December 3, 2017
Or, Keeping the Truth of the Gospel Straight
A treadmill is a lot like the law. A treadmill lays out the direction and sets the pace. A treadmill requires constant attention and demands that each step land in the right place. You must keep up to speed. And like obeying the law, you don’t really get anywhere, but you can at least keep from getting hurt.
Some people think about a treadmill like hell. To the degree it is like the law, it certainly doesn’t feel like life.
I remember when I first started to study Romans 7 which is all about the Christian and the law. I read not tens, but hundreds of pages trying to figure out both halves of the chapter and how they were related. I remember coming across the illustration of the performance treadmill and the relentless pressure to meet the demands of the churning belt.
The law, and the relationship of Jews and Gentiles and Christ and faith to it, was (and is) an inescapable issue. God is good with that. He’s the one who gave the law; it’s His, and it’s good (Romans 7:12). He’s also the one who sent His Son to fulfill it, and He’s the one who saves men apart from it. But working out how it’s all connected has been causing conflict since the first century. It certainly caused conflict in the churches of Galatia.
This epistle addresses the self-righteousness that (attempts to) nullify the grace of God. Self-righteousness as attained by the law means Christ died for no purpose. But this is not reality, it is certainly not the gospel, and it is something Paul could not stand for. The truth of the gospel was at stake. The phrase “the truth of the gospel” is used in verse 5 and verse 14. Paul contended for it, confronted over it, and clarified what he meant by it. He could not let it be lost or twisted.
In chapter 1 Paul began to defend his preaching and ministry as one called and instructed by God directly. His apostolic credentials were being questioned, so he provided testimony about how he received his gospel (1:11-24), and now he relates that his gospel was tested and affirmed by the other apostles in Jerusalem (2:1-10), acknowledged by Peter in Antioch (2:11-14), and then he defined it explicitly (2:15-21).
In his testimony, after fourteen years probably refers back to his conversion around AD 33, making this visit to the capital around AD 45-47. He was saved on the road to Damascus, went into Arabia then back to Damascus (1:17), visited Peter in Jerusalem three years later (1:18), then went into Syria and Cilicia (1:21). Now Paul says I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas and Titus. I think this visit was prior to the Jerusalem Council mentioned in Acts 15, the Council that made official decision on what to expect of Gentiles.
Barnabas was known by the Galatians; he had helped introduce Saul/Paul to the Christians in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27) and was part of Paul’s first missionary journey, inviting Paul to join his work in Antioch for an entire year (Acts 11:22-26). Titus, being a Greek, becomes important in a moment. The reason Paul went went up with these men was because of a revelation; in other words, God told him to go, it wasn’t because the other apostles subpoenaed him. And what he accomplished was receiving official recognition that he was preaching the gospel.
In verse 2 he spoke with those who seemed influential. In verse 6 it is those who seemed to be something. In verse 9 they are named, James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars (in Latin: qui videbantur columnæesse) in the church. It’s all the same group, portrayed from the perspective of their overly eager followers. Paul is acknowledging that God put these men into position of influence without conceding that his apostolic work depended on their approval. Paul didn’t need them; he didn’t receive his gospel or his call from them, and at the same time he is unified with them.
What he wanted was to be seen as working together. This is the not running…in vain piece. True gospel work is never in vain, but an unnecessary split was worth work to avoid.
The gospel message was one thing, but first Paul remarks, even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. In the central city of Judaism Titus was not forced to run the Jewish treadmill initiation ceremony. “In fact, it is possible that Paul brought Titus along to Jerusalem precisely for the purpose of forcing the issue” (Moo). This is actually a critical gospel question. Was anything else required than to believe in Christ?
It was apparently not without argument. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery. Resistance was required at this precise point. If circumcision was required, then the gospel wasn’t enough. Paul didn’t back down for one minute. To them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. The truth of freedom would have been lost, at least partially, not by denying Christ but adding to Him. The truth of the gospel was threatened by extra requirements.
Verses 6-10 are one sentence in Greek, all to the point of consensus and partnership in the spread of the gospel. So the pillars saw (Paul) had been entrusted with the gospel, they recognized what was there already, they didn’t make it true. And they endorsed Paul’s unique commission to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised. Paul served the Gentiles primarily, Peter to the Jews primarily, though both did work in both groups (as a footnote, John Calvin poked that Rome’s claim to the Pope’s primacy as Peter’s successor ought to be limited to Catholic Jews). The pillars corroborated the grace given to Paul and his ministry and gave him the right hand of fellowship. The only thing they specifically qualified was to remember the poor, which Paul said was the very thing I was eager to do. Note: according to the apostles, caring for a man’s temporal needs must not necessarily be incompatible with caring for his eternal needs.
