there will be a major meeting of the New Baptist Covenant at Wake Forest University featuring President Jimmy Carter and Maya Angelou. It is free and open to the public. Details are available on the WFU website. And the biggest news item is that my daughter Sarah now has her drivers license. She’ll be driving me to Raleigh after today’s lesson. We’re planning to join a group from Raleigh Moravian on mission trip to Costa Rica this summer.

Review:                        We are studying the book of Galatians this spring, and we left off before Easter with Paul telling the Galatians about a time that he publicly opposed the apostle Peter in Antioch. Peter had endorsed Paul’s mission to the Gentiles and had even decided that most of the dietary laws of Judaism were no longer valid, but he wavered in his commitment to these principles. When followers of the apostle James came to Antioch, Peter decided to eat with them rather than eat with the Gentiles in the church. Paul recognized that this simple act was a rejection of the gospel itself, and he confronted Peter. It was a dramatic and defining moment in the early church, but it would have been forgotten by history if Paul had not included it in his letter to the Galatians. He mentions it because he believes that the Galatians are in danger of going back to a pre-Easter understanding of God. We’ll pick up the story at verse 14 of chapter 2.

Read: 2:14 to end.

Quotation Marks:                        For centuries, scholars have disagreed over where to put the quotation marks in Paul’s account of his confrontation with Peter. Ancient Greek did not have quotation marks, and it is not clear where Paul is talking to Peter and where he is talking to the Galatians. Some think this entire section was part of his speech to Peter in Antioch, but others think the quotation ended with verse 14. Naturally, there are many who put the ending quotation marks in the middle of the passage. I suspect that Paul would be surprised by the notion of quotation marks at all. He was not trying to record precisely what he said to Peter and distinguish that from what he was saying to the Galatians. He was remembering what he had said to the chief of the apostles as a way to communicate something vital to the Galatians. He is speaking to them throughout this passage, and confronting them the same way he confronted Peter.

It often shocks people to hear Paul call Gentiles “sinners” here. In fact, most English translations of this book put sinners in quotation marks to make it an ironic statement, but it is not clear that Paul was speaking ironically. He was talking from the perspective in which he grew up. Those who observed God’s law given to Moses were the righteous; those who did not were sinners. Gentiles, by definition were sinners because they stood outside of the law. It is quite likely that in Paul’s household growing up, the word “Gentile” was used as an insult. You may remember how David called Goliath “an uncircumcised dog.” Some of you may have grown up in households where certain racial terms were used as insults. Here in Galatians, Paul is recalling a time when he and Peter viewed Gentiles as sinners by definition.

Paul reminds Peter (and the people in Galatia) that he was born a Jew, and he addresses the ethnic question of whether there is a chosen race uniquely loved by God. Paul uses a phrase that is similar those we still use. People talk about being a “born Moravian” or a “cradle Episcopalian” to distinguish themselves from those who joined the church voluntarily. Typically such phrases indicate a sense of ownership that others do not share. Those who were born in the household of faith, so to speak, cannot fully understand some things. Indeed, there are songs and rituals we learn as children, such as jumping slightly on the last verse of “Jesus Makes My Heart Rejoice.” This gives a sense of shared ethos that newcomers might have difficulty with. The problem is when we assume that a certain upbringing or identity means that we are righteous and others are not.

Paul shares many of the assumptions of Peter, but he also recognizes that Christ has radically transformed the human relationship to God. He and Peter are not Gentile sinners, he says, but neither are they Jews in the way that they once were. Paul tells Peter that they both know that they have been justified to God through Christ, not through their observance of the law. Even though they are descendents of Abraham and sons of the covenant, it is not the covenant that has justified them before God. It is Christ, and this new reality must be lived out in the church.

