The Justification of Hypocritical Sinners
This morning as we continue our series in Galatians, we come to the second half of chapter 2, where Paul brings his narrative to a tense climax. In Gal. 2:11-14, we read about a public confrontation between Paul and Peter, but before we get into the text, I want to draw your attention to the screen for just a moment. This is a Peanuts comic strip that Donna Edinger shared with me several months ago, and it often brings me joy to look at it. We see Lucy and Linus watching some torrential rain through the window, and Lucy says, “Boy, look at it rain....What if it floods the whole world?” In the next frame, Linus responds, “It will never do that....In the ninth chapter of Genesis, God promised Noah that would never happen again, and the sign of the promise is the rainbow.” Then, Lucy tells him, “You’ve taken a great load off my mind.” And Linus replies, “Sound theology has a way of doing that!”
Linus is right and he’s very nearly stating one of the main points we can draw out of Gal. 2:11-14. Sound theology has a way of helping us rest easy, giving us comfort, easing our anxiety. But, a little more broadly, this confrontation between Paul and Peter reminds us that theology should affect the way we live our lives. I once heard John MacArthur say, “I don’t like anything without theology!” I concur. Theology should never be abstract, it should always be practical; what we believe about God really does shape the way we engage with life, the way we respond to our circumstances.
But, sometimes we don’t act in ways that fit with what we say we believe. Perhaps you’ve heard people say that the reason they’re not interested in Christianity or church is because, they say, “The church is just full of a bunch of hypocrites!” If you’re a Christian, how do you respond to that statement? Maybe you think if you can try hard to avoid hypocrisy, they’ll see the consistency of your life and realize that not everybody is a hypocrite who goes to church. But, what if their statement is basically true? What if we admit that, yes, in fact, the church is full of hypocrites?
In fact, in our passage this morning, we find that one of the premiere apostles, one of Jesus’ closest friends, one of the earliest church leaders, is guilty of hypocrisy. A man who spent almost every day walking around with Jesus for nearly 3 years, hearing him teach, watching him perform miracles, getting to ask him direct questions, and have him explain the mysteries of the universe; Peter was one of the 3 apostles who were on the mountain with Jesus when he was transfigured; Peter was especially on Jesus’ mind after he rose from the dead, and he sent the women to tell Peter, as well as the other disciples, that he was alive; Peter preached sermons and watched as God used his preaching to transform thousands of Jews into Christians; Peter received a special vision from God making it clear to him that non-Jewish people were okay to hang out with and should be treated as equals when they become Christians; Peter, in our passage this morning, is going to receive a public rebuke from Paul for hypocrisy!
Let’s look at it. Follow along with me in your Bibles as I read Gal. 2:11-14: But when Cephas (that’s another name for Peter) came to Antioch, I (Paul) opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles (non-Jewish folk); 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. 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?”
Remember: earlier in chapter 2, we learned that Paul had met with Peter, James, and John in Jerusalem, and they all agreed that they had believed and were preaching the same gospel message. Peter was one of the leaders of the believers in Jerusalem, most of whom were Jewish. Here’s the really important part of that meeting to set up our verses this morning: see Gal. 2:9--...and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” They had agreed that they were all preaching the same gospel; it was the same God who had commissioned all of them; and Peter, James, and John would focus on preaching to Jews while Paul would focus on preaching to Gentiles. John Stott summarizes the turn in this chapter nicely: “When Paul visited Jerusalem, Peter...gave him the right hand of fellowship....When Peter visited Antioch, Paul opposed him to the face.”
We don’t know exactly how much time passed after this meeting before Peter travelled from Jerusalem to Antioch, but enough time has passed for Peter to have developed a bad habit. When Paul finds out about what Peter’s doing, he confronts him openly, directly, and publicly. In verse 12, we see that some time after Peter had arrived in Antioch, some men “from James” came to him. That seems to indicate that these men came from Jerusalem, which means we can assume that these are Jewish Christians.
