In Line With the Gospel
Galatians 2: 11-21
Today we’re coming to one of the most important passages in the book of Galatians. For many of us, we’ve picked up the gospel at some point in our lives, but it hasn’t yet become real to us in any way.
But I hope that some of us have reached the stage where it’s starting to get real for us. Some of us have the gospel, and it’s been a nice addition, but it hasn’t fundamentally changed everything about our life.
Today’s passage is about getting to the next level, where the gospel isn’t something just we know, or something that we think is valuable but not life-changing. This passage is about getting to the next level so that we realize that the gospel changes everything. This is a hard level to reach, and we’re going to see how easy it is today to not be there. But my goal today is that you’ll see how important it is.
The message of this passage is this: Don’t just believe the gospel. But also live in line with the gospel. And in this passage we’re going to see two things. First, we’re going to see how easy it is to believe the gospel, but not live in line with it. Secondly, and then we’re going to see that we must convince ourselves of some key facts so that we don’t just believe the gospel, but that we live in line with it.
1. It’s easy to believe the gospel, but not live in line with it.
It’s easy to know the gospel, and in fact to be a believer in Jesus Christ, and even to be a leader in the church, and not live fully in line with what the gospel is. Paul shows us this in verses 11 to 14:
11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”
John Stott says of this passage:
This is without doubt one of the most tense and dramatic episodes in the New Testament. Here are two leading apostles of Jesus Christ face to face in complete and open conflict…When Paul visited Jerusalem, Peter (together with James and John) gave him the right hand of fellowship (verses 1-10). When Peter visited Antioch, Paul opposed him to the face (verses 11-16).
This exchange between Peter and Paul shows us what happens when the gospel culture we’re creating goes against the gospel doctrine we proclaim. It’s possible to unsay with our actions what we say with our mouths, and that’s hypocrisy. It’s common, and every time it happens it’s a disappointment to those around us. But inside the church, it’s more than a disappointment. It’s heresy. It’s a denial of the good news. It’s a refutation of the work of Jesus Christ.
That’s why Paul opposes Peter to his face. It wasn’t that Peter was merely following a preference. He was sending a statement. He was telling the Gentiles in Antioch that they could not be set right with God unless they were to abstain from certain foods. He was adding law on top of grace, which erased grace entirely. Peter wasn’t just mistaken. He was out of step with the truth of the gospel.
Peter knew better. In Acts 10, he received a vision in which was commanded to rise, kill, and eat all kinds of animals. He didn’t understand it at first, but God told him that what he had made clean, do not call common. According to the law of Moses, certain animals were unclean, not to be eaten. But in Christ’s perfection, God had freed his people from the law. Peter understood when, at the same time, men sent by Cornelius, a Gentile, came and asked him to come to their city. Peter went proclaiming, “Truly I understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him.” (Acts 10:34-35) God used animals to reveal to Peter that Gentiles are acceptable. Peter believed Gentiles were animals, but God says they’re his children now. Peter’s racism ran deep. It took nothing less than a vision from God to break the narrative dominating his mind.
But that narrative still lived on in Peter’s mind. So, when Peter was in mixed company in Antioch, he chose the path of least resistance to his own heart. He chose to separate himself from the Gentiles in favor of the Jews. He knew the Gentiles were accepted by God as they were. They did not have to become Jews to become Christians any more than Peter had to become a Gentile to become a Christian. But what Peter knew didn’t stop him from acting on what he felt.
Think about this. Peter is one of the leaders in the church. If anyone gets the gospel it’s him. And yet he doesn’t fully get it. This shows us how hard it is to fully bring ourselves in line with the gospel. This passage shows us how hard it is for us to really bring our lives – everything, the way we think, feel, and act – in line with the profound truth of the gospel. That’s why Tim Keller says, “Christian living is a continual realignment process of bringing everything in line with the truth of the gospel.”
That’s the first thing we see in this passage. It’s so easy to believe the gospel, but living the gospel is not easy. Even the most mature Christian can lose his or her grip on the gospel and begin to walk out of line.
