Please turn with me in your Bibles to Galatians, chapter 6, verses 11 through 18.
Look at what large letters I use as I write to you in my own handwriting. 12 Those who want to make a good impression in the flesh are the ones who would compel you to be circumcised—but only to avoid being persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13 For even the circumcised don’t keep the law themselves; however, they want you to be circumcised in order to boast about your flesh. 14 But as for me, I will never boast about anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ. The world has been crucified to me through the cross, and I to the world. 15 For both circumcision and uncircumcision mean nothing; what matters instead is a new creation. 16 May peace come to all those who follow this standard, and mercy to the Israel of God!
17 From now on, let no one cause me trouble, because I bear on my body scars for the cause of Jesus. 18 Brothers, the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. Amen.
After today, we will be finished with the book of Galatians, at long last. I suspect we’ll all be glad to walk through something a little bit less extreme for our next series. Which is why, beginning next week, we’ll be doing a 40 week study in Leviticus. Not really. This is not the Spanish Inquisition. I’m not gonna put you through that just yet.
It’s kind of bittersweet, finishing up the book that we’ve been looking so closely at for the last few months. Because as we have seen over the past few months walking through this book, Paul preaches a glorious gospel. That glorious gospel is outlined in the first few verses of our book, here. Paul says in chapter 1, verses 3 through 5, that Jesus Christ is the Son of God. And that as the Son of God, he came to Earth and gave himself for our sins to rescue us from this present evil age.
Now that’s a mouthful. So I wanna break that down, too.
Because that means that God himself saved us by himself. It means that he saved us by giving himself. It means that there was no other way to save us from ourselves besides sacrificing himself in our place. Jesus saved us by giving himself. That’s the God we serve. That’s the God at the center of Paul’s glorious gospel.
But specifically, he gave himself for our sins. Our problem was not that we were disappointing. Our problem was not that we were in danger of not reaching our full potential. I’m sure you’re tired of hearing me say that. But our problem is that we are rightly condemned to death and hell because of our sin. That’s our fundamental problem.
Now, that’s not the God being petty. That’s God being just. Because as we’ve seen elsewhere in the New Testament, our sin turns us away from God. Our sin turns us towards brokenness. Our sin turns us towards darkness. That’s what we begin to love, and it’s what we begin to seek out. Our sin nature causes us to run away from God and run towards darkness. So when the day of judgment comes and Jesus says, “Depart from me, I never knew you,” I doubt anybody’s gonna argue with him.
Like, even in the story of Lazarus and the rich man, where a rich sinner dies and descends into hell, there’s one thing we never see him do, and that’s ask to leave. He says, “Please send somebody to give me a drink of water,” and God says, “No. Nobody can cross that border between hell and everything else.” And then he asks God to send somebody to warn his living family members, and God says, “No. If they don’t obey the scriptures they’re not gonna believe a ghost, either.”
The rich man doesn’t like what he’s experiencing – he’s suffering immensely – but he doesn’t actually attempt to leave. Because leaving would mean joining God. It would mean submitting to God, and in our sin nature, we will never willingly submit to God. Listen to me: In your sin nature, you would dive headlong into hell before you’d ever willingly enter the gates of heaven. That’s the way our sin nature warps us.
So we were condemned to that death, that hell, because of our sin but Paul says in chapter 1 of this book that Jesus saves us by giving himself for our sin.
And yet – there’s always an “And yet,” right? – one of our temptations will always be to compromise that gospel. Sometimes you’ll be tempted to compromise the gospel because you want to win somebody over who won’t take too kindly to being told that they are sinners in need of a savior. You know what I’m talking about? Maybe you are that somebody who doesn’t take too kindly to being told that you are a sinner in need of a savior, right?
So you will be tempted to compromise the gospel in order to tickle the ears of your audience, as Paul says in 2 Timothy, but you will also be tempted to compromise the gospel in a much graver fashion, and that is to avoid persecution, like Paul says in verse 12. You will be tempted to compromise the gospel to avoid persecution.
