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"The Promises."


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          This week we return to our series of messages from Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  As we have seen, Paul writes this letter to mostly Gentile churches within the region of Galatia.  His purpose in writing is to try re-indoctrinate these new believers whose faith had been attacked by the false teaching of the Judaizers.  These men had come in after Paul had planted these churches and worked to convince the Gentile believers in Galatia that in order to be a Christian, you first had to live like Jews—observing the law of Moses, particularly the law of circumcision.  The false teachers claimed that as the Galatians kept the law, their obedience—their performance “completed” their faith and made them worthy of salvation.  In the first two sections of chapter three, Paul begins to dismantle that false teaching, proving to the Galatians that the teaching of the Judaizers was not only not Biblical, but it wouldn’t save anyone.

          In the first section of chapter three, Paul tries to convince the Galatian believers that they had seen from their own spiritual experience with Christ that keeping the law was not the basis of their salvation.  (verse 2) “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing of faith?...”(v.5) “Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith…” That’s a clear appeal to their own experience of God.  They had not received the Spirit by works, but by faith.  Nor was their ongoing experience of the ministry of the Spirit among them based in anything they had done, but by hearing the word of God and believing.  Next, he argues against being made right or acceptable with God through your performance by appealing to the Biblical account of an Old Testament figure and not just any figure in salvation history, but the human father of all those in Christ, Abraham. 

He reminds the Galatians that Abraham was not saved by works, but was made right with God because he trusted in God, “it – [his faith] was counted to him as righteousness.” (v.6)  He goes on to teach that the Old Testament stipulates that for those who try to earn God’s favor by keeping the law—by their own moral uprightness—rather than earning God’s blessing, they instead receive the curse of God.  Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”(v.10)  If you are trying to earn God’s favor by your spiritual performance, you are under God’s curse for any and all sin.  In the passage we will be looking at this morning, Paul continues to argue from the Old Testament that salvation cannot be from works but from faith. He emphasizes the truth of salvation through faith alone by using an illustration from everyday life. 

In order to help us fully appreciate Paul’s illustration, let’s first remember precisely what the Judaizers had taught these Galatians.  Paul cites Abraham and his faith to show that it is faith, not works that God honors, but the Judaizers rooted their theological position in God’s dealings with Moses and the law he gave.  They came into the Galatian churches teaching something like this:  God is a God of law—we see that in the Pentateuch—its chocked full of laws.  At the end of the day, God is about law.  He started with Abraham and Abraham did find favor with God by faith, but what the so-called“apostle”Paul doesn’t mention very much is, when God makes his next major appearance to his people some 430 years into their Egyptian captivity, who does he raise up? Moses…the LAW giver?  That shows us God’s pattern of dealing with his people.  God began with faith in the case of Abraham, but his way of salvation was completed by the Law of Moses.  The law was added as a supplement to faith to bring God’s pattern of salvation to complete fulfillment.  It’s as you receive the faith of Abraham and practice the Law of Moses—the complete package, that you see God’s comprehensive plan for making his people, the Jews right with him.  Therefore, when you Gentiles come to Jesus—the one whose very claim is that he  did not come to abolish the law, you must follow this Biblical pattern so clearly taught.  That is, you must certainly have faith like Abraham did, but in order to complete your salvation you must also keep the law as Moses commanded.”

That is essentially the false argument Paul confronts in chapter three of Galatians.  We must see how subtle and seemingly logical and appealing this argument is in order to understand, not only why the Galatians were taken in, but also to help us understand why WE--2000 years later--are so easily brought under the enslaving power of this wickedly compelling lie.  It just feels right to our sinful, independent flesh for us to add to, or complete what God began in salvation.  God can’t do everything here—WE must have some part in this.  It IS, after all OUR salvation!  That is exactly what our flesh believes and that’s why all of us are recovering Pharisees to one degree or another—because we all have this sinful fleshly part of us that finds this lie so appealing. 

Keeping the law or trying to be acceptable to God by being a good person—having the right spiritual stuff is so appealing to our prideful flesh because at the end of the day, it makes our salvation all about ME.  Think about it--God will always do his part in salvation—that’s not open to question.  The question is whether I will come through with my part and that means that it is I, ME who plays the definitive and decisive role in my salvation.  If my salvation is rooted in my performance—being good enough for God--then the ultimate control rests with me.  It’s up to me—my flesh loves the notion of having that kind of control!  Living under the law in order to be made right with God is all about MY strength to obey—MY personal resolve to be good, MY alleged innate goodness, MY righteousness.  When my performance is good enough to be accepted by God I get to boast in ME. I DID IT!  The reason I am saved when so many others aren’t is because, although God has done his part with everyone else by sending Jesus, only people like me actually close the loop with my performance.  That means that I get the glory.  That’s a lie from the pit of hell.

