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"The Covenant"

October 24, 2021 Speaker: Pastor Bob Davis

Passage: Galatians 3:15-29

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The Covenant

Galatians 3:15-29

October 10, 2021

Galatians 3:15-29

For what it is worth, I have to confess my affinity for Paul.  Many people find his rhetoric and writing style difficult.  I do not.  He speaks to me.  He is easier for me to follow than some of the other writers in Scripture.

Part of that is because Paul was trained as an attorney.  He thinks like an attorney and writes like an attorney.  He is confident in his own arguments.  He is comfortable in the midst of debate.  And, in a letter like this, he is capable of changing tone in the midst of a thought without losing the direction or point.

As we begin this morning, you may not have noticed Paul’s abrupt change of tone.  Last week, Paul began – basically – with “You idiots!”  This week is a much more pastoral, “brothers and sisters.”  You need to remember that we have been preaching through this letter in pieces – the original recipients would have heard it all at once.  Paul’s themes here were repeated in a variety of tones so that the point would be driven home like a jackhammer.  In many ways Galatians was the email that Paul wrote and clicked Send without sleeping on it first.

Actually, Galatians was a letter Paul wrote to churches God had begun through Paul’s missionary journeys in Asia Minor – or what we know today as Turkey.  The occasion for his letter was a report he had received that those congregations were being persuaded that Gentiles needed to take on all of Judaism in order to be Christian.  As a result, some of the Gentiles had submitted to being circumcised and were taking up the observance of Jewish holy days.

After calling the Galatians foolish for their uncritical acceptance of anything they were told, Paul changed tone and direction.  This logical argument was developed by Paul to drive home his rebuke for the foolish error of trying to pay for that which had already been received as a gift.[1]

              A covenant

Here is how he gets there: first, he began by talking about God’s covenant with Abraham.  You have to understand something about a covenant.  A covenant was an irrevocable agreement – in Paul’s example, a will.  For those of you who have done estate planning, you may be thinking, “Well, I can revoke my will any time I want.” Under American law, that is true.  You can.  A covenant was different.  Once made, it is more binding than a will, a contract, or a verbal agreement.

In the ancient world, “cutting a deal” involved a literal cutting.  When God made a covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15, it was described like this, “[God] said to [Abraham], ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtledove, and a young pigeon.’ He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other. …When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the LORD made a covenant with [Abraham]…”

To the ancient ear – and those who read and studied the Torah like Paul – they understood the covenant ceremony.  The language of that ceremony would be roughly translated to us as, “May it be to me as with these (may I be physically broken, split apart, and killed) if I do not abide by the terms of the covenant.”  Once cut, the only way to avoid the consequences of failing to abide by the terms was to fulfill them.  In other words, you could not revoke your promise, change your mind, or avoid the consequences; your only way forward in life was to abide by the terms.  It was irrevocable.

The covenant God cut was for the benefit of Abraham and his seed – singular.[2]  Paul’s insight was in designating Jesus as Abraham’s seed, his heir.  In other words, Paul read Genesis 12 and 15 to mean that the blessing was to come through Abraham’s heir – Jesus – through whom all the other families of the earth would be blessed.

Note what Paul was doing here: he was undercutting the very foundation of those who had come from Jerusalem.  They were telling the Galatians demanding that Gentiles must become Jews in order to be good Christians.  They had always understood that the seed was Isaac.  They were children of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. Remember, the LORD told Moses at the Burning Bush that he was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  The law was given to Moses for Israel – that is, the tribes who were sons of Jacob.  “Being Jewish” was by definition someone who was bound to follow the law of Moses.

Paul would not argue that point.  Instead, he was arguing that God had revealed something bigger, better, and before the law.  The covenant and its promises of “an heir” were made 430 years – generations – before the giving of the law.  Thus, the promise of Jesus was before, better, and not bound by the law.  Paul’s point was the promise to Abraham meant following Christ did not require being Jewish.

The priority of the irrevocable covenant meant that the law was not able to modify it. Given later, the law stood apart from the covenant and did not add anything to it, take anything from it, or change anything in it.  The inheritance – the blessing – that comes from the covenant with Abraham was realized through Christ as a gift from God.

What was that gift?  Righteousness reckoned to us by faith was given to us.  Just like beneficiaries cannot do anything to earn their inheritance once the terms of the will are set, so believers cannot do anything to earn the grace God has freely covenanted and given.

