Have you ever considered that if you tried hard enough, if you were good enough your faith could contribute to your own salvation? While that concept is about as far from Christianity as one could get, that thinking still makes its way into the church. The apostle Paul addressed the idea of reverting back to the works of the law in his letter to the Galatians. In this episode, Rev. John McGowan tackles Galatians 3:1-5 and unpacks its meaning for us.
Table of Contents
- What It Means to Hear With Faith
- Faith is Understanding, Accepting, and Trusting the Gospel
- Singing Along With the Sermon of Faith
- Faith is The Entire Goal of Christianity
- See Ourselves in the Story of God
- We’re All in a Different Place With God
What It Means to Hear With Faith
As Christians, we believe that salvation comes by grace through faith. But sometimes don't we want to help God out a little bit? Be good enough with good enough work so that He doesn't really have to work that hard to get us to salvation?
That's not the right way to think, is it? It's either salvation by grace or salvation by works. But even Paul, a long time ago, dealt with this same thing within the church. He admonishes the church in Galatia, in Galatians 3:1-5, that they had received salvation and the spirit of God through grace, but they want to revert back to works of the law.
He impresses on them the need to hear with faith. And what does that mean, to hear with faith? I think by understanding what that means, we enable the spirit of God to work within us. Read through if you’re interested in knowing a little bit more about what that term hearing with faith means?
One Size Fits All
Bob: Our guest today was a student at Georgetown University when he discovered the beauty of the gospel and became a follower of Jesus. In the years that ensued, he led college ministries and has been a teaching pastor. He’s been involved in church planting including the church where he is currently lead pastor, Restoration City Church in Washington, D.C.
Today, we'll be talking about his sermon entitled, One Size Fits All. Our guest today is well known as prolific, powerful, and effective in the pulpit. He’s one of the best preachers in America, the Reverend John McGowan.
John: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to be here and I'm looking forward to our conversation.
Bob: Thanks, pastor. This sermon, One Size Fits All, is based on Galatians 3:1-5, where Paul seems a little perturbed by the Christians and Galatians. He uses this as an opportunity to teach them and you through Paul's words. It's a really good point that we are all in our relationship with God, all at very different points. No matter where we are, you say there's something we all need to do. Can you explain that for our followers?
John: That makes me want to go in two different directions at the same time. One in terms of what Paul's actually telling us that we need to do. I certainly hope we get the chance to come back to that. Maybe even just picking up on why I chose to start the sermon that way.
Everybody Is Living a Cleaner Life
John: As much as we talk about it in hindsight, and we say, "Hey, all of us are in a different place spiritually," that feels inherently obvious to us, even if you've ever had to craft a sermon. You're thinking about some of the people that you know are sitting out there.
You are thinking about what you know, how their week just looked like. As a preacher, you feel the pressure of that. The person who's not aware of it is the person who's brand new to church. He’s convinced that everybody else knows what's going on. They're convinced that everybody else is living a cleaner life and a holier life.
In some ways, it's giving people a little bit of a hand on where Paul is going with the text. It's also giving people permission to be who they are, to be where they are. To create the expectation that it's going to be okay to say that you're not a Christian. It's going to be okay to say that you were coming off an absolutely horrific week with God.
To say, "I'm crying out to God for mercy, and I don't feel like I'm getting anything right now." That’s really part of the goal of just trying to make it safe. To even allow people to ask the question, "So huh, where am I with God?" Wherever I am, it's okay but how would I answer that question even at this moment, sitting here, listening to that talk?
Bob: People probably approached your sermons and mine from a vantage point of their relationship with God. I feel like God's with me, and my life has been good. So, I must be doing the right things.
You’re Heading Into One Size Fits All
Bob: I'm worthy of being here as opposed to that person. He’s sitting there, thinking, I'm not sure I even get all this stuff. I really haven't felt that close to God lately. I'm not even sure what I'm doing here, because all these other people have it right. They're living a good life while me, not so much.
It's a wonderful way to level the playing field. You're heading into One Size Fits All, saying we're all in the same place. You go on to talk more specifically about what Paul means here that leads you to this One Size Fits All. From Paul's point of view, what is he really getting at?
