The Gospel in Galatians
 by E.H. “Jack” Sequeira 

4 – Justification by Faith Alone

Galatians 2:11-21:

When Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.  The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew.  How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.
“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin?  Absolutely not!  If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.  I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

In our last study, which was Galatians 2, verses 1-10, Paul described his second visit to Jerusalem, 14 years after his conversion.  This second visit, and what transpired there, proved conclusively that the gospel Paul preached to the Gentiles was the same or identical gospel that Peter, James, and John — the pillars of the church — had been preaching to the Jews in Jerusalem.

Now, in this study, in Galatians 2:11-21, the scene changes from Jerusalem, which was the capital of the Jewish nation, to Antioch, the chief city of Syria.  Here Paul describes his clash with Peter.  This is without doubt the most tense and dramatic episode in the New Testament.  Here are two leading apostles of Jesus Christ face to face in open conflict.

What prompted Paul to publicly oppose Peter?  Had he lost his temper or did Paul feel threatened by Peter’s presence in his territory?  After all, Peter was chosen by God to be an apostle to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles.  Therefore, was Paul trying to downplay Peter as one presidential candidate downplays another in a presidential election?  Or was Paul jealous of Peter?  None of these is true.  But, before we consider the issue in this passage, Galatians 2:11-21, it is important that we keep in mind four facts.

  1. Both Paul and Peter are born again Christians.

  2. Both are genuine apostles of Jesus Christ.

  3. Both were used by God mightily.  We discover in the book of Acts that the first half describes how God used Peter mightily and the second half how God used Paul mightily.

  4. Both played a leading role in establishing the Christian church.

Yet, here we find them in open conflict.  We will begin with verses 11 to 16 and then we will look at it in detail.  It is important that we see these truths from the Word of God itself.

When Cephas [Peter] came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.  For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.  The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.
When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew.  How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?
“We who are Jews by birth and not sinful Gentiles know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.”

What is Paul saying here?  First, he says, “When Peter came to Antioch.”  As already mentioned, Antioch was the chief city of Syria.  It was an important place, not only for the commercial world but also for Christianity because it was here at Antioch that the believers were first called Christians.

The moment Peter came to Antioch, Paul withstood him.  Why?  Because he was to blame (or “he stood condemned,” he was in the wrong).  To blame for what?  What was the problem for which Peter had to be publicly rebuked?  The answer is found in verse 12.  Before the Judaizers — who were Jewish Christians — came, Peter would eat with the Gentiles.  But when these Jewish Christians came to Antioch, he withdrew from the Gentiles’ company and he went to eat only with the Jews, fearing those who were of the circumcised or these Jewish brethren from Jerusalem.  Verse 12:

For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles.  But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.

Now, to understand verse 12, we have to remember that, in the early church, the believers often ate a common meal called the agape feast.  The food was pooled together and all partook of this meal.  For many slaves who had become Christians, this meal was the best meal of the week.  This common meal was shared together by both Jews and Gentile Christians, by slaves and masters.  To the Jew who partook of this meal, it was a complete contradiction to his culture and his religious background.  A strict Jew, in the days of the New Testament, and to some degree today among the Orthodox Jew, was forbidden to do business with a Gentile.  He was not allowed to go on a journey with a Gentile.  He must never be hospitable to a Gentile.  The story of the Samaritan that Jesus told graphically portrays this.  Neither was the Jew to accept hospitality from a Gentile.  The gospel had liberated the Christian Jews from this attitude.  Paul clearly brings out in Ephesians 2:14-18, that Jesus Christ, by His death on the cross, had broken down or done away with the partition wall that separated the Jews and the Gentiles in the temple of Jerusalem:

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations.  His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.  He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near.  For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit. 

There was to be no barrier between Jews and Gentiles.  In fact, in Galatians 3:28, Paul says:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

This is one of the wonderful privileges of being a member of the Christian church.  It removes all distinctions.

Before Peter understood this truth, he practiced this separationism just as the other Jews.  God had to open his eyes about this problem.  In Acts 10:9-23, we discover how God solved this problem in the mind of Peter:

About noon the following day as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray.  He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance.  He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners.  It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds.  Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter.  Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied.  “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
While Peter was wondering about the meaning of the vision, the men sent by Cornelius found out where Simon’s house was and stopped at the gate.  They called out, asking if Simon who was known as Peter was staying there.
While Peter was still thinking about the vision, the Spirit said to him, “Simon, three men are looking for you.  So get up and go downstairs.  Do not hesitate to go with them, for I have sent them.”
Peter went down and said to the men, “I’m the one you’re looking for.  Why have you come?”
The men replied, “We have come from Cornelius the centurion.  He is a righteous and God-fearing man, who is respected by all the Jewish people.  A holy angel told him to ask you to come to his house so that he could hear what you have to say.”  Then Peter invited the men into the house to be his guests.
The next day Peter started out with them, and some of the believers from Joppa went along. 

