Faith Alone Saves.
Have you ever met a person who claimed to be a Christian, and tried to convert you to some particular group or association? Of course that's the line the Mormons will try when they introduce themselves, we're Christians too, we just have more, a whole extra book (and a whole lot of crazy stuff that cannot be made to fit with the bible). When I was a student in Sydney there were a couple of cults active on our university campus. One of them, the Sydney Church of Christ (I believe there was a corresponding London Church of Christ, I don't know about Gateshead…) caused particular problems for Christians year on year. They would deliberately target Christians, saying they were Christians too, and inviting students to read the bible with them. Their first issue was usually to insist that you had to be baptised to a be Christian… and that to really count it had to be by them by full immersion as an adult. Once you submitted to baptism you were then told you had to be discipled by a member of the church – and this person would take a great deal of control over your life. You were told to move out of your home and into a Sydney Church of Christ home, to cut your ties with your family and old friends and on and on it went – the more you went on the more the rules, the more closely people were controlled by the cult. It was clear they were a cult, but because they started with the Bible and claimed all the same beliefs as orthodox Christianity it caused a great deal of harm to many who struggled to see why what they were hearing was wrong.
The Sydney Church of Christ had a gospel plus – believe Jesus plus do these things, and then you'll be right. And it's the gospel plus that was the problem in Galatians two thousand years ago. This morning we come to the end of Paul's defence of his apostolic authority, and begin in his defence and application of his apostolic gospel. And this is what it's really all been about from the beginning – Paul isn't interested in defending himself, he only does so because those who are trying to win the church to a false gospel have been trying to claim greater authority than his. They were trying to teach a gospel plus too.
So over the last few sermons in Galatians we've seen how Paul has taught that he has genuine apostolic authority – he was not sent by men, but by God. He didn't receive his gospel from those who were apostles before him, but directly from God. And they Jerusalem church didn't authorise his ministry, but they recognised his gospel as right and complete (they added nothing to his message, plus nothing) and they recognised his ministry as parallel to theirs – Paul as apostle to the gentiles, just a Peter was apostle to the Jews.
Paul has argued all this in order to show that his gospel cannot be superseded by one that has some sort of claim to come from the Jerusalem church, as if Paul's message needed correction – or addition – from them.
Now in our passage he shows just how far his authority goes – not only did Peter and James and John accept his ministry as legitimate, Peter actually submitted to Paul when they met in Antioch. And the issue they had goes to the heart of the false teaching now being taught in Galatia, so Paul uses it to launch into discussion of the issues at stake in Galatians.
So we're going to look at this under three or four headings:
Paul rebukes Peter
The threat to the gospel
Let's start where Paul does, with his rebuke of Peter, verse 11.
Paul rebukes Peter
Look with me at verse 11
"When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?"
Well if there were any doubts about the legitimacy of Paul's apostleship surely they are sorted out here – right? These false preachers were saying that Paul's gospel needed to be corrected because Paul wasn't really an apostle at all, if those leaders at Jerusalem knew what he was saying they would certainly sort him out…
Well, if that was the case this was the time to find out wasn't it – if Paul and Peter were in the same place and disagreed over the gospel and its implications then we'd see Peter put Paul back in his place wouldn't we? But we don't, in fact it's the exact opposite – it was Paul who had to correct Peter!
We don't know any more about this incident than we have here, but we can see here that the issue at stake back then is the same issue at stake in this letter to the Galatians. The issue is whether or not the gentiles have to become Jews to follow Jesus. Well do they? Verse 12 Peter showed by his actions that they don't – before certain men came from James he used to eat with the gentiles. This is in accordance with the direct revelation from God that Peter received in Acts 10 where, he was told 3 times by God to eat unclean foods and this by way of teaching him to go to gentiles to teach them the gospel, which he did. Now, here he is in Antioch mixing freely with the uncircumcised gentile converts, with no issues that they aren't keeping the law, just like in the vision.
But then something happens and Peter withdraws from them. Certain men come from James and Peter changes his behaviour.
What did the men say or do? It had something to do with the circumcision group, whoever they are. Peter was afraid of them and so withdrew. Now James, Peter and Paul were all in agreement about Paul's gospel, we saw that last week – so this is not a theological difference. (If James or Peter had changed their minds Paul would not be so quick to recognise them as brothers carrying on the same ministry as he is, simply in a different field – they among the Jews and he among the gentiles.) So what is the issue? It seems most likely that this circumcision group is a group outside the church who could do damage, who were threatening damage. Now we know that political turmoil engulfed Jerusalem at this point in time, in the 50s of the first century. Religious zealots were waging a war of assassinations in Jerusalem and beyond, trying to rid Israel of the Roman authorities. In return the Romans were increasingly cracking down on the Jews and so inflaming the Jewish rebellion. Meanwhile the Christians were caught in the middle. They were viewed as traitors to the Jewish cause, and often became the targets of violence from both Jew and Romans.
So it seems likely that the Christians in Jerusalem are increasingly being put at risk of reprisals as news comes back to Jerusalem that Peter has abandoned the Jewish customs and is fraternising with gentiles over in Antioch.
You can understand how Peter might decide to try and avoid causing more problems for the Jerusalem church by simply sticking to the Jewish customs for a while…
But Paul sees that there are bigger issues even than the safety of the church – because Peter has inadvertently threatened the very message of the gospel.
