How Christians Abandon God
How Christians Abandon God
In the year 47 B.C.—14 years after the Romans had executed Jesus, thinking they were done with him, but God raised him from the dead by his mighty power—a short, middle-aged Jewish man, probably getting a little thin on top, stepped aboard a ship. With him was his taller, more outgoing friend, Barnabas. The two set sail, leaving behind the Roman province of Syria in the eastern Mediterranean, travelling three hundred miles west and a bit north. When they reached solid ground, they hiked one hundred miles up the mountains of the Roman province of Galatia (what is today considered eastern Turkey). As soon as the Sabbath came around, Paul and Barnabas went into the local synagogue. As guests they were invited to bring a word, and so they did. Thanks to Luke's careful scholarship in Acts 13, we know what they said: "We tell you the good news. What God promised our fathers, he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus. Therefore, my brothers, I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you." In other words, Paul was telling them that they did not have to live with guilt and shame—that there is forgiveness of sins through Jesus. Paul continues: "And through him everyone who believes is justified from everything you could not be justified from by the law of Moses." In other words, Paul was saying, "You've been laboring in this religious tradition for so many years. But even in all that labor, have you ever felt like you were totally right with God? Here is the good news: you can be right with God through belief in Jesus, who died for your sins and was raised from the dead."
That's not just good news. That's amazing news.
A message of salvation by grace through faith
When Paul and Barnabas's message came into the synagogue that day, it was like the sun had burst forth after countless days of gray. People were left thinking, Are you kidding me? I can have my sins forgiven? I can be put right with God? I can live without any sense of shame? I can be connected with the one true and living God in freedom and joy through Jesus Christ? That's exactly what Paul and Barnabas were saying! The God-fearers in particular—the Gentiles who hung around the synagogue—were really amazed. Are you kidding me? they thought. I've wanted to be connected to the one true and living God, and I thought in order to do that, I first had to become a Jew. I thought I had to go through the painful rite of circumcision, keep Kosher, observe the new moons, all the festivals, each Sabbath. I didn't know if I could live under that kind of burden. But now you're saying that childlike faith in the gracious provision of God in Jesus Christ will set me right with God? Yes! That's exactly what Paul and Barnabas were saying!
The message was compelling, and a lot of people rallied around it, wanting to learn more about it. Luke tells us that when the leaders of the synagogues saw this, they thought, Uh-oh! Our people are leaving us for these new guys. And the ones who are leaving are the ones who have been showing up every week and supporting us financially. We can't have that! So they rounded up a mob, and they chased Paul and Barnabas out of town. Luke says Paul and Barnabas hiked ninety miles to the next city, and the same thing happened. Then they hiked eighteen miles to the next city. Same thing happened. Sixty miles to the next city—same thing happened. Finally, they get back on a ship to head home, fleeing for their lives. Nonetheless, the gospel had taken root.
A message of "grace and"
Soon after Paul and Barnabas had visited this region, guest teachers came into the new assemblies of Christians, and here's what they said: "It's great that you believe Jesus is the Messiah. So do we! But let's not go crazy here, friends. That doesn't mean you can just throw off two thousand years of God's revelation—his covenant and the practices associated with it that he gave to our forefathers. Do you think you're better than our forefather Abraham? No! It's faith in Jesus the Messiah and the historic God-given practice of circumcision and the observance of the new moons, festivals, and Sabbaths. That's how you're put right with God. Come on! Do we have to remind you that in the very first book of the Torah—Genesis—there is an encounter between God and Abraham where God says, 'As for you, you must keep my covenant. You and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep. Every male among you shall be circumcised. Any uncircumcised male who's not been circumcised in the flesh will be cut off from his people. He has broken my covenant.' Yes—faith is great. But remember: it's not just grace and faith. It's grace and faith—and circumcision and the observance of the festivals. That's what it takes.
In every century sermons like this have been preached in churches. Depending on what church you grew up in, you may have heard something similar. Maybe you grew up in an evangelical church, and the message was, "It's grace and a daily quiet time. That's how you're put right with God." Maybe you grew up in a Roman Catholic Church, and the message was, "It's grace and weekly attendance at Mass. Better not miss! That's how you're put right with God." Maybe you grew up in a church tradition heavily influence by issues of social justice, and the message was, "It's grace and peacekeeping. That's how you're put right with God." Maybe you were part of a fundamentalist church, and the message was, "It's grace and certain cultural boundaries. That's how you're put right with God."
