The Preaching of the Word

 First Presbyterian Church

116 South Loudoun Street, Winchester, Virginia 22601
Charles Marshall Webster, Transitional Pastor

The Ninth Sunday in Ordinary Time
May 29, 2016

“Law and Gospel”


Epistle Reading: Galatians 2:15-21
Gospel Reading: Luke 7:36 – 8:3

Text:  “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law; then Christ died for nothing.”   ~Galatians 2:21
The epistle to the Galatians has been called “the Magna Carta of the Christian life,” for in this letter, Paul sets forth a theology of grace so radically free that even today, most of us find it hard to accept. What I mean by this is, scratch the average church member today, and I predict you will find someone slightly annoyed that God’s love and grace are available to all simply for the taking. Many people would rather live by law than gospel. What’s the difference?
          The Apostle Paul, a Pharisee, the strictest sect within Judaism, had been a zealous advocate of living by the law. For him the law was God’s good gift to Israel, a means for helping God’s people live life as it was designed to be lived, and a way to stay in relationship with God. Ardent and successful, Paul had been so scrupulous that he could write to the church at Philippi saying: “as to righteousness under the law, he was blameless.” Then Paul encountered the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus. From that point on, Paul understood the radical nature of what God had done in Jesus Christ, how it set aside the law, and that it did so for everyone. Paul spent the rest of his life announcing the difference between law and gospel.

Somewhere on his third missionary journey, Paul heard the distressing news about the church he had organized in Galatia. Another group of evangelists had followed Paul there. They were  Jewish  Christian  missionaries,  preaching  what  Paul  calls  “a   different   gospel.”   The

Galatians were being told that as Gentile Christians, they were obligated to keep particular calendar days for worship, and observe the strict dietary and purification laws which kept Jews and Gentiles from sharing the same table. In response, Paul writes one of his most direct, and at times, heated letters, pointing out what is at stake. Either we are put into a right relationship with God through what God has done in Jesus Christ, or, we are not. If what God has done in Christ is sufficient, it is sufficient. If it is not, then Paul says Christ died “for nothing.” It is that cut and dried. There is nothing you and I can do to put ourselves in God’s good grace because God has already done that in Jesus Christ, and done it for everyone. It is the difference between law and gospel.

Notice I did not say, “the difference between faith and good works.” Though commonly described that way, the notion of faith versus works inappropriately sets one over against the other. You see, the choice is not between “faith” or “works.” The choice is between works: our work or God’s work? Do we place our faith in our own work, our behavior? Or, do we place it in Christ’s work, his behavior? That is the question that was being asked in Galatia, and was asked again at the Reformation. Is the Gospel a way of living, being good, doing good, following Jesus’ instructions in order to be good enough for God? Or, is the Gospel a way of living in response to what Jesus Christ has done to make us good enough for God? Do we place our faith in our own work, or in the work of Jesus Christ? Do we rely on our faithfulness or Christ’s faithfulness? Paul, who had lived a life of righteousness before the law, knew that as good as it was to live by the law, it was not good enough. And so he writes: “We …know that a person is justified not by the works of law, but through faith in Jesus Christ.” and here we have one of those interesting moments when reading a translation is not good enough.

This particular verse is interesting because it can be translated two different ways. It can be translated as you heard this morning; “a person is justified…through faith in Jesus Christ.” Or, it can be translated “We know that a person is justified not by works of the law but through the faith of Jesus Christ.” Both are correct. It is placing our trust in what Christ has done that brings us back into relationship with God in Christ. It is placing our trust in Jesus’ faith that opened the possibility of that relationship in the first place. In both instances, we are not saved by our faith, but by what Jesus Christ has done on our behalf. I was teaching this when someone responded, “I thought the Bible said we were saved by faith.” It is a common misunderstanding of what Reformed Christians believe. We are not saved by faith. We are saved by God’s grace. The verse from Ephesians so often misquoted is “saved by faith” actually says, “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Saved by God’s grace, through faith. God’s action is grace; our response to God’s grace is called faith. As important as faith is, we are not saved by it.