By acting as he has Peter has sent the message that the gentiles have to become Jewish to eat with him, implying they have to become Jewish to be full members of the church. I mean think it through, how would communion work if there were some in the church who were forbidden from eating with others? It couldn't. So if Peter is serving communion what happens to the gentiles in the building? They're free to convert or to miss out, aren't they? And, or course, if Peter is withdrawing from the gentiles, what are the other Jews going to do? They're withdrawing too – even Barnabas, who helped to establish the church with Paul was pulling back from fellowship with his brothers and sisters in his church.
And this is pathetically hypocritical, because they are not acting out of conviction – they are doing the very opposite, despite their strong conviction that gentiles are their brothers and sisters in Christ and full members of the church with them they were acting out of fear of what others will think or do.
Can you see how disastrous this is – this is a church split, but the problem is much worse than that, it has major theological implications. It gets to the truth of the gospel itself.
The Threat to the Gospel
Paul goes on to document his rebuke to Peter by way of introducing the issues for us, and for the Galatians, because the very same issues were at stake all over again.
The heart of it is in verse 15 &16, so look there with me:
"We who are Jews by birth and nont'Gentile sinners' know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no-one will be justified."
The law didn't work for the Jews, it's not going to work for the gentiles. Paul could hardly be more emphatic – as Jews under the law he and Peter both came to understand that they could not be saved by their law keeping, their Jewish religion. They came to see they had a choice to make, between trying to be justified by observing the law on one hand, or by faith in Jesus Christ on the other. These were exclusive options, and in putting their faith in Jesus Christ they rejected observing the law as a means of being justified. They were under the law, but deliberately left it behind in order to pursue a new way of being justified, that of faith in Jesus Christ. And they were right to do so, because by observing the law no one will be justified.
Do you see how emphatic this is? How final, how closed to all debate and discussion? There is no way to be justified by observing the law – no one will ever be justified that way. If you haven't seen it yet, look down to verse 21:
"I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!"
Do you think God's a fool? Do you think God would give up his son to death on a cross, and pour out on him all the wrath that belongs to sinful men and women if there was no need for it? If we could be saved by any religion, any religion at all, then there is no need for the cross, Jesus died for nothing, I can do it myself, and so can you, so could Paul and Peter and the Galatians and the Christians in Antioch – we don't need grace, just harder work at justifying ourselves.
But Jesus did have to die, because there is no way that any of us can be justified by the law, or by any other thing we might try to achieve for ourselves. No religion, no law, no rites or rituals, no great sacrifices, no simply trying to live by the golden rule, no amount of love or other person centeredness, certainly not any foolish assumption that things will be alright, let alone the arrogant claim that when I meet God I'll set him straight for the things he's done… there is nothing we can do that will justify us before God – because we've all gone so far astray that we can not get ourselves back, we can not, it can't be done. We need a saviour, we need to be bought back from slavery, we need to be washed clean from the stain of sin, we need to be brought back from death, we need to be found and brought near, we need to have our offense removed so that we can be acceptable to God again – and we need Jesus to do these things for us.
The message from Jesus via Paul is as emphatic as possible – the gospel is completely exclusive, there is only one way to come to God and it can't be mixed with anything else, it is completely exclusive.
So if you're trusting in the things you do this morning, if you think that God will be pleased with you because you try so hard, or because you're such a good person – you need to put that aside and accept what Jesus has done for you. There is no other way – but we don't need another way, Jesus opens the door right up for us.
Now of course Peter knows all this – so why would he now, having rejected it, rebuild the system of the law for the gentiles? It makes no sense at all; all he will do is to bring the gentiles under the same condemnation that he was once under, the condemnation of the law. For that is what the law does for us – it proves to us that we are law breakers, it reveals how far short we have fallen and it shows how richly we deserve God's punishment, and so it leads us to Christ. The gentiles have already been rescued by Jesus, why put them under slavery to the law now?
This is what Paul is talking about in verse 18 – if I rebuild what I destroyed I show I am a law-breaker – in being saved through faith in Jesus Paul had been crucified to the law – he was included in Jesus death and in Jesus resurrection. The condemnation that should have fallen on him had fallen on Jesus instead. Now he lives by a new principle, not religion, not law keeping, but living by faith in the son of God who loved him and gave himself for him. If he was to go back to seeking to be justified by the law he would come back under it's condemnation all over again. He would set aside the grace of God as if Christ died for nothing. This will be the topic he unfolds in the rest of the letter.
And from here, all this way away, all this time later it all looks so very obvious you might be sitting here thinking I can't see the problem – it's so obvious, how did Peter ever make that mistake, or how did the churches in Galatia not see it?
So here's the kicker for us this morning – it makes no sense at all, but sin makes us fools, sin makes us susceptible to the lies of Satan and at the heart of this debate is one of Satan's favourites – Satan says to us 'you can do it, you, yourself, you don't need God's help'. Satan loves to inflame our pride and incite us to independence from God. So legalism, seeking to justify ourselves by what we do, its just the natural religion of our hearts. And even this morning you're prone to it. Even this morning you and I feel the temptation to look around and tell ourselves that we're doing better than others and to give ourselves a little pat on the back and to think we're entitled to more from God. And when we fall into temptation and sin, we feel that we're beyond forgiveness, unless we repent really hard, as if feeling really bad about it can make up for the wrong that we've done. And when it comes to who we welcome at church it's really easy to shun people who don't fit what we think a Christian should look like. In all sorts of ways we slip into a 'law keeping' mentality. We need to constantly keep the gospel before us. And we need to remember that in Christ we die to the law so that we can live to God and so we need to run to God's mercy again and again.