March 10, 2005

Galatians IV: Paul vs. Peter

One of the reference works that I return to frequently while preparing these posts is Martin Luther's commentary on Galatians. Not only is it one of the great works of Christian literature, but it's just good reading. There's something attractive about Luther's down-to-earth style - not only his wit and the rhetorical force of his polemics, but the devotional qualtiy that comes through even under all the bombast. It makes his work a pleasure to pick up again and again. There's one point near the beginning of the commentary where he slams the Anabaptist sect, writing:

They do not go where the enemies of the Gospel predominate. They go where the Christians are. Why do they not invade the Catholic provinces and preach their doctrine to godless princes, bishops, and doctors, as we have done by the help of God? These soft martyrs take no chances. They go where the Gospel has a hold, so that they may not endanger their lives.1

As a Baptist, of course I think that the doctrine of baptism is one place where Luther and the other Reformers didn't Reform things quite enough. Still, the story goes to show that there is nothing new under the sun. Just as the Anabaptists in Luther's day were on the trailing edge of evangelism, so too were the "circumcision party" of the early Church: going from city to city, trying to persuade Christians there that unless they were circumcised and observed the Law of Moses, they could not be saved. We have Paul's letter to the Galatians because of their attempt to infect the church at Galatia.

But this wasn't the first run-in Paul had had with the circumcision party, nor was it the last. If you skim the New Testament you will also see that when he writes the Philippian church, he calls them "evil workers" (Phil. 3:2), and in his letter to Titus he calls them "vain talkers and deceivers" (Tit. 1:10). Their modus operandi was to go from church to church spreading their doctrine and upsetting churches for their own gain. Paul refuted the circumcision party in Jerusalem, and in this instalment we will encounter his second run-in with this group. This time, the circumcision party had managed to sway even an Apostle, endangering the very unity of the Church itself unless Paul did something about it quickly.

But when Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him to the face, because he was to be blamed. For before that certain came from James, he did eat with the Gentiles: but when they were come, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing them which were of the circumcision. And the other Jews dissembled likewise with him; insomuch that Barnabas also was carried away with their dissimulation. But when I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel, I said unto Peter before them all, If thou, being a Jew, livest after the manner of Gentiles, and not as do the Jews, why compellest thou the Gentiles to live as do the Jews? We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified. But if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin? God forbid. For if I build again the things which I destroyed, I make myself a transgressor. For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.

Paul brought Titus, an uncircumcised Gentile, to Jerusalem to prove that the Holy Spirit was moving amongst the Gentiles. Last week, I argued that Paul's reason for bringing Titus along was to force the issue, provoking the leadership in Jerusalem to make a decision on the circumcision controversy. He did this in private (Gal. 2:2). At that time, Paul didn't want to make a public spectacle out of this doctrinal controversy.

Peter sticks his foot in his mouth again

But there are times when the issue demands nothing less than a bold, direct, public confrontation and rebuke. Paul knew that there was one Church and one set of rules, but Peter's hypocrisy threatened to split the Church and set up two different standards for Jews and Gentiles. This was not a minor controversy. It undermined a fundamental principle of the Christian Gospel.

Even our leaders are not immune from error, and when that error is public, when it is severe, when it touches on such a basic truth of the faith, or when it threatens to divide the people of God into factions, then it might be necessary to be bold and confront that leader publicly. In fact, Paul told Timothy it was a very serious matter to bring an accusation against an elder - it's not even to be considered unless there is more than one witness (1 Tim. 5:19). But he follows that right up with this instruction: "Them that sin rebuke before all, that others also may fear" (5:20).

Peter was not ignorant of God's dealings with the Gentiles. He was a witness to Christ's ministry. More than that, it was through him that God brought the Gospel for the first time to the Gentile nations. Peter should have known better, and Paul knew it. If you will allow me the anachronism and a little creative license, let's suppose that Paul pulled out his New Testament and pointed out episode after episode from Peter's life that refuted Peter's present conduct.