Some time after Paul’s visit to Jerusalem he was in Antioch, the home base for his missions operations. Peter came, one of the pillars, and there was a significant gospel problem, not in words but in practice. When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him face-to-face because he stood condemned. Paul directly and publicly confronted Peter. He called him out to his face. Why? 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. That’s some party.
We don’t know who the men…from James were exactly. Were they his official representatives? Were they merely claiming to represent James? Regardless, they got Peter’s attention and he changed his behavior. He started to act as if the Gentile Christians could contaminate him. There were Jewish laws against Jews intermingling with non-Jews. But not only did Christ change that, Peter himself had been acting differently. He was eating with them and now he drew back. There had been relationship, now there was reluctance.
Paul has nothing good to say about it. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. It wasn’t a denial of Christ in proposition but in practice. “[T]he difference is not fundamentally over theology but over the implications for a specific form of conduct that arises from theology” (Moo). Did the Gentiles need Christ and eating only certain foods to be acceptable? Did certain days make them more approved to Jews? Wasn’t Christ enough?
When I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel he confronted Peter. Again, the truth of the gospel is at stake. Some of their behavior was not in step, not “straightforward” (NAS), from orthopodeō, to take straight steps. Peter’s conduct was crooked. He was out of line with the truth of the gospel. He was pressured and Paul was setting him straight. This was before the Council in Jerusalem formally declared what was required of Gentile believers (Acts 15), but how could Peter add law to the Gentiles believers?
Paul had expressed concern that they were deserting God and turning to that which really is no gospel (1:6-7). He’s given testimony to God’s direct revelation to him of the gospel and how it had been threatened in Jerusalem and in Antioch. Is there any room for self-righteousness? Are there good works of the law necessary to be added to faith in Christ? Starting in 2:15 Paul defines the truth of the gospel he’s been defending in practice and introduces themes that will carry this letter to a close.
See the key words in this paragraph that make the truth of the gospel clear (from Douglas Moo):
He may be continuing on from verse 14 and his confrontation of Peter. The ESV at least closes the quotation marks after verse 14, but the two paragraphs are related. Whether or not Paul said these exact words to Peter, they are what he was thinking about.
We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners meaning that they as Jews had God’s election as a people, but that wasn’t enough to save their souls. Yet we know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but through faith in Jesus Christ. There can be no synthesis; works and faith are antithetical. Even the religiously advantaged needed to believe in Christ. If they couldn’t be justified by good things they had, like the law and circumcision, but had to look to Christ, how much less should they make Gentiles submit to other things? None of those other things could justify them. 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 ever be justified. This is gospel truth. This is freedom from the burden of the performance treadmill that no only could successfully run anyway.
So think about it…even Jews need to be humbled. They are not better off than the Gentiles. The law pointed out that they were sinners, and the law could not save them. They actually needed to look away from the law to Jesus. Did that make Jesus a servant of sin? Certainly not!
Next is a central argument how about sinners get transformed. It is not through the law. The law increases sin, it does not diminish or defeat sin. The law does point out what obedience would be, and promptly points out that we are not obedient to it. Seeing the standard never enables a man to meet (or love) the standard. Something else must happen so that [we] might live to God.
To live to God, sometimes means to regulate our life according to his will, so as to study nothing else in our whole life but to gain his approbation; but here it means to live, if we may be allowed the expression, the life of God. (Calvin)
We are united with Christ by faith to be different persons. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The spiritual reality is that the demands of the law have been met. We owe the law nothing else. We are dead to it; it can’t touch us. We do not get saved in order to now obey the law for credit. And the life I now life in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. The cross killed our selfish selves, our sinful selves, our self-righteous selves. And now we have spiritual life in our physical lives.
So I do not nullify the grace of God, for if justification were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. If we could accomplish perfect obedience then we wouldn’t need anyone else. Nullification of grace can’t really happen, but sometimes we can act in a way that says we don’t need grace.
It is possible to get crooked when it comes to walking out the implications of the truth of the gospel. It may get crooked in how we treat one another, in how we look down on someone or disassociate with someone who doesn’t meet some righteous standard, even one we’ve read in the Bible. It is possible even to get crooked in our own minds, either in how we evaluate our righteousness or how we respond to temptation. Are we “being perfected in the flesh” (3:3)? Or are we living in union with Jesus?
We have to renounce justification by works. We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. We who believe were crucified with Christ. We have been undone and unmade, thank God, then remade, thank God!
If the death of Christ be our redemption, then we were captives; if it be satisfaction, we were debtors; if it be atonement, we were guilty; if it be cleansing, we were unclean. (Calvin)
Sin is too violent and dominating for any ceremony to overcome. Thank God for the truth of the gospel, of salvation through our crucifixion and resurrection with Christ.