I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly. – Vs 21
I love the way this verse is translated in the New Living Translation: "I am not one of those who treats the grace of God as meaningless. For if we could be saved by keeping the law, then there was no need for Christ to die." The Message paraphrases it this way: I am not going to go back on that. Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God's grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily."
The grace of God versus the works of men. It is amazing how often this theme has come up already in our readings in the New Testament. It was a problem then, and it is a problem today. Somehow we want to take the grace of God and replace it with some form of human effort or achievement. In Paul's day it was the Judaizers (converted Jews) who wanted to force the Gentiles to be circumcised and keep all of the requirements of the Law before they could be considered saved. They were adding to the Gospel message. They were attaching a list of rules and requirement that must be met before someone could truly be saved. And Paul would have nothing to do with it. In fact, he calls Peter a hypocrite and condemned him to his face for siding with the Judaizers over this issue.
Paul makes it very clear:
Nevertheless, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. – Vs 16
We cannot be justified or declared righteous before God based on any amount of good deeds or rule keeping we attempt to do. We cannot earn favor with God by working harder or doing more. We can't make Him love us more or make Him love us less. He simply loves us because of our relationship with His Son Jesus Christ. Yet how often do we try to earn favor with God by trying to do more for Him? By attempting to change our behavior? By working a little bit harder on our sin? We really have convinced ourselves that the following formula works:
Less bad behavior + More good behavior = Holiness
So we go through behavior modification, working on our sin and hoping to gain some kind of brownie points with God. But all that is just another form of works-righteousness. It is exactly what Paul was condemning in this chapter. Paul says that we have died to any form of law-keeping. "For through the Law I died to the Law, so that I might live to God" – Vs 19. Jesus' death on the cross paid the penalty for sin that the Law demanded. So Paul could stop trying to keep the Law as a means of winning God's acceptance. He was accepted by God because of Jesus. Case closed. Paul summarized his thoughts in verse 20:
I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.
Listen to what the New Living Translation says: So I live my life in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me." I live my life on this earth, not having to trust in my own self-effort or on what I can do, but on what Jesus Christ has already done. And knowing that He loved me and gave His life for me. Sure, I still need to change. I need to grow. I need to cease from my sinful behavior. But I do it out of love for God and in recognition of His grace. I want my life to reflect who I have become in Christ: A child of God. So I choose to say no to sin. I choose to accept God's ongoing grace that gives me the power to change. I understand that I can no nothing on my own, but I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me (Philippians 4:13).
Father, Thank You for Your grace. Thank You that I do not have to change myself to gain favor with You. I don't have to change before You will love me. You chose to love me when I was still a sinner and now You continue to love me even when I am a saint who chooses to sin. You keep extending grace to me day after day, giving me the desire to change and providing the power for that change to take place. Forgive me when I fall back into my old habit of trying to change myself in my own strength. When I do it is as if I make what Jesus did on the cross as of no value. Help me to remember everyday of my life that I am who I am because of Christ and I will become who You want me to be because of Christ. And not because of me. Amen