If you are rolling your eyes thinking, “Ok, ok! We get it,” you need to know that Paul’s opponents from Jerusalem are still around today.  You come across them in very pious sounding articles that have scary headlines, like, Biblical Salvation: How It’s Possible To Be A Christian And Still Not Be “Saved”.  I am going to quote this at length and I want you to listen carefully to Paul’s opponents in modern language:

Growing up evangelical, one of the primary questions we were taught to ask strangers was: “Are you saved?”  Or, better yet: “If you died tonight do you know where you’d go?”

The concept of being saved was pretty simple, really: You’re a sinner headed for hell, Jesus died to take your punishment, and if you “ask him into your heart” you’ll go to heaven instead of hell. …But that’s not biblical salvation– biblical salvation has little to do with a secret transaction that points you toward heaven or sends you to hell, in the commonly understood sense.

While the NT term salvation can hold a variety of nuance, the ultimate contextual meaning of salvation in the NT is in reference for one who joined God’s Kingdom as proclaimed by Jesus.  Joining God’s Kingdom is much like joining any other Kingdom that has one who rules from a throne: you join by pledging your allegiance and obedience to the King– and then living that out.

*                           *                           *                          *                    *

Biblical salvation is directly linked to [the] net-result of actually doing [3] what Jesus said (aka, living the principles of his Kingdom).  This is precisely because biblical salvation has little to do with life after death (though it does some), but has a lot to do with life right now.  In fact, when Jesus uses the term “eternal life” in the NT, he often uses this term in the present tense.

Since the Kingdom Jesus proclaimed is founded upon very specific principles, a specific culture that must be lived out (see the Sermon on the Mount for his full manifesto), biblical salvation seems to be heavily focused on being saved from an old way of living, and saved into a new way of living– a way of life that Jesus described as “eternal.”

For those who reject Kingdom principles, for those who oppress the poor, for those who reject the immigrant, those who refuse the way of nonviolent enemy love, those who refuse to live out the culture of the Kingdom right now, it would be a stretch to say they are “saved” in the biblical sense, because until they put down their guns, feed the hungry, and welcome the immigrant, they have not yet entered God’s Kingdom and begun living in it.  They may have “asked Jesus into their heart” but they have not yet joined the Kingdom- and that’s what salvation is about.

Thus, salvation is not a transaction that is open and shut, taking place in totality within the recesses of one’s heart.  It surely begins in the heart, but salvation doesn’t end there– it is not possible to be “saved” in the biblical sense if one is not actively striving to be obedient to the King and the culture of the Kingdom– and Scripture speaks quite forcefully on this point.[4]

Let me walk you through this slowly because this is PRECISELY the guy Paul was addressing in the letter to the Galatians.  There are enough accurate statements to make the deadly inaccurate one seem true.

Here is the deadly inaccurate one: “Biblical salvation is directly linked to [the] net-result of actually doing what Jesus said (aka, living the principles of his Kingdom.)”  It is restated this way in the conclusion of his article, “it is not possible to be “saved” in the biblical sense if one is not actively striving to be obedient to the King and the culture of the Kingdom.”   For the author of the article, responsibility for your salvation resides with you.  You have to earn it and you have to continue earning it. You cannot have any assurance of your salvation – of righteousness being reckoned to you through faith in Jesus Christ – because you have not fully perfected yourself in Kingdom living.  You will not know if you have done enough until you die and are judged.  You have to earn your citizenship, you do not receive it as a gift.

I am harping on this because it is critical you understand the difference.  Who does the work of saving you?  You or God?  Paul wrote, “Grace to you and peace” come from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever.” (Galatians 1:3-5).  You are a sinner who has received a gift of grace. You have done nothing to earn your salvation.  The author is saying that you have to earn it by how you act and what you do. Paul responds, “For if the inheritance comes from the law (what you are required to do), it no longer comes from the promise.”  Paul specifically rejected the author’s line of thinking because “God granted [the inheritance] to Abraham through the promise.”

What is the difference?  The difference is living in a life of anxiety wondering if you have ever done enough to appease a God who does not tolerate sin – versus – the life of joyful freedom as an adopted child of God – the God who loves you enough to have redeemed you from that sin.  It was a terrible cost God paid to effect that redemption, but he loved you so much that he gave his only begotten Son so that you who believe in him would not perish, but have eternal life.