We can do this with ourselves: And we can do this like Peter did with other people: to begin to create divisions based on non-gospel issues, and to begin to force others to conform to standards that have nothing to do with the gospel.
This is perhaps one of the greatest challenges we face: of believing the gospel in our heads, but not really working out all of the implications of the gospel in our lives. It’s easy to believe the gospel, but not live in line with it.
So what does Paul do here? What Paul does in the rest of the chapter, beginning in verse 15, is to tell us one thing:
2. Convince yourself of some key facts or truth so that you don’t just believe the gospel, but that you live in line with it.
What Paul does here in the rest of the chapter is to tell us how to not just believe the gospel, but to actually walk straight in accordance with the truth of the gospel. This is really the theological heart of Galatians.
How do we move from just believing the gospel to living in line with it? Three things.
A. First, get it through your head that nobody is justified or accepted by God based on his or her own performance but we are justified by faith
So Paul says in verses 15 and 16:
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.
The problem we have in living in line with the gospel is that we have a really hard time believing that we are completely accepted or justified on the basis of what Jesus has done rather than what we have done. We live like we have to earn God’s approval, rather than really believing in the depths of our being that Jesus has already done this for us.
“Justified by faith” or justification is central to the Christian faith. It is Paul’s brief summary of the gospel. Martin Luther called justification as “the chief article of Christian doctrine”. John Calvin said justification is “the main hinge on which religion turns.” It seems that to understand the gospel, we must understand justification.
That’s why Paul stands up to Peter. That’s why he writes this letter with passion. Justification is not one doctrine among many, on the same level as other issues. It is the issue we must get right to understand the heart of God. Justification by faith takes us into the beating-heart of God’s desire for us.
So what does justification or justification by faith means?
The word “justification” has a legal reference, and therefore it provides a different perspective on our salvation in Christ.
Justification means that in Christ, though we are actually sinners, we are not under condemnation. God accepts us despite our sin. We are not acceptable to God because we actually become righteous: we become actually righteous because we are acceptable to God.
J.I. Packer helpfully summarizes what Paul means:
“To ‘justify’ in the Bible means ... to declare ... of a man on trial, that he is not liable to any penalty, but is entitled to all the privileges due to those who have kept the law. Justifying is the act of a judge pronouncing the opposite sentence to condemnation—that of acquittal and legal immunity.”
This means that God has not only forgiven our sin, but also credited to us Jesus’ positive righteousness. This is what Martin Luther called “passive righteousness” because we do not have to labor for it…. It is not righteousness that we work for, but righteousness we receive by faith.
That’s the very truth that Peter was compromising when he refused to eat with the Gentiles. He was living as if the old rules still mattered, even though he believed that we’re saved by what Christ has done.
We keep on slipping back into religion, thinking that it’s up to us. So the first thing we have to do is to beat into our heads that nobody is saved by what they do. The only hope that we have, no matter who we are, is what Jesus Christ has done.
Nobody will stand before God one day and be vindicated based on their own righteousness. Not Peter, not Paul, not even us. Nobody. We have to beat this into our heads. Nobody is accepted by God based on his or her own performance.
That’s the first step we have to take in order to truly live in line with the gospel; stop trying to earn God’s approval through your own effort.
If we get this wrong, we get the gospel wrong. And that’s why Paul opposes Peter to his face. That’s why he rages against the false teachers.
B. Second, realize that when we try to be justified by works of the law or try to earn God’s approval through our own performance, we’re sinning.
Martin Luther reminds us that if we “wander away from passive righteousness”, our hearts will naturally tend toward self-or work - righteousness.
If we are justified by “works of the law,” we have lots of work to do. The Jewish rabbis counted 613 laws in the Old Testament. So, if we are to be justified by the law, we have 613 laws to obey, without skipping any, and without failing at any point. That’s a ridiculous requirement, yet these false teachers believed that’s how God set us right, a little grace from him and a lot of effort from us. And you and I say the same thing any time we believe something other than justification by faith alone. John Stott says,
“It has been the religion of the ordinary man both before and since. It is the religion of the man-in-the-street today. Indeed, it is the fundamental principle of every religious and moral system in the world except New Testament Christianity. It is popular because it is flattering. It tells a man that if he will only pull his socks up a bit higher and try a bit harder, he will succeed in winning his own salvation.”
