If you would, please turn with me in your Bibles to Galatians, chapter 3, verses 6 through 9.
Just as Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness, 7 then understand that those who have faith are Abraham’s sons. 8 Now the Scripture saw in advance that God would justify the Gentiles by faith and told the good news ahead of time to Abraham, saying, All the nations will be blessed through you. 9 So those who have faith are blessed with Abraham, who had faith.
Like most things, today’s passage reminds me of a, kind of, weird story: Back when I lived in Oklahoma, we were doing apartment ministry. We would knock on doors and share the gospel until somebody invited us to come back and teach them more. So I met a guy named John, and we started going to his house every week or two. And one time we were headed to a Firelake grocery store to get a tub of ice cream for his birthday party – because doing apartment is weird – and he said, “I don’t believe all that Father-Son-and-Holy-Spirit stuff y’all are always talking about, but I’ll tell you one thing, I don’t like all the Muslims I’m seeing these days, I’m not a Muslim, I’m a Christian, so I don’t like seeing them pouring into my community.”
And I tried to decide which horrifying statement to address first.
And I said, “Well, John, I’m very happy that you want to be a Christian, but if you don’t believe all that Father-Son-Holy-Spirit stuff, I’m not sure ‘Christian’ is the right word to describe you.” And he got kind of offended, the way people do when you tell them that aren’t a Christian, and he said, and I quote, “I’m as Christian as apple pie!” and I said, “Well, John, I believe the term is, ‘American as apple pie’.” And he said, and I quote, “What’s the difference?” I think that’s pretty illustrative of the culture of the United States today. Right?
It reminds me of a story in Matthew, chapter 3, where John the Baptist is out “open-air preaching” in the wilderness, or something, he’s just baptizing people and saying “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” That’s old-timey talk for, “God is coming, make sure you’re ready.”
So one day some religious leaders from the synagogue show up and start challenging John the Baptist. They say, essentially, “I’m not sure what your point is, John. We have Abraham as our father. We are Israelites. We are God’s children. We are children of the light. God made a promise to Abraham that his descendants would be blessed and adopted by him, and we are his descendants.” They’re like my Oklahoma friend, John. They think they’re “God’s folks” because they’ve got the right national identity.
And rather than laughing it off and saying, “Yeah, I guess you’re right,” John responds by saying, “God is able to raise up children for Abraham from these stones.” In other words, “God can graft in whoever God wants,” “God can dole out the blessings he’s promised to Abraham to anybody he wants to dole them out to,” whether they are Gentiles, or prostitutes, or tax collectors – anyone who is repentant and throws themselves on the mercy of God can be a child of Abraham, because God’s deep, abiding pleasure is rescuing people from the darkness they’ve been born into.
That’s why Paul says that when we have faith in Jesus we become “sons of Abraham.” He’s “echoing” John the Baptist. We actually see Paul borrowing the language John the Baptist uses in Matthew chapter 3 and applying it to a very similar situation in Galatia. We “become sons of Abraham” through faith in Jesus, verse 7. That seems like the most obvious thing in the world when Paul says it, but it’s not something you hear very often. And it did not sit well with the religious leaders that John the Baptist was facing down in the wilderness.
But before they get a chance to argue with him about it, he follows it up by saying, “But even now, the axe is laying at the root of the tree.” A day is coming when God will separate the “wheat from the chaff,” the “good fruit from the rotten fruit,” the “sheep from the goats.”
If you were standing in the crowd that day, his point couldn’t be clearer. John the Baptist is telling the religious leaders that quite a few people who can trace their “family tree” back to “father Abraham” have absolutely no business calling Abraham their “father” because they don’t have the faith that Abraham has. John the Baptist says that God adopted Abraham because Abraham put his faith in him, and nobody has Abraham as their father who doesn’t also have God as their Father, and nobody has God as their father who doesn’t have Abraham’s faith as their own faith. They’re the same “nationality” as Abraham, but they are nothing like him.
So John the Baptist is pretty ruthless. He’s telling the religious leaders who come to interrogate him in the desert that God has made great promises to us, but they won’t see it. The faithless religious leaders will never enjoy God’s presence or inhabit God’s Kingdom because when God comes to Earth and dwells among us in Jesus Christ they will reject him because he doesn’t match the image they’ve built up in their minds. So the title of John’s sermon that day might have been “Father Abraham Has Many Sons And You’re Not One Of Them.”
Because you enter into a relationship with the God of Abraham through Jesus Christ and absolutely nothing else – not your family tree, not your bloodline, not your accomplishments, and not your nationality. You enter into a relationship with the God of the Bible through Jesus Christ and nothing else.
That should be good news. But it was very bad news for these religious leaders, it was very bad news for the agitators that Paul was facing off against in today’s passage, and it pains me to say that it’s currently very bad news for an awful lot of red-blooded Americans – like my friend John from the story at the beginning. Right?