To be clear: it is important to understand our role as citizens of the kingdom of heaven. It is important how we respond to the salvation we have been given.  However, what we do is no factor in determining our salvation.  What the article’s author was describing actually was sanctification, not salvation.

  • Sanctification is how we are being conformed to the image of Christ, how we are being raised as children of God, how we are living into the kingdom of heaven. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”  Paul did not say, “earn your salvation with fear and trembling,” he said, “work it out.”  “Working out our salvation” means it is already yours, the rest of conforming to the image of Christ is the process of sanctification.
  • Sanctification begins in the heart with our salvation.
  • Sanctification is part of living into the eternal kingdom, the eternal kingdom which does include the here and now.
  • Sanctification is how we learn to live by kingdom principles; specifically, it is out of gratitude for the salvation we have been given that we are able to build up one another and to exhort one another to feed the hungry, comfort the grieving, clothe the naked. It is out of the overflowing love we have received from God in Christ that we are able to give to others – and not the other way around (give to others in order to receive love from God). 
  • Sanctification is the process by which Christ – the author/pioneer and the perfecter of our faith; that is, the one who begins it and completes it – it is Christ who – with rod and staff -- will lead us through the valley of the shadow of death.

And to put a further reminder on that:

What then are we to say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against us?  He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?  Who will bring any charge against God’s elect?  It is God who justifies.  Who is to condemn?  It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.  Who will separate us from the love of Christ?  Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  …No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.   (Romans 8:31-39).

Friends, please be discerning.  Understand the difference.  Who does the work of salvation – you or God?  God does: God did in Jesus Christ.

              Why The Law, Then?

Paul anticipated the next question the Galatians would ask – if not by themselves, certainly Paul’s opponents from Jerusalem would have been prompted them – if faith is all that matters, what was the point of the law?

Paul wrote, “It was added because of transgressions.”  What does that mean?  I found the best explanation in a commentary:

Imagine a state in which there are many traffic accidents but no traffic laws.  Although people are driving in dangerous, harmful ways, it is difficult to designate which acts are harmful until the legislature issues a book of traffic laws.  Then it is possible for the police to cite drivers for transgressions of the traffic laws.  The laws define harmful ways of driving as violations of standards set by the legislature.  The function of traffic laws is to allow bad drivers to be identified and prosecuted.[5]

In general, we get the idea.  The law was given by God to establish his priestly kingdom and holy nation.  Moses received it at Sinai. Israel was set apart to be an example to the rest of the families of the world.  They were not chosen because they were better or had earned God’s favor.  They were chosen because God chose them. They were not made righteous by the giving of the law.  Nor were they made righteous by the way they observed – or failed to observe – the law.  The law actually functioned to demonstrate how Israel and all of humanity (after Adam and Eve and the Fall) could not achieve real righteousness by their own actions.  The law was given to reveal to Israel its sin and to drive Israel back to God to restore them to life; instead, the law became a stumbling block to Israel as they picked and chose what to obey and what to ignore.

But then, Paul revealed the something bigger and better God had promised before the law: the blessing to Abraham:

The law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith.  But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian, for in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith.  As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 

These are some of the most profound and beautiful verses Paul wrote.  I am only touching on them here; I will pick them up again next week when we have more time to look at the consequences and outward rippling of Christ’s fulfilling God’s promise to Abraham. For today, it is sufficient that you hear these promises of what God has accomplished for those who are in Christ:

  1. There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.  
  1. And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise. 

Today, what I need you to hear is this: be discerning.  You did not earn your salvation. You do not have to earn it.  You cannot earn it.  Paul used this argument to drive home his rebuke for the foolish error of trying to pay for that which had already been received as a gift.

Know the difference.  The difference is living in a life of anxiety wondering if you have ever done enough – versus – the life of joyful freedom of an adopted child of God.  “Grace to you and peace” come from “God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to set us free from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father.”  Glory be to God.





  1. Who does the work of saving you – you or God? What difference does that make?  What difference has that made in your life?
  2. What is the difference between salvation and sanctification? How would you explain it to someone who is not familiar with the gospel?
  3. Though I only touched on it, consider the significance of Paul’s observation that – in Jesus, “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.” What does that mean for how we treat other believers?