Brethren, I speak in terms of human relations: even though it is only a man’s covenant, yet when it has been ratified, no one sets it aside or adds conditions to it. Now the promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. He does not say, “And to seeds,” as referring to many, but rather to one, “And to your seed,” that is, Christ. What I am saying is this: the Law, which came four hundred and thirty years later, does not invalidate a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to nullify the promise. For if the inheritance is based on law, it is no longer based on a promise; but God has granted it to Abraham by means of a promise.
Why the Law then? It was added because of transgressions, having been ordained through angels by the agency of a mediator, until the seed should come to whom the promise had been made. Now a mediator is not for one party only; whereas God is only one. Is the Law then contrary to the promises of God? May it never be! For if a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law. But the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.
Are There Two Paths to Glory?
My Brothers and Sisters in Christ:
The Christian church has had a debate going on within it since the beginning. Is it what we do that saves us, or is it faith? It seems pretty clear, right? But people continue to answer the question and then go right back to asking it in different forms. Sure, faith saves, but you gotta do something, you gotta be just so holy, you gotta feel something. In our Epistle lesson, this morning, Paul addresses the controversy again, and answers the question which is our theme, this morning, Are there two paths to glory?.
Have you noticed that our Epistles have been speaking a lot about glory lately? Glory is where we are headed, according to the Gospel, eternal life in glory. The real question is, how do you get there? Are there two paths to Glory? Can you get to heaven just any way, or in more ways than just one? The world seems to want you to think so. What is the truth, here?
That has been the question from the very beginning. Our human nature wants to be responsible – or at least it wants to be in charge and take credit for anything good that might come. The notion that our eternal destiny does not rest in our hands is objectionable to our nature. We want to earn it, or we want to choose it, or we want to have some say in the thing. The gift of God – which He pours out on all mankind alike – is not acceptable to many because we feel helpless, impotent. We don’t quite trust the gift, by nature because we cannot trust God due to our sin, and because we can clearly see many people who are obviously not going to heaven – and no one in their right mind would want to go to Hell. So there has to be some sort of identifiable difference between those who go to heaven and those who go to hell.
Of course, our nature refuses to see it as choosing to go to hell, because who in their right mind would choose to go to hell? No one! That’s who!
So, obviously, the choosing part has to be the individual choosing or earning or deserving heaven. The human race as a group cannot deal with the theological truth that we have all earned hell, and that we are all destined by nature to destruction. We think we’re pretty cool! We want the good stuff! So the Bible must have it wrong. One way to deny the truth of what Scripture teaches is to think that there is no life after death, except that human nature actually knows that there is, so it is only limited portion of mankind who can deceive themselves so thoroughly that they can walk boldly into hell saying to themselves that there is nothing there, and the red glow in their eyes is just their imagination, or the imagination of those crazy religion-people.
Others invent a cosmology much more to their own liking. They talk of a universe where they can go on – everyone can go on – to the same “next step”. Some go in joy and glory and others in shame and fear, but we just move on to the next, more wonderful world. It doesn’t matter that their image of the afterlife is drawn from whole-cloth, wild-eyed imaginings. It sounds better to them than hell.
Or, they imagine heaven and hell, but they switch the roles around. Those awful religionists – you know, Christians – are going to suffer, and the ordinary guy is going to go on to something better. Or, we build our own destiny. Only the most rotten people go on to perdition – people like Hitler and Stalin. The rest of us are really worth something in and of ourselves, merely by virtue of our existence. The only problem is that those cosmologies are all based in rejecting God and the Bible. They are the near-frantic wishful thinking of the unbelieving who can still feel the breath of God on the back of their necks.
But when you come to constructing a world-view with an eye toward eternity which takes Scripture into account, most people grab hold of the Law, because they can sense the rightness of it, and they build a hope of something after death founded upon their own goodness and decency. Sometimes they acknowledge that they need a bit of help, and thank God!, Jesus is there to make getting to heaven possible, or to finish the job that good works can only start, but we still need to do our part. After all, salvation cannot be just absolutely free, human nature needs something to do and measure up to before we can feel secure that we have salvation, and besides, what about those decent people who don’t believe everything and who aren’t - let’s face it - going to go to heaven. What is the difference between them and us? After all, there must be a difference – and the difference must be something within us or our conduct or our thinking or something about us!
The only possible answer (according to this line of reasoning) is the Law. Some of us deserve it because we act right, or think right or decide the right things. We make the difference, don’t ya know! And Paul in our text says, “You’re wrong.”
