James Merritt - Start Strong, Finish Well
I wanna say good morning to those of you watching online, by television, those at our Mill Creek campus, those here at our Suglarloaf campus. The question is when you walk in here y'all ask a question every now and then, particularly if you're not a believer or if you're new to the church, and that is, why church, why are we here? And that's not a hard question to answer because from its very beginning the church only had one God-given assignment. Just one, not two, three, or four, just one. As a matter of fact, it is the basis of our mission statement, which is to point people to Jesus and inspire them to live the cross-shaped life. We didn't make that up, we didn't just pull that out of the air. Because when you look back at the early Church, the Church from its beginning was always to be unique from every other religious institution that was either before it or came after it.
And here's why it was so unique. The Church, listen, this is important, the Church was never to be centered around religion. The Church's purpose was never to get people to be religious. The Church was always to be centered around a relationship. And its major role is to get people to have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus Christ. But even in the early days of the Church, a problem cropped up, and it's still with us today. After 2,000 years we've still got this problem, we're still fighting this battle. Let me tell you what I mean. If you go back to the early Church, you'll realize that the early Church was to be centered around a message, and that message basically focused on three words. God, grace, gospel. Say that with me. God, grace, gospel.
That's what the Church is supposed to be all about. It would be the most revolutionary message that ever has been or would be to come because, simply put, the gospel is that everybody, everywhere, at any time, at any place, can have a relationship with God instantaneously, they can be accepted by God because of his grace and because of our faith in Jesus who died and was buried and rose from the dead. Very simple, very succinct, but yet very spiritual, very supernatural. But all the way back in the early days of the Church, there were religious leaders that came in and they said, "No, God, grace, and the gospel are not enough," and they wanted to add something to those three words. Here's what they wanted to add. They wanted to add rules, regulations, and restrictions.
So there was a battle that began 2,000 years ago and it's still going on today. It is the battle between the religious crowd and the relationship crowd. And let's be honest, people have left the Church in droves and people are staying away in droves because somehow they either came up with this idea or we're giving this idea that following God is all about a bunch of dos and don'ts. And untold numbers of people won't even bother to darken the door of the church because they've got this image that all our church and any church wants them to do is to follow our rules and abide by our regulations and obey our restrictions. Well, this is exactly the situation that is being addressed in a letter that a man named Paul wrote to a church in an area called Galatia 2,000 years ago.
And if you brought a Bible or you wanna look it on your phone or whatever, we're gonna be in Galatians chapter three. It's in the New Testament, it's about halfway through the New Testament, Galatians chapter three. And here's what had happened. Paul was a missionary and Paul had gone to this beautiful, wonderful area called Galatia. It's where modern-day Turkey is today. And there were all of this Gentile unbelievers. And Paul has gone to this area and he's just started talking about God, grace, and the gospel, and churches sprung up, people began to be saved, lives began to be changed. And everything was going well, Paul left, but then Paul got word that there was some people that had infiltrated the Church, they were called Judaizers.
You say, what is a Judaizer? Judaizers were Jews who had professed faith in Christ, they believed that Jesus died on the cross, was buried and raised from the dead, but they came into the church and they said, "But grace is not enough, and the gospel's not enough. You've gotta be circumcised if you're a male. If you're a male or female, you've gotta keep the Law, you've gotta obey the commandments". In other words, it's not enough just to be a Christian, you've gotta be a Judaized Christian, you've gotta be a Jewish Christian, or God will not accept you. And by the way, they added 635 of their own commandments to the list that's already found in the Bible. And that's why we're entitling this series, we're in Galatians, we're calling it "Free at Last".
Because the reason why Paul wrote this letter to churches like ours and churches like this one and the whole point of this book is that because of God and because of grace and because of the gospel we are free from the shackles of legalism. We don't have to obey anybody's rules. We don't have to go by anybody's regulations. We don't have to serve anybody's restrictions. God's acceptance of us is not based on our performance. God's acceptance of us is based on his provision. And so we don't have to be good enough for God. You say, why not? Because we can never be good enough for God. And then Paul came along and he said, "I've got some great news for you. Jesus was good enough for all of us. And once we accept Jesus through faith, God accepts us by grace".