In one of the most noteworthy stories from a few years back, there was a series of bombings by extremist groups in Isabela City, which is in Basilan – that’s an island province of the Philippines. Basilan is roughly 64% Muslim, with the remaining 36% of the residents consisting primarily of adherents to the traditional folk religion, and a small minority of Christians, mostly located in the city.
A while back, Al Quaeda-backed extremist groups started targeting Christian churches all throughout the region, and the government did next to nothing to stop it, because every bomb set off by an extremist group was one less measure they had to take themselves against the Christians in the area as a government.
Now, the bombings were every bit as political as they were religious, there’s no way around that, but at the end of the day, the fundamental issue was that as Bible-believing Christians, we believe that the God of the universe is Father, Son, and Spirit. We call that “the Trinity.” We don’t know how it works, we just know that it works, and the reason that we know it works is because it’s been revealed to us in the inspired and inerrant word of God.
But for Islamic extremist groups in Basilan, to say that God is Father, Son, and Spirit is deeply offensive. And it would be. It strikes them as blasphemy. And when an extremist group decides that “friendly debate” is not enough, when they decide to resort to violence in order to achieve their goals, you get situations like in Basilan, in which churches started getting bombed during their Sunday services.
And in a situation like that, it would be very difficult to blame you if you tried to soften the persecution you were facing by “compromising the gospel.” There are groups, like one group called “Oneness Pentecostals,” who deny that God is Father, Son, and Spirit, all at once. They deny the Trinity. There are groups called Unitarians, who claim to believe the Bible, but who deny that God is Father, Son, and Spirit. So these are options that they would’ve had if they wanted to soften the persecution against them.
But instead of compromising the gospel, these Christians in Basilan stood firm. They held the line. They said “This is what the Bible teaches, and we cannot move on this issue.” And so the bombs kept coming.
But one of the things that we see throughout scripture is the faithfulness of God, and the faithfulness of God comes from unexpected directions.
You may already know all about this news story, but the conclusion is remarkable. One morning, as a bunch of Christians in Basilan headed to church, they probably broke into a cold sweat, wondering, “Am I gonna be next?” “Is today the day?” “Are we next up on the chopping block?” The Christians at the Santa Isabel Cathedral went in, the service began, and a group of Muslim men gathered around the church and locked arms.
But they weren’t locking arms to trap the Christians inside, they were locking arms to keep the extremists out. They said, “If anybody wants to hurt the people inside this church they’re going to have to go through me.” They said, “If you want to bomb this church, you’re going to have to bomb me with it.” They said, “If you mean these Christians harm, you mean me harm to.” The faithfulness of God comes from unexpected directions.
Because these were not wishy washy, liberal Muslims who didn’t believe in their own faith. They believe the same things about the Christians inside that building as just about any other Muslim would. They believe that the Christians meeting in that Cathedral were Heretics. They believed that they were blasphemers. They believe that Allah would deal with them severely in the final judgment. And yet, they were not going to allow anybody to harm them. Because they realized, by the grace of God, that persecution is always wrong, no matter who it’s carried out against. They realized that oppression is always oppression, no matter the reason or the means. They realized, by the grace of God, that it is always wicked, it is always evil, to use violence towards other people because of their convictions. That the ends do not justify the means.
And yet, when you take a stand like that, you paint a target on your back. So now the extremists who had been bombing churches turned their attention towards friendly mosques as well. So now, not only was it not safe to be a Christian on the Island province of Basilan, it was not safe to be a Christian and it was not safe to be a Muslim who wasn’t radicalized. And so beginning the following week, every Friday, the Christians from that Cathedral and several others would head to the mosque, lock arms, and say, “If anybody wants to come and harm the Muslims in this mosque, they’re going to have to go through us.” And then the following Sunday, the folks from that mosque would head back over to the cathedral, lock arms around the building, and saying, “If anybody wants to harm these Christians, they are going to have to go through us.” Imagine witnessing that, as a person who lived on the island of Basilan – all these year of tension between Christians and Muslims, and suddenly, you see them protecting each other, even at the cost of their own lives. The faithfulness of God comes from unexpected directions.
