Resolved: To Remember The Gospel
It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. Galatians 6:12-16
Galatians being my favorite book of the Bible, you can imagine how alarmed I was when I read on the inside flap of Ryken's commentary that "Galatians was written for recovering Pharisees." A Pharisee is simply someone who thinks he or she can be "good enough," whether before God, others, or him- or herself.
Galatians has to do with two big, churchy Bible wordsâ€”justification and sanctification. Justification basically means "becoming right with God." Sanctification basically means "becoming a better person." (Theologians, please stay off my back for using simple terms we can all understand.) Pharisees are always mixing up justification and sanctification. Historically and practically most Christians have had great difficulty holding these two ideas in proper perspective. It would make my day if I could help equip you to do this just a little better.
Jonathan Edwards, at the age of 19, made 70 resolutions. You may have read them, and even tried to imitate them. Here's a sampling:
5. Resolved: never to lose one moment of time; but improve it the most profitable way I possibly can. 6. Resolved: to live with all my might, while I do live. 7. Resolved: never to do anything, which I should be afraid to do, if it were the last hour of my life. 17. Resolved: that I shall live so, as I shall wish I had done when I come to die. 41. Resolved: to ask myself, at the end of every day, week, month and year, wherein I could possibly, in any respect, have done better.
It's the perfect time of year to talk about Resolutions. So let's examine why we often make them, and whether or not we should.
A common resolution among Christians at the new year is to have better quiet times (i.e., to read through the Bible in a year, to pray more frequently or longer, etc.). Most of us probably feel our current quiet times to be inadequate. We may think along these lines: "my life would be better if I spent more time in the Bible." Or maybe, "I would feel better about myself." Or worse, "I could tell my friends at church that I'm reading five chapters a day." Or, "I'd just be a better Christian if I were more serious in this area." Or, "God would think better of me." Other examples of common resolutions include: to stop using bad language; to start volunteering more; to start giving regularly at church; to spend more time with family.
Frequently we are motivated to make these resolutions because we think we can become better people in order to feel good about ourselves, whether before God, others, or just ourselves. Even if we are often not conscious of our motivations, honest self-examination should reveal them to us. I know I often "look" into the future and think about when I'll finally defeat that nagging, addictive sinâ€”THEN I'll feel good about myself. THEN I'll be able to relax and let people see me for who I really am. THEN I'll feel like God will really love me, when I don't have quite so much sin to confess. It's subtle, but it's there. "If I can just change my life, I'll feel okay about who I am."
This is an attempt to justify myself by sanctifying myself; to gain acceptance with God based on my behavior; to become right with God by becoming a better person.
How can I convince you that this happens a lot? Ask yourself this question: what happens when I fail to keep my resolutions? Am I disappointed? Do I want to hide my failures from my friends (to whom I boasted that I was reading five chapters a day from the Bible)? Do I make my resolutions easier next year, setting the bar lower so I can actually keep them, in order to feel good about myself?
Again, we probably let our motivations drive us mostly without thinking about them, but when we make resolutions from the wrong reasons, we're basically saying, "Jesus Christ, I don't need you or your cross." He didn't have to die, or really do much for me at all, since I can take care of myself by just trying a little harder. If I can just keep these resolutions, I'll be good enough.
But the Scriptures say that we can't be "good enough," no matter how hard we try to keep our resolutions. In fact, most of the time we can't even keep them.
Resolutions are generally based on the Law of God (i.e. you would normally resolve to do good things rather than bad things). And the Scriptures say that "by the works of the law no one will be justified" (Gal. 2:16).
The Galatians were being led astray in this, in their understanding of the gospel. Certain Jewish Christians had come along to this Gentile Christian local church, and basically said, "In order for you to be accepted by God and his people, you must become Jewish, you must keep the Law, you must become circumcised." By "helping" the Gentiles become Jewish, they were gaining recognition for themselves as proselytizers or "evangelists". They also did it so they wouldn't have to acknowledge the cross of Jesus Christ as the only way to be right with Godâ€”they were looking to avoid persecution for the cross (Gal. 6:12).
You see, nobody wants to be told they have no hope apart from the cross of Christ. That means I'm in trouble because of who I am and what I've done. I'm confronted with my sin, and I can't help myself. No amount of good resolution keeping will put me in God's favor. Ancient Jews persecuted Christians for confronting them with their sins, and people do it today as wellâ€”we all want to escape being faced with our depravity, and we'll kill others to do it. But most of the time we'll just try a little harder to become a little better to deceive ourselves into feeling good about who we are... even though the Holy Word of God tells us that will never work.
So what does work? If neither law-keeping nor law-breaking counts for anything (Gal. 6:15), what does count? A new creation. You don't scrape and claw your way into becoming a new creation by trying harder to be holier. You don't sanctify yourself to justify yourself before God. Circumcision was never a prerequisite for salvation, nor is any Law-of-God-abiding resolution you can think of. You become a new creation by grace alone, through faith alone, through the cross of Jesus Christ alone. Ryken says that "to understand this is to understand Galatians. More than that, it is to understand the gospel."
"To boast in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Gal. 6:14) doesn't mean showing off your nice, shiny, silver cross pendant. It means to revel in, to glory in, to find joy in the gruesome and torturous and shameful death of the Second Person of the Trinity. It means that you only find hope and strength and solace and meaning and identity in Jesus Christâ€”in his life, death and resurrection. It means that you know your relationship with God and with his people depends only on the Son of God. It means that you can live with yourself only because of the Messiah. It means that you can only become a better person after you've become right with God through Jesus.
Honestly, we're all going to make resolutions we can't keep, and for the wrong reasons. Sean Michael Lucas said about Jonathan Edwards, "he appeared to conflate his wholehearted pursuit of God's glory with right standing with God." To me his resolutions often seem driven by a desire to feel good about himself. Take another one for example, number 51, "Resolved: that I will act so, in every respect, as I think I shall wish I had done, if I should at last be damned." How can this be viewed in any other way than that he wishes to feel good about himself, about his conduct, even if he eventually finds himself in hell apart from God's grace? If Edwards did good things from bad motives, then I don't stand a chance. I surely will. You too.
So we need to repentâ€”not only of the bad things we've done, or the good things we've left undone, but of the good things we've done from bad motives in order to present ourselves to God apart from Christ. We need to make one supreme "resolution," to remember the gospel for ourselves daily, in order to grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. We need to honestly examine ourselves to see why we're doing the things we do. In order to keep justification and sanctification in their proper places, with our holiness growing from our sure position in God's favor, we need to operate every day from a reliance on Christ and his cross for our righteousness. Resolve to remember the gospel.