Also, from verse 12, we learn that Peter had been eating comfortably and regularly with Gentile Christians. Now, the book of Acts reminds us that Peter had some difficulty at first accepting the reality that, within Christianity, he was free to eat with Gentiles without risking becoming ceremonially unclean. The Old Testament Law contained certain stipulations about eating certain foods or touching certain things or going certain places that would make a Jewish person ceremonially unclean, which would mean they could not enter the Temple and couldn’t interact with other Jewish people because uncleanness was contagious; you could transmit uncleanness the way we think of transmitting a cold.
But, in Acts 10, God reveals to Peter a vision that shows him that he doesn’t need to think that way anymore. People are not unclean because of their race or ethnicity, and neither are certain foods to be considered unclean any longer. But, even as he received this vision, Peter was hesitant. Nevertheless, God’s grace overcame his resistance and he marched on over to a Gentile’s house, went inside, preached to the family of Cornelius the Roman centurion, and marveled at God’s salvation of this family. So, from this point on, Peter began spending time preaching to and eating with Gentiles without any qualms.
But, after some time in Antioch, a region more Gentile than Jewish, some men show up from Jerusalem. Their arrival upset Peter in some way; he stopped eating with the Gentiles. Try to put yourself in the situation of one of those Gentiles: you have a friend that you have breakfast with at least once a week. You seem to be getting along very well; y’all pray together, talk about the struggles of life together, and call each other throughout the week. One day, when you call this friend doesn’t answer and doesn’t return your phone call. Several weeks go by without breakfast or phone calls with this friend, and you begin to wonder if you did something wrong. You chalk it up to their busyness and think they surely have a good reason for not calling. Then, you run into this friend at Walmart, and he just gives you a nervous nod, glances over his shoulder a couple of times, and scurries away. How would you feel if you found out that your friend had been avoiding you because he thought hanging out with you would make him look bad to a certain group of people because of the color of your skin? Or because you drive a certain kind of car? Or because you live in a certain neighborhood? You’d be pretty hurt, wouldn’t you? Peter has done a terrible thing here.
Verse 12 also tells us that he withdrew from the Gentile Christians because he was afraid of “the circumcision party” or as the NKJV translates the phrase, “those who were of the circumcision.” This phrase could mean that these men were non-Christian Jews, but I think it’s more likely that in this verse he is referring to Jewish Christians, particularly the Jewish Christians “from James.” This would mean that these men were of the persuasion that Gentile men must be circumcised in order to become Christians. If so, then they would not have approved of the great Peter, Jewish Christian that he was, fraternizing with these uncircumcised Gentiles in Antioch. If we view them in the best light possible, they may have been concerned that Peter was jeopardizing his commission to preach the gospel to the Jews; that is to say, if non-Christian Jews saw Peter eating with Gentiles, they might be less likely to give Peter a hearing when he preaches.
Now, this raises a question about James: should we conclude that James also was advocating circumcision for Gentile converts? I don’t think so. It seems like, if that were the case, Paul would have some things to say about James as the source of the problem. Rather, these men may have claimed that James sent them to try to add authority to their message.
However they came, they spooked Peter. Their influence must have been quite intimidating, but what was Peter afraid of? He may have been afraid that James really had sent them and there had been some kind of shift in the way things were done in Jerusalem. He may have been afraid that these men could influence other Jewish Christians in Antioch to challenge and overcome Peter. He may even have been afraid that these Jewish Christians could rally support from the non-Christian Jews in the area to increase persecution on any so-called Jew who would spend so much time with Gentiles. The text doesn’t tell us what shook Peter so, but he went back to what he knew from his early days as a Jewish Christian in Jerusalem: let’s maintain some Jewish distinction.
Peter apparently carried on avoiding much contact with the Gentile Christians in Antioch for quite some time because his behavior influenced the other Jewish Christians there. Even Barnabas, who, from what the book of Acts tells us, was a an example of virtue and godliness, was led astray. It’s interesting that Paul would highlight Barnabas’s being deceived here. Remember that it was Barnabas who commended Paul to the other Christians who were afraid of the former Christian-killer.
Verse 13 tells us that Peter, Barnabas, and the rest of the Jewish Christians in Antioch were acting hypocritically. Peter and Barnabas. A leading member of the original Twelve apostles and a shining example of faithfulness in the early church. Hypocrites. When people say the church is full of hypocrites, they aren’t necessarily far from the mark.