But there's confusion in this church. These believers who had come to Christ before they heard the gospel, now they've got these other people in their ear saying, "No, not enough. If you're not circumcised, you're not right with God. If you're not keeping all of our rules and all of our regulations and avoiding all of our restrictions, you're not right with God". And so they didn't realize it at the time but there's always a fork in the road to God. There's always a fork. If you're trying to get to God, you'll eventually come to a fork, and it looks like this. You're on the road to God and you come to a fork in the road. One fork says the way to get to God is through a relationship. That road is paved with the concrete of reconciliation and redemption.
But there's another path people say. They'll say, "No, no, no, that won't get you to God. You don't take the path of a relationship, you've gotta take the path of religion". And that road is paved with rules and restrictions and regulations. I'll give you an example. Not long before the great boxer Muhammad Ali passed away, he was asked, "What do you see in your future"? And this is what Muhammad Ali said. He said, "I just want to get to heaven, and I've got to do a lot of good deeds to get there".
Now I want you to hear this clearly 'cause this is exactly what Paul's dealing with in the Book of Galatians. Once you say these words, I've got to do, once you say those words, I've got to do blank to be accepted by God, you just exited off the freeway of freedom and you just got on the street called slavery. Because the drumbeat that Paul is sounding all through the Book of Galatians is this. Your performance has nothing to do with God's acceptance. Your acceptance is based on God's provision of grace through Jesus. And so what Paul is about to tell these Galatians in Galatians chapter three is something I wanna tell all of us today, I want you to listen very carefully. The way you start with God is the way you finish with God, however that is. The way you start with God is the way you finish with God.
Well, how do you start with God? You start with God through his grace and your faith, and that's the way you finish. If you start with God with grace, you finish with God with grace. If you start with God with faith, you finish with God with faith. And that is the only way you can avoid the shackles of legalism. That's the only way you can breathe the fresh air of liberty. Because you remember what Jesus said? Jesus said, "If you will know the truth," he didn't say the truth will bind you with rules and regulations and restrictions, he said, "No, if you know the truth, the truth will set you," what? Free. He said, "The truth will set you free". Jesus did not come to enslave us. He didn't came to get us into bondage, he came to get us out of bondage.
So the question is, how do you get free with God? How do you enjoy that liberty? How do you enjoy that freedom? Well, there are three things you have to always do the rest of your life. And if you don't, somebody will come along and they're gonna handcuff you in their laws and in their legalistic ways and in their rules and their regulations and their restrictions. Okay, so how do you stay free? Number one: you look to the Son. You look to the Son. Now, Paul is so, every time I read this book I think, "Man, I wish I had half the brains this guy did". He's both a compassionate pastor and he is a wise counselor. Because he realizes there's always gonna be this struggle.
Look, we've all struggled with this, let's just be honest. There's always gonna be this struggle that God accepts us just because of his grace, and that God's acceptance of us has nothing to do with our goodness. We all struggle with that. We sometimes think, it just can't be that true, it's too good to be true, surely I've got to do something to earn God's acceptance, surely I've got to perform in a certain way to make God happy and to make God pleased. And so you're going to see immediately he's so frustrated because he's appealing not just to their head, to their heart. And he's so frustrated, he's so aggravated, because he was so crystal clear in the message that he preached to them and now they're confused and he's so bothered by it.
Listen to what he says. He says, "You foolish Galatians"! You can just hear it in his voice. He's like going, "I just can't believe I'm even having to deal with this. You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified". Paul is taking them back to when he first met them, when he first started talking to 'em, they didn't know who he was. And he goes back to when many of them their eyes were opened, the light came on, their heart was changed, they gave their life to Christ because Paul had clearly preached to them how Jesus had done everything, not most things, not the big things, Jesus had done everything necessary on the cross for them to be accepted by God. He thought he had finally freed them from this notion that somehow they had to be good enough for God. And now they're being tempted to go right back into the slavery of legalism, the bondage of religion, the burden of trying to keep the commandments and do the best that you can.
