We find ourselves beginning a new year, with the past behind us and a world full of possibilities before us, waiting for a fresh perspective on a new beginning! Possibilities for new life are all around us. Our text today offers us possibilities of new life!
We enter into the narrative today by way of the author of our letter, Paul. He is writing to the church at Galatia (Antioch Pisidian, Iconium, Lystra, Derbe). Paul has worked on the mission field in Galatia (Acts 16.6, 18.23). We would recognize this area as modern-day Turkey. Paul has founded the churches in Galatia, and now there are new believers entering into the fellowship of the churches creating a stir that the new converts from paganism where not measuring up to the faith that they processed.
Judiazers (Jewish believers) have been spying on the new converts and declaring that they were not living up to the fulfillment of the Law of Moses (circumcision and dietary laws). We know this conflict well, as Paul has attended the Jerusalem Council to hash out the details of the Law of Moses requirements for new converts to the Christian faith (Acts 15). Paul has been given the revelation that his work is among the Gentiles, and he is fully prepared to accomplish that work by not converting them to Judaism by through grace by faith alone.
Paul is sitting in Antioch, having heard the news that Judiazers (those who live according to the Jewish customs) had infiltrated the churches of Galatia, and were requiring the new believers to follow the Law of Moses (circumcision and dietary laws). Paul is furious. Paul had received the revelation from God to be the messenger to the Gentiles. He was appointed, called to this very task. Now he writes to the people in his own hand (Gal. 6.11).
The Gospel does not require conversion to Judaism first. The new covenant is entered into by faith alone. Salvation is by faith alone, not by following the Law of Moses. We see Paul following the Law of Moses when Timothy is circumcised (Acts 16.3). However, Paul seems to support the Law of Moses rituals when it helps the Gospel to be preached and received, unhindered. In other words the Law of Moses is not a requirement for salvation. We are justified by faith alone (Acts 21.21).
In the letter to the Galatians, Paul declares that the Gospel message cannot be edited, changed, or misrepresented. Paul claims that he has received this message not from humankind but by revelation from God himself. Paul is frustrated with the Jerusalem leaders who are continuing to follow the Law of Moses as a means to an end (justification/sanctification). To be sure the only transformation comes is by way of faith alone.
We cannot work our way to good behavior, and we cannot discipline ourselves to salvation (Keener, 72-77). We find that we may get offended with people who swear or drink, but we must realize that even the best of us who have been set free from outward behaviors may not be set free in our hearts. We all have to surrender ourselves for transformation in the power of the Spirit. The key is whether we have made the decision by faith alone for our salvation like the song says, “I have decided to follow Jesus…” (Traditional).
There are times in our Christian lives when we are like the Judiazers: we have run the race, but we have somehow gotten on the wrong course (Acts 20.24, 1 Cor. 9.24-27, Heb. 12.1-3, 2 Tim. 4.7-9, Is. 40.31). Paul uses this illustration to invite believers back to the right race, the right course. Paul is clear that the people who have steered the new believers off the race course are actually Jewish believers. They have not been given misinformation by unbelievers, but by believers. He is offering a course correction here for the Jewish believers and the new converts in Galatia. Paul’s message is for us today. It is an opportunity for us to evaluate our race. Are we running the right course?
Our tradition holds a “distinctive Wesleyan emphases” on holiness of heart and life based in our understanding of grace (BOD, 51). Grace is the “undeserved, unmerited” favor of God (BOD, 51). By God’s grace in the Holy Spirit we are called to live in holiness of heart and life. Through God’s grace we are renewed in our fallen nature. Grace “awakens us in our earnest longing for deliverance from sin and death” (BOD, 52). Grace moves us toward repentance and faith. Grace reaches us when we have a “repentant heart” (BOD, 52). Grace “acceptance and pardons” us (BOD, 53). The human heart experiences a real change under the guidance of the Holy Spirit by faith alone. We are made new creations, and are given a new birth. The Spirit of God “bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Rom. 8.16; BOD, 53). Through the Holy Spirit, we experience the love and knowledge of God.
John Wesley in his sermon “Witness of the Spirit” observed, “It is hard to find the words in language of men, to explain the deep things of God. Indeed, there are none that adequately express what the Spirit of God works in his children” (Kerr, 191). Wesley further states that the witness of the Spirit is an inward impression (Kerr, 191). If you have not known this blessed assurance, it is indeed available to you. To be sure we can know that experience of knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus lives within us.
To others among us we might need to hear that Wesley was concerned that this movement of God called Methodism would “degenerate into a mere formality; lest, having ‘a form of godliness’ we neglect, if not ‘deny the power of it’” (Kerr, 191). To others Wesley might say to guard the faith with a “scriptural, rational illustration and confirmation of this momentous truth” (Kerr, 191). To be sure Wesley believed that it was essential to live a holy life inwardly and outwardly. To further emphasize this understanding that grace moves from the inward witness to the outward experience of faith, one might use the slogan, “Head. Heart. Hands. Habits.”