Peter was upstairs, waiting for the ladies downstairs to cook his meal.  He was hungry.  He fell asleep.  Remember, God, in a vision, brought down all kinds of unclean animals in a net and in the vision Peter was told to slay these animals and eat.  In response Peter said, “I have never eaten anything unclean.”  The response was, “Peter, what God has cleansed you must not call common.”  God here was not referring, in this vision, to a diet or eating.  God was simply using the unclean animals of the Old Testament to bring out a lesson to Peter concerning the Gentiles, because the Gentiles were looked upon by the Jews as an unclean people.  Peter was told by God through this vision, “No longer must you treat the Gentiles as ‘unclean.’”

Peter had already learned this.  Remember the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, especially verses 6-11?  Peter, who was the spokesman, made it very clear that there is no distinction in the eyes of God, through the gospel, between Jews and Gentiles:

The apostles and elders met to consider this question.  After much discussion, Peter got up and addressed them:  “Brothers, you know that some time ago God made a choice among you that the Gentiles might hear from my lips the message of the gospel and believe.  God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us.  He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith.  Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?  No!  We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

These Jewish brethren claimed that they were sent by James who was the main leader, the chairman or the President of the Christian church in Jerusalem.  This claim is questionable.  There was no way the people in Antioch could prove that James had sent them.  But the real problem was that, when they came, Peter, whose custom it was to eat with the Gentiles, left them and went to eat with the Jews, “fearing those who were of the circumcision.”  That great apostle Peter was not infallible.  He submitted to peer pressure and he did something that set a very bad example.  He became a stumbling block for the cause of Jesus Christ.

That is why Paul openly rebuked him.  As a result of Peter’s action, the rest of the Jews, along with Barnabas, practiced what Paul calls hypocrisy.  A hypocrite is somebody who pretends to be good when he is not.  The Jews, because they felt that God had given them the law and God had called them His chosen people, thought they were better than the Gentiles.  Peter, not by his conviction but by his behavior, was giving the impression that the Gentiles, who had accepted Christ, were “unclean.”  What he did was a contradiction of the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.

So what did Paul do?  Galatians 2:14 tells us:

When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel...

The “they” is Peter and the other apostles, including Barnabas, who was a co-laborer with Paul.  He was one of the men who fought against the Judaizers in the Jerusalem Council.  They now submitted to the same weakness as Peter.  Paul, the great champion of the gospel, when he saw what was happening, straightway rebuked Peter publicly because what Peter did was a contradiction which the truth of the gospel revealed to them.  We read in the second half of verse 14 of Galatians 2 the words of Paul to Peter before them all:

...I said to Cephas in front of them all, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew.  How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”

This can only be understood when we put ourselves in the place of Peter and Paul and the Jews at that time.  Remember, the reason the Jews would not associate with the Gentiles was because they looked upon the Gentiles as sinners and themselves as the children of God.  When Peter ate with the Gentiles, he was admitting two things:  that he, like the Gentiles, was a sinner, and that both of them were saved by grace alone.  Peter’s previous behavior, even with the Gentiles, was upholding the truth of the gospel, that there is no distinction in God’s eyes between Jew and Gentile.  All have sinned, as Paul says in Romans 3:23, both have come short of the glory of God and are both justified freely by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ:

...For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God....

When Peter moved from the Gentiles table and took the other Jews with him and ate separately from the Gentiles, he was implying by his act that the Gentiles were “unclean.”  He was giving ammunition to the Judaizers, these Jewish Christians who had come from Jerusalem under the guise of having been sent by James.  This ammunition was that the demands of the Judaizers were right.  These demands were circumcision and the keeping of the law as a requirement of salvation.

Peter, not by his words but by his act, was contradicting what he already said to the congregation there in the Jerusalem Council.  He was contradicting his own stand that he took at the Jerusalem Council.  Paul is reminding him in verse 16:

[We...] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one [Jews or Gentiles] will be justified.

Paul says, “Peter, you know the truth; you defended it in the Jerusalem Council, now why have you contradicted this wonderful truth by leaving the Gentile table and going to the Jews?”

Now he gives Peter some food for thought.  Look at verses 17 to 21:

“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin?  Absolutely not!  If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.
“For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.  I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.  I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!”

This is a very precious message that Paul is telling Peter.  First of all, in verse 16, Paul sums up for Peter the fundamental truth of the gospel.  In many ways, Galatians 2:16 is the key passage in the whole of this epistle to the Galatians.  The reason for this is because it deals with the central thrust of Paul’s concern in this letter and which is that justification is by faith alone and nothing else.

As we consider this verse, along with the rest of chapter 2, we will see an important word which occurs for the first time in Galatians.  This word is:

  1. central to the message of God,
  2. central to the gospel Paul preached, and
  3. central to Christianity itself.

Nobody has truly understood Christianity who does not understand this word.  What is this word?  It is the word “justified.”  The verb form is used three times in verse 16 and once in verse 17.  And the noun form, “justification,” appears once in verse 21.

Since verse 16 is a key verse in this epistle, let us pick this verse apart so that we fully understand the significance of this statement.

[We] know that a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.  So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law, because by the works of the law no one will be justified.