In fact, I wanna call your attention to two words. He calls these Galatians foolish. Now, that word literally means without knowledge or reason. So first of all, he's appealing to their head. What he's saying is this, he's saying, first of all, you're being illogical, you're being unreasonable. I want you to think this through. He said, "Look, once you understand what Jesus did and who Jesus is and once you understand what happened on the cross, that he made a full, final payment for all of our sins, he gave us permanent access to God". He said, "If you really understand that, it doesn't even make any sense to try to add anything to the cross. It doesn't make any sense to try to rescind or amend his offer of grace". In other words, what Paul was saying is if you just think it through, once you experience Christ you don't want to add to him.
Why would you want to take away from him? He said, "Why would you even think about doing that? It's foolish"! But he's a good guy, he's a great counselor. He knows you don't primarily reach people through their head, you reach them through their heart. So he turns from their head to their heart. He says, "You know, you're not only being foolish, you've been bewitched". Very interesting word. It means to look at with an evil eye. I've been working on this. Look at with an evil eye. It means to cast an evil spell. You know, theoretically speaking, if you're under a spell, you're not thinking the way you normally think, you're not really seeing things the way you ought to see them. And what Paul is saying is the vast majority of the world has been bewitched.
Listen, most of the people you live next door to, most of the people you work with, most of the people you do business with, they're under this spell that they can earn their way to God, that they can work their way to God, that the way you get to God is you just do the best you can, you hope the good outweighs the bad, and if you keep enough rules and you abide by enough regulations and you avoid enough restrictions, maybe God will accept you. Well, there are two problems with that. Let's just say that's true. Let's just say that I'm wrong and the other crowd is right. Let's just say the vast majority of this world has it the way it really is. You wanna get to God, you've gotta go through religion, you've gotta keep the rules, you've gotta keep the regulations, you've gotta abide by the restrictions.
Let's just say that's true. Well, we've got two problems. The first problem is it makes Jesus dying on the cross meaningless. It makes Jesus dying on the cross null and void. Because it's not enough to say, well, I believe that God sent Jesus to die on the cross. Well, wait a minute. Why would God both send and allow his Son to come and to die on a cross if you can earn your way to God? I mean, let me just be honest. I don't wanna serve a God like that. I don't wanna worship a God like that. But the truth of the matter is the cross says you cannot earn your way to God, you will never be good enough for God. But there's a bigger problem. Because if it really is true that the way to God is through religion and the way to God is you doing your best and the way to God is keeping the rules, observing the regulations, avoiding the restrictions, if that really is true, then you gotta answer the question.
Okay, so how many rules do I have to follow? And how perfectly do I have to follow them? How many regulations do I have to keep? And by the way, where do I find all these regulations? And what restrictions must I observe? And by the way, whose restrictions are they? Now can I tell you what I just did? I asked you a question you can't answer. I asked you a question for which there is no answer. And so once you begin to try to answer these questions, here's what happens. You just left the freedom of God's provision and you went right back into the prison of your performance. He said, "Here's what you're doing," this is what he was saying to the Galatians, "You just voluntarily put yourself back into the handcuffs of religion. You just voluntarily locked the door of legalism. And the only key that will unlock those handcuffs and the only key that will open that prison door is the cross of Jesus". Which is why Paul reminds them, "Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified".
Now, that verb there for crucified is in a tense in the Greek language that refers to something that happened in the past, which it had, but the effects of it continue in the present and in the future. Paul said, "You know what, when I came to you, I painted this picture of Christ on the cross, I gave you an R-rated graphic picture of just what happened on that cross. And when I talked to you about that cross, I showed you how the cross was like a fountain from which the river of grace and mercy and peace is flowing". He said, "I did everything I could to tell you that Jesus is not just what you need, Jesus is all you need. I clearly portrayed that". And Paul wanted them to understand that the gospel is not an invitation for you to do something for God. The gospel is a declaration that through Jesus God has done everything for you.
And the reason why Paul is so irritated and so aggravated and so frustrated is because, in effect, these Galatians were guilty of spiritual treason because here's what they were saying. Jesus is inadequate. Jesus is insufficient. Jesus is incomplete. And let me tell you something. The moment you add anything to Jesus, the moment you take away anything from Jesus, the moment you even imply, Jesus, you're inadequate, Jesus, you're insufficient, Jesus, you're incomplete, that is an insult to Jesus, that is a slap in the face of Jesus 'cause here's the problem. If you don't see that Jesus is enough, you will never know when enough is enough because nothing will ever be enough. That's so good I'm gonna say it again. If you don't see that Jesus is enough, I'm gonna amen myself, listen.