John: This is one of those sections Paul cares about hearing with faith. That's the fundamental contrast that he is trying to draw, it is a unique phrase. He only uses it in this section of Galatians. This is not a super common Pauline phrase, I would say you see the idea in all of Paul's writings. It's a really particular phrase.
It’s clear, even if you read the text quickly. He’s drawing a contrast between the works of the law and hearing with faith. Which is so much of what he's up to throughout all of Galatians. But you don't have to know a whole lot about the Bible.
You don't need to have a lot of training in homiletics or anything like that to say, "Okay, clearly verse two, verse five. Yeah, here's all about it. I got the works of the law on one hand, I have heard with faith on the other. They're somehow opposite. He clearly wants me to land on this hearing with faith."
Faith is Understanding, Accepting, and Trusting the Gospel
Bob: The idea that One Size Fits All, it doesn't seem right to me. I'm going to push back against that a little bit. If I'm just sitting there listening to that thing, look, this isn't for me. I don't fit in like other people fit in. Nothing really fits me just like it fits everybody else.
But you say when Paul was talking about hearing with faith, he's talking about some really specific things. Do you mind enlightening our listeners on exactly what Paul was getting at when he gets in this hearing of faith? He's talking about some specific things.
John: He means specifically understanding, accepting and trusting the gospel. In order for this phrase, hearing with faith, to make any sense, we have to first wrestle with, hearing what? Clearly a multiplicity of things on the internet, or on our bookshelves, or whatever. Hearing it with faith will just lead you into absolute disaster. So he's got to have some content in mind.
By this point in Galatians, and even in the immediate context right here, it's clear. He's talking about this fundamental message of the death, burial, the resurrection of Jesus. He is talking about how he wants us to appropriate that, how he wants us to internalize that. How we're meant to engage with the gospel. You've got to get that target really clearly in mind that hearing with faith means that we are understanding. We are accepting, and we are trusting the gospel.
Bob: As you begin to walk through this passage, you start citing scripture. That first sentence, where Paul really lets them have it. You foolish Galatians who hath bewitched you, and that gets everyone's attention.
Paul Is the Guy Who Planted the Churches
Bob: He goes on to say in verse two, before your very eyes, Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed and crucified. That leads me to think that what he's saying is his listeners have seen that. But the fact is, his listeners probably didn't see that. You take what Paul says here a little differently. Do you mind explaining that?
John: You're right in your observation. It would have been extraordinarily unlikely that anybody from Galatia was in Jerusalem the day Jesus was crucified. If by some crazy circumstance, somebody was there, we're talking like a handful. We're certainly not talking about the whole church. He’s reminding them, first of all, that Paul's the guy who planted the churches in the Galatian region. He's the founding pastor.
Essentially, he is saying that we covered this so extensively. I tried to communicate this so clearly, and I painted such a vivid picture. You wouldn't have any more understanding of this, had you actually been there that Friday. Had you actually been there that Sunday morning, with the empty tomb.
You might as well have seen it because we've went over this so many times. To the point that he really doesn't mind calling them foolish. He's having this moment of, "No guys, we really did this. What happened? I don't understand. How did you mess it up this badly, this quickly? What happened to you?"
Bob: It's interesting. The first thing that goes through my mind is, is that really a lot different from today? Won't you as a pastor feel the same way? My goodness, I baptized you, I confirmed you, you've heard me preach for a decade and still you don't get it.
Paul Is Talking to Us Through Our Faith
Bob: Now of course, there's me and you, but then there's Paul who actually was there. Maybe not the crucifixion, but at least he was there during that period of time and had witnessed a number of things. I'm wondering, do you see an application there as well? Do you feel that maybe Paul's even talking to us sometimes?
John: Absolutely! Part of me as a preacher, there's a comfort that here's the apostle Paul. He taught these things over and over again. He's still looking at some of the people in his congregation and he's like, "Man, I don't get it." Sometimes we're really hard on ourselves and we look at what's happening out there in the pews.
