March 31, 2005

Galatians VII: Sons, not slaves

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

The doctrine of some professing Christians of Jewish descent, the so-called "Judaizers," was undermining the most fundamental question of Christian doctrine: What is the true Gospel? How are we made right with God? The Judaizers were telling the Galatians that in order to become a Christian, it was not enough merely to have faith; they also had to obey the Law. This teaching alarmed the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the churches of Galatia in Asia Minor to tell them that we are not saved on the basis of our obedience, but by our faith. In fact, faith and Law are antitheses, opposites. What one is, the other is not - if the Law could justify, then Christ died for no reason. Moreover, he argues from their own experience that they received the Holy Spirit after they heard the Gospel from Paul, not after obeying the Law.

Anyone who seeks to obey the Law is under a curse, because no man is able to keep the Law, and therefore all men are subject to condemnation. But, he says, Christ became accursed for our sakes. We are made right with God, not because of our own obedience, but because of Christ's obedience on our behalf. The covenant blessings promised to Abraham and his seed find their culmination in Abraham's descendant, Jesus Christ, and because we are united with him through faith, we too are children of promise.

Why the Law, then? If it cannot save, and it cannot create righteousness, what is its purpose? Paul answers that the Law shows the sinfulness of sin. In his letter to the Romans, for example, Paul says how he had no desire to covet until he heard the commandment: "Thou shalt not covet" (Rom. 7:8-9). He used the everyday illustration of the paidagwgo.j (paidagogos), a trusted slave responsibile for the upbringing of the male children of the household. He was a harsh disciplinarian, authorized to administer corporal punishment. His job was to teach right conduct and supervise the boys' daily life, staying with him at all times, including leading him back and forth from school every day. This is the picture of the Law Paul wants the Galatians to have: a stern taskmaster that teaches right and wrong but whose ultimate purpose is to bring us by faith to Jesus Christ. Now that faith has come, we believers have "come of age," as it were, and we are no longer subject to the paidagwgo.j.

Having said all that, it appears as though another analogy drawn from everyday life occurred to Paul: the difference between sons and slaves.

Now I say, That the heir, as long as he is a child, differeth nothing from a servant, though he be lord of all; but is under tutors and governors until the time appointed of the father. Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world: But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father. Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.

A quick digression: Paul specifically has sons in mind here. These rights and privileges applied to male children only. This sounds archaic, if you think about it from the perspective of contemporary sensibilities. But male privilege was a fact of life in Paul's day; he doesn't pass judgment on it, he simply takes it for what it is. Nonetheless, we have already seen that Paul goes to some length to make sure his readers understand that in Christ; all people have equal standing without distinction: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28).

Coming of age

In the Roman empire, extended families often lived together under the same roof, and the head of the household was the paterfamilias, the "father of the household." The paterfamilias was the king of his domain - his power extended even to determining the fate of newborn babies lived and died, or the discipline that a disobedient family member would receive, which could range from a mild punishment to slavery or even death.

Don't make the mistake of assuming this was a cruel, callous society. Just because the paterfamilias had this legal entitlement doesn't mean that in practice he was any more of a tyrant than our fathers are today. Nonetheless, I think we can see where Paul is coming from when he says that the son "differeth nothing from a servant" (Gal. 4:1). He was the property of the father. He was unable to tend to his own business affairs - in fact, he was not even allowed out of the house without the paidagwgo.j to keep an eye on him. But Paul says that he was "lord of all." Despite his current low status, he was still the legal heir, and the ownership of the estate would eventually pass to him.

But this state of affairs did not last forever; as Paul says, there was a "time appointed by the father" (Gal. 4:2) at which the boy came of age. Typically, this occurred between the ages of 14 and 17. At that time, the boy became an adult, receiving the right to manage his own affairs, to marry, and to take part in Roman public life. He was entitled to set aside the clothing of his childhood, a simple tunic or robe or, in upper-class families, the toga praetextis that had a coloured hem and imitated the robes of civil magistrates. The son exchanged these childish outfits for the pure white toga virilis, the symbol of Roman citizenship. He had to wear this garment to conduct business or to participate in public functions. Think back to what Paul said in Gal. 3:27: "For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ." Perhaps, being a Roman citizen himself by birth, when Paul wrote about Christian baptism being the symbol of citizenship in the Kingdom of God, he had the toga virilis in mind.

Adopted heirs

Paul doesn't just liken being in Christ to coming of age. He adds yet another analogy from Roman custom. The Romans held to a form of filial piety, or ancestor worship; they believed that the spirits of their ancestors kept watch over them and their property. Thus it was very important for a man to have an heir; in fact, it was considered disgraceful to die without one.

If a man had no offspring, he might try to become adopted by another family. In that case, his goods were transferred to the heir of his new family, and his own ancestors would supposedly be satisfied. Better yet, though, he might adopt an heir himself. Typically this was the son of another family of lesser status, and there was a ceremony by which he was formally separated from his natural family and legally bound to his adoptive father. He might also adopt a slave as his son.

There's a good instance of this practice in that traditional Easter movie, Ben-Hur. Judah ben-Hur is a Jewish merchant and a close friend of the local Roman tribune, Masala. They have a falling out when Masala misinterprets an accident as an attempt on his life, and as a consequence he sells ben-Hur into slavery, where he spends three years chained to the oar of a Roman galley. When the galley is sunk, only ben-Hur and the captain, Arius, survive, the latter because ben-Hur saved his life. In gratitude, Arius redeems ben-Hur from his slavery, and adopts him as his own son and heir.

This is the kind of relationship that Paul is speaking about. He writes that "God sent forth his Son . . . to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons" (Gal. 4:4-5).

The essence of the true Gospel

This is the climax of Paul's letter. It is the very heart and soul of the Gospel. God loves sinners. We know this because God has taken the initiative to reconcile sinners to himself. We were slaves: slaves to sin, slaves to an external code of righteousness that could not save us. Paul says that "we were children . . . in bondage under the elements of the world" (Gal. 4:3). In Greek, the word stoicei/on (stoicheion), which the KJV translators rendered "elements," might also be translated as "elementary rudiments": in other words, so to speak, the ABCs. Specifically by "we" Paul means those who received the Gospel first, his own people the Jews, and their Law. But the Gospel has become an inclusive thing embracing Jew and Gentile both, so by logical extension his meaning can mean any worldly code of righteousness other than faith in Christ. God has redeemed us from slavery to the ABCs of a righteousness by which we cannot redeem ourselves. Jesus Christ - the eternal Son of God - condescended to be "made of a woman, made under the Law" (Gal. 4:4). He who was ruler and master of all, consented to be a servant to his own creation. At the appointed time, he lived a life of active obedience to the Law to satisfy the demands of the Law upon us, and died on a cross to make satisfaction for our sins. That is the price of our redemption. It is the basis upon which we are no longer slaves to sin, but adopted children of the Father. It is on the basis of Christ's life, death, and resurrection that we are justified - counted righteous - accepted by God. Though by nature we are children of wrath, by God's grace we are children of love.

