July 23, 2019

Dying to the Law, Living to God

Galatians 2:11-21

11 But when Cephas [Peter] 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?”

15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified.

17 But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 20 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

I’m truly blessed to have an auto mechanic in my extended family.  When I take my car in for a tune up, and my brother-in-law tells me I need a new cabin filter, and that the wheel bearings are looking like they’re showing wear, I nod in agreement, pretending I know what he’s talking about as I reach for my credit card.  I trust him completely, though I don’t know the terminology he uses, even though he does his best to explain it to me.  I have a similar relationship with my doctor and my financial advisor, each in fields with terminologies of their own.

Christianity has its own terminology – terms like Law and Gospel, justification and sanctification.  But unlike other areas of life where we can simply leave it to the experts, these terms require our complete understanding because they embody the very life of a Christian and applying them properly is essential to the life of a disciple. 

On the surface, we may immediately see the difference between the Law and the Gospel.  The law is God’s commands and his will for our lives, and the Gospel is the Good News of Jesus’ death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins.  And yet in this section of the second chapter of Galatians, we learn that even Peter struggled with the separating of the two.  Author and pastor Tim Keller says that all of us – even mature Christians, need to wrestle with the Gospel.  When you think about it, it’s not an easy thing to really grasp and live by.  It’s slippery.  Luther recognized this when he said, “People stare at the Gospel like a cow stares at a new gate.” 

Starting in v. 11, Paul shares how he had the uncomfortable experience of having to rebuke Peter – someone who had the privilege of hanging out with Jesus for 3 years. Peter had spoken boldly on the day of Pentecost, bringing three thousand to faith in that single day.  He had healed the lame.  He was supernaturally delivered from jail by an angel, and raised Tabitha to life.  And yet here, we discover that Peter had apparently (and temporarily) forgotten an essential truth of Christianity – that we are justified through faith alone in Jesus, and not in any way justified through any adherence to ceremonial laws or by an ethnic identity.  Peter had been behaving one way when around Gentiles, and another way when around Jews.  Paul called him out on his hypocrisy.

In v. 14 Paul writes – I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.  He didn’t simply tell Peter, “You made a mistake here.” He said what you’re doing isn’t in line with the Gospel.  It’s a harsh rebuke, but spot on.  Christ alone is a radically core principle of the faith.  Without it, Christianity is no different than any other religion where man attempts to reach out to God through his own efforts. The Greek word Paul used here is ortho podeó – “walk straight”.  Walking in step with the truth of the Gospel means that every part of our lives…in our thinking, our feeling, our actions, EVERYTHING is to be in line with this truth that we are saved only through the merits of Jesus Christ and not in any way through our own efforts or ethnicity.

God does not have fellowship with us on the basis of our race and/or culture.  Paul is essentially saying to Peter, “How dare you use culture and race to be the basis of Christian fellowship.”

What does Paul mean when he says If I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor?  What was torn down?  The requirements of keeping the law.  How might that be rebuilt?  Why would this make him a transgressor?  Because by reapplying (as Peter was doing) the requirements of the law on the Gentiles, he’s robbing them of their Christian liberty.

If Peter can lapse into a confusion of the Gospel, so can we.  So why do we struggle with the slipperiness of the Gospel?  It has a lot to do with that terminology I referred to above.

We have to come to understand these terms and understand how they are the pillars of our faith:

  • Justification. In my checking account, what the bank says my balance is does not always match what my check register says.  I’m sure you can relate.  You find yourself going over past checks trying to find the error.  If you can’t, you simply add or subtract an amount to bring both the bank and your checkbook into agreement.  You’ve justified things, bringing what was out of whack into perfect harmony.
  • In our relationship with God, he has justified us through the atoning work of Christ’s death and resurrection. We’re justified by faithPaul writes in v. 20, I have been crucified with Christ.  This is the heart of the gospel and it’s the only way to get righteousness. 
  • Righteousness is a term that may very well be mocked or made fun of by most people today.  Unfortunately, the term today is understood to mean being good.  But that’s not its meaning in the Bible.  Rather, it means being right WITH someone.  For example, if I keep up payments with WE Energies, I’m right with them and I can continue to get my gas and electric.  It’s a standing that gives me rights.

We’re born into this world intrinsically knowing we’re not right, not acceptable, not valuable, not loveable, and we better find a way to make ourselves so.  Even religious people are seeking their own righteousness.  Where we find it is what separates the religions of man from Christianity. 

Die to the law that I might live for God.  These words seem paradoxical but follow Paul’s reasoning.  He’s saying that the Law (the moral and ceremonial laws of the Old Testament) cannot save him.  And he now has something greater – the Law of grace, which is to say, the Gospel, which fulfills for Paul what he could not fulfill for himself. As a Pharisee, Paul’s efforts at righteousness were not done for God, but for himself.

Luther relates it this way when reflecting on Romans 1:17:

 “I labored diligently and anxiously as to how to understand Paul’s word … the expression ‘the righteousness of God’ blocked the way, because I took it to mean that righteousness whereby God is righteous and deals righteously in punishing the unrighteous. Although an impeccable monk, I stood before God as a sinner…therefore I did not love a righteous and angry God, but rather hated and murmured against him …Then I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us by faith. Thereupon I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise … I broke through. And as I had formerly hated the expression ‘the righteousness of God,’ I now began to regard it as my dearest and most comforting word.” 

Luther used the Latin phrase simul justus et peccator – simultaneously saint and sinner – to describe the life of  Christian.  We are at the same time both saint (forgiven and redeemed by God) and sinner – still living in this physical world with a body that commits sin and is subject to the outward effects of sin.  But sin doesn’t have the last word.  We are free to pursue a life of good works and service to God without the burden of believing we must do this to earn salvation.  That’s the Gospel and it’s that’s the essence of Christian liberty.

Luther’s commentary on the book of Galatians is the quintessential masterpiece of thought on this epistle.  You can access it HERE for your own reading.  It’s well worth it!

Other Takeaways…

1. Conflicts need to be resolved face-to-face

Luther points out that Paul specifically tells us he confronted Peter face-to-face, in apparent contrast to how other apostles were critical of Paul behind his back.  Of course, Jesus spells out the protocol for reconciliation in Matthew 18, and the very first step in that process is speaking directly to the person with whom you are in conflict, or who is in conflict with sound doctrine.

2. Apostles sinned

Here again, Luther theorizes that this confrontation of Peter by Paul has a side benefit to us – namely that even those closest to Jesus, those who worked miracles and converted thousands, occasionally erred in thought, word, and deed.  This, Luther says, comforts us to know that even saints might and do sin.  Such was the case for Old Testament figures like David, Samson, Job and Jonah remind us that no person has ever sunk so low that he cannot rise again.  Conversely, it also is a warning to us that we must guard against arrogance or over confidence in thinking that we are beyond the ability to fall.

Questions to Ponder:

  • Consider how and why Paul confronted Peter.  Why was this a non-negotiable issue for Paul?
  • What are some ways in which the church today is not always in step with the Gospel?
  • How might you respond to someone who, either intentionally or unwittingly, is impeding Christian liberty by adding to the gift of God’s grace in the Gospel?
  • Why is the Gospel slippery?  (In other words, why is it often hard to grasp the fact that we are saved by faith alone and in Christ alone?)

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