We have a theologian in our circles name Michael Horton. Some of you may have heard him or heard of him as the chief host of the radio broadcast The White Horse Inn or as the editor of Modern Reformation magazine. A few years ago he wrote a book called Putting Amazing Back into Grace. At the beginning of the book he sort of gives a bit of his testimony and talks about how though he was raised in a good Christian home as he got into high school the Christianity that he was exposed became focused on good works and law-keeping for salvation:
Reared in a solid Christian home, with the nurture of daily devotions and the simple piety of believing parents, I was offered the warm, supportive, meaningful environment of evangelical Christianity. But during my teenage years, the same clichés, slogans, and experiences that had provided a sense of being “in” and of belonging to a group began to appear shallow and trite . . . . The rules I had never questioned began to choke me. My Christian schools became prisons. In the seventh grade, I had a Bible instructor who took particular delight in [listing] the things for which we could be [condemned]. If, for instance, we were to die with an unconfessed sin, we could be eternally lost. The implications haunted me, and I could not understand why my schoolmates were relatively calm, especially since the level of actual law-keeping was so unimpressive among them, too. I was worried: What if I really messed up some Saturday night and Jesus came back before I could walk down the aisle again on Sunday? What if I couldn’t remember a particular sin in order to confess it? There were so many ways I could lose my soul! [Michael S. Horton, Putting Amazing Back Into Grace: Embracing the Heart of the Gospel, Grand Rapids, Baker, 2002, 20.]
Do you see how much Mike Horton’s Christianity during this period became focused on law-keeping? Christianity was really about a list of things you were supposed to do and things you were supposed to avoid. It even stripped the gospel of grace. Grace wasn’t about being just before God because of what Christ has done for us but instead it was about you doing your work to confess sins. Fortunately he wasn’t stuck there and God was good to Dr. Horton and as Mike was reading through Paul’s letter to the church in Rome he really understood 4:5, 7-8, “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness. . . . Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.”
Brothers and sisters, I think we all sometimes struggle with these same things, knowing and feeling that we are guilty and condemned sinners and wondering how it is that we could be made right with a holy and just God. This morning we want to see how it is that we come to be just before God and then how that affects the way that we live and view ourselves before him. Let’s pray.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 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 in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. (Gal. 2:17-21)
As we examine this passage, we can see that Paul’s main point is that the law can only bring death and so righteousness must be found in Christ and then also that as we die to the law in Christ it changes the way that we live for God. We want to unpack this passage and then see how does it apply to where we are, using our marriages and relationships as a particular example.
Justification is theologically the way we describe how we are made right with God. It specifically asks how it is that God, as the perfect Judge, can declare to be just and righteous rather than condemn us as guilty sinners. It is an immensely important question. The Protestant Reformation was partly focused on turning from a Roman doctrine of justification by works to the biblical one of justification by faith in Christ Jesus. Martin Luther went so far as to say that “if the doctrine of justification is lost then the whole of Christian doctrine is lost.”
This question is even more important to individual questions as it deals with finding out how we poor and miserable sinners can be made right with God. How can a holy and just God accept an unrighteous person like me?
Some have tried to answer this question by saying that we need to do good works. We need to obey the law. But this isn’t Paul’s answer. Instead Paul says that through the law we have died to the law. What he means here is that the law only has the power to set forth a perfect and absolute standard and then, because none of us can meet that perfect standard, to declare us guilty of being sinners and to give us the sentence of death. Think of the rich young man who comes to Jesus and asks, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus says to him, “You know the commandments: ‘Do not murder, Do not commit adultery, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Do not defraud, Honor your father and mother.’” The young man says, “I have kept all of these from my youth.” Mark tells us that Jesus looked at this young man, loved him, and said, “You lack one thing: go, sell all that you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” Then Mark tells us that the young man went away sad because he had great wealth (Mark 10:17-22). You see what Jesus was showing him is that this young man thought he obeyed the law because he never killed anyone, because he did not have sex outside of marriage, because he didn’t steal or lie or dishonor his parents. Yet Jesus shows him that while he thought he obeyed the whole law he didn’t even keep the first commandment because he loved his money more than God. This is what the law does. James says that even if we keep the whole law and yet stumble in a single point we are guilty of violating all of it (James 2:10). The law demands perfection.