Because we are now sons, Paul says that "God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father" (Gal. 4:6). Read also what he writes in Romans 8:

For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear; but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit itself beareth witness with our spirit, that we are the children of God: and if children, then heirs; heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him, that we may be also glorified together.

We are now on intimate terms with the heavenly Father; we are able to call him "Abba," which as everyone knows by now, is a term of endearment used between a small child and his father: Daddy. Papa.

Paul continues to list the privileges of adoption: "Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ" (Gal. 4:7). In Roman society, there was only one heir who got the estate. But in the family of God, we are all entitled to share in the inheritance. What is this inheritance? Nothing less than the resurrection of the body, eternal life, and eternal life.

(By the way, take note of the Trinitarian nature of adoption. The Father sends the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son redeems us from the curse of the Law. And the Holy Spirit guarantees our adoption.)

The responsibilities of Kingdom citizenship

Naturally, along with the privilege of being a citizen of Rome, there were responsibilities. And there are responsibilities that go along with the privilege of citizenship in heaven as well. I want to finish by highlighting three of these.

Our adoption should produce a likeness to God. "Be ye therefore followers of God, as dear children" (Eph. 5:1). What does Paul mean by this? He continues: "And walk in love, as Christ also hath loved us, and hath given himself for us an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweetsmelling savour" (5:2). Compare Jesus' words in the Sermon on the Mount:

Ye have heard that it hath been said, Thou shalt love thy neighbour, and hate thine enemy. But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you; that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven: for he maketh his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust. For if ye love them which love you, what reward have ye? do not even the publicans the same?

A likeness to God entails two things: to pursue love as God loves, and to pursue the righteousness that God commands.

Our adoption should produce a love of peace. Jesus said in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God" (Matt. 5:9). The children of God pursue peace. By this I don't necessarily mean pacifism. I have friends who can argue passionately for Christian pacifism. But I respectfully disagree with their conclusions: I believe there are times when self-defense or justice are, at that particular moment, greater virtues than the lack of conflict. Nonetheless, the Bible does say that the children of God are to be characterized by peaceful lives. The New Testament speaks of peace in at least three ways. For example, Paul says, in Philippians, to be anxious for nothing, and then "the peace of God, which passeth all understanding, shall keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus." (Phil. 4:7). So peace is partly the personal, inner peace that comes from contentment. There is also peace within the church: "[A]bove all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness. And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to the which also ye are called in one body; and be ye thankful (Col. 3:14-15). And third, there is also with the world around you: "Recompense to no man evil for evil. Provide things honest in the sight of all men. If it be possible, as much as lieth in you, live peaceably with all men" (Rom. 12:17-18).

Last, our adoption should produce a spirit of prayer. Again, I turn to the Sermon on the Mount, this time in Chapter 7:

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you: For every one that asketh receiveth; and he that seeketh findeth; and to him that knocketh it shall be opened. Or what man is there of you, whom if his son ask bread, will he give him a stone? Or if he ask a fish, will he give him a serpent? If ye then, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Father which is in heaven give good things to them that ask him? (Matt. 7:7-11)

Remember that this follows practically on the heels of Matthew 6, in which Jesus has just taught the proper way of praying. Here in Chapter 7, he tells us that our prayer ought to be persistent. The great preacher Matthew Henry put it this way:

Ask, Seek, Knock; that is, in one word, "Pray; pray often; pray with sincerity and seriousness; pray, and pray again; make conscience of prayer, and be constant in it; make a business of prayer, and be earnest in it. Ask, as a beggar asks alms." Those that would be rich in grace, must betake themselves to the poor trade of begging, and they shall find it a thriving trade.1

Jesus draws the analogy of an earthly father and his children: if we can openly approach our own earthly fathers and ask for food, we will receive it, won't we? Therefore, how much more should we expect the same of our heavenly Father? Just as we can communicate freely with our earthly fathers, so can we with our heavenly Father.

Overall, I believe that when we contemplate what it is that God has done for us - taken us children of wrath and adopted us as his own children - above all else I think what we should have on our minds is gratitude. How can we not? As the last stanza of the hymn "The Love of God," quite possibly the greatest piece of sacred verse ever penned, says:

Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made,
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade,
To write the love of God above,
Would drain the ocean dry.
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.


1 Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 4, Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 22 Mar 2005, 31 Mar 2005 <>.


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March 24, 2005

Galatians VI: Why the Law, then?

(This blog post makes use of the BWGRKL font for some Greek text, available for download from BibleWorks at no charge.)

What must I do to be saved?

A few years ago, I was doing some shopping when I was approached by a man who wanted to invite me to church. He handed me a card that identified himself as part of the "Ottawa Church of Christ" and invited me to attend a talk on some practical topic or other, along the lines of "coping with life's ups and downs." I politely declined. The International Churches of Christ, of which the Ottawa Church of Christ is a part, preaches a false gospel, on at least two fronts: first, by saying that to be saved you must be baptized - and by the right church (which of course means them); second, by saying that you must submit to the authority of a discipler, who becomes your de facto highest moral authority, and to whom you are accountable even for many of the tiny details of your daily life.

False gospels that add something to faith are nothing new. Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians to combat a first-century version of the same error. Professing Jewish Christians, or "Judaizers," were stirring up controversy by saying that circumcision was necessary to be saved. The Campbellite error of the ICOC is the same old heresy in modern packaging.

Paul defends the true Gospel of faith alone by first showing that he received his Gospel not from men, but by a revelation from God. He shows that he has the endorsement of the other Apostles, and then he shows that he was willing to stand up publicly even to them if their behaviour were at odds with his Gospel. Then he appeals to the personal experiences of the Galatians themselves, who received the Holy Spirit because of their faith, not their obedience to the Law. This is nothing less than the same faith as Abraham had, who was counted righteous by God because he believed God's promises. Righteousness by the Law results in a curse because it is not by faith. But Christ has redeemed us from the curse by taking it upon himself at the cross.

The obvious question, then, is: Why the Law, then? Now, starting with Galatians 3:15, Paul discusses what the law was for, and why it was incapable of saving anyone.

