Where do you boast?

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As Paul closes his letter to the Galatians, he sums up his entire letter, in a way, in Galatians 6:11-14.

In this entire letter, Paul has been trying to contrast the difference between the true gospel, and a false gospel (Gal 1:4-10).

The reason is because there were some false teachers who had come in, and were preaching a gospel of “Jesus-plus-something-else”. Essentially, these false teachers were saying, “Yes, Jesus helps you get saved, but you must also work for your salvation. You must also earn it. You must do something to earn your stay“.

And Paul was writing to combat this false gospel, with the true gospel, which says that the only reason Christians are saved is because of Jesus plus nothing else. Jesus is a Christian’s only hope.

And at the end of his letter, in Galatians 6, Paul wants to finish by pointing out the ultimate difference between a false and the true gospel. In other words, what is at the heart of a false gospel verses the true gospel? What is at the foundation?

And in essence, what Paul says is that the difference between the two is what you boast in. Or, to say it another way, what is your ultimate security? Where is your ultimate worth found? Where is your identity and self-image found?

Paul says that the ultimate “boast” of a false gospel is found in what you do. He says in verse 11, that the false teachers only desired to “make a good showing in the flesh”. And what he means by this is that the false teachers believed that their entire worth, their boast, was in what they did. They believed that all of God’s love was predicated and conditioned on something that they did. And so their entire mission was to make a show. Their whole goal in life was to do well, to make themselves look good on the outside. To follow all the rules. To be a “good” Christian person. And they did this, because their gospel said that their entire worth was bound up in it. Their entire destiny was tied up in how good they acted for God. If they did well, God would accept them. If they did bad, God would be upset with them. Their whole identity was founded on that.

In contrast, Paul says that the ultimate boast of the true gospel is in what Christ has done. Paul says in verse 14, “but far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ”. And what Paul means by this is that the true message of the gospel says that a Christian’s worth is not bound up in what they do. If it were, every person would be doomed to hell, because “by works of the law no person [can be] saved” (Gal 2:16).

Instead, a Christian’s entire identity is tied up in what Christ has done on their behalf. For the Christian, God’s love and acceptance for them is no longer based on what they do. It is no longer based on whether they are good or bad. It is no longer based on how holy they are. Rather, the security of the Christian is based solely on how holy Jesus is. It is based on the perfect work of Christ. Because in the gospel, Jesus obeyed where we should’ve obeyed, and was cursed where we should’ve have been cursed. And because of this, Jesus’ identity is our identity. And so, the Christian’s boast is found in the cross, and in nothing else.

Tim Keller, from his commentary on Galatians, expounds on this, saying:

Ultimately, Paul says, the heart of your religion is what you boast in. What, at the bottom, is the reason you think you are in right relationship with God?

If the cross is just a help, but you have to complete your salvation with good works, it is really your works which make the difference between your being headed to heaven or not headed to heaven. There, you “boast in your flesh” (v. 13), your efforts. What an attractive-sounding message: to be able to pat yourself on the back for having reserved a place for yourself in heaven!

But if you understand the gospel, you “boast” exclusively and only in the cross. Our identity, our self-image, is based on what gives us a sense of dignity and significance — what we boast in. Religion leads us to boast in something about us. The gospel leads us to boast in the cross of Jesus. That means our identity in Jesus is confident and secure — we do “boast”! — yet humbly, based on a profound send of our flaws and neediness.

… [The gospel leads me to realize that] I am saved solely and wholly because of Christ’s work, not mine. He has reserved a place in heaven for me, given freely to me by him. I “never boast” — I take no credit for my standing with God — “except in the cross”; what Christ has done is now something I “boast” in.

Where is your boast? Where is your security? Is it in Christ alone, or in something that you do? The difference is the difference between the true gospel and a false one.

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Why then the Law?

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In his letter to the Galatians, Paul had entered into a discussion on the function, and the purpose of the law. Apparently some Jews had been teaching these Galatians that obedience to the Mosaic Law was necessary for salvation.

For Paul, this was spiritual suicide. He said in Galatians 3 that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse”, because “cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the law” (3:10). In other words, trying to be justified by the law is impossible, because the law demands perfect obedience (abiding by all things). And because all men are enslaved to sin, anyone trying to obey all things written in the law is attempting the impossible. They are committing themselves to a standard that they will never live up to, even fall constantly short of. Paul concludes by saying that “no one is justified before God by the law” (Gal 3:11).

