Grace, Promises and Faith

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Grace, promise, faith: three words you see often in Scripture. Yet they are more than just words, they are also attitudes and ways of thinking. We need to define them before we attempt to understand how they are related to each other. First, what is “grace?” Very simply put, the word “grace” refers to the many gifts and blessings that come into our lives from God. “Grace” is not something we can earn or convince God we need more of. We do not merit any “grace” from God. “Grace” is sort of an all-encompassing term that covers all we receive from God through His Son. It goes without saying that the greatest “grace” of all is salvation through faith the Lord Jesus Christ.

Second, a “promise” is not unlike grace in that every “promise” is given to believers by means of God’s grace. From God’s perspective, a “promise” may be viewed as a sort of I.O.U. – a means by which the Lord guarantees that He will provide whatever it is He said He would. From our perspective, a “promise” rests on our complete trust in God and in His ability to provide what He said He would. It is not, however, a legal contract where one party stipulates pay (promises) for labor (merit). God’s “promise” to His people is something they do not deserve nor earn. All we must do is believe that God will deliver.

Third, “faith” is closely related to “promise,” especially in the context of what Paul is teaching in Romans. Abraham’s faith kicked in when God made him a promise:

I have made you a father of many nations. (Romans 4:17 NIV)

This is an important truth that a lot of Christians miss: real, Biblical faith exists ONLY as a response to divine revelation.

So then, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes through preaching Christ. (Romans 10:17 GNB)

Biblical faith has nothing to do with “believing in yourself” or in practicing some kind “positive thinking.” Granted, those things are important – a Christian ought to have self confidence and he ought to have a generally positive outlook on life. But Biblical faith must always rest in what God has said – what He has promised.

Galatians 3:10 – 25

But Christ has bought us out from under the doom of that impossible system [Jewish law] by taking the curse for our wrongdoing upon himself. For it is written in the Scripture, “Anyone who is hanged on a tree is cursed” (as Jesus was hung upon a wooden cross). Now God can bless the Gentiles, too, with this same blessing he promised to Abraham; and all of us as Christians can have the promised Holy Spirit through this faith. Dear brothers, even in everyday life a promise made by one man to another, if it is written down and signed, cannot be changed. He cannot decide afterward to do something else instead. (Galatians 3:13 – 15 TLB)

It is impossible, Paul taught, to be justified by the Law – by observing the many demands of the Jewish legal and religious systems. Christians are not Jews, so what does that teaching have to do with us? If Paul were writing to us, he might write something like this: Doing good things or living a good life doesn’t earn you points with God. For the Jews, when Jesus Christ hung on the Cross, He was being punished for their inability to adhere to those impossible legal and religious systems. Jesus was punished in their stead. Because of that, the Law was rendered useless. That’s the whole point of verse 13 –

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law

If that Law and it’s consequent curse were rendered powerless by the work of Christ, it could never work alongside of or supplement simple faith. This is what Paul is arguing. It made no sense for the Galatians to have faith in both Jesus and the Law. The work of Jesus ended the need for the Law, so why would any thinking person want to go back to it?

This is the tension that also exists even among Gentiles. Of course, we have nothing to do with the Law, but a great many of us think (consciously or subconsciously) our pure thoughts, good intentions, and upright lives can result in our ultimate justification and salvation. The fact is, like the Jewish Law, all those things – as good and as helpful as they may be – cannot save you or make you look worthy of God’s attention.

Galatians 3:16 – 18

Now, God gave some promises to Abraham and his Child. And notice that it doesn’t say the promises were to his children, as it would if all his sons—all the Jews—were being spoken of, but to his Child—and that, of course, means Christ. Here’s what I am trying to say: God’s promise to save through faith—and God wrote this promise down and signed it—could not be canceled or changed four hundred and thirty years later when God gave the Ten Commandments. If obeying those laws could save us, then it is obvious that this would be a different way of gaining God’s favor than Abraham’s way, for he simply accepted God’s promise. (TLB)

The impotency of the Law – or of good works – is demonstrated even further when Paul notes that the great Law came many, many years after the promise He made to Abraham couldn’t annul the covenant – the promise – He made to Abraham. What was the promise? It was not a promise to save people if they performed good works or obeyed the letter of a law, even it was the Law He gave them. The promise was simply this: salvation comes through faith.