Brethren, I speak after the manner of men; Though it be but a man's covenant, yet if it be confirmed, no man disannulleth, or addeth thereto. Now to Abraham and his seed were the promises made. He saith not, And to seeds, as of many; but as of one, And to thy seed, which is Christ. And this I say, that the covenant, that was confirmed before of God in Christ, the law, which was four hundred and thirty years after, cannot disannul, that it should make the promise of none effect. For if the inheritance be of the law, it is no more of promise: but God gave it to Abraham by promise. Wherefore then serveth the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the seed should come to whom the promise was made; and it was ordained by angels in the hand of a mediator. Now a mediator is not a mediator of one, but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? God forbid: for if there had been a law given which could have given life, verily righteousness should have been by the law. But the scripture hath concluded all under sin, that the promise by faith of Jesus Christ might be given to them that believe.

But before faith came, we were kept under the law, shut up unto the faith which should afterwards be revealed. Wherefore the law was our schoolmaster to bring us unto Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after that faith is come, we are no longer under a schoolmaster. For ye are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as have been baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus. And if ye be Christ's, then are ye Abraham's seed, and heirs according to the promise.

The promise is better than the Law

God's promises to Abraham are like a man's will, Paul says. When a man prepares his will, once it is set down it cannot be changed. Similarly, God's promises to Abraham are irrevocable. A law that came 430 years later could not supersede what came first. What Paul is specifically talking about is is not quite clear, because wills, then as now, could be changed by the testator before he died. Perhaps he is thinking of a third party, other than the testator or heir. There were also some Jewish inheritance laws that were irrevocable. Maybe there was some other law that we no longer know about. The point is the same, however: If a man's will cannot be revoked once it is ratified, how much more is God's will irrevocable? Adding the requirements of the Law to God's promise would change its very nature, and it would be contrary to the character of God for him to go back on his promise.

God first makes a promise to Abraham when he tells him to leave Ur and head for the Promised Land. This takes us practically back to the beginning of the Bible:

Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: and I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: and I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed.

So Abram departed, as the LORD had spoken unto him; and Lot went with him: and Abram was seventy and five years old when he departed out of Haran. (Gen. 12:1-4)

Right from the beginning of his story, Abraham has enough faith to believe God and obey him. But then God promised Abraham a son, taking him outside to count the stars, and saying, "So shall thy seed be" (Gen. 15:5). It is here that it is written, "And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness" (15:6). Abraham was declared righteous by God simply because he believed the promise.

Right after this, we read of a ritual that is strange to our modern minds: Abraham cut a ram, a dove, and a pigeon in half and laid the halves on the ground in two rows. Then, when it was dark, the presence of the Lord himself passed between the halves of the sacrifices, first as a smoking pot, then a flaming torch. This is an ancient form of oath that was used to confirm a covenant between parties. It is what is known as a "self-maledictory" oath - when the parties to the covenant passed through the dismembered animals, they were in effect saying, "May this also be done to me if I break the covenant." In effect the God of the universe is himself saying to Abraham: "May I be dismembered like these animals if I break my promise to you to give you an heir." This is another reason Paul gives why the Abrahamic covenant is superior to the Mosaic law: it is based on a promise instead of law. God's promise to bless Abraham is unilateral. Abraham himself does not walk between the halves. There are no conditions. By contrast, the covenant of Moses promised blessings, but they came with strings attached: the children of Israel were given a Law at Mt. Sinai, consisting of over 600 different regulations, and told to obey it. Faithfulness resulted in blessings; unfaithfulness, in judgment. The Law was not unilateral, but mediated by Moses between the children of Israel and God.

Fast-forward a few more years. God was good to his word, and Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac. But then God issued a command to Abraham: bring Isaac to Mt. Moriah and offer him there as a burnt offering. At the moment of truth when Abraham was ready to do the deed, God stopped him. He provided a lamb as a substitute sacrifice, uttering these words:

[B]ecause thou hast done this thing, and hast not withheld thy son, thine only son : that in blessing I will bless thee. . . . And in thy seed shall all the nations of the earth be blessed; because thou hast obeyed my voice. (Gen. 22:16-18)

Next, Paul does what looks like some extreme theological hairsplitting: he latches on to the singular "seed" in Genesis 22:18 and says that this promise finds its fulfillment in one single person, Jesus Christ, Abraham's true seed. Of course Paul was aware that the natural meaning of "seed" is a collective noun meaning Abraham's descendants. He doesn't dispute that, and anyway there is no question that the promise to Abraham was literally fulfilled in Abraham's descendants. But what Paul says is that the ultimate fulfilment of the promise is spiritual, rather than biological: not the nation of Israel, but Christ - and, as 3:29 says, the promise extends to all, Jew and Gentile alike, who are in Christ.

The promise to Abraham foreshadows Christ. Think it through. Out of his love for God, Abraham was willing to give up his beloved, only son. Out of his love for us, God the Father was willing to give up his only Son. God provided Abraham with a ram to sacrifice as a substitute for Isaac; he provided the Lord Jesus as a substitutionary atonement for our sins. Christ is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Not only that, but Mt. Moriah, up which Abraham led Isaac to sacrifice him, is in the same part of the world where God led Christ up another hill to die on a cross. God's promise to Abraham was literally fulfilled in Isaac and his descendants according to the flesh. God's promise to Abraham was ultimately fulfilled in Christ and Abraham's descendants according to promise.

The purpose of the Law

Paul raises the obvious question: "Wherefore then serveth the law?" (Gal. 3:19). If the Law doesn't save you, and if the Law doesn't replace God's covenant with Abraham, then why did God even send down the Law to begin with?

First, it was "added because of transgressions" (Gal. 3:19). The purpose of the Law was to demonstrate what sin was. It doesn't accomplish this merely by giving us a checklist of dos and don'ts. It's more personal than that. The Law shows us how truly sinful we are.

In C. S. Lewis' novel The Pilgrim's Regress, the main character, John, is given a card containing the rules his Landlord expects him to live by. Lewis writes:

At first he tried very hard to keep them all, but whe it came to bed-time he always found that he had broken far more than he had kept; and the thought of the horrible tortures to which the good, kind Landlord would put him became such a burden that next day he would become quite reckless and break as many as he possibly could; for oddly enough this eased his mind for the moment. But then after a few days the fear would return and this time it would be worse than before because of the dreadful number of rules he had broken during the interval.1

John discovers that there is a war going on within him; knowing the rules, he desires to keep them, but despairs of actually accomplishing it. Compare what the Bible says about the Law, in Rom. 7:

What shall we say then? Is the law sin? God forbid. Nay, I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet. But sin, taking occasion by the commandment, wrought in me all manner of concupiscence. For without the law sin was dead. For I was alive without the law once: but when the commandment came, sin revived, and I died. And the commandment, which was ordained to life, I found to be unto death. For sin, taking occasion by the commandment, deceived me, and by it slew me. Wherefore the law is holy, and the commandment holy, and just, and good. Was then that which is good made death unto me? God forbid. But sin, that it might appear sin, working death in me by that which is good; that sin by the commandment might become exceeding sinful. (Rom. 7:7-13)

The Law shows sin for what it is, and it shows sinful people for what they are. Paul closes Romans 7 with this lament: "O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death?" (7:24). Fortunately, he answers his own question: "I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord" (7:25).

