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“The Precious Gospel of Grace”
Galatians 3:15-25


Pastor Kevin Vogts
Holy Cross Lutheran Church
Dakota Dunes, South Dakota
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost—June 20, 2010

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

During the Pentecost season the Epistle Readings are a series of consecutive readings from various New Testament epistles. The word “epistle” simply means “letter,” and we are currently in the middle of a series of readings from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. 

Paul was the one who first brought the Christian Gospel to them, and taught them the faith, and started their congregations.  But, now he is writing to them with a heavy heart, because false teachers have come into their congregations, and they are turning away from the true Gospel that he taught them.  “I am astonished,” he says at the beginning of the letter, “that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you by the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—which is really no gospel at all.”

I previously served as pastor for seven years in Lawrence, Kansas, where the University of Kansas is located.  I often worked with students, and one day a young female student dropped by my office.  She looked a little familiar, but I didn’t recognize her until she said, “Don’t you remember me?  I’m . . .” and then she told me her name.  Turns out she was a girl I had confirmed years before at a former congregation in western Kansas.  She was a student now at the University of Kansas, and she knew that I was a pastor there.

But, she wasn’t stopping by for a social visit.  She had actually avoided me up to that point.  Because, shortly after coming to the University of Kansas, she had become involved in a cult that was very active on campus.  At first she thought it was just another Christian church.  She had even risen up into the ranks of this cult’s local leadership.  But, now she had doubts and questions, and so she was coming to me, her old pastor.

It was terribly heart-wrenching for me to find this girl I remembered so well from my Sunday School and youth group and confirmation class now turned away from the Christian doctrine I taught her and heavily involved in a cult.  That is how Paul felt about the Christians in Galatia.  “I fear for you,” he writes them, “that somehow my work for you may have been in vain. . . Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ.”

In today’s reading, Paul zeros in on what this perversion of the Gospel was: “If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.”  The false teachers who were leading the Galatians astray were teaching works righteousness, that righteousness can come by the law, that you can and must become righteous in God’s sight and earn eternal life through your own works.  It was the same with the student I counseled.  In her efforts to please God and the cult leaders, she recruited relentlessly, went to meetings every day, gave the cult some of her scholarships.  Believe it or not, she even endangered her health by selling her blood plasma twice a week to raise money for the cult.  Paul talks about that kind of misguided zeal in Galatians: “Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. . .  It is a fine thing to be zealous, provided the purpose is good.”

Works righteousness perverts the Christian Gospel into a ladder, with rungs made out of your own works: You have to do this and this and this, and if you do enough, eventually, maybe you’ll climb your way into heaven.  Or, a teeter totter: You have some bad points, you have some sins, but if you do enough good, your good will balance out, maybe even outweigh, the bad, and get you into heaven.

In today’s reading, and throughout Galatians, Paul is pleading with them to come back to the Gospel he proclaimed, the Good News of God’s mercy and love and forgiveness in Christ.  And Paul is pleading with us also, not to wander away from this Gospel, or, if we have strayed, to come back home to Christ and his cross.

“If a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.  But the Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin. . .  You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. . .  May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

At the very beginning of his letter, Paul beautifully lays out what the Christian Gospel really is: “Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to rescue us from the present evil age.”  The Christian Gospel is not a ladder, by which you climb your way into heaven; or a teeter totter, by which you balance out your sins; but the Christian Gospel is a wheelbarrow.  The Christian Gospel is the Good News that by his sacrifice on the cross the Lord Jesus Christ gave himself for our sins to rescue us.  Your sins are all forgiven.  Christ will take you to heaven in the wheelbarrow of his own righteousness; hop on in!  Paul puts it this way in today’s reading: “What was promised through faith in Jesus Christ is given to those who believe.”

What happened to that student who came to my office?  It wasn’t easy for her, but she left the cult and then began speaking out to warn others.  There was an article about her experience in the campus newspaper, The University Daily Kansan.  The article said: “She went home to think about the [group] over the weekend.  When she returned, she told [the group’s] leaders that she was leaving.  They said she would go to hell . . .  ‘Students have the right to know what type of organization they are really getting themselves into . . .’ she said. . .  ‘I had to learn it the hard way and at a very high price.’”*

Paul puts the lesson that she learned, about the true Gospel and the preciousness of grace, this way in Galatians:  “A man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”

Amen.

*Ashleigh Roberts, “Caught in a CULT,” The University Daily Kansan, 1/21/97

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