Sermon Aug 25

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

August 25, 2013

“What Is the Gospel?”

Galatians 1:1-24

Twenty years ago, in 1993, my family and I visited our congregation’s sister church in Zwickau, Germany. Since then, you have had a chance to meet people from that church as there have been a number of visits back and forth. While we were there, Adi Nitzsche, who was the pastor, took us up into the mountains of southeastern Germany, an area called the Erzegebirge, and we visited the town of Annaberg. There’s a beautiful early 16th century church there called the Annenkirche.

While we were in Germany, one of the things I really liked doing was going up in church towers to look out over the city, and also, if possible, I liked to stand in the church’s pulpit. At the Annenkirche, I climbed about ten stone steps circling around a stone pillar up into the church’s pulpit. The sanctuary was very large, but long and narrow. The pulpit was almost at the halfway point between the two ends. And although the sanctuary stretched out in either direction, from the pulpit attached to the stone column on one side to the column on the other side was only about as far as from here to the back of this sanctuary.

What made such a big impression on me in that church, was that standing in that elevated pulpit, I was looking directly across at a life-sized crucifix on the opposite pillar. There, just a short distance in front of my eyes, was the figure of Jesus on the cross. You couldn’t avoid it. I looked around the beautiful sanctuary at the towering stained glass windows and the magnificent wood carvings, but my eyes kept coming back to Jesus dying on the cross. It was like it was right in my face. And I thought – what an awesome and daunting experience it would be to preach from that pulpit, all the while looking into the face of Jesus on the cross.

That experience at the Annenkirche came back to me as I was studying Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The cross of Jesus stands at the very center of Paul’s message to the Galatian churches. You can’t avoid it. Paul holds it up right in front of their faces. In chapter 3, Paul says: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified!”

Galatians is all about the meaning of the gospel. It is a foundational text for our understanding of the Christian faith. This was Martin Luther’s favorite book in the Bible. Luther wrote: “The Epistle to the Galatians is my epistle. To it I am as it were in wedlock.” What I’ve read of Luther’s personality and temperament makes me think Galatians would be an appropriate fit for him. Galatians is an explosive letter and the view we get of the Apostle Paul in this letter is different from all the others. This is thought to be the first of all of Paul’s letters. And what we have is an angry letter from Paul to the Galatians.

The letter to the Galatians is addressed to the churches in the region of Galatia, which today would be in central Turkey. The churches Paul writes to are the ones he himself established there on his first missionary journey. Paul would remember the struggles he had in Galatia. In the city of Lystra Paul was stoned and left for dead. And in chapter 4 of Galatians, Paul reminds his audience of his physical condition while he was with them. He wrote: “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; although my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me, but welcomed me as an angel of God, as Christ Jesus.” And now Paul wonders: “I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.”

What’s happened to the Galatians? Why is Paul so distraught over the condition of the churches in Galatia? The problem was that after Paul moved on through Galatia and then to other regions there came along behind him false teachers who tried to distort and pervert the gospel message. These people were called Judaizers. They were Jews who were receptive to the Christian message, but with a difference. The churches Paul started consisted primarily of Gentiles. The message of the Judaizers was that to become a Christian one must also convert to Judaism. It was fine to trust in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord but they must also be circumcised and keep all of the laws of the Jews.

At the same time that these false teachers contradicted the gospel Paul preached, they also scornfully questioned his authority as an apostle. They would say – “Who is this fellow Paul, anyway? He certainly wasn’t one of Jesus’ twelve apostles. Whatever Paul knows he must have learned it second-hand from others, and therefore what he preaches is not really from God.”

And so throughout this letter, Paul defends the gospel message and his authority as an apostle. If you read the first chapter of one of Paul’s other letters, like Ephesians or Philippians or Colossians, and then read the first chapter of Galatians, you will notice the difference right away. The most striking thing about the letter to the Galatians is its tone. From the very first verse, Paul comes across as angry and defensive.

