January 20, 1961—hard to believe that in seven short months it will have been fifty years since that bright and sunny, but bitterly cold day that began the short presidency of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. I remember sitting in front of my parents’ black and white television—sitting there listening to the words of a man who seemed so full of energy and promise. I vividly remember hearing him say:
“Ask not what your country can do for you;
ask what you can do for your country.”
To this day, I am still moved by those words. They speak of commitment and dedication and sacrifice. They speak of a “can-do” attitude that came out of a generation of American citizens that has been described as “The Greatest Generation.” These words speak of a relationship between government and citizen that has—in many ways—been lost in the nearly fifty years since John Kennedy first spoke those words.
What these words represent is a philosophy of citizenship that defines a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people”—in the words of another president—Abraham Lincoln. However, there are some who would transfer this philosophy over to our relationship with God; those who would claim that God rewards us for actions we take on behalf of God; those who preach a “Prosperity Gospel” that claims that because of what we do in our lives to better our relationship with God, God will reward us with a good life, a prosperous life. My brothers and sisters, this is a false gospel; it is NOT the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is not the Gospel proclaimed by Paul in today’s Lesson from the 2nd chapter of Galatians.
In Galatians, Paul preaches the Gospel of justification through faith in Jesus Christ. Fifteen hundred years later Martin Luther found incredible comfort for his tortured soul in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Listen to these words again and hold them in your hearts:
“Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law
but through faith in Jesus Christ,
even we believed in Christ Jesus,
that we might be justified by faith in Christ,
and not by the works of the law,
because no flesh will be justified by the works of the law”
Do you hear what Paul is saying to us? It is NOT through what we do; not through work of our own that we are saved; it is only through the work, the sacrifice of Jesus Christ that we are saved. God does not reward us with a prosperous lifestyle for any good works that we might perform; God has already rewarded us with justification—with salvation—with eternal life for the work—the sacrifice—of Jesus Christ when he died for our sin.
There’s a phrase I often hear people use when things aren’t going exactly right in their lives. It’s a phrase that I’ve heard certain television evangelists use as well when they are telling their listeners what THEY have to do to achieve salvation. People will say that they “have to get right with God.” Now, let me tell you what happens when you try “to get right with God.”
When the great Christian theologian, Augustine, described our efforts to do things that will “get us right with God” he used a Latin phrase to describe what we’re doing. Martin Luther picked up that same phrase as he was developing his theology of Justification by Faith through the Grace of God. That Latin phrase is “in curvatus se”—it means being curved in upon oneself.
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When things aren’t going right in our lives, when we perhaps think that our faith isn’t strong enough and that we need to “get right with God,” we—all of us—very often fall into the trap of thinking that WE have to do something about the problem. In reality we’re making the problem worse, because we’re curving in upon ourselves; in essence we are thinking that we somehow are as powerful and as wise as God and that we alone can do something to solve the problem. That in itself is a loss of faith. We have lost faith that God alone saves us. We curve in on ourselves and all we find is a faith in our own ability to do something that will bring about our salvation—something that we are incapable of doing.
Martin Luther struggled with this theological problem in the early years of the 16th century. All around him, he saw people being told that they had to perform certain acts, donate certain amounts of money, and purchase indulgences in order to save their souls and the souls of their loved ones from hell and purgatory. As a young man and a young priest, Luther was terrified that his actions and thoughts had condemned him to hell. He was terrified of a God whom he perceived as being vengeful and demanding of acts of penance for sins he had committed—even if he was not aware of the sins.
Luther would torture himself with the thought, “Have I done enough?” And the response he always came up with was “NO, I haven’t done enough.” So, he continued to be terrified of God’s wrath. Then Luther read the words of Paul, here in Galatians and also in Romans and his other letters. And Luther read the Gospels in light of what Paul had written and then later what Augustine had written, and it all became clear to him. NO, he couldn’t do enough to achieve salvation; he could never do enough; it was physically, emotionally, spiritually, and theologically impossible for him—and for us—to ever do enough to achieve salvation.
But God could—and did—do enough. That’s what Paul’s letter to the Galatians said to Martin Luther, and that’s what Paul’s letter is saying to us today:
“For I, through the law, died to the law, that I might live to God.
I have been crucified with Christ,
and it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me.
That life which I now live in the flesh,
I live by faith in the Son of God,
who loved me, and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:19-20).
That’s the message of the true Gospel of Christ Jesus. We are saved through the grace of God by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. So, how do we receive that grace?
We receive the grace of God through his sacraments—through baptism and through the Eucharist. Luther described baptism as the drowning of the “old creature,” that sinful creature; in baptism our sinful selves die with Christ, and our new, justified and saved selves are born anew—resurrected to new life in Christ’s resurrection. When we receive the body and blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we are again renewed each time with God’s grace. That’s the Gospel—that’s the Good News that we read in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In essence Paul is telling us, “Ask not what we can do for God, ask and then believe what God has already done for us.”
Let us pray.
May the peace of God which passes all understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus whose sacrifice has saved us for all time. Amen.
Scripture quotations from the World English Bible
Copyright 2010, Daniel W. Brettell. Used by permission.