The Certain Gospel

by Matthew C. Harrison 

St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians is a tour de force of certainty for every Christian. It both describes and produces certainty in the Gospel of free forgiveness in Jesus Christ. Christian certainty is not found in persons, feelings, sentiments, reason, positions, human actions, laws, social arrangements or even the Ten Commandments. These all must serve the Gospel. They remain in their own created domain, functioning as God intended them to function. They have no claim on the Christian conscience. And they certainly were not intended to — nor in fact have any right to — be the source of certainty in our relationship with Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As soon as they make any claim for or against our eternal salvation, they must be put back in their place, even ignored. Why?

St. Paul gets to the crux of the matter at Galatians 2:16: “A person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.” On this verse, Luther commented: “A Christian is not someone who has no sin or feels no sin; he is someone to whom, because of his faith in Christ, God does not impute his sin.” Luther continued, “The first step in Christianity is the preaching of repentance and the knowledge The Certain Gospel of oneself. The second step is this: If you want to be saved, your salvation does not come from works; but God has sent His only Son into the world that we might live through Him. He was crucified and died for you and bore your sins in His own body” (LW 26:133, 126).

Can and should a Christian be absolutely certain of God’s favor today, in this life, here and now? And can and should a Christian also be absolutely certain that upon death, the soul of the believer is in the presence of Jesus to await a bodily resurrection, including a new heaven and a new earth? Absolutely yes!

We need only read the first few verses from Paul’s letter:

“Paul, an apostle — not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead — and all the brothers who are with me, To the churches of Galatia …” (Gal. 1:1–2).

Over against those troubling these Galatian Christians by asserting that to be saved, all non-Jewish Christians had to believe in Christ and keep the laws of Old Testament Judaism (including the Ten Commandments) and be circumcised — over against all of this, Paul drew a firm line in the sand: It was either all Christ, or it was nothing. It is not Christ plus the Law that obtains salvation. In fact, anything other than Christ alone damns (Gal. 1:6–9.) By what authority did Paul claim this? The authority of the risen Savior, Jesus Christ, through God the Father. Paul received this Gospel from Jesus by revelation, and he was mandated to preach it.

“Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen” (Gal. 1:3–5).

“Grace and peace.” Paul writes to the troubled Galatian churches. Paul does not say, “Do good works and feel holy enough to please God.” That would only bring uncertainty or damnable self-righteousness. Grace is God’s free favor toward us because of what Jesus has already done for us. The “art” of being a Christian is the realization that sins constantly plague me, and that I constantly need Jesus.

Do you want certainty? Then look to Jesus. “For until our death, Satan will never stop attacking all the doctrines of the Creed in us … . Begin where Christ began — in the Virgin’s womb, in the manger, and at His mother’s breasts. For this purpose, He came down, was born, lived among men, suffered, was crucified and died, so that in every possible way He might present Himself to our sight. He wanted us to fix the gaze of our hearts upon Himself and thus to prevent us from clambering into heaven and speculating about the Divine Majesty” (LW 26:29, 31).

“Speculation about the Divine Majesty” is all the rage in this world. Just about every other non-Christian I talk with has managed to cook up some sort of homemade religion of their own. The last one I heard was that “God is probably an alien from some other planet.” None takes the Law seriously. None has an answer for the depravity and evil of the world. None knows the severity of the demands of the Law. None can give peace to troubled consciences. None knows anything of God’s grace in Jesus Christ.

Luther wrote, “This Wittenberg of ours is a holy village, and we are truly holy, because we have been baptized, communed, taught, and called by God; we have the work of God among us, that is, the Word and the Sacraments, and these make us holy” (LW 26:25).

Paul’s letter to the Galatians shaped the Lutheran Reformation tremendously. The Reformation was about certainty in Christ, over against uncertainty in self-righteousness. And as Paul and Luther clearly taught, such certainty produces a good conscience, faith to fight sin daily, strength to love my family and neighbors, and a compulsion to tell others this marvelous Good News.

“Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16).

–Pastor Harrison

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