Not Justified by the Law:                        This is the radical insight that Paul had after his mystical encounter with the risen Christ. It is a new world for Paul. Notice that he never says that the law of Moses is bad or wrong, but he does say that it is inadequate. Even if a person could observe the whole law, it would fail to justify a person to God. This was the idea that inspired Luther to leave the monastery, burn the law book of the Catholic Church, defy the pope, and take a stand 1500 years after Paul. These verses are the Magna Carta of Christian freedom, and they continue to speak to the church of the 21st century.  I hope you will ponder how these words apply in your life and in your church.

Unfortunately, Paul’s statements have often been used to justify anti-Semitism. Many preachers have claimed that Paul is rejecting Judaism here and asserting that Christianity is the only true religion. They preach that Jews have been rejected because of the law. What this does is turn Paul’s statement completely on its head. Many Christians claim to be righteous and that Jews are “sinners.” In the Middle Ages, Christian governments instituted laws that segregated Jews and Christians, requiring Jews to wear a yellow star. Jews in Spain were forced to convert to Christianity or leave the country in 1492. In the 1700s Zinzendorf publicly defended Jews from the common accusation that they were cursed by God and untrustworthy. I am sure that Paul would have been horrified to learn that his words in Galatians have been used to justify deadly persecution. It is important for us to recognize that Paul was not attacking Jews; he was expanding people’s understanding of God.

Justified                        Paul states emphatically that we are made right with God through Christ and not through any law. There have been lots of sermons and books written about Paul’s psychology and his failure to justify himself before God through observance of the law, but Paul never says that he found the law of Moses to be burdensome. In Galatians, he tells that the problem was that his zeal for the law had led him to persecute those who followed Jesus. He learned that even a good law can lead to injustice and violence.

Paul says that we are “justified by faith,” and this became one of the key slogans of the Reformation. Today, though, we use the word justification in a negative sense. You give a justification for something you’ve done, often something you shouldn’t have done. We ask people to justify their actions. That is not what Paul is talking about. Paul is talking about how we made right with God. Paul is talking about how we come into right relationship with God and the world. Paul reminded Peter and the Galatians that they were made right with God through the faithfulness of Jesus. In other words, our righteousness depends on God’s action for us.

Moravian Theology:            The old Moravians taught that a few things are essential in Christianity. First is that there is a creator. The second is that there is a redeemer or savior. And the third is that there is a spirit who blesses us and makes us holy. Creation, redemption, and sanctification are all the work of God, according to Luke of Prague. God creates, God redeems, and God blesses. Humans do not create themselves, save themselves, or make themselves holy. What is essential for humans to do is to respond to God’s work in faith, love, and hope. God no longer requires animal sacrifices or temple observances. The dietary rules and purity laws no longer apply to those who were made right with God through Christ. Incidentally, this includes the laws in Leviticus that are the source of controversy in our day. The old Moravians believed that Christ had set them free from the laws of fear and death.

This need not mean that they rejected the need for Christians to live morally or do good deeds. Unlike Martin Luther, they taught that faith must be completed in love. To be justified by faith in Christ means that we seek to live as Christ instructed and to be filled with the love of Christ. We misinterpret Paul here if we think he is condemning morality or works of love. What he is trying to do is to keep the Galatians focused on what is essential rather than binding themselves to an old covenant or creating new burdens. The problem is that those who believe they are justified by the law often use the law to create divisions and barriers.

Prophetic:                        Paul is writing in the tradition of Hebrew prophets, like Micah and Amos, who rejected the notion that observance of religious rituals absolves someone from the requirements of justice and righteousness. A few years ago we were observing our anniversary here at Home Church, but the assigned lesson for the day was Amos 5:21-24 which begins with God saying “I hate, I despise your feasts and take no delight in your solemn assemblies.” That’s not what you want to hear for an anniversary communion, and I’m afraid I read it with too much vigor, which scared people. The point Amos was trying to make was that God is far more interested in justice and righteousness than in religious festivals and sacrifices. That is a message we should listen to whenever we are in church.