So, why does Paul rebuke Peter publicly here? Two specific reasons are given in our passage. First, at the end of verse 11, Peter “stood condemned.” That is to say, Peter was guilty. What Peter had done was sinful. Wicked. Peter was guilty. Second, look at verse 14: But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.... Jewish Christians refusing to eat with Gentile Christians is “not in step with the truth of the gospel.” That kind of behavior doesn’t fit with the gospel message.
Friends, we must remember that the gospel is a message of good news, heavenly news, news from God. It’s the news that the divine Son of God became a human being, lived a genuinely human life that was fully pleasing to God, which means he trusted his Father completely in all that he did, and “he gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age” (remember that from Gal. 1:4?), that is to say, he sacrificed himself on the cross, dying for sins he did not commit, dying for sins that we do commit, dying the death we deserve, dying our death, dying in our place, and he rose from the dead, displaying to the universe that he did not die for his own sins, that he has overcome death, and that the Father accepted his sacrifice in our place. That’s the news of Christianity. But, news is announced to elicit a response; when you hear the news of Christianity, God is saying, “Look what I’ve done! Look what I’ve done for you! Believe it! Trust my Son! He’s given everything for you, and he will give everything to you. Follow him wherever he leads! Where he leads is really good.”
The gospel entails a certain kind of life, certain kind of behavior, and excluding people because of their ethnicity doesn’t fit! So, what does Paul say to Peter? Look at the end of verse 14: Paul said to Peter publicly, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” That’s a puzzling statement. What’s he saying? Paul’s saying, “Peter, you remember how you were acting after you received that vision from God? You remember the white sheet, don’t you? The unclean animals? You remember; God told you not to treat as unclean what he determines as clean. These Gentile Christians have been cleansed by Jesus’ blood. Even though you’re a Jew, you were living free, like a Gentile, in that you weren’t separating yourself from Gentiles. Why did you stop?!? How can you put these Gentile Christians in a position where they have to eat by themselves, segregated like second-class citizens? By refusing to eat with them, you’re making them live enslaved like Jews in the worst way possible. You’re isolating them. That, dear sir, does not fit with the gospel you and I both preach!”
Now, your Bible translation may continue the quote all the way to the end of the chapter, but the ESV and other versions have Paul’s quotation of what he actually said to Peter ending with verse 14, and I think that’s correct. Remember that there are no quotation marks in the Greek New Testament, so sometimes translations and commentators will disagree as to where a direct quote ends. But, I do think verses 15-21 represent the content of a longer conversation that Paul had with Peter. It’s interesting that Paul doesn’t tell us here how Peter responded. But, if this conversation took place before what’s called the Jerusalem Council described in Acts 15, and I think it did, then we have good evidence that Peter took Paul’s rebuke well and repented. I say that because in that meeting with the leaders of the Jerusalem Christians, the debate was about whether Gentiles needed to become Jewish before becoming Christians, and the end of the matter is, “No, they most certainly do not.” But, what’s great to see is that it’s Peter who is the first one to stand up to defend Paul’s position (Acts 15:7-11)!
Before we move on, notice one further observation about this passage. Notice that, as severe as Paul’s rebuke of Peter seems, it is not as extreme as the words he has for the false teachers in Galatia; remember Gal. 1:9: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed. Peter’s beliefs haven’t changed; rather, he’s being hypocritical. his actions don’t fit with the gospel he believes; his actions don’t fit with the gospel he preaches. We see Paul’s public rebuke of Peter as harsh, and, indeed, it is, but he doesn’t pronounce him accursed; Paul sharply corrects Peter, but he immediately reminds him of the truth of the gospel; he shows him plainly how he’s gone off course and calls him to remember the gospel. Later in this letter, Paul is going to write, “Brothers, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” (Gal. 6:1). Paul is doing that with Peter here.
Verses 15 and 16 are the heart of this chapter, and verse 16 could be the hub of the entire letter. Paul writes, 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. Paul still seems to have Peter in focus, as he begins this paragraph “we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” He contrasts being a Jew by birth as opposed to being a Gentile sinner in order to acknowledge a certain privilege of being Jewish, as he does in Rom. 3:1-2 and Rom. 9:4-5, but he raises this “advantage” only to show that when it comes to justification Jews and Gentiles stand as equals.
