Saturday, August 20, 2011

Living by faith

Dr Beng | Call It Grace
Sermon given on 20 Mar 2011.


In the last few months, our focus has been on the theme of "Discipleship". The first thing that usually comes to mind whenever we hear this word is a list of how-to's: How to pray, how to grow spiritually, how to draw near to God and so on. In fact, when I was first given this topic to preach, that's the kind of list that went through my mind. As I thought and prayed about what I should say, I realized that it is critically important for us to understand the very foundation upon which we are called to be disciples.

Imagine if we went through our whole lives doing all the things which we thought disciples should be doing, and we thought we were doing a good job. And then on the last day, Jesus turns to us and says: "Depart from me, I never knew you, you workers of iniquity." What a shock that would be!  Yet Jesus warned us that we should build our foundation upon the rock and not upon sand. How do we make sure that we have done this?

Believing, not just doing

I would like to put to you that being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ is more about having FAITH in what Christ has DONE for us, than about what we are to DO as disciples. To put it simply, it's more about BELIEVING, than it is about DOING.

You see, in talking about discipleship, we always face the danger of losing sight of the Gospel. The Gospel isn't about learning how to be good or finding peace and happiness or being able to deal with the troubles we face in life. Our main problem is our SIN, and the Gospel is simply the proclamation that Christ has paid the penalty for the sins of those who believe in Him, and has given to them His perfect righteousness. Christianity is a "DONE" religion. God has done everything that is necessary to secure the salvation of those who belong to Him. All we need to do is to believe.

Work OUT your salvation, not work FOR your salvation

Yes, no doubt, as Christians, we are to PURSUE holiness and to DO the good works which the Father has prepared beforehand for us to do (Eph 2:10). But these come AFTER we have been saved – they are the FRUITS of our salvation. We must never confuse the FRUITS with the GROUND of our salvation, which is faith in Jesus Christ alone. Whatever we do as disciples - whether striving for holiness, preaching the Gospel or caring for the poor - we must remember that we do these things not in order to get to heaven, but because we are already going there. Discipleship is about working OUT our salvation. It is never about working FOR our salvation.

Please turn with me to Gal 2:19,20, which is our text for today. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

The letter to the Galatians was written by Paul in response to a crisis being faced by the church there. A group of false teachers (the Judaizers) had come from Jerusalem, and they were teaching that it was necessary for the Gentile believers to be circumcised. Mind you - they were not saying that you didn't need to have faith in Christ. You had to have faith in Christ BUT you also had to obey the Law of Moses, which included circumcision. This was absolutely contrary to the core of the Gospel message - that we are justified by faith alone in Jesus Christ and not by obeying the works of the Law. In other words, all we need to be declared righteous in God's eyes is to believe in Jesus Christ, and nothing more.

Paul rebukes Peter

In Gal 2:11 we see Paul describing how another group of Judaizers had arrived in Antioch with their false teachings. Peter, who had until then been eating freely with the Gentile believers, stopped doing so, because he knew that according to the Law of Moses, Jews should not be eating with Gentiles, who were considered unclean. Don't forget - this was the same Peter who had been told by God in a vision three times not to call unclean what God has called clean. Yet he was somehow afraid of these Judaizing teachers, and wanted to please them. Peter's fear of man overcame him, just as it did when he denied Christ three times. His hypocrisy was so great that it began to affect the other Jewish believers, including Barnabas. They began to follow his example of not eating with the uncircumcised Gentile believers.

When Paul saw what was happening, he rebuked Peter in front of everyone, because what was at stake was no less than the integrity of the Gospel. The doctrine of justification by faith alone is laid out by Paul in Gal 2:16: We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. This is such a crucial doctrine that Martin Luther calls it "the article by which the church stands or falls", and it was the main reason for the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century.

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live to God. What does Paul mean by this statement?

Well, if anyone could have been justified by the works of the law, it would have been Paul. After all, he was "a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to righteousness under the law, blameless." Outwardly anyway. But Paul considered all of this as rubbish, compared to "the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus Christ as my Lord, and obtaining the righteousness that comes through faith in Christ."