First, Paul might have turned to John 4 and said, "Peter, here's this story about Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. You know that Jesus talked with her and told her that he was the Messiah. In fact, didn't you stay in her village for two days and see all the people who believed in him because of her testimony?"

Or he could turn to Matthew 15 and say, "What about the Canaanite woman with the demon-possessed daughter? Jesus didn't ignore her, did he? No, he healed her, even though she was a Gentile. The time for the Gentiles hadn't come yet, but he gave her a little preview, didn't he?

"Here's another one in John 12. After Jesus' triumphal entry into Jerusalem, it says here that some Greeks were there and wanted to see him. Were you there, Peter? It is because of those Greeks that Jesus announced that his time had come, and that when he was lifted up from the earth he would draw all men to himself. Not just Jews, Peter, all men, Jews and Gentiles. What happened? Did you miss the point?

"And what about Matthew 28? 'Go ye therefore, and teach all nations' (Matt. 28:19). You did hear that, right?

"How about the first third of Acts? Isn't that your life story, Peter? What did you say to the crowd on Pentecost? 'Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins, and ye shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost. For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call' (Acts 2:38-39). Now, when I wrote to the Ephesians, Peter, by those who were 'far off,' I meant the Gentiles (Eph. 2:13). Is that who you had in mind?

"Here's your second sermon, the one you did at the Temple. You were speaking to the Jews, but you quoted the covenant with Abraham from Genesis 22:18: 'And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed' (emphasis added). I use that verse too, Peter. In fact I tell the Gentiles that the 'seed' is the Lord Jesus, and then I use this verse to prove to them that God would justify them by faith just as he did Abraham.

"This one's good. Acts 10. You're up on Simon the tanner's roof and you have this vision of a sheet full of lizards and other animals coming down from heaven, and a voice invites you to dinner. You object, being a good Jew, and the voice tells you not to declare unclean what God has declared clean.

"Later you meet up with Cornelius the centurion, and you find out that he was directed to seek you out by a vision of his own. So you compare notes, and you finally figure out what God was telling you: 'Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons,' you said, "but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him . . . To him give all the prophets witness, that through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins' (Acts 10:34-35,43).

"And what happens? Cornelius and all his relatives are there, and they receive the Holy Spirit, and it's so obvious what is going on that you can't even come up with a good reason not to baptize them!

"But then a few days later, you came back to Jerusalem, and some Jewish Christians confronted you and they accused you, saying: 'Thou wentest in to men uncircumcised, and didst eat with them' (Acts 11:3). And you answered them like this: 'Forasmuch then as God gave them the like gift as he did unto us, who believed on the Lord Jesus Christ; what was I, that I could withstand God?' (11:17) And that shut them up.

"So, Peter, what changed between then and now? You didn't refuse to eat with the Gentiles in Jerusalem; why are you doing it in Antioch? Have you forgotten everything that has happened to you, so that you drag Barnabas and all the other Jewish believers into hypocrisy with you? I know you've put your foot in your mouth before, Peter, but this really takes the cake. Explain yourself!"

And, of course, Peter cannot. He has no excuse. He knew that God had established a relationship with the Gentiles on the very same basis as with the Jews: faith in the finished work of Christ on the cross. The Gentiles in Cornelius' household had no Law of Moses to obey, but nonetheless, they received the Holy Spirit when Peter preached to them and they believed. In fact, it was so obvious to Peter and the other Jewish believers present what had happened, Peter even said he could see no reason why they should be refused baptism! (He didn't even make them go to baptism class.)

The problem wasn't with Peter's knowledge. It wasn't his doctrine that angered Paul. It was his conduct. His refusal to eat with the Gentiles when the circumcision party came was inconsistent with his professed belief. He wasn't motivated by righteousness, but "fear of the Jews." Peter wanted to ingratiate himself with the circumcision party, so he played the hypocrite; he played the part so well that he drew Barnabas and the rest of the Jewish believers into sin with him. He was compelling the Gentiles to live like Jews, because by his actions he was implying that there was more to Christianity than they were getting, and that if they wanted to be real believers, they would have to start observing the Law as well. But this was the very opposite of the Gospel Paul had received from Christ. Peter, Barnabas, and the others were "not in step with the truth of the Gospel," as the ESV puts it, so Paul is compelled to corner the ringleader and chew him out in public.