Paul says that instead of receiving glory, anyone relying on their works receives an eternal curse because the stubborn fact is--I am not even close to being good enough-- righteous enough to be acceptable to a holy God.  The apostle labors to convince these Galatians that faith alone is what is required to be made acceptable to God because faith is all about God.  We see this in so many ways.  First, according to Romans 12:3, it is God who gives me the faith in the first place, so it’s not even my faith—it’s his. I am dependent upon God for it.  For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned.”

Second, faith is all about God because faith is what hooks us into Christ.  Faith is simply the God-given capacity to look to Christ and find our life, our righteousness and victory in him.  Water skiing provides us with a good example of what faith is like.  Can you imagine how ridiculous it would be for a water skier to swim out into the middle of a lake and put his skis on, expecting—without the aid of a speed boat, to some how rise up out of the water to ride on top of the lake?  If you want to ski, you have to be hooked into the boat.  Faith is like the tow rope that connects the water skier to the boat.  Faith is what hooks us into Christ as our source of both the righteousness that makes us acceptable to God and the power to live out the Christian life.  Christ lifts us out of the dirty waters of this fallen world into his righteousness and allows us to ride on top of them through his power.  He does that by use of the tow rope of faith that hooks us into him. 

Faith is ultimately about looking to Christ for HIS strength, HIS performance.  Just as the driver of the boat is in control of where that skier goes and how fast he goes, so Christ is in control if faith is in action because faith waits for and looks to Christ—it doesn’t go off on its own.  As soon as the skier releases the tow rope and disconnects himself from the power of that outboard motor, he begins to sink because he has no power to move independently apart the boat.  Likewise, when we look to ourselves and our putrid righteousness and performance, we immediately sink into the defiled water of our own unrighteousness and powerlessness.  Faith hooks us into Christ—his righteousness and his power to live above the controlling power of sin.  Faith receives not God’s curse, but it receives his blessing in the form of the Holy Spirit and all the power of God necessary for life and godliness.  Faith boasts in Christ alone and within the economy of faith Christ gets all the glory.

You can see why Paul is so adamant about this because the glory of Christ in redemption is at stake if the gospel of grace is destroyed as the Judaizers had taught.  He wants to leave no room for doubt about what the Old Testament really taught about this and so he counters the lies of the Judaizers with truth.  He says in verse 15, “To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.  16Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, "And to offsprings," referring to many, but referring to one, "And to your offspring," who is Christ.  17This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.  18For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.”

What he is essentially saying here in these verses is:  The Judaizers have bewitched you into believing that the Law of Moses completes faith—that the law was added to complete what was missing by looking to God in faith—as if there was something lacking in faith.  That is a godless understanding of redemptive history in the Old Testament.  When God told Abraham that because of his faith he would bless all the families of the earth through his offspring, Christ—that wasn’t an inadequate, first part of a salvation scheme to be completed later by Moses.  That was God’s pattern of salvation: believe and then receive the blessing.  When God covenanted to bless Abraham in response to his faith, that was not the first of two steps in salvation—it was a promise of God!  The law was not added as a supplement to faith.  The law was added much later and as we will see had a completely distinct and separate purpose a As far as salvation goes. God promised Abraham that his faith alone would bring the blessing to you Gentiles through Christ and if the obeying the law is necessary as a second part, that makes God’s promise to Abraham meaningless--null and void.”  He illustrates the indescribable importance of this promise and its role in salvation history first, by citing an everyday example from the world of jurisprudence or, law.

