Have you ever seen the Denzel Washington movie “Man on Fire?” If you haven’t Denzel (who is ex-CIA and a former U.S. Marine Corps Officer who specialized in reconnaissance - he was basically an assassin for the U.S. government) is hired to be the private bodyguard of a nine-year-old little girl named Pita (played by Dakota Fanning).
While the gig initially seemed straightforward (and a bit beneath the skill set of our hero) things take a turn when Pita is kidnapped and Denzel is seriously injured trying to save her.
Now I’m fast-forwarding through a lot of good stuff and essential plot development, but to make a long story short… The dead drop of the ransom money goes bad so the kidnappers threaten to kill Pita which prompts Denzel to take matters into his own hands.
For the next hour and a half this “Man on Fire” leaves behind a trail of death and carnage as he tracks down leads into who’s ultimately responsible for this act against this little girl… Which includes brutally torturing and killing anyone with information: low level criminals, syndicate crime bosses, corrupt police officers, dirty lawyers, even Pita’s own dad (who it turns out was initially behind the kidnapping so he could collect on the insurance money).
Initially, it might seem a bit peculiar why a man relatively new to Pita’s life would end up going to such lengths to save her; and yet, there is a scene right before the action commences that provides a little insight into his core motivation. (PLAY CLIP)
Understand… The reason Denzel takes a bullet to defend Pita and then becomes this “Man on Fire” in an attempt to rescue her is because his relationship with that little girl had effectively saved his life! You see when Denzel’s character first took the job he was an alcoholic suffering from extreme depression and severe guilt as a result of his former life.
While he had at first resisted Pita’s continual attempts to strike up a friendship, by the time of her kidnapping her unusual kindness and grace had unquestionably won him over. Understand, her love that had freed him from the very things that were destroying him. Their relationship filled his life with both meaning and purpose. Denzel is so grateful for the impact of Pita’s kindness that he’s even willing to lay down his life if it meant saving hers.
As you read Galatians you need to keep in mind that Paul is equally a “Man on Fire.” He had just received a report while in Athens that the Gospel message that had freed him from his former life, liberated him from the guilt of his past, and had now filled his life with meaning and purpose (his Pita sort of speak) had been abducted by a group of false teachers now peddling a distorted Anti-Gospel of “Grace, And” - “Grace, But” - and “Grace, So.”
Paul is so struck, alarmed, and angry by what’s taking place that he immediately moves into action by writing this letter to the churches in Galatia with the specific intention of rescuing grace and defending her from the clutches of those seeking to distort her.
Because of the urgency of the situation Paul skips a customary greeting, cuts out all formalities, and gets right to the point… Galatians 1:6-7, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.”
He continues… Galatians 1:8-9, “But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again, if anyone preaches any other gospel to you than what you have received, let him be accursed.”
Can’t you hear Paul’s intensity… his passion! He’s launching verbal hand grenades with pen and parchment! I mean consider the fact that Paul is so strong, so fierce in his defense of the Gospel message that he has no problems saying that anyone who’d dare “preach another gospel” should “be accursed” or literally “be anathema” - eternally damned to hell.
There is no questioning the seriousness by which Paul saw this situation… What was taking place in Galatia… The distorting and perverting of God’s grace! It’s why he repeats himself for emphasis… “In case you think I misspoke or wasn’t clear the first time…”
And here’s why Paul was so incensed… Basing God’s favor on anything other than His grace alone is to say the precious blood spilt by Jesus on the cross is simply not good enough - that His sacrifice isn’t sufficient. It’s a damnable proposition!
Observation #1: Be careful who you allow to “preach to you.” The sad reality is just because someone is ordained, went to seminary, wears a funky collar, has a degree on the wall, or a title in front of their name… Just because someone stands behind a pulpit, claims to be a Christian, and teach “the Gospel” does not guarantee they’re actually presenting the Gospel.
Paul’s core point is that… Since this issue of “Grace.” had been settled and was an foundational and essential component of the Gospel message anyone who presented a contrary message, even if it be “an angel from heaven,” needed to be rejected!
It’s interesting to note that Paul even warns, “If we preach any other gospel…” The sad reality is that even those who understand the Gospel of “Grace.” can so very quickly slip into the trappings of what the flesh craves “Grace, And” - “Grace, But” - or “Grace, So.”
Observation #2: It’s ok to call out a person’s theology when the issue at hand concerns the true nature of the Gospel! Keep in mind Paul was not calling them out to be mean… He was calling them out because what these false teachers were peddling to the people was in effect minimizing the sufficiency of Christ’s atoning work on the cross!
Aside from the obvious… Let me explain why our “Man on Fire” goes right after these false teachers in such the way that he does… A distorted theology of grace will prove detrimental to a person’s spiritual walk. Because a person’s theological positions drive their personal behaviors which in turn produce lasting consequences, proper theology really does matter! Correct theology insures healthy Christians!
Observation #3: “What we have preached to you…” It’s important to point out that Paul is affirming that this doctrinal position of the Gospel being “Grace.” was not unique to only himself, but that it was something universally taught and accepted by the early church fathers (the matter had been settled at the first Jerusalem Council in Acts 15).