So key number one: look to the Son. Don't look to the preacher. Don't look to the professor. Don't look to the pastor. Don't look to the pope. Look to the Son. Then he says there's a second thing you have to do. You look to the Son, then he says you live in the Spirit. You live in the Spirit. Now Paul cuts to the chase and he asks these key questions that these Galatians need to answer very clearly and very concisely. This is what he says, he is so good, I mean, he is really digging down deep. I want you to stay with him, listen, this is what he says. He says, "I'd like to learn just one thing from you," this is so good. "Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard"?
Now, I'll be honest, I wouldn't have even thought about asking that question. That's why Paul is Paul, that's why I'm me. I'm preaching what he said, okay? Paul only has one question. And Paul knows, and by the way, this is true for all of us right now, Paul knows if you'll answer this question truthfully, and if they will answer the question truthfully, in effect, they will solve their own problem. Because here's what he does, whether you realize this or not, Paul in verse two, you know Paul just did in verse two? I bet you don't know. Paul just gave the classic definition of a real Christian. You wanna know what a real Christian is? Can I tell you what a real Christian is? Watch this. To be a Christian means you have received the Spirit of God, or when you've received the Spirit of God then you become a Christian.
See, you wonder why there are so many people who claim to be Christians but they don't live any differently, they don't act any differently, they don't talk any differently, they don't walk any differently than anybody else that doesn't know Jesus. Now, I don't know if this is true for all of 'em, I'm not anybody's judge, but can I tell you the reason why the vast majority of people are like that? They're not Christians. And the reason why they don't act like a Christian and walk like a Christian and talk like a Christian and conduct themselves like a Christian is because they've never received the Spirit of God. Because here's the dilemma, you ready? The Spirit of God never bypasses the Son of God. The Spirit of God never bypasses the Son of God. The only way the Spirit of God will come into you is through the cross of the Son of God.
That's why this is so important you understand this. It is not enough to hear the gospel with your ears. It is not enough just to believe the gospel in your head. You must receive the gospel in your heart. And when you believe in the Son of God, you receive the Spirit of God and he is the one that makes you different, he is the one that changes your life. And the question about the Spirit of God is not when they received him or how they received him because it wasn't by obeying any law.
Paul said, "Look, go back to when you received the Spirit. Go back to when the Spirit of God came into you, go back to when you knew, you didn't understand it at the time but you knew my life is different, my life has changed, I've been transformed". He said, "I'm not talking about just when you received him, how you'd receive him". He said, "How did you receive the Holy Spirit? It wasn't by obeying any law. It wasn't by keeping any rules. It wasn't by observing any regulations. It was by abiding any restrictions". He said, "You know when you received the Spirit of God? When you heard the simple gospel. When I simply came to you and I took you to a cross and I took you to an empty tomb and you heard it and you believed it and you received it. That's when you received the Spirit".
And the only reason this letter is even in the Bible, the only reason this letter has even been written is because there's been a spiritual change in their life. They were a totally different people. And that change had been brought about when they believed in the Son of God and they received the Spirit of God. And what he's saying is you need to go back to that experience of when that happened, you need to go back and realize when your life was changed and how your life was changed, and you'll realize it had nothing to do with religion, it had everything to do with the relationship.
I mean, listen, if this has ever happened to you, if you're sitting here today and you're listening to me and you would say, "I know I'm a Christian, I know I'm a child of God, I know I'm a follower of Christ, I know the Spirit of God lives in me," I want you to go back to that experience of that time in your life when that happened to you, if it has happened to you. You've heard it a thousand times, I never get tired of telling you. It happened to me in a movie theater as a nine-year-old boy when I saw Jesus being crucified.
In fact, when I read that text, I thought, "That's what happened to me". I saw Jesus portrayed as crucified on a cross. And I'm watching them nail Jesus to that cross. And for the first time, as a nine-year-old boy, I realized I am a sinner and I need a Savior. And in that movie theater, in that darkened movie theater, I can still smell the musty carpet right now, in that darkened theater I said, "I need you, Lord, I need a Savior". And I believed on him, I believed in him. I only asked him to come into my heart and to forgive him.
