Today is the second of six consecutive weeks in which we will be walking through Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Last week we heard Paul’s bold and uncompromising declaration that there is no Gospel other than the one that proclaims salvation by grace alone through Christ’s merits alone to God’s glory alone. If the Gospel of Christ alone saves, the clear implication is that all other messages, all other paths, all other religions are false and lead to hell. But how can we be so sure? Isn’t it arrogant and unloving to say that billions of Muslims, Hindus, Mormons, agnostics and atheists are going to hell if they do not repent? How can we be sure that the Bible is true when it seems so out of touch with the times, especially in regard to the things it says about the Lord’s Supper, the roles of men and women, church fellowship, marriage and sexuality? How do we know that the Gospel is God’s Word and not just a manmade idea? Those aren’t new questions. They were also on the minds of the Christians living in Galatia. They needed to know why they should trust Paul’s Gospel and not the “other” and “different” gospel being preached by the rivals who had come after him. These are challenging questions, but Paul doesn’t waver. He steps up with three proofs of the Gospel’s power.
While Paul ended last week with harsh curses, he strikes a completely different tone today. We see that he is genuinely, pastorally concerned about the souls of the Galatian Christians. I want you to know, brothers, that the gospel I preached is not something that man made up. I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it; rather, I received it by revelation from Jesus Christ. Why does Paul make this point? Well, it seems that one of the rivals’ critiques of Paul was that he didn’t get his message from the other apostles in Jerusalem (as they did!) and therefore couldn’t be trusted. And…Paul agrees with them. “You’re right, I didn’t get my doctrine from the apostles in Jerusalem…I got it from Christ himself.” And we know the details: that one day around noon when Paul was traveling from Jerusalem to Damascus to arrest Christians there the Lord Jesus struck Paul blind, called him to repentance, converted him through the Gospel, and called him to be an apostle – all attested to by multiple witnesses (Acts 9). Now, you might say: what does that prove? Many religions claim divine revelation. Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism, claimed to have spoken to an angel named Moroni. Muhammad claimed to have received the Koran from the angel Gabriel. The governing body of the Jehovah’s Witnesses claims to receive progressive (“new”) revelations from God. Tune into almost any televangelist and you will hear them talk about “what God revealed to them.” So what makes Paul’s Gospel any different? We’ll get to that in a moment.
But let’s make one thing clear: Christianity is grounded in the truth that the Gospel is not manmade but originates with God himself. That’s why you can trust every word of it. You can bank your life and eternity on it. If it were only manmade words, manmade opinions and idea that I stood up here spouting – you would have every right to judge it, to take it or leave it or change it or dismiss it altogether. There is no reason you should care what I think – I’m a sinful human just like you. But if what I preach to you is the Word of God, then you do need to listen very closely, because it’s not really me, but God speaking to you. That’s the only thing that gave Paul the boldness to say that there is no other gospel and the only thing that gives me the confidence to say that if you believe what is preached here, you will be saved. In a broader sense, this is why we can’t just deny, dismiss or “update” the teachings of Scripture to fit the culture or the times. We don’t dare call the doctrine and practice of church fellowship – politically incorrect practices like closed communion or refusing to worship with false teaching church bodies – unloving; we don’t dismiss the Biblical roles of men and women as sexist; we don’t dare call it a cute but unrealistic idea to expect that sexual behavior should be restricted to a man and woman within marriage. These doctrines and practices are not mere human traditions, opinions, or ideas – they are the very words of God which he inspired human prophets to preach and teach and write down. We call this verbal inspiration – that every word of the Bible is God’s Word – and therefore true and trustworthy. (see also John 14:26; 2 Timothy 3:16; 2 Peter 1:21)
But knowing that his claim of divine revelation doesn’t end the controversy, Paul goes on to paint a portrait of the Gospel’s power: for you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many Jews of my own age and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me… What is it that sets the Christian Gospel apart from every other religion? One word: grace. Every other religion in the world (and, sadly, many false forms of Christianity) teaches that salvation comes by works, obedience to a set of laws or rules. The final proof that the Christian Gospel alone is divine is its foundation in God’s grace. Paul points to his own life as an example. He brings up his own shameful past, not as an emotionally manipulative “testimonial”, but as evidence that neither his conversion nor his message were his own idea. Why not? Because he was extremely zealous to destroy the Gospel he now proclaimed. He savagely persecuted the church of God and even imagined that he was serving God by doing so. He had cooperated (and likely supervised) the stoning of Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7:54-8:1) and was headed to Damascus to find some more Christians to round up and arrest (Acts 9). That’s how spiritually blind and dead he was. Paul was just as capable of turning himself from unbelief to faith as those boys we heard about in our other lessons were able to bring themselves back from the dead. But Jesus did the impossible: he breathed life into Paul; he created faith in his unbelieving heart. And when you read Paul’s letters, you see that he just couldn’t get over God’s grace to him, grace made him what he was, grace was what he preached and he didn’t dare take that grace for granted.