And pay very close attention, because the moral of that story is not “Why can’t we all just get along?” although certainly that would be ideal. The moral of this story is “Do not compromise the gospel.” Do not compromise the gospel even to avoid persecution. Stand firm. Hold the Line. Preach the gospel, in season and out of season, when it’s convenient and when it’s inconvenient and trust God to do remarkable things to protect you. Trust God to do remarkable and unexpected things. Trust God to make an example out of your faithfulness. Stand firm in the gospel, refuse to compromise in the face of persecution, and expect God to use you as a means of causing the gospel to flourish.
But anybody in the world can talk a big game about holding on to the gospel amidst persecution. But that’s a very far cry from actually doing it. Like I said before, you can’t turn on Christian radio without hearing radio preacher after radio preacher work themselves into a catatonic state, screaming and moaning about persecution because a cashier looked at him cross-eyed, right? American Christianity has a weird persecution fetish. We like to fantasize about somebody holding a gun to our head and demanding that we renounce our faith, and then tell ourselves that “If that situation ever happens, I will stand firm.”
But the truth is that living in America, I think so many of us have gotten so accustomed to the relative privilege that we have lived in for the last 250 years, we’ll jump ship the second serious persecution begins because we’ve been practicing to abandon the faith from the time that we were children up to now. That’s what makes American Christianity so endlessly fascinating: We are absolutely obsessed with the idea of persecution, but we spend almost all of our lives practicing to abandon the faith the second it gets difficult.
Think about it. In one research poll, 67 percent of the Christians interviewed said that they are going to have sex with whoever they want to have sex with no matter what the Bible says. Just kinda came out and said it, which is kinda impressive, I guess. 76 percent said that the Bible could never influence them not to get an abortion. And an even more horrifying percentage said that there is nothing you could show them, in or out of the Bible, that would make them give more of their money to help the poor.
I can keep naming things, but I probably don’t have to.
That is very much the culture of Christianity in the United States. We see our faith as something that maybe comforts us, maybe makes us feel better when our loved ones die, but when it comes between obeying the will of God as revealed in the word of God and doing the things we already wanted to do, 90% of the time the thing we already wanted to do is the thing that’s going to win out. We like the idea of having Jesus as our savior – maybe just in case – but the idea of having him as our Lord is completely beyond the pale.
So one decision after another, we practice abandoning the faith. We practice compromising the gospel. We practice cutting loose from God’s rule over our lives. To return to an extremely colorful case-in-point from two weeks ago: We just got back from Thanksgiving. Do not raise your hand, but how many folks had a conversation at the Thanksgiving table where somebody in your family started going off about politics and they said something really out there and you said, “What do you think God thinks about that thing you just said?” and they said, “Look, I know it’s not what Jesus would do, but it’s what I would do.” That’s a very telling sentence. When somebody says that, the only correct response is, “I think you just accidentally revealed who your actual God is.” If your politics are allowed to supersede the obligations that Christ makes on you, you’re already practicing to abandon the faith, because your politics are the things you actually worship.
Or if your wallet is allowed to supersede the obligations Christ puts on you, you’re already practicing to abandon the faith, because your money is the thing you actually worship. Or if your sex life is allowed to supersede the obligations Christ places on you, you are already practicing to abandon the faith, because sex is the thing you actually worship.
And, listen: If you have zero interest in allowing the will of God as it is revealed in the Bible to take the wheel and steer you in the direction that God would call you, you might as well just make it official and jump ship.
Make it official and abandon the faith.
Because, seriously, whether you realize it or not, you already have.