Jesus repeatedly made the point that God requires justice and mercy, not strict adherence to purity laws. Jesus was not rejecting Judaism; he was teaching us to focus on what is essential rather fixating on outward expressions of rectitude. Paul was drawing on this prophetic tradition in his letter to the Galatians. It is clear from the corpus of his writings that he believed that Christians are obligated to be just, moral, and merciful. That was not in dispute. What he objected to was the tendency of people to set up legalistic religious rules and impose them on others. Such rules are used primarily to divide or oppress people. Paul objected to what sociologists call religiosity or what we might call the masks of piety.

Ultimately, Paul says, this type of legalistic religiosity would make the death of Jesus meaningless. If Gentiles can be justified to God through the Jewish law, then they should just become Jews and forget about Christ. Nothing would have been changed in the world if the old covenant could fulfill the promise given to Abraham that all nations will be blessed through him.

Living in Christ:                        Paul makes a very bold claim in this chapter. He says that he has been crucified with Christ. It is hard for us today to appreciate the shocking nature of that claim. We have grown so accustomed to the image of Christ hanging on the cross that we forget that crucifixion was a horrifying punishment intended to humiliate the victim. The crucifixion of Jesus was one of the most shocking aspects of the Christian story, but Paul identifies with the crucified Christ. He died to his old life of religious fanaticism and zealotry. Paul endured shame and rejection from his own people, just as Jesus. He put to death the need to exalt himself by abusing others. Paul found his freedom, and he wants to preserve freedom for others.

Paul then makes the even bolder claim that Christ now lives in him. This line in Galatians is so central to Moravian theology that we include it in our baptism liturgy. When we name persons as a beloved children child of God we remind them and ourselves that we should not live according to our distorted egos or the expectations of our society. Christ should live in us and the life that we live on this earth should be lived by faith in the Son of God. This is our true identity and our one true obligation. We do not have to meet anyone’s expectations other than those of our true Lord and Bridegroom. We are not justified by our jobs or where we live or who we know or what we wear. We are not justified by our degrees or our incomes or our style or what we eat or what we drive. We are justified by faith in Christ.

We cannot devise a list of rules and laws that will mark as righteous and good; we have to be transformed from the inside of out. We have to let Christ remake us in his image, and in doing so we will find our true destiny. If we are crucified with Christ, if we nail to the cross all of the oppressive weight of the obligations that we let others place on us and all of the shame and guilt we place on ourselves, we can be free. If we are crucified with Christ, we can let go of our selfish ambition, our need for affirmation, our desire for attention, and our craving for security. We can die to all of the masks and false images of ourselves that others create for us, and we can live as free servants of Christ. We can know the joy of being a beloved child of God.  Paul is inviting you to let the spirit of Christ dwell within you.

A New Society:            Think of the thousands of ways we build barriers between people and try to justify our sinful divisions. Many of you remember what it was like to go shopping here in Winston-Salem and see separate water fountains. Many of you remember what it was like to have separate neighborhoods for different ethnic groups. Violations of the social rules that separated rich and poor were met with stern rebukes.

Paul tells us that Christ has died so that we can be united in faith, love, and hope. There are so many rules and restrictions we devise that keep us from living into the fullness of God’s love, but Paul says that Christ abolished the laws of fear and shame. We are not justified by the purity of our lives, by our asceticism, by our observation of fast days, by our public prayers or private fears, by our lovefeasts or hymns, by our condemnation of others or our commendation of ourselves. We are justified by faith in Christ whose death and resurrection is the fulcrum by which we can move the world toward justice and peace. This is the heart of the gospel.

We are out of time, but we will continue to examine Paul’s letter to the Galatians next week. 

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  • Bradley Jones  On April 23, 2009 at 7:47 pm

    This post blessed me immensely. There is a richness and a depth to this that has a profound effect upon a person reading this. Blessings to you Brother Dr. Craig!

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