Righteousness cannot be based on law. The Law is unable to bring life - only death. It imprisons men in their sins. The Law is a jailor that holds men until faith comes to set free those who believe in Christ, in fulfilment of the earlier promise.

Paul uses another analogy to describe the purpose of the Law: he calls it a "schoolmaster" in Galatians 3:24. Some translations use words like "tutor" or "guardian" which doesn't really do the image justice; the NIV ambiguously says "the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ." Really, there's no equivalent in our society or our language. Paul has in mind a kind of Greek slave, called a paidagwgo.j (paidagogos). In an upper-class household, he was a trusted, educated slave who was responsible for the upbringing of his master's boys. He was a stern disciplinarian, authorized to administer even corporal punishment. He taught them moral conduct, and supervised their lives, keeping them away from evil. In fact, before a boy became of age, he was not allowed even to set foot outside the house without the paidagwgo.j. One of the main jobs of the paidagwgo.j was to lead the boys to and from school every day.

This is the image of the Law that Paul wants us to have: It is a harsh disciplinarian, teaching us right and wrong, but whose ultimate purpose was to bring us to Christ by faith.

But now that faith has come, we are no longer under the paidagwgo.j. We "are all the children of God by faith in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:26); we have come of age and we receive all the benefits and responsibilities of being the legal heirs of the heavenly Father. This is something that Paul will flesh out at the beginning of chapter 4; Lord willing, I will come back to what that means in the next instalment in the series.

The Law is not contrary to God's promise. Indeed, the Law assumes the promises to Abraham. The Law does not add to the promise, but supplements it. The Law reminds the sinner of his sinfulness, driving him to appeal to God's mercy and grace. The Law leads us back to the promise. In fact, the Law ought to remind us of the promise. In Exodus 19:18, the words describing the smoke and fire of the visible presence of God on Mt. Sinai are the same words used to describe the smoking pot and flaming torch that ratified God's oath to Abraham.

Who we are in Christ

This passage tells us what our identity is. One of the ramifications of a postmodernist, poststructuralist worldview is that we are nothing but the sum total of our relationships. Consider, for example, the 1997 movie Fight Club, directed by David Fincher. This movie is the story of a wage slave in a mundane corporate job whose life is driven by the acquisition of material goods. He is completely alienated from others. He has no identity of his own; the credits simply list him as the "Narrator." At the beginning of the film, he begins to manufacture an identity for himself by faking serious illnesses and connecting with people at various support groups. Later he joins a "Fight Club" in which members bond by beating each other senseless. As the movie progresses, the level of violence in the encounters escalates, even to the point of picking fights with random strangers, as the Narrator seeks out more authentic experiences.

Paul gives the Biblical answer to the question of our identity in contrast to Fincher's artificially constructed one. We are the adopted children and legal heirs of God the Father. We are the spiritual brothers of Christ, God's firstborn, on the basis of his real, historical death on a cross as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. We are Abraham's descendants. We fulfill a promise made by God 4,500 years ago. We are not merely the sum of the shifting sand of our relationships. Our identity is firmly grounded on the objective rock of the unchanging God and the facts of history.

We are citizens of a different kingdom. As one of the pastors at my church once put it, "we are no longer ordinary." We have given up our private citizenship and become ambassadors of Christ. Paul says that if we were baptized into Christ, we have "put on Christ" (3:27) - essentially, we have put on Christ's uniform and we have declared ourselves to be in his employment. If you profess Christ, and you have not yet been baptized, ask yourself why you have not yet donned Christ's uniform. Do you feel you don't know enough about it? When When Philip baptized the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:36-38), he had been a Christian apparently for only a few minutes, and had only one theology lesson. He had faith, not knowledge. Do you think the time isn't right? Then when will be the right time? A more convenient time? Death does not come at convenient times. You do not know what will happen to you even in the next day. Can you imagine yourself trying to explain to the Lord Jesus why you had been a believer for years, and even with all this time to be baptized you never actually found a convenient time?

Someone might also object: "But you don't need to be baptized to be saved." That is true enough as far as it goes. If I were arguing the Gospel with a member of the ICOC, I would insist on it, because that is the very point upon which their false doctrine differs from Biblical Christianity. In fact, I would argue straight from this very letter to the Galatians. The ICOC is recycling the Judaizers' arguments and simply replacing circumcision with baptism. But it is an invalid logical leap from "you don't need to be baptized to be saved" to "you don't need to be baptized at all." Baptism is not essential to salvation. But it is essential to obedience.

This passage tells us that God does not play favourites within his family. Gal. 3:28 says that we are all one in Christ Jesus. Racial differences are irrelevant; there is neither Jew nor Greek. When Peter first brought the Gospel to the Gentiles, he announced that "Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons: but in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him" (Acts 10:34-35). Class differences do not matter; there is neither slave nor free man. James tells his readers not to give preferential treatment to rich men who come into the assembly, while humiliating the poor (James 2:1-13). Sex differences do not matter; there is neither male nor female. It is interesting to me that when Paul preached in Athens before the Areopagus, the only person mentioned by name as having believed the Gospel is a woman named Damaris.

This does not mean that sex, class, or ethic differences do not exist, or that they are to be disregarded altogether. The same Paul who says there is neither male nor female also establishes different roles for men and women in the church and the home, and he grounds these roles in the created order at the Garden of Eden (1 Tim. 2:11-14). I have been glad to have had friends with money when I have not, who were willing to who were willing to loan me a bit of money now and then so that I didn't get left out of social activities. And I can't help but appreciate the variety that my friends of Chinese, Filipino, or African descent bring to my life. But God doesn't play favourites. We are all adopted into his family by the same rules. We are one family.


1 C. S. Lewis, The Pilgrim's Regress (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992) 6.


Dr. Edmund P. Clowney, professor and first president of Westminster Theological Seminary, died this Sunday

at the age of 27. His book The Unfolding Mystery: Discovering Christ in the Old Testament was a great help when I originally prepared this message in 2003.