Dying to the law as a means of justification. After trying all his life to become righteous before God by obeying the Law, Paul finally realized that he had failed miserably. The Law which said "Thou shalt not covet", convicted him of the covetousness within his heart - he knew he was guilty, and he knew God could see it, even if no one else could. And so he died to the Law in the sense that he gave up on it as a means of being justified before God. He knew it was impossible. It was the Law convicting him of his sin that led him to this conclusion. This is why he says it was THROUGH the Law that he died to the Law. And it was only in dying to the Law in this way that he could finally live to God.

Martin Luther

Martin Luther was very much like Paul. Trained as a lawyer, he saw very clearly that he was rightfully exposed to God's wrath. He knew that the greatest commandment was to love God with all his heart, soul mind and strength. Yet he confessed: "You ask me if I love God? I hate God!" This was because he only saw God as a strict and righteous judge out to condemn him, and he knew that he was rightfully condemned. His guilty conscience tortured him day and night, and he tried to soothe it by living a very strict lifestyle as a monk. Now, in those days, monks would whip themselves to show penance, and he is said to have whipped himself until he became unconscious. In fact, he declared that "if ever a man could have been saved by becoming a monk, it would have been I." But he knew deep in his heart that it was all in vain.

In the preface to his commentary on Romans, he writes: "It is one thing to do the works of the law and quite another to fulfill it. The works of the law are the things we try to do (in our own power) to obey the law. But because in doing such works the heart hates the law and yet is forced to obey it, the works become completely useless. The law is spiritual, which means that no one can satisfy it unless everything he does springs from the depths of the heart. To fulfill the law means to do its work eagerly, lovingly and freely, without the constraint of the law; it means to live well and in a manner pleasing to God, as though there were no law or punishment."

Martin Luther knew, as Paul did, that he could never truly fulfill the Law from the depths of his heart in the way that God demanded, because he couldn't help but rebel against the Law. That's why when God revealed to him the true meaning of Rom 1:17: "The righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith, as it is written, The righteous shall live by faith.", it was as though, in his own words, "he entered Paradise itself through open gates". He realized that this verse was describing not an active righteousness which God demands of man, but the passive righteousness which is given as a free gift to all those who have faith in Jesus Christ. All that's needed for us to receive this righteousness is to believe. When Martin Luther realized this, he, too, died to the Law, and he found that he could finally live to God.

I have been crucified with Christ

In verse 20, Paul says: "I have been crucified with Christ." What does he mean? Well, remember that he has just said that he has died to the Law. And so in this verse, Paul is explaining HOW he has died to the Law - by being crucified with Christ. In other words, he is saying that when Jesus Christ was being crucified on the cross, he, Paul, was hanging right there with Him on that cross - not literally, of course, but he was indeed there in a very real, spiritual sense, being united with Christ by faith.

And when God was pouring out His wrath on His Son who was hanging on that cross, it was as though He saw Paul hanging there. The wrath that was being poured out was rightfully meant for Paul (and for all of us), but it was poured out on Jesus.

And when Christ finally died on the cross - as far as God was concerned, Paul also died on the cross. And we, all of us who are united with Christ by faith, have also been crucified with Christ and died with Christ on that cross. The debt that we owe to God, the penalty due to us for our unspeakable sin against an infinitely good and holy God, the God who created us and blessed us with life – that debt has been paid in full by our Lord Jesus Christ. He suffered and died in our place.

It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me

Paul goes on to clarify that although he has been crucified with Christ, he still lives. And yet it is no longer the old Paul who continues to live, but Paul the new man, who is united with Christ. It is Christ Himself who now lives His life through Paul.

Now, Paul is not saying he's a zombie. He is still Paul of Tarsus, with his intellect, his personality and all of his faculties intact. The only difference is that he is now no longer in charge. He has been bought with a price - he is not his own. He has a new master. He is now being led by the Holy Spirit who is changing him into the image of Christ - to think and act like Christ in everything he does.

This is what Paul means when he says that Christ lives in him. And this is the characteristic of every single person who belongs to Jesus Christ - that the Holy Spirit lives in us, and leads us.

The life I now live in the flesh

The "flesh" refers to the corrupt desires within us that are at war with the desires of the Spirit (Gal 5:17). The fact is that as long as we live here on earth, we will continue to sin because of our fallen human nature. No doubt, in Christ we are new creatures, but the remnants of our old nature still remain to trouble us.

