Justified in Christ—Now Act Like It!

Notes & Transcripts

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?”

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.

So far in Paul’s letter to the Galatians he has been focused on demonstrating to the churches of Galatia that the gospel he first preached to them is the true gospel of Jesus. It was not the creation of a mortal, but as Paul’s own story proves, it is a revelation of the transforming power of God himself.

Paul is also eager to show that the gospel he preached was no different from the one that Jesus’ own disciples preached. As we read last week, the three most influential disciples (Peter, James, and John) endorsed Paul’s ministry and sent him out to preach the gospel to the Gentiles (Gal 2:9).

Not that Paul needed the endorsement of these men. Again it was not their gospel, however respected they were for their personal associations with Jesus. In fact, one thing we will see in this passage is that it was not just the new converts in Galatia who were susceptible to drifting away from the gospel. Even the most experienced Christians remain in need of it, for we are all naturally inclined away from living like we are truly justified in Christ alone. In other words, we all gravitate toward the guilt of legalism rather than toward the gospel of liberty, but God wants us all to live in the freedom that Christ alone provides. Let’s look into this issue further as we consider 1) the difficulty of living out the gospel; 2) the quest for justification; and 3) the freedom of justification in Christ alone.


Paul concludes his brief autobiography that he began at the eleventh verse of the first chapter with an account of what happened when Peter came to visit the church in Antioch, where Paul served as one of the pastors (Acts 13:1).

Paul confronts Peter

We read in verse 11, “But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.” Cephas is the Aramaic name for Peter, one of Jesus’ closest disciples. As such he was highly revered in the early church. But when he came to visit the church at Antioch, his behavior instigated a conflict as Paul publicly stood against him because Peter “was clearly in the wrong” (NIV).

One would think it would take a lot of guts for Paul to confront Peter, and in a public manner. Rome’s “first pope” was being rebuked by the convert who had previously overseen the arrest and execution of countless Christians. We learn from this that no one stands in authority over the gospel. It is the gospel that commands the Christian life. No one ever earns the right to be exempt from being rebuked by the gospel.

Peter’s sin

In verses 12 and 13 Paul recounts what Peter had done that brought about this rebuke.

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. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy.

At first, Peter’s behavior was exemplary, for he was willing to eat with the Gentiles. The church at Antioch in Syria was composed of a mixture of Gentile and Jewish converts to Christianity, and Peter, who had learned that in Christ there was no longer a division between Jews and Gentiles (Acts 10:28), accepted the Gentile converts as his brothers and sisters. But then a delegation from the church at Jerusalem, where the apostle James ministered, arrived at the church in Antioch. Then all of a sudden Peter’s behavior changed. “He drew back and separated himself” from the Gentiles.

Paul relates that Peter acted this way because he feared this delegation whom he calls “the circumcision party.” Evidently they had been sent by James to Antioch “to express certain practical concerns of Jerusalem believers regarding the expression of the Christian faith at Antioch.”[1] For these Jewish Christians, they were offended by the fact that the Gentiles at Antioch did not adopt the Jewish way of life when they converted to Christianity. They must have worried that if such behavior continued, then it would make it difficult for them to persuade other Jews to become Christians, for they would have to accept the Gentile converts as their equals. This was a big deal in Jerusalem. Peter knew it. And he did not want to jeopardize his reputation with these Jewish delegates from back home.

This is one of the reasons it is difficult to live in line with the gospel, because we crave the approval of our fellow man more than God. And we know that everyone has their assumptions about what is and is not acceptable Christian behavior. Once we begin to form our spiritual convictions around what other people think rather than around what God requires, we begin to drift away from the truth of the gospel and toward the slavery of legalism.

Paul’s criticism

Paul saw the damaging effects of a Christian life lived out of the fear and guilt of legalistic standards. For one thing, Peter’s behavior had a negative effect on the other Jews, even the other pastors at Antioch like Barnabas. They began to imitate his hypocrisy as they also separated from the Gentile Christians they had previously accepted.

This was enough of a concern for Paul for him to publicly rebuke Peter. Was Paul in the right to do this, rather than to maybe confront Peter privately? Should Paul have made such a big deal over this kind of behavior? After all, one can sympathize with Peter. He was in a difficult situation where he was going to be forced to offend someone, either the Gentile Christians he was visiting or the Jewish Christians he pretty much lived with. Why did Paul insist that Peter made the wrong choice?

