All right, kids! It’s time we had a talk about “Law and Gospel!” A MidWinter 2019 retreat sermon by Jonathan Balmer, delivered January 12th, 2019.
Video of the sermon from Midwinter Retreat 2019
NOTE: The following is a manuscript, but it is not an exact transcript of the sermon. As I brought shortened notes with me, some parts of this were not included in the sermon, and other parts were not written beforehand.
You probably know Jack Black. For folks in your generation, he’s been in Jumanji, and a couple horror-comedy movies. When I was young, he was making comedy-metal albums. Some of them have pretty creative clean versions: since everyone should be able to have their face metaphorically melted-off by metal without the four-letter words.
The whole song is ABOUT the best song in the world. It’s NOT the best song in the world itself. After all, Jack Black belts, “This is not the greatest song in the world—this is just a tribute!”
[View our worship order for this Saturday Night sermon at this link:]
And that’s how I feel when I get to preach the Good News. I wonder if I’ll ever to justice to the best news in the world. With that in mind, will you pray with me?
“Our Loving God, in scripture we learn that you once spoke through Balaam’s donkey. We pray that you would do something just as miraculous. Tonight, speak through a sinner. In your son’s name we pray. Amen.”
1.Sometimes rules spectacularly backfire. And a rule alone can never bring peace. My brother, Eric, and I get along great now but when we were in middle school and high school? We fought. A TON. So my dad made a rule.
“If you hit your brother, you must stay still for ten seconds and let him hit you back.”
This is some form of (are you ready for a fancy term?) lex talianis – the law of return. If your family asks what you learned at Mid-winter you can say, “Ah yes, lex talianis, the law of return that never brings peace.” That law was made to limit revenge. The punishment should fit the crime: an eye for an eye, a tooth for tooth—not more. It was meant to limit the revenge taken. It was meant to keep the peace.
My dad’s rule tried to keep the peace too. Since I’m the bad guy in this story, I’ll tell you exactly what this rule made to do: if the rule was to wait 10 seconds so my brother could hit me back, what I OBVIOUSLY had to do was to punch him hard enough that he would be on the floor for more than ten seconds. 
Rules, even rules meant to try to give a “fair return punishment,”—and, yes, rules better thought out than this one, can’t bring peace either.
In this letter to the Galatians, Paul is responding to a different Gospel being preached. And it all has to do with extra rules being added to try to keep peace. The False brothers, or false teachers, are the people they must follow the Hebrew law to be part of the church.
Based on Paul’s response, here is what the False brothers seem to be teaching:
“Abraham did not worship the things of this earth like pagans do—suns, moon, stars, the changing of the seasons. Abraham figured out there was but one God. He gave up idols to worship the one True God. Therefore, God made Abraham the father of our nation, Israel. Speaking through an angel, God said that through Abraham all nations would be blessed.
“God gave Abraham the commandment of circumcision. And Abraham was obedient to the Law and observed all the holy festivals on the right days. Later, God again spoke through angels and gave the Law to Moses. Now, the Messiah Jesus came and confirmed forever the wonderful Law of God—and opened up a way for you Gentiles to become part of Abraham’s family.”
“Just as Abraham followed the Laws, you must follow the laws. When you follow the right laws, and do the right things, God blesses you and makes you part of God’s family. You must choose the way of life, obedience, instead of disobedience, which is the way of Death. Through following Abraham’s example, which was opened to you by the Messiah, you may follow the Law and become children of Abraham.
“You were once in darkness. You served the elements of the cosmos, moons, stars, the forces of nature, changing seasons, thinking those created things were gods that run the world. Abraham knew that they were created things. When you follow this true way of God’s holy law, observing the holy days and the commandment of circumcision, you climb out of all the evil in the world and become children of God by your faithful actions.”
Paul is furious. This is no Gospel. The Jewish Christians believe they have something additional needed that the Gentile Christians don’t have. In the first chapter alone, Paul roars that anyone who preaches a different Gospel than the one he proclaimed should be accused, even if an angel came to preach it. “The gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin,” he insists. Jesus himself revealed it to him supernaturally.