Paul’s main point can be stated: Faith, not works of the law must be the only way to be acceptable to God because God’s covenant with Abraham was an eternal, irrevocable promise.  This text answers at least two questions about the promises God made to Abraham.  The first is:  What is the nature of these promises?  We begin to get at this with what Paul says in verse 15. “To give a human example, brothers: even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.”  In order to understand this verse we need to define the key words.  First, we must know that Paul uses the words “promise” and “covenant” in these four verses interchangeably.  He means the same thing by both these words.  Second, in verse 15 the word the ESV translates as “covenant” is better understood as a “testament” as in--a last will and testament. The Greek work for “covenant” and “testament” are the same and here it means a will.  Some of the translators rightly render this word as “will.”  Paul illustrates the faithfulness and permanence of God’s promise to Abraham by citing the kind of promise made in a person’s will. In Paul’s day, once a will was ratified, it was impossible to annul it.  No one could add to it or edit it in any way.  It was set like stone.  Paul illustrates from that, arguing from the lesser to the greater.  He says, “Even in our fallen world, if a person makes out a will, it cannot be revoked.  How much more is it impossible for a promise or covenant made by God be altered or terminated.”

The reason Paul uses a will to illustrate his point is because there are many points of connection between God’s covenant with Abraham and a person’s will that help us here.  First, like God’s promises to Abraham, a will is not a contractual agreement between two equals.  It’s not a business contract.  It’s not as if one party agrees to do something for the other, thereby obligating the other to do something in return.  A will contains a list of things the deceased person or testator gives to those who survive.  Likewise, in his covenants with Abraham, God promises a long list of things he will give to Abraham.  He will give him a biological son—a son of promise, Isaac.  He will give Abraham’s descendants the land of Canaan, he will bless all the families of the earth through one of his offspring who we know to have been Jesus.  Those are all promises; not contractual agreements and all of them rested on the faith of Abraham, not upon his performance.  In response to his faith, God would give blessings to Abraham and his descendants as his inheritance.

Paul draws a similar distinction between Abraham receiving a promised inheritance versus someone trying to keep the law in Romans 4:13-14.  He says, “For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be the heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith.  For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.”  Paul wanted the Galatians to see that there is a qualitative, fundamental difference between receiving a promise and trying to earn God’s favor through the works of the law.  As it relates to our salvation, there is a towering, insurmountable wall separating the law and the promise.  They are mutually exclusive to one another as it relates to our salvation.  If you receive something as part of your inheritance by virtue of a promise in someone’s will, you have not earned it.  It’s impossible to earn an inheritance.  If you are in someone’s will, it’s not because the testator owes you something.  It’s because he/she has freely chosen to give it to you.  This is Paul’s summary statement in verse 18.  “For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

The Judaizers had come into the Galatian churches and wrongly taught that being acceptable to God was dependent upon obeying the Law of Moses, which they said was a supplement to the promises of God to Abraham.  The problem was God wasn’t cutting a business deal with Abraham.  He was not an employee or business partner of God  —he was his heir—he was heir to the promises he made to him.  When God later gave the law to Moses, that in no way annulled these promises made to Abraham.  The promise takes priority over the law according to Paul.  We see this in verse 17.  “…the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void.”  The law did not affect the promises made to Abraham.  The law had another role entirely and Paul takes up the role of the law in the next section of the letter.

Philip Ryken makes a helpful distinction between law and promise.  He says, “The promise is about what God will do, while the law is about what we must do.  The difference between the promise and the law is evident from the vocabulary God used when he first gave them.  When he made the promise to Abraham, God said, “I will, I will, I will.”  But in the law of Moses God said, “Thou shalt, thou shalt, thou shalt…The promise…had only to be believed.  But the law…had to be obeyed.” [Ryken, Galatians, p. 125] Now, we know that if we have saving faith, love and obedience will flow from that faith, but our salvation is rooted in God’s promise, not our performance.  That is the gospel.  If we lose that, we lose everything.

The second question Paul answers here about the promises God made is:  To whom are these promises directed?   In verse 16 he says, “Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring.  It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.”  The Judaizers, like many Jews, were very proud of the fact that they were “sons of Abraham” and as such, (so they thought) recipients of the promises made to Abraham.  Paul qualifies that by pointing out that in the promises God made to Abraham in places like Genesis 13, 15 and 24 the promises were directed, not strictly speaking toward a race of people coming from Abraham, but to an individual—an offspring or “seed,” singular.  Why does the apostle make this fairly nuanced point about the Hebrew grammar in Genesis--what’s he getting at here?  His point is to emphasize that these promise were made particularly to the great Seed of Abraham—the One through whom God would fulfill his promise to bless all the families of the earth—Jesus Christ.

