By Paul Koch –
Several times throughout my career I’ve had young people, both girls and guys, come to me in confidence and inquire about the morality or ethics of getting a tattoo. They have heard at some point that tattoos and the Christian faith are not compatible, or at least they are frowned upon. After all, don’t you know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit? And usually the first question I ask them, before I show them my own tattoos, is “what do you want a tattoo of?” If they’re young, I encourage them to wait. After all, what you think is cool now is probably not really all that cool. But there are certain things, certain moments or life changing discoveries, that just might be worthy to get permanently tattooed on your body. And I think that the words of St. Paul in Galatians 2:15-21 is just such a discovery. If there was ever a revelation that we ought to take down to the tattoo parlor and engrave on our bodies, this is it.
Last Tuesday I was working though this text with a few of my colleagues. When we were done translating it, I leaned back in my chair and just sat there dumbfounded. Pastor Barkett asked what was up, and all I could come up with was to wonder out loud, “What happened to this word?” I mean was it forgotten? Was it dismissed? Was it set aside in the churches? Because what St. Paul wrote to the Galatians doesn’t seem to be all that prevalent today. Perhaps his words here are the type of words that we all just assume everyone knows and so we don’t bother hearing them again. But even if that is that case, I don’t know how you simply move on from this word. This isn’t something that you can take up and set down without being impacted, or without being changed in some way. Especially not for us. Not for those who call Jesus Lord and God.
What Paul does here is radical. It changes things. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it changes everything. For most people, church is about finding a sense of morality or wisdom or a sense of inner peace. People go to this or that particular church because they feel lifted up and ready to face the day ahead. Or perhaps they hope to find practical advice for living a better life, for being a more responsible citizen and disciple of our Lord. Some go to church hoping for a secret wisdom that will enable them to live more triumphantly in their day-to-day grind. Still others go to church thinking that it might be a place that will put our country back on the right path. It might save our children and keep them off the streets. And the churches love it, they eat it up. They set out to feed the appetites that come looking for morals and wisdom and inner peace. They offer their 40 days of purpose driven whatever and promise to help us all climb the ladder to a more holy type of living. But for Paul, this isn’t what the church is about at all. For Paul, church is a place you go to die and come to life. Church is a funeral home and labor/delivery room.
He begins by speaking about the law of God: the law which he had grown up learning in his home, the law that first came down from the heights of Sinai, the law that defined everything he knew about church. And he says, “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.” To be justified, to stand before a holy and just God without guilt or sin is what comes to the center. Eternal life itself hangs in the balance. What Paul declares so boldly is that our justification is never found in the works of the law. In the wisdom or strength or morality of man there is no hope, no assurance, no justification.
Not that the law doesn’t serve a purpose. The law is important, necessary for our salvation, just not in the way many today would have us believe. The law is not there for us to gather around to offer friendly guidance for a better living. The law is not the interpretive key to a secret knowledge of God or this world. Yet time and again, many would have you do just that. They would have you look to some portion of the law to find confidence and assurance in your salvation. But I say to you that the law is given for the express purpose of killing you. The law reveals your sin. The law highlights what must be done but does not give that ability to actually do it. The law then leads to a curse of despair, and that despair leads ultimately to death.
When you gather here in church, you come confessing your sins. You say things to our God like, “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities with which I have ever offended You and justly deserved Your temporal and eternal punishment.” Now I ask you, how do you know that? How do you know you are a poor miserable sinner? Because God has declared you to be such. His law stands as that immovable plumb line measuring every failure, every time you have not done what you know you should, every time you have done what you are commanded not to do. The law is not a source of righteousness; it holds you guilty before God. It calls you a sinner and we know that the wages of sin is death.
To think that we could use this death bringing law as a means to lift ourselves up before our God is to say that Christ died for no purpose. He died, not because you needed a better example, not because you needed some moral encouragement, he died because it was the only way that you will live.
Here then is the part we ought to seriously think about getting tattooed. For Paul declares, “Through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” When Christ died we died with him. In another letter Paul says that this gift, this dying with Christ, happens in our baptism. When you are baptized you are crucified with your Lord. Your inability to keep the law, your guilt and shame is put to death with Christ. Which means you are given a radical type of freedom in Christ, a new life by you now live by faith. You can declare with Paul, “It is no longer I who live but Christ lives in me!”
Now I know that this gift, this new life in Christ isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. To live in Christ isn’t to live without laments and suffering and crying out to our God. I know that you struggle with a battle within. A battle where you have difficulty seeing the gift you’ve been given. It’s hard to see the new life when your plagued by depression or anxiety, or when your hearts are heavy with grief or uncertainty. It’s difficult to walk in the assurance of grace when failure and hardship meet you at every turn. We worry about our kids, have struggles in our relationships, and dislike our jobs. In such times I worry about you. I fear that when the Accuser comes around and begins to point out all your transgressions and failures, you’ll begin to turn again to the law for a way out. You’ll begin to try and use it like so many other churches do as a means to climb out of your despair. In doing so you’ll begin to take your eyes off Christ.
Rather when life beats down upon you, when it is difficult for you to see the faith that you’ve been given and you doubt the promises of your Lord, come back here. Come back to a place of death and life. Don’t go to the self-help center or the place concerned with making you a better more responsible citizen. Instead come and die so that you might have new life in Christ alone.
I declare to you today that the Accuser has no hold on you. Sure, you’ve sinned. Sure, you’ve failed to live as God has commanded, but he has no claim. For you have already died. In Christ your sins are paid for. The wages of sin is death, and they have already been paid. Which means that this life is an incredible and radical thing we have. It’s a new bold life in the gift of Christ alone. In Christ, I forgive you all of your sins. In Christ you breathe new life. In Christ you live as the saints of the most high God: queens and kings of his kingdom.
Let us sound the alarm and shout this from the housetops! Let us get tattoos if need be. But let us never forget that this very day Christ lives in you.