There can be nothing added to the Gospel. And before we think this is just a problem in the church in Galatia, this happens in our own time too—not with the Jewish law but with all our expectations. the That is because it is not the Torah, the Jewish law, which is the problem. It is Sin’s use of the Law. Sin makes the Law’s “cursing voice”.
2. Whether we’re trying to follow the rules, get around them, or openly defy them, we are constantly under the cursing voice of the Law.
[Outline of points: 1. Law never brings Peace.
2. All are always under the curse of the Law
3. The Gospel, Christianity, is not a “ladder religion” in which we climb up to God. It is the earth-shattering good news of God’s free grace.]
Donald Glover, you know, Childish Gambino, was in a show called Community. He played a character who was a football star in college, who was now at a community college. And he committed a cardinal sin. He wore his letterman jacket outside of high school. Predictably, everyone is making fun of him.
Troy says to his friend: “Everyone’s been clowning me about this jacket since I got here but if I take it off to make them happy, that just makes me weak, right?” Jeff’s response? “Listen. It doesn’t matter. You lose the jacket to please them, you keep it to tick them off. Either way, it’s for them. That’s what’s weak.”
And even when we think we’re being the most independent we can be, we are still under the Law. Our wills always try to find a way to prove ourselves by our own action: in both our obedience or rebellion to the standards, the laws, around us.
This is why Paul says both circumcision, and uncircumcision, both Law following and NOT Law following, are nothing. The new creation is what matters he says. What is new creation? We’ll get to that soon.
But what I am saying here is something you already know: we’re all under the weight of expectation, of law, of that persistent cursing voice. And the church is filled with it.
Have you ever heard of these phrases?
- “God helps those who help themselves.”
- “Do your best and God will take care of the rest.”
They’re NOT from the Bible, though many think they are. They’re from Benjamin Franklin. Franklin was a Deist. A Deist is a person who thinks God set the world in motion, and went off to a cosmic Sandals cruise saying, “Good luck, and be good!” to a humanity God left all on its own. But left to our own, we’re not able to create peace or heal our deepest wounds. Thankfully, this is not the True God.
Because our standards of beauty, which are strict and unattainable and plague even young girls with worry and even self-doubt and even eating disorders, our limited ideas of masculinity which tell men that the only emotion acceptable to show is anger, leading only to isolation and violence.
Our obsession with “career-readiness” which has many of you mapping out careers and goals by 6th grade—and already thinking about student debt— our technology which is supposed to make life easier but which ties you to expectation after obligation, with the knowledge that the second any assignment is posted you’ll get a notification.
In our schools relationships with friends, your academic acceptance, and future security can too often seem based upon fierce competition, resume-building, and knowing “the right people,” it is all acceptance by proving yourself to Law.
And it doesn’t work. It doesn’t
bring peace. It can’t save. It cannot redeem. It cannot fulfill.
Even as, it seems, it cannot be escaped.
Too often, in church, our Gospel is not so different than that of the False teachers. Rather than a focus on Abraham, our false Gospel goes like this:
“Unlike the world filled with bad things, we see that God is love and wants what’s best for our lives. Therefore, follow us as we journey on that new path of love. Through our actions, which God has approved, we will help you be better people. We won’t be like those who do wrong. We will learn and do better, step by step. It’s not easy, but it’s simple! God has given us commandments- wisdom for living- which lead to a happy and successful family-life, career, and community life. And if we follow this way, it will lead to a more fulfilling-existence, with more perfect work-life balance, better relationships, and increased happiness. And, when you die, as a nice bonus, you’ll go to heaven! Follow the path to life, which is obedience, not of death which are poor choices.”
It’s no wonder that you find so many “Christian books” in the self-help section.
It’s no different than what you get out of self-help.
But not only is this message untrue, it is deadly.
In our passage, Paul answers the question of “why the Law?” and “what’s the Gospel?”
The answer is this: while Sin seemed to be using the Law, God was using it for God’s own purposes. The Law accused, but it showed us all the doors to God were shut. Nothing in this world was powerful enough to break ourselves out of our bondage.