We're like, "Man, but if I was a Paul, this wouldn't be happening." It sounds clear that if you were a Paul, this could absolutely be happening. I will also say, even though this isn't exactly where I went with it in the sermon, of course I see this. What happened to you in our people? All of them. I see it though in me.
There are moments by the middle of the week, I'm like, "Well, what happened to you? You're the one that preached the whole sermon. It wasn't just that you listen to it, you wrote the whole thing. You ran through the whole thing, you did it. Where does that leave you now here on Tuesday night?"
"Wondering why you can't seem to approximate anything of what you passionately called people to on Sunday morning?" Those are of human nature, of men. You're going to hear a really good sermon, and you're going to even understand it conceptually. The real struggle is to live it out.
Singing Along With the Sermon of Faith
Bob: You make that point that this is really Paul's hearing with faith that it's taking it in. It's having it change you and take hold of you. That’s not what we think of when we think of hearing. Hearing means okay, while I'm in church and I've heard it.
I've heard the sermon, I'll stand up. I'll say the Apostle's creed. I believe all that. But there's really a different quality when we talk about truly understanding, truly accepting, and truly trusting. Won't you agree to that?
John: Absolutely. A lot of times where when it comes to listening to sermons, it's amazing how many songs I know. When they're playing on the radio in the car and I can sing along. I'm like, "Yeah, I love this." But man, you cut that radio off, and all of a sudden, I don't know the words at all. I don't know what to sing next. A lot of times people sit in the pews and they're singing along with the sermon.
"Yeah, I know where he's going. I heard it before Jesus died in my place. That's exactly right, if you said anything different than that we'd be out of here." But there's this question and it's one thing to nod your head. It's a whole totally different thing to internalize it to the point that it changes your life. That's obviously what Paul was trying to get to with this.
Bob: Then really that leads to the next point here. You read through this, and here is verse two for those listeners. I would like to learn just one thing from you.
Did You Receive the Spirit
Bob: Did you receive the spirit by the works of the law or by believing what you heard? I thought this was a really fascinating point. Paul is using language here that is touching on something in his listeners. It reflects a common theme in the New Testament. He's hitting on that theme. Would you mind telling our listeners about that?
John: In one sense, he's using very common language that we find in multiple places in the New Testament. It refers to somebody becoming a Christian. So really what he's doing is to say, "Let's go back to day one. You guys came to faith." Total aside, he is not questioning the salvation of his Galatian audience. He is questioning these pseudo brothers that have come and these false teachers.
I don't think Paul believes they are truly saved. He seems to be leaning in the direction of no, these Galatians are Christians and he's actually playing on that. He's saying, "Let's talk about your experience. Let's go back to day one. When you came into this whole thing, how did that happen?"
"Was it because you've started to clean up your act, and you started to obey the law? You became a good religious person, or did you all of a sudden get it? The light bulb went off and you understood why God died in your place, on the cross?"
Then he just twisted the knife. He's saying like, "Of course, you know how this happened. Don't forget when that happened, you received the spirit of God. This whole pushing project has never just been about conformity to a moral law."
Becoming a New Creation
John: "It's been about becoming a new creation." So he's going back a little bit in, "Hey, let's talk about your experience." But then he's also having a moment of, "Yeah! Can we just remind ourselves of how extraordinary your experience really is?"
Bob: That grace, he really is reminding them. A great way to put it, Pastor John is that he's taking them back a little bit. Let's go back to when you really experienced that grace. Then you feel like it puts you in a position to now, you have to go retroactively.
Go back and earn your salvation. It seems like that's what the Galatians are assuming. You also say that the important point here is the message. We don't need to clean up our act to come to God, to meet some level of goodness to be acceptable.
Many of us feel that way. We'll accept God's grace, but we should probably help God out too. Let me get a little closer to perfection and therefore God is a little more willing to accept me.
John: In some ways, if we were to go out and share a meal or something. You were to say, "Hey, the cheque's going to come at the end." Grace is the one where one of us just picks it up and pays the entire thing. But there's something in us when it comes to spiritual things, when it comes to questions of salvation.
We feel like, okay look, I'm sorry, I'm embarrassed to say, "I'm not going to be the one that's able to pick up the full cheque. But don't worry, I'm going to contribute something."