Verse 16 is as dense as it is important. Let me begin by defining some of the terms we need to understand before seeing what Paul has to say. First, the word “justified.” This means “to be counted righteous.” Think of a criminal law setting. There is a judge, a prosecution bringing accusations against a defendant. The defendant is being accused of a certain crime; the prosecution will present evidence to show that the defendant is guilty. The judge must render a verdict. The verdict will be “guilty” because the evidence shows plainly that the defendant indeed committed the crime in question, or the verdict will be “acquitted” because the evidence shows that the defendant did not commit the crime in question. According to the Scriptures, there is a Judgment Day that every human being who has ever lived and who ever will live will face. When the Bible speaks of being justified, it’s raising the question, “What will God’s verdict be when you come to your trial?” Our desire is that the Judge will “justify” us; that is, we hope God will count us righteous, that we will be found not guilty. The question in our passage today is, “How can we be counted righteous? How can we be justified when we face our trial before God?”
Paul discusses two alternative possibilities by using two parallel phrases: “works of law” and “faith of Christ.” So, what does the phrase “works of law” mean? It’s become a highly debated phrase among biblical scholars, but it seems most simply to mean “obeying the law.” The noun “works” is what we might call a “verbal noun”; that is to say, it is a noun that refers to or describes an action, so that the idea being expressed could be “working the law.” There are other possible ways of understanding the meaning of the phrase, but however you take, it seems to boil down to the idea of being justified by obeying the law.
The other phrase is literally translated “faith of Christ,” and you can see how they’re parallel phrases: “faith of Christ” vs. “works of law.” This phrase, too, is highly debated among biblical scholars, especially in the last 30 years or so. We don’t need to go into all of the details, but can you see how the phrase “faith of Christ” might be confusing? Most English Bible translations have “faith in Christ” here; the KJV is, I think, the only English translation still in circulation today that has “faith of Christ.” But, that phrase is ambiguous; it sounds like it’s talking about “Christ’s faith,” and that is what some scholars nowadays are arguing. Or, realizing that the Greek word we translate as “faith” can also mean “faithfulness,” many scholars are suggesting that this is a reference to Jesus’ faithfulness to the mission God sent him to complete. Personally, I think the traditional understanding, that this is a reference to the Christian’s faith in Christ, is the best way to understand what Paul’s saying here. Faith, in Greek, is also a “verbal noun”; so, if “works of law” means something like “working the law” or “obeying the law,” then “faith of Christ” means something like “faithing Christ.” But, we don’t have an English word “faithing,” do we? That’s too bad for English. Well, we can make do with the word “believing” or “trusting.” So, Paul’s here opposing being justified by obeying the law versus being justified by trusting Jesus Christ.
Now, what does he say in verse 16? Notice that he progresses from referring to the general (“a person”), to the personal (“we”), to the universal (“no one”). Paul says, “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law.” The “we” likely remains focused on Paul and Peter but also includes all Jewish Christians. Since they have begun to trust in Jesus, they know that that’s how they were justified. In fact, Peter’s separation from Gentile Christians implied that he was acting as though he could be justified “by obeying the law.” Now, earlier I said that when the Bible talks about justification, it’s talking about the verdict on Judgment Day, which is still in the future even for us today. Paul is using the present tense here; we could translate it “no one is being justified by obeying the law.” How are people being justified, counted righteous, right now, before Judgment Day? For the moment, let’s just observe that Paul does seem to be saying that very thing, and we’ll see how that’s possible in a few verses.
But, here he absolutely denies that justification comes from obeying the law. The idea is that you want the verdict to be “not guilty” on Judgment Day; you might think that the way to secure a “not guilty” verdict would be to obey the law; don’t break the law and you’ll be counted righteous on Judgment Day. That makes sense, doesn’t it?? Paul says absolutely not. Why not? Well, he doesn’t explain why not in this passage, but he does explain it in the rest of Galatians. It seems that there are two reasons that you can’t expect to be counted righteous by obeying the law. The first reason is that God didn’t give the law as part of the Mosaic Covenant, or any other law for that matter, for the purpose of earning a good verdict on Judgment Day. God didn’t give commandments so that his people would obey just to make sure they got an acquittal on Judgment Day. It had other purposes, which the Jews largely forgot over time. The second reason is that no one is able to obey the law. No human being is able to obey God’s commands. Both of these reasons are at least implied in later passages in Galatians, and both of these reasons are explained more fully in Paul’s letter to the Romans.