It was not Peter’s pride and his desire to “save face” with his Jewish colleagues that annoyed Paul the most. Nor was it the hypocrisy he was demonstrating, or the ethnocentrism and racism he was perpetrating at Antioch. These things are bad enough, but Paul’s greatest criticism lay upstream from these sins. The problem is that the behavior of Peter and the others who followed his lead “was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (v. 14).

The Greek verb here is orthopodeo, from which we get our English word “orthopedics.” Paul was ticked because Peter was not leading people down the “right path” toward the gospel but away from it. It did not matter to him that everyone involved, the Jews from Jerusalem as well as the Gentiles from Antioch, were professing Christians. He knew that the integrity of the gospel was on the line here. If these churches did not get it right, it meant impending danger not only for those outside the church but for everyone inside the church, too. So he said to Peter, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (v. 14).


At stake here was what it takes for a person to be justified, or made right, before God. By his behavior, Peter was “forcing” the Gentiles to live like Jews if they sought total acceptance before a holy God. We all tend to do something like this. It is not hard for us to create an atmosphere where one assumes he must dress in a certain way or behave in a certain manner in order to be right with God. This is easy to do because we instinctively believe there is some path we must follow toward salvation.

The universal need for justification

But Peter knew better than this! He knew that all paths offering salvation were dead ends. After all, he was, as Paul says in verse 15, a Jew by birth and not one of those “Gentile sinners.” Paul is referring to here the privileged status that Jews have as being born into the chosen people of God and therefore raised in an environment where he was taught the law of God. The Gentiles on the other hand did not follow these laws and so were considered “sinners” by law-abiding Jews.

In spite of this privileged position, Paul speaks for Peter in verse 16 saying, “yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law.” Though Peter was privileged to be a Jew, he knew that he could not be justified by his obedience to the Mosaic law. Similarly, one can be raised in a Christian home and never really rebel against the faith he is taught, but he is not thereby justified before God. In other words, the most moral, law-abiding, neighbor-loving person on the planet is in need of being justified just as much as the most immoral, hateful criminal.

The requirements for justification

So what will it take to be justified before God? The Westminster Shorter Catechism explains that in justifying us, God does two things. First, he pardons all our sins. It is our sin that has separated us from God and that brings us under his wrath and condemnation. Jesus went to the cross to pay the debt that we owe because of our offense against a holy God.

Both the Jewish and Gentile Christians certainly believed this, just as anyone who claims to be a Christian must know that the crucifixion of Jesus was crucial to securing the forgiveness of sins. But there is another thing that God accomplishes for us in justification. Not only does he pardon all our sins, but he also accepts us as righteous in his sight. It is one thing to be forgiven for sin; it is another to be declared righteous! But God does both for us in justification.

The basis for justification

It is this second aspect of justification that Paul is concerned with here and throughout Galatians. And it is this second aspect that is easily compromised within the church today. For just like these Galatians we continue to pervert the gospel of Jesus when we make any work besides Christ’s work the basis for our justification.

How are we justified? Paul is adamant. Three times in verse 16 he says that justification does not come by the works of the law. To think otherwise, to view human effort in any way as significant to justification is Paul’s way of referring to the perverted gospel, the guilt of legalism. Legalism seeks justification through religion and morality, but neither of these can ever justify anyone before God. But didn’t Jesus himself say to the rich young man, “If you would enter life, keep the commandments” (Matt 19:17)? Does he mean that a person could be saved in theory, provided he were able to keep all the law perfectly?

He does not. As Luther pointed out, if Jesus meant that we could be saved by our obedience, then here, “even at the first dash, Christ is denied and faith abolished, because that is attributed to the commandments of God, or to the law, which belongs to Christ alone.”[2] Romans 3:20 tells us why obedience to God’s law cannot save. “For by the works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” The law is like a smoke alarm. A smoke alarm can never save anyone from a fire, not because it is powerless but because it is powerless to save. Its purpose is to point out problems, and it does that very well, but it can never provide the remedy for the problem.

