Saturday, August 13, 2005

The Futility of Adding Law When Grace is Already Given


United by the grace of God
Paul begins chapter two by demonstrating that he stands in unity with the Jerusalem Apostles. He doesn’t consider this a necessity – since he knows his gospel has come from God. But nonetheless he goes to them. He expects that distorters of the gospel may have corrupted Jerusalem. We see his relief that his Gentile companions are not compelled toward circumcision. Nothing is added. Freedom in Christ is not lost. Consequently they stand together, united by the gospel in fellowship. Commissioned to different missionfields, but nonetheless united.

The famous confrontation
So it comes as a great shock to see the tide turn. Paul finds himself confronting the one with whom he was once united. Peter, he observes, puts himself under condemnation, acting hypocritically and out of step with the gospel. This condemnation is perhaps along similar lines to that mentioned in chapter 1 – the fate of non-gospel preachers. I suspect the concern is both for Peter as a person and for those he is leading astray. What is his error? The error concerns what he is eating. It concerns food laws. A dietary choice?

The underlying problem
This may seem minor enough but the implications are severe. Peter, a Jewish Christian knows very well that justification is not attained by law. Yet he imposes law on himself, and others. Justification is attained only by faith in Jesus. Law justifies no-one, but faith in Jesus does justify. Paul identifies a dilemma that faces Peter. What if, in seeking to be justified by Christ, a Christian were found to be a sinner? Would that mean that Christ serves sin, that Christ endorses sin? Paul is emphatic – NO!

Peter seems to be arguing that in order to avoid sinning he is imposing law upon himself. Yet, he if rebuilds law in his life he will only prove himself to be a sinner. Since, law produces and identifies sin. The law served its purpose for these Jewish converts, Paul and Peter, by proving they were sinners long ago. The law helped them die to law’s effects. Now, dead to law they are also crucified with Christ. Their sinful life is dead. It is gone. It counts for nothing.

The life now lived is lived in Christ, indeed the life lived is Christ alone. All hope is by faith in Christ, the one who both loved them, and gave himself for them. An act we saw in chapter 1 that deals with sin and rescues from the present evil age, for the glory of God.

However, if justification is to be pursued by law then the grace of God is nullified and the death of Christ is also nullified. Peter more than anyone surely knows Christ’s death was not for nothing. Peters actions are displayed as truly foolish. By adopting law to fight the presence of sin he both displays his sin further, and nullifies the only hope he has of being a justified sinner, and denies the freedom bought for him. His course of action has triple failure.

The presence of sin in the life of the Christian, the justified sinner, is a reality. Inescapably. Yet, its presence does not mean Christ promotes sin, nor does it undo the Christian’s justification. Justification does not depend upon my behaviour. It depends on faith in Christ. That alone.

The addition of rules to combat sin nullifies grace and denies freedom and denies the Cross of Christ. Paul is so concerned that be rebukes the one he once stood united with. This is no mere battle to prove himself right, rather to restore Peter and to return glory to God. Peter’s actions have robbed Christ of glory. They have minimised freedom, grace and the Cross.

Herein lies some guidance in how we then ought live. Full detail surely follows later in the letter. But for now we have some hints. Christian freedom is to be enjoyed not curtailed. God’s grace is to be magnified not minimised. The Cross is to be magnified not minimised. And by magnified we mean telescopic not microscopic. That which is inherently of infinite value is to be brought into focus to be seen for what it is. Microscopes also magnify, by they enlarge that which is small. God’s grace and Christ’s cross are not small.

I must ask myself – where might I be adding rules to combat sin? Where am I trusting in myself to defeat sin? Where am I trusting in my own strength and resilience to defeat the effects of this present evil age upon my life? Where can I more flee to the grace of God? Where can I make more of the Cross of Christ in my life?

Strangely, I suspect, if my concerns shift towards making much of God’s grace, chiefly manifest at the Cross of Christ, then sins lure will fade from view. If my concern is to magnify the grace of God I cannot continue to pursue life in sin. This does not mean I will not sin – I will. But such sin should not bring fear nor lead me to seek law, rather it must send me again to the source of my justification. To proclaim again my dependence upon the grace of God!

Let me not become preoccupied with sin and its avoidance. Rather let my mind think much upon the grace of God. Let my heart delight much in the grace of God. Let my affections be preoccupied with the one who loved me and gave himself to rescue me. Let my life seek to make much of this abundant grace of God.

Unanswered questions.... Jesus death shows God's love and is him giving himself for our sins... but How? And how is this for all nations? Chapter 3 to follow...


  1. No time to justify much of what I say, but I have to say I disagree with your reconstruction of the motivation of Peter for eating at a different table.

    I cannot see anything in the passage to suggest that he thought of it as a way to sin less, I am sure he knew better than that. Partly because it requires him to have a very narrow view of sin which seems to me IMHO to be inconievable for a disciple of Jesus to hold (and I know they were very foolish).

    Rather the passage seems to suggest to me that he was trying to do two things.

    1. Impress those men from James. i.e. gain the approval of men and not God (Paul in contrast is only approved by God cf 1:1; not like the agitators who seek another approval 6:12).

    2. Reach another level of holiness. Now at first sight you may think that is the same as seeking to reduce his 'sin count'. But I think that Peter did not think that the Gentiles he had spent so much time with, and witnessed to were more sinful because they were not circumcised/Jews. Rather, they were in Christ just like him and so were were forgiven. BUT Peter was seeking more and wanted to be in the sub-group of those 'in Christ', ie those 'in Israel' as well. Obviously this is less Christ honouring and more human-honouring and so bad. Implying as it does that there is more to be gained than the Spirit that Christ provides (explored later in the letter).

    A rather rushed comment lacking in caveats. Sorry about that. Please feel free to pick me up on any blunders you think I've made.