Because kind of like when John the Baptist said that more Hebrew people than anybody had fingers to count assumed that being Jewish was the same as being “saved,” one of America’s “sacred cows” is the notion that we are Christian-by-default. You know what I’m talking about? Like John, who I talked about earlier, Americans tend to think of themselves as Christian by default.
If I conducted a poll all across our county, I’d be willing to bet that somewhere between 70 and 80% of the people would identify as Christian. But if you pressed them to explain what they mean by that, they’d get vague – they wouldn’t be able to tell you why they identify as Christian rather than Jehovah’s Witness, why they identify as Christian rather than Latter-Day Saints, why they identify as Christian rather than Spiritual, But Not Religious, you know what I’m talking about?
The truth is that when you push the average person from our particular part of the world, at a certain point you hit a dead end where you realize that most folks think they’re Christian because they were born in America. For more than a few folks, being “Christian” has more to do with their national identity, or a kind of vague sense of patriotism, or a completely undefined reaction against the fact that more and more people from other religions have shown up and it makes them uncomfortable in ways they can’t explain but are not happy about – most folks that you meet in the USA identify as Christian primarily because of that, and not because they have any meaningful devotion to Jesus.
And that’s the peril of trying to fulfill the Great Commission in our particular part of the world: Far more that facing outright opposition to the faith, we face the opposite – everybody here thinks they’re already Christian. The average American thinks they’re Christian because they’re American, because they vaguely identify Jesus with America, so they say in their hearts that they’re “Servants of Jesus” because they’re “loyal to their country,” but you can be as loyal as all get-out until the day you die and that will not make you right with God.
In a very real sense, we are like the religious leaders that were facing off with John in Matthew. They kept clapping back at John the Baptist, reminding him that they were ethnically Jewish, that they were members of “the nation of Israel,” and that as a result they were “special in the eyes of God.” Either subtly or explicitly, they believed that when Judgment Day rolled around, God was going to have to “let them in” because they had the right national identity.
But John the Baptist tells them that the only “Israel” that matters is the Israel that God draws to himself from every nation of the Earth; that God has one Kingdom, that God has one “country,” and it’s got nothing to do with geography; that God has one “holy nation” and it’s not Israel, and it’s not America, it wasn’t the Holy Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, it wasn’t Russia during the years when the Russian Orthodox Church essentially ran the nation – there is no geographical nation that can claim Jesus as its national deity. There is no group that can claim Jesus as their property. Because Jesus is nobody’s property. Jesus is nobody’s “territorial spirit.” Jesus is nobody’s golden calf. Jesus is nobody’s belonging. We are his belongings.
1 Peter, chapter 2, says we are “a people of his own possession,” and John the Baptist says that there is only one pathway towards enjoying the sweetness of being a “people of God’s own possession,” and that is to “repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” Like Paul says in verse 7, it’s by putting your faith in the same God as Abraham. To use the phrase that I prefer, it’s by throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus.
You become a citizen of the only nation God has by repenting and believing the gospel. By submitting yourself to Jesus as his subject. Paul says in Romans chapter 10 that “if you believe in your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord,” that he is just to “forgive your sins” and adopt you as his own.
That term, “Lord,” means a handful of things. I’m not going to dive into Greek, but the Greek term, here, is often used to refer to the “God of the universe.” Throughout the Old Testament it’s usually the noun they would use to refer to Yahweh when he would talk to humans.
And it often refers to the “ruler” of a given territory. It refers to the king, the governor – the guy running this place.
When you “believe in your heart” and “confess with your mouth” that “Jesus Christ is Lord,” you’re not just acknowledging that he’s God. You’re acknowledging that he’s King. You are acknowledging Jesus as the Lord who rules you. You’re throwing yourself at the feet of Jesus as the one who governs your life. You’re making yourself his subject. You could say that we are saved by “transferring our citizenship” to Christ’s kingdom and becoming the people he rules over.
So John the Baptist pulls the rug out from under the feet of the religious leaders by telling them that they aren’t Israel. They aren’t even part of Israel. They are not “God’s people” and they are not “God’s anything” but they’re about to become God’s enemies. Because they refuse to “put their faith in Jesus Christ” and crucify him instead.
That sounds intense, but that’s the same choice that faces you and me. We have a choice between crucifying Jesus or throwing ourselves on his mercy. We are either going to “submit to him as our king” or we are going to “crucify him out of our lives.” There is no neutral. There’s no third option. We’re either going to “transfer our citizenship” to Christ’s kingdom, or wage war against it.