3. Paul’s says: The Gospel, Christianity, is not a “ladder religion” in which we climb up to God. It is the earth-shattering good news of God’s free grace. It is not a religion of self-improvement: it’s a religion of crucifixion. God is not in the business of helping flawed people become better, but in making dead people new creations.
A. “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. So with us; while we were minors, we were enslaved to the elemental spirits of the world.”
Paul takes a baptismal covenant: something people would say when they were Baptized, to make his point. The building blocks of ancient society were pairs of opposites. That’s how the universe was built. Darkness, light. Slavery, freedom. Male and female. And Paul is saying this: in the new creation all of that is exploded.
If you are “in Christ,” you are one. The world has not just been improved, but the whole old order, the old cosmos dies. We’re told elsewhere, that when we’re Baptized, we’re Baptized into Christ’s death.
You see, Baptism is not a rite of initiation. It’s not something we do to belong, a law we follow. It is death. We are united by putting on Christ’s death, not by completing certain actions. We’re under slavery by Sin using those very building blocks of the cosmos the world. But God did not leave us in bondage.
Instead, God gave us a new creation through Christ’s death on the cross. The old order, all of those building blocks which give us only what cannot save us, what cannot bring peace. It only includes the pressure put on us because of our ethnicity, our sex, our economic status, and it is all put to death. What ultimately matters about us is that we are in Christ. But how does this come to be?
B. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children…”
The Law had shown that all doors to God were shut. No exit. Nothing was powerful enough to save us from ourselves. But, at just the right time, God executed a master plan in Jesus. God sent himself in the Son of God. He is one of us, born of a woman. He, like us, was under the Power of the Law.
The accusing voice of the Law condemned him. He became a curse for us, for as Paul writes, the Law says, “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.” In his weakness, Jesus took the full force of Sin, which uses the Law to curse—the Law with its obligations, its expectations, and its threats. And he bore it all. And, in doing that, he robbed Law of its power. The Law tells us “No.” But in Jesus, God tells us a final, definitive, irrevocable “Yes” to all of humanity. And God’s “Yes,” will never be taken back. No matter what.
Our False Teachers think that by Following the Law, they may protect people from the bad things of the world. But Paul says something even more astounding. Following Law doesn’t save you from the accusing forces of the world. But Law following/ and Not-Law following—like slave or free, Jew or Gentile— are part of those pairs of old things passing away! The Law loses its ability to curse, because Jesus became the curse for us. We do not need to do better. We need to die and be made new.
C. “And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God”
God acts in Jesus Christ to adopt us into the family. And we gain the inheritance of the Holy Spirit. God comes and makes our hearts God’s home. Faith starts with God in Jesus. And it comes to us through the Holy Spirit. It is not something we do as if we can try really hard to believe, and it happens by our will power. That is why, even in our doubts, we may still be in faith. It does not depend on our feelings which can be good today, and terrible tomorrow. It is the Spirit which allows us to cry out to God the Father!
It is not through following the steps of Abraham, or any other person, that we reach God. It is through Christ’s free gift that we are part of the family. God’s blessing is free. God’s promise is given. Because God doesn’t just forgive, God acts for us, on our behalf, to make all things new. And God does this in the most surprising ways: through his death.
He took on all that it meant for us to be human, all our anxieties, and failures, our hopes, and our longings. And he took it to Calvary, where the Cross, displayed before our eyes, is our sure sign of a new creation.
Paul writes, “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.” (Gal 6:14).
The crucified life is the only life. Dying Christ’s Death is our new creation.
God is not in the business of helping flawed people become better, but in making dead people new creations.
Stop your striving. Your running. Let your anxious heart be stilled. No longer let the accusing voice of Law tell you lies about what you must do to prove yourself worthy of God’s acceptance. No Sin, no barrier, no captor, stands between you and God. The Good News shattered Heaven and Earth.
It is finished.
It is finished.
