God’s Amazing Grace
Text: Galatians 1: 10-24 (ESV)
This morning we are continuing to look at the book of Galatians. So please take your Bible or your devices, if you will, and open this letter along with me, the letter to the churches of Galatia.
Paul wrote thirteen letters in the New Testament, and this is the first of them chronologically. And his first and important letter is to establish the gospel of grace and faith.
Churches often ask members to share their testimony in a service or prayer meeting, and here we find the apostle Paul sharing his. In fact, Galatians 1:10 – 2:21 is often called the autobiographical section of the epistle, since Paul is recounting his conversion and early Christian experience. This is not a rare thing for Paul; we find him talking about his own conversion and experience in Acts 22:2b-21 and 26:4-23.
Let’s ask one question here: why does Paul share his testimony in general? He is not sharing his story for himself, but to help others understand and find Christ; to point others to the amazing gospel of grace which has changed his lives, and which he knows can change theirs, too.
Let’s ask a more specific question: Why is Paul sharing his testimony in this particular context? Paul is not sharing his testimony for general inspiration, or to point us to himself. He’s using it to refute the claims of people who want to undermine his message and authority as an Apostle, and he also wants it all to point to the God of amazing grace.
His Authority as a Gospel Teacher
As Paul tells us how he became a follower of Jesus—or, perhaps more accurately, how Jesus made him His follower—he’s defending himself from three attacks “some people” (v 7) were making on him and his gospel message.
First, Paul refutes the idea that he came to his gospel message through his own reflection, reasoning and thinking. He tells that, until his conversion, he was “intensely” hostile to the church and to Christianity (v 13). He wanted to “destroy it”. There was no gradual process of consideration, discussion, revision. There was no way that Paul’s Christian message was the product of his own line of thinking. Rather, it was the exact, polar opposite.
His experience is strong evidence that his conversion was via direct revelation.
11 For I would have you know, brothers, that the gospel that was preached by me is not man’s gospel.
12 For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.
Second, Paul undermines the claim that his gospel message was derived from others, from Christian leaders in Jerusalem. “I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was” (v 16-17). There were three years between Paul’s conversion and his first journey to Jerusalem (v 18-19), and even then he did not get instructed by them in any way.
Galatians 1:1 says “Paul, an apostle—not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead”.
Third, Paul shows that his God-given gospel “checked out” with the message the other apostles had received from God. Peter (v 18), James (v 19) and the churches of Judea (v 22) were among those who “praised God” (v 24) for what He had done for Paul, and for the message He had given Paul. He did not receive his commission or message from the other apostles; but his message squared or was the same with the one the other apostles received from the risen Lord.
Paul’s testimony doesn’t only establish his authority as a gospel teacher. It also illustrates some aspects of what the gospel of grace is.
2. Amazing Grace
a. Who Paul Was
13 For you have heard of my former life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God violently and tried to destroy it.
14 And I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people, so extremely zealous was I for the traditions of my fathers.
Paul was a man who had done many terrible things. He had “intensely ... persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it” (v 13). By the time Jesus met Paul on the Damascus road, he had killed many innocent people. He was on his way to arrest and imprison more. He was filled with hate.
And yet Paul was also a man who had done many religious deeds. He had spent years seeking to live according to the Jewish customs and traditions. He says that he had beaten almost everyone of his own generation (“of my own age”, v 14) at being zealous for moral righteousness (v 14). And yet it had not made him right with God.
Before conversion, Paul was a great religious rule-keeper—and he knew it. He was filled with pride. And yet, despite all this, he was not only saved by Christ, but also called to be a preacher and leader of the faith. His testimony is a powerful witness to the beating heart of Christianity—the gospel of grace.
Grace is the free, unmerited favor of God, working powerfully on the mind and heart to change lives. There is no clearer example than Paul that salvation is by grace alone, not through our moral and religious performance.
