Saturday, June 23, 2007

Monday, June 18, 2007

Justification as Life

Here is my first sermon to the good people of First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

Justification as Life
Galatians 2:15-21
June 17, 2007
11th Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: This sermon is structured in narrative/expositional form to illustrate Paul’s theology of justification.

Sermon Function: Paul’s letter, and this passage in particular, gives the Christian listener assurance that Christ’s work is sufficient to cover over our sins. We don’t have to worry, then, when we live lives of faith in Jesus. Paul’s letter, however, says more about justification, and in this sermon, I hope to teach listeners about how the doctrine of justification is essential to life in the Christian community.

[Click to Show/Hide Sermon Text]

Justification as Life: Introduction1

Before his own transformation, Martin Luther, the great Christian reformer of the early 16th century, used to excoriate himself about his sinfulness. He worried constantly about his salvation. He always felt like he wasn’t good enough, that he hadn’t confessed enough. Luther was known to stay up all hours of the night, praying and subjecting himself to extreme mortification of the flesh in an attempt to render himself worthy of salvation. I once watched a great documentary about Luther that illustrated this behavior. As a pious monk obedient to his superiors and to the Roman church, Luther would frequently make his confession to a priest. His confessions were renowned for being quite long. Laundry lists of sins would be presented for absolution. Finally, after receiving absolution and forgiveness from the priest, Luther would rise and begin to walk off. But before walking more than a few steps, he would remember some other sin he had forgotten to mention. He would go back to the now-tired priest and once again make that familiar statement, “Father forgive me, for I have sinned.” This could go on for some time. In fact, for years and years Martin Luther lived in abject terror that he might be condemned for all eternity because of his sin. It was not until he understood what Christ had done for him that he knew once and for all that God’s grace was sufficient, and that he didn’t have to live in terror any longer. Luther made his discovery, in part, by reading Paul’s letter. Luther called the epistle to the Galatians “my epistle, to which I am betrothed.”2 Since that time, we reformed Christians have also looked to this letter, and to this passage particularly, for as a rock upon which we can stand in assurance of God’s pardon amidst the deep, troubled seas of our sins.

This is at the heart of what it means to be justified. To be justified with God means “to put right with, to cause to be in a right relationship with.” Indeed, this is a hallmark text in the world of Reformed theology, and it gives those of us who are Presbyterians ammunition for the argument that our salvation has been secured, once and for all, by Jesus Christ on the cross. And this is cause for thanksgiving and joy, because we all know, due to what theologians like John Calvin have identified as our “totally depravity,” that the defects of our human nature, a result of our sinful rebellion against God, have stark consequences – we cannot, of our own volition, be justified with God. By ourselves we stand condemned and without excuse. We can’t secure salvation through obedience to law or by good works, buy only by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And because of the work Jesus completed on the cross, we can have assurance for the hope of eternal life. Here we have, in a nutshell, our doctrine of justification. Through faith in Jesus Christ, we are made right with God, and are saved forever.

I could just say “Amen” right now and end right now, couldn’t I? This is the truth of our faith, is it not?

It is, but I’m not letting y’all off the hook that easily in my first official week in the pulpit. Paul is actually saying much more about the doctrine of justification than I’ve just summarized in one tidy paragraph. For Paul, justification is also at the heart of what it means to be part of the church. Justification is at the core of living in what our ancestors in the faith called “living in the Way.” As a result, then, there are several more questions we can ask of this text. For example: What is the relationship between justification and some of the other things Paul says in our text? What does it mean to be crucified with Christ? And what does it mean to have Christ living in us? These are big questions, and we ought to take a closer look at them.

Context of Paul's Letter

In his letter, Paul give us some information about a significant difference of opinion between what he had previously taught and what others were teaching in Paul’s absence. Paul proclaimed that, as disciples, the new Christians of Galatia were expected to live lives reflecting what the crucified Christ had accomplished on the Cross. The Spirit made this new life of faith possible, rather than going through the pious motions of following law. Paul preached this gospel message of freedom on at least two previous visits to those early Jewish and Gentile Christians. Paul faced some opposition, however, from others who held to a different gospel message. Early in his letter to the Galatians, Paul expresses his “astonishment” (1:5) that they seemed intent on “quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” You see, after he left, some other preachers came into the picture. These more “traditional” preachers argued that those who accepted Jesus Christ as their Lord had to also assume the responsibilities of Jewish law, including circumcision, dietary rules, and other customs of Moses. Additionally, and here is an important point, those adhering to the dietary laws could not then each with Gentiles. “One must have Christ and Moses, faith and circumcision, grace and law.”3 For Paul, however, this wasn’t time for both/and, it was either Moses and the law, or faith and the grace of Christ. The stakes for Paul were very big. Some in Galatia insisted that he wasn’t a “true” apostle because he didn’t hail from the original 12 in Jerusalem. Others made the claim that Paul was arguing for a “cheap” form of grace, because it seemed to make no demands on individual believers beyond the perceived “simple” matter of proclaiming faith in Jesus.

Another faction attacked Paul from another angle. There were those who believed that Paul’s demand “to crucify one’s old sinful nature and produce fruit of the Spirit could be anything but a new form of slavery to the law.”4 This faction basically made the claim that Paul was replacing one form of legalism with another. Rather than living in Christian freedom, these contrarians alleged that Paul’s teaching basically involved moving people from one from bondage to bondage. One the one hand, then, Paul is criticized for preaching “cheap” grace, and on the other hand, he’s condemned for pushing doctrinal slavery of a new sort.