Of course, a question naturally arises from this whole discussion: why did God give his law? If the law does not and cannot save anyone, then what is its purpose? Why would God give a standard impossible to meet? What was his purpose in giving it?

Paul takes up this question in the next section of Galatians 3. Paul himself asks, “why then the law?” (Gal 3:19). He answers by saying that the law “was added because of transgressions until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made…” (Gal 3:19). Now, what does Paul mean by this? And in what way is the giving of the law connected to the coming of Christ (the offspring)?

James Boice answer this question, saying,

On the surface the [verse] is ambiguous. The phrase [“was added because of transgressions”] can mean either that the law was given to restrain transgressions (which is the natural function of law) or that the law was given to make the transgression known, even in one sense to encourage them or to provoke them to a new intensity. In view of Paul’s choice of word “transgressions” rather than “sin” in this context and of his discussion of the purpose of the law elsewhere, the latter is the only real possibility. In Romans, Paul argues that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Rom 3:20) and that “where there is no law there is no transgression” (Rom 4:15). The point is that though sin was in the world before the giving of the law, sin was not always known as such. The law reveals sin as sin. Hence, it may be said that it is the law that turns sin into transgression — transgression of law — and even accentuates it (Rom 5:20). In this act, law performs the function of showing man’s need of a Savior.

In other words, the law makes us aware of our sin. Paul himself says in Romans 7:7, “if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet'”. The law functioned in making Paul aware of his covetousness. In this way, the purpose of the law is to make us aware of our own transgressing of God’s commands. And in making us aware of our transgressions, it makes us aware of our need for a Savior.

Phillip Ryken adds,

When [Galatians 3] says that the law was “added”, it literally says that the law came in by a side road. The law feeds into the promise [of the gospel]; it is the on-ramp to the gospel highway. [The reason for this is because] the more we know the law, the more we see our sin, and the more we see this, the more we confess that we need a Savior. “The law was given”, wrote Calvin, “in order to make transgressions obvious, and in this way to compel men to acknowledge their guilt”. And it is only when we see our guilt that we see how much we need Jesus. The law is the law so that Christ can become our Savior.

In this way, the law came alongside the promise of Christ. The law was never opposed to the promise of the gospel. Rather, the burden of the law serves to make sinners more and more aware of the exceeding sinfulness of their sin! And then, it leads sinners straight to the gospel, in which the whole curse of the law is lifted and placed on Christ.

Perseverance and the Gospel

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Timothy Paul Jones, co-writer of PROOF, articulates well why perseverance is a gospel issue. If a Christian can forfeit or lose or reject their salvation, then grace by definition is lost. Consequently, the gospel itself is lost.

Jones describes how many today perceive that salvation begins with God’s grace, but is kept by our own effort. He continues saying,

Seen this way, our salvation begins by God’s grace — but then it’s up to us to stay saved. Whether or not we remain in God’s good graces depends on our choices. Perhaps there are certain unpardonable sins that must be avoided or certain levels of growth that must be maintained or even religious rites that must be performed. Jesus starts it, but we finish it. But God, according to the scriptures, doesn’t only start our salvation; he plans it and guarantees it from beginning to end…It’s clear throughout the scriptures that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are working together at all times to sustain our salvation to the very end of time.

  • The Father plans our salvation to the end, “He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus (Philippians 1:6)
  • The Son promises to carry out our salvation to the end: Jesus is both “the pioneer and perfecter” of our faith (Hebrews 12:2). In other words, Jesus doesn’t start our faith as the pioneer, but then leave us to finish the project. Jesus is the one who brings it to completion as “the perfecter” of our faith as well.
  • The Spirit guarantees our salvation to the end: God “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (2 Corinthians 1:22).

That’s good news for believers in Jesus Christ because it means you don’t have to keep up the payments on your salvation! If you’ve trusted Jesus, it’s not because you planed that faith in your fleeting and faulty wisdom. It’s because God set his heart on you from eternity past; God made this choice knowing everything about you — past, present, and future! As a result, nothing can change his choice to pour out his grace on you.

Not your sin.

Not our fears.

Not the darkness that gnaws at your heart that no one else knows about.

Nothing in your future.

Nothing in your past.

Nothing in all creation.

Nothing at all can separate you from God’s love.

