In Step With the Gospel
Scripture: Galatians 2:11-21
There is nothing more important we could be doing right now. God’s Word has the power to change your life forever – not because of my preaching, but because of His Spirit. I don’t need to sell you anything. You’re not here for me. You’re here for Jesus. And today we will find Him in Galatians 2.
11 But when Cephas (that’s Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.
Unlike the false teachers who were talking behind Paul’s back, he confronted Peter directly. Why?
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.
This sounds like a high school lunchroom drama. Peter switches tables when the cool kids walk in. And peer pressure even gets to Barnabas.
Paul calls this hypocrisy, and he challenged it because it had major implications for the early church. Peter’s actions did not match his beliefs. This is how Paul explains the problem.
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?”
Peter did this publicly. Paul addresses it publicly. If Paul let this go, then everyone would assume this hypocrisy was OK.
Remember, Peter has already agreed with Paul’s presentation of the Gospel. Not only in principle, but in practice. Peter no longer followed the ceremonial law himself unless the right people were watching. This was a serious problem. His conduct betrayed the Gospel he claimed to believe.
His actions also risked dividing Jews and Gentiles into first-class and second-class Christians. This was Paul’s concern.
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.
Three times Paul uses the word “justified”. This is a legal term, and it means the opposite of condemned. It speaks to this question: how does a person escape the condemnation of God? That was the question of the rich young man in Matthew 19: what must I do to be saved?
Every religion on the planet answers that question with some form of law – the works of the law, as Paul says. Jews believed (wrongly) that they would be justified by keeping the law. This is why it had become so easy for them to think of themselves as first-class people and everyone else as second-class.
Instead, Paul teaches something different. We escape the condemnation of God by faith in Christ, not by works of any law. Paul didn’t make this up. In fact, Paul will explain clearly in chapter 3 that the Jews have always misunderstood the purpose of the law. It is good and right, but it’s not how we are justified. The law can only condemn us. God’s people have always been reconciled to Him by faith, not works.
One more time, to be clear. We are not saved by doing good things. We are saved by grace, through faith in Jesus. This is the truth of the Gospel. This is the primary article of all Christian doctrine. In the words of Martin Luther, this is the knowledge that we must beat into our heads continually.
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.
Paul seeks to answer a common objection. People who rely on works will always claim that the Gospel is a license to sin. It goes like this: “If I believe in Jesus, can I then live however I want? Does it really matter if I sin?”
That’s what he means by asking if Christ is a servant of sin. If we keep sinning deliberately, is Jesus going to just keep pouring grace on it?
Paul responds by calling this an absurd question. I’m not just believing in Jesus; I am united to Jesus. Dying to the law also means living for God. And now we have come to the most famous verse in the letter:
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.
Paul takes the legal reality of the Gospel and makes it personal. Verse 20 sings to us. Grace is an experience, not just an idea. It’s a person, not just a principal.
And notice, Paul does not say “I was converted by faith”. He says, “I live by faith” – continuously. Daily. This truth is set to repeat in the playlist of his soul.
Because believing what God says is true of me will change the way I see God, the way I see myself, and the way I live my life.
Who am I now? I’m someone who died and rose again in Christ. The old me, the me before Christ, is dead. The new me, the me united to Christ, is alive. Jesus loves me. He gave Himself for me. I did not earn it by doing good. It was a free gift. I received it with empty hands. If I try to offer something in return, if I depend on the law, then Christ’s death was pointless.
And this was the problem with Peter. He believed all of this, but in a moment of sin his actions demonstrated unbelief. And so, Paul turns the question of law keeping back on his accusers!
This is his argument to the Jews: you’re concerned that new believers will ignore the need for holy living, that they will keep sinning without remorse because of grace. You’re afraid that people’s actions won’t match their beliefs.
And Paul says, I completely agree with that concern… and I’ll give you an example. Peter says he believes the Gospel, that Christians are justified by faith. But in this moment, his actions don’t match that belief!
You see, anytime our conduct is not in step with the Gospel, it’s a problem. It’s a moment of practical unbelief. It sends mixed signals to other people.
And this cuts both ways. It’s a problem for people who try to add requirements to salvation. AND it’s a problem for people who ignore the consequences of their own sin.
Both of those problems are examples of losing step with the Gospel and they are really two sides of the same coin, which is Paul’s exact point. When your focus becomes something other than Christ, you start drifting out of step with the Gospel, and that can express itself in both ways – legalism (which is works righteousness) or license (which is living in unrepentant sin).
Peter’s mistake was that he refused to fellowship with other believers in that moment, even though they professed the same faith in Jesus. And plenty of Christians make the same type of mistake today – refusing to fellowship with believers because they didn’t receive the same mode of baptism, refusing to fellowship with believers who disagree with matters of secondary theological importance, refusing to fellowship with believers of a different skin color, refusing to fellowship with believers from a different social class…
God doesn’t create these kinds of barriers to fellowship. We do.
Peter needed to hear again the voice of Jesus – “What God has made clean, do not call common.” The only barrier between us and God is a lack of saving faith in Christ Jesus. We must accept the people whom God accepts, on no other basis than a valid profession of faith.
And yet, we find here also a defense of church discipline. Jesus gave his church the keys to the kingdom. The elders of the church have a responsibility to make sure everyone in the church is keeping in step with the Gospel – meaning that we are united in Christ… one faith. One body.
God wants us to confront legalism (as Paul confronts Peter). But He also wants us to confront unrepentant sin. Always in love, always prayerful, always with the hope of restoration. This is Paul’s objective here… not to cast out the brothers who failed, like Peter and Barnabas. No! But to restore unity and to get everyone marching in step with the Gospel once again!
But if that repentance did not happen, Paul was ready to break fellowship with these men for the sake of the Gospel! And for the sake of his Gentile brothers and sisters in Christ!
There are plenty of churches today making the mistake of continuing fellowship with people who claim to love Jesus but are unwilling to repent of things that God says are not OK.
All of this is serious business. Grace is powerful. It’s beautiful. It’s life giving. Life changing. But remember what it cost God – it required the horrific death of His only Son. And when we receive grace, we die with Christ. We die to the law, and we die to sin.
I want to end by trying to explain this one more time, in simple terms, because it is so incredibly important.
Our tendency is to come to God asking one of two questions:
What must I do? OR What can I get away with?
God, what must I do to be saved? OR God, what can I get away with?
These are both terrible questions. Grace teaches us to ask new questions of God, better questions – questions of faith.
Who am I now, in Christ?
And how should I now live to bring Christ glory?
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.