In different times and places, the sermon has changed a little bit. But this type of sermon is always popular. People love it. Every century finds people embracing the message, thinking, That is awesome! But why? There are three reasons.
First of all, this "grace and" message is clear. Faith in God's grace in Jesus Christ is, in many ways, intangible. When someone comes along and sets out what exactly we need to do in order to be saved, it's clearer to us. We see a to-do list.
Second, this "grace and" message puts us in control. With grace in Jesus Christ, we come "just as [we are], without one plea." We're not in control. We're just a repentant sinner seeking grace. With a to-do list, though, we're in control. We can check things off. Faith in Jesus? Good. Circumcised? Good. Go to the new moon festival and Sabbath? Good. Don't drink beer? Good. Don't go to R-rated movies? Good.
Third, this "grace and" message allows you to compare yourself to others. With a message of grace, who's to say who's better than everyone else? With grace, we're all being saved through one Lord. But a "grace and" message makes it very clear who's getting it right and who isn't, allowing you to compare yourself to others. "Well, I didn't go to the R-rated movie. But I noticed you did. So, I know I'm a better Christian than you."
Because of these three things, a "grace and" message is always going to go over great with people.
A "grace and" gospel is no gospel at all
About a year after Paul and Barnabas planted the churches mentioned in Acts 13, he heard about the "grace and" message being preached by these guest teachers. So, he wrote them all a letter—what we now call the Book of Galatians. Of all the letters Paul wrote, this is the one where he was the most angry.
You've probably noticed that in most of Paul's letters, Paul's wind-up in the letter is usually a little slow. He starts with a prayer or a blessing—something like, "I thank my God upon every remembrance of you. I just love you all so much. May God bless you!" At the start of Galatians, he doesn't take the time for niceties. He jumps right in. Let me paraphrase Paul's words, starting in verse 6: "I am astonished! I can't believe it! My head has exploded over the fact that you have so quickly deserted the one God who called you by the grace of Christ! What are you turning to instead? You're turning to a different gospel, which is really no gospel at all. You're thinking you're enhancing the message. But do you know what your little add-ons are doing? They're destroying the gospel, and you're deserting God! When you take faith in Jesus Christ and then you add to it other things as being necessary for salvation, you are destroying the gospel, and you're deserting God!"
Paul insists that the "grace and" message shouldn't be called the gospel. It's a no-gospel. An alien gospel. A gospel of lies. If he were here today, he would tell us to strike the term "legalistic Christianity" from our vocabulary, because legalistic Christianity is not Christianity. If you grew up in a legalistic church, by the authority of this text, I would say to you, "Are you sure it was even a church?" Any group of people—no matter how well-intentioned they were—that told you that you had to do anything other than trust in the gracious provision of Jesus Christ provided through his death, burial, and resurrection, was not preaching Christianity. I really don't know what you should call that group of people. If you went to a legalistic Bible college, Paul would say, "Are you sure you were even learning the Bible?" He would say this because the Bible's entire message is about the glorious work of Jesus Christ for our salvation. If a message of grace was somehow missing from your education, what kind of Bible were you studying?
Paul could be flexible on many things. When it came to evangelism and how he was going to relate to people outside the faith, he said, "I become all things to all people." In other words: "I'll do whatever it takes. I'll lay down my comfort zone, to get in your comfort zone, to bring you the gospel of Jesus Christ. That's how much I love you in the Lord." He was totally flexible at times. Consider also how he approached issues related to Christian lifestyle. In Romans 14, Paul insists that we love each other enough not to insist on our own private convictions becoming public law for everybody else. He could be very flexible when it came to lifestyle issues. But when it came to the truth of the gospel, he would not budge, because when someone takes the core of the gospel and tweaks it, they add to it and thus destroy it.
In 1982, when my wife, Karen, and I were living in Elgin, Illinois, someone walked into a convenience store in town and bought a bottle of Extra-Strength Tylenol. The next day they were found dead. The middle-aged person had been in perfect health. All they had was the flu. When the coroner ran an autopsy, they found that the person's body was filled with potassium cyanide.
This happened again and again and again throughout the Chicago-land area. Six or seven people were murdered because some twisted soul had gone into stores, purchased bottles of Tylenol, very carefully taken off the cap, pulled out the cotton, took out the capsules, pulled them apart, knocked out some of the acetaminophen, and replaced it with potassium cyanide. They then closed up the capsules, put them back in the bottle, put the cotton back in, put the lid back on, and the next time they went to the store, they put the bottles back on the shelf.