So, if we can’t achieve or earn or win an acquittal for Judgment Day by obeying the law, how is it possible for anyone to be justified? Faith in Jesus Christ. Trusting Jesus Christ. How does trusting Jesus Christ now bring about a “not guilty” verdict for a sinner on Judgment Day? I mean, on Judgment Day, all the evidence would plainly show that I’m guilty of all charges. How can I escape the judgment I so clearly deserve? Jesus died in my place. Jesus lived a perfectly righteous human life; he could stand before the Judge and expect an acquittal; there would be no criminal charges to bring against him! Yet, when he died on that Roman cross, he was dying to pay the penalty for sins he did not commit; he was dying to pay the penalty, the judicial penalty, for sins I have committed. Thus, Jesus died to experience the judgment of God. He took the guilty verdict that we deserve, and that he so plainly does not deserve. When we believe that he did that in our place, that his death was the death we deserve, and we begin to trust him, we abandon our attempts to justify ourselves. We stop denying our sinfulness; we accept it, crying out in desperation, “Save me from myself! Save me from God’s just wrath!” We trust him, believing that he experienced Judgment Day on our behalf, and we can be certain that the Judge’s verdict in our case is “righteous” because of Jesus.
It’s interesting to see in Paul’s other letters what other ways he speaks of being justified, besides being justified by faith, which he repeats often. In Rom. 3:24, he refers to being “justified by his grace as a gift.” In Rom. 5:9, he refers to being “justified by [Jesus’s] blood.” In 1 Cor. 6:11, he refers to being “justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.” So, justification takes on a Trinitarian shape there. Finally, in Titus 3:7, he refers to being “justified by his grace.” Bringing this all together, we could summarize Paul’s overall teaching about justification this way: The Judge’s verdict, “righteous,” is a gift paid for by Jesus’s death on the cross and graciously given to us by the Holy Spirit the moment we begin to trust Jesus.
Let’s see how Paul concludes the passage. Verses 17 and 18 are very complicated and can be understood in different ways: 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. Paul refers to “our endeavor to be justified in Christ.” A few versions say “justified by Christ,” but Paul is probably not pointing to Jesus as the Judge here. Rather, he’s focusing on the reality that, when you begin to trust Jesus Christ, you are united to him; in Paul’s oft-repeated phrase in all his letters, you are in Christ.
Earlier, we raised the question, “How are people being justified, counted righteous, right now, before Judgment Day?” The answer comes here; people are united to Jesus Christ in his experience of Judgment Day on the cross. Paul will come back to this in a few verses, and so shall we.
But, look again at verse 17. Paul’s focusing again on his and Peter’s experience as Jewish Christians, and he’s raising a possible objection to the truth of being justified by trusting Jesus. It may be that the Galatian false teachers were suggesting that Paul’s rejection of obedience to the law in order to be justified should result in people running wild in their sin. If that’s true, then Christ seems to be a promoter of sin. Paul says, NO WAY! Here, he says, yes, we are justified by trusting Jesus and not by obeying the law, and, yes, after we have received this verdict because of what Jesus has done we are still sinners. But that in no way proves that Jesus is a promoter of sin. Earlier, Paul had written, “we ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners,” but here he affirms that the Jews too are sinners.
Well, then what does it prove? What does it mean that even after we begin trusting Jesus and receive an irreversible “not guilty” verdict from the Great Judge we keep on sinning, we are still found to be sinners? Paul answers in verse 18: For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. I think he’s using a metaphor of rebuilding and demolishing to illustrate his sinfulness. When Paul began to trust Jesus, he “tore down” his life of sin, but as he continues to sin, even as a Christian, he is, in a sense, “rebuilding” his life of sin. He admits that he is rebuilding what he tore down; that is, he admits he continues to sin as a justified Christian.
