2017 February Issue
Sermon Briefs: Galatians 4:4-7
Martin Luther found in Galatians a rich mine of sermon texts, and he turned to this passage on several occasions. In his sermon The Method and Fruits of Justification 1 he declares that this text expresses the heart of Paul's chief doctrine. This doctrine is not understood by many "because there is so little knowledge of faith left in the world."
Luther uses Cain and Abel throughout to explain the difference between good works and justification. Humans are not justified by their own good works. Perfect justification is attained in only one way: Hear Christ, throw yourself wholly on him, deny yourself, and distrust your own strength. By this means you shall be changed; you shall receive another reason and another will.
There are two sorts of works: Those before justification and those after it. All of the former are evil; unregenerated people are unable to do the good, for the fountain of their actions, the heart, is corrupted. Those who are justified, on the other hand, work nothing but good works.
Sincere preachers play a major role in bringing people to faith, which is the "strait gate" of which Christ speaks. Wholly a gift from God, faith enables us to be certain of our salvation. By it the whole inheritance of God is received. From thence good works come. Monasteries and colleges promote a doctrine of works that must be avoided.
By the coming of the Spirit we are changed from servants to children. Christians can tell that they have the Holy Spirit in them when they hear the divine voice crying in their hearts, "Abba, Father," and when their hearts are joyful, trusting, and confident.
Four centuries later when Luther's Germany had fallen under Nazi rule, a disciple of Luther addressed this text. Martin Niemoller preached his sermon Heirs of Salvation2 on the Sunday after Christmas in 1936. He begins with the lament of many of us preachers: Have we really heard the Christmas message aright in our churches? Or do our people remain "in bondage under the Law?"
All time finds its fulfillment in God's Son—both time which lies before him and time which lies after him. Therefore, we can have no greater hope than we have in him. His coming has broken open the prison in which we spend our days. It has fulfilled the law and enables us no longer to fear any law in the world.
The world tries to make its claims valid on us. It will not admit that it is transient and that it has been overcome by Christ. It insists that we are servants. We are harassed not only by the world around us but by "the world that leads its life within our hearts." This world also tries to put us in the bondage of the law.
Life under the law conforms fundamentally with our human nature. We want to do things ourselves. But the time of the law is past! God sent His Son and put Him under the law so that we may be redeemed, that we may be children of God through Him and with Him. The confidence that we are God's children does not come from our good works but from the fact that God sent His Son.
The Gospel of Christmas is the news of "the great joy which does and will and must revolutionize our lives."
When Nazi Germany's fury was unleashed on Great Britain, Arthur J. Gossip preached a collection of sermons that was published under the title Experience Worketh Hope;the sub-title was Being Some Thoughts for a Troubled Day. One of the sermons, God's Patience and Our Fretfulness3, focuses on Gal 4:4: "And when the time was fully come."
This eloquent Scot notes that God works in ways that are slow and often frustrating to us. God works in a very purposeful and timely manner. From all eternity the plan was in God's heart to give us Jesus Christ, yet God kept the gift back until people "had grown up enough to feel their need of it" and could thrill to the adventure to which Christ called them.
The time in which God chose to give Christ to humanity was a time "quite curiously like our own"—a time of disillusionment, desperation, and challenge. In the terrible events of World War II, God has been shepherding us "into this narrow place" so that, with our pride broken and our need of God made clear to us, we may at last be willing to accept what is offered to us in Christ? It fortifies our souls to know that there is One who never forgets us "nor the lads for whom our hearts are anxious." "Can anyone but God meet such colossal needs and sinfulness?"
Christ supremely emphasized the value of every human soul. This claim in incredible, considering the vastness of the universe. The fact that you are here at all is proof that God has need of you. Your work only you can do. "You, too, were thought out by Almighty God from all eternity as the likeliest of all possible creatures to do that work He needs from you."
Don't give up! One more prayer, one more act of faith, added to all the others, may bring you into the fulfillment for which you have been laboring. No one who believes in Christ will ever be disappointed.
Phillips Brooks preached on this text on a Sunday after Christmas.4 He says that this message of redemption addresses three human problems: (1) The problem of trouble and sorrow. The Gospel of reconciliation overleaps even death, for by it we are received securely into the Father's house.
(2) The problem of the feeling of the insignificance of life. The Gospel tells us with authority that life has meaning.
(3) The problem of sin. When Christ says, "Thy sins are forgiven thee," he is speaking the words that he most loves to speak.
God's ministry to us validates itself: "If you will read your own hearts, you will know that you belong to God."
1. Fant and Pinson, eds., Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching (Waco: World Books, 1971), Vol. 2, pp. 52-65. 2. Martin Niemoller, The Gestapo Defied (also published as God Is My Fuehrer) (1941), pp. 64-71. 3. Arthur J. Gossip, Experience Worketh Hope (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1945), pp. 146-53. 4. Phillips Brooks, Sermons for the Principal Festivals and Fasts of the Church Year (vol. 7 of the standard 10 volume set), pp. 97-109.