Then Abraham gave up the ghost, and died in a good old age, an old man, and full of years; and was gathered to his people. (Genesis 25:8)


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March 17, 2005

Galatians V: Faith, not Law, justifies

The first recorded controversy in the early Church was over the question of justification. There were certain professing Christians of Jewish descent who were agitating the churches, claiming that to be right with God, it was necessary to keep the Jewish Law as well. Specifically, they were saying that circumcison was a prerequisite for salvation.

This contradicted the true Gospel as preached by the apostle Paul, who taught that one entered a right relationship with God through faith alone, not by keeping the Law. To support his argument, Paul cites examples from his own experience. First, he recounts how he brought his protégé Titus to Jerusalem to show how the Holy Spirit was moving amongst the Gentiles. Then he explains how he confronted Peter to his face about his withdrawing table fellowship from Gentile Christians in Antioch. To return to the Jewish pattern of things, he told Peter, was to rebuild what Christ had destroyed and say that his death on the cross was unnecessary.

Now, Paul has finished reasoning from his own personal experience, and he starts to address the Galatians personally.

O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh? Have ye suffered so many things in vain? if it be yet in vain. He therefore that ministereth to you the Spirit, and worketh miracles among you, doeth he it by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Even as Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.

Know ye therefore that they which are of faith, the same are the children of Abraham. And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the heathen through faith, preached before the gospel unto Abraham, saying, In thee shall all nations be blessed. So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham. For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse: for it is written, Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things which are written in the book of the law to do them. But that no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident: for, The just shall live by faith. And the law is not of faith: but, The man that doeth them shall live in them. Christ hath redeemed us from the curse of the law, being made a curse for us: for it is written, Cursed is every one that hangeth on a tree: That the blessing of Abraham might come on the Gentiles through Jesus Christ; that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:1-14)

Paul calls the Galatians "foolish." It's almost as though he is dumfounded as to why they have been led astray. Has someone put a spell on them? He can't think of a better reason why they would depart from the true Gospel and start following the Judaizers.

This is especially true considering that "Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you" (Gal. 3:1). Paul preached "Christ and him crucified" to the Galatians - effectively, it is as though Jesus had been placarded in front of them on a billboard. And still they had been led away from the truth.

Therefore, Paul begins a systematic refutation of the Judaizers. He approaches the issue from three perspectives: experience, Old Testament history, and the Law.

Paul's argument from experience

Paul poses a series of questions to the Galatians about their own spiritual experiences.

First, he asks: Was it by faith or by Law that you received the Holy Spirit? Obviously this is a rhetorical question. The Galatians would have to answer, "By faith."

So, second, Paul asks them: If the new birth started with faith, are you so foolish that you think you need the Law to finish the job? Does your faith only go so far?

Third, he asks: Are the things you are suffering all for nothing? What he is referring to isn't evident. After all, we're only reading one side of the conversation here. Perhaps he is thinking of persecution at the hands of the non-Christian Jews living in Galatia. Maybe the same kind of violence that Paul often experienced, from Jew and pagan alike, when he preached the Gospel in an unbelieving city (cf. 2 Cor. 11:21-29).

Last, he asks them: When God works in your midst, giving you the spirit and working miracles, is it because of your faith? Or is it because of your obedience to the Law? Maybe Paul has in mind the conversion of Cornelius and his household (Acts 10). The Holy Spirit came upon them while Peter was still preaching. They hadn't even had a chance to do anything yet.

Paul is again setting up an antithesis between Gospel and Law. As I said last week, what the Gospel is, the Law is not. We are justified by faith in Christ, but no one is justified by the Law. If the Law could make us right with God, then Christ died for nothing.

Paul's series of rhetorical questions forces the Galatians to admit that they received God's blessings by faith alone. By believing the Judaizers, they are making claims that run counter to their own experience.

Paul's argument from Old Testament history

Paul isn't finished yet. Next, he argues out of the Old Testament Scriptures: specifically, from the life of Abraham. Now that he has refuted the Galatians themselves, he turns his attention to answering the claims the Judaizers are troubling them with.

The rabbinic Judaism of that day viewed Abraham as a hero of the faith. He was righteous, obedient - even to the point of being willing to sacrifice his only son - and therefore, for his obedience, God credited Abraham with righteousness. But Paul says that this understanding of Abraham's faith is exactly backward. And to prove it, he appeals to an earlier event in Abraham's life:

After these things the word of the LORD came unto Abram in a vision, saying, Fear not, Abram: I am thy shield, and thy exceeding great reward.

And Abram said, Lord GOD, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless, and the steward of my house is this Eliezer of Damascus? And Abram said, Behold, to me thou hast given no seed: and, lo, one born in my house is mine heir. And, behold, the word of the LORD came unto him, saying, This shall not be thine heir; but he that shall come forth out of thine own bowels shall be thine heir. And he brought him forth abroad, and said, Look now toward heaven, and tell the stars, if thou be able to number them: and he said unto him, So shall thy seed be. And he believed in the LORD; and he counted it to him for righteousness. (Gen. 15:1-6)

What exactly has Abraham done in this story? Nothing. He has simply heard God promise that he will provide a son and heir, who will produce many descendants. Effectively Abraham is credited for righteousness because he had ears, and he took God at his word.

A better commentary on Genesis 15 and Galatians 3 can be found in Paul's letter to the Romans:

Cometh this blessedness then upon the circumcision only, or upon the uncircumcision also? for we say that faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness. How was it then reckoned? when he was in circumcision, or in uncircumcision? Not in circumcision, but in uncircumcision. And he received the sign of circumcision, a seal of the righteousness of the faith which he had yet being uncircumcised: that he might be the father of all them that believe, though they be not circumcised; that righteousness might be imputed unto them also: And the father of circumcision to them who are not of the circumcision only, but who also walk in the steps of that faith of our father Abraham, which he had being yet uncircumcised. (Rom. 4:9-12)

Abraham was justified before he was circumcised. That covenant sign isn't even introduced until Genesis 17. Therefore, the "children of Abraham" are not the ones clamouring for circumcision; rather, they are the ones who, like Abraham, believe the Gospel by faith.

The faith of Abraham was a foreshadowing of the Gospel going to the Gentiles. His blessing extends to "all nations" - not to the Jews only, and not to the circumcised only. Timothy George puts it graphically: "Descent by blood or physical procreation does not create sons of Abraham in the sight of God any more than the alteration of one's private parts does."1

Paul sums up his argument: "So then they which be of faith are blessed with faithful Abraham" (Gal. 3:9). Having spiked one of the Judaizers' guns, then, he turns to another weapon in their arsenal: Moses.