If you have never professed faith in the God whom may reside in our hearts. If you have never responded to the Gospel by saying, “I am yours. Thank you, Lord.” Then maybe today is the day that you do so. I would be happy to talk to you and invite you to come up during our last song. Or, in your small groups, I know all the youth ministers, and adult leaders here would love to speak to you.
Or if you just have questions, or are unsure but want to talk about it, that is wonderful. God is always, despite of everything, at the door. Do not be afraid to ask, seek, and knock at that door—even if you are not yet sure what you think about all this “free grace” business.
And if you have been a believer for years, baptized so long ago you can hardly remember it, then this message Is for you as well. The Gospel is for Christians too. It is not just an “initiation” before the “real work.” The Grace of the Gospel is for Christians as well.
It has been said “In the New Testament, religion is grace and ethics [what we do] is gratitude.” (Thomas Erskine, I believe said this.) There is no obligation. There is only thanksgiving. The heaven-and-earth shattering, unbelievable, offensive, clanging, impolite, inimitable, electrifying Good News is that it is REALLY finished.
Because, if we’re honest, the more we hear the Good News, the more we need it. And the longer we stick around, the more we need reminded yes, even THOSE people—those ones, the ones you KNOW don’t deserve it, God reaches out to with Grace, Love, care, acceptance, and not “after they got their life together.” And he does it through his death.
Robert Farrar Capon says this:
Jesus solves the world’s problems by dying. And unless we are willing to see our own death as the one thing necessary for our salvation, we will never be able to enjoy the resurrection, even though Jesus hands it to us on a silver platter. If we refuse to die, we will cut ourselves off from ever knowing the joy of his grace in us. In heaven there are only forgiven sinners, there are only failures who have accepted their deaths in their sins and who have been raised up by the king who himself died that they might live….
Jesus’ program remains the same. He saves losers and only losers. He rejoices more over the last, the least, and the little than over all the winners in the world. He raises the dead and only the dead.
God is not in the business of helping flawed people become better, but in making dead people new creations.
you die to yourself, knowing Jesus will save your life?
 In the actual sermon, I added the example of regimes throughout history who promised order and peace through the law. The examples of law being used for terrible purposes are not hard to find. The example of the Soviet’s crushing of bones can be found in an episode of Australia’s 60 Minutes: https://youtu.be/l1noUh2NrLI (published June 20, 2018).
 Something I did not mention in the sermon is not only interesting but important. The text says, “male and female” not “male or female.” Consider how important offspring not only to the False teachers discussion about Abraham, but in ancient society in general. The False teachers point to being made obedient children of Abraham. It is important for them to claim Gentiles as already in some sense children biologically.
This “male and female” statement refers to the creational order in Genesis. Every able bodied Jewish man would’ve been assumed to be married and have children. In the new creation, that requirement passes away. It is NOT that your creation as male or female does not matter, but rather marriage does not become a requirement. Paul deals with issues of marriage and sexuality in a “here but not yet” age of the new creation in other passages (see 1 Corinthians 7). But, no matter what is the same, one thing has changed: singleness is now not only allowed but valued. And the church is to serve as Christ’s body, the new creation which answers the human longing for loneliness. And the resurrection, not our children which carry the family name into the future, is Jesus’ answer to death. See how different that is than putting all matters on the [biological] family! Ultimately the most important thing to be said about us was that we are “in Christ.” I did not mention this in the sermon, but perhaps I should have!
What I did say in the sermon: At the same time, Jesus both has “particularities,” and loves all our unique “particularities” (things which make us unique) just as Jesus has particularities (He is a Jew, he was born in a particular time, in a particular culture). Unlike the Gnostic texts, Paul and orthodox Christianity state being a woman, being a Gentile, being uneducated, or poor, are not barriers to God’s acceptance.
 Impromptu, I quoted Dorothy Day without attribution in the recording (my apologies to the late, great Day!). She said, “The Gospel takes away our right forever, to discriminate between the deserving and the undeserving poor.” Unfortunately, I cannot find the attribution. If you have it, please contact me.
 Robert Farrar Capon, Kingdom, Grace, Judgment Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2002), 198.