The Gospel is a Rescue
Grace and peace come from nowhere but God. That’s why Paul goes on to explain the God who grants it, “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen.” It is the gospel message from this gracious God of peace that the Galatians so desperately need to rediscover.
To understand the gospel and the grace of God, we must understand who Jesus Christ is. He is the one who gave. Martin Luther sums it up, “Gave what? Not gold or silver or animals or paschal lambs or an angel, but himself! What for? Not for a crown or a kingdom or our holiness and righteousness, but for our sins. These words are great thunderclaps from heaven against all kinds of righteousness.” By righteousness, Luther means self-righteousness. It is not our goodness that causes our salvation. It is the death of Christ on the cross because of our wickedness that grants our salvation from God. That’s why Paul says he’s delivered us from this evil age. Luther goes on to say, “The force and power of sin is made quite clear by these words: who gave himself for our sins. Here we must note the infinite price given for our wickedness, and then it will be clear that its power is so great that it could not be put away by any means except by the Son of God giving himself for it.”
Our sin is our downfall. With it, we have lost all closeness to God. We cannot atone for our sin, and we cannot come to him with any gift to make us right. We must rely solely on the grace of Christ. And it is his grace that we can have in the gospel message. It is only there, and nowhere else. That is the problem Paul is confronting. It is as if the gospel of the free grace of God that was originally preached and accepted has been hijacked by other “teachers” who would add onto it a bit of the law to perfect the Christians in the sight of God. This angers Paul because to add to the gospel is to destroy the gospel and to set the believer back to an uncertain future with God. What God has given as a certainty who is man to come in and cast doubt?
Luther helps us see something in verse 4 that we are prone to overlook. Who is it that Jesus gave his life for? Luther says, “Consider very carefully every word of Paul, and especially note the pronoun our, for the effect consists altogether in the correct application of the pronouns that are found in the Scriptures…It is easy, in general and without the pronoun, to say how great was the benefit of Christ—that he was given for our sins, but for other people’s sins, worthy people’s sins. But when it comes to this pronoun our, our weak nature and reason recoil and dare not come near God, nor promise that so great a treasure shall be freely given to us; and therefore we will have nothing to do with God unless we are pure and sinless first. Therefore, although we read the words who gave himself for our sins, we do not apply the pronoun our to ourselves, but to others whom we deem worthy and holy; as for ourselves, we will wait until we are made worthy by our own works…In short, human reason wants to present to God not a real sinner but a pretend one, unafraid of anything, without any feeling of sin. It wants to bring to God one who is well, not one who needs a physician; and when it feels no sin, then it wants to believe that Christ was given for our sins.”
Of course, we gospel-centered people know we cannot make ourselves worthy by our own works. It is only the work of Christ that makes us worthy. But that doesn’t stop us from trying. Our flesh wants so badly to justify ourselves that we take any small proof of goodness to his throne as if it makes up for the whole of our sin. But to do this is to deny the gospel and refute the grace of Christ. What we need is to forsake our righteousness and cling to the grace of Christ with all our heart. As Ray Ortlund says, “What is it about this present age that’s evil? That’s a strong word, “evil.” What is evil about our era of history? Primarily, as we’ll see in Galatians, the most evil thing about this world is its righteousness. A brokenhearted whore clinging to Jesus is closer to God than the most upright solid citizen who does so much good that he’s too good for Jesus. That is what’s evil about this world – false righteousness.”
Therefore, let’s deny our self-righteousness and cling to Christ alone. But some of us look at this and laugh. We could never think of ourselves as righteous. We are wicked. We not only know it, we feel it. We feel it so deeply, in fact, that we believe God could never save us. Why would he want such a failure? But before we throw ourselves down Pity Lane, let’s see that this is just another form of self-righteousness. Are we the only sinner in the world so great that God couldn’t save us? How could we think so highly of ourselves such that we deny God’s grace in our life alone? This was Martin Luther’s problem. He couldn’t reach God’s righteousness, so he hated himself and God because he thought God hated him. But when he finally saw God’s grace, he refused to let anyone tell him it wasn’t for him.
“I have often proven by experience, and I continue to find out every day, how hard it is to believe, especially during conflicts of conscience, that Christ was given not for the holy, righteous, worthy, and those who were his friends, but for wicked sinners, for the unworthy, and for his enemies who deserved God’s wrath and everlasting death.
“Let us therefore arm ourselves with these and similar sentences of the Holy Scriptures, so that when the devil tells us we are sinners and therefore damned, we may answer, “Because you say I am a sinner, I will be righteous and saved.” Then the devil will say, “No, you will be damned.” And I will reply, “No, for I fly to Christ who has given himself for my sins. Therefore, Satan, you will not prevail against me when you try to terrify me by telling me how great my sins are and try to reduce me to heaviness, distrust, despair, hatred, contempt, and blasphemy. On the contrary, when you say I am a sinner, you give me armor and weapons against yourself, so that I can cut your throat with your own sword and tread you under my feet, for Christ died for sinners. Moreover, you yourself preach God’s glory to me, for you remind me of God’s fatherly love toward me, that ‘he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life’ (John 3:16). And whenever you object that I am a sinner, you remind me of the benefit of Christ my Redeemer. It is on his shoulders, not mine, that all my sins lie, for ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all … for the transgression of my people he was stricken’ (Isaiah 53:6, 8). So when you say I am a sinner, you do not terrify me but comfort me immeasurably.”
Satan loves this present evil age. But Jesus has delivered us from it because it was the Father’s will. Let us not think that it is Jesus who twisted the Father’s arm to accept us. It was the Father and Son together who set out to save our souls. And when they accomplished the work, they smiled from the throne and poured out the Holy Spirit so that we could behold their happiness. As J.B. Lightfoot says, “The gospel is a rescue, and emancipation from a state of bondage.” This present age is evil, and we still have much evil residing inside our own heart of sin. But Jesus has delivered, is delivering, and one day will deliver us finally and fully from it all. God’s rescue plan isn’t done yet. He’s still got more to give. All we must do is stay in the center of his grace, and we will inherit it all. It is this gospel of God’s grace that Paul earnestly desires to protect. And it is this gospel of God’s grace that compels him to write the bold letter to the Galatians.