Sunday 11 November 2012

Sweet and sour Christian (Galatians 2:11-21)

Accepted by God

To be justified means to be accepted. To be justified in the bible means to be accepted by God.

We might not use the word “justification” in everyday language, but we understand how important acceptance is in everyday life. When you apply for a job, you submit your CV and you attend the interview in order to be accepted for that job. When you apply for place at university, you submit your A-level results in hope that you will be accepted into that university.

That is, we understand that our acceptance is based on something we have to do. We need to have the grades. We have to have the right skills.

Which is why people hear about justification in the bible and naturally assume the same thing about God: We think that God accepts us based on how good we are or how hard we’ve tried. But that’s not what Paul says in verses 15 onwards:

We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a man is not justified (that is, accepted) by observing the law but by faith in Jesus Christ.
Galatians 2:15-16a

The reason why God accepts us - the one and only reason he does this - is the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. It is not based on what we do but on what Jesus has done for us on the cross.

Now that can be a problem for someone who isn’t a Christian. How can God punish someone else for my sin? How do I know that I have really been forgiven?

But let me tell you, the fact that Galatians was written says to us that this basis of acceptance - this whole understanding of how God justifies us in Jesus alone - can be a big problem for Christians. It is very possible for Christians to forget this. In fact, it is very tempting for Christians forget this. Especially when we sin. Look at verse 17.

If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!
Galatians 2:17

Paul is speaking to Christian believers who look to Christ’s sacrifice and obedience for their justification but then take one look at their own lives and go, “I am a failure compared to that. Jesus might be perfect but I’m not.” Perhaps this Christian is struggling with a sin that keeps happening again and again. Perhaps their family and friends call them out on their sin, “I’ve known you since you were a kid. You’ve messed up lots of times in your life and we won’t let you forget that.”

When that happens, it is tempting to turn away from Jesus and look to our own efforts to try and make up for our mistakes. Now remember, I’m talking about Christians here. These are genuine believers who know that Jesus died on the cross to take their punishment on their behalf. And yet the truth is, what the bible says about justification can take a lifetime to sink in. It’s unusual teaching. It’s more natural to think that when I mess up, I have to clean up my own mess. That’s what God wants of my life: for me to prove that I’m sincere enough, I’m good enough, I’m hardworking enough for him to let me into heaven.

The law

The reason why this was especially so for Paul and his readers was the law. Notice how that phrase - the law - keeps popping up again and again.

Verse 16:
So we, too, have put our faith in Jesus Christ that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no-one will be justified.

Verse 19:
For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.

Before Paul became a Christian, all he knew about God was through the law: a way of referring to the Old Testament law of God; a way of referring to the bible, even. The law was what made Paul acceptable before God. If he knew the law and if he kept the law, Paul thought, God must therefore love him and accept him.

After Paul became a Christian, however, he saw the law quite differently. He realised that he could never fulfil the law of God no matter how hard he tried. The law would only expose his failures and condemn him of his sin. The only basis of his acceptance before God was Jesus. By the way, if you haven’t figure it out yet, that’s the gospel. The gospel says that Jesus Christ took our punishment of sin on our behalf and transferred to us all his goodness and acceptance.

Hence, each and every time Paul does refer to the law, it is to tell us: This is not the way to be saved. This is not the way to be accepted. The law is the direct opposite of the gospel. Why? Verse 16: So we, too, have put our faith in Jesus Christ that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no-one will be justified.

Sin and the Christian life

Now Paul begins in verse 16 by saying, “We know this.” If you are a Christian, you know the gospel. It’s Jesus alone and nothing else. But we forget. Hence, he asks the question in verse 17, “What if we sin?” Actually, what verse 17 says is that we are exposed as sinners - “it becomes evident” that we are sinners (ESV: We are found to be sinners - or found out). His follow-on question is, “Does this mean that Christ promotes sin?” That’s a pretty important question. Does it mean it’s OK to sin? Does it mean we should sin even more? Paul immediately answers his own question, “Absolutely not!”

