Teaching series from Galatians

Two Objections to God's Grace

Galatians 2:15-21

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Before we resume our study of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, let’s look at a story Jesus told that will prepare us for our passage.  Read Matt.20:1-15 (NLT – “generous”).

The is not a lecture on fair labor laws; it is an illustration of God’s grace—that God loves being generous, giving people more than they deserve.  It also illustrates the fact that many people find God’s grace offensive.

Paul was a champion of God’s grace to the Galatians—that God loves offering his acceptance to everyone as a free gift.  But certain people (we’ll call them “Judaizers”) objected to God’s grace and sought to discredit it.  In this passage, Paul records two of their objections to grace—and he responds decisively to these objections.  As you will see, these two objections are still very much with us today...

“Grace is unjust because it makes my good/religious works meaningless!”

These Judaizers were offended by the notion that non-Jewish people from a pagan background could be accepted fully into God’s family simply by believing in Jesus as their Messiah.  Why were they offended?  Probably for the same reason that the early worker laborers were offended that the estate owner would pay the late-afternoon workers the same pay—grace seems to minimize the importance of their religious efforts.  I can almost hear their spokesman: “I’ve been a law-abiding Jew my whole life.  I got circumcised as an infant, I’ve gone to synagogue every week, I’ve eaten only kosher food, and I’ve observed every annual religious festival.  I’ve also never committed the horrible sins that these Gentiles have committed.  And now you’re telling me that God is willing to accept them on equal footing with me?  Scandalous!  This is unjust because it makes my good/religious works meaningless!”

This is still the most common objection to God’s grace.  Sometimes it is an honest objection rooted in innocent ignorance; sometimes it is a self-righteous objection rooted in perverse pride.  But it comes up over and over again (EXAMPLES).

Let’s see how Paul responds to this objection:

Read 2:15.  First, he acknowledges that good works are not entirely meaningless.  When you compare them to one another, the devout Jews were definitely more religious and moral than these pagan Gentiles.  They had been more religiously observant than these Gentiles had been; they had been more moral in their behavior than these Gentiles had been. 

God does not deny that some people lead better lives than others, nor does it deny that this is significant on an important human level.  My parents were better parents than many parents of my childhood friends.  They were faithful to one another rather than having affairs; they stayed together rather than getting divorced; they spent lots of time with me rather than neglecting me; they disciplined me rather than being overly-permissive.  That they were better parents than many is a fact, and it is a significant fact.

The problem comes when you conclude that your comparative human goodness means that you are meeting God’s standard for earning his acceptance, that your religious and moral superiority to other humans somehow means that God owes you his acceptance, that it would be unjust for God not to accept you over those who are morally inferior to you.  That’s Paul’s point in 2:16 (read).  Three times (for emphasis) Paul denies that anyone can be accepted by God because of their obedience to God’s law—no matter how much more obedient they might be than others.

Why is this?  Because God’s standard is so high that no one meets it, everyone miserably fails it.  That’s because God’s standard is moral perfection.  You might say: “Where does God get off demanding perfection?  Nobody’s perfect!”  Oh, but God is perfect—so he has the right (indeed, the obligation) to require moral perfection from anyone trying to earn his acceptance.  Otherwise, he is compromising his own moral character.  The Bible is super-clear about this because it’s so important (paraphrase Matt.5:17-48; Jas.2:10; Rom.3:23). 
Once God’s standard comes into focus, all comparative human righteousness becomes insignificant by comparison.
If you work more than me and amass $34,000, while I work less than you and amass only $3400, you are justified in boasting you’re richer than me. But if we both owe the I.R.S. $34 billion, your relative wealth fades into insignificance—we’re both hopelessly in debt!  The only hope for both of us is grace—a benefactor who offers to pay our enormous debt for us.  And if a benefactor did offer for both of us, how would he feel if you complained to him that his charity is unjust because it makes your greater wealth meaningless?
In the same way, even though we have different degrees of human righteousness, we are all utterly unable to pay the debt we owe to God.  But through Jesus’ death, God graciously offers to pay our debt for us and permanently accept us.  To say that God’s offer is unjust because it makes your greater righteousness meaningless is a perversely skewed sense of justice!  In fact, it scorns the tremendous price that Jesus paid to cancel your debt (read & explain 2:21). 

This must be more than just a logical argument that you understand—you must personalize this truth.  This is an indictment of moral debt to God that you must personally acknowledge to him.  And Jesus’ death is an amazingly sacrificial, charitable offer from God that you must personally receive.  The proof that you’ve done this is that you replace this objection with humble gratitude for God’s grace!

“Grace is dangerous because it promotes moral laxness!”