In Galatians 1, Paul is saying that when someone adds to the core message of the gospel, they poison it. When someone adds to the medicine of God's provision—say, the poison of performance-based religion—they take the Good News and turn it bad. They burden people with all these extra requirements and rules and regulations, saying they are necessary for God to smile on them. No wonder so many people leave the church burdened, joyless, and burnt out! No wonder they end up hating Christianity and God. Can't you see how a "grace and" message destroys the gospel?
But a "grace and" message doesn't just destroy the gospel. It causes you to desert God. In verse 6, Paul writes, "I'm astonished that you're so quickly deserting the one God who called you by the grace of Christ." If you embrace a "grace and" message, you're not just destroying sound teaching; you're deserting a Person. This is personal. God says to you, "I gave you everything. I gave you my Son. I gave you the heart and the essence of our community of love in the Trinity. I poured out everything for you. And that's not enough? Are you really going to say, 'God, your grace is not enough'? Are you really going to say, 'The sacrifice of your Son on the cross is not a perfect sacrifice for the whole world'? Are you going to say, 'It's just not enough. It's a good starting place, but I need to add on this and this and this to really be right with you'?
When you embrace a "grace and" message, it's like God has given you a beautiful engagement ring, and it's not shiny enough for you. So, in an effort to make it shinier, you wrap it in tinfoil. Don't you see how that's a personal insult? That's why Paul spends the first chapter of this letter trying to convince people of his message of grace. He's trying to tell them that he got this message straight from the revelation of God. He didn't even hang out with the apostles to get this message. He got it straight from the source. When you leave this message behind, you are leaving God behind. It's that serious.
An early warning sign of embracing a message other than the gospel
Knowing that so many Christians have been taken in by a "grace and" message, how would you know if maybe you've been taken in by the false message? It can be really confusing. Those who are most susceptible to this false message are people who are earnest—people who care, show up, want to be right with God. It's all the easier to fall prey to this message, too, because all of the things being added to the gospel are often not bad things. They're good things! How can you know when you've crossed the line into adding unnecessary additions to your faith to be put right with Christ? How do you know when it goes from being set free on the inside from being controlled from the outside?
I want to give you an early warning indicator—a light on your dashboard, if you will. When this light goes off, you should pause and ask yourself, "Am I slipping away from the simple message of the gospel of grace? Am I somehow destroying the gospel and deserting God? Here's the warning indicator: it's when you think to yourself, I'm not a very good Christian.
Don't we all think that at times? I'm not a very good Christian. When you think that, it's usually for one of two reasons.
Let's say you haven't had quiet time for three weeks. You think to yourself, I'm not a very good Christian. I'm busy at home. I'm busy at work. I'm just trying to survive. I never have time in the Bible. I haven't had time to really pray. I'm not a very good Christian. Aren't you really saying in that moment that what matters for you to be right with God is not just faith in Christ, but also you having quiet time? Look: God's grace extended to you in Christ didn't go away for three weeks ago when you stopped having quiet time. It was still there. But now you think that's not quite enough. When you find yourself thinking along those lines, a warning light should go off in your mind.
Or maybe the other reason you don't feel like a very good Christian is because you fell into sin, which leaves you thinking, I can't believe I did this. This was the sin I told God I wasn't going to do again. I swore this off. I thought I was done with this, and now I did it again. I hate myself. I'm not a very good Christian. Don't you see the whole message of Christ crucified on the cross for the forgiveness of your sins speaks to the very situation you're experiencing pain about? Jesus didn't die for your little Sunday School peccadilloes. Jesus died for your slimy sins. Jesus died for your repeated sins. When you don't feel like a very good Christian because of these sins, come back to him in faith and childlike trust and say, "God, 'just as I am, without one plea, but that thy blood was shed for me.'"
Friends, when you turn to the Father after a time of distance—whether through life's distractions or because of some sin issue—you're taken back in. He wraps you up in his loving embrace. He says to you, "I gave you my Son because I want you to live in freedom. I want you to live in joy. I want you to know my acceptance, my smile. Why would you ever think you need to add to my Son's work burdens and regulations and requirements so that I will accept you and take you back in?
Like Paul, we can never let ourselves get pulled away from simple good news of Christ. Don't let anything or anyone ever take the amazing out of God's grace.
For Your Reflection
Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________
Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________
Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________
Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________
Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________
Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?
Kevin Miller is pastor of Church of the Savior in Wheaton, Illinois,