If you have your Bibles, please turn with me to Galatians chapter 3, verses 1 through 5. Paul says:
You foolish Galatians! Who has hypnotized you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was vividly portrayed as crucified? 2 I only want to learn this from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now going to be made complete by the flesh? 4 Did you suffer so much for nothing—if in fact it was for nothing? 5 So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith?
I was at a restaurant in Louisburg a while back, and I asked the manager how I could be praying for her, and she sat down and told me, like, a 45 minute story about her life. It was like something out of a Charles Dickens novel – she’d suffered more than anybody, anywhere, has any good reason to. When she was done with her story, she asked me what she could possibly have done for God to bring all of this on her.
I am not one of those people who has a clever and convincing response to everything, so I try to just shoot straight and hope the Good Lord does something with it. So we talked about how the book of Job deals with exactly her question:
Job is a good man who does nothing wrong, and the devil seeks out God’s permission to bring all kinds of ruin on him. So for no reason whatsoever, Job’s crops die, and then a storm comes and knocks his house over with his kids inside it, and then his body turns on him so he breaks out in boils and worse, and his wife starts grieving in a way that makes it harder for him, not easier – she curses God for everything that’s happened and grabs him by the collar and gets real pushy about why he hasn’t gotten around to cursing God, too.
Job’s friends are no better. They say, “Job, clearly God is punishing you. Confess your sin. If you’ll just come back to God all of this will end.” They say, “Job, you’ve asked God to leave, and God’s a gentleman. If you’ll just repent and do what God says, your suffering will end.” But Job keeps pushing back, “I did not bring this on myself.” He says, “I am not suffering for my sin. I’m just suffering, and I want to know why.”
And it goes on for, like, forty chapters, Job’s friends keep gaslighting him because they, apparently, just need for themselves to believe that if they follow all the rules they’ll be spared what Job has gone through. But they won’t. And you won’t. Because it doesn’t work like that. You will suffer, because you exist. Period.
Because we live in a fallen world that runs on suffering, and when you live in a world that runs on suffering, you will suffer. Paul never points us toward an escape hatch. He never even hints at the possibility of avoiding the tremendous suffering that comes from living out our lives in a world that’s been alienated from the God who created it. The only thing Paul gives us is that we can suffer with Christ, or – verse 4 – we can “suffer for nothing.”
And you won’t just suffer because you exist. Like Job, you will suffer for your faith. You will suffer because of your faith in ways that you might not suffer if you were faithless. You know what I’m talking about?
In the gospels, the thing Jesus talks the most consistently about is our suffering because of him. Jesus specifically and constantly tells us that we will suffer because we follow him, and that choosing to follow him amounts to choosing suffering over non-suffering. Instead of saying, “Follow me and I will show you how to escape your sufferings,” he says, “Follow me and I’ll send you out as sheep among wolves.” “Follow me and in this world you will have trouble.” “Come follow me and we’ll go get crucified together.”
So do not be taken in by the falsehoods propagated by Jobs friends – y’know, that God will spare the upright from suffering, and so if you’re suffering, the problem must be that you weren’t upright enough. Don’t be fooled by the folks who try to sell you on some formula that can spare you from suffering for your faith – the folks who say that “If you really have enough faith, God will protect you from harm.” Because at no point in the Bible does God offer to prevent our sufferings, so much so that when he finally shows up about forty chapters into Job, all he does is say, “My servant Job is correct, and his friends need to go repent.” And Job says, “Please tell me why I’ve suffered like this,” and God says, “No.” And that’s that. That’s the story.
God’s word never tries to explain away our suffering. It never gives us a complicated philosophy that we could use to put “our suffering in perspective.” Because there is only one answer to our suffering, and that is the cross of Jesus Christ. Which is what I told the restaurant manager in Louisburg. Which is a very annoying response. It sounds trite to say that “God’s answer to our suffering is the cross.” But Paul’s convinced, and I’m convinced that this is the only answer that isn’t trite.
Equally annoying is the fact that God hasn’t snapped his fingers and made all the evil in the world disappear. Right? Which is annoying, but understandable. Because if God snapped his fingers and made all the evil in the world disappear overnight, it would mean making all of us disappear overnight. We’d disappear along with all the things we wanna be rid of, right? We rightly call upon God to bring our suffering to an end, but there’s a serious hitch, and that is that we are our suffering. I am largely responsible not only for my own suffering but for the suffering of countless other people in ways I only halfway recognize on a good day.