Paul continues to state his case from Gal. 2:15 onward. Since Greek doesn't use quotation marks, we can't tell where Paul's narrative ends and he addresses the Galatians directly again. Practically every translation assumes the rebuke goes right to the end of the chapter. Either way, it is Paul's thought; it makes no difference to the meaning.

In verses 15 and 16, Paul tells Peter, effectively, "We are Jews, not Gentile sinners. Look at all the advantages we have! God chose us out of all the nations. He gave us the Law and told us that if we obeyed it, all the other nations would see us and know how enlightened we were. He gave us the prophets. He even promised us that we would produce the Messiah and bring light to the entire world. But guess what? All those advantages make no difference. We are not made right with God by observing the Law. God counts us righteous by our faith in Jesus Christ."

The antithesis between Law and faith

All the way through this passage, Paul sets Law against Gospel. When it comes to being in a right relationship with God, the Law and the Gospel are antithetical to one another. What one is, the other is not. We are justified by faith in Christ; on the other hand, "by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified" (Gal. 2:16). Or, "if righteousness come by the law," then what need is there of Christ? He "is dead in vain" (Gal. 2:21).

Law cannot save. This truth goes against "conventional wisdom," which supposes that if someone were to live an upright and moral life - never killing anyone, selling drugs to children, robbing a bank - that somehow God "owes" him a spot in heaven if he can manage to be a basically decent citizen for threescore and ten years.

But if we think we can earn God's approval like this, we are deluding ourselves. No one has ever accomplished perfect conformity to God's perfect standard of righteousness. And if we break even the finest point of the law, we might as well break the whole thing as far as God is concerned. Do you hate? Then it doesn't matter that you've never murdered anyone. You've done it in your heart. Do you cheat on your taxes? Then all those times you've successfully resisted the urge to rob the bank just came to nothing. We just can't do it. The Law cannot save.

But Christ is the single person in history who was able to keep the entire Law perfectly. His active obedience to the Father's decrees is transferred (or imputed) to us when we believe. God justifies us, or declares us righteous, because Christ was righteous on our behalf. And that's why, unlike the Law, faith in Christ brings justification.

Then Paul raises a potential objection. What if, someone might ask, "while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves also are found sinners, is therefore Christ the minister of sin?" (Gal. 2:17). Maybe some of the circumcision party cornered Peter with this question. "Peter, you know eating with Gentiles goes against God's law. By doing it in the name of Christian liberty, aren't you using Christ's name to justify sin?"

"God forbid," Paul says. he says. "Christ has destroyed the Law as a basis for justification. If I go back to the Law now, I would be saying the Law could do something Christ could not. I would be rebuilding what Christ has destroyed. The Judaizers are saying that fellowshipping with the Gentiles makes you a lawbreaker. But they've got it backwards. It's actually separating from the Gentiles that breaks the Law, because God has broken down the barriers between us. 'What God hath cleansed, that call not thou common'" (Acts 10:15).

And from there Paul goes into what is probably the best-known passage in Galatians:

For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:19-20)

Martin Luther has a wonderful remark on this passage:

Did the Law ever love me? Did the Law ever sacrifice itself for me? Did the Law ever die for me? On the contrary, it accuses me, it frightens me, it drives me crazy. Somebody else saved me from the Law, from sin and death unto eternal life. That Somebody is the Son of God, to whom be praise and glory forever.2

The Law never loved anyone and never died for anyone. But Christ did. He was crucified for us so that we might have forgiveness of sins. And we are crucified with Christ. Because Christ bore our sins, we identify with him on the cross, and in a sense we died with him. Paul writes in Romans 7 that it was the Law that enslaved him to sin, making him aware of what sin was and arousing those sinful passions in him. The Law legislated the life of God's people, and because no man could live up to its standards, it condemned them. But since we have died with Christ, we are also dead to the Law. We are not under its jurisdiction any longer. Being dead to the Law, we are able to live freely for God, because although we continue to live in our own flesh, Christ lives within us through the person of the Holy Spirit who enables us to live for God. My favourite passag of the Bible says:

Likewise the Spirit also helpeth our infirmities: for we know not what we should pray for as we ought: but the Spirit itself maketh intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered. And he that searcheth the hearts knoweth what is the mind of the Spirit, because he maketh intercession for the saints according to the will of God.