But what does that show? His opponents would say that this teaches that Christ promotes sin. But, Paul says, no, it only proves that he is a transgressor, a lawbreaker, a rebel. In other words, the fact that Christians still sin doesn’t prove anything about Jesus; it only proves that we’re still sinners; it only highlights our continual need for God’s grace in our lives.
Verses 19-21 hold together very tightly as the conclusion to his argument here: For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 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. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. We must look at verse 19 and the first part of verse 20 together. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. Paul says, “I died so that I might live.” That reminds us of Jesus’s teaching: Whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it (Mark 8:35).
First, we need to ask when did Paul “die”? I think he tells us in verse 20; he was crucified with Christ. The Greek verb is in the perfect tense; every once in a while, preachers will draw attention to the Greek perfect tense, because, when an author uses that tense, they’re saying something that is hard to bring over exactly into English and usually is incredibly important to understand! The perfect tense is used to focus on the current status or situation that was caused or brought about by some act in the past. Paul is here saying, “I stand crucified,” which we could paraphrase, “I am a victim of crucifixion. I am a corpse who was killed by crucifixion.” And not just any crucifixion; he was crucified with Christ. That’s Paul’s union with Christ; Christ’s crucifixion was Paul’s crucifixion. Christ’s death was Paul’s death. And so it is for every Christian, Jew and Gentile alike!
With that understanding, then, what does Paul mean that he died “through the law, to the law”? He seems to be saying something like this: “The law demands my death because I am a transgressor, a law-breaker; I do not and cannot obey the law; Christ, who was not a transgressor and did obey the law, died the death the law demands from me; I was crucified with Christ, so I died through the law, but I also died to the law, in that I am no longer under its condemnation.” Because of his death with Christ, he is set free from the law. The Judge announced the verdict that Paul is “righteous” the moment he began to trust Jesus Christ; we can imagine the Judge slamming down his gavel and Paul walks out of the courtroom a free man.
How will he then live? Verse 20 goes on to say, 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. Paul doesn’t walk out of the courtroom alone; the very one who died to pay for his crimes goes out with him, and Paul says that his life of freedom from condemnation must continue the same way it started: by trusting the Son of God, Jesus Christ. Trusting Jesus is not simply a momentary decision you make in order to “get saved.” Rather, trusting Jesus, faith in Christ, refers to a new orientation of your whole life. Leaving the courtroom justified in spite of your genuine guilt, you turn away from your life of sin, and you turn your whole life over to Jesus Christ. You have a new relationship that defines your life.
And Paul can’t help but mention here that Jesus, the Son of God, is the one “who loved me and gave himself for me.” You should recognize that phrase “gave himself” from Gal. 1:4, which we’ve been working to memorize the past few weeks. He opened this letter with, Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father, to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen. Here, Paul personalizes this for himself, and we should do the same. Now we want to work at memorizing Gal. 2:20, so pull out the blue cards from your bulletin. I’m working from the ESV, but similar observations can be made in any of the translations.
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. Make this your own confession, your own statement of faith. Notice the structure of the sentences. 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.
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.
See clearly that the same Son of God who loved Paul and gave himself for Paul is the Christ, the Messiah, who lives in Paul for the rest of his life. And, if you’re a Christian today, the same is true for you. The man Jesus Christ, who loved you and gave himself for you, dying on a Roman cross over 2000 years ago outside Jerusalem, rose from the dead and now lives in you through the Holy Spirit.
Paul concludes this chapter by noting that what he’s teaching here about being justified by trusting Christ does not nullify or reject or ignore God’s grace. The KJV has “I do not frustrate the grace of God,” and that is very misleading. Paul’s point is that neither his teaching nor his living obscures or leaves out God’s grace from justification, and he may be implying that the false teachers who insist that Christians must be circumcised are, in fact, rejecting God’s grace because, he adds, “if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” And we could perhaps better translate this with the ESV footnote, “if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.” Here he clearly implies that God never intended people to be justified by obeying the law. If it were possible for anybody to be justified by obeying the law, then Jesus didn’t need to die. He died precisely because no one could be justified by obeying the law.