There is a striking illustration of this in the story of the resurrection of Lazarus. We are told that as he walked out of the tomb, he still had his hands and feet bound with linen strips. They probably still bore the stench of his rotting flesh. Although he had been given new life, the remnants of his old life, the reminders that he was once dead in his sins, still clung to him and bound him. They still had to be removed, layer by layer, before he was completely free.

It is the same with us after we have come to Christ. Although we have been born again, our old corruptions still cling to us, and the rest of our lives will be a continual process of eradicating the old man - of subduing the desires of the flesh and being made more and more like Christ.

As we grow in our Christian lives, God will reveal to us more and more how sinful we really are, and this will humble us, as we see ourselves for who we are. At the same time, as the Holy Spirit continues to work in us, we can expect to sin less, because we are no longer under the dominion of sin. But we will never, on this side of heaven, become completely sinless. Paul's struggle in Romans 7 testifies to this. The process of sanctification will not end until we are glorified - that is, until the day we die, or when Christ returns. But we can rest assured, as the Bible promises, that He who began this good work in us will bring it to completion.

I live by faith in the Son of God

Paul says that the life he now lives in the flesh, with all its weaknesses and failings and sinfulness, he lives by faith in the Son of God. This is an echo of Habakkuk 2:4 - "The righteous shall live by faith." - a verse which is quoted at least three times in the New Testament.

What does Paul mean when he says he lives by faith? Remember the context of Galatians, and especially chapter 2, and the burning issue being discussed, which is that we are justified by faith alone and not by works of the Law. So, if we are to take this verse in its proper context, we must conclude that Paul here is talking about living by faith in Christ as opposed to living by the Law. In other words, instead of spending his life trying to live up to the Law in a vain attempt to be righteous before God, he lives the rest of his life by faith - simply trusting in the perfect and sufficient work of Christ to justify him.

True saving faith

We are to live by faith in the Son of God. But what IS faith? Faith is not simply believing that God exists and that a man named Jesus died on a cross two thousand years ago.

True saving faith is a gift from God, whereby we find ourselves believing the Gospel when we hear it being proclaimed, and personally trusting in it for our salvation. The Holy Spirit Himself will bear witness within our hearts that what we read in the Bible is true. It will lead us to abandon all hope in any other way of salvation, including and especially by our own works of righteousness.

Let me try to illustrate this. Have any of you ever had to be rescued from the top of a ski mountain? I have. I won't bore you with the details of how and why I needed to be rescued. But let me tell you how the rescue is done. They have this modified sled which functions as a stretcher. It looks like a shallow bathtub, and you're supposed to get into it, and lie down inside it. Then they make you put your arms by your side, and strap you in tightly so that you can't move around. It's kind of like being in a coffin. Then you're supposed to lie there without doing anything except to put your full trust in your rescuer while he safely brings the stretcher all the way down the ski slope to the base of the mountain.

To me, that's what true saving faith is. To commit myself entirely into the hands of Jesus Christ and refrain from my own works-righteousness, trusting that Christ and Christ alone will bring me safely home.

Who loved me and gave Himself for me

Paul knew Christ loved him, and that was the basis of his faith in Christ. Greater love has no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. If you can't trust someone who lays down His life for you, then there's no one you can trust.

Notice also that Paul doesn't say "I live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave Himself for us." No. What does he say? He says: "I live by faith in the Son of God who loved ME and gave Himself for ME". Saving faith is an intensely personal thing.


We now come to the application. You may ask, what has all this to do with discipleship? As I said at the very beginning, it has everything to do with discipleship. Since we are justified by faith and not by works, we should live by faith and not by our works.

Co-operating with God?

Some people have the mistaken idea that coming to Christ and becoming a Christian is only the entrance ticket into a life of discipleship. After that, we have to work really hard, cooperating with God to make sure we keep our faith and don't lose our salvation. Did you know that this is the official doctrine of the Roman Catholic Church - that you must have works as well as faith in order to be saved? That is exactly what the Judaizers were teaching! And that's why there was a Reformation - to redeem the original doctrine found in the Bible - that salvation is by faith alone and not by works. We may not be Roman Catholics, but sometimes we forget that and start to think that we must supplement our faith with works.