And neither can we. While I don’t think any of us had a former life where we arrested and killed Christians and called it God’s work – we were all born dead in sin, blind to Christ, and enemies of God (Ephesians 2:1-3). In fact, we continue to bear evidence of our depraved nature whenever we reject God’s will for our lives or begin to imagine that we have somehow earned or deserved God’s favor. We bear evidence of it if we think we deserve some credit for coming to faith – or, at least, remaining in faith. But grace exposes the lies. Like Paul, left to ourselves, we would still be doomed to destruction. We contribute nothing to our salvation – God does it all, from beginning to end. It was nothing but grace that led God to send his Son into this wretched world and nothing but grace that led Jesus to willingly go to the cross to save us – long before we were born. It was nothing but grace that led God to give us life, to choose us, baptize us, give and preserve us in the one true faith. And when we die, our rock-solid confidence is that it will be nothing but God’s grace that opens the gates of heaven to us. This is what sets the Christian Gospel apart from every other “gospel” that is preached. Grace is what proves that the Gospel is divine. This grace is what Paul received directly from Christ; this grace is what Paul preached to the Galatians – and this grace is what we still receive and preach today.
To review: what proof do we have that faith in the Christian Gospel is the only way to be saved? First, it came from God, not from man. Second, the heart of the Gospel is something that no man ever would have dreamed up: salvation by grace. Which leads to the final proof: this Gospel has the power to change lives. It certainly changed Paul, didn’t it? He went from being a “Jew’s Jew”, dedicated to obeying the Law of Moses and hunting Jesus’ disciples to a “Christian’s Christian”, dedicated to proclaiming the Gospel to the ends of the earth. From persecutor to preacher – that’s the dramatic turnaround the Gospel worked in Paul’s life. To the extent that the Christians in Judea (who were likely well aware of Paul’s prior persecution of the Church) had to confess: “the man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.”
The gospel changes lives. In some ways, this last point may be the hardest for us to believe. Sure, we can see it in Paul’s life and maybe we can even see it in the lives of others. But what about when we look in the mirror? When I look at my life, I don’t see as much change as I should. I still lack the holiness God demands and I still rebel against God’s will for my life in more ways than I can count. And I’m not alone and neither are you. Paul saw the same lack of progress in his own life even after his dramatic conversion and call to apostleship. He admits as much in Romans 7: I do not understand what I do…For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing (Romans 7:15, 19) Why? Because even after conversion, our sinful nature clings to us and keeps coming to life and keeps trying to control our lives day after day. That’s why we not only need God’s grace to bring us to faith, we need his grace to keep us in the faith. That’s why we need to repent daily and daily find God’s forgiveness in Christ.
And this, this cycle of daily repentance and running to Christ for forgiveness – is how the Gospel changes our lives. Where’s the proof, you might ask? Well, why are you here? There are a million other things you could be doing on a summer Sunday morning – and yet here you are to listen to God’s Word and receive his gifts. The Gospel did that. Want more proof? I don’t talk about giving offerings very often – and yet you keep bringing them. Your service to our Risen Savior is unpaid and often unrecognized – but you keep volunteering. But there’s proof even closer to home. I know that we all have struggles with mental or physical or emotional health, we all have issues with loneliness or in our marriage or our families – and the world offers easy outs, escape through drugs or divorce or just ending it all – but you don’t give up, you keep working, keep forgiving, keep loving as God has loved you. In a society that is determined to annihilate the gender roles God has given men and women, that has all but destroyed the institution of marriage, that regards human life as cheap and disposable, that preaches accountability to no one but yourself – you stand by the truth of Scripture – in spite of the consequences. Some of you have even sacrificed job opportunities, social standing, friendships and even peace in your family for the sake of Christ. What else on earth could explain those life changes other than the power of the Gospel? But it doesn’t even have to be that dramatic. Simply the fact that you come here to willingly and publicly confess that you are a sinner who deserves nothing from God but death and judgment – while simultaneously clinging to his promise of mercy and forgiveness in Christ – is proof that the Gospel has changed your heart and life. And so, if you’re ever frustrated at the lack of change you see in your life or the lives of the people around you, don’t buckle down and try harder, but trust more in God’s promise to work real, tangible change through the power of the Gospel in Word and Sacrament. God works real change through the Gospel. Paul is proof and so are you.
Until the day you die the devil will never stop trying to lead you to doubt the Gospel’s power. He will try to convince you that it’s just one of many equally valid religious messages out there, that it’s just a manmade message and can be changed or ignored like any other manmade message or, as he did in Galatia, to convince you that the Gospel is too good to be true – that you have to do something to be saved. When those attacks come, pull out the sword of the Spirit, remember these verses from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Here is real, solid proof of the Gospel’s saving power: it comes from God and not from man, it proclaims God’s unimaginable grace – that salvation is God’s free gift from beginning to end for Christ’s sake, and this Gospel has and will continue changing lives until the end of time. Amen.