Paul takes sin in the Christian life pretty seriously. Forgiveness does not equate to licence. Just because God has forgiven you of your sin, does not mean you now have permission to keep on sinning and disobeying God.

But notice this as well: You will sin. This isn’t a hypothetical question. As a Christian, you will struggle with temptation. You will fail. You will fall back into sin. When you do, the way to deal with your sin is Jesus. Look to the cross and see how God dealt with your sin.

Of course, that’s easier said than done. When we do sin, our gut instinct is to cover it up. It’s OK to talk about sin in the abstract. It’s OK to talk about sin in the past tense. But admitting that we are sinful, right here and right now, as Christians? That’s just embarrassing. Some of us might even be thinking, “That’s just wrong! How can I be a sinner and a Christian?”

Martin Luther once described Christians as simul iustus et peccator, which is Latin for “simultaneously justified and sinful”. Christians are both accepted and sinful. If you’ve never heard that before, it’s a very important truth to get your head around. As Christians, we are fully accepted by God - loved by him, treasured by him. We are holy in his sight. We are perfect. Why? Because we are clothed with the acceptance of Jesus Christ.

But at the same time, we are sinners. Don’t you see? It has to be so. If the only reason why we are accepted is not what we’ve done but what Jesus did, it must mean that we are sinners; though we are justified sinners. We are forgiven sinners. Sounds like a paradox, doesn’t it? But that’s what a Christian is. Simul iustus et peccator - simultaneously justified and sinful.

Two reasons why this is such an important lesson to take home:

(1) Without it we truly stand condemned;
(2) With it, we are absolutely loved.

1. Without it we stand condemned

Firstly, without this understanding of acceptance through Jesus alone, we’re in real trouble. I mean, serious, serious trouble. Look at what Paul says in verse 18:

If I rebuild what I destroyed I prove that I am a law-breaker.
Galatians 2:18

What’s a law-breaker? Simple answer: someone who breaks the law, duh! That makes sense. You have a series of rules and if you break them, you pay the penalty. That’s the way laws work. They keep us in check. They expose bad behaviour. They ensure justice.

Paul is saying something else here. He says, “If I rebuild what I destroyed,” referring to his dependance on the law to justify himself, “I prove that I am a law-breaker.” Another way of putting this is, “If I go back to law-keeping, then I will be condemned by the law.”

What is he saying? It’s not those who break the law who are condemned but those who try to keep it. I wonder if you caught that? It’s not those who break the law who are exposed as the true law-breakers, rather it is those who try to keep the law, who try to uphold the law, who try to enforce the law, who reveal themselves to be the true law-breakers.

That’s a strange thing to read, in the bible, of all places!

Now remember the context of Paul’s argument. He is still talking about sin in the Christian life. He is asking us, “What does your gut tell you to do when you’ve done something bad?” And Paul is saying to us, “You are going to be tempted to justify your sin with the law.”

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t admit your sin. It doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be punished for your sin. If you’ve committed a crime and the law says you have to go to jail, you should go to jail.

But what Paul is exposing in our hearts is that desire to find some other way than God’s way to prove our innocence or to pay for our sin. “If I rebuild what I destroyed.” What’s he referring to? It’s his confidence. When Paul became a Christian, he tore down all his confidence, all his reliance, all his trust in the law as a way to prove himself because he’s already said at the end of verse 16, “because by observing the law no-one will be justified.” You guys know this (verse 15). The purpose of the law is only to condemn sin as sin.

And yet, Paul knows his heart - and ours - that we want to feel like we’ve done something to make up for our sin, and that the laws gives us a way to do that. We can pay that debt. We can do the time. We can suffer. And after taking that punishment, there is a part of us that says, “There! I know I did wrong, but I’m OK now. The law says so.”

No, it doesn’t.