The word “know” means Paul is telling Peter, “This is a truth that you already know.  This is not something new.  You declared it in the Jerusalem Council (found in Acts 15:10-11).  You declared that we are justified by faith apart from the works of the law.”  This word “justified” is a legal term which means to declare a person righteous.  Acts 15:10-11:

Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?  No!  We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are.”

For example, we find the definition of this word by looking at the book of the law.  We read in Deuteronomy 25:1 where this word justified is used in its clear legal sense:

When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting [or “justifying,” in some translations] the innocent and condemning the guilty.

It is true, according to the law, that the law can only justify the righteous.  For 1,500 years, the Jews tried to justify themselves by the works of the law.  This phrase “works of the law” is the Pauline phrase for what we would call today “legalism.”  There was no Greek word in Paul’s day that was equivalent to our English word “legalism.”  So whenever you read the phrase “works of the law,” that does not mean that Paul is against the law but he is against the law being used as a method or as a means of salvation.

The Jews, who tried to justify themselves by the works of the law, had failed miserably.  Paul brings this out clearly in Romans 9:30-33:

What then shall we say?  That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but the people of Israel, who pursued the law as the way of righteousness, have not attained their goal.  Why not?  Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works.  They stumbled over the stumbling stone.  As it is written:  “See, I lay in Zion a stone that causes people to stumble and a rock that makes them fall, and the one who believes in him will never be put to shame.”

Peter knew this.  It was not a question of being ignorant and yet what he did contradicted his belief.  There are many Christians who limit the word “justified” only to forgiveness.  It is true, for a sinner to be justified before God, his or her sin has to be forgiven.  But justification in the New Testament sense, in the way it is used in the gospel, means more than forgiveness, wonderful as this may be, for forgiveness simply means that our sins have been canceled.

But justification by faith as preached by Paul, includes a positive righteousness.  Paul brings this out in Romans 5:19:

For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man [Jesus Christ] the many will be made righteous.

Justification to life requires not only forgiveness but positive righteousness.  To be justified before God’s holy law, two things are required of us sinners:

  1. Perfect obedience, and
  2. Perfect justice.

Only in Christ do we have both of these.  Apart from Christ Paul tells us it is impossible to save ourselves, to justify ourselves before God.

In Galatians 2:17, Paul makes a rather difficult statement:

But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin?  Absolutely not!

This difficult statement could have two meanings.

It could be that Paul is referring to an ethical issue.  By eating with Gentiles, Peter acknowledged that they were justified just as the Jews were.  By his cowardly act, he implied that the Gentile believers were still “unclean” and, if this is true, he is making Christ, who had justified the Gentiles by faith, the minister of sin.  Here is an ethical issue that is involved.

But is it possible that Paul also was talking about what is called “cheap grace”?  The Judaizers, who opposed Paul’s method of grace, were including the keeping of the law as a requirement for salvation or justification because they insisted that, if you tell mankind, sinful human beings, that we are justified by faith alone based on the doing and dying of Christ, then you are opening the door for what we call in theology “antinomianism” or cheap grace.  In other words, one might say, “Since I am already justified by faith in the perfect history of Jesus Christ that took place 2,000 years ago, then I can say what Paul says,” (Romans 6:1):

What shall we say, then?  Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase?

This is one of the things of which the Judaizers were accusing Paul.

Paul may have had both in mind.  His answer is “it is unthinkable” to both these issues, the ethical issue as well as the issue of cheap grace.  Look at verses 19 and 20 of Galatians 2, which explains Paul’s application of the gospel to the justified believer:

For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.  I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

He says two things to us in verse 19.  “As far as the law is concerned, I am dead.”  Now, if we look at Romans 7:1:

Do you not know, brothers and sisters — for I am speaking to those who know the law — that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives?

Paul tells us there that the law has dominion over us as long as we are living.  The moment we accept our death in Christ, the law no longer has dominion over us.  But Christ did not set us free from the law so that we can live as we please.  He set us free that we may live for God.  Paul brings this out in verse 20 of Galatians 2:

I have been crucified with Christ [It is there that I was redeemed from under law] and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Justification by faith means that the true believer says, “I am crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I but Christ who must live in me.”  True justification by faith says, “Not I, but Christ.”  And since Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever, the life He lives in the believer will be the life He lived 2,000 years ago, a life of righteousness, a life going about doing good.  This is genuine justification by faith.  Yes, what Christ does in us does not contribute towards our salvation; we are justified by faith alone in the perfect history of Christ, but the fruits of justification by faith must be holiness of living.

Paul brings this out clearly in Romans 6, especially in verse 22:

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life.

Paul concludes in Galatians 2:21, by these words:

I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

On the one hand, we are justified by faith alone in the righteousness of Christ and what we do, even what the Holy Spirit does in us, does not contribute towards that justification.  On the other hand, a justified Christian will always say:  “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live but the life I now live is Christ living in me through faith in Him who loved me and gave Himself for me.”

This is the balanced message that Paul preached.  On the one hand, we are justified by faith in the doing and dying of Christ and nothing else.  On the other hand, this wonderful truth that has set us free, produces a life of holiness.  May this be your experience.


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