Galatians 3:19 – 25

Why did God give the Jews the Law and all people a conscience? The answer is found in verse 19 –

Well then, why were the laws given? They were added after the promise was given, to show men how guilty they are of breaking God’s laws. But this system of law was to last only until the coming of Christ, the Child to whom God’s promise was made. (And there is this further difference. God gave his laws to angels to give to Moses, who then gave them to the people… (Galatians 3:19 TLB)

Without the Law, or even without your conscience, how would you know if you were ever in the wrong? That’s why God gave man those things – to show man his shortcomings and his need for a savior. However, the Law was shown by Paul to be inferior to faith because it was given as a temporary addition to faith. Not that it added anything to faith, but came after faith in terms of history. Furthermore, the Law was vastly inferior to faith because the Law was received by man through means of a mediator – Moses – while God’s promise was received directly from God. That is, God gave His promise directly to Abraham without any intermediary.

Before you get the wrong idea, the Law was in no way ever in conflict with faith. Both the Law and the promise came equally from God. It was man who never understood that. In short order man came to value the Law far above the promise, in effect, ignoring the necessity of faith altogether, but that’s not the way it should have been. Like man does with most of God’s blessings, he perverted and misused the Law.

John Piper’s observations are interesting:

God gave the Law originally as a railroad track to guide Israel’s obedience. The engine that was supposed to pull a person along the track was God’s grace, the power of the Spirit. And the coupling between our car and the engine was faith, so that in the Old Testament, like the New Testament, salvation was by grace, through faith, along the track of obedience – sanctification.

That’s how it should have been.

Galatians 3:29

Okay, what about us, what about those of us who aren’t Jews? What does all this have to do with Gentiles? Paul explains:

And now that we are Christ’s we are the true descendants of Abraham, and all of God’s promises to him belong to us. (Galatians 3:29 TLB)

That’s an exciting verse: all of God’s promises to Jesus – remember, He was referred to as “Abraham’s Child,” meaning whatever God promised to Abraham He promised to Jesus – now belong to us. But why did Paul write this to the Galatians? A group of itinerant preachers known as Judaizers were undermining the Gospel Paul and the other apostles were preaching – salvation by faith in Jesus alone – by saying that only through the Law could a person be a child of Abraham and receive all the promises. They didn’t eliminate faith in Jesus altogether, but sought to add elements of Judaism to simple faith. This false teaching infuriated Paul, and this was how he vented his frustration to the Galatians:

You foolish Galatians! Who put a spell on you? Before your very eyes you had a clear description of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross! Tell me this one thing: did you receive God’s Spirit by doing what the Law requires or by hearing the gospel and believing it? How can you be so foolish! You began by God’s Spirit; do you now want to finish by your own power? (Galatians 3:1 – 3 GNT)

Those Galatian Christians, Gentiles, were, in reality, the true children of Abraham by faith in Jesus and they, not the false teachers, would receive the promise. Because they were Christ’s they were also Abraham’s children and heirs.

This is what Christ has done for all who believe in Him. There are no “second class citizens” of heaven. Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter to God. What does matter is whether or not a sinner puts his full faith and confidence in what Jesus Christ did for them on the cross. William Temple observed:

My worth is what I am worth to God; and that is a marvelous great deal, for Christ died for me. Thus, incidentally, what gives to each of us His highest worth gives the same worth to everyone; in all that matters most we are equal.

Galatians 4:4 – 7

But when the right time came, the time God decided on, he sent his Son, born of a woman, born as a Jew, to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law so that he could adopt us as his very own sons. And because we are his sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, so now we can rightly speak of God as our dear Father. Now we are no longer slaves but God’s own sons. And since we are his sons, everything he has belongs to us, for that is the way God planned. (TLB)

In these verses, Paul outlines God’s purpose in sending His Son. Actually, it was a two-fold purpose: (1) To redeem those under the Law, that is, the Jews. This He had to do for His people because the Law never made a single Jew a child of God. (2) That all sinners (Gentiles included) might be adopted into God’s family.

For the Jew, slavery had a special connotation. Historically they had been delivered from their bondage to the Egyptians by the power of God. But they were still in bondage – a bondage to the Law. Slaving day after day after endless day trying to live up to the demands of the Law did them no good. Jesus Christ came to set them free from that bondage by making the Jews God’s sons, and we all know a son of God can’t be a slave to God at the same time. The same thing applies to the Gentiles. We had been enslaved, not to the Law, but to sin. Christ came to set us free and through our faith in Him we also become sons of God.

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