I can’t help but reflect that we sometimes live in a similar time of division in our denomination, when the gospel of Christ, even today, comes under a similar twin set of attacks. Our desire to exegete the will of Christ down to the last nit of legalistic purity diminishes our ability to perform the essential mission work of the church, and the post-post-modern misunderstanding of what it means to be Christian is interpreted by those both within and outside of the church as a return to bondage from a society that places individual freedom above almost every other consideration. I recently took the opportunity to listen once again to a great sermon by a beloved pastor in Atlanta, Georgia, the late Reverend Doctor Frank Harrington. During his ministry, he led Peachtree Presbyterian Church, the largest church in our denomination. Frank never knew the extent to which he influenced my own life of faith, and subsequently my ability to discern a call to ministry. During his sermon one week, he said something profound that has stuck with me through the years. To those who would claim that Christian life is nothing more than lamentable servitude, Frank Harrington said:

“Life is to be celebrated and enjoyed. It’s a sad, sad commentary on the Christian faith that we’ve allowed the world to paint us with colors of gray instead of bright blue, that many see us as a great big wet blanket that is tossed on life to kill our joy.”5

I can tell you right now, friends, that I feel doubly blessed as I read this quote, and can happily affirm that life in Christ is life in joy. This has been evident to both me and Sara as we have been so warmly welcomed into this community, and because we know that you all like to have fun. I hope to have more fun with you as the days go by.

One more fact from this Galatian conflict must be mentioned. Paul, having been so warmly welcomed in Galatia, expresses extreme frustration at the divisions caused by the naysayers. He proclaims in chapter one that he is “astonished” that they “are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.” Eugene Peterson, in his paraphrase of the Bible known as “The Message” translates the Greek word for “deserting” into what most of us would consider a stronger term – “traitor.” And I think that might likely capture how Paul might have thought of what he had heard. The stakes are actually pretty big. Paul, working on his own after a life-altering experience that caused him to fundamentally rethink and remap his life, has been preaching to the people of Galatia that it is through faith that we are justified. Faith in and of Jesus Christ. And now, that entire ministry was at risk. Moreover, and here’s the punchline to our discussion today, the argument about Paul and his gospel risked fracturing the newly formed unity of the body Christ, the church. For Paul, justification, being made right with God, is much much more than being secure about our own salvation. It is the very thing that brings all of us, Jew and Gentile, male and female, Republican and Democrat, progressive and orthodox alike, into communion with one another. It is the stuff of life! Paul is certainly concerned about our salvation, but he is also deeply concerned about the unity of the body of Christ. Justification is, as New Testament professor Craig Koester put it, “a social issue, the issue of fellowship and unity within the church.”


And this unity in Christ we find by faith in him doesn’t come cheap. It comes at the price of Christ on the Cross. And if we truly accept what Christ has done, is doing, and will do for us by faith, then we will be transformed. We are transformed because we discover that just going through the motions of what we think is faithful is, and always will be, insufficient. It’s that part of us in the law that dies when we truly accept Christ. And that death isn’t cheap. It’s not cheap at all. The grace of God that lifts us up from our old humanity of “I” and “me” puts us in communion with other in the Body, you, and me, and all those present in worship both here in Portland and throughout the world. But this death of the old self isn’t something to be lamented, but something to be lifted up in joy, because when we set aside our old standards of the law, we open ourselves up to letting Christ live in us. The benefits of knowing Christ in this amazing and very intimate way are astounding because we are lifted up out of the old shell that ends with death into new life with each other. And this new life, this kingdom life, makes itself known in a variety of ways. The kingdom becomes visible when we gather together for worship. It becomes visible when we feed each other communion. It becomes visible when we give someone a job they desperately need, or food, or clothing, or whatever it is our neighbor desperately needs. It’s the kind of kingdom life that lifts us up from the dead ends associated with addictions of all kinds. It’s a justification life that makes us into the very instruments of grace that Christ embodies. It’s a justification life that causes us to visit the sick. It’s a justification life that helps us to work with others to alleviate the ever-present epidemic of loneliness. This is kind of justification that Paul is talking about. Living Christian life does not just consist of navel gazing and worrying about whether our sin has disqualified us forever from God. We need not worry about that, because we have Christ! Instead, we need to entirely rethink our lives, leave the saving up to God, and respond in thanksgiving to that great gift of forgiveness that we’ve already received. That is why I entitled this sermon “Justification as Life.” Justification is life, new life in Christ, the one who lives in us, liberating us from the strictures of our own human frailties, and invites us into the kingdom live now, with each other, and with the world.

If there is anything that you remember about this sermon, I hope it is this: Amidst all the perceived “issues” that divides us, and Lord knows that are no shortage of these, there is one supreme, fantastic, glorious person that unites us in justification life, setting us right with God, and that’s Jesus Christ. Praise be to God for the precious gift of His Son, who gives us freedom from our sin, assurance of our pardon, and who doesn’t just stop there, but also gives us joyful lives with our brothers and sisters in the faith.


Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1The title for this sermon was inspired by Wiard Popkes in his paper “Two Interpretations of ‘Justification’ in Galatians 2:15-21 and James 2:21-25” published in the journal Studia Theologia [59 (205), pp. 129-146].

2From Luther’s Lectures on the Galatians 1535 (Vol. 26 of Luther’s Works).

3See The Interpreter’s Bible. Vol. X. “Galatians,” p. 430.


5Frank Harrington. “How Will I Be Remembered?” Preached at Peachtree Presbyterian Church in the Fall of 1998.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Belated Happy Father's Day

Like many of you who have been sent around the country, I won't be able to be with my own father on this day, but he's in my thoughts and prayers (and, thankfully, my speed dial).

Technorati Tags: