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Sunday School Lesson Commentary

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 “Justified by Faith in Christ”

Lesson Text:Galatians 2:15-21

Background Scripture: Galatians 1, 2

Devotional Reading:Luke 18:9-14

 

Galatians 2: 15-21

15We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles,

16Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.

17But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid.

18For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor.

19For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.

20I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me.

21I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

 

OBJECTIVES

To understand that salvation comes not from what we do for God, but what God’s grace has done for us. 

To acceptPaul’s teaching that justification is based solely on faith in Christ, not on obedience to the law. 

To be able to explain what Paul’s opponents in Galatia were teaching that nullified salvation by grace.

To not worry about what others think of us, but stand firm on what we believe so that we will no longer be like children, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching (read Ephesians 4:14).

 

INTRODUCTION

Living by the Rules

    In this lesson based on Galatians 2:15-21, Paul addresses a serious danger to the churches in Galatia: the idea that keeping the law is the key to being a Christian. Although written over 1,900 years ago under very different circumstances, this threat is as near today as any church that teaches rule-keeping as the key to salvation.

    Rules and laws are everywhere. When we drive, we see signs posting speed limits and no parking areas, lights indicating stop or go, and painted lines showing us lanes and turns. All of these reflect the laws and rules of the road. Workplace rules are numerous as well. Companies may have thick employee manuals with page after page of rules. In addition, workplaces have unwritten rules, and the learning curve for these may be quick and brutal.

    Churches seem to have rules too, often evolved from traditions and opinions, and most of these are unwritten. These may be simple things like when to stand and sit during the worship service; when to exit church services following the observation of Holy Communion. Other unwritten church rules may cover appropriate dress. Such rules may be awkward, but they are inevitable. Unintentional violation of these rules by visitors is usually tolerated graciously.

 

    Much more serious, however, are church rules that give the false impression that God “owes us something” when we keep the rules. The Bible is a very ethical book, and rules are central to ethics, but we cannot earn God’s favor by keeping rules. This does not mean that keeping God’s rules is a bad thing! It means, rather, that if our relationship with God is no more than keeping rules, then we have left no room for God’s grace. We cannot earn God’s grace; we can only receive it as a gift. When we accept God’s grace, we willingly follow the teachings of the Bible. We know God’s rules, and we “play by them” because we love Him and have a deep desire to obey Him.

 

LESSON BACKGROUND

Time:Possibly A.D. 48

Place:From Syrian Antioch

    An important background issue for studying Galatians is the identity of the recipients. Galatia was not a city, but a region. Hundreds of years before Paul's day, wandering tribes of Gauls settled in this area, which became known as the kingdom of Galatia. Galatia was generally seen as the south central section of Asia Minor (modern Turkey). The recipients of this letter likely included churches at Antioch of Pisidia, Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe. Paul visited these cities on his first missionary trip, prior to the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 13:13-14:20). He revisited them on his second trip (Acts 15:36,41:16:1,2). Therefore, after learning about the problem of false teaching that crept in these churches that he had earlier planted, Paul addressed this letter to the “Churches of Galatia” (Gal.1:2) rather than to an individual congregation.

Judaizing

    The dating of Galatians is uncertain. We know, however, that it was written after the Jerusalem Conference of A.D. 51, as described in Acts 15, because Gal. 2:1-10 is Paul’s account of that conference. A date of A.D. 57 or 58 is a reasonable guess for the writing of the letter. The Jerusalem Conference was a meeting of church leaders to come to agreement over the biggest issue of the first-century church: whether Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be accepted into the fellowship of the church. Circumcision for religious purposes seems like a remote issue to us today, but it was hotly debated in Paul’s day. The underlying issue was the role of the Jewish law in salvation.

    Since the earliest church was made up entirely of Jews, this was not an issue for the first years of the church’s existence. All male Christians had been circumcised already, because they were all Jews. As Peter, Paul, Barnabas, and others began to evangelize Gentiles (that is, non-Jews), circumcision emerged as a divisive issue. The question can be boiled down to this: Must a Gentile become a Jew before becoming a Christian? There were those who said, Yes! and their voices were loud. The pivotal problem was the Jewish practice of circumcising all males. To be a Jew was to be circumcised, and there were no gray areas in this regard. Consequently, some Jewish Christians reasoned that all Gentile men must submit to circumcision in order to be recognized as Christians.

    This issue boiled over when some of these men traveled from Jerusalem to Antioch and taught, “Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Paul and Barnabas disagreed and went to Jerusalem in order to gain consensus on this issue. In both Acts 15 and Gal. 2, we are told that the leaders of the church agreed not to require circumcision of Gentiles. This was a great day for the church, for it freed the gospel from the shackles of the Jewish law and allowed the church to grow rapidly among Gentiles.

    As we move further in this study, we should note the harsh tone of the letter. The book of Galatians is not a “warm and fuzzy” book. It begins abruptly. Paul’s first statement after his preliminary opening is his astonishment (“I marvel”) at his readers’ willingness to abandon the gospel he taught them. Paul calls doubly for false teachers to be accursed (Gal.1:8,9). This is strong language indeed!

 

JUSTIFIED BY FAITH (Galatians 2:15-19)

1. Why did the Jews regard all Gentiles as sinners, and how does Paul relate this to the word “justify” (Galatians 2:15,16)?

    In Paul's day there was a marked difference in the moral behavior of Jews and Gentiles. The Greek societal rules that dominated Gentile culture had few restrictions on sexual promiscuity, drunkenness, and idolatry. While Roman traditions were originally more moralistic than those of the Greeks, by Paul's day the indifferent morality of the Greeks had become widespread in the empire. Therefore, a common Jewish designation for Gentiles or non-Jews was “sinners”.

    Here, Paul is drawing a contrast between the cultural immorality of the Gentiles and the higher moral standards of the Jews. The “Jews by nature” are Paul's people (Galatians 2:15). He is not saying this to be judgmental, although the term “sinner” is a derogatory word, Paul is using this reference to set up his next point that neither Jew nor Gentile is saved by keeping the law. (This was true, as well, during the Old Testament times, and for all generations. It was Abram's belief and trust in God, not on the number of sacrifices he made, deeds he performed, or rules he kept that were counted to him as righteous. Abraham's deeds were important, but his faith was paramount. Gen. 15:6)

   “Knowing that a man (any man, Jew or Gentile) is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 2:16). Justification is the judicial act of God whereby He declares righteous those who trust in Jesus Christ. It is the reversal of His attitude toward the sinner because of the sinner’s new relationship to Christ. God did condemn, now He acquits. The standard of the law was so exacting that no one (except Christ) ever kept it, and so the broken law could only condemn (Rom 3:19,20). Jesus has paid it all for us, and we owe (the opportunity for) our new standing with God totally to the love and ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross of Calvary.

    Paul insists here and elsewhere that there are not two ways of salvation, one for Jews and one for Gentiles (see Romans 3:9). Jews may decide to keep the law for various valid reasons, but law-observance as a means to salvation is futile. Paul is an accomplished, educated Jew, with deep knowledge of the law and the technicalities of its observance (see Philippians 3:4-6). He speaks with great authority when he says there can be no justification through works of the law. If anyone could be justified by the law, it would be Paul! But he acknowledges the impossibility of this approach. In so doing, he undermines the credibility of the Judaizers who have been preaching another gospel to the Galatians (see Galatians 1:7,8). 

What Do You Think?  

    What modern traditions or works might Christians trust in for justification? How do we perpetuate such an attitude, and what can we do to fix the problem? 

Talking Points for Your Discussion

-The area of church attendance

-The area of giving

-The area of prayer

-The area of the Lord’s Supper

2. Does the doctrine of justification by faith promote sinful living? (Galatians 2:17)

    Paul now turns to a major objection from the Judaizer perspective: If keeping the law is not a requirement for Christians, do we not open a door for all the sinful vices of the Gentile world? In other words, if we reduce the law’s power, are we not saying that “anything goes?” If this is the case, are we then presenting Christ as a minister of sin? -An illogical inference. They were sinners already in spite of being Jews. Christ simply revealed to them the fact of their sin.  

    Paul raises the same question from a different perspective in Romans 6:1: “Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” In both cases, he is using an argument we call reduction to the absurd. This is where we press a mistaken notion to its logical extreme, and the consequences of the error become obvious. In Galatians, it is absurd to think that Christ is a servant of sin. In Romans, it is absurd to think that sinning is a good thing if it allows additional grace to be given to us. 

    In both cases, Paul’s answer is the same: God forbid. This is very strong language, actually a two-word prayer. Paul is saying, “God, may you never let this happen!”

 

3. Why is it burdensome to “build again” the things we destroyed? (v. 18)

    At the Jerusalem Conference, Peter had compared the Mosaic law to a burdensome yoke (Acts 15:10; see Gal. 5:1). Now he had put himself under that impossible yoke.  

    Paul’s argument went like this: “Peter, you and I did not find salvation through the law; we found it through faith in Christ. But now after being saved, you go back into the law! This means that Christ alone did not save you; otherwise you would not have needed the law. So, Christ actually made you a sinner!

    “Furthermore, you have preached the gospel of God’s grace to Jews and Gentiles, and have told them they are saved by faith and not by keeping the law. By going back to legal-ism, you are building up what you tore down! This means that you sinned by tearing it down to begin with!”