Paul is saying to you and me, if we try to do this, then we become the real law-breakers. Now, we might not do this intentionally. In fact, we might have very sincere intentions in doing so. This is where Peter comes is. Look with me to verse 11.


When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.
Galatians 2:11

The background to this section on justification is a visit that the apostle Peter made to the church in Antioch that resulted in a big showdown between the two apostles. And Paul begins by saying, “he stood condemned” (according to the English Standard Version). Peter did something that was so wrong- so damaging - he wasn’t simply condemned under the law, he stood condemned because of the gospel. You see, what Peter was doing was verse 18. He was trying to rebuild something that he had previously torn down.

Let’s continue reading in verse 12.

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 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.
Galatians 2:12-13

The Jews and the Gentiles here are referring to the first-generation Christians and the second-generation Christians. They were two completely different cultures. In fact, they were two separate culture - the Jews were taught never to mix with the Gentiles.

So to begin with, Peter visiting the church in Antioch was a big step. Here was the most famous Christian leader in the whole world visiting a church full of Gentiles. Imagine the new Archbishop of Canterbury turning up at the English service today. He plays badminton with us afterwards and even goes to HK Fusion for supper with the guys. If that happened, the whole city of Cambridge would be talking about it (the whole country, even!) There would be news cameras at the back of our meeting today. It would be a big deal!

And Paul tells us that Peter’s visit began really well. “He used to eat with the Gentiles.” But then something happened; something which changed Peter’s conduct.

What happened was a few friends from Jerusalem popped for a visit to Antioch and their presence affected Peter’s conduct amongst the Gentiles. “When they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because of those who belonged to the circumcision group.”

What Peter did was go back to the rules of the law. Back in Jerusalem, the traditional Jews separated themselves from the non-Jews. That’s just the way it always had been. Peter knew that once you became a Christian, all these laws were no longer meant to separate them from others, because Jesus had fulfilled the law. God even gave Peter a vision about this in Acts Chapter 10. The vision was that of a large sheet coming down to earth with all kinds of unclean animals and a voice that said, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.” Peter said, “Surely not, Lord. I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.” God answered him, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”

Now the vision was about food, but it wasn’t just about food. You see, the food laws separated the Jews from the non-Jews. I can’t eat this “unclean” thing so I can’t eat with those who eat these “unclean” things. No char siu pao’s. No spring chickens (ask a Chinese person if you don’t get that reference). And if you ate those things, I can’t hang out with you.

But the vision wasn’t about unclean food, but unclean people. “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.” God was telling Peter that we are made acceptable not through food, but through Jesus. Not through the law but through the cross. Peter knew that.

But you see, that was back in Jerusalem. This is Antioch. In Jerusalem, there weren’t many non-Jewish Christians. In Antioch, the majority of Christians were non-Jewish. Everyone had char siu pao for breakfast. And Paul says, when Peter first arrived, he also had char siu pao for breakfast. Verse 12, “He ate with the Gentiles.”

The change came with Peter’s friends who arrived from back home; from Jerusalem. And what probably happened was this: These guys, who were genuine Christians, who were Jewish, said to Peter, “Brother, I understand that you want to hang out with the non-Jewish Christians here in Antioch. That’s a good thing. But you need to realise that your visit is causing problems back home. You are Peter. Jesus’ number One guy. People are noticing and it’s causing trouble for the church in Jerusalem.”

Why do I say that? And what was this trouble? Verse 12 tells us that Peter began to draw back because he was “afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group,” that is, referring to a group of extremist Jews (who weren’t Christians) who were persecuting the Jewish Christians back in Jerusalem. If you’ve been brought up to understand that God’s law wants you to separate yourself from other cultures and races and suddenly this new teaching comes along which teaches Jews to openly mix with non-Jews, it is very likely that you are going to be offended by such teaching. These members of the “circumcision group” were upholding the traditions of their fathers. They saw Christianity as a cult which was diluting their heritage and making a mockery of their religion.