    PS I suppose I ought to add that I agree that all you say is true, its just I am less convinced it is the focus of Galatians itself.

  2. I guess my argument rests on Paul saying - "if we are found to be sinners..." - granted theres way more to it than that.

  3. You got me thinking. I've been thinking about this for about 2 hours today in total! In case you are thinking I just sit in a chair musing on such things, I will add that much of it was done while on the bus.

    Your comment has driven me back to the text in earnest (where I should have begun). I thank God for you making me do that, it has made me see myself differently, but I continue.

    Here are my thoughts:

    (i) I am now convinced my point 2 is wrong. However I am at the same time not convinced you have got it either (although I think you are much closer than I was). The main reason I think this is that both Paul, and those he is arguing against (whether Peter or the agitators in Gal), seemed to see things very black and white. justified, or not justified. Righteous or sinner. Jew (=people of God) or Gentile (=outside the people of God). There seems to be no room for my two level holiness view.

    (ii) One puzzle that I cannot solve though is the linking of the notion of an ethnic people and doing works of the law. At the end of this comment I have quoted a bit of Tom Wright who seems to make "works of the law" into being an ethnic Jew. However this seems to ignore the moral dimension which is there in both Peter's actions and the step of circumsion by the Galatians. You seem to me (at first glance) to be making "works of the law" into "doing morally good acts" which I think downplays the racial dimension too much. I have not been able to solve this puzzle to my satisfaction.

    (iii) Another puzzle to me is how to judge Peter. I think my comment came from a gut instinct, a feeling that you were slagging off Peter a bit too much and that he needed defending. You see I still cannot comprehend how Peter (as he is described in Acts, and in other bits of Gal) could consider Gentiles as 'sinners' plain and simple, and outside the covenant. However, you are right in highlighting that in 2:17 this is clearly the agitators opinion.

    At its root my question is: would Peter, and Barnabas, have agreed with the 'other gospel' of the agitators while in Antioch? I still cannot see these two early pioneers of the Gentile mission as seeing Gentile Christians as not justified. Would Paul have wished Peter castrated along with the agitators? - 'Certainly not!' I would have expected his response to be. However, Paul clearly does see them as so linked that he can use virtually the same arguement against both. A nasty puzzle for me.

    (iv) I have not mentioned the Spirit in any of the above which I am sure is a bad mistake, but there you go.

    (v) I think that my revised, still very provisional, position would mean my application would be much the same as yours now. Although maybe I would talk a bit more about being confident before God in BOTH who what you do AND who you are, instead of Jesus.

    Anyway, I feel thoroughly rebuked, both for my stupid blindness, and for my intellectual, dave-exalting pride. Thank you (1 Thess 5:12-13 applies).

    Dave K

    For your interest here is the Wright quote from his Paul in different perspectives lecture.

    In Galatians 2.16 we have another single-syllable word, this time of two letters: the little connective de, normally meaning a gentle ‘but’ or ‘yet’. Listen to what Paul writes, starting a verse earlier: We are Jews by birth, not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the Law, but through the faith of Jesus the Messiah (let’s leave that question open for the moment; whether it means ‘faith in’ or ‘the faithfulness of’ does not affect my present point). What is the point of that ‘yet’, that single syllable which as a good heir of the Reformation I am determined not to alter against my conscience, even though sadly once again both Tyndale and the King James version omit it? The sentence itself, never mind the wider context, gives the clear answer: to be ‘justified by works of the Law’ would mean a status of privilege for Jews over against Gentiles. The wider context explains that this is indeed what Paul is talking about: he is not offering a theory of salvation, nor yet an ordo salutis per se, but rather a bold and frank statement, in relation to the behaviour of Peter, Barnabas and the others at Antioch, of why it is that Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, not least uncircumcised Gentile Christians, belong at the same table. Galatians 2.16 is the first time in Paul’s writings he mentions justification by faith, and he does so in order to insist that all those who believe in Jesus the Messiah are equally members of God’s family. The question which dominates the whole letter from this point on is: who are the true children of Abraham, the single family whom God promised to him? And the answer is: all those who believe in Jesus the Messiah, whose faith is the only badge of membership that counts. All of this flows from taking seriously that little syllable de in 2.16.

  4. Fear not, I think I suffer from the same "dave-exalting pride" often.

    I have to say that I think theres some tricky stuff here. It looks to me like Paul does see Peter's actions as promoting the "other gospel" - by leading others astray, but also putting himself in peril, out of step with the gospel and under condemnation.

    But I think the whole passage, and 3v1 with it has both the feel of disbelieving frustation and passionate appeal to change, from Paul to Peter and then to the Galatians.

    So, when Paul concludes that Peter is effectively saying that Christ died for nothing he's appealling to the one man more than any other who knows that Christ's death was meaningful... and saying you cannot go this way and need not either. That Paul writes the letter to the Galatians shows that he is not satisfied to let them go off into condemnation either - "O foolish Galatians" is a fatherly plea I think - come repent, come see what you already know. And Paul's clash with Peter illustrates well what Paul is latterly doing in his letter to the Galatians.

    I think the passage has good lessons for us in how to confront heresy - though Paul's prime concern is to teach the gospel again to the Galatians, he models for us an approach that confronts the error but appeals to the gospel to call people back to the truth... and this is a man not afraid to say that heretic preachers are condemned. There is concern for truth and for restoration - else no point writing to the Galatians.

    Dave, Thank you for your great thought on this matter - and for the Tom Wright quote - I've not read any of his books yet, perhaps I ought to remedy that soon. I'm well aware of my own potential for error and ignorance on this - its nice to be able to have my blinkers challenged on this rather contraversial passage!

    Christ's death was most meaningful!