This passage is a dense theological teaching passage. But, we want to be like Linus in the Peanuts cartoon; we want to see how this sound theology affects our lives. This teaching explains how God will grant a verdict of “righteous” to those who trust in Jesus Christ, but what should our life look like when we leave the courtroom? The verdict by itself doesn’t actually transform us, but seeing what Jesus has done to secure this verdict ought to stimulate overwhelming gratitude and love for our Savior. Justification is only one part of our salvation; it’s not the whole of our salvation. The transformation of our lives that Paul expects in this passage, the living by faith in the Son of God, happens as the indwelling Holy Spirit works in us and through us. But what should this look like practically?
1. We must repeatedly remember that we all deserve death. We must reject our sense of entitlement and our tendency to demand our perceived rights. If you want to talk about what you deserve, remember, as one writer puts it, “the anguish of God nailed to the cross as the proper measure of what we deserve.”
2. We must check our motives for serving. Wanting to serve in the church, and to obey God more generally, is good and right. But ask yourself, “Do I want to participate in music ministry so that God will accept me?” “Do I want to serve in the nursery so that God will not judge me?” Rather, let us pursue serving others as an expression of our “faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me,” reminding ourselves that God accepts us because of our connection with the Acceptable One, Jesus.
3. We must not measure our “spiritual health” by (only) looking at our spiritual disciplines. If someone asks you how you’re doing spiritually, how do you answer them? Often, we answer something like this, “My spiritual life is good; I read my Bible every day this week and prayed before every meal.” Or, “My spiritual life isn’t so hot right now; I haven’t read my Bible in a couple of weeks, and I can’t remember the last time I prayed.” Now, I do think our consistency in these areas indicates something about our experience of God’s grace; spending time with God, listening to his voice in Scripture and addressing him in prayer, surely impacts our experience of his grace. But in those times of inconsistency, are we not still justified? Has our status as God’s children changed at all? All that to say, we need to remember that our spiritual life is more than our spiritual habits, though it’s not less.
4. We must give other Christians the benefit of the doubt. If God has justified my spouse because she trusts Jesus, just as he justified me because I trust Jesus, then how can I condemn her when she sins? My sin, as well as hers, only proves that we are indeed still sinners. But if the same Holy Spirit who lives in me also lives in her, should I not be as eager to forgive her when she sins, as God is when I sin? The same goes for all our relationships, but in my own life I find myself being hardest on those closest to me.
5. We must continually admit our sinfulness. If there is no more “heavenly prosecution team” mounting evidence against us, then why do we fear admitting our sin? Because God has forgiven all of the sins we have ever committed and will ever commit, we are set free to confess our sins, to stop hiding. We speak of “justifying ourselves” often, and if God has justified, there is never a need to provide an explanation that will only help other people look at us in a better light.
6. We must not be so concerned about what other people think about us. If God has counted us righteous because of Jesus, how can we be so afraid of the judgment of others? God’s verdict is the one that matters beyond all others, and if he has justified us, let us not be so worried to justify ourselves before others. Don’t be afraid that others will judge you; if their verdict doesn’t line up with God’s verdict, who cares??
7. We must remember that God is now totally for us and never against us. When we think about our circumstances, sometimes we’re tempted to think we’re still under the Old Covenant with its blessings for obedience and its curses for disobedience (as in Deut. 11:26-28, for example). We question whether God might be punishing us when we disobey or fail, and we might even think he’s obligated to bless us or reward us when we obey. We might say things like, “When I’m pursuing God and thinking more about what he wants than what I want, things go well for me; when I’m only thinking of myself, things tend to go badly.” That might be a kinda-true, reasonable-enough-from-my-human-perspective observation...but, it sounds more like the “wisdom” of Job’s “friends” than it does New Testament Christianity. When bad stuff happens in the life of a Christian, it is NEVER because God is punishing you. And, when good stuff happens in the life of a Christian, it is NOT because God is rewarding you for some good deed. Rather, we need to see that, for the Christian, God is working in every circumstance of our lives—the painful and the joyful, the suffering and the celebration—and he’s working both for our good and for his glory. God is so immeasurably good that he can take what is truly evil and bring deep, lasting good from it.
Let me close by reading Paul’s glorious words from Rom. 8:31-39:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.” No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.