The Heart of the Gospel

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Galatians 3:13-14

Do you know the heart of the gospel? Do you have the gospel in your heart?

New Testament scholar Markus Barth once told a story about an unusual event that took place at the university where he taught. It seems that some students were producing a variety show for an evening of entertainment, and as a gag, a group of fraternity boys decided to put on a skit about religion. The scene they acted out was of a revival meeting, played strictly for laughs. The funny thing, though, was that as the frat boys rehearsed their skit in the empty hall, a janitor happened to overhear the mock sermon. Not realizing it was all just a joke, this simple man listened seriously, and when the make-believe preacher gave a tongue-in-cheek invitation at the end of the sermon, the janitor responded by coming forward and giving his life to Christ!

So was this man saved? Of course he was; he was genuinely converted by the gospel message, even though that message was delivered by an insincere messenger. Salvation comes to us by the power of God, received through faith in God’s word. God’s gracious, saving word accomplishes its purpose independent of – sometimes in spite of – the human means of delivery. The preacher may have meant his words as a joke, but God turned the joke on its head. He got the last laugh. All it takes to be saved is a word from God, received in faith. It doesn’t matter where or how you hear that word; all that matters is that you believe it and turn in trust to Jesus Christ. As the apostle Paul says to the Galatians, you first became Christians “by believing what you heard” (Galatians 3:2).


Paul’s overriding concern as we have seen here in the first part of his letter to the Galatians is to emphasize just this one point: that salvation is by faith alone. The first four chapters of this small but important New Testament book are devoted to a long, sometimes complex argument about the relationship between faith and works, and the role and purpose of the Old Testament law. Paul’s basic point is that God never intended for people to rely upon this law, with its civil and ceremonial ordinances and its moral commandments, for salvation. It is a fundamental error to think that we could earn or merit God’s favor by good behavior or religious acts. Rather, God wants us to put our faith in Jesus Christ, to rely upon his sacrifice for sin on the cross. That’s the only way to be saved.

But this raises an obvious question: what good then is the law? What’s it for? After all, an awful lot of the Old Testament is devoted to outlining and explaining the law. So what is the point of all those rules, regulations and commandments? Paul gives part of the answer near the end of Galatians 3:

23 Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.

Galatians 3:23-24

The apostle is using an analogy here that would have been familiar to all his readers. In the ancient world, well-to-do Greek families employed a special slave to help with the education of their sons. The slave was called a paidagogos, or pedagogue, which meant literally a “boy-leader.” The pedagogue was not the child’s teacher, but rather a guide and custodian or disciplinarian who was responsible for conducting the boy to and from school, and also disciplining him to make sure he learned his homework. People in the ancient world took rather a dim view of children, as well as a grim view of education. They definitely believed in the old adage that to spare the rod was to spoil the child. So the pedagogue was equipped with a stick in order to pound the lessons into his young charge.

This is the image Paul uses at the end of Galatians 3 to describe the purpose and work of the law. He calls the law a paidagogos. “We were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed,” writes Paul. “Therefore the law was our paidagogos, our disciplinarian, our tutor, until Christ came.” Before we come to know Jesus Christ, the law treats us harshly. It hurts us, it condemns us. It shows us what sin is, and how weak and sinful we are. It holds us prisoner to guilt. Nobody knew this better than the great theologian and reformer Martin Luther.

The principal point . . . of the law [Luther wrote in his commentary on Galatians] is to make men not better but worse; that is to say, it shows them their sin, that by the knowledge thereof they may be humbled, terrified, bruised and broken, and by this means may be driven to seek grace.”

The law does not merely lead us to Christ like a paidagogos leading a boy to school. It drives us to Christ, by convincing us of our moral failure and helplessness apart from his grace. To change the analogy, the law is like the medical tests that reveal to us just how sick we really are, and that persuade us to turn to the Great Physician for healing. As we consider our own contemporary scene, it seems as though we could use a little more tutoring, a little more leading and disciplining by the law. People would benefit from having a little law-work done on their consciences. The problem in our day seems to be different than in the time of the Galatians or Martin Luther, for that matter. Many of us are not trying to establish our own righteousness by rigorous obedience to the law, as the Galatians were. Nor are we terrified by God’s holy law or overwhelmed by the divine curse upon sin, like people in the Middle Ages.

