That’s a word that I’m guessing you probably didn’t use in the last week. It’s one of those words that we tend to lump into the category of stuffy and abstract theology. “I’ve been baptized, justified, homogenized, and petrified. Amen, FM.”
How do we use the term justified in our culture? We say, “he was just trying to justify himself.” What does that mean? _____. Right, it means making up excuses for bad behavior.
That is definitely not what the term means in the Bible.
The interesting thing is that we use the term correctly all the time. Have you ever had to make this decision? Should I left justify, right justify, center justify, or full justify? In word processing, justification means to line up the edge of a body of text.
That’s what term really means.
To be justified is to be correctly aligned with something.
Today we’re going to look at what it means to be not left justified or right justified, but faith justified. What does it mean to be rightly aligned with God by faith.
Before we go there, we need to step back and take a look at where we are in this grand story that we’ve been telling all year.
We’ve been looking at God’s story of redeeming creation throughout the whole Bible and asking ourselves how do we fit in that story.
We started back with Abraham who was blessed to be a blessing to all nations. We’ve seen Moses, and David, and Isaiah. Then we saw the fulfillment of God’s promises in Jesus. In the Gospel of Luke we saw what Jesus taught about the unexpected Kingdom of God. Then we followed Jesus to the cross and rejoiced in his resurrection.
Now, during Easter we have been looking at life beyond the empty tomb.
We saw two stories in Luke where God was breaking down barriers and sending the Gospel out into the world.
For the past three weeks we’ve been in Acts where we encountered three stories of people wrestling with this radical Gospel that was breaking out of the mold of traditional Judaism and reaching out to unexpected people in unexpected ways.
Today we begin the last leg of this journey. It’s hard to believe we only have three weeks left. Today, next week, and then it is Pentecost Sunday.
Today we leave the book of Acts and jump into a new kind of literature and meet a new person. We look at a letter. Most of the New Testament is actually a collection of personal letters that were written by a church leader to either a group of people, called a church, or to an individual within the church.
Our story brings us to a letter written by the apostle Paul to his Gentile friends in a region called Galatia. It is in the Western part of what we call Turkey today.
Let’s look at Paul for a second.
He’s a very important character because he wrote more than half of the New Testament. Most of the book of Acts is about Paul.
We’ve actually met him before.
Do you remember a few weeks ago when we heard the story of Stephen and how he was stoned to death?
The very last line of the story, found in Acts 8:1 says, “And Saul approved of their killing him.” Saul is Paul’s Hebrew name. Paul is his Greek name.
In the Galatians letter we get two portraits of Paul. These are autobiographical. He’s telling the Galatians his own story.
The first portrait of Paul paints him as a zealous Christian Killer.
In Galatians 1:13-14 he says he was persecuting the church of God and trying to destroy it. He was advancing in Judaism and was zealous for the traditions of his people. He was so concerned about preserving the purity of his people that he was willing to kill people who did not fit the mould.
Have you ever met anyone like that?
Someone who was so concerned with people fitting into the right categories and behaving the correct way that they are willing to “kill” those who don’t conform? I think it happens all the time. I see it happen among our students in middle school and high school. They don’t usually literally kill them, but they socially exile anyone who doesn’t conform to the “right” way of belonging to their group. People like this are very concerned with the boundaries that mark the difference between those who are inside the group and those who are outside the group, and then they become like border patrol to make sure nobody unworthy crosses the line.
That’s how Paul was before he encountered Jesus. In Acts 9 Paul has an encounter with Jesus that changes his life for ever. If there was ever a 180 it was Paul. He went from being a border-guard Jewish Christian killer to being a follower of Jesus who was crossing over the border and taking the Gospel to Gentiles, without making them become Jewish! That was radical stuff at that time.
Here we have the second portrait of Paul.
In Galatians 2:11-14 we have a confrontation between Paul and Peter. They were both up in a town called Antioch, where most of the Christians were Gentiles. That meant they were uncircumcised and had no problem eating a ham and cheese sandwich. It was absolutely cultural suicide for a Jewish man to eat with a Gentile. Yet, Peter and Paul were regularly sitting down and having lunch with their Gentile Christian brothers and sisters. Beautiful.
Then one day a bunch of Jewish Christians came to Antioch. These guys had a different idea. They taught that if you wanted to truly follow Jesus you had to become Jewish. You had to get circumcised and stop eating ham and cheese sandwiches.
An interesting thing happened when they showed up. Peter suddenly moved lunch tables. He would no longer eat with the Gentile Christians when these Judaisers showed up.
Oh man, did Paul have a problem with that. Verses 11-14 tell us how Paul got up in Peter’s face and called him a hypocrite! Ooooooo…
Even after all that Peter had witnessed with Jesus, he still caved into the social pressure of the border-patrol Christians.
So, we have these two portraits of Paul.
On the one side we have the border-patrol Paul who is concerned with who is in and who is out. We can see that, even after people follow Jesus, they can still fit into this category.
Then, on this side we have the Paul who is willing to break all the cultural rules of Judaism in order to be in Christian fellowship with Gentiles. That means, by definition that Paul is out of the group. And yet, Paul did not deny his own Judaism.
What we have here are factions in the church.
We have Christians who are drawing hard boundaries and declaring that some people, based upon their uncircumcised state and love for ham and cheese, are out, while others are in.
How do we reconcile this?
The rest of chapter two gives us Paul’s solution.
Simply put, he says we are justified by faith.
Remember what justified means? Correctly aligned with something. In this case, Paul is talking about what correctly aligns us with God. Is it our outward behavior, what he calls the “works of the law?” Or is it something else?
I’ve come across a concept recently that has really helped me understand what Paul is telling us here.
A man named Paul Hiebert is the first to talk about this. Hiebert was a missionary in India for many years and struggled with the radical cultural differences between European-style Christianity and Indian culture. Hiebert also loved math, so he used something called Set Theory to offer a helpful way to think about what justifies us with God and what the church might look like.
He contrasts the bounded set with centered set.
A bounded set is a group of things that are all the same and their similarity is what creates the set. This forms a hard boundary around the group and the emphasis is on the boundary. In order to enter the set you must become identical to the members of the group, and to leave it you must no longer be one of them.
A centered set, on the other hand, is a group that is defined by the thing that draws them together. The individual members of the group may be radically different from each other, but what unites them is that they are equally aligned with the center and are moving toward it from their own perspective.
Can you see the difference?
The first portrait of Paul is a bounded set. He was border-patrol, trying to eliminate those who were messing with his boundaries.
The second portrait is a centered-set. Paul tells us in verses 19-20,
“For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
I have a confession to make.
Most of the time I live like Peter. When I see people who are different than me, I think, “How can they be a Christian?” It doesn’t fit into my box.
This passage is a liberating passage.
What a beautiful picture of the church.
We are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, and that it is through the power of the Holy Spirit that we are all drawn toward Jesus.
All of us, no matter who we are, or where we come from, are united in our focus. The boundaries are fuzzy, but the focus is clear. God’s spirit has bathed us in grace and draws us to Jesus so that we can be a ministry of grace in the heart of Andover.