What then is the basis for our justification? It is not “by works of the law” but “through faith in Jesus Christ.” The Greek actually says that we are justified through the faith or faithfulness of Jesus Christ. Paul is saying that the basis of our justification is never on anything we possess or have accomplished but rather it is entirely on what Jesus has accomplished on our behalf. We are faithless but he was faithful. So the Westminster catechism says, God justifies us “only because he accepts the righteousness of Christ as ours.”


Now let that sink in to you for just a moment. Ponder the magnitude of what Paul is saying. You can do nothing to improve your status before God. He could not love you any more than he already does if you were to keep all his laws, and he could not love you any less if you broke them all. Do you believe that? Because if you do, it will change your life forever! If you believe that your justification is completely dependent upon the righteousness of Christ and has nothing to do with your own, then you will be set free. The gospel of liberty is this: trust in the righteousness of Christ and you are no longer obligated to follow any law whatsoever.

The law cannot stop sin

In verse 17, Paul fields an objection he would hear often throughout his life as he preached this gospel of liberty. “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin?” In other words, if in Christ we are free from any law, what happens if we continue to be sinners? Doesn’t this message minimize the seriousness of sin and make Christ the agent of it?

Paul’s answer is a strong negation of such a suggestion: “Certainly not!” And he goes on to show that the exact opposite is true. “For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.” Paul is referring to the demands of the Old Testament law. As a means of salvation it has been torn down. If he were to reconstruct a system of law, things would only get worse because he knows no one can ever fulfill the demands of the law. The law can only do one thing: point out our sinfulness.

So if we are concerned about sin, the last thing we want to do is to return to a system of law-keeping. There is a better way.

Crucified with Christ

The better way is found through justification in Christ alone. Paul describes what this means for us beginning in verse 19. “For through the law, I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” Here’s what he is saying. The law’s intention (“through the law”) is “to bring us to a place of being no longer dependent on its jurisdiction for the living of our lives”[3] (“I died to the law”). In other words, the purpose of the law was to drive us away from it in search of rescue from the sin that it reveals in us. In Christ we have that rescue. Freed from the demands of the law we are enabled to “live to God” because we “have been crucified with Christ.” In Christ’s death, we have died with him, and as Paul points out elsewhere, the law is no longer binding on one who has died (Rom 7:1-6).

Since we have died with Christ, Paul continues, “it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Sin was the operative power in the new order; Christ is the operative power in the new. This is why I can say that in Christ we are totally free, free to live as we please. You are free in Christ to live as you please because Christ lives in you. And I am confident that such a statement will be sin-killing much more than sin-breeding.

The motivating power of God’s grace

You see, when we realize that we are totally accepted before God because of Christ’s perfect righteousness, then we are motivated by the one “who loved me and gave himself for me” (v. 20). Love is a powerful force, much more powerful than any law could ever be.

But as we have seen in this passage, even the best Christians are susceptible to drifting away from the gospel in favor of legalism. Paul knows how tempting it is for us to add our own effort to the grace of God as the basis for God’s acceptance of us. And we can do this in one of two ways.

First, we can continue to sin and thereby nullify God’s grace. Many people think that this is the only way to true freedom because they see God’s grace as a straitjacket that stands in the way of their liberty. But this is just another form of legalism; those who reject God’s grace in this way are still following a law of self-justification. They are unaware that there is no liberty here at all. They are in bondage to sin. We can also succumb to legalism by imposing an obligatory standard of righteousness on ourselves or on others. This, too, is just another way of nullifying God’s grace. In either case, as Paul says at the end of verse 21, if it were possible to be righteous through the law, then Christ’s death was in vain.


The only way that we can be set free is to turn from the guilt of legalism, which shows up in either indulgence or restriction, in favor of the gospel of liberty. Only Jesus Christ can set us free by totally satisfying God’s demands for us. And what a difference it would make in our lives if we lived in light of that liberty. Gone would be every fear of man and every futile search for satisfaction. Those who are justified by Christ are free to forever enjoy the benefits afforded to them by the Son of God who loved them and gave himself for them.

[1] Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary, vol 41, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 73.

[2] Martin Luther, A Commentary on St. Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians, ed. Philip S. Watson, electronic ed. (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, 1997), n.p.

[3] Longenecker, Galatians, 91.

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