Discipleship is NOT about cooperating with God or partnering with God in order to be saved. Remember what I said right at the very beginning - Christianity is a "DONE" religion. The works of the flesh can add nothing more. Paul puts it this way in Gal 3:2-3:

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?


The problem with us is that we so easily turn discipleship into a performance-based affair, and start to introduce KPI's for ourselves – key performance indicators. We make resolutions and set spiritual goals and try all sorts of man-made methods to achieve them in our own strength. We follow every spiritual fad that comes along (Promise-Keepers, Holy Laughter, the Purpose Driven Life), hoping that it will give us the secret of spiritual success, and allow us to live the so-called "Victorious Christian Life". And when we fail, we feel bad about ourselves and think that we have disappointed God, and (worst of all) that He somehow loves us a little less.

Have we forgotten what the good news of the Gospel is about? God showed His love for us in that while we were yet SINNERS, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). God's love for us is eternal and does not change! It does not depend on our spiritual performance as disciples! It never has and it never will. It is by grace that we have been saved through faith!

Why are we so prone to fall into works-righteousness? It is because of the pride that exists in our fallen human nature. We would like to think that there is at least a little something we can contribute to our salvation, a spark of goodness in us. The problem is, we have too high a view of ourselves, and too low a view of God's perfect standard of righteousness. We refuse to acknowledge the fact that we are hopelessly fallen and utterly ruined in the presence of a holy God, and can do nothing to save ourselves.

Let's say you're standing before the Great White Throne on Judgment Day, and God asks you: "Why should I let you into My heaven?" - what would you say?

Do you know that in a survey, a large majority of those who identify themselves as Christians gave replies which pointed to some form of works-righteousness? "I've tried my best to be a good person. I've never hurt anyone. I've always loved my neighbour as myself. I've served God faithfully in the church all these years. I've been a faithful witness for God. I've led a Purpose-Driven life."

When we, as Christians, depend on works-righteousness to become acceptable to God, we are in effect "nullifying the grace of God", as Paul says in Gal 2:21. And we are insulting God, because if righteousness could come through works, then Christ died for no purpose.

The truth is (as it always has been) that we are only acceptable to God when we are covered by a righteousness that is not our own, the righteousness that comes through faith in Jesus Christ. To live by faith is simply to remember this truth throughout our lives.

The problem of sin in our lives - "simul justus et peccator"

We all struggle with sin in our lives. Anyone who claims to have reached a state of sinless perfection contradicts what the Bible says in 1 John 1:8:

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

There is a certain "tension", as Pastor puts it in an earlier sermon, between the life lived "in the flesh", and the life lived by faith.

Martin Luther had a phrase to describe this state in which a Christian lives: "simul justus et peccator" - "Righteous, and at the same time, a sinner."

On the one hand, the fact is that we are miserable sinners – always being tempted by the devil and our own desires, and often falling into sin. On the other hand, because of our faith in Jesus Christ, we are justified - we are regarded as perfectly righteous in God's sight. Let me emphasize that we have no righteousness of our own. It is only because we are in Christ, and Christ is in us, that God regards us as having the perfect righteousness of Christ. I might add that we should be very bold, even boastful, about this righteousness we have in Christ, because it is a perfect righteousness that saves perfectly. We have no need to be modest about it.

And so this is what a Christian is - simul justus et peccator - a miserable sinner, yet at the same time, perfectly righteous in the sight of God through faith in Jesus Christ. To live by faith is to remember this, and rejoice in it.

But how does this translate into practice? Well, being in the flesh means that we sin a thousand times a day, whether we realize it or not. And when we sin, Satan (who is described as "the accuser of the brethren"), tries to destroy our faith (which is the most precious thing we have). He does this by accusing our conscience: "Are you sure God still loves you? Are you sure you're good enough for Him? You've disappointed him, you know. You've betrayed him, after all he's done for you. I know your dirty thoughts. I saw that nasty thing that you did just now."

To live by faith is to immediately confess our sins when we become aware of them, and to repent. It is to wholeheartedly agree, when Satan accuses us: "Yes, I am guilty. I'm a miserable sinner, and I know it!", and THEN turn to Christ by faith, trusting that He has already paid the price for all of our sins once for all - past, present and future – because, if you think about it, all of our sins were in the future when Christ died on the cross for them. By faith, we can boldly proclaim the promises in Rom 8:

If God is for us, who can be against us? Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who can condemn us? Christ Jesus is the one who died for us, who is at the right hand of God interceding for us.