Galatians 1:10, “For do I now persuade men, or God? Or do I seek to please men? For if I still pleased men, I would not be a bondservant of Christ.”
This is an interesting verse because it seems like Paul is addressing an accusation these false teachers were using to explain to the Galatians why he had presented an “incomplete Gospel.” Basically, these Jews were claiming Paul preached “Grace.” at the expense of the real Gospel of “Grace, And” and “Grace, But” because it was easier to sell to the Gentiles.
Now Paul points to the reality he’s just damned those who were distorting the theology of grace as evidence he wasn’t a “man-pleaser” and that this accusation was unfounded.
Side Point: Notice Paul does says, “For if I still pleased men…” Greek word “pleased” means “to accommodate one’s self to the opinions, desires, and interest of others.” The implication is that at one point in his life Paul was indeed a “man-pleaser.” And yet, now Paul declares he was a “bondservant of Christ.” This word “bondservant” in the Greek is “doulos” which referred to a “slave who’s given himself over to another’s will.”
Note: Paul was not a “slave of Christ” by force of will, to pay a debt, or make restitution. He didn’t serve Jesus because he had to… Paul was a slave by the freedom of choice!
Observation: It’s impossible to please men if your main interest is serving God. And it’s impossible to serve God if your main focus is on pleasing man!
Jesus would say towards the end of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 6:24), “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be loyal to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and mammon.”
Galatians 1:11-12, “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
As we noted in our “Prologue to Galatians” in order to undermine Paul’s message of “Grace.” these false teachers first focused on undermining the man himself. They questioned his apostleship, his authority, his backstory, and his motivations to discredit his message.
And while Paul has already defended the essence of his Apostolic authority (Galatians 1:1, “An apostle (not from men nor through man, but through Jesus Christ and God the Father)…” and he’s made mention that the message of the Gospel he taught was in line with the accepted doctrine of the church (Galatians 1:8, “What we have preached to you”)… Paul now seeks to explain to the Galatians how he had received this Gospel of “Grace.”
He says the origin of the Gospel was “not according to man” (inspiration) nor did he “receive it from man” (discovery), “but it came (to him) through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Paul is saying this doctrine of “Grace.” did not originate in his mind nor was it “taught” to him by someone else; instead, he affirms the Gospel message was “revealed” to him by Jesus… Which makes sense and is entirely logical for how could anyone truly know or be so audacious to claim “Grace.” apart from God this intention?
As we noted last Sunday the sad reality is that there are many who deliberately distort grace in order to maintain power over their fellow man or their own lives; however, “Grace.” is such a radical idea because it removes all the power from man.
I can say, “Grace, And” -“Grace, But” - “Grace, So” and give God His due while still retaining a measure of control; but, if God says, “Grace.” the power in that statement rests solely in Jesus no longer providing room for my controlling grasp.
After explaining how he received the Gospel of Grace, Paul then explains how receiving that Gospel radically changed his life (and why he’s now a “Man on Fire” in its defense).
Galatians 1:13-14, “For you have heard of my former conduct in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. And I advanced in Judaism beyond many of my contemporaries in my own nation, being more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of my fathers.”
Paul’s “former conduct in Judaism…” He says he “advanced beyond many of his contemporaries” being “more exceedingly zealous for the traditions of his fathers.” To this point Paul would later describe himself in Philippians 3:5 as being “circumcised the eighth day, of the stock of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of the Hebrews…”
Aside from this we also know Paul was “the son of a Pharisee” (Acts 23:6) and according to his own words in Acts 22:3 “was brought up in Jerusalem at the feet of Gamaliel, taught according to the strictness of our fathers' law, and was zealous toward God.” By the time Paul became of age he had become a Pharisee himself and likely member of the Sanhedrin.
Though Paul’s mentor (a famous Rabbi named Gamaliel) had urged a passive approach be taken towards the followers of Jesus who were known as “the Way” (Acts 5), Paul was so zealous in his defense of Judaism that he personally instigated a “persecution of the church beyond measure” with the specific intention of trying to “destroy it!”
In Acts 7:58 we’re told that as a mob “cast Stephen out of Jerusalem and stoned him. The witnesses laid down their clothes at the feet of a young man named Saul.”
Then just a few verses later in Acts 8:1-3 we read that Paul was so visceral towards the church of Jesus that he “was consenting to his death” and “made havoc of the church, entering every house, dragging off men and women, committing them to prison.”
Even after a year on the march Acts 9 opens with Paul “still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord.” Sadly, according his own words in both Acts 22 and 26, Paul justified his murderous actions as being spawned by a “zealousness toward God” and a deep conviction that “he must do things contrary to the name of Jesus.”
Understand, Paul wanted to destroy Christianity because the very idea of salvation and sanctification as being a work of God’s “Grace.” was an affront to his entire religious system!
And yet, here’s the irony… In his zeal to defend the law Paul was admitting that he had in turn become a violator of the law! In writing to the Galatians it’s as though he’s saying, “You know of my former life in Judaism… What did my devotion to the law actually produce? I ended up being an enemy of God and was killing people in the process!”
