Text: Galatians 3:13-14
Acceptance by God is a matter of grace from beginning to end. This was the message that Paul himself had brought to these former pagans. And they had believed the message, received the Holy Spirit, entered into a living relationship with God in Christ. But some time later, some Jewish people had arrived at the Galatian churches saying, “Faith in Jesus Christ is fine; but in order to be accepted by God you must also be circumcised and observe the law of Moses.”
The Galatians were tempted to think that this was splitting hairs. But Paul saw it as a deadly attack on the gospel. What was at stake was this whole question of the basis of our peace with God. Is it relying on what we are trying to do for God, or faith in what God has done for us? Is it law, or is it grace? Is it what the Holy Spirit gives, or what human nature can achieve?
1. The way of law
The law is good, because it is was given by God and it is the expression of his mind and will; it restrains evil in the world; it convicts people of sin; it provides a rule for godly living.
But as a means of providing acceptance with God, the law is a dead end. It lays on us a burden that we cannot possibly carry. Gal 3:10: ‘For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse.’ (‘All who rely on observing the law are under a curse.’) Why? Because the law requires complete obedience. Paul quotes Deut 27:26: “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them.” The law will not tolerate a single transgression. The law is like a fence around a lions’ enclosure. It doesn’t matter if the fence was broken in many places or just one place: it’s broken and the lions have escaped.
This, of course, was worked out in the history of Israel. Israel as a nation did fail to observe the law, and spurning God’s provision for repentance, forgiveness and restoration, suffered the punishment of being turned out of their own land, of being exiled.
The penalty for failing to keep the law is to be cursed. What does it mean to be cursed? It is to incur God’s displeasure, God’s wrath. It is to be God-forsaken. It is to endure a living death. It is to be completely overwhelmed by a moral debt that you cannot possibly repay.
But why doesn’t God simply remove the curse of the law? Why can’t he simply repeal the law, or at least lower the standard required, or perhaps reduce the punishment exacted? Why does he have to be so uncompromising? When we talk like that, however, we are simply demonstrating our own ignorance of who God is. We are simply illustrating the tragedy of the human race, which is that we, having been created by God in his image, have occupied ourselves trying to re-create God in our own image. There is no more damning indictment of the wicked than in Psa 50:21, where God says, “thou thoughtest that I was altogether such an one as thyself.” Three things that God cannot do: he cannot lie, die or deny himself. And for God to simply overlook human rebellion would be for him to deny his own righteousness, holiness and justice.
So, salvation by keeping the law is a dead-end. But how many people are still trying to work their passage in that way? This is the difference between religion and the Christian faith. ‘The repeated promises in the Qur’an of the forgiveness of a compassionate and merciful Allah are all made to the meritorious, whose merits have been weighed in Allah’s scales, whereas the gospel is good news of mercy to the undeserving. The symbol of the religion of Jesus is the cross, not the scales.’ Religion says, “This is what you must do for God to accept you.” The gospel says, “This is what God has done to accept you.” Religion says, “Do.” The Christian gospel says, “Done.”
This was always God’s plan. The blessing given to Abraham was this: he believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness. Abraham was right before God not through keeping the law, but by believing the promise. In due time, the promise was fulfilled: Gal 4:4f ‘But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons.’
2. The way of the cross
But there is another way, so simple, so effective, that it seems almost too good to be true. That someone else would come and endure that penalty, pay that price. And that’s what Paul means by ‘redemption’.
This is what Christians mean when they say, “Christ died for me.” He dies, not only on my behalf, but in my place.
“Bearing shame and scoffing rude,
In my place condemned he stood.
Sealed my pardon with his blood:
Hallelujah! what a Saviour”
It was this ‘becoming a curse for us’ that explains the cry of dereliction that Christ uttered on the cross. He was God-forsaken for us.
He was willing to do this. He was able to do this.
2 Cor 5:21. ‘He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him.’
1 Pet 3:18 ‘For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God.’
What a journey the Son of God took in order to redeem us from the curse of the law! From heaven to earth; from the earth to the cross; from the cross to the grave; from the grave to the sky.
Faith in Christ crucified is the beginning; and faith in Christ crucified is the continuance, of the Christian life. There is nothing for us to do except believe, trust, accept. That’s what makes it so easy. But that’s also what makes it so hard.
“Nothing in my hand I bring.
Simply to thy cross I cling.”
What do I need to do order to be redeemed from the curse of the law? Nothing, except receive it by faith. Any step that I take in any other direction will be a step away from the grace of God. Anything I add to it is a destructive addition.
The law is like a mirror: it shows us our faults, but cannot remove them. The law diagnoses our disease, but only the gospel can treat it. The law detects, but only the gospel conquers, sin. The law tells me how crooked I am. Grace straightens me out.