Now, I didn't realize it at the time, but that moment, the Spirit of God came into me. The Holy Spirit entered into me. And I can only explain it to you if you've ever had it happened to you, you know what I'm talking about. I knew something had happened to me. And it wasn't just a feeling that was there on Monday and left on Tuesday. I knew something had happened to me. I knew I was not the same, I knew I would never be the same. I knew I was totally, completely different. It did not happen when I walked down the isle of my church. It did not happen when I got baptized. It did not happen the first time I put money in a basket to give it to a church. It happened when I was sitting in a chair in a theater, simply hearing and believing the gospel of Jesus, watching Christ being portrayed on the cross, and giving my life to him.
So here's the point. You're going to buy into one of two different ways that you'll get accepted by God. You're gonna buy into one of two thoughts. The way of religion, which is the way of the law, the way of the legalist. Or, and this is what that means, okay, this is what they'll tell you. Achieve and you'll receive, that's the whole message of religion, that's the whole message of the legalists. Achieve and you'll receive. So every religion's got their rules and every religion's got their regulations and every religion's got their restrictions and every religion says to you do this and this and this and don't do that and that and that and hopefully, maybe, you'll get exactly what you're looking for. That's one way. The other way is the way of relationship. The way of grace and the gospel.
The message is totally different, here's what that message is. Believe and you will receive. Not achieve and you'll receive, believe and you will receive. 'Cause see, you gotta have the Holy Spirit to be a Christian, that's what Paul just said, that's the whole definition of a Christian. And you can't earn the Holy Spirit. You can't buy the Holy Spirit. You can't steal the Holy Spirit. You can't borrow the Holy Spirit. You can only receive the converting Spirit of God when you believe in the crucified Son of God. And Paul said to these Galatians, "That's exactly what happened to you. I saw it with my own eyes, I heard it with my own ears. You know what happened to you. The gospel was preached, you heard it, you believed it, you received the Spirit without baptism, without circumcision, without keeping commandments, without doing good works, without any religion whatsoever".
That's why Paul in exasperation asks the next question. He says, "Are you so foolish"? He's so frustrated he repeats himself. "Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh"? Now, this is so very important, what I'm about to tell you is so important, I've kinda underlined it in my notes here. It's so important, so very important. That this is the core of the whole message here, listen. How God starts with you is how God finishes with you. Now, how does God start with everybody? I'ma give you a clue, it starts with a G. What's that word? Grace. That's how God starts with you. God doesn't look at you and go, "You know, you've been a pretty good guy. I think I'll deal with you". He doesn't look at you and say, "You know, you've been going to church pretty regularly, I think you and I can do business". He never starts that way. He always starts with grace.
That's why he starts the same way with a person sitting in the front row of a church on Sunday morning or a person sitting on death row in a prison tomorrow morning. Same way, he always starts with grace. Now, think about this. How God starts with you is how God finishes with you. With grace, okay. Same thing is true about us. How you start with God is how you finish with God. Now, how God starts with you is grace, how we start with God is a five-letter word. It starts with an F, what's that word? Faith. So how you start with God is how you finish with God. How he starts with you is grace, that's how he finishes with you. How you start with him, faith, that's how you finish with him. Because of God's grace and your faith you receive the Spirit of God and you forevermore live in the Spirit.
Now let me just be honest. I really need to hear this message myself. As I was working on this message I actually put my pen down, I was in my study, I put my pen down and I said, "You know, I need to hear this". Let me tell you why. How many of you are familiar, some of you, how many of you are familiar with what's called the Enneagram test? How many of you are familiar with that? Some of you are familiar with that. Y'all wanna go look at it, if y'all will Google it, take it. It's pretty interesting. E-N-N-E-A-G-R-A-M, Enneagram. Y'all go and take it this afternoon 'cause I'll tell you what kind of personality you are. It gives you a number, okay. I'm number three. So what is number three? I'm an achiever.