In the past I’ve talked about a book by a British journalist named G.K. Chesterton called “What’s Wrong With The World,” and the book originated as a letter to the editor of a local newspaper, in which the editor posed exactly that question, What’s Wrong With The World. And Chesterton’s original letter was exactly two words long, not counting the salutations at the beginning and the end. Because in response to the question, “What’s wrong with the world,” Chesterton wrote, “I am.”
I’m what’s wrong with the world. I’m what’s wrong with my marriage, I’m what’s wrong with my family, I’m what’s wrong with my neighborhood, and my city. I am what’s wrong with America. The world is broken because it’s filled with people who are basically like me.
And I am not unique. I’m not trashing myself, here. I am what’s wrong with the world because you are what’s wrong with the world. You and I, everybody in this room are very much cut from the same cloth as Adam and Eve, we are every bit as rebellious, every bit as shamelessly-self-interested, every bit as eager to rob God of his rightful glory as our first parents were. And as a result, we keep “repeating” humanity’s “original sin.”
We repeat humanity’s original sin every time we place our own selfish desires over the well being of others. We repeat humanity’s original sin every time we place our own comfort over the security of others. We repeat humanity’s original sin every time we use each other for our own gratification, every time we manipulate each other, because in all of this we are rebelling against God’s good design and God’s gracious rule over us and instead usurping his throne for our own crooked ends.
So we’ve been rightly banished from the Garden, rightly cast out of God’s presence. But there’s more. We are all rightful recipients of a death sentence. And you can only pay a ‘death sentence” by dying, right? It’s like God is the French Revolution and we are the French Royalty that got guillotined. Romans 6:23 says that the wages of sin is death, and Romans 3:23 says that applies to every single one of us, and that means that you and I have a debt of death that needs to be payed and can only be payed by you and I – or by the God we’re in rebellion against. God is going to bring all of the suffering of the world to an end, which means that in a world that you or I created, God’s response to our suffering would be to annihilate us. We’d go the way of Marie Antoinette.
But we don’t live in a world that you or I created. We live in God’s world. We live in a world that was created in and through Jesus Christ, Colossians chapter 1. We live in a story scripted by the God we meet in Jesus Christ, and so God’s response to our suffering is not to annihilate us. It’s to suffer with us. It’s to suffer for us.
God’s response to your suffering was to come to earth – to be born from a virgin named Mary, to live out a life that perfectly meets his own good commands, and then give himself over to be crucified for us. The God who actually exists doesn’t glibly frown at our suffering. He shares our suffering with us. And what we ultimately learn as we read the New Testament is that by sharing our suffering on the cross Jesus begins the process that will one day end our suffering entirely.
That means that today, we live in, kind of, “the middle” of that process. And this is where Paul gets sort of technical.
Paul says that we have “received the Spirit” by “hearing with faith.” It’s like in Ephesians chapter 1, or Romans chapter 2 – you decide – when Paul says that the Holy Spirit is a “seal” of the promise that God has made to us. Your translation might say it’s a “sign,” or a “mark” of God’s gift of salvation – but no matter which way you translate it, the point’s fairly clear: The Holy Spirit testifies to the reality that we’ve been redeemed by God. If you have received the Holy Spirit you have been adopted by God, and if you’ve been adopted by God you have received the Holy Spirit.
Because when God rescues us, he doesn’t just forgive us and then, kind of, set us back down and say, “I’ll see you in heaven,” right? To use the language that a bunch of old, dead Baptists would use, you could say that after “justifying” us on the cross, Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Godhead, to “sanctify” us on the ground. We are our suffering, but one day, we won’t be. We are the brokenness of the world, but one day we won’t be. And with each passing day, it is God’s abiding pleasure to purge you of the sin and darkness that lives within you and causes you to contribute to the brokenness of the world.
You following me? If your sins have been forgiven through the Son of God, your sins will also be destroyed through the Spirit of God. It’s like Paul says in Philippians chapter 1, that “He who began a good work in you will see it to completion,” right? God will not abandon you to your sin. He will not take back his promises.
And we can be confident of that because he has given us the Holy Spirit as a counselor – as a “Physician”: He “heals” our nature from the warts and disease that’s consumed us since our Fall from the Garden. The Spirit is a seal that testifies that we’ve been rescued with a rescue that begins with God, is actively carried out by God, and which God will see through to the end.
But it’s really important to catch the specific point that Paul is making, here. He says that we received the Spirit, not by works of the Law – not through our obedience – but through “hearing with faith.” That means you received the Spirit by giving up – by coming to the end of yourself.