I think that Peter was responding out of sincerity and concern for his brothers back home in Jerusalem. What did he do? It wasn’t such a big deal. He just decided to follow the Jewish laws outside of Jerusalem. After church, instead of going out with the Gentile gang, he went out with his Jewish friends. Instead of char siu pao for breakfast, he had cornflakes. No big deal, just a change in diet. Just a small change in his company of friends.

No big deal? For Paul it was a seriously big issue. For one thing, “the other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy.” Peter’s actions was causing a split in the church in Antioch. “Even Barnabas was led astray.” For Paul, that was the last straw. Church leaders were being influenced by Peter’s behaviour. Paul called it what it was. Hypocrisy.

Up to this point, few people would disagree with Paul’s assessment of the problem. Many people, however, disagree with Paul’s solution. Paul confronts Peter in a very vocal, public way. Have a look at what Paul does next and ask yourself, “Would I do this?”


When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter 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?”
Galatians 2:14

Not in private, but in public, Paul stood up in the middle of a Sunday church meeting and confronted Peter’s actions in front of all his friends. Wow! Seriously, Paul? Couldn’t this have been handled, well, more sensitively?

Two things to notice: Firstly, Paul was making a stand for the gospel. “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.” What was at stake was not tradition. It was not a clash of opinions. Peter was doing something which was affecting everyone’s understanding of what it meant to be saved; about what it meant to be accepted. It was not in line with the gospel.

It had to do with the central issue of justification. Peter’s actions - though innocent, though foolish - were damaging to the gospel. It was sending out the signal that in order to be accepted as Christian, you had to be a Jew; and in order to be a Jew, you had to follow Jewish rules. If Peter was invited as a guest speaker, he would have undoubtedly preached, “You are saved in Christ alone, by faith alone, by grace alone.” But his facebook friends list gave a different picture: You are accepted based on the law alone.

The second thing to notice is that Paul himself was a Jew (that’s why he says in verse 15, “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’). But Paul was a Jew standing up for the non-Jews in his church. Paul knew that Peter knew the gospel. Paul knew that Barnabas and his leaders knew the gospel. But Paul knew that the Gentile Christians who were younger in their faith, who were the second-generation Christians in the church, were being taken advantaged of. Their faith was at risk. And Paul stood up for them to let them know that in Jesus Christ, they were 100% real, 100% genuine and 100% accepted. In Christ, the non-Jewish Christians were 100% justified. In front of the whole church, Paul stood up and confronted Peter.

Would you do this?

Often times something like this happens for the wrong reasons and impure motives. We uphold the law and make a stand for our rights. We raise our voices only to make known our problems and to defend our causes.

Paul stood up for the gospel to defend the weaker brothers and sisters in the faith; to defend Christians who were least like him. He was Jew confronting another Jew, not about the law, but about the gospel, for the sake of the Gentiles. Peter stood condemned not because of the law - he was following the law. No, Peter was condemned because he neglected the grace of the gospel. That kind of condemnation is more severe than anything the law can dish out.

Would you do this? If you are Christian leader, I dare say, you must.

As sincere as Peter’s motives were, he acted out of fear, and in the process influenced his friends to do the same. If you asked them, “Why are you doing this?” they would have given you perfectly reasonable, logical excuses for their behaviour. It was out of concern for the church in Jerusalem. It was no big deal. It’s just food.

For Paul, what was at stake was the truth of the gospel. Paul is the kind of guy who links everything he says and does to the gospel: even food and fellowship. “It’s not just food,” Paul was saying to Peter, “it’s who you are eating your food with.” “It’s not just fellowship,” Paul was saying, “it’s a question of who are your brothers and sisters in Christ.”