Salvation, he says, was given by God by agreement with Abraham, and it rested upon trust in the promise of God. “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness.” And the promise of God was spoken to Abraham and to his seed. This happened 430 years before the giving of the Law. So, salvation existed before there was any Law to fulfill in order to merit it. Therefore, salvation does not depend on the Law at all. Either that, or the Law of God invalidates the promise of God - in which case we are all in deep trouble because the Law sets the standard for salvation at perfect sinlessness. Remember the judgment of God, “The soul that sins shall die!” and “The wages of sin is death.”?
But, Paul writes to us by inspiration, the promises of God cannot be set aside, and the promises of God in regard to salvation are connected to a covenant with Abraham from long before the Law. So the Law is not the source of salvation, nor can it possibly be, both because it cannot invalidate God’s promises, and because it sets the standard for salvation beyond human ability - seeing as how we are born less than perfect from the very start.
So why was the Law given? That is how the argument of Paul continues. Why would God give us a Law that we cannot keep if He knows we cannot keep it!? That is how a Baptist friend with whom I had this discussion framed the question. God gave us the Law to do it, he said. If we could not keep it, God would not have given it to us. That is how he put it.
Paul answers in advance. It was given to us because of transgressions. That phrase means for the reason of transgressions. Yes, oddly, the law was given so that we would sin against it. God gave the law so that there would be an objective standard, one that we could see and sense the rightness of, that we would sin against anyhow. While God did not want us to sin, He knew we could not help it - and that we could not and would not see or believe our own wickedness, not without some outside help. So, He gave the Law. He gave it so that we would sin against something we ourselves judged to be clearly good and right, so that we would not be able to pretend holiness, but would have to admit and confess our sinfulness.
So the thing that men look to to prove their fitness for salvation is actually the thing God gave us to show us most clearly how undeserving and unworthy we truly are. He gave the law so that we would all be undeniably wicked and sinful even in our own eyes, when we looked at ourselves from God’s holy standard. That is what Paul calls, But the Scripture has shut up all men under sin. None of us can honestly say we have no sin. We can pretend, of course, but when we look into the Law, we see our guilt and shame. He did it for our blessing, though.
Paul finishes the sentence above like this, But the Scripture has shut up all men under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. We have been subjected the humiliation of the Law so that we would be prepared for and able to receive the gift of salvation. Nevertheless, that gift remains impossibly difficult for human nature to accept. But, as the hymn describes it, when sinners see their lost condition, they turn to the promise of God of forgiveness and life with joy and thanksgiving. Since you cannot earn or deserve it in the least, isn’t it wonderful that God has won salvation for you and gives it to you as a free gift? By grace you have been saved, though faith, and than no of yourselves, it is the gift of God, not on the basis of works, so that no one can boast.
Of course, even with that knowledge, human nature and human reason are hard to overcome. We still want to earn. We still want to merit it and have something to hold up and say, “See? I did this!” So human reason still insists that there is a part for us to play in causing our salvation or creating our own worthiness. Paul reminds us that if there were a law that could do that – by the keeping of which we could earn salvation – and it was something that we could do – then there would have been no need for the Gospel with all its forgiveness and gift of resurrection and eternal life. But there is no such law.
There is no community which can stand up and truly announce that they are the deserving ones, that they are holy while everyone else is corrupt and despicable. Christians cannot boast that they have eternal life or salvation because they did it right, or because they believed right, or because they were anything good. We are just like the people around us – sinners! We deserve what they deserve. We simply know and possess the gift of God. We know and believe that our salvation rests entirely on Jesus. Our salvation was already accomplished. Jesus lifted sin from us and bore it in His body on the cross to pay for our sin, and He gave us His righteousness and the life eternal which He had earned in exchange for our guilt and shame.
We can boast about Jesus! But not about ourselves. We can not only boast, but we can tell others, and thereby share the gift. It isn’t like a cash reward which you spend down and lose by using it. This is a gift which cannot be lost by sharing it, nor is it diminished by being spread over a larger group. We have the cure for death and the answer to sin and guilt and shame – and the comfort each of us needs in the times of sorrow that this world visits upon us so often, and the encouragement in times of despair or fear. God is in charge, and He loves you, and He has saved you to the uttermost! You are His and He is yours, and you have life everlasting in His name!
And best of all, death doesn’t touch it. Just because we see people die and we bury them doesn’t mean that they are gone forever. God has also given us resurrection from the grave. For them that believe, it is a wonderful gift: life without end in joy and peace and glory, with Jesus Christ. For those who choose not to let God save them, the resurrection is to something dark and painful, but also eternal. But when anyone hears of the gift of God in Jesus Christ, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, takes God at the word of His promise - he or she is forgiven, and even if they should die, they will rise again to everlasting life and we shall walk with them in glory because of all that Jesus, not us but Jesus, has done.
The answer of Paul to the question “Are there two paths to glory?” is No, just the path of the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
(Let the people say Amen)
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