Text: Galatians 5:1-6
What do you have to do to be a real Christian? What makes real Christians different from those who are just kidding themselves? Ever since Christ walked the earth, people have been debating just what makes you one of his followers. In this world if you want to get into a club, you have to pay dues. If you want to be known as a helpful volunteer, you have to work at it. So what do you have to do to be a Christian? Over the centuries a lot of different people have come up with a lot of different requirements for being a Christian. If you want to be a Christian, you must belong to a particular church, or must give a certain amount of money, or must live your life in a certain way or must do a certain number of good and God-pleasing works.
But the Bible gives a different answer to the question, "what do you have to do to be a Christian." The Bible's answer is: absolutely nothing! You don't make yourself a Christian. Christ makes you a Christian. You don't do certain things to become a follower of Christ. God does everything to make you one. You aren't bound to obey certain requirements to be a real Christian and a true heir of heaven. Rather, Paul tells you in today's first lesson that Christ Has Set You Free, free from sin, from death, and from any requirements to earn God's favor. Since Christ Has Set You Free, don't become a slave, but stand firm in God's promises.
Paul wrote his letter to the Galatian Christians for a specific purpose--because someone was trying to make them slaves. Paul had visited Galatia during his first missionary journey, somewhere around 55AD. Galatia wasn't a specific city, but it was a whole region in the south part Asia Minor, which today is the country of Turkey. Paul visited various towns in Galatia and started Christian churches there.
But after Paul had left Galatia, someone else had come into the area and had started stirring up trouble. It happens all the time. Christians will be faithful to God and trust his good news and believe his Word and then someone will come into an area and start putting doubt in their heads. The doubt which the Galatians had is a common one among Christians: Doesn't God really require us to do something for his forgiveness? Doesn't God have some requirements for us to fulfill? God can't really forgive our sins for free, can he?
The Galatians knew God's Word. Paul had told them God's promise that "it is by grace you have been saved, through faith--and that not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, not by works." God tells us that our forgiveness and our place in heaven is simply a free gift through Christ, our Savior. Yet as human beings we have a problem with that idea. You know that in this world, if you want anything worthwhile, you have to pay for it. Heaven is the best thing there is, so how can it possibly be free? Human reason says, "It can't be free," and tries to go about earning God's favor. Martin Luther once said that "This evil is planted in all human beings by nature: If God were willing to sell his grace, we would accept it more quickly and gladly than when he offers it for nothing."
The most common kind of false teaching in the world makes God's love and forgiveness and heaven dependent on your doing something, no matter how small that something may be. That's what happened to the Galatians: someone came in and told them, "To be a real Christian, not only do you need faith in Christ, but you also need to follow the Jewish ritual of circumcision to be acceptable before God."
That may not seem like a big deal. So what if someone else understands Christianity to mean something a little different from you? But according to Paul, it is a big deal when you start adding requirements to Christianity. Paul says that "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery." Paul talks about Christian faith in terms of freedom, and then urges the Galatians not to "be burdened again by a yoke of slavery."
How serious is it to add some seemingly "little" requirements to Christian faith? It's quite serious. In fact, Paul writes that "I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all." That's serious! Paul is telling the Galatians that if they add any requirements to "be a REAL Christian," they won't really be Christians at all. "Christ will be of no value to you at all."
Paul isn't simply setting up some test of true faith. Paul isn't trying to have a power struggle with someone else over who controls the Christian church in Galatia. The battle is much greater than that. Paul explains what he's talking about: "I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law." THAT'S the difference. It isn't a difference between whose requirements for Christianity are correct. It's a difference between NO requirement and EVERY requirement. It's the difference between freedom from God's Law and slavery to God's Law. Christ has set you free. Don't become a slave again!
You once were a slave to God's law. In fact, you were born a slave to God's law. As one of God's creatures, you were created to obey God's law and to follow his commands--all of them, every command he ever gave, every one of the ten commandments, everything. God's law shows you God's will. He shows you how to be perfect and holy, and that's how you have to be if you want to see heaven. You must be perfect, sinless, completely obedient to God's law.