God proved his love for you once and for all through the cross of Jesus and the empty tomb — and nothing can change his determination to save you by his grace. That’s the promise of forever grace. Forever grace means that God preserves us in his grace and that we persevere by this same grace. Both of these realities are rooted in God’s gracious work. Neither one is a work that originates in us, and both truths are essential. We can glimpse both of these truths at the same time in the same verse in Paul’s letter to the Ephesians: “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit” (that’s a command to persevere) “with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption” (4:30) — that’s an assurance that you will be preserved… God’s planning never writes a check his power can’t cash!

What a comfort to know that if God has saved us in Christ, he will keep us in Christ. He will preserve us, and ensure that we will persevere until the end. As Douglas Wilson once said, Works-righteousness “is a barren mother; she will never have any children, much less gracious children. Grace is fruitful; her children are many, and they all work hard“.

The Difference Between Human Religion and Grace

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In his excellent primer to the doctrines of grace, PROOF, Daniel Montgomery compares God’s unconditional, sinner-transforming grace given in Christ, to our human version of religion. The primary difference between grace and religion, is that in religion, we are led to believe that our relationship with God is somehow maintained by our own deservedness; we are deluded into thinking that our acceptance from God is somehow based on what we do.

No — Actually, grace isn’t grace unless it is given freely. It isn’t grace if it is earned, maintained, kept, or forfeited by anything we do. It isn’t grace if it is concerned with our own merit whatsoever!

In fact, God’s gives grace to sinners simply because of the lavishness of his own love toward us (Eph 1:8). Montgomery explains this further:

Human religion allows us to delude ourselves into believing that, somewhere in the inmost recesses of our souls, there is some minuscule outpost of goodness that kick-starts God’s work in our lives — some prayer we can pray or righteous deeds we can do. Even if we admit that we can’t do anything to start God’s work, human religion assures us that surely there’s something we can do to keep it going. And so we work to manage our sins more effectively, to serve in more ministries at church, to multiply our theological knowledge, to keep artificial preservatives away from our family’s dinner plates — whatever it is that we think might merit more favor from God and others. When that happens, the good news of grace has been eclipsed by a delusion that’s not really good news at all…

The empty wisdom of human religion proclaims, “What goes around comes around. God helps those who help themselves. You get what you pay for” — but these are lies that lead only to bondage and despair. The gospel of grace speaks an entirely different word, a word that’s filled with paradox and mystery. By God’s grace, we get what someone else paid for. By grace, God helps those who not only can’t help themselves, they don’t even want to. By grace, what goes around stops at the foot of the cross, never to come around again.

What you need isn’t a better purpose, another prayer, or one more plan for self-improvement. What you need is what we all need — to “wake up” to God’s wonderful and undeserved love. You need to wake up to the freedom and joy of what God — on his own — has accomplished for us in Jesus. What you need is grace.

Marvelous, scary, amazing, astonishing words on grace here. “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor 15:10).

What God thinks of us in Christ

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When we are given new life in Christ, it is not as though we are merely forgiven, being given a second chance. It is not as though we are given a clean slate. It is not that God removes his wrath toward us until we go and sin again. It is not that God reluctantly acquits us, and sends us away. It is much, much more than that.

To be sure, we are forgiven, and our debt of sin is cancelled (Col 2:14). But this is only one side of what we experience in Christ. This is only one aspect of what happens when we are baptized into him (Rom 6). In fact, when we receive Christ’s death for ours, and his life for ours, we are given the entire life of Christ. All of it. We are given his righteousness (1 Cor 1:30). We are given his resurrected life (Col 3:3). We are given his victory and reign over sin and death (Col 3:1). We are given all that he has; everything that is his becomes marvelously ours: “the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours [in Christ]” (1 Cor 3:21-23)!

In Christ is not only the forgiveness of sin, but the bestowal of all of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. And this means that when God looks upon us in Christ, he no longer sees us according to our sin. He no longer sees us according to our mistakes. He no longer sees us according to our weaknesses. When he looks upon the sinner in Christ, he sees the perfect righteousness of Christ, and says, “My beloved son (daughter) in whom I am well pleased!” (Mt 3:17).

And as long as Christ is alive, victorious over our sin, reigning in righteousness and new life, this is always how God sees us. Our security is eternally based on what Jesus has done, no longer what we have done. Our acceptance is based on the infinite righteousness of Christ, not on our grievous sins. God bestows upon us the highest honor and acceptance, because in Christ is the highest honor.