No, today many folks are neither struggling with guilt nor pursuing salvation by good works. They don’t, in fact, seem to be pursuing anything at all, except for pleasure and entertainment. People nowadays no longer fear the law, or hate the law, or feel enslaved by the law; rather, they are oblivious to the law. They ignore God’s holy and righteous commandments completely, as if there were no demands placed upon them whatsoever. Some of us need to hear the law clearly again. We need to see it in all its awe-full splendor, to feel the law do its painful work of exposing our spiritual sickness and undermining our conceited self-assurance. We need to listen again to the law’s description of the majestic holiness of God, and its terrifying but just curse upon all sin and disobedience. We need to allow the law to strip us of all pretense to innate goodness, to humble our pride in ourselves, and to drive us in faith to Jesus Christ for mercy.

“BUT NOW . . .”

Paul does not end Galatians 3 on a law note, however. His image of the law as a painful disciplinarian, a paidagogos, gives way to a new reality, for the Galatians are no longer to live by law but by faith.

25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:25-29

When the apostle Paul says that the Galatians are all “children of God through faith,” he uses a word implying that they are adult children rather than adolescents. So the tutelage of a pedagogue is no longer either necessary or appropriate. Now that faith has come, the old slave “Law” – at least in its condemning role – has been retired.

The key here is in that first phrase: “But now that faith has come.” It’s one of the apostle’s favorite arguments, pointing out the before and after contrast, the difference between B.C. and A.D. Remember, Paul’s purpose in this first part of his letter to the church in Galatia is to stress the superiority of faith over works as a means of relating to God. Salvation does not come through obeying the law. It could never come that way, for all the law can do in the absence of faith is to condemn us for failing to keep it. But what a difference faith makes! Listen to Paul pile up the phrases as he reminds the Galatians of all that faith does to and for them. Now that faith has come they are “in Christ Jesus,” “children of God through faith,” “baptized into Christ,” “clothed with Christ,” “one in Christ,” “belong[ing] to Christ.” Faith is the means by which we are united with Jesus Christ. We have been joined to him, baptized into Christ, says Paul. Because of this faith-based union, we are part of Christ, we have put Christ on like a new suit of clothes, we belong to Christ the way an arm or leg belongs to its body.

So as a result, Paul affirms three powerful truths about all believers. First, faith in Christ makes us God’s children, “for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.” That points to our privilege as Christian believers. We no longer relate to God on the basis of fear. We don’t have to be anxious about whether or not God loves us; he’s our father.

Simple question: if you are a parent, how do you feel about your children? Do you get it? We are no longer simply God’s creatures or his servants; we are his sons and daughters. I know it’s difficult for me to believe that God really does love me, knowing what I’m like inside. But then I think of how fiercely I love my own children, and I realize that God’s love is infinitely greater than my own.

Next, says Paul, faith in Christ makes us one. “There is no longer Jew or Greek, no longer slave or free, or male or female; all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” Here Paul mentions the commonest distinctions that human beings make among themselves: distinctions of race, class and gender. We play up these differences in order to separate ourselves from one another and assert our superiority over others. But Paul says these are all done away with in Christ. What does he mean? Well, obviously Paul can’t mean that all differences are erased; after all, he himself was still male, Jewish, a Roman citizen, and an apostle with special authority in the church. So racial, social, physical and intellectual differences still remain among Christians. But what Paul means to say is that these distinctions can no longer be the basis for privileged status or advancement within the church. There is no caste system in the body of Christ. No single group is ahead of or above the others. All believers are equally in Christ, and therefore are equal. The differences don’t make any difference.

In affirming this great truth the apostle is reminding us of our responsibility. As Christians, we must live out in reality what God says we are in Christ. Around the turn of the 20th century, a young Indian lawyer was riding on a train in South Africa. As he traveled toward his destination, he was reading the New Testament. But the train came to a halt, and he was forced to get off it because of the color of his skin. From that day forward Mohandas Gandhi had no further use for Christianity, though he remained throughout his influential life an admirer of Jesus. As Christians we should lament the gap between our profession and our practice, and be continually striving to close it. Sins like racism, sexism, nationalism and tribalism ought to trouble us, especially when these things find their way into the church, where they certainly do not belong. How can we live in such a way that our differences no longer matter? That is the challenge – and responsibility – of the body of Christ.

Finally, Paul writes, faith in Christ makes us Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. Here’s one of Paul’s favorite themes, one that he returns to again and again: Father Abraham, the first great believer, is our father, if we like Abraham, relate to God by faith. We belong to the historic people of God. As Christians we are in direct line of spiritual descent from the original believer. We may not have noble blood in our veins; our family tree might not have any impressive branches. In fact, we could be nobodies as far as the world is concerned, but never mind. If you believe in Jesus Christ, then whatever your background, you are somebody special. You’re not a child any longer. You’re not a slave. You are an heir with Jesus Christ. Your pedigree goes all the way back to Abraham himself. And that makes you as good as anybody – all through faith in Jesus Christ!