The Whole Message of the Bible
John: "Your role really is to come in and you're just going to help me make up the gap." That feels more responsible, that feels like the right way of doing my part. Then I understand I can't get all the way there. You're going to have to jump in and you're going to do your part.
I'm going to be really grateful for that. You're going to get me someplace I couldn't have gone on my own. But obviously it's almost right and proper for me to contribute to something. The whole message of the Bible is I'm sorry. When it comes to your salvation, you have very little to contribute.
You don't have any. Yes, you don't have it in you to get 60% of the way. Jesus is just going to come up and make up for that 40% you don't have. But that is what Paul is constantly trying to get his listeners and his readers to remember this idea of becoming a Christian is the idea of declaring spiritual bankruptcy.
Bob: You make a great point here. It seems the Galatians are assuming that they have to work a little bit. You're implying, they're going backwards in their thinking. You start leading into the actual work of grace. But the work that occurs in us that we didn't just receive grace. What Paul is getting at is that we are changed by grace.
Then you use that to go into another example where Paul uses this provocative language is what you mentioned here. That casts becoming a Christian in a unique light and it's so unique. It's so different and better than anything else humanity has experienced before.
Faith is The Entire Goal of Christianity
Bob: You say there is one key difference. The thing that does the work for us, can you talk about what Paul means there? How does that flushes itself out in our own sanctification?
John: What's so interesting about what he does here is he's made this appeal back to their salvation. He said," You were saved by grace." That's the head-nodding moment. The church where we’re like, "Yes, yes, yes." But then he's asking this question. He's saying now, "You know that God's not done with you.
The entire goal of Christianity is not just to rescue you from hell and get you into heaven. You know God wants to work, to transform you into the image and the likeness of His son. But you're changing the way you're playing the game midway through. You started by grace, but now you think you're going to grow and change by your own effort? Now, you think you're going to do this work, come on guys.
You can’t change yourselves any more than you were able to save yourselves. There's no newer strategy. It's still the same idea of understanding, accepting and trusting the gospel. It is allowing the spirit of God to transform you from the inside out.
This is one of the most important points that we can make in the church in general right now. Oftentimes, we fall into this trap of preaching salvation by grace but transformation by work. It's a total denial of the gospel. In those moments, Paul would be saying, "Oh, you fools, 21st century American Christians, what got into you? People were saved by grace. All you're offering them on Sunday is three tips to a better marriage?"
You’re in Dangerous Territory
John: "What you're offering is five points on how to be a better forgiver." I’m all for practical application. I am all for thinking through what it looks like to live this out well. Please don't misunderstand me with that at all. We've got to give people something deeper than that than just three tips, or here's three rules, or something like that. At the end of the day, we don't have it in us to bring about the transformation that we want. Let alone the transformation that God wants for us.
Bob: The things we do that we feel are in accordance with God's will. Oftentimes we attribute to our own self, our own characteristics. Instead of acknowledging the work of the Holy Spirit in us, that is leading us there. It's a really important distinction because that can be the danger. Can it be coming back to Christianity, re-stoking your relationship with Jesus Christ?
Getting involved in the church and starting to work for the church and volunteer which are all really good things. But if you get to the point where you begin to feel that in some way, you are more meritorious because of the work that you do. You're in dangerous territory, which is maybe getting back to somewhere your original points.
Sometimes it's pretty good to be that person in the church who feels like I got nothing. I'm here, I'm a beggar looking for a piece of bread. That pastor is showing me where the bread is, and coming in a very contrite way. It’s one of the best postures in the church.
John: I couldn't agree with you more. The most dangerous place to be, spiritually, is the place where you think I've got this.
Near the End of One Size Fits All Sermon
Bob: That's a really important point. We miss out on a lot when we feel we do. That spirit is at work in us. The main point you're getting at, is you're heading near the end of your sermon. It's the spirit, the power of that spirit that helps us to understand and accept the work of the gospel. But you also say, and that's why it's so important to hear with faith.