Now when I say this some of you are gonna go, "Yeah, that's what you are". I'm highly driven, you think? I'm super competitive. You beat me in golf, we don't play anymore, all right? I'm super competitive. And my biggest fear is that I'm always the best that I can be in doing all that I can do. So as I'm approaching the latter part of my ministry, can I tell you what I struggle with? I've never shared this before, can I just tell you what I struggle with? I mean, sometimes it brings me to tears, sometimes I get depressed, I get discouraged. I wonder, have I really ever done enough for God? God, how are you gonna judge my ministry? Could I have done more, could I have reached more, could I have achieved more? Why don't we run 30,000 people like some people do? And I've just got this nature in me, I wanna be good, I wanna do good, I want people to know that I'm good, I want people to know that I do good. And I'm a stickler for observing the rules.
Listen, I'm like the husband that came home from the grocery store one morning, he had one carton of eggs, two sacks of flour, three boxes of cake mix, four sacks of sugar, five cans of cake frosting. His wife looked at that sack of groceries and said, "I knew I should have never numbered that list". That's me. I wanna make sure I check off every box. I wanna make sure I've kept every rule. And here's what I've had to learn. With God, there are no numbers. And with God, there is no list. When you look to the Son, you live in the Spirit, got it? So you look to the Son, you live in the Spirit. And then here's the last thing that'll keep you from ever falling into this trap of performance and legalism and laws and rules and regulations and restrictions, you listen to the scripture, you listen to the scripture.
Now, stroke of genius, look what Paul does. This is so good. Paul's not just talking to the Galatians, right? Let's see how good your memory is. Who's the other group causing trouble in the church, what did we call them? Judaizers, let's say that together. Judaizers, okay. The Church still has Judaizers today, trust me, okay? Everywhere, we've got Pharisees everywhere, Judaizers everywhere. So he's talking to the Judaizers. These are people, remember, they're trying to edge Jesus. Jesus is not enough, God's grace is not enough, your faith is not enough for God to accept you. You've gotta perform, you've gotta live up to a certain standard, you've gotta keep the rules, you've gotta keep the regulations, you don't defy the restrictions.
So now he's gonna talk to these Judaizers. They don't know it, he's about to nail them. A matter of fact, he puts the nail in the coffin of that kind of legalistic thinking. Look what he, this is so brilliant. He refers to the godfather of all the Jews. He refers to the patriarch of the Jewish family. He refers to who they call even today the founder of their religion. What's his name? Abraham. So look what he does. "So also Abraham 'believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.'"
Now, Paul does something you probably wouldn't notice or think about, but it's one of the most important things he ever did in his ministry. In the first five verses, he's referring the Galatians back to their experience. "Don't you remember what happened to you? Don't you remember how I preached Christ to you? Don't you remember how you responded to the gospel? Don't you remember how you got saved? Don't you remember how your life was changed"? So the first five verses he goes to their experience, but then he does this. He takes them back to scripture. You say, well, why is that such a big deal, pastor? Why is that so important? I'm about to tell you something that I'm telling you we need to hear more than ever in this century and in the culture we're living in right now.
I want you to listen to this. You never judge scripture by your experience, you judge your experience by scripture. You never judge scripture by your experience, you judge your experience by scripture. In other words, what is right is not what you think is right. It's not what you feel is right. It's not what you hope is right. It's not what the polls say is right. The litmus test of truth is not our emotion, it is God's Word. And so Paul goes all the way back to the first book of the Bible when Abraham started with God and God started with Abraham. If you don't know the story, I'll tell you, it's very simple. Out of the blue, purely out of God's grace, God chooses Abraham. Not because of anything Abraham had done. God chooses Abraham. And God makes a promise to Abraham. "Abraham, if you will trust me, if you will follow me, if you will obey me, I will make of you a great nation and you will be a blessing to the entire world".
The nation was Israel, the blessing was Jesus. And the scripture says Abraham, I mean, just like that, he just simply believed God. He just simply said yes to God. He just simply said, "I trust you, God". And at that moment, when he took God at his word and he followed God, God did the rest. And that moment, Abraham was justified. Abraham was right with God. Abraham had a permanent relationship with God. God credited his account with perfect righteousness. In other words, at that moment, the moment he accepted God's grace by his faith, God fully finally accepted Abraham.