    In other words, Paul was arguing from Peter’s own experience of the grace of God. To go back to Moses is to deny everything that God had done for him and through him.

4. What did Paul mean by “I through the law am dead to the law” (v. 19)?

    Through the agency of the law, Paul relates his own experience. The Old Testament law is powerless to give life; it only condemns the guilty. Paul says that through the law (meaning through his attempts to keep the Jewish law) he realizes he is dead to the law (meaning that keeping the law leads to death, not life). If our focus is on keeping rules rather than serving God, we will be unsuccessful. We will find that our attempts are imperfect and bear only the “fruit unto death” (Romans 7:5).

    To die to anything is to cease to have any relation to it so that it has no claim or control over one. The law condemned Paul to death, but Christ, his substitute, died for him. Paul died in Christ and is now united with Him in resurrection life. The sentence of death was executed on Paul in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. Once the law has executed the death penalty it has no more jurisdiction over the one executed, for the law has dominion over a man only as long as he lives (Rom. 7:1). Having died with Christ, Paul is dead to the law, and so is every true believer. When Christ died, we died…That we “might live unto God” (Gal. 2:19).

 

GRACE RECEIVED (Galatians 2:20,21)

5.How was Paul crucified with Christ (Galatians 2:20)?

    In Romans, Paul uses the symbolism of Christian baptism to illustrate this parallel dying between the believer and Christ: we “were baptized into his death” (Romans 6:3). When we accept Jesus Christ as the Lord of our lives and trust Him for salvation, we are killing off any claims and rights we have to live the way we please. We are “dead indeed unto sin” (Romans 6:11), and the pursuit of sinful desires is no longer the controlling factor of our lives. Instead, we are made alive by a new presence in our souls: Christ living in us (compare Galatians 5:24; 6:14).

    How can Paul do anything but offer his life in submissive service when he realizes that Christ loved him so much that He died for him? Christ gave His life for helpless sinners. Should we not give our lives back to Him in service?

    When we reach this point, the Judaizing questions about law and sin begin to seem trivial. The Christian life is not a matter of how well we keep the rules. It is a matter of ongoing submission to the will of God, serving Him with all we do and say.

6. What did Paul mean by not wanting to “frustrate the grace of God”? (Galatians 2:21)

    Paul summarizes dramatically. If the claims of the Judaizers are correct—that we gain a right standing before God by keeping the rules of the law—then there was no reason for Christ to die. If the Judaizers are right, then the central message of the gospel is rendered ineffective, and all things Christian revert back into the legalism of Judaism.

    Paul, however, will not stand for this. To yield to the Judaizing heresy would be to frustrate the grace of God, meaning to reject God’s gracious offer of salvation through Jesus Christ. If we seek to be saved by good works—by our attempts at self-righteousness—then we must realize that we are still in our sins and have no promise of life.

7. Have I been saved by the grace of God (personal response)?

    We know what Peter’s response was when he was challenged to live up to the truth of the gospel: fear and failure. And we know what Paul’s response was when he saw the truth of the gospel being diluted: courage and defense. But the important question today is, what is my response to the “truth of the gospel?”

    The only gospel that saves is the gospel of the grace of God as revealed in Jesus Christ. Any other gospel is a false gospel and is under a curse (Gal. 1:6-9). Am I trusting in myself for salvation-my morality, my good works, even my religion? If so, then, I am not a Christian, for a true Christian is one who has trusted Christ alone. “For by grace ye are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast” (Ephesians 2:8,9).

 

PRACTICAL POINTS

1.Salvation is by faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from any attempt to keep the law (Galatians 2:15,16).

2.To deny any saving power to keeping the law does not give us a license to sin (v. 17).

3.Let us not go back to doing and believing the things that caused us to sin (v. 18).

4.The Christian is dead to the law, for Christ has paid its penalty (v. 19).

5.One can live for God only if Christ lives in Him (v. 20).

6.Christ died in vain, if any other means could have saved us (v. 21). 

CONCLUSION

    God's grace is demonstrated in Jesus' offer of Himself on our behalf. When we confess Jesus as Lord, we do not sign up to earn His favor by keeping a set of rules. Instead, we submit our whole beings to Him, and we willingly do obey Him. We no longer live for ourselves. We live for Him.

PRAYER

    God of grace and mercy, we offer our hearts to You anew. Forgive us for the times we have attempted to gain Your favor by our deeds. Allow us to serve You with all of our hearts, our souls, and our minds from love and gratitude for Your gracious salvation. We pray this in the name of the Lord Jesus, amen.

THOUGHT TO REMEMBER

    Trust Christ, not rules.

 


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