Unwittingly, Peter was being led by the law. Boldly (and I would add, lovingly) Paul was turning Peter back to the gospel. The two are completely different means of justification: law and gospel. If you are a leader, what is your basis of leadership, I wonder? Are you leading on the basis of the law? Do people have to listen to you because you are the enforcer of the rules? Because you are the one who has kept most of the rules? Or are you leading because of grace and the gospel? There is a big difference, friends. One leads to condemnation. The other leads to life.

Paul says in verse 19, “For through the law, I died to the law so that I might live for God.” The important thing to note here is the past tense, “I died.” The law reminds me of all the punishment, all the condemnation, all the accusation that has now been paid in full. I died when Jesus died on the cross. He took my punishment so that now I live.

Is that you? Or are you still being condemned day-in, day-out. As a leader, are you still condemning others, day-in, day-out. That’s a sad, sad way to live, but many choose to live that way because they are conscious of their sin but they have no consciousness of a Saviour. Christians can look straight at the law - Christians don’t deny the law, they can look straight at the law and at their sin that is condemned by the law - and say, “I died. But in Jesus now I am alive to God.”

Do you know this? Do you have this?

2. With it, we are absolutely loved

So, the first thing we’ve seen is, without the gospel - this acceptance by faith alone - we stand condemned. But the second thing we see is that, with this acceptance by faith alone, we are absolutely loved. And that’s verse 20.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.
Galatians 2:20

How do you tell someone who is so conscious of his or her sin that they are loved by God? What can you say to help them know that they are accepted freely, just as they are, in Jesus Christ?

Here is where the tension between the two extremes: of being accepted on one hand, and being sinful on the other, comes together in a very practical way. It’s love. It’s the only way to be so sure of God’s love that nothing can ever shake your confidence in that love.

If you don’t have this tension, you do one of two things. You deny your own sinfulness or you draw on your strength. You deny your sinfulness by saying, “Oh, it’s not really that bad. At least I didn’t do something worse like bla bla bla.” Or you draw on your own strength, by saying, “Next time, I’ll try harder. I’ll pray. I’ll get help.”

Let me tell you, when you’re talking to a friend who has really messed up - and you can sense that he is so hesitant to open up to you, as it is - you will be tempted to say one of these things. “It’s not so bad.” “You can do it, I know you can.” And neither will get him closer to understanding God’s love.

No, what you do - what you have to do - is point to the cross. “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” Paul is being personal here. There’s no “we” but “I.” I’ve been crucified. My sin is real, my punishment is real and Jesus really had to die. For me. Paul doesn’t dare say, “It’s not so bad.” He says, “My sin is so devastating, Jesus had to be pinned on a cross and forsaken by God. That’s how serious by sin is. That’s how horrible it is. Jesus died for my... my sin.”

But because Paul can say that, he knows with absolute certainty, Jesus’ love for him is real, tangible, personal. “The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.” I know the most famous verse in the bible is John 3:16 - “For God so loved the world...” but here is a verse we need to be able to say honestly and truthfully for ourselves, “The Son of God loved me. He gave himself for me.”

Do you sense how Paul is so overwhelmed by this? It is almost as if he is saying, “Me? How could Jesus have died for me?” But he did. And simultaneously, Paul is reminded by the cross how real his sin is and how real God’s love is. Through Jesus’ death on the cross.

As I write this, I think of a couple of people I know who I wish I could tell them face-to-face, this is how you know God loves you. These are friends who have stayed away from God because they are ashamed. These are friends who have run away because they are scared. I wish I could tell them Romans Chapter 8, verse 1, “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life has set me from the law of sin and death.”

Do you feel like you need to clean up your act before coming to God? That’s a silly thought. God knows you, better than you know yourself. He sent his Son to die on the cross while you were still fighting against him, while we were still sinners, Romans 5:8 tells us, Christ died for us. That’s God’s love shown to us on a cross.

Simultaneously justified; simultaneously sinful. That’s the definition of a Christian in this lifetime, according to Martin Luther. I would add just one more thing: Simultaneously loved.

I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.

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