Galatians and the Three-Part Gospel

Yesterday the sermon was on Galatians 3.

I love Galatians.

Here’s a bit from the sermon text: “This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:2-3).

If it were possible to obey the Law perfectly, then that obedient person would be fine with God and have an automatic pass to heaven. For the rest of us (all of us), who are not able to obey the Law perfectly, there’s Jesus. All our sin goes to him, and all his righteousness and Law-keeping goes to us, and he is therefore our pass to heaven and the way to reconciliation with God.

It’s tempting to think only about the first part of this, as if Jesus wipes my slate clean, and now I have a second chance to get things right. This is what the Galatians are doing. They think they must obey all the Law in order to stay right with God and keep their admittance to heaven secure.

Understanding the second part is liberating, because it means that not only my justification (my status before God), but my sanctification (my growth as a Christian during this earthly life) depends on faith, grace, and the Spirit, not on my efforts.

I don’t think I really understood this part of the Gospel until college, when a pastor presented it at a weekend conference. His presentation was based on a curriculum developed by World Harvest Mission to train their missionaries. It’s called Sonship, and the whole idea is that the Gospel has three parts — our sins are forgiven, we are made righteous, and we are adopted into the family of God. The first part I knew; the second and third parts were great news.

So this now makes sense to me theoretically. I believe it. What’s difficult is learning how to live it. I can’t just sit on my hands and wait for God to sanctify me, and I’m not allowed to (and I don’t want to) just sin whenever and however I want to.

But whenever I think about trying to act out my belief, it looks a lot like relying on human effort for my sanctification. I don’t really understand how to act AND rely on the Spirit.

At a missions conference in college, I heard one speaker say something about being “gripped by God’s love” and it occurred to me that that’s a passive construction. I can’t make myself be gripped by someone or something; it’s what someone or something does to me. What I can do is keep close to God, desiring to be open to whatever he might move in me to do.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for discipline. C. S. Lewis says that by sort of “pretending” to be righteous — in the sense of acting like the Gospel is true, acting like we love God, acting like we love our neighbor — we become a little more righteous indeed. The pastor at that weekend conference put it this way — our role in our sanctification is to “be what we are.”

By the way, I love World Harvest Mission’s approach to their missionaries. Their first goal is to make sure their missionaries know the Gospel — know how much God loves them, know how much they have been forgiven, know how securely they have been made righteous, know how little their work depends on them. First and foremost, they care for their missionaries. The mission work itself comes second.

This is what Paul does; his letters generally start with the Gospel, reminding the readers what is true, and how much God loves them. Only then does he mention anything about how they ought to respond. And only then do commands and exhortations feel like anything welcome and non-threatening. If God only made me in order to get work out of me, he might as well have made a robot. He has certainly created me for good works, but those works are secondary to his love for me.

I need to hear this more often. And I think if the church heard it more often, our good works would increase in quantity and quality.

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