          Why would that be important for these Gentile Galatian believers to hear?  Think about it.  As Gentiles, they had no genetic relationship to Abraham.  They were not Jews by race.  So, if [as the Judaizers claimed] the only people who could be heirs to the promise of Abraham were Jews, or those Gentiles who converted to Judaism through circumcision, then what hope was there for them, outside of being circumcised, to receive the promised blessings of Abraham?  None.  To the Judaizers, the only hope of salvation rested on you becoming a Jew—a “true son of Abraham.”  Paul uses this point of Hebrew grammar to splinter that argument by saying that the blessing of Abraham was not fundamentally intended for Isaac and the rest of the Jews, but the primary target for this blessing was Jesus Christ. 

That is the best of news for Gentiles like most of us in this room.  The reason is because if Christ is the recipient of the promised blessings and we, by faith, through the Spirit are united with Christ, that means we share in the blessing of Abraham through Christ.  Paul says as much later on in verse 26 “For in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.”  Then in verse 29, “And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.”  The meaning is clear and flies in the face of the Judaizers.  That is—it’s not about being a Jew or a Gentile, it’s about being in Christ.  If you are in Christ by faith alone, then because Jesus is “the heir of all things” (Heb 1:2) then we are heirs with him. We see this glorious truth that those who trust in Christ are co--heirs with him in several places.  Paul says in Romans 8:16-17, “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God,  and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.  Ephesians 3:6 says, “This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.”

          Think about it as a logical equation.  God promised the blessings of the covenant to Abraham and his seed who is Christ.  All those trusting in Christ alone are in Christ.  Therefore, all those who trust in Christ alone are heirs of the promises of God’s covenant with Abraham, not on the basis of works, but on the basis of our faith. Think about what that means.  It means that we who are in Christ have been promised first, the Holy Spirit, our Comforter and power source who is also the initial installment who guarantees the other eternal blessings to come. We have been promised the genuine Promised Land—eternal life in Christ. 

This is not the land of Canaan. The promise of material prosperity in the Old Testament has been upgraded to eternal life in covenant with God where the true and everlasting riches of God are found.  The truth that our inheritance is eternal life is repeatedly seen in the New Testament.  Jesus says in Matthew 19:29, “And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands, for my name's sake, will receive a hundredfold and will inherit eternal life.”  At the judgment scene that Jesus depicts in Matthew 25 we read, [v.34] “Then the King will say to those on his right, 'Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.  Jesus promises in Revelation 21:7, “[NASB] "He who overcomes shall inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son.”  All of that is promised on the basis of faith alone, not works.

          The main point of application for us is simply this: Our salvation and eternal joy is rooted in the rock solid promise of God received by faith alone and not any of our fallen attempts to be good enough for God through the law.  Anyone here have bad days besides me?  These are the days when you are shredding the law of God with your sinful thoughts, words and deeds and are tempted to feel like you have permanently disqualified yourself from ever getting to heaven. The news of Galatians chapter three is phenomenal at all times, but this news is particularly phenomenal in those moments.  God simply does not relate to us on the basis of our performance, but on the basis of his promise.  Do we believe this?  This is about GOD, not us and that way HE gets all the glory.  Let’s tie this all up by going back to the picture of that water skier.  What pulls us up out of the foul water of our own sin is not found in what we can do for God through the law, but it’s in our trusting in what God has done for us in Christ.  His righteousness is given to us as we look in faith to God who lifts us out of our own sin and gives to us the perfect performance of his Son.  Trying to be good enough for God by our fallen performance is as foolish as a water skier who swims out into the middle of a lake, straps on his skis and tries by his own effort to build up enough speed to glide across the surface of the water.  He’s not going to get there is he?  He’s not even going to get close.

          No, it’s as he hooks himself into the power of the boat through the tow rope that he can overcome the downward pull of gravity, come up out of the water and begin gliding across it.  Likewise, as we try to move toward maturity in Christ, we can’t do that apart from faith that hooks us into the Spirit’s power.  It’s as we trust in God that we are pulled up out of sin into the righteousness of Christ and it’s as we trust in God through the tow rope of faith that we can overcome the downward pull of sin and move forward spiritually. We can know that our faith is the way to victory because it’s not placed in our fallen performance of the law, but in the rock solid life and saving work of Christ and the eternal, enduring promises of God.  May God give us the grace to look to Christ alone so that his righteousness and his overcoming power over sin may be ours for his glory.


Page last modified on 07/27/2008

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