Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Paul Gets Defensive: God's Sovereignty Found in Galatians

Would the Apostle Paul lie? Some people thought so apparently. Welcome to Galatia. Our next study about God’s sovereignty in salvation is found in Paul’s letter written to the Galatian Church. This was arguably the first letter that Paul wrote, which immediately puts it into an interesting context as we will see. He wrote this around the same time James wrote his letter, though it is thought that Paul’s was indeed later, dating around A.D. 49 or 50.

There is plenty to unpack here and a lot of great truths to consider, so I hope you see the profundity in this letter as I did. On the surface, the references to God’s effectual calling may seem simple and short, however the underlying factors involved just bolster these truths even more.

Right away in Galatians 1:6 (again, keep in mind that this is his first correspondence to anyone in a letter) he states, “I am astonished you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel…”

As I have mentioned before, grace is best understood in God’s calling us to Him. Here we see all of this terminology being used together: “him who called you in the grace of Christ”. What do I mean by that? It is not enough to casually talk about God’s grace when he gets us through a rough day at work. Grace is found to be perfectly understood when we see that God calls us when we could not have called out to Him. Not to mention the crux of Christianity that is found in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We are given something we do not deserve by someone who did not deserve to suffer for us.

Notice that it all centers on the issue of salvation. Salvation is the most important thing for us to understand. It is the most essential and life-altering piece of truth that we need to grasp. If we have a wrong idea about salvation (i.e. How to get it; where it comes from; what it means; etc.) then nothing else really matters does it? This is why the early Reformers had to articulate the specific theology that clearly articulated the Biblical authority about salvation. We know them as the Doctrines of Grace.

You see, “grace” is more than just a casual term; it is best understood in the deep and precious reality that salvation is by grace alone: God’s calling us to Him to place our faith in Christ. When we see Paul using the phrase “him who called you in the grace of Christ”, he is using the Greek word kaleo for “called”, which means ‘to call by name’, or ‘to invite’. It is the grace of God in action when he calls us. As is normal in the New Testament, this calling is always the effectual call to salvation.

To set this verse in its context let’s understand that Paul’s concern here is clearly that the Galatians are being led astray by people teaching a different gospel…“not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the Gospel of Christ” (vs. 7). Paul is basically saying, “How could you?!” During Paul’s ministry, the tendency and temptation for the redeemed Jews was to fall back into a legalistic righteousness, thinking that their adherence to certain rituals and laws added to their merit in inheriting salvation. When this happens, then grace is no longer grace. Paul knew the seriousness of this sin and had to correct it quickly. Having a deep understanding of this Christ-less philosophy as a recovered Judaizer himself, he knew the consequences of trying to work for salvation.

“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ!”

When we start to place weight in anything other than Christ for our salvation, then we do effectively desert Him. He can only be accepted on an all-or-nothing basis. As Paul says later, “if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for nothing” (2:21). Nonetheless, in Paul’s amazement at their wavering faith, he articulates the truth of God’s effectual call.

There is something else here that we shouldn’t miss and that is that even though Paul knows our faith is a gift of God in His sovereignty, he still implores (and practically begs!) them to come to their senses. This is familiar to what he said to the Corinthians: “We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20). We are still to yearn for people to come to Christ. We can see Paul’s yearning for the Galatian Church when he launches next into an incredible defense of the Gospel, specifically the doctrine of justification by faith alone, as well as his own apostleship.

As a side note, a Hypercalvinist may say that since God has his elect, then missions and evangelism are not necessary, but that’s a wrong view because God works through His people to accomplish his electing purposes (Rom. 10:14-17). We see this fleshed out in Paul’s aching to see people come to believe in Christ. For someone who gave the best defense for election and God’s sovereign plan in salvation, he sure tried his hardest to convince people of the Way. We will continue to see in the course of this study how these are not conflicting ideas at all.

Here’s what should be confirmed time and time again through our study of God’s work in salvation. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again…because we do not know who God’s elect are, we need to preach that everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. Paul lived this philosophy through his whole ministry and it shouldn’t go unnoticed. He did everything he could to make sure that the Gospel was clearly articulated and understood. He made clear what was divinely revealed to him.

He says in Gal. 1:12, “For I did not receive it from any man, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” He knew what his job and calling was. He knew that the Gospel was the power of God for salvation and that only those who God called would respond positively to it, so when he sees his congregation in Galatia afflicted with their own legal tendencies, he urgently calls them out: “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ…”

Not even Paul knows who God’s elect are, so he makes the general external call to everyone to stop turning away from the true faith and grace in Christ. He is amazed at their quick fading from the truth. He wants them to come back to the understanding of their freedom in Christ from the Law’s 'requirements' for salvation. Let’s not forget the importance of urging people to come to faith in Christ, knowing that the Lord is in ultimate control of that person’s heart, mind and soul.