Now, I know it’s not every day that you go to church and get told to “Stop identifying as Christian.” But listen to me. If you are a Christian, but God isn’t allowed to run your life, you are not a Christian.
I’m not eloquent enough to think of a way to make this go down easy. If God isn’t allowed to run your life, you’re a non-Christian. That’s what you are. You are unregenerate. You have not been washed in the blood of Jesus, no matter how many times you prayed some magic “sinner’s prayer.” Because, listen, if Jesus is not the Lord of your life, he is absolutely not the savior of your anything.
So I don’t actually want you to abandon the faith. I want you to decide. Are you in, or are you out? Do you want to follow Jesus, or do you wanna vaguely admire him while you do your own thing?
Our message today is about standing firm in the gospel, but for some people that might mean standing for the first time on the gospel. For some of us that might mean surrendering for the first time to the gospel. For some of us that might mean submitting for the first time in our lives to the glorious gospel that Paul has preached to us. If that’s you, please come talk to me.
And let me tell you why you should. Because Paul doesn’t just chastise Christians who compromise the gospel, here. He also talks a little bit about the joy that comes with standing firm. That probably sounds kind of weird up front. How do you take joy in standing firm in the gospel even when you get persecuted for it? If there’s anything persecution shouldn’t bring, it’s joy, right? And yet, there it is. Paul talks about the joy of standing firm in the gospel, even when it brings persecution.
And yet Paul sounds a little bit like James here. In James chapter 1, James says “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance, and endurance produces joy.” What does that mean? It means that when you are wrapped up in the mercy of God, even your suffering is different. The mercy of God changes literally everything, even your suffering. It turns your sorrow into joy, like John 16 says.
But how? Paul has been confusing us since Galatians chapter 1, verse 1, and he ends his letter very much the same way he begins it, with one confusing turn of phrase after another, but if we look closely, we can see what he’s getting at rather clearly: Paul says, “but as for me, I will never boast in anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Your translation might put it a little bit differently, but the point is clear enough, that Paul can handle whatever persecution you bring at him, because his one joy is the cross of Jesus Christ.
Our one joy is the knowledge that even when we were sinners, like Romans 5:8 says, Christ “showed his love for us” by taking every last bit of our sin and darkness and inadequacy, nailing it to his cross, and putting it to death with him. Jesus took our death so that he could make us alive – that’s our one joy.
And, church, when that’s your one joy, everything else is joyful in ways it couldn’t have been beforehand. Normal, mundane, boring things are joyful in ways that they were not joyful. Even difficult, or horrifying, or nauseating things that you go through become joyful in ways that they were not joyful yesterday. Because under the cross of Jesus Christ, death does not have the final word in our lives. Suffering does not have the final word in our lives.
This past Tuesday, a bunch of us spent several hours at the hospital horrified, just sitting there in suspense about how miss Annie Gupton’s surgery was going to go, but even if it had gone very differently, even if she hadn’t made it through that surgery and that had been the last few hours of her life, the cross of Jesus Christ changes even our death. Her death would not simply have been bitter. It would also have been sweet.
It changes even the battles we lose. It changes even the suffering that we face at the hands of a world that has been radically broken by sin and death and darkness. When Paul says that “death has lost its sting,” he’s not kidding. It’s not even really a metaphor. Death loses its poison. Pain loses its poison. The brokenness of the world loses its grip over us because of the cross. And that’s a joy not even our misery in the world can steal from you.
And I want that for you.
If you have lived out your life pretending that you and God were OK, but you’ve always known deep down that you were running from him, I want this for you. If you’ve been telling yourself that God has to let you into his kingdom because you said a magic prayer when you were a little kid even though you’ve lived as your own Lord from that point up until now, I want this for you. If you spent this sermon either annoyed at me or scared for you because you finally came to realize that it doesn’t work that way – I would like very much for you to come down to the front in just a moment, talk to me, and we can walk together through the process of throwing yourself on the mercy of Jesus to be saved from your sin and into God’s tender mercy.