Paul’s experience proves vividly that the gospel is not simply “religion” as it is generally understood. On the other hand, though Paul’s sins were very deep, he was invited in. The gospel calls us out of religion as much as it calls us out of irreligion.
No one is so good that they don’t need the grace of the gospel, nor so bad that they can’t receive the grace of the gospel. Paul was deeply religious, but he needed the gospel. Paul was deeply flawed, he had done bad things, yet he could be reached with the gospel.
As C.S. Lewis once said: “Christianity must be from God, for who else could have thought it up?”
b. What God was Doing
15 But when he who had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by his grace,
16 was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach him among the Gentiles
As he looks back, Paul can now recognize that God’s sovereign grace was working in his life long before his actual conversion. When Paul says God “set me apart from birth,” (v 15) he means that the grace of God had been shaping and preparing him all his life for the things God was going to call him to do.
This is astonishing. Paul had been resisting God and doing so much wrong, but God was overruling all his intentions and using his experiences and even his failures to prepare him first for his conversion, and then to be a preacher to the Gentiles (v 16).
The Old Testament knowledge; the zeal; the training; the effort he was using to oppose God and His church (v 13)— all were being used by God to break him and to equip him to be God’s instrument for building His church. God had been working all along to use Paul to establish the very faith he had opposed (v 23).
This is a major theme in the Bible. For Example: Back in Genesis, Joseph told his brothers that their very effort to reject him as God’s chosen deliverer—in which they had gone so far as to try to kill him, and had then successfully sold him as a slave (Genesis 37:5-8, 19-20)—had actually been the means to establish Joseph as that deliverer (Genesis 50:19-20). All opposition to God will be seen in the end as having done nothing but confirm and further His design.
Example: In chapter 9 of his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy, C.S. Lewis tells of his school teacher, Kirkpatrick. Nicknamed “The Great Knock”, he was a furious debater and logician who taught Lewis how to build a case and make strong arguments. Kirkpatrick was an atheist, and he intended to strengthen Lewis in his own unbelief. But years later, when Lewis became a Christian, it turned out that “The Great Knock” had trained him well to become one of the greatest defenders of the Christian faith in the 20th century.
The gospel gives us a pair of spectacles or perspectives through which we can review our own lives and see God preparing us and shaping us, even through our own failures and sins, to become vessels of His grace in the world.
So why did all this happen? Why did God choose, prepare and then call Paul, the proud persecutor of His church? Was it because Paul was in some way, in any way, pleasing to God? No, it was simply because God “was pleased” to do so (v 16). God set His loving grace on Paul not because he was worthy of it, but simply because God took delight or pleasure in doing so. This is how God has always worked.
As Moses tells God’s people Israel in Deuteronomy 7:7-8: “The Lord did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But it was because the Lord loved you.”
God does not love us because we are serviceable; He loves us simply because He loves us. This is the only kind of love we can ever be secure in, of course, since it is the only kind of love we cannot possibly lose. This is grace.
c. How it Changes Us
The God of grace saves sinners like Paul. He reveals His risen Son to both the proud and the evil—the religious and the irreligious. And He’s at work in His people even before He saves them, to bring them to faith and to equip them to serve Him.
But that is not where grace finishes its work. Grace has continued to work in and through Paul. The apostle testifies not only of who he was, and of how God converted him, but also of what a life lived under God’s grace looks like. How does this Amazing grace change Paul?
First, we read that God was pleased “to reveal his Son in me, so that I might preach” (v 16). This means God revealed Christ to Paul so that He could reveal Christ through Paul.
The persecutor became the preacher of the gospel which he once tried to destroy. What a transformation?
This shows us a critical difference between a mere religious or moral person, and a Christian. A Christian has more than an intellectual belief in Christ; they sense a personal relationship. And they know that this relationship is not given to them solely for their own personal comfort and joy. They know they have a responsibility to reveal Christ to others through what they are, do, and say.