As Paul says, “your life is hidden in Christ with God” (Col 3:3). This means we should no longer see ourselves according to the flesh (2 Cor 5:16). We should no longer look upon our old life of sin, which has died with Christ (Col 3:9-10), but walk in the newness of life which has been given as a gift in Christ. Paul tells us to put on Christ, and walk not in the old manner of life (Rom 13:14).

In a very real way, the Christian life is living in practice what God has given us in Christ (Col 3:1). It is not that we put no effort into obeying God — but rather, we obey God because God has first given us the perfect obedience of Christ (Phil 2:12-13)! Our entire identity is wrapped up, summed up, swallowed up by Christ’s perfect life, his atoning death, and his victorious resurrection. Our life is his, and his is ours. This is the definition of what it means to be in Christ. It is the totality of what it means to be a Christian. Our life is no longer our own. Our sins are no longer our own. Rather, Jesus takes all our sins, and bears them on the cross. And, Christ takes all of his righteousness, and clothes us in it.

As Paul so rightly says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2:20). Solomon rightly says, “My beloved is mine, and I am his” (SOS 2:16).

Would that we could see ourselves as God sees us in Christ! Then we would despise the sinful things our flesh still desires, for it was paid for in full by Christ. Then we would desire the righteousness of God, for it was so graciously given us in Christ. Then we would desire to live holy lives as God himself is holy, for that was the purpose for which we were redeemed.

To live unto God is first to know that in Christ, God loves, receives, and accepts unconditionally. Then we are free to live for him, not to be received, but because we are already received.

Christ-centered or Christ-less Christianity?

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It is very easy for Christians to remove Christ from their Christianity. It is very easy for us to get caught up in what we as a church, or a community, or a family, are doing for God, rather than being founded on what Jesus has done for us. But the simple fact is that when we take Jesus out of the center of all that we do, we have established a Christ-less Christianity, not a Christ-centered one.

Paul, when he wrote his letter to the believers in Corinth, told them that that he “decided to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Cor 2:2). What this means is that Paul resolved to center his teaching, preaching, discipling, mentoring, and living around what Jesus had accomplished in his death and resurrection. His message and life was distinctly gospel-centered, and he preached the gospel to both unbelievers and believers.

When Paul wrote the believers in Rome, he told them that he was “eager to preach the gospel” to them (Rom 1:15). Why? Because it was the “power of God unto salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16), and because it was “able to strengthen” believers (Rom 16:25). Paul even went so far to say that all of God’s promises are fulfilled, finished in Christ (2 Cor 1:20, Rom 10:4).

For that, our teaching and practice as believers should always be centered on what Jesus has done for undeserving sinners.

Jesus Christ is the righteous One who obeys God’s perfect standards (Mt 5:17). Jesus Christ is the beloved Son on whom all of God’s favor rests (Mt 3:17). Jesus Christ is the conquerer of all evil and sin and death (1 Cor 15:54-57). He is the one who defeats the devil and his schemes (Mt 4:1-11). He is the one who establishes God’s kingdom on earth (Lk 17:21). Jesus is all of God’s promises encapsulated. More than that, he is God himself incarnated (John 1)!

And why does Jesus do all this? Why does he go to the cross? Why does he rise from the dead? He does it to accomplish for sinful men and women what we could not accomplish for ourselves. Jesus does everything to “fulfill all righteousness” (Mt 3:15) for sinners who are by nature not righteous.

We are all sinners. We cannot commit our lives to God. We cannot obey God’s standards. We cannot overcome the evils of this world. We cannot thwart the devil’s schemes. We cannot establish God’s rule on earth. In fact, we love our sin too much!

This is why Jesus does all these things for us! He does it that we might be accounted as righteous, even though we are not (Rom 3:25). And, he comes to live inside us and empower us to live according to God’s desires, even though within our own power, we have no desire to live for him (Gal 5, 2 Cor 3:17-18).

Apart from Jesus, we can do nothing (John 15:5).

So, if our lives do not revolve around Jesus as the center, the one who enables sinners to be justified, sanctified, and glorified (1 Cor 1:30), we have missed it. We have missed the point and purpose of Christianity.

Because, it’s easy to aspire to do a lot of good things: to commit their lives to God. To live obedient lives. To love our neighbors. To love Jesus. To read the Bible. To go to / commit to church. To pray. To love our husband / wife better. To raise our kids better.

