“I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification come through the Law, then Christ died for nothing.”  Galatians 2:21

To my mind, there are no texts in the New Testament that deal with the topic of grace quite as well as Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Galatians.  While Romans does an extraordinary job of exploring our need for God’s grace (a topic we addressed in our series on reconciliation), Galatians invites us to consider what grace requires from God.

urlPaul wrote Galatians to correct what he understood to be a serious error in the community’s approach to the Christian life.  When Paul established the church at Galatia, he preached a law-free gospel: non-Jewish gentiles were invited to become part of the Church without being circumcised and keeping to the Mosaic Law.  This was the central dispute among members of the early Church: should the followers of Jesus, who himself was a Jew, be required to become Jews themselves?  Paul’s contention was that by raising Jesus Christ from the dead, God had changed the game, and the gospel was to be spread to everyone regardless of their ethnic heritage or their adherence to the Law.

After he had left, Paul began to hear rumors about other people who had come to the Galatians telling them that Paul was wrong, that in order to be true followers of Christ, they needed to adhere to the Law.  The Galatians started to believe this, because on one level it makes sense.  After all, God established the Law through Moses so that human beings could make themselves righteous before God. On it’s face, it makes a lot more sense than this law-free stuff that Paul was talking about.  The Galatians might have assumed that Paul had thrown out the baby with the bathwater.

But for Paul, it is not the law that makes people righteous; it is God’s grace.  He writes (in Galatians 2:15), “We know that a person is justified (made righteous before God) not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.”  This is how most versions of the Bible translate this verse.  In another correct translation of the same text, though, it’s clear that Paul was also writing about the faith OF Christ.  Paul was also saying that we are made righteous through the obedient faithfulness of Christ, that we have been justified by Christ’s willingness to be obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  Christ was willing to be spat upon, willing to be flogged, and willing to be hung on a tree outside the city walls, all for frail and sinful human beings who have fallen short of God’s glory.  If there was any group that was less deserving of the favor of God, it was humanity.  Even the very commandment of God was powerless to prevent us from falling into Sin.  And yet, in God’s never-failing grace, God sent God’s only Son to die on our behalf, to conquer death by his death, and to open salvation to everyone in the world.

By returning to the Law, by returning to that which was powerless to make us righteous before God, the Galatians were saying that God’s grace was insufficient, that the faithful obedience of Jesus Christ wasn’t necessary, that Jesus Christ died for no purpose.  For Paul, Christ’s death and resurrection have changed the world; the Galatians simply didn’t understand the enormity of Christ’s sacrifice and the costliness of God’s grace.  This recalls a text by William W. How set to music by John Ireland: “It is a thing most wonderful, almost too wonderful to be; that God’s own Son should come from heaven, and die to save a child like me.”  This is what grace is.  This is why it is so hard to define, because it’s almost too wonderful, almost too incredible for us to imagine: that God should save undeserving humanity through the death of his Son.

And our only appropriate response to this costly grace is to be utterly grateful for the magnificent thing that God has done for us.  We are called to thank  God every day for the incredible opportunity to live, to be in relationship with our families, to experience the beauty of this world, and to be creative and productive in our daily activities.  We are called to thank God every day that not everything always goes our way, that we have the opportunity to be disappointed because we are alive.  And we are called to share with everyone we meet the incredible gift that we have received from God through our Lord Jesus Christ: this costly grace that has changed the world.

Passive Voice

a river runs through itWhen I was growing up, one of the favorite movies in my house was A River Runs through It.  Directed by Robert Redford, the film is the story of how the Maclean brothers grow up and grow apart in rural Montana during the 1920s.  The fabulous cast includes Tom Skerritt as their Presbyterian minister father, Craig Scheffer as the older, more reserved brother, and a young Brad Pitt as the rebellious, self destructive free spirit.  My family’s favorite scene in the movie was one in which the Reverend Maclean is teaching young Norman (played by a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt) how to write “the American language.”  In the scene, Norman brings a manuscript that his father proceeds to systematically mark up with a red pencil.  The Reverend Maclean hands the paper back to his son, instructing him to make the essay “half as long.”  This occurs several times, until the merciless editor finally says, “Good.  Now throw it away.”  

I think this scene resonated in my household because this was my father’s approach to teaching his boys how to write.  My father would give us feedback on our writing assignments, and invariably his critique had to do with the efficiency of our language.  He would mark out extraneous words and put question marks next to sentences that repeated information.  But my father’s primary linguistic pet peeve was unquestionably our use of the passive voice, wherein the grammatical subject is the recipient (rather than the source) of the action of the verb.  When I was first learning how to write, the passive voice felt classy and sophisticated, and so I would write sentences like this: “It was hoped by the combatants that the truce would last.”  Of course, there is a far more efficient and far less clunky way to write this sentence: “The combatants hoped that the truce would last.”  And efficiency is not the only reason to use the active voice.  I was at the airport the other day, where my father would have mercilessly criticized the following public address announcement: “Any unattended bags should be reported immediately.”  Since this announcement is in the passive voice, it diffuses responsibility.  Surely, airport personnel want us to take responsibility for reporting unattended bags, but this announcement merely suggests that it is someone’s job.  The passive voice is not only inefficient, it can also lead us to pass the buck.

In Scripture, however, passive voice is used frequently.  In deference to the Jewish convention of not uttering the name of God, the New Testament writers would often refer to God in terms of God’s actions.  We saw this last week in the epistle that we read on Ash Wednesday.  In 2 Corinthians 5:20, Paul enjoins us to “be reconciled to God.”  In the New Testament, the verb for reconciliation only occurs in the passive voice.  This is not because Paul and others are trying to diffuse responsibility, it is because God is the only one who can be the subject of that verb.  It is God who reconciles us to himself and to one another.  And so when Paul tells us to “be reconciled to God,” we are responding to God’s action; we are allowing something God has already done to transform our lives and allow us to walk in newness of life.  This is important for us to remember, especially for those of us who have strained relationships and are struggling to reconcile with those who have hurt us or whom we have hurt.  If we remember that it is God who reconciles, that it is God who renews our relationships, then our responsibility is to live out that reconciliation, to embrace what God has already done in our lives and in the lives of others.  During the next week, I will exploring the subject of reconciliation, but I hope we will remember that it is ultimately God who reconciles.  Lent is an opportunity for us to use the passive voice (sparingly), embrace the reconciliation offered through Jesus Christ, and affirm what God has already done in our lives.