What’s your story? We all have a story about our lives; a framework for explaining the events of our experience, for giving meaning to the highs and lows of our living. If you’re a Christian that story should be framed by God’s larger story. The Apostle Paul often told his story, and particularly the story of how the Lord Jesus had hijacked his life and reoriented it entirely. In Galatians he tells this story in order to refute those who wanted to undermine his message. The key of Paul’s story, and ours, is that everything points to God’s amazing grace.
Galatians 1:10-2:21 is often referred to as the autobiographical part of this epistle. In this large section Paul explains his conversion and early experience as a believer. The goal is to demonstrate his authority as an apostle and the validity of the message he proclaims. There were “some who trouble…and want to distort the gospel of Christ” (v. 7). One of the ways they were undermining the gospel was by critiquing the messenger. Paul defends himself, then, not because of his own pride, but in order that the gospel itself would be defended.
He begins by defending the origin of the message. This message was not of his own conjuring. Paul did not come up with the gospel. Nor did he receive it from some other man, as though it were just another good teaching. He received it directly from the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 12). In fact Paul himself wanted to destroy this message (v. 13), he had no sympathy for it until Jesus revealed it to him powerfully and overwhelmingly. And while this message was directly from Jesus, not even from the apostles themselves first, he did eventually find it validated and corroborated by the apostles of Christ (2:1-9). Paul is attesting to the authority and validity of this gospel message. Whatever these Judaizers would say, whatever these critics would offer as reasons to ignore Paul’s message, Paul could challenge them boldly. His message was from God directly, and was affirmed by the Lord’s appointed Apostles. This was a message that needed to be heeded.
But for Paul, the point is bigger than just the defense of his authority. The way he articulates this story reveals an emphasis on the grace of God. He is using his testimony in several key ways, then: (1) to defend his message; (2) to emphasize grace; (3) to demonstrate the futility of the law for salvation. Paul was called by grace (v. 15). His calling and appointment as an Apostle to the Gentiles was an act of God’s kindness and mercy. Paul had been so zealous for the law that it had actually driven him farther away from God. It was only grace that would return him to God’s plan of redemption. Grace was the theme of his story! It is the theme of all stories of redemption. But grace was also necessary because the law could not save. He emphasizes this particularly when he talks about his early meetings with the apostles. They did not add the law to him, nor even to Titus who was a Greek (2:3). The law was not essential to salvation, and when Peter was tempted to go back to it, Paul rightly confronted him to his face in front of the whole assembly (2:14). Paul repeatedly emphasizes the importance of not returning to the law, even as he shares his story.
Finally, he comes right out and says it:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. (2:15-16)
The law does not save. It is Jesus + Nothing! Again, grace is the theme of Paul’s whole story.
What is the theme of your story? How do you tell your story? Paul uses his own conversion as a teaching opportunity to reveal the grace of God and instruct others on their need of it. He knew that apart from grace he would be nothing. He knew that apart from grace these churches would be nothing. How we think about our own story will reveal important details about our doctrine. Do we tell our story with an emphasis on us, on our sin, on our “contribution” to salvation, with an eye towards our goodness, morality, or law-keeping? Do we tell our story in a sort of generic fashion, with no real acknowledgement of the overwhelming grace of God? That’s how a legalist would tell his story. Your story matters, but it matters to the degree that you can point to the grace of God in it. Paul uses his story to proclaim God’s all-sufficient grace. Practice telling your story. Does it do the same?