The curse of the Law

Everyone who fails to do the works of the Law is under a curse: "Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them" (Deut. 27:26). Note that the Scripture does not say, "do most of the Law" or "lead a pretty good life" - but those who seek to justify themselves by Law are bound to the entire Law, and that perfectly. As James says, if we fail on one point of hte Law, we fail on all of them (Jas. 2:10). But no mere human being has ever accomplished this, nor could one. Therefore, all are cursed (cf. Rom. 2:17-24; 1:18-23). And so Paul can dismiss the alternative of Law-keeping, as he says: "no man is justified by the law in the sight of God, it is evident" (Gal. 3:11). Why? Because "[t]he just shall live by faith." This passage is quoted three times in the New Testament: in Romans, where Paul shows how one is made right with God; in Hebrews, where it precedes the great "Faith Hall of Fame"; and here.

We can live by faith because Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the Law. He accomplished this by "being made a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13). Paul demonstrates this with another curse from the Law: "he that is hanged is accursed of God" (Deut. 21:23). Under the Law, when a transgressor was put to death, his body was sometimes hung up on a tree. It wasn't so much that he was cursed because of this; rather, the fact that he was put on display in this fashion was a sign of God's curse upon him because he was a transgressor.

Christ was the only man who ever kept the Law perfectly. Nonetheless, for our sake, he hung on a tree, thus "being made a curse for us." We are free of the curse ourselves because Christ's righteousness is imputed to our account when we believe in him by faith.

Thus we are blessed with Abraham when we have faith. The alternative is to be cursed for attempting to keep the Law by our own strength. This is a frightening alternative, to be sure.


Do we walk by faith? Abraham certainly did. Read Hebrews 11. He obeyed God and set out for the land of promise, even though he did not even know where he was going (v. 8). He believed God's promise that he would have a son and many, many descendants, even though he and his wife were well beyond childbearing age and "as good as dead" (vv. 11-12). He was even willing to kill his only son, whom he knew was the fulfillment of God's promise, believing fully that if he did, God would raise Isaac back from the dead just so he could keep his word (vv. 17-19).

Do we even have a fraction of this faith? Granted, we aren't asked to sacrifice our children or believe we can have them in our eighties. But think of some of the smaller things.

Consider the current economic downturn, particularly in the hi-tech sector. There's no guarantee that our jobs will be there for very long. Do we trust God's promise to supply our needs, even if we are not working?

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 were the single most significant event of my generation to date. It was to us what the Kennedy assassination was to our parents. Even now, three and a half years later, practically a day doesn't go by where 9/11 gets a mention in the media. It set a new standard for human wickedness, proving there are men so depraved that they have cast off all restraint and have no compunction against murdering thousands for a cause. Do we cower in fear because we think world events have spiraled out of control? Or do we have faith that despite all present appearances, God is still in control? "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. " (Rom. 8:28). Can we agree with Paul that we can know this, or do we just sort of hope for the best?

This is what it means to have the faith of Abraham: to take God at his word.


1 Timothy George, Galatians, The New American Commentary, vol. 30 (Nashville: Broadman, 1994) 223-24.


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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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March 03, 2005

Galatians III: The test case

In Dayton, Tennessee, in 1925, the "trial of the century" - the so-called "Scopes Monkey Trial" - was held. A schoolteacher named John Scopes had been charged with violation of the Butler Act, a state law that prohibited the teaching of evolution in schools. This famed court case brought a number of famous personalities into Dayton. Clarence Darrow, the most notorious criminal defense lawyer of the day, declared that it was civilization itself being put on trial. William Jennings Bryan, onetime presidential candidate and the greatest political orator of the day, saw his prosecution of Scopes as the duty of an evangelical Christian standing for orthodoxy against the forces of unbelief. H. L. Mencken, the greatest journalist of the time, was an atheist who thought the whole thing was a joke and the good people of Dayton and Tennessee were ignorant boobs. Between the grandstanding of the two attorneys, Mencken's mocking, and the descent of 200-odd reporters on the town, the whole event was a media circus.

The Scopes trial was a test case. John Scopes wasn't charged because he was caught teaching evolution. He volunteered to stand trial at the prompting of the American Civil Liberties Union and a local businessman who thought the law was unfair. It wasn't even important that Scopes won; in fact, he lost. The purpose of the case was to test the validity of the law. Eventually, the ACLU and other critics of the Butler Act were vindicated. It was repealed . . . in 1967.

Similarly, we see in Paul's letter to the Galatians that the Gospel he preaches has effectively been put on trial. "Judaizers," Jews professing Christianity, are agitating the church in Galatia, telling them that in order to be Christians it is first necessary to become Jews by being circumcised according to the Law of Moses. They seem to be attacking Paul himself as well, trying to cast doubt on his authority as an apostle of Jesus Christ.

Fourteen years after his conversion, Paul finally gets the chance to "talk shop" with the Apostles in Jerusalem. He brings a friend along with him, a man named Titus. Titus is Paul's test case to prove the validity of his doctrine. He writes:

Then fourteen years after I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, and took Titus with me also. And I went up by revelation, and communicated unto them that gospel which I preach among the Gentiles, but privately to them which were of reputation, lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain. But neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised: and that because of false brethren unawares brought in, who came in privily to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage: to whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you. But of these who seemed to be somewhat, (whatsoever they were, it maketh no matter to me: God accepteth no man's person:) for they who seemed to be somewhat in conference added nothing to me: but contrariwise, when they saw that the gospel of the uncircumcision was committed unto me, as the gospel of the circumcision was unto Peter; (for he that wrought effectually in Peter to the apostleship of the circumcision, the same was mighty in me toward the Gentiles:) and when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision. Only they would that we should remember the poor; the same which I also was forward to do. (Gal. 2:1-10)

When was Paul in Jerusalem?

When did this trip to Jerusalem take place? Most Bible scholars equate the "fourteen years after" trip with the council of Jerusalem (Acts 15). Since the accounts in Acts 15 and Galatians 2 have a number of surface similarities, including their subject matter, this argument is not without merit. The council of Jerusalem was convened to deal with the relationship between Law and Gospel.