But unless Jesus is at the foundation of those things, fulfilling, enabling, empowering us to do them, we will fail. We will ultimately burn out, quit, and move on to something else we think we can do. Because apart from Jesus’ death and resurrection power, we have no ability or desire to actually do anything good or righteous.

What we must understand is that Jesus fulfilled all that we could not do, in order to justify and empower us to do those very things. Jesus’ work for sinners has to be at the center. Otherwise we will be at the center.

Michael Horton says that if we do not have Jesus’ work at the center, we will ultimately believe that “we are not really helpless sinners who need to be rescued but decent folks who need good examples, exhortations, and instructions… [This mindset is] not a modern innovation, but the default setting of the fallen heart ever since the fall. No one is ever taught [it]; rather, we have to be taught out of it”. The fact is, we are helpless sinners, always and hopelessly in need of Jesus’ righteousness. We cannot nor will we ever earn God’s approval, which is why we are always in such need of the One who can and already has.

As Paul says, “Christ Jesus…became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Cor 1:30).

What did Paul mean when he said, “you’ve fallen from grace”?

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Paul, in the height of his letter to the Galatians, says in Galatians 5:4,

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace

What does Paul mean by this? Many have claimed that Paul here is teaching conditional security (as opposed to unconditional); the thought that one can lose their position in Christ, no longer being saved.

But is this what this passage is teaching? I really don’t think so.

First of all, from the context, Paul was not speaking about the status of one’s salvation. Paul here (as he has been addressing throughout the entire letter) was speaking of the method of salvation. Meaning, Paul wasn’t arguing whether someone is saved; his primary concern here and all throughout Galatians was how one becomes saved. And in Galatians, Paul had been arguing for free salvation through faith in Jesus, and against works-based, self-meritorious salvation.

And in fact, the Galatians had been duped by false teachers into thinking that the way someone is saved is through adherence to specific laws and outward obedience. They were tricked into thinking that if they obeyed enough, that they would be accepted and loved by God. But Paul was arguing that people are saved not on the basis of merit, but on the basis of grace. People are not saved by performance, or by outward actions, or by righteous deeds, but by the performance of Another; namely, by the performance of Jesus.

With this context in mind, I think it is clear that in Galatians 5:4 Paul was telling his readers that by attempting to win God’s approval through works, they were operating in a crippling system of legalism and works-righteousness, as opposed to salvation by grace.

In this light, Paul was not saying that people can sin their way out of salvation. He was not introducing this concept that a Christian could out-sin God’s grace, or forfeit their salvation through licentious living. In fact, Paul never had this concept in his head when he brought out this phrase “fallen from grace”. It is ironic that some mean “lose salvation” when they say “fall from grace”. But again, given the context of the entire book of Galatians, this cannot mean what Paul meant. And in fact, with Jesus’ perfect work being the ground of salvation, the thought that a Christian could out-sin grace would have been detestable to Paul.

In reality, when Paul said that the Galatians had “fallen from grace”, he was referring to the deadly thought that anyone could ever work their own way into salvation. Paul was refuting the Galatians’ legalism, not their licentiousness (Paul does renounce licentiousness in Romans 6 — but not here). Again, we cannot miss the context of this phrase.

So then, the Galatians had fallen from grace in that they were trying to earn the love of God with their own works. They had fallen from grace in that they thought their works could somehow merit God’s approval. They had fallen from grace in that they were not trusting the merit of Jesus, and in his sin-atoning death to attain the love of God for them.

But Paul was not saying that they had lost their salvation.

Rather, Paul was reminding of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He was reminding them that the only way they could win or earn or achieve any type of love or acceptance from God was through the life and death of Jesus. Because through faith in Christ, Jesus’ perfect performance was given to them. And all of their sin was hoisted onto Jesus and punished in their place. Jesus had already done all the work. He had already lived the perfect life. He had already atoned from the sins of his people. And for that, those who had believed were already beloved children in the Father’s eyes (Mark 1:11). Why should they severe themselves from this truth? Why should they remove themselves from this grace? Paul was writing to make sure they understood where their righteousness came from.

James Boyce, commenting on this verse, says, “to ‘fall from grace’, as seen by this context, is to fall into legalism. Or to put it another way, to choose legalism is to relinquish grace as the principle by which one desires to be related to God”.

When our own works are the principle by which we relate to God, we are fallen from grace.