Yet no human being can live up to that requirement. As a sinner you have broken God's law, disobeyed his commands. The Bible says that "Whoever keeps the whole law, yet stumbles at just one point, is guilty of breaking all of it." You get one chance, all or nothing, and you've missed out. You've broken God's law. You can't get to heaven by still trying to keep it, because you can't keep it. Paul writes earlier in this letter to the Galatians that "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law'." As an outlaw, you deserve to be cursed, to be thrown away from God forever to suffer in hell for your sins. Trying to make up for your sins by obeying God's law only earns you God's punishment. Paul put it this way: "You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace."
That's where slavery to God's law puts you--it puts you in hell before you even die. That's where Martin Luther found himself as a Catholic monk, trying to earn God's favor by observing rules and regulations, by trying to appease God's anger through his own good works. He knew all along that he could never succeed. He even wrote later that "To want to merit grace by works which precede faith is to want to appease God by sins; which is nothing but adding sins to sins, laughing at God, and provoking his wrath." You can't ever earn God's forgiveness, his favor or his good will through your own attempts at obeying his law. It just won't ever work.
Even today many Christians will try to make you a slave to the requirements of God's law. As I was working on this sermon I turned on my little AM radio and listened for a few minutes to a religious station in Little Rock, Arkansas. The man who was speaking told about the importance of worshiping God on Saturday and only on Saturday, because that's what God's law commands. He even tried to make it sound good to be a slave to God's law. But is it? How can it be good to be a slave to a law which condemns you in advance? So many forget Paul's encouragement that "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free." Being a slave isn't freedom. That's what Martin Luther discovered. But the Bible gives us freedom.
Christ is the one who sets you free from your slavery to sin and to a law you could never keep. Jesus is the one who said, "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest." You don't find rest in God's law and in your own good works. You find true rest and peace in Christ. Jesus is the one who gave you true freedom by offering his own sinless life as a sacrifice to pay for your sins, to get you out from under the burden of your guilt and your imperfection. God's law demanded you to be perfect, but Jesus was perfect for you. God's law demanded payment for your sins, but Jesus made that payment for you when he gave up his own life on the cross. Paul wrote earlier in his letter to the Galatians that "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree'." With his death and resurrection, Jesus took away your slavery, your obligation to obey God's law or die. Jesus has set you free from all that. He has rescued you from God's judgment and from hell, and has promised you heaven instead. Thanks to Jesus, you are freed from God's law and forgiven all your sins.
So what do you have to do to get that forgiveness? Absolutely nothing! As a sinner, you can't do anything to earn or deserve God's love. God simply gives it to you out of grace, as a gift, through his Holy Spirit, Word and sacraments. Thanks to God, you are a follower of his Son, your Savior; thanks to God, you have Christian faith, and you trust in Jesus for your forgiveness. Through that faith God makes you one of his own, a free child of God--not because of anything you do or ever could do, but simply because of God's undeserved love for you.
With that freedom you have as a forgiven child of God, how could you ever want to become a slave again? You don't! Instead, you want to hold on to the freedom Jesus has given you. You don't seek certainty that you are forgiven by trying to butter up God with good works. You can't. Christian faith simply means trusting God, and that's all. Paul describes that trust: "But by faith we eagerly await through the Spirit the righteousness for which we hope." As a Christian you don't yet have the full righteousness Jesus has won for you, and you don't have the heavenly blessing which comes through that righteousness. Instead, you simply look forward to it by faith. The Bible describes faith as "being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see." Through Christ, we are certain that we are forgiven, and certain that we have a place in heaven.
Don't become a slave to insecurity, to law requirements which will only make you doubt God's forgiveness. Instead, stand firm in God's promises; stand firm in Christian faith. All the good works in the world mean nothing toward your forgiveness. Instead, as Paul put it, "In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." As a Christian, you don't live your life as a slave to God's law. Instead, you live your life in freedom, freed from the guilt of your sins, free to thank and serve the God who saved you. Martin Luther discovered that freedom God gives when he found the Bible's teaching that your sins are forgiven through Jesus. You can never earn or deserve it. It's simply a gift. Always thank your Savior for the freedom he has given you, and use your Christian freedom to serve your God and to show his forgiveness to others.