There are difficulties with this harmonization, however. Paul says in Galatians that he went to Jerusalem because of a revelation. God told him to go. According to Acts 15:2, however, he and Barnabas were delegated to go by the church in Antioch. More significantly, however, if the council of Jerusalem has already taken place by the time Paul is writing this letter, why did he bother writing it at all? The issue of circumcision had already been debated at length, a conclusion reached, and an open letter issued. The resolution of the council had the approval of all the Apostles. If the letter copied by Luke into Acts 15:23-29 was already in circulation, then Paul's letter to the Galatians was redundant. The letter from Jerusalem should have settled the matter.

I hold a minority view. I personally believe that the Jerusalem trip Paul is speaking of is the one mentioned briefly in Acts 11:27:

And in these days came prophets from Jerusalem unto Antioch. And there stood up one of them named Agabus, and signified by the spirit that there should be great dearth throughout all the world: which came to pass in the days of Claudius Caesar. Then the disciples, every man according to his ability, determined to send relief unto the brethren which dwelt in Judaea: which also they did, and sent it to the elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul.

This harmonization fits the facts: the "revelation" Paul responded to could have been direct instructions from God; on the other hand, it could have been Agabus' prophecy. And since Luke is completely silent on what Paul and Barnabas did while in Jerusalem, there aren't any difficulties in harmonizing this passage with Galatians 2. Finally, Paul says that the Apostles had asked him to remember the poor, and the very reason he was in Jerusalem in the first place was to deliver relief money to the believers there. Of course, there are perfectly good Christians who disagree with me. It's a minor issue.

Paul meets the Twelve

Paul says, then, that he went up to Jerusalem and submitted his Gospel to the apostles, "lest by any means I should run, or had run, in vain.." My original thought when I read this verse was that Paul was showing some normal, human uncertainty about his teaching - a very understandable situation given the opposition he was obviously feeling. But I realized that this isn't consistent with Paul's argument up to this point, where he claims Christ revealed the Gospel to him directly, and he has been preaching it all over the place for 14 years. These are not the actions of a man with doubts about the correctness of his doctrine! Paul is not seeking reassurance, but unity - by seeking the endorsement of the Apostles in Jerusalem, he derails the attempt by the Judaizers to cause him to "run in vain" by discrediting his ministry.

He receives the endorsement he seeks. Verse 6 says that "they who seemed to be somewhat . . . added nothing to me." If Paul's detractors were right, and circumcision was necessary to salvation, then the Apostles would have told Paul to preach it. On the contrary, the Apostles had recognized God had been working through Paul to bring the Gospel to the Gentiles, just as he had worked through Peter to bring it to the Jews. They gave him the "right hands of fellowship" and sent him back out to preach to the Gentiles with their blessing.

The Apostles do attach one "rider" to their endorsement: they remind Paul to "remember the poor" (v. 10). Paul is quick to point out that this was "the same which I also was forward to do." In fact, caring for the poor Christians in Judæa formed a major part of Paul's ministry. If I am right in my harmonization of Galatians 2 and Acts 11, then the primary reason Paul was in Jerusalem in the first place was to deliver relief funds. His instructions on giving in 1 Cor. 16 and 2 Cor. 9 are given in the context of taking up a collection for the poor. Paul was finally arrested in Jerusalem after he insisted on being the courier for this offering, against the advice of the church members at Caesarea, including the same prophet Agabus who foretold the famine that took Paul there with his first offering! The welfare of the poor saints in Judea, and the unity of the Jewish and Gentile Church that this offering symbolized, were more important to Paul than his own freedom. Paul was eager to remember the poor because it proved that there was one Church, one people in Christ, all saved by one Gospel of grace.

Titus the Gentile

In the meantime, Paul had brought a friend with him: a young protégé named Titus. Though an important New Testament figure, the details of his life are actually pretty obscure. Luke doesn't even mention him in Acts. In Paul's later letters we find out that he was sent to Corinth to take up a collection (for the saints in Judea, naturally!). And later, when Paul is in prison for the first time, he writes a letter to Titus, who is church-planting in Crete. Finally, he is sent on an errand from Rome, where he is with Paul during his final imprisonment. As for the remainder of his life and missionary career, there is silence.

Titus, being a Gentile, was not circumcised unlike the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem. Those Jews in Jerusalem who had converted to Christianity still had a high regard for the Mosaic Law; they were Christians by faith, though Jews by culture. However, some of them were "false brethren." By all appearances, they were a part of the Body of Christ. However, they were agitating the Church, attempting to persuade them that, as Acts 15:1 says, "Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved.." More than this, Paul accuses them of having "came in privily to spy out our liberty which is in Christ Jesus, that they might bring us into bondage."

Whenever I read this passage, I am struck with the mental image of robed and bearded Peeping Toms, skulking around people's houses, trying to catch a clandestine glimpse of Titus with his pants down so they can be appropriately scandalized and go off and tell everyone how outraged they are. There is still no shortage of busybodies and mudslingers in the world, after all. Realistically, however, I think Paul was saying that the false brethren were something like the Pharisees who tried to entrap Jesus, as Luke 20:20 says: "And they watched him, and sent forth spies, which should feign themselves just men, that they might take hold of his words." The Judaizers were trying to set a trap for Paul and Titus, to discredit them. Maybe they wanted to catch Paul saying something outrageous: advocating antinomianism (since we are not under Law, but grace), repudiating Jewish tradition, or bringing Gentiles into the Temple. These are the sorts of accusations that Paul's enemies would make later in his ministry, anyway.

But it didn't work, and Paul did not give in; he says, "neither Titus, who was with me, being a Greek, was compelled to be circumcised; and, "we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour." Thus the Judaizers were unsuccessful in adding works to the Gospel. They were unsuccessful in having Titus circumcised. And they were unsuccessful in driving a wedge between Paul and the other apostles that would discredit the Gospel of grace. On the contrary, as we have already seen, Paul walked away from that meeting with the endorsement and full support of the Twelve. Nonetheless, the "circumcision party" was to be a thorn in Paul's side on more than one occasion in the future. We will see another one of these encounters in the next installment.

But what about Timothy?

There is nothing so plainly stated that someone won't try to find fault with it. There have been those who have tried to argue that Paul did, in fact, have Titus circumcised. Some of these have latched on to Paul's statement that he wasn compelled, and asserted that it meant he must have done so voluntarily. Others have exploited the reading of a few corrupt Latin Bibles, that read that Paul and Titus did give in to the false brethren, suggesting that they at least made a concession for the moment. (I have seen this line of reasoning or something similar used enough times that I have started calling it the "it might be true, therefore it must be true" proof.)