Let’s move on to the second common objection to God’s grace (read 2:17a).  This is a little hard to follow.  Paul's enemies evidently argued in this way: “If you’re going to say that our works don’t count at all toward earning God's acceptance, and if you’re going to hold that all people are ‘sinners’ in that sense, then you have made a whole new group of people ‘sinners,’ and so you have made Jesus a promoter of sin in the sense that he has added to the total number of sinners!”  I know this sounds weird, but the core objection is one you’ve heard before: “Grace is dangerous because it promotes moral laxness!”

I can’t count all the times I’ve heard this objection.  Usually people verbalize it this way: “So you’re saying that if someone receives Christ—and then goes out and murders someone—that God still accepts them?  If you teach people that they are permanently accepted by God through faith in Jesus, what’s to keep them from sinning all over the place?  If your so-called grace gives people license to sin, you have the wrong message!”

What do these objectors propose to prevent this?  A message that dilutes grace and adds conditions for keep God’s acceptance—a fear-threat system to keep people in line.  Some say “Jesus’ death only forgives your sins up to your conversion—after that, you must pay your own way.”  Others say “God will remove his forgiveness if you commit certain kinds of sins, or if you don’t come regularly to church and/or observe certain rituals.”  Still others say “Saving faith produces a righteous life—so unless you’re life is righteous you don’t have saving faith.”1

Let’s read Paul’s response to this objection:

First, he says it is a more serious sin to dilute God’s grace and reintroduce works as a condition for keeping God’s acceptance—even if this is to motivate people to be righteous (read 2:18,19a).  Better for people to misapply grace and use it as license to sin than to put people back under the law that Christ died to release us from!  And that’s exactly what each of these modern-day Judaizers are doing:

 “Only up to your conversion” – So you must keep God’s acceptance after that by your obedience to God?  How obedient do you have to be?
“Only if you avoid certain sins” – If avoiding certain sins is necessary to keep God’s acceptance, then how can we draw the line at these sins?
“Only if you participate in certain rituals” – If performing certain rituals is necessary to keep God’s acceptance, then how do you draw the line at these rituals?
“Saving faith only if you live a righteous life” – How righteous?  What is God’s standard?

Secondly, Paul says that performing for God’s acceptance actually prevents us from living truly godly lives (read 2:19b – “so that”).  When people base God’s acceptance on their moral or religious performance, bad things happen. 

Some actually convince themselves that they are righteous—the height of self-righteous self-deception.  These people turn other off to Christ because of their smug, judgmental attitude.  (Paul was like this before he met Jesus.)
Others know that they are falling short and live neurotic lives of guilt and fear.  (Some of the most emotionally disturbed people I have ever met come from legalistic church backgrounds.)
Still others decide that they want nothing to do with self-righteousness or neurosis, and give up on God altogether to live blatantly sinful lives.  (Maybe this is your experience.)

Grace provides unique resources to live a truly godly life (read 2:20).  When you receive God’s unconditional acceptance through Jesus, you also receive new spiritual resources that make deep-seated, lasting change possible.

You receive superior power.  No longer must you rely only on your weak moral will-power to try to obey God.  Christ himself now lives in you.  Through his Holy Spirit, he begins to change you from the inside-out.  He sensitizes your conscience against selfish and self-destructive ways of life.  He enlightens you to begin to understand and love God’s truth.  He enables you to feel a new joy in serving God and telling others about Jesus. 
You receive a superior motivation.  No longer are you afraid of disappointing God or being rejected by him.  Christ loved you enough to give himself up for you even though you deserved God’s judgment.  This kind of love produces a growing trust in his will for your life and an increasing willingness follow his guidance.  This kind of love produces a deepening loyalty to Jesus that is greater than fear of being mocked or mistreated for following him.

Let’s listen to someone who has experienced how grace produces this kind of changed life—Dustin McElhaney.

The most committed, faithful, loving and spiritually attractive people I know have one thing in common.  They are amazed by God’s grace—awed that he continues to love them in spite of their sin, and thriving on giving his love away to other people.  Do you want this kind of life?  Then dig deeper into God’s grace—stay with us in this series and ask God to change your life through it.

1 “It (saving faith) is an exchange of all that we are for all that Christ is.  And it denotes implicit obedience, full surrender to the lordship of Christ.  Nothing less can qualify as saving faith . . . This is the kind of totally committed response the Lord Jesus called for.  A desire to follow him at any cost.  Absolute surrender.  A full exchange of self for the Savior.  It is the only response that will open the gates of the kingdom."  John MacArthur, The Gospel According to Jesus (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), pp. 140,141.