And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified. (Rom. 8:28-30)

One of the Holy Spirit's tasks is to conform us to Christ-likeness. It is the Spirit who enables us to live for God, because we cannot do it on our own effort: "For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live" (Rom. 8:13).

Consider the alternative. What if we could live according to the flesh? What if we could make peace with God by our own effort in obeying the Law? Paul closes his argument with this: "if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain" (Gal. 2:21). There's that antithesis again - it's either Law or Christ, but not both. If it were possible to obtain righteousness in God's eyes by our good works, then why did Christ need to die at all? Did the Father send him down for fun? Was it merely to make him a public spectacle? Indeed, there are those who hold to the so-called Moral Government theory of the Atonement, who say that Christ's death did not function as a substitutionary atonement for the sins of men, but merely demonstrated to the world how seriously God takes sin. Christ's death does not pay for sin so much as show men why they should live righteously. Are they right? I'm with Paul: God forbid! If the Law can save, there is no need for Christ. If we can add our human merit to Christ's, if we can earn passage to heaven, if we rebuild the Law that Christ has torn down, then we mock his death, and we're no better than those who taunted him to save himself on Golgotha, because in effect we're saying the same thing: "Come on down, we don't need you up there. We'll just take care of it ourselves."

A final warning

Whenever the truth of justification by faith alone has been preached, it has always been met with the same objection: it provides an excuse for loose living. Paul heard it from the Jews. Martin Luther heard it from the Roman priests. I have heard it myself from modern legalists such as the Seventh-day Adventists. Such people misunderstand or misrepresent the doctrine. Paul says faith alone justifies; it makes us righit with God. No human work can merit that.

These days, though, it also seems that in some Evangelical circles the pendulum has swung too far in the other direction. How often have you heard the slogan, "Oh, we're not under law, we're under grace"? Far too often, someone is saying this to summarily dismiss any sort of standard of conduct that he finds too restrictive or "legalistic" - another word that gets thrown around with far less care than it should.

(For example, just this week someone accused me of "legalism" online, because I pointed out how he had used a Scriptural proof-text out of context. When "legalism" extends even to "rightly dividing the word of truth" (2 Tim. 2:15) and insisting that Scripture be handled with integrity, the term has lost all meaning.)

When Paul says we are "under grace," he means something very different. It is sloppy reasoning to leap from the doctrine of justification by faith alone to the idea that being "under grace" legitimizes any sort of sinful conduct. In fact, the Word of God says the exact opposite:

Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, that ye should obey it in the lusts thereof. Neither yield ye your members as instruments of unrighteousness unto sin: but yield yourselves unto God, as those that are alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness unto God. For sin shall not have dominion over you: for ye are not under the law, but under grace.

What then? shall we sin, because we are not under the law, but under grace? God forbid. (Rom. 6:12-13)

Since we are under grace, not law, we are being conformed into Christ-likeness by the Holy Spirit. Because we are free from the power of sin, we are free to live righteously for God. That is what it means to be under grace, not Law.

Paul writes to the Philippians to "work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12), but he adds to this that "it is God which worketh in you both to will and to do of his good pleasure" (2:13). That is what it means to have Christ living within you.

John wrote in his first letter that "we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth" (1 John 1:6), but he turns right around and says soon after, "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1:9). That is what being "crucified with Christ" is all about.


1 Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Galatians, tr. Theodore Graebner, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 10 March 2005 <>.

2 Luther, Galatians.


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