Grace supplies us with new birth. That new birth brings about a dynamic love for God and a tangible love for neighbor as ourselves, as well as the very mind of Christ which transforms our thinking. Both are essential in the transformation process. Paul teaches us “that the process of transformation does not depend on our self-discipline as much as it depends on our willingness to embrace God’s help” (Keener, 72). We have a renewed nature born of the Spirit of God. We are a new creation, born anew into a new lifestyle of living. We are not to live passively, but actively putting off the old selfish nature and putting on the new creation based on faith alone (Keener, 73). We are to conform to the image of God not according to our strength, but with God’s help. Although discipline does aid us in the transformation process, new life in Christ requires our submission to the Spirit for the inward change to be secured.
God’s grace calls us forth in faith and good works. Piety and mercy are the initial fruits of the life of the Spirit (BOD, 102). A Spirit-filled life is marked by submission to others. It is marked with humility, service, and yielding in a life lived in community. On the other hand, a flesh-filled life is marked by way of gossip, slander, arrogance, overextending our authority and an overall “know-it-all” attitude that quenches the life in the Spirit.
A Spirit-filled church seeks to live in unity, building relationships with others, and staying connected across churches. A Spirit-filled life is long-suffering with others who are on the journey with us. Grace calls us to be on the journey together with all our warts and wrinkles exposed to one another that we might live in an accountable lifestyle. Grace forgives. Grace calls us onward and upward for the glory of God.
Grace calls us beyond the walls of our comfort zone to fulfill the Great Command and the Great Commission (Mt. 22.36-40, Mt. 28.16-20). Grace calls us and empowers us to live by love of God and loving our neighbor as ourselves. Grace calls us to go forth into all the world to make disciples (BOD, 53). God’s grace calls us to a life of doing good, doing no harm, and loving God.
One of the most remarkable testimonies I know is the story of Fanny Crosby, a prolific Methodist hymn writer. Blind from the age of six weeks, Fanny was able to pen some 9,000 hymns in her lifetime, “depending upon God to provide for every lyric and tune” (Kinghorn, 147). The United Methodist Hymnal boasts a number of her songs including, “To God Be the Glory” (UMH98), “Jesus, Keep Me Near the Cross” (301), “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior” (351), “Blessed Assurance” (369), “Close to Thee” (407), “I am Thine, O Lord” (419), and “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (591). But today I am especially reminded of the words to one of her songs, “Blessed Assurance, Jesus is mine. O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of Salvation, purchase of God, born of his Spirit, washed in his blood. This is my story! This is my song!” (UMH369). What a fitting way for us to remember the exhortation of Paul to the believers in Galatia!
Let’s briefly recapitulate the storyline of the Letter to the church at Galatia. To be sure Paul says there is a different gospel being preached in Galatia that is no Gospel at all (Gal. 1.6-7). Paul is emphatic that salvation comes by faith alone (Gal. 2.20). When we believe, we receive the promise of the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3.22). The promise of the Spirit is our inheritance (Gal. 3.15-25). The Spirit of God brings freedom from the Law of Moses (Gal. 4.8-20). It brings freedom from sin and death. It brings freedom from the works of righteousness that are birthed in our flesh. The Spirit of God brings about the true righteousness in our lives and provides for us Eternal Life (Gal. 6.8-9).
Make no mistake about it: Galatians teaches us that it is not the Law that saves us, it is the Spirit of Jesus. This is good news! What counts for believers is the new creation (Gal. 6.14-15). Will you join me in this pursuit of holiness of heart and life? Let us welcome new members today by reminding ourselves of Paul’s words to the Galatians that there is one true Gospel based on faith alone, not by works, lest anyone should boast.
The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church. United Methodist Pub. House, 2016.
Boring, M. Eugene, and Fred B. Craddock. “Galatians.” The People’s New Testament Commentary, Westminster John Knox Press, 2004.
The Jesus Bible, New International Version. “Galatians.” Zondervan, 2013.
Keener, Craig S. Gift and Giver: The Holy Spirit for Today. Baker Academic, 2001.
Kerr, Hugh T., editor. “John Wesley.” Readings in Christian Thought, 2nd ed., Abingdon Press, 1990, pp. 190–196.
Kinghorn, Kenneth C. “The Heritage of Hymns.” The Heritage of American Methodism, Emeth Press, 2009, p. 147.
Rienecker, Fritz, and Cleon L. Rogers. A Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament. Zondervan, 1976.
The United Methodist Book of Worship. United Methodist Pub. House, 1992.
The United Methodist Hymnal. United Methodist Publ. House, 1989.
Witherington, Ben. Paul’s Narrative Thought World: The Tapestry of Tragedy and Triumph. Westminster John Knox, 1994.