This is what religion does! Since religion creates a false perception of ones standing before God, it subsequently warps how a person not only sees themselves but how they interact with their fellow man!
One of the reasons religious people are a drag to hang around is that they’re often hyperaware of your shortcomings and yet completely unaware of their own!
There is a reason for this… When a person embraces religion (word means “tethering”) by adopting a “Grace, And” or a “Grace, But” moral structure as the basis of how they earn and maintain God’s favor this person will by default hold everyone they know to that same moral standard and thereby judge everyone they know accordingly.
You see religion (things to do and things to refrain from doing) provides the religious person a mechanism by which they can maintain their own sense of moral superiority and right-standing with God by highlighting, comparing, and condemning the failures of others.
It’s why religious people have the reputation of being mean, judgmental, unkind, spiteful, and stuck up. It’s been said, “The worst thing about religion is religious people.” I would add by pointing out the worst thing about religious people is religion!
Anne Graham Lotz said, “It has been religious people, often within the organized church, who have been the most critical of and even hostile to my relationship with God.”
However, if a person rejects religion and instead embraces their standing before God as being through His “Grace.” they no longer have any basis to judge their fellow man or see themselves as being morally superior because God’s favor is both given and maintained independent of their involvement.
Think of it this way… If you’re climbing a moral ladder to God it’s entirely possible for you to judge those below you; but, in contrast, it’s really hard to be judgmental or have a sense of moral superiority when you find yourself at the foot of the cross!
Because religion leads to self-righteousness as opposed to the sole sufficiency of His-Righteousness, as Pastor Joe Focht rightly said, “Religion makes us the enemy of grace!”
Paul’s religious zeal (the “Grace, And” and “Grace, But” moral structure) only served to blind him to the reality that while he thought he was pleasing God he was in actuality opposing God and in turn persecuting the people in whom God loved! The results of religion!
I love the way Paul opens up his testimony… He describes this whole season of his life as being his “former conduct!” Literally, he calls it his “former life!” And don’t miss the subtleness of what he’s saying… The gospel message was so powerful that it was able to take his present life and transform it into a former one!
Do you realize the Gospel of “Grace.” is powerful enough to change your life - to make the life you came into this sanctuary with a former one? Consider… If God’s amazing grace was able to transform the life of a man like Paul (religious, violent, angry, vindictive, lonely) then no one has the right to say they’re beyond the power of the Gospel.
And it’s to this point that I want to make a concluding observation about Paul’s story… It was not the concept of “Grace” that changed Paul’s life! Scripture seems to support the belief that before encountering Jesus on the road to Damascus Paul rightly understood what the doctrine of “Grace.” was all about… It’s why in his religious zeal he was so hostile to it!
No! Look back at Galatians 1:11-12 to see what it was that Paul says changed his life… “But I make known to you, brethren, that the gospel (the good news of grace bestowed when Jesus atoned) which was preached by me is not according to man. For I neither received it from man, nor was I taught it, but it came through the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
What changed Paul’s life (his present life in Judaism into the former) was not knowing more about God’s grace… What changed Paul’s life was the moment he experienced God’s grace through the revelation of Jesus Christ!
In much the same way that Denzel’s life had been transformed through the relationship he had with Pita, what changed Paul’s life wasn’t a concept but a relationship! Paul is telling these Galatians that his life changed forever the very moment he encountered Jesus!
When we talk about grace it’s so easy for us to speak in platitudes that we often fail to fully grasp what’s being communicated… Understand, while God’s love sent Jesus to atone for our sins on the cross, His grace (unmerited favor) is the mechanism that now affords each one of us the opportunity to know and have a relationship with His Son Jesus.
God’s grace allows for the relationship! Think about it like this… How does a person receive God’s grace? They enter into a relationship with Jesus. How does a person grow in God’s grace? Their relationship with Jesus deepens. How is a person transformed by God’s grace? Their relationship with Jesus naturally changes their desirers and impacts their behaviors.
In regards to this section of Scripture it had been God’s grace experienced by Paul in that he could now have a relationship with Jesus that freed him from his former life, liberated him from the guilt of his past mistakes, and had now filled his life with meaning and purpose.
Which is why in writing to these Galatians Paul is a “Man of Fire” not only because he knew first hand religion fails to change a life, but that in peddling a Gospel distortion these false teachers were saying a relationship with Jesus born from God’s grace wasn’t enough! And it’s to this point Paul steps up and boldly declares, “To hell no!”
Our favor with God is not based in religion, but rather a relationship with Jesus! Romans 6:14, “For sin shall not have dominion over you, for you are not under law but under grace.”
Sadly, there are some of you here this morning you this morning who’ve never experienced the power of grace because while you’ve “known about grace” you’ve never “known Grace!”
Paul’s life was forever changed the day he met Jesus (Grace) and his life continued to change each and every day he walked with Jesus (Grace). Friend, grace is more than an idea to know… It’s a relationship to be experienced! Know grace by knowing Jesus!
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