Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians because the real gospel is about Jesus alone. He saves us by his grace, without our effort, for his glory alone. But that’s hard for us to accept and believe, and over time it’s possible for us to start adding things to our Christianity that destroys our Christianity. This happened in Galatia. False teachers came in after Paul left and started spreading a gospel of Jesus plus circumcision. The way to justification, they said, was to accept the grace of Jesus while adding obedience to the law of Moses. We saw in chapter 1 Paul’s defense of the gospel and his gospel ministry. Chapter 2 continues that conversation and the passage we come to today is one of the most tense in all the New Testament.
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
John Stott says of this passage:
This is without doubt one of the most tense and dramatic episodes in the New Testament. Here are two leading apostles of Jesus Christ face to face in complete and open conflict…When Paul visited Jerusalem, Peter (together with James and John) gave him the right hand of fellowship (verses 1-10). When Peter visited Antioch, Paul opposed him to the face (verses 11-16).
This exchange between Peter and Paul shows us what happens when the gospel culture we’re creating goes against the gospel doctrine we proclaim. It’s possible to unsay with our actions what we say with our mouths, and that’s hypocrisy. It’s common, and every time it happens it’s a disappointment to those around us. But inside the church, it’s more than a disappointment. It’s heresy. It’s a denial of the good news. It’s a refutation of the work of Jesus Christ.
That’s why Paul opposes Peter to his face. It wasn’t that Peter was merely following a preference. He was sending a statement. He was telling the Gentiles in Antioch that they could not be set right with God unless they were to abstain from certain foods. He was adding law on top of grace, which erased grace entirely. Peter wasn’t just mistaken. He was out of step with the truth of the gospel.
Peter knew better. In Acts 10, he received a vision in which was commanded to rise, kill, and eat all kinds of animals. He didn’t understand it at first, but God told him that what he had made clean, do not call common. According to the law of Moses, certain animals were unclean, not to be eaten. But in Christ’s perfection, God had freed his people from the law. Peter understood when, at the same time, men sent by Cornelius, a Gentile, came and asked him to come to their city. Peter went proclaiming, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35) God used animals to reveal to Peter that Gentiles are acceptable. Peter believed Gentiles were animals, but God says they’re his children now. Peter’s racism ran deep. It took nothing less than a vision from God to break the narrative dominating his mind.
But that narrative still lived on in Peter’s mind. So, when Peter was in mixed company in Galatia, he chose the path of least resistance to his own heart. He chose to separate himself from the Gentiles in favor of the Jews. He knew the Gentiles were accepted by God as they were. They did not have to become Jews to become Christians any more than Peter had to become a Gentile to become a Christian. But what Peter knew didn’t stop him from acting on what he felt.
Ray Ortlund gets to the heart of this issue.
Peter probably had an excuse. He was probably thinking, “Well, let’s not take the grace of God too far. And who am I to offend these people from Jerusalem? Their feelings matter too. So we should probably take the gradual approach. Yes, the gradual approach will avoid controversy. We’ll meet in the middle somewhere. And this whole thing will blow over.” In other words, Peter chose not to keep in step with the gospel but to walk in lockstep with the legalists. But he had no right to settle for that false peace. What was at stake here was not a matter of degree or process or nuance. What was at stake here was the same thing at stake in every church all the time. Here it is: Who is an insider, and who is an outsider, and on what basis can we rightly distinguish one from the other? It’s a simple question. It’s not a matter of compromise. It’s an either/or. Either the Gentiles were insiders, or they were outsiders. It couldn’t be a little bit of both, with one foot in and the other foot out. Who is a legit member of the Body of Christ? What is it that makes a fully approved member of the Body of Christ? Paul answered that question by looking at Jesus. What does his gospel say? Justification by faith alone clearly says that the blood of Jesus is enough to make anyone an insider. If you have put your sins onto Christ crucified, you’re clean, you belong. If you belong to Jesus, you belong to us, no matter what your background might be, whatever your culture or your ethnicity or your politics or any other human identity. You might or might not be mature.
You might or might not be ready for leadership. But Jesus says, you belong, whoever you are. In fact, it’s even more glorifying to Jesus when our diversity makes his inclusivity obvious. Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, bring it all. If it’s sin, Jesus will cover it by his blood. If it’s unfixable, Jesus will replace it with something better. But if you’re coming to Jesus with the empty hands of faith, he receives you, and so do we.
15 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.
17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 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. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Being born a Jew provided certain benefits and privileges. Peter and Paul were born into the family of God. They didn’t have to wait to hear God’s word. It was spoken over them at birth. As they grew, they learned the law. They were taught what is kosher and what is unclean. They were brought up in the community of God’s chosen people. But they knew that wasn’t what saved them. Jesus Christ saved them. It wasn’t their obedience to the law. It was Christ’s.
Since Jesus made these Jews righteous by faith, the same remedy would cure the Gentile sinners. In these two verses, Paul pits the false teachers’ doctrine of justification by works against the gospel’s doctrine of justification by faith. Here Paul introduces justification by faith alone in the greatest detail thus far.
Peter’s actions denied the truth of the gospel. He knew everyone is made righteous based on Christ’s finished work, but he acted as if it was the law that set one right with God. That’s why Paul launches into this heavily doctrinal section. What we believe must determine how we act, and when we act out of step from what we believe, we need to circle back to that belief and reinforce it.