The motivating force behind this questionable interpretation appears to be an attempt to "harmonize" Galatians 2 with another passage dealing with Paul and another of his protégés, Timothy. Look at the first few verses of Acts 16:

Then came he to Derbe and Lystra: and, behold, a certain disciple was there, named Timotheus, the son of a certain woman, which was a Jewess, and believed; but his father was a Greek: which was well reported of by the brethren that were at Lystra and Iconium. Him would Paul have to go forth with him; and took and circumcised him because of the Jews which were in those quarters: for they knew all that his father was a Greek. (Acts 16:1-3)

Paul had Timothy circumcised, so why not Titus? The simple answer is that Timothy was not Titus, and the situation was not the same.

First, Timothy was Jewish on his mother's side; that meant he was effectively Jewish, too. Paul's argument was that Gentiles need not be circumcised to be accepted by God; he was not arguing that Christian Jews were to give up their Jewish identity as well. On the other hand, Titus was not Jewish at all, but a Greek. He had no Jewish identity.

Second, Paul had Timothy circumcised for the sake of the Jews in the area. They knew Timothy's family, and they also knew that he was half Greek. Paul had Timothy circumcised to identify him with the Jewish side of his heritage rather than the Gentile. In effect, Paul was carrying out his policy of "unto the Jews" becoming "as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews" (1 Cor. 9:20). Timothy's circumcision had nothing to do with the truth of the Gospel itself, but it did deflect an excuse that the Jews might have used to reject the Gospel: since the one preaching it was a Gentile, it was not for them.

In Titus' case, on the other hand, it was not just a matter of respecting a tradition. Paul flatly rejected Titus' circumcision because the very content of the Gospel was at stake. He admits as much to the Galatians, saying, "[t]o whom we gave place by subjection, no, not for an hour; that the truth of the gospel might continue with you." Paul would concede a point of tradition for the sake of the Jews, but he would not concede a point of truth for the sake of false Christians. It defies all logic for Paul to submit to the very concession he was opposing, then announce to the Galatians that, nonetheless, the integrity of his Gospel was intact!

My personal opinion is that Paul brought Titus along with him to Jerusalem to be deliberately provocative. By this I don't mean that he was a rabble-rouser, just trying to stir up controversy. Instead, I mean that he did it to force the issue. He wanted to provoke the Church authorities in Jerusalem to settle the matter. In essence, he brought Titus along with him as a test case. Paul stood him up in front of the Apostles and those false so-called brethren, and said, "Behold the man!" Titus was Paul's trump card. He wasn't circumcised, but his life and his testimony made a lie out of the false assertion of those Judaizers that God only favoured the circumcised. God accepts people not because of their lack of foreskin, but because they have put their faith in the finished work of Christ as sufficient to atone for their sins and make them right with God. There the evidence stands, in the person of Titus. And if the Judaizers or anyone else say differently, then they are under God's curse.

Circumcision and the contemporary Church

These days, however, the Church is mostly Gentile, and so circumcision per se isn't what we'd call a hot issue any more. Nonetheless, I think we can draw two general principles from Paul's defense of the Gospel.

First, it is OK to compromise on your personal policies for the sake of the Gospel. This is what Paul did with Timothy. As he said in 1 Corinthians:

[U]nto the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might gain the Jews; to them that are under the law, as under the law, that I might gain them that are under the law; to them that are without law, as without law, (being not without law to God, but under the law to Christ,) that I might gain them that are without law. To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (1 Cor. 9:20-22)

Arguably the best modern example of this philosophy is the ministry of Hudson Taylor in China in the 19th century. At the time, overseas missions in China were having little success, and part of the reason for this was that when British missionaries brought the Gospel overseas, they brought Western civilization as part of the package. Taylor decided instead to leave Western civilization behind. He grew his hair long and braided it into a queue, as was mandatory for Chinese men at the time, and dressed as a mandarin. Taylor wasn't interested in making English Christians out of the Chinese. Hudson Taylor's approach to evangelism allowed him to travel almost anywhere in China and be respected. He removed the unnecessary stumblingblock of Western culture; to the Chinese he became a Chinese, so that he might win Chinese.

On the other hand, however, it is not OK to compromise the truth of the Gospel to make it more acceptable. This is why Paul refused to have Titus circumcised. Maybe if he had capitulated, he might have won more Jews that way. Who knows? The principle of liberty says that it is OK to remove unnecessary stumblingblocks from in the way of the Gospel. The problem is, the Gospel is itself a stumblingblock. Paul writes that his fellow Jews were perishing

[b]ecause they sought [righteousness] not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law. For they stumbled at that stumblingstone; as it is written, Behold, I lay in Sion a stumblingstone and rock of offence: and whosoever believeth on him shall not be ashamed. (Rom. 9:32-33)

By all means, remove any unnecessary barriers to hearing the Gospel, but do not compromise on the Gospel itself. If unbelievers take offense at the truth itself, so be it.

In 1997, the Promise Keepers organization made an important revision to its statement of faith. It originally read:

We believe that man was created in the image of God, but because of sin, was alienated from God. That alienation can be removed only by accepting, through faith alone, God's gift of salvation, which was made possible by Christ's death.

The revision read:

Only through faith, trusting in Christ alone for salvation, which was made possible by His death and resurrection, can that alienation be removed.

A few words can make all the difference. The word alone was moved from qualifying faith to qualifying Christ. The change was made specifically to accommodate Roman Catholic men who were interested in getting involved. Catholic doctrine rejects sola fide, because the Roman church claims Christians must continually do something to remain in a state of justifying grace. But the Romanists have no problem at all with "Christ alone." It affirms the exclusivity of Christ but allows for human merit to be added to faith. I don't want to seem too down on the Promise Keepers. I think the aims of the organization are worthwhile, and I'm sure that their intentions were good. But they have compromised the true Gospel to make the organization more acceptable. This is the very opposite of the right approach.

If you've ever been involved with some sort of non-denominational parachurch organization or campus club or activity, then you know that inevitably the "Catholic question" comes up. To what extent may we go to accommodate those from other traditions who want to get involved? Paul's example is clear: the facts of the Gospel are non-negotiable. If we are part of an organization whose doctrinal statement is deficient when it comes to the facts of the Gospel; if we are part of an evangelistic effort but we are constrained in the way we may present the Gospel because of the different groups involved; if we are restricted in how we can speak in public because the organization wants to put forth an appearance of unity; then unfortunately, it might be necessary to rethink our involvement. We don't like to do that. It makes us uncomfortable to be even a little divisive, because disagreement is nearly taboo in today's society. But that kind of "unity" is only a façade. There is no true unity outside the truth. Stand firm for the truth, and do not subjugate yourselves to those who would compromise it. Then you can say with Paul that the truth of the Gospel remains intact.


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