So, today’s passage is Paul at his most Aggressively Baptist. And it’s about to get even worse: Paul says in verse 6 that “Abraham “believed God” and as a result he was “credited with righteousness.” That’s very different than what most of us are probably used to hearing. Like, I grew up believing that you earned your way into heaven by “picking the right religion.” You know what I’m talking about? It sounds silly when you put it that way, but that’s what quite a few of us probably grew up assuming.
So as a kid, based on what I was hearing, I got the sense it was kind of like God set us out into the world, and he gave us a whole slew of options – kind of like one of those games where you’ve got a quarter and you put a cup over it and then you shift the cups all around and say, “Okay which cup is the quarter in?” Right? If you pick the cup with the quarter in it, you get to keep the quarter. Anybody’s Grandpa play that game with them? – and so God puts all these religions out into the world and we’ve got to pick one, and if you pick the right one – Christianity – you’re going to heaven. If you pick the wrong one, you go to hell.
That seemed like a pretty extreme response to “picking the wrong religion” when I was six, but I didn’t make the rules – I didn’t follow them either, but I was going to do whatever I needed to to “game the system” so that I could “go to heaven” instead of “going to hell,” because I don’t even like the summer-time heat, let alone the “eternal heat” that I was told would come with condemnation.
And so I grew up very self-assured that I was “locked in” because I had earned my salvation by “picking the correct religion.” If that seems frighteningly close to what you currently believe right now, don’t worry, there’ll be an altar call. I had some friends who were Hindu, and I thought, “Too bad for them, they picked wrong.” I knew a Buddhist in middle school, and I figured, “Too bad for that guy, he picked wrong,” but it was “Good news for me,” because “I picked right,” so by the time I reached High School, I knew that either there was no God and none of this mattered much anyway – which seemed like the more likely scenario to me – or this all came down to “picking the right religion” like a quarter in a cup and I assumed for no particularly good reason that the religion that I picked, and my parents had picked, and my grandparents had picked, and so on and so forth must be the right one.
As I said before, it sounds dumb when you say it bluntly without dressing it up in eloquent language, but that’s very much what I grew up believing and I think it’s what quite a few folks in our neck of the woods grow up believing. I believed that you earn your way into heaven by picking the right religion.
But you’ll notice that Paul does not say that “Abraham guessed correctly and it was credited to him as righteousness.” It does not say that “Abraham did a thorough investigation into the religions of the world, found the one that seemed the most reasonable, then got a book deal with Zondervan where he wrote about his experience and then it was credited to him as righteousness.” It says that Abraham believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness.
Literally. That’s it. That’s the whole thing. God called on Abraham to believe him, and he did. End of story. Abraham was “credited” with a “righteousness” that did not come from himself by believing the God who had approached him. That’s what saved Abraham.
But if you follow Paul’s train of thought here, that’s what saves us as well. We “believe God,” and it is “credited to us as righteousness.” God approaches us in Jesus Christ and he calls on us to “believe him,” and we either believe God or we crucify him. We either believe “the testimony of the Holy Spirit” as he calls us to “repent and put our faith in Jesus” or we reject him like the religious leaders that John the Baptist was heckling out in the wilderness. That is the choice that every person in this room has today. You can believe the God who has approached you in Jesus Christ, who gave himself to be nailed to the cross for your sins, or you can reject him.
What you can’t do is opt out. What you can’t do is trust in your American-ness to get your foot in the door in God’s Kingdom. At the end of the day you either believe God and are credited with the righteousness of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins or you reject him and you walk away with your head hung low like the Pharisees in the wilderness. Those are your options.
And if you’ve been counting on self-identifying vaguely as Christian rather than Muslim, vaguely as Christian rather than Hindu, Christian rather than Jehovah’s Witness and so on and so forth, you are walking away from Jesus. That’s what you’re doing. You are not a Christian and since I don’t hate you, I cannot allow you to walk out of this room believing that you are. Just like John the Baptist told the religious leaders that if you think you’re children of Abraham you’re fooling yourself, I have to tell you that checking off the “Christian box” on the census has nothing to do with whether you are held by Jesus.
You are held by Jesus if you have believed God like Abraham and have been credited with righteousness. You are held by Jesus if you have the faith that Abraham had. You are held by Jesus if, like verse 7 says, God has justified you by faith. Nothing else on planet earth will justify you.
So as we worship the Lord through song in a few minutes, I’ll be waiting at the altar. If you’ve lived out your life believing that you were Christian-by-default, if you’ve been trusting in the fact that you check off the “Christian box” on the census form, or if you’ve been trusting in the fact that you shared that Facebook post that said “Share if you love Jesus, ignore if you love Satan,” if you’ve been trusting in yourself to “earn your salvation” by “picking the right religion,” we’d love to invite you to lay down all those things you used to lean on to justify you before God and throw yourself on the mercy of Jesus instead. If you would like to pray together, or talk through whatever’s on your heart, I’ll be available.