There was a polite pattern followed in ancient letters, just as there is today. They would start by identifying whom the letter was from and who it was to, followed by some kind of a greeting. And then before getting into the substance of the letter there would be a transitional paragraph with typically warm and thankful remembrances of the relationship between the sender and the recipient. We see that pattern in Paul’s other letters.

But not this letter. In the first sentence Paul identifies himself – “Paul an apostle” – and then he immediately launches into a defense of his authority – “sent neither by human commission nor from human authorities, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead.” And not only here, but throughout the letter Paul presents his apostolic credentials. Verse 11 says: “For I want you to know brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.”

Paul’s primary purpose is to defend the gospel message. Gospel is a word we use a lot in the church, but do you know what it means? The word “gospel” is the translation of the Greek word “euangelion”, which appears 75 times in the New Testament. “Gospel” appears six times in this first chapter of Galatians and I think it’s the central theme of the whole letter. Euangelion literally means “good message”. Angelion means “message” and it’s where we get the word “angel”, a messenger of God. The prefix, spelled “eu”, means “good”. So euangelion is the good message. Our English word “gospel” derives from the old English term “godspell” – meaning “good news” or “joyful tidings”.

What is disputed by the Galatians is the substance of the good news, the gospel. In verse 6, Paul says: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.”

The content of the gospel is the grace of Christ; nothing else. Paul spells it out in verses 3 and 4. There he says: “Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.” That’s the greeting we typically find at the opening of Paul’s letters. And then verse 4 explains: 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, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.”

The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ has saved us from our sins. The Judaizers would say – that’s all well and good. Yes, Jesus Christ saved us from our sins. But Jesus did his part, now you have to do yours. And then they would talk about the laws that must be obeyed and the rituals that must be followed in order to be truly saved. But to add something to the gospel is to pervert it; it is to destroy it. We are saved solely by grace. Salvation is only and entirely the work, the gift, of Jesus Christ. To say that there is something we must add to it in order to complete it is to say that what Jesus Christ did is not good enough.

Martin Luther wrote: “There is no middle ground between Christian righteousness (by that he means grace) and works righteousness. There is no other alternative to Christian righteousness but works righteousness; if you do not build your confidence on the works of Christ you must build your confidence on your own work.”

What did Jesus do? Paul says: he “gave himself for our sins to set us free.” What Jesus did was to rescue us from our sins. You can’t rescue yourself. Our salvation comes only from outside of ourselves. It comes only from God’s Son giving himself for us.

Paul uses himself as an example of one who was saved by Jesus Christ. The complete turnaround in Paul’s life is evidence of what the gospel can do. Paul reminds his readers that he was formerly an enemy of the gospel, violently persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it. And then Jesus Christ personally appeared to him on the road to Damascus. After he accepted the forgiveness of Christ, what was said about Paul was – “The one who formerly was persecuting us is now proclaiming the faith he once tried to destroy.”

Today we sang the hymn – “Amazing Grace!” It was written by John Newton in 1779 and it has an autobiographical character to it. Newton had formerly been the captain of a slave ship bringing slaves from West Africa to the Caribbean. After becoming a Christian he returned to England and became a minister and this hymn is one that he composed for his congregation.

The hymn starts off with that famous line – “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound – that saved a wretch like me!” I remember when I was a kid in Sunday School, when we sang that song we would say: that saved a wretch like – you! and we would point at someone else. As popular as the hymn is there are some people who have a strong aversion to saying – a wretch like me!

We can think of some people who are wretches but we don’t usually put ourselves in that category. I even read that there are some hymn books that have changed the line to read – “Amazing grace! How sweet the sound – that saved a soul like me!” That seems to say – I’m not all bad! I do have some redeeming qualities!

But just as Paul points out to the Galatians, that makes it a different gospel. The hymn has it right. No matter who we are, without Christ we are in a wretched state. There is not anything we can do to save ourselves. All of our own efforts are without any merit at all. It is only someone who is lost and hopeless who needs to be saved. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ ‘gave himself for our sins to set us free from the present evil age.” And we can rejoice along with John Newton –
I once was lost but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

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