If we are justified by “works of the law,” we have lots of work to do. The Jewish rabbis counted 613 laws in the Old Testament. So, if we are to be justified by the law, we have 613 laws to obey, without skipping any, and without failing at any point. That’s a ridiculous requirement, yet these false teachers believed that’s how God set us right, a little grace from him and a lot of effort from us. And you and I say the same thing any time we believe something other than justification by faith alone. John Stott says, “It has been the religion of the ordinary man both before and since. It is the religion of the man-in-the-street today. Indeed, it is the fundamental principle of every religious and moral system in the world except New Testament Christianity. It is popular because it is flattering. It tells a man that if he will only pull his socks up a bit higher and try a bit harder, he will succeed in winning his own salvation.”
But Paul says it’s impossible to win our own salvation. “By works of the law no one will be justified.” The only way we will ever be set right with God is by the work of Jesus Christ. This goes against every instinct we have, every impulse to earn, every theory to attain. Instead, it gives us a view of God’s love that we can only see in hints inside the law. If God justifies us by faith in Jesus Christ, it means our okayness before God has been taken out of our hands and placed entirely in the hands of Jesus.
How is this good news? How can Martin Luther call justification “the chief article of Christian doctrine”? John Calvin said justification is “the main hinge on which religion turns.” It seems that to understand the gospel, we must understand justification.
That’s why Paul stands up to Peter. That’s why he writes this letter with passion. Justification is not one doctrine among many, on the same level as other issues. It is the issue we must get right to understand the heart of God. Justification by faith takes us into the beating-heart of God’s desire for us. How much does he want his people? Enough to give them everything they need to gain him.
The law was never the path to justification. It was always the rulebook of how to live before God now that righteousness has come. But in our sinfulness, we take the law book and turn it from a gift of God into a ladder to God. We looked at it and thought, “Gosh, this is a lot to do, but here’s how we can fix all that we’ve messed up. Here’s our way to God!” But to do that is to pursue a dead end. Instead, we should look at the law and think, “Gosh, here is God’s kindness to show us how we can love him. He’s done so much for us. He’s saved us and set us right with him even though we’ve messed it all up. For him to help us see how to live now is so kind.”
So, here’s how much God does for his people. God is holy and we are sinful. Therefore, a separation of cosmic proportions exists. We cannot reach up to him. Our only hope is that he would come down to us. In the person of Jesus Christ, that’s what he did. God came down and dwelt among us. He was the second Adam, obeying the law where we failed. He was the seed of Abraham through whom all the nations would be blessed. He was the Son of David who would never lose his Kingdom. He was the Suffering Servant of Isaiah, by whose wounds we are healed. He was our substitute, standing trail on our behalf, being found guilty of our sin, dying under the wrath of God. He was raised on the third day, defeating death, Satan, and sin. He ascended to the right hand of the Father to await the day in which he will make all things new.
This is Jesus, the one who justifies us. How does he justify? Through our obedience? No, through his obedience. All we do is believe in his work and his work becomes our work. And here’s the craziest part of all: we are justified by faith—a faith that we can’t work up ourselves. The saving faith we need is the saving faith God graciously gives. We wouldn’t even believe without him placing belief in our heart. Our justification is not part our work and part God’s work. It is all God’s work because the whole of history has always been his work and the whole of the future will be his too.
If we get this wrong, we get the gospel wrong. And that’s why Paul opposes Peter to his face. That’s why he rages against the false teachers.
The heart that gets the gospel right is the heart that resonates with verse 20, “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.” This is the Christian life summed up in one verse. If this is true of you, there is no truer thing in the world about you. This is the sum of your identity. This is the greatest hope of your life.
Who lives for something that they’ve already died to? Paul says he’s died to the law so that he might live to God. He’s saying it is impossible to seek justification through some mash-up of law and grace. It is one or the other. It is either works of the law or through faith, but it cannot be both at the same time. As Martin Luther said, “If you want to live to God, you must die to the law; but if you want to live to the law, you will die to God.”
Luther goes on to help us see how this truth works itself out within.
When the law accuses us and shows us our sins, our conscience soon says, “You have sinned.”
If we then take hold firmly of what Paul teaches here, we can answer, “I admit I have sinned.”
“Then God will punish you.”
“No, he will not do that.”
“Why? Doesn’t God’s law say he will?”
“I have nothing to do with that law.”
“Why is that?”
“Because I have another law that strikes this law dumb—that is, freedom.”
“What freedom is that?”
“The freedom of Christ, for by Christ I am utterly freed from the law. Therefore, the law that remains a law for the wicked is freedom for me and binds the law that wants to condemn me. In this way the law that wants to bind me and hold me captive is now firmly bound itself and is held captive by grace and liberty, which is now my law. It says to that accusing law, ‘You shall not hold this person bound and captive, for this person is mine; but I will hold you captive and bind your hands so that you do not hurt this person who now lives for Christ and is dead to you.”
The gospel frees. The law binds. When you look at God, what do you feel? If you don’t feel freedom, return to the message of the gospel until you do. Throw off the law. Pay no attention to its demands. Cling to Christ and his free gift of grace. Who lives to what he’s died to?