But Paul says it’s impossible to win our own salvation. “By works of the law no one will be justified.” The only way we will ever be set right with God is by the work of Jesus Christ. This goes against every instinct we have, every impulse to earn, every theory to attain.
Example: Now, to reveal our tendency toward performance or work righteousness, pause and answer this question: As God thinks of you right now, what is the look on his face?
Do you picture God as disappointed? Angry? Indifferent? Does his face say “Get your act together!” or “If only you could do a little more for me!”
My friends, if you imagined God as anything but overjoyed with you, you have fallen into a performance mindset. Because the gospel truth is: In Christ, God is deeply satisfied with you. In fact, based on Jesus’ work, God has adopted you as his own son or daughter (Gal. 4:7)! But when we fail to root our identity in what Jesus has done for us, we slip into work righteousness or performance-driven Christianity.
Here’s where it gets really serious. It’s not just wrongheaded or a mistake to think that we can earn God’s righteousness. It’s actually sinful. When we try to live as if we have to earn God’s approval, and when we make others think they have to do certain things on their own to earn God’s approval, we’re not just making a mistake. We’re sinning. Read what Paul says in verses 17 and 18.
But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.
So when we lose the gospel and begin to earn God’s approval through our own efforts, we’re not just wrong, we’re sinful. We try to do this all the time, and Paul says to stop. Don’t make the sinful error of trusting in your own righteousness rather than trusting in what Jesus Christ has done for you at the cross.
That’s what Paul has been saying so far. How do we not just believe the gospel, but live in line with the gospel? Realize that nobody is saved by his or her own performance, and realize that to even try is sinful.
C. Lastly, know that you are justified by faith to live for God (vv. 19-21)
19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
Verse 19 is Paul’s brief commentary on how someone who is truly justified by faith will view or live life. Because Paul died to the law, he can now “live for God”.
The implication is that before he came to faith, while he was trying to save himself through keeping the law, Paul never really lived for God. He was being very moral and good—but it was all for Paul, never for God.
When Paul was obeying God without knowing he was accepted, he was obeying to get a reward—for what he could get from God, not out of sheer love for God Himself.
Example: When we help poor people or when we give donations for church or giving our tithes.
But now that he is justified and accepted, Paul has a new motive for obedience that is far more wholesome and powerful. He wants simply to live for the one “who loved me and gave himself for me” (v 20).
We will see much more about this in Galatians 5. For now, Paul wants us to understand that our acceptance gives us a new and stronger motive for obeying God than justification by works ever could.
Here, then, is a paraphrase of verse 19: The law itself showed me that I could never make myself acceptable through it. So I stopped “living to it”. I died to it as my savior. Though I obeyed God before, it was simply to get something from Him; it was for my own sake. Now I obey Him simply to please Him. I now live for Him.
The inner dynamic for living the Christian life is right here! Only when I see myself as completely loved and holy in Christ will I have the power to repent with joy, conquer my fears, and obey the One who did all this for me.
21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.
It’s worth remembering that Paul is still speaking to Peter here! And so he finishes by reminding Peter that the Christian life is about living in line with the gospel throughout the whole of life, for the whole of our lives. We must go on as Christians as we started as Christians. After all, if at any point and in any way “righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” (v 21). Christ will do everything for you, or nothing. You cannot combine merit and grace. If justification is by the law in any way, Christ’s death is meaningless in history and meaningless to you personally.
If we could save ourselves, Christ’s death is pointless, and means nothing. If we realize we cannot save ourselves, Christ’s death will mean everything to us. And we will spend the life that He has given us in joyful service of Him, bringing our whole lives into line with the gospel.
You have a gospel of infinite value that changes everything. Don’t just believe the gospel; live in line with it. Understand that we all stand equal as sinners, and that nobody can earn God’s approval based on our own righteousness. Celebrate the right order: that we can put our faith in Christ, and then be accepted by God, and then have the very life of Jesus Christ living in us so that we’re completely new people. That’s the good news that can completely change your life.