End Times 1a -- Reformation Sunday

Preached: October 30, 2011

Christ Has Set You Free, So Stand Firm
Galatians 5:1-6

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Grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen. The Word from God through which the Holy Spirit points us to Jesus and his righteousness is Galatians 5.

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love. (Galatians 5:1-6 NIV).

“I wear the chain I forged in life … I made it link by link, and yard by yard” (Dickens, Charles A Christmas Carol), the ghost of Jacob Marley said. Do you recall that scene from the bedroom of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol? The ghost of his partner seven-years dead stands with a chain wrapped around his middle, long and wound about him like a tail. It clanks hideously in the silent deadness of the night. His greed, his selfishness, his loveless money-counting had forged that chain.

What chains do you wear, dear friends? Maybe you’re no Scrooge, but haven’t you ever wanted something and felt a tinge ungrateful because God didn’t let you have it? That’s coveting. That’s a link in your chain. Have you ever thought, “I could be even more content if I just had …” That’s another link, for you are not fully satisfied with the bountiful goodness of God’s mercy. Need I mention vengeful thoughts, loveless words, self-centered motives, worry, lust, anger, hatred, and what about our spiritual negligence and laziness? So I ask again, what chains do you wear?

And the answer, your answer, dear Christian, is “None! None at all. Not one single link.” For Christ has set you free. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1 NIV1984), the Apostle writes. Christ has set you free. He has broken your chain. He has carried it to the cross in his own body. You are no longer a prisoner to sin. Christ has set you free.

Stand firm in this freedom. Stand firm so that you don’t forge for yourself another kind of chain. This second chain looks much nicer than the first. Others will even praise you for how beautiful it is. But it is stronger and heavier, and just as damning as the first. Why forge a new chain? Christ has set you free. “Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 NIV1984).

A. Cling to his righteousness in faith

What is this second chain? Before we can answer that, we need to cherish how Jesus has set us free by faith alone because of his righteousness. Cling to Christ’s righteousness in faith. Consider what the Apostle Paul writes in the text, “{B}y faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus … {t}he only thing that counts is faith” (Galatians 5:5, 6 NIV1984).

Faith doesn’t look at my actions, my efforts, my intentions. Faith doesn’t say, “Look at me. I believe in Jesus. I’ve accepted him and invited him in. I’ve made my decision for him and opened the door. See how Christian I am.” That’s not the faith that comes from the Holy Spirit.

Rather faith looks to Jesus. Faith clings to his righteousness, to what he has done for us. He freely gives you his righteousness to count as your record. Unbelievers cannot see that now, so they make light of faith in Jesus. That’s why we eagerly awaits God’s courtroom on the Last Day when his verdict of righteousness is proved for all to see, his verdict that even you are righteous through faith in Jesus. This lies in the future so the text refers to it as “the righteousness for which we hope” (Galatians 5:5 NIV1984), the righteous verdict on Judgment Day. Yet right now you already have the righteousness from Jesus Christ, the only righteousness that stands in God’s courtroom. You have it through faith alone, but others can’t see it. So faith hopes in eager expectation for Judgment Day when no one can dispute it any longer. There’s nothing doubtful about this verdict of righteousness, but it’s still in the future. That’s why faith hopes, but it’s a sure, confident hope. Faith knows, believes, and trusts that God’s verdict has been based on Jesus’ righteousness and not on what we’ve done. Faith knows, believes, and trusts that this is true because Jesus’ resurrection already proclaims that verdict. And God will not go back on his word. Faith knows, believes, and trusts that Jesus did this for even someone like me. “His righteousness counts for me” -- that’s the promise your faith clings to. In faith cling to Jesus’ righteousness.

“{B}y faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus … {t}he only thing that counts is faith” (Galatians 5:5, 6 NIV1984). The world denies this truth. “You can’t be righteous by faith alone. You have do something to be right with God.” That’s what the world says. Think about Scrooge. If he wanted to avoid Marley’s fate and get rid of his chain, what did he have to do? He had to reform his life. That was the moral of the story. That’s what the world preaches. That’s what the religions of this world teach. Reform yourself. Try hard. Do your duty. Be good. Many imagine that that’s all that Christianity is about as well.

B. Cling to his righteousness alone

Do you, dear friends, begin to see what this second chain is, that we mentioned before? It’s links are made out of good things, like acts of kindness, works of mercy, religious services. That’s why this chain looks so beautiful. And those good things truly would be beautiful until you hang your hope for righteousness on them. Then they become damning chains because they replace Christ.

That’s the false faith that had infiltrated the Christians in Galatia spurring Paul to write this letter. Teachers had come saying, “Jesus Christ saves you, but look there’s a few more things to do. Didn’t God himself command Abraham to be circumcised? If the father of believers had to do it, don’t you think we should too? Wouldn’t that make you more right with God?”