This is how you grow as a Christian. Then in verse five, I ask you, does God give you His spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by you believing what you heard? You say, "This is the real issue here. It wasn't obedience to the moral code that made us a Christian." Is it?
John: It’s not obedience to the moral code that makes us a Christian. It is not obedience to a moral code that helps us grow in our relationship with Christ. It’s not obedience to a moral code that enables us to experience the power of the spirit. With all of these things, you've got to be careful. I'm like, "Oh, it is possible through disobedience to the moral code, to quench the spirit."
We can clearly grieve the spirit of God. Clearly, we have a role to play in our sanctification. How do you understand, accept, and trust the gospel? And how does the spirit work through us? I'm a strong advocate of we should all be reading God's word. Praying, and fasting and all of these things help with that. But all of those things are designed to connect us to Christ.
Transforming the Power of the Spirit
John: To connect us to the transforming power of the spirit, to connect us to the beauty of the gospel. As opposed to seeing those spiritual disciplines almost as a means in and of themselves. Sometimes we prescribe Bible reading like, "Oh, having trouble in your marriage? All right, read two chapters every morning."
Then people will come back, and they're like, "It hasn't done it."
Oh, well, we'll sort the dosage. Let's go to two chapters. Are the New Testament chapters okay, well let's go to two New Testament. Grab yourself something out of Proverbs and then get an Old Testament book. It's like, we're trying to dial it in. When people will say that, "Oh, well I'm praying. Well, I'm just going to start praying harder."
I'm like, "I have no idea how to pray harder or how to pray lighter." I don't know how to ease up on that. I'm getting a little bit off-topic here. These things are in and of themselves really, really good. But we have to remember what they are attempting to connect us to. Ultimately, who are they attempting to connect us with.
Bob: That really is on target because you do circle back. You get your sermon like Paul's passage here, getting people back to really that original grace. The true understanding, and the true accepting, and the true trusting. If we're grounded in that, you make the point that we don't settle for too little. When we are grounded in that, and we have that understanding, that appreciation, really taking that grace in and letting it work in us, that becomes as you say an antidote to our spiritual boredom.
See Ourselves in the Story of God
Bob: Sometimes we have to go back to those days when we were just happy to see ourselves in the story of God. A simple, humble belief that God is in control. Then you say, as you mentioned before, if you feel you've got it, then maybe you're not seeking the adventure that God has designed for you.
He gives you a mission, you should never settle.
Can you talk about that law because that is truly a very inspirational point in this sermon? Not only that it grounds us in hearing the faith and getting the gospel, it also takes us forward.
It means that we can live our life with more freedom, not less freedom and more adventurous. Tell our listeners a little bit more about how you see being grounded in hearing the faith, as opening up your future. Giving you something that you may not now be reaching for.
John: What happens over time as we walk with Christ, and as we get more familiar with the Bible, we also in some senses, become disappointed with ourselves. Consciously or unconsciously, we develop this need to read scripture through the lens of what we're able to do in our own power. We almost regard the Bible as an aspirational text.
A text that describes the real-life experience of some historical heroes of the faith. We can say, "Well, yeah. That’s what Paul did, that was Luke, I know James for crying out loud." What we unintentionally do, or maybe intentionally, is we come to God's word. We say, "Yeah, but clearly I'm going to need to run this through the filter of what I can do." All right, here's how I'm able to interact with that.
The Perfect Place For Us To End The One Size Fits All Sermon
John: What God wants us to do is to take him a lot more seriously in terms of what He is calling us to do. That life of faith, that life of trust, that life of adventure, the way you say it. To be at that point of saying, "Wait a minute! Everything God wants out of my life is impossible in my own strength. Wait, I have no choice back to square one, but to understand, accept, and trust the gospel."
Will you be willing to open up the gap between what you believe God is calling you to do and what you’re able to do? That's where faith lives. That is the real world working out of faith in our lives. The gap between your ability and God's calling on your life.
Bob: That is a perfect place for us to end, but I have more questions. I would like our listeners to hear about you. Tell me about Pastor John, the preacher. It didn't seem from the time you were five years old, that you wanted to be a preacher.
Bob: What is the story that brought you to the pulpit at Restoration City?