The second place that we see Paul referring to God’s election is undeniably specific. This is when he is explaining and defending his own apostleship. Remember, this is the first time he has written anyone a letter, so he’s getting it all out: God chose Paul. This is crucial for Paul to make clear as he will continue to write to the churches explaining the Gospel of Jesus Christ to them. They need to know that even Paul was specifically called by God to salvation, which is the only reason Paul has any authority.

Starting in 1:11 and going through 2:10 we see Paul explaining just how much of a legalistic Judaizer he was in his earlier years. Within this recount of his conversion we see in 1:15-16 he says something remarkable, “He […] had set me apart before I was born, and who called me by His grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, in order that I might preach among the Gentiles…”

He says two very revealing things here that should not be glossed over:

1- He was chosen (set apart) by God before he was even born.

2- God, then, still called him and revealed His Son to him for salvation.

Is it not enough for Paul to just say that he was chosen by God before he was born? Wouldn’t that be enough to defend God’s sovereignty in his life? Apparently there is a second portion that is absolutely necessary to understand, which is that God was still in control of Paul coming to the point of salvation after he was born. God was in control from (before) the beginning and to the end. His grace is the only – hope – we – have. Even after we are regenerated it is God working in us to will and to work for his good pleasure (Phil. 2:13). It is always the grace of God that allows us to come to Him for salvation and continue living in obedience to Him as Lord.

Let’s just remember for a moment how ruthlessly he sought out and persecuted Christians for their faith. The Book of Acts gives us an amazingly compelling story of his leadership among the Judaizers and how he even stood watch over the stoning of Stephen, the first Christian martyr. Paul was at the top of the Christian’s “Do Not Cross” list. Looking back, Paul knew that he was an evil person, the worst of sinners as he put it, and completely off-center from God’s real plan for salvation. This is exactly why he said in 1 Timothy 1:16, “I received mercy for this reason, that in me, as the foremost [sinner], Jesus Christ might display his perfect patience as an example to those who were to believe in him for eternal life.” It all makes sense!

Here in Galatians he makes it clear that his whole conversion was pre-planned by God before Paul was even born. Furthermore, after Paul was born, it was still God who brought Paul to repentance and conversion. God always intervenes first to get our attention in order to turn in repentance and faith. He is so sovereign and in control of everything that He not only has a plan and purpose for every person in the world, but he engineers everything in people’s lives to draw them to Him.

In this specific passage in Galatians it is important to see that Paul is using this groundwork to prove his apostleship to the Galatian Church. He was not lying to anyone about the person he was and the Gospel he was preaching, which seemed to be an area of contention for some people as 1:20 seems to indicate. Furthermore, in 2:9 we see where James, Peter, and John had validated the “grace that was given” to Paul when they “gave the right hand of fellowship to both Paul and Barnabas. This was huge!

In John MacArthur’s commentary he explains that “in the Near East, this represented a solemn vow of friendship and a mark of partnership. This act signified the apostle’s recognition of Paul as a teacher of the true Gospel and a partner in ministry.”

Paul was indeed a new creation because of the grace that was given him by God. In Him we have an incredibly impactful testimony for what God’s grace can really do in someone’s life. For someone as bad as Paul was, it is amazing to see how much God used him after regenerating him to advance the Kingdom of God. He is one of the most familiar authors of the New Testament. Praise be to God for this!

After Paul is done proving himself as a legitimate apostle, called by God directly, he then launches into an amazing defense of Justification by Faith. Again, he is concerned for God’s children and their tendencies to fall back into a legalistic righteousness, thus nullifying the cross of Christ. Paul makes this clear when (and this is where we see yet another indicator to God’s election) he says: “Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more?”

Does this sound familiar to John 6:44 or 15:16, or 1 John 4:19? We choose and love God because he first chooses and loves us. Again, later in Galatians 5:8, Paul is asking them why they are hindered from obeying the truth by falling into legalism by saying “this persuasion is not from him who calls you.”

This Greek word in 5:8 for “call” is also Kaleo, which was defined earlier. Being specific and pointed to their sin of legalism, he bolsters his statement with the fact that it is not of God who has called them out of that very sin. It just doesn’t make sense that it would be of God.

In conclusion, we can see that even in Paul’s 1st letter written to a church that needed correction, he simultaneously made clear their specific call from God to salvation a number of times. The beautiful balance is that Paul still urges and begs his people to not turn from God in disobedience. God’s calling is final, but we are to still care about the spiritual condition of those who claim to be believers. We will never know with 100% certainty who God’s elect are at any time. That’s why our ministry is preaching the Gospel to all and calling people to repentance and faith in Christ for their salvation. God works in the inner man in the form of the Holy Spirit.

By God’s grace we are called to Him. Galatians has certainly shown us that. We also saw that Paul confirmed his apostleship and the Doctrine of Justification by Faith by showing how God's grace was manifested in Paul's call. Let’s be thankful for these truths and believe them all.

In His Sovereign Grip,


P.S. I welcome feedback and discussion on this amazing, yet sometimes difficult, topic!

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