We can see this at work in the laws that we make up in different parts of our lives. My wife can tell you that I’m a very demanding driver when it comes to other people. I can’t stand it when someone hits their brakes for no apparent reason or doesn’t bother to use their turn signal. One of my real pet peeves is when I’m going into the parking garage at Metro and someone with a group of cars behind them decides that they need to back into a space and takes several tries to do so. Some things like that are laws that I have for driving that even go beyond the state laws. As far as other people go I like to think that my laws should be enforced perfectly. When someone is driving ten miles under the speed limit I start to go, “Where’s a cop when you need one?” And once someone breaks one of my laws I dismiss them as an awful driver.
We make these kinds of laws in other ways too. Maybe we expect our spouse to have dinner ready and on the table at a certain time. Maybe we expect the children to be quiet for a half hour when we get home from work to let us transition into home life. Perhaps we expect our friends to return phone calls within two hours or something like that. When these laws get broken we keep a tally of peoples’ violations. If our own little personal laws are so rigid how can we expect anything different from the perfect law of God?
Because the law cannot save we need a righteousness that comes from God and is apart from the law. Paul says that life apart from the law which kills is found in our union with Christ. According to Scripture, there were four things that were nailed to the cross. The first is of course Jesus himself. The second was a sign that Pilate had his soldiers nail to the cross that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” The third was the debt of our sin. Paul writes to the Colossians that “you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross.” (Col. 2:13-14) Here in Paul’s letter to the Galatians we see that the fourth thing that was nailed to the cross was you, if you are a follower of Christ.
What Paul refers to here is what we call theologically union with Christ. John Murray calls union with Christ the “central truth of the whole doctrine of salvation. Over and over again the New Testament talks about believers as being in Christ. Martin Luther described it as Christ and the believer being so tightly cemented together so as they are one person who cannot be separated but remains attached forever. This union is so important for Christianity because once you are united to Christ everything that he has accomplished is credited to you. So the Bible speaks of our dying to sin in Christ’s death (Rom. 6:3), of our being buried in him (Rom. 6:4), and our being raised to new like in Christ’s resurrection (Rom. 6:4). When the Holy Spirit unites us to Christ by faith God applies the events of Christ’s life to our life history so that they are effective for our salvation.
So Paul writes our obituaries into this passage. If you are a follower of Christ you have died to the law as you were crucified with Christ. This is what Michael Horton discovered when he was reading Romans. God provides us with the righteousness that we need to be right with him. He gives it to us entirely apart from our effort and trying. This deals with the guilt of our sin. Christians do sin after they are saved but when you do give in to temptation you can put away those feelings of guilt because you know that since you are righteous in Christ you are justified before God and not condemned. He paid for your sin and gave you his righteousness.
Well how does knowing that we’re not justified by our own good works but by faith affect us. I think one way is that by giving us a way to deal with our guilt before God it allows us to deal with our guilt before others. When I’m focused on measuring my worth and standing by my own good deeds then I’m far less willing to see how my sins and failings affect others. When I forget to do things around the house I don’t want to deal with the sin of my forgetfulness and how it affects Andrea because it becomes a guilt that condemns me. Instead I want to do everything I can to try to avoid that. But if I’m really convinced of the gospel and that I’m right with God despite my sins by faith in Christ then I can honestly deal with Andrea and I can apologize when I mess up and ask for her forgiveness because I know I’m already forgiven for that sin in Christ. Do you see how that comfort bleeds over from having a right vertical relationship with God into our horizontal relationships with others?
Paul does not stop with our obituaries but he goes on to describe our new life in Christ. He says that we now live by faith in the Son of God who loved you and gave himself for you. We now live for God. Before when we kept the law it wasn’t really because we wanted to please God but because we wanted something from him. Once we have the peace of conscience that comes from being justified in Christ we can obey God in the freedom of knowing that he sees the good things we do out of our faith in Christ and is pleased with us. One day we will hear those words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Master.” (Matt. 25:21)
I had a professor in seminary, Steve Brown, who some of you may have heard of as the founder and director of Key Life Ministries. He taught a course on the Christian life though it always seemed to me like all of seminary was really about that. One of the things that he said on the first day of class was that everyone in that room had one secret in their lives, something related to sin, that they never wanted anyone else to find out about. It’s something that they’re so ashamed of that they would rather die than have everyone else in the room know what it was. I’m sure that’s probably true for everyone here too. For a lot of men in our culture that secret is some sort of an addiction to porn. A lot of studies have shown that pornography truly hijacks the male mind and enslaves it with images and fantasies even among those who are in some ways disgusted by it or ashamed of what they’ve seen and thought. Maybe it’s something else for you. But Professor Brown went on to say that dealing with that sin would be a huge battle, privately or with the encouragement of a few close Christian friends, for a long time. Perhaps one day you’ll be able to completely overcome that sin and fight that temptation every time you encounter it. And God will be pleased if you do. But the wonder of a gospel that proclaims righteousness by faith in Christ is that Jesus, who loved you and gave himself for you, will not love you anymore when you overcome that sin than he does right now. And maybe you’ll spend the rest of your life struggling with that sin. You may have times when you’re able to overcome the temptation and times when you give in. God will be pleased when you do overcome it and he is a good Father in heaven who will be pleased in all the other good works you do that he created for you to walk in. But even if you never get any better at overcoming that sin than you are right now, Jesus still loves you and gave himself for you and your struggle with that temptation will not ever make him love you any less. That’s the gospel of being crucified and living in Christ that Paul preaches here.