John: I definitely at five had no interest in being a preacher. At 17, if you told me I’d be a preacher or a pastor, I would’ve said what in the world happened? Why didn't I have a real job in life? I was not seeing myself as somebody that would go in this direction at all. It wasn't until the second semester of my junior year of college that I became a follower of Christ.
God Became So Real
John: I had two very good friends who lived in Southern California, I was going to school in D.C. at the time. They were in Southern California and they kept sharing the gospel with me over a period of four years. Ultimately, it clicked one day in that second semester of my junior year. At the end of January, God became so real.
There was something in me that knew from day one that God was changing my life. I wanted to tell other people about Him. As this college kid taking my roommates out to dinner, I lived in an apartment on campus. I took them out to dinner that night. We went big, we went to the Cheesecake Factory, which was a stretch for me financially.
I went big time so that I could tell them, "Well, I've become a follower of Jesus today." It's no different than what I was trying to do that night at the cheesecake factory. All I wanted to do was tell my friends that God was real, that He was changing my life.
I was pretty sure he wanted to change their life. That they would find Jesus way more exciting than they ever thought. Clearly, I didn't go into that dinner with a text, ready to exigent or any of that. There are ways that this preaching task is different, but that's still the same heartbeat.
You may not be four people around a table at a Cheesecake Factory. It may be a different setting, but still, God is real. God is alive, God has changed my life, God wants to change your life. You would find so much more joy and excitement in Him than you could ever imagine.
We’re All in a Different Place With God
Bob: You see yourself even as a pastor sitting around a table with friends. When you get up there and preach and share what you've learned about Jesus. That's really a refreshing model.
John: There’s a nice part about that, even going back to where we got saved. Think about it as sitting around a table of friends. All of those friends are in a different place with God spiritually. You're not just talking to a monolithic audience. You are talking to real people who have real challenges in their life and in their family.
How much more so in this period of COVID, in this period of economic, and political, and racial uncertainty? Everybody's dealing with stuff, everybody is in a different spot. We're trying to connect the terminal word of God, to what's happening in your life today. That's the beauty of the dinner table analogy.
I didn't sit them down to just give a discourse on the redemptive power of Jesus. No, I wanted them to get, you know guys, this matters to you. I'm telling you, because I'm hoping God does something in your life. That's the ethos that we want to carry with us into the pulpit.
Bob: That's fantastic. It leads me to maybe my last question, seeing that as a challenge. When I'm teaching a university course, I know where they are. Every single one of them has taken this course and they're ready for mine. That's a different place from the preacher. What is it in your opinion, that makes an effective or a great preacher?'
What Makes a Great Preacher
Bob: Do you look at scripture in a unique way? A different way than maybe the average person would. Do you unpack it in a particular way, do you ask questions about scripture that other people may not think about? Or is it personality, charisma? Tell me what you think. What makes a great preacher?
John: Not to start with the overly spiritual answer, but preaching is a distinctly spiritual activity. It's different than lecturing, than giving a speech. At the end of the day, there’s a commonality among everybody that we would point to. As a great preacher, we acknowledge that the spirit of God is supernaturally at work through that.
Having said that, there’s an obligation to present God's word in a way that is engaging. If you do that very differently, there are people that are storytellers. There are people that tell jokes. Tim Keller, for example, he's deeply engaging. There's just something about him where you're like, "Yes, just please keep talking, sir. I'd like to learn more." That is part of it.
I would say, this is a lot of how I try to approach the task of preaching. If the premise of the sermon we discussed this week is right, it provides a tremendous amount of hope. For us as preachers, the claim was, wherever everybody is, what they need is the gospel. It gives a clarity like our job is to preach that gospel. Rather than trying to put an end, we have a unique word for everybody. For those who are in an infinite number of different situations.
Bob: Pastor John McGowan, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. Anyone who would like to see your sermon and not just hear it in its entirety, which is on YouTube, you can go to inspirationalsermons.com. They will find that link on your profile box on the best preachers page. May God continue to bless you.
John: Thanks so much for having me. It's been great to get the chance to sit down and talk with you, I enjoyed it.