If you think about it, that is truly good news. For some days our faith is stronger than others. Some days you and I are more certain than others. Some days we feel better about our faith and God’s faithfulness than on other days. The point is this: regardless of how strong or weak, how certain or uncertain, how good or bad we feel about our faith, God has done what needs to be done. Jesus Christ has been faithful. We have been saved by the grace of his faith. As a result, our relationship with God has been restored. Week after week you hear these words: “Friends, believe the good news – in Jesus Christ you are forgiven.”

But Paul does not stop there. To make the point more dramatic, he takes his argument a step further. He says that trying to justify ourselves to God by keeping the law is de facto, a rejection of the Gospel. Paul is not arguing against living life faithfully. In the keeping of the law there is great benefit. Nor is Paul suggesting that there are no ramifications for wanton violations of God’s instructions for life. Paul knows better. Why else would each of his epistles end with strong sections, which deal with Christian ethics? What Paul is saying here is that the Law is not able to put or keep us in a right relationship with God; only God can do that. But God has! Therefore, the Christian life is about living into what God has done for us. As one New Testament scholar (Marion Soards) has written, what keeps us in God’s good grace is simply God’s grace! You and I are sinners, saved and sustained by God’s grace! The Christian life is a matter of receiving this gift in gratitude, and then living our lives that way.

This is the point Jesus makes with his host Simon in today’s gospel lesson. Simon, a good Pharisee, is genuinely seeking the kingdom of God and invites Jesus to dinner. While they recline at table, caught up in conversation, a woman appears beside Jesus. A well-known sinner, she is weeping. As her tears fall on Jesus’ feet, they begin to wash away the grime and dust of the day. Soon, the woman is kneeling over Jesus’ feet, using her hair to dry them. Simon is at first simply annoyed, but he is too good a host to throw her out. And then a righteous man, Simon has a reputation to preserve so when the woman begins to anoint and kiss Jesus’ feet, Simon decides that Jesus is obviously not who Simon had hoped he would be. After all, were Jesus a prophet, he would know who this woman was and would not allow this to continue. But, of course, Jesus is precisely who Simon had hoped he would be. Jesus does know, not only who this woman is, but who Simon is, and what is in his heart. Simon is a good Pharisee. It is quite safe to say he has been faithful before the law, and like Paul, blameless. That’s not his problem. Rather, like most people who work hard at their righteousness, Simon has become self-righteous. He is not living this way out of gratitude to God, but in order to demonstrate his rectitude and piety, his worthiness. So unaware of how much he has been forgiven, he is unable to be forgiving himself. Disgusted with the woman and her behavior, he is even more suspicious of Jesus’ willingness to accept it. And so Jesus tells a short parable about the relationship between forgiveness, love and gratitude. The point is simple: those who have the most forgiven are those who are the most grateful and generous.

Notice that the parable is about both Simon and the woman. Both are sinners. Both have debts which need forgiving. Simon’s problem is that because his debts are smaller than this notorious woman’s he thinks himself superior to her. He maybe faithful to the law; on the other hand, he knows little about gratitude. Like all who spend their lives trying to justify themselves – Simon has forgotten what God’s grace is all about. Working hard, so as to not need forgiveness, he knows little forgiveness himself. Is it any wonder he is so unforgiving? Spending his time trying to be righteous without God’s grace, he knows little about God’s grace. Is it any wonder he is so ungracious? Simon’s self-righteousness has simply further distanced himself from the truth, and the One who can set him free.

We all know Simon somewhere in our lives, the people who use their own behavior as the measuring rod of others. But the question posed to us this morning is not “How many Simons do you now?” Rather, the question is: “How much of Simon is in you and me?” Are we Simon, or the woman? Is our faith, like Simon’s, an observance by which we try to demonstrate to ourselves and others what good people we are? Or is our faith like the woman’s, a thankful response to being grasped by God’s love and forgiveness?

The woman had been a well-known sinner. But in her encounter with Jesus she experienced God’s grace in a dramatic way, and it changed her life. That is the difference between law and gospel; one constrains your life, the other transforms it, one burdens your life, the other sets you free.