And Paul says to these Judaizers, to these legalists, to these people who were more concerned about religion and rule keeping than they were about a relationship, he said, "I want you to take note of something. God accepted Abraham, who had not been circumcised. God accepted Abraham, who had not kept the law. Because oh, by the way, you do remember, when God accepted Abraham, there was no law, there were no commandments, there were no rules, there were no regulations, there were no restrictions. And God accepted Abraham".
Now watch. How did God start with Abraham? It starts with a G. Grace. How did Abraham start with God? It starts with an F. Faith. How did God end with Abraham? Grace. How did Abraham end with God? Faith. You know what's ironic? Here's what's so ironic. Abraham was more like these Gentile Christians who had never even heard of Abraham than he was like these Jewish Judaizers who idolized Abraham. So this is a good place to make this statement, okay? And I'm kinda going out of the neighborhood for a minute but you'll see why. In case you've wondered or in case you've been sold a bill of goods. The God of the Old Testament is identical to the God of the New Testament. There's no difference. He's not mean old God in the Old Testament and good old God in the New Testament. He is the same God, and Paul proves it.
If I said to you today, so how are we saved? You'd say, well, we're saved by God's grace and our faith. Exactly. So pop quiz. How was Abraham saved? I'm listening. Yeah, by God's grace and his faith. Nothing changed, exactly the same. And by the way, every one who has ever come to God and has ever been accepted by God has come by faith. There wasn't one way to come to God in the Old Testament and a different way to come to God in the New Testament. It's always been the same way. The sacrifices of the Old Testament simply pointed to the ultimate sacrifice in the New Testament. The lambs that were slain in the Old Testament always pointed to the Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world. And God has always been about grace, and every relationship to God has always been based on faith.
That's why I'm telling you don't ever fall into the performance trap. Don't ever let anybody come along and say to you or imply to you Jesus is not enough, grace is not enough, faith is not enough, the gospel is not enough, because being accepted by God is not in any way related to what we do for him but what he has done for us in the cross of Jesus Christ. And this is the lesson I want us to learn today. When you take your eyes off of God and you take your ears off of the gospel and you take your heart off of grace, you just set yourself up for satanic deception, you just set yourself up to go back into prison. So to be crystal clear. No, you don't have to be baptized. You don't have to be circumcised. You don't have to join a church. You don't have to keep the Ten Commandments. You don't have to give any money. You don't have to do any good works to be accepted by God.
Now if you heard that real clear, raise your hand. I want a unanimous vote. Everybody heard that, right? Okay, but I'm not done. But when you are truly accepted by God, when your faith truly connects with his grace, your have to will become a want to. You'll wanna be baptized. You'll wanna join a church. You'll wanna give money. You'll wanna keep the Ten Commandments. You'll wanna do good works. Not so you will earn the love of God but because you're grateful for the love of God. So if you don't think what I preached today is powerful, let me just show you how powerful this truth is. 'Cause I'm gonna tell you something and you're gonna go, "I never thought about that".
Do you understand that what I've said to you today, if it's true and what Paul wrote if it's true, is the answer to self-esteem issues, it's the answer to guilt issues, it's the answer to relationship issues. You say, I don't get it. All right, watch this. God has accepted me by his grace. Got it? God has accepted me by his grace. I accept God's acceptance of me by my faith. So God says, "James, just by my grace I accept you". I say, "Lord, just by my faith I accept your acceptance of me".
Okay, everybody got it? Oh it gets better. Because God has accepted me, I can accept me. I don't have to feel like I'm inferior to anybody else anymore. I don't have to be jealous of anybody because they've got gifts and abilities I don't have, 'cause God made me who I am, God's accepted me just the way I am, I'm just as important to him as anybody else, so I don't have to worry about all those self-esteem issues anymore. Oh but it gets better. When I accept me, I can accept others. It does away with racism, it does away the prejudice, it does away with bias.
Do you say how grace, do you see how God, do you see how the gospel answers all of these deep difficult questions? It's amazing. So the big question we've got to answer is this. What's more important to you, what Jesus has done for you or what you do for God? Here's the good news and we're done, God wants you to start strong but God wants you to finish well. God started with you by grace, you started with him by faith. God will finish with you by grace, you'll finish with him by faith. And when you do, you'll start strong and you'll finish well and you'll be forever free.