But there’s no in between. Either we cling to Jesus’ righteousness alone or we do not. As soon as we add anything, it’s no longer Christ alone, and so it’s no longer saving faith. Rather it’s trying to be justified by law, by what we do -- even if we think we’re doing only a very small part of it. Only Christ’s righteousness saves. Christ alone has set you free.

The Galatians wanted to add circumcision. Maybe we’re tempted to add certain good deeds, or a special prayer, or coming to church, or loving our family, or giving a certain percentage, or doing our duty, or trying hard, or feeling sorry enough or excited enough. But as soon as we rely on anything in addition to Jesus, hoping it helps to make us right with God, we’ve lost Christ. Without him, we’re obligated to keep the whole law. Who of us could pay that debt! Listen again to what Paul writes and when I read about circumcision, think of what you’re tempted to rely on in addition to Jesus. “Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:2-4 NIV1984). Rather, cling to Jesus’ righteousness alone.

There is no in between. Either we cling to Jesus alone for the righteousness that stands before God, or we do not. Even if you think you rely on Jesus for 99.9% of your righteousness and just have to do that tenth of a percent by your effort even saying you can only do it with God’s help, that’s still like having a bridge 99.9% across the chasm. It’s going to fall, and so will you. If it’s not by Christ alone, then it’s by law “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:4 NIV1984).

Do you see how deadly and damning that second chain is, fooling ourselves that our own efforts help make us right before God? Martin Luther knew the weight of those chains. For the first half of his life or so, he tried to make himself right with God. He followed the rules of the Roman Catholic Church. He went to confession, said his prayers, did his penance, received the Sacrament. But he knew that wasn’t enough to be right with the holy God. So in 1505 at the age of 21 he left his promising law studies and joined the Augustinian Order of monks.

As a monk, we worked hard fasting, praying, obeying his superiors. He made a pilgrimage to Rome, the Holy City. He honored the relics of the saints. But the more good he did the more he released how far short he fell from the holy perfection God demanded. His superior in the Augustinian Order, Johann von Staupitz, thought that keeping Luther busy would take his mind off his troubled soul. So he had Luther become a priest and begin teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg and working toward a Doctor of Theology degree. But no amount of work could keep Luther from worrying about whether he was righteous enough to stand before the holy God. He felt the chains of his own efforts to be righteous dragging him down. “My fears increased till sheer despair Left naught but death to be my share And hell to be my sentence” (Luther, Martin, “Dear Christians, One and All Rejoice”, Christian Worship: A Lutheran Hymnal, 377:3), he wrote years later.

But then the Holy Spirit opened up his mind and heart as he studied the words of the Scriptures. It was not his own righteousness that could save him, but Christ’s righteousness and only Christ’s righteousness. The righteousness that God demands from us in his law, he gives to us in the Gospel through faith in Jesus. He gives it freely, fully, and completely -- unearned, unmerited, undeserved, unasked for -- by grace alone. He freely credits sinners with Jesus’ righteousness. That’s God’s verdict based on Jesus’ holy life and innocent death and proclaimed by his triumphant resurrection. Yes, the righteous will live by faith, for faith clings to that righteousness that comes from Jesus Christ alone.

The Good News of Jesus’ righteousness set Luther free from those chains, just as it had set Paul and the Galatians free, just as it sets you and me free. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1 NIV1984). Stand firm, free from the chains of sin, free from the chains of self-made righteousness. Cling to Christ’s righteousness alone.

Now, dear Christian, use your freedom in love. That’s what faith does. That’s how faith acts, how it expresses itself. It shows love toward others. That’s how the text closes by reminding us of “faith expressing itself through love” (Galatians 5:6 NIV1984). Yes, faith wear acts of kindness, mercy, and love -- but not as if these could make us righteous before God. That’s when those good deeds become chains. Rather so firmly do you believe that Jesus has taken away your sin and given you his righteousness, so firmly do you believe that all is right between you and God because of Jesus alone, that your faith cannot help but express itself in love toward others. This doesn’t diminish are freedom, for faith willingly, gladly, joyfully, eagerly serves others in love. Read more of Galatians 5 to see that. Just to give you a taste, Paul writes in verse 15: “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:15 NIV1984).

Christ has set you free. Don’t trade in that freedom no matter how good the new chains might look. Christ has set you free. His righteousness is yours as free a gift. Believe and do not doubt. Let your faith shine out in love. Cling to Christ’s righteousness in faith. Cling to Christ’s righteousness alone. For Christ has set you free.

The peace of God that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.

Pastor Gregg Bitter

St. John's Evangelical Lutheran Church
859 5th Street
Hancock, MN 56244
(320) 392-5313

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