Sunday, September 6, 2009

The Thirteenth Sunday After Trinity

While the readings of the Epistles and Gospels might seem to be just random selection, there is actually an underlying pattern. Beginning on the 4th Sunday after Trinity and running on to the 24th Sunday, we read as the first lesson short selections from Paul's Epistles, beginning with Romans and continuing through Colossians. The 13th,14th, and 15th Sundays after Trinity are allocated to Galatians. That is a challenging Epistle! It deals passionately with a doctrinal controversy which might seem remote to us. When we find Paul using the expression “God forbid,” we know he is excited. But what is he so worked up about?

The Galatian churches had been invaded by heretical teachers who were spreading the notion that Christians, even Gentile Christians, must keep the whole Old Testament Law in order to be fully accepted by God. Specifically, Gentile converts must practice circumcision, keep the Sabbath, eat only kosher food, and conform to a Jewish lifestyle.

While this was an attractive idea to naïve new converts, Paul saw that this doctrine actually undermines the very Gospel itself. (We use the present tense--undermines--because this heresy never seems to go away and haunts us even today in many disguises.)

In Galatians 1:8, Paul wrote, “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed.” That is surely the most vehement statement which Paul ever wrote.

What makes this false teaching concerning keeping the Old Testament Law so deadly? Paul was blessed with the spiritual insight to grasp that it undermines and overthrows (note the presence tense again!) the whole Gospel of salvation “by grace through faith.” Our right-standing with God, and our eternal destiny, depend solely and exclusively on what God has done for us in Jesus Christ. Our response to God's act in Christ (His cross and resurrection) can begin only with mere faith. We must never imagine ourselves to be “co-operating” with God as if we were equal partners. We may only surrender, submit and adore.

The whole notion of “co-operating” with God (keeping the Old Testament Law is just one of many forms this heresy takes) is flattering to human vanity. We could then take pride, as the Pharisees did, in what we feel we have done for God. But this would mean that Christ suffered on His cross for no good reason. Paul is absolutely right in saying this is “another gospel, which is no gospel at all.”

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