Application: What about us? Do people see Christ through our lives? Have we become the preacher of the amazing grace of God?
Second, we see something of Paul’s own path of growth and discipleship. He had solitary time with God. During his three years in Arabia (v 17-18), we assume he learned from God much that he later taught. Through Paul’s time in Arabia we learn about the importance of study and reflection and the development of our own personal acquaintance with God. We live in a time that puts too much emphasis on activity and accomplishment, and not enough on reflection and contemplation.
Application: How are we doing in Christian growth? Are we growing in our knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ? Are we conforming into his likeness daily? Do we spend time with God?
For Example: In John 15:5 Jesus says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing”
Thirdly, Solitary time with God is fundamental to the Christian life; but the Christian life is not a solitary one. Paul went up to Jerusalem not for instruction, but for both accountability and unity (v 18). Even Paul must work on unity with the other apostles and must demonstrate that his message squares or was the same with theirs. How much more do we have the same responsibility? We too must be deeply rooted in church communities with other believers.
Example: City Groups and Discipleship Groups - strangers become friends and friends become family.
Such a Christian life, rooted in relationship with God through Christ, and in unity with and service of other believers, leads to praise of God. The Christians in Jerusalem “praised God because of me,” says Paul (v 24).
Lastly, Paul is seeking the approval of God, not the approval of man
10 For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ.
This whole section of Paul’s testimony is introduced by verse 10: “Am I now trying to win the approval of men, or of God?” Paul asks. It’s a question with an obvious answer: God!
The gospel removes a “man-pleasing” spirit—the drive to “win the approval of men”. In other words, the gospel produces confident and fearless followers of Jesus, doing what is right without concern for the approval and good opinion of others. Paul says that he couldn’t be a “servant of Christ” if he were a people-pleaser.
That is to say, a Christian cannot and will not be a man-pleaser. He writes “If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ”.
PEOPLE-PLEASER OR SERVANT OF CHRIST:
People-pleasers have an inordinate desire to please other people; servants of Christ have an all-consuming passion to please God.
People-pleasers are motivated by the fear of man; servants of Christ are inspired by the fear of God.
People-pleasers pretend to serve God when they really intend to serve themselves; servants of Christ actually intend to serve God by meeting the needs of other people.
People-pleasers are anxious for approval from others and get upset when they don’t get it; servants of Christ simply love others and leave approval or disapproval to the judgment of God.
So which one are we? People-pleasers or servants of Christ?
If we live our lives for the approval of others, be it our spouse, parents, boss or friends, then they become our idol. If our ultimate aim is the honor of Christ, then that is Godly worship.
So, how can the gospel transform us from man pleasing to Servant of Christ? or how does the gospel destroy man-pleasing?
In the gospel, we discover that trusting in Christ brings God’s full and complete favor and approval. When God sees the believer, He sees Jesus—and so He says to us: “With you I am well pleased” (Mark 1:11). God is pleased with us.
And because God is pleased with us, we can live in a way which pleases God.
Example: A young man once studied violin under a world-renowned master. Eventually the time came for the student’s first performance. Following each selection, despite the cheers of the crowd, the performer seemed dissatisfied. Even after the last number, with the shouts louder than ever, the talented violinist stood watching an old man on the balcony. Finally the elderly one smiled and nodded in approval. Immediately the young man relaxed and beamed with happiness. You see, the man in the balcony was his teacher, and thus the applause of the crowd had meant nothing to him until he had first won the hearty approval of his master.
The Christian is assured of God’s love and approval. God is pleased with us in Christ. So the Christian longs to obey God, not for himself, so that God will save him, but out of gratitude to God, who he knows has already saved him. And so Paul lives as a “servant of Christ” (v 10). God’s approval liberates us to live in a way which God approves of. The gospel is both a powerful assurance, and a powerful motivation to live in radical obedience. We do not live God’s way in order to become His children, but out of gratitude that we are already God’s children