Hearing the message of the cross with faith is kind of like how every once in a while, you’ll be at the grocery store and somebody in front of you’ll swipe their card and the cashier’ll say it declined, and they’ll fight back tears and start removing items from their bag, then swipe again, still declined, remove some more items, swipe again, still declined, remove some more items, swipe again – and so you’ll step forward and tell them the to put the items back in their bag, keep whatever money’s still on the card, and you’ll pay for their groceries.
And they won’t know how to respond. They’ll be a mix of grateful and embarrassed and suspicious and scared it’s all a ruse and grateful again – and that’s very much what it’s like to receive the Spirit by hearing with faith. You suddenly believe because it’s thrust before you that you’re wildly inadequate in yourself, that your account is overdrawn and you cannot pay the debt that you owe and out of nowhere a good Samaritan appears and tells you to put you items back in your cart, and go home, and eat, and lay down, and it’s gonna be okay, and it’s gonna be more than okay because they’re gonna make it okay.
Hearing with faith isn’t just a choice you make, it’s a response to having your illusions shattered and being confronted with the reality of the gospel that Jesus has paid your debt, that he’s brought you back to life, that he’s making you alive in the Spirit and that the Spirit that he’s given us will carry us home even if it means that we’re kicking and screaming and giving up and fighting all the way home.
All of this grates against our desire to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps. I talked to a guy a few weeks back, and he told me that he’d thrown himself on the mercy of Jesus but he was still worried he’d go to hell because he wasn’t sure he’d done it right. We’re so determined to save ourselves by working our fingers down to the bone that we can turn even something like the sinner’s prayer into a work that we do to try to earn our salvation. Right? But here’s the reality: the sinner’s prayer is nothing.
It’s a handful of words that you say that communicate what’s already true in your heart. If you are praying the sinner’s prayer, you are verbally asking God to rescue you from your sin, and if you are verbally asking God to rescue you from your sin, you have already thrown yourself on his mercy. Right? When your card declines at the grocery store and the person behind you steps in to pay for you, there’s not a magic ritual you go through that transfers the money from her card to you. They’re giving you a gift. And the only way to receive it is to step aside so they can put their card in the card machine. You receive it by accepting it. That’s the whole thing.
We desperately want to earn our redemption by saying the right words or believing the right doctrines or attending the right church or performing the right task or cleaning up our behavior but Paul says that we receive the Spirit by hearing with faith. That’s it. Jesus shows up and pays our debts, and then they’re paid. To quote an old, dead revivalist named Jonathon Edwards, “We bring nothing to our redemption except the sin that made it necessary.”
And that’s very good news because it means that voice in your head that constantly doubts whether you’re truly redeemed is an unreliable narrator. You know what I’m talking about? I don’t know about you, but my “inner monologue” is a jerk. There are no days where I don’t sin, so each time I mess up, my inner monologue comes in with some version of, “Is this how a redeemed person acts?” “If you were really redeemed, would you be falling into this same pattern again?” There is a voice in our heads whose sole job is apparently to convince us that after being saved by grace, through faith – after “receiving the Spirit” by “hearing with faith” – it’s up to us to “finish what God started” by being good enough from this point forward. Right?
You’ll fall into that same sin you’ve been wrestling with for ten years, and that voice’ll come in while you’re praying and say, “That’s the last one.” “There’s no way God’s gonna keep forgiving you for the same stuff over, and over, and over again.” You know? But over against that voice in you head, Paul says, “After beginning with the Spirit,” you are not “now going to be made complete by the flesh.” After being purchased by the blood of Jesus, you will not now be “made complete” by your obedience. We’ve been rescued with a rescue that begins with God, is actively carried out by God, and which God will see through to the end.
The God who purchased you will keep you. He will not abandon you. He doesn’t just “forgive” your sinful actions, he begins to “heal” your sinful nature. Jesus didn’t just die to “exonerate” you, he rose up from the grave to “rehabilitate” you, and that means that the Spirit that you received by “hearing with faith” will turn straight every crooked thing about you, no matter how deep and discouraging that crookedness is today.
So much so that Paul says that God’ll use even our suffering to heal us from our brokenness. In Romans chapter 5, he says, “We rejoice in our suffering, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” If you cling to Christ, your suffering will not have been for nothing.
Because by sharing our suffering on the cross Jesus begins the process that will one day end our suffering entirely. So Paul tells the Galatians not to succumb to the folks trying to turn them away from the gospel. Rather than allowing your suffering chase you away from the cross, allow the crucified God to carry you through your suffering.
As we worship through song in a few moments, I’d love to invite you to come down to the altar and pray, or talk, or sit, or cry, or anything. If you have never really known the God we’ve been talking about this morning, I’d love to talk through what it means to throw yourself on his mercy, to be redeemed from your sin and adopted into the family of God.