Well, what does this look like on the ground? One of the really ancient pastors in the church, Tertullian, who lived in the fourth century, said that just like there were two thieves crucified with Christ there are also two thieves who try to rob us of our joy in the gospel. These two thieves are law-keeping and law-breaking. Law-keeping tells us that we still have to be acceptable to God through our own good works. There are tons of rules that have to be kept. It leads to either self-hatred because we can’t keep the rules or self-congratulations because we feel like we have. Law-keeping can look deeply religious but it lacks any real joy. In our marriages law-keeping turns the relationship into a blame game. When we try to have a good marriage through law-keeping we become deeply sensitive to any criticism and our natural response is to fight back. We have an inner lawyer who start marshalling facts and wrongs to give the counter-argument rather than deal honestly with our sin. Often when Andrea is upset because I forgot to take out the trash my immediate response is to start thinking of things she’s forgotten to do. That’s law keeping in marriage.
One the other hand law-breaking is not so much intentionally violating every one of the ten commandments as it is an approach that looks for what is right and wrong for each person. Law breakers are not convinced that God punishes sin. They like to talk and think about God’s love but because they don’t think of themselves as sinners, God’s love doesn’t cost him anything. Think about what this looks like in marriage. The law breaker reduces love to just something that’s around to benefit both spouses. Love is not sacrificing for your spouse. It is selfishly getting what you want out of the marriage. When I’m acting like a law breaker in marriage it means that I am not taking Andrea seriously as someone created in the image of God, fallen and sinful, but also redeemed by Jesus Christ. I don’t deal seriously with either her sin or with mine to confront her as a tool that God uses to help her grow or to confess and repent when she confronts me. I try to avoid talking about sensitive or serious things like sin because it’s not something that makes me happy in the short-term. That’s law breaking in marriage.
Do you see how the gospel protects us from both? To the law keeper Paul says, “You are crucified with Christ. You have died to the dominion of the law.” To the law breaker he says, “But the life that you now live is for God by faith in Jesus who loved you and gave himself for you.” The law keeper needs to hear that God forgives. The law breaker needs to hear that forgiveness has a price. In our marriages this leads to a real love that forgives and sacrifices as Christ lives in us. When Andrea does something to wrong me it means that rather than go and add it to the list of things that she owes me I remember that I’m a sinner too and that my offenses against God are infinitely worse than anything she could ever do to me. So I forgive those things because I have been forgiven of so much. At the same time when I have wronged her or when something is going on and even though you love your spouse you just have one of those moments where you really don’t like them very much you stay committed to that covenant relationship of husband and wife. You sacrifice the momentary feeling for the commitment of love because you know that Jesus loved you and died for you even while you were his enemy, sinfully rebelling against him. The gospel really changes the focus of our Christian life in every relationship and situation because it reminds us that instead of an angry Judge we have a gracious heavenly Father who is willing and ready to forgive our sins and so we can confidently live by faith in the Son of God.
Roger Nicole was a theologian who liked to give an illustration of this love of God that we find in the gospel. He said:
If your house was burning down but your whole family escaped and I came to you and said, ‘Let me show you how much I love you!’ and then I ran into the fiery house and died, you would say, ‘What an idiot!’ But if one of your children was still in the house, and I said, ‘Let me show you how much I love you!’ and ran into the house and saved your child but died myself, you would say, ‘Behold, how he loved us!’ Now if you can save yourself by works, Jesus’ death is not love, it is pure stupidity. If, however, you are lost and dying and unable to save yourself, his death means everything.This is how much Jesus loves you even though you are a sinner. And God knows that we are weak and we sometimes forget that he showed his love for us in the cross. Because of that he gives us communion. As we eat the bread and drink the wine we remember that Christ’s body was broken and his blood was spilled out on the cross and that the only way that we are made right with God is to put our faith in Jesus and be united to him by the Holy Spirit. So before we eat this meal and remember how much Jesus loves us let’s pray.