Looking to Jesus

To live by faith is to keep our eyes fixed on Jesus Christ crucified. We must never forget the Gospel - we must preach the Gospel to ourselves every day and rejoice in it!

No doubt, we are to be ever mindful of our sins, and mourn them, that we may remain in a humble state of mind. But we are also to rejoice daily in the fact that God's mercy is greater than our sins!

Trusting in God's providence

To live by faith is also to trust implicitly in God's providence. The word "providence" does not merely mean that God provides for our physical needs such as food, clothing, shelter and so on. Indeed, He does supply all our needs - all the blessings we enjoy in our lives, for which we should daily give thanks.

But He is the One who also sends trials and tribulations - to refine our faith. He inflicts pain on our physical bodies - to humble us and remind us that we are but dust. He takes away our possessions - to wean us from the love of this world. He allows our loved ones to disappoint us and to hurt us - in order to drive our souls to find fulfillment and satisfaction in Him alone. And yes, He sends earthquakes and tsunamis - to compel us to seek our safety in Christ alone, and to teach us to have compassion and to weep with those who weep. All these things are also part of God's providence.

The Bible tells us in Rom 8:28:

All things work together for good to them that love God.

The good that is spoken of here is our greatest good – being with Christ in heaven. Living by faith is to believe that whatever happens to us is planned by God for our own good. So whether I'm stuck in a traffic jam, or I've just lost my job, or I've just been diagnosed with cancer – whatever situation I find myself in – I can know with full assurance that this is exactly where my loving heavenly Father wants me to be, and that it will work out for my ultimate good.

Now, like many things in life, this is easier said than done. When the crunch comes, when our faith in God's providence is being tested: I can tell you - it will not be easy. That's why we have to cling by faith to God's promise in 1 Cor 10:13: There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it.

God's promises

To live by faith is to believe all the promises in the Bible concerning the perseverance of the saints: That no one can snatch us out of His hand, or separate us from His love. That He will finish the good work which He began in us, because He Himself is the author and finisher of our faith. That Christ is at the right hand of the throne of God interceding for us, and that He is able to keep what we've committed to Him against that day.

There is a wonderful assurance that comes when we trust in Christ alone for salvation, because we know that He will never fail us. If we were to depend on our own righteousness, we could never have that assurance. We could only hope that our pathetic best would be good enough for God – but that's only wishful thinking - and we know it.


One last thing: Does this mean we can forget about seeking holiness and obeying the Law of God? After all, if Christianity is a "DONE" religion, why bother trying to be holy?

Well, what does the Bible say? It says: "You shall be holy, for I am holy."


As Christians, we are called to be holy. The wonderful reality of the Christian life is that God Himself puts in us a desire to become holy. He changes us so that the desire to fulfill the Law springs from the depths of our hearts eagerly, lovingly and freely, as Luther puts it. In Ezek 36:26-27 we read:

I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. I will put my Spirit within you, and I will cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.

This change of heart - this "heart transplant" - is a work which God Himself does. It is not anything that we can achieve on our own.

When God has changed our hearts, our new hunger to fulfill the Law will not lead to instant holiness (there is no such thing as instant holiness), but it will energize us to press on to reach the goal. And as the Holy Spirit works in us, we will find ourselves slowly but surely being changed into the image of Christ. Again, this will not be an easy process, and we will experience many setbacks as we struggle to overcome our selfish, sinful desires. Without the Holy Spirit, it would be a hopeless endeavour. And that is why we need to live by faith - believing that God will keep His promise and will finish the good work He began in us.

Justified by faith alone

I hope that by now, you have come to a better understanding of this passage. If you remember nothing else, remember this: We are justified by faith alone and not by works, and therefore we are to live by faith. To live by faith is to keep our eyes on Jesus and preach the Gospel to ourselves every day. It is to place our souls entirely in the hands of Christ alone and to trust in God's providence for our lives.

As we strive to be faithful disciples, let us make sure that we have built our foundation upon the rock, which is faith in Jesus Christ, and not upon the sand of our own works. Let us live the rest of our lives by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave Himself for us.

Related article:
The Dark Side, the Grace of God and Obedience

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