MESSAGE FOR APRIL 27, 2008 FROM GALATIANS 2:15-16
This morning, we pick up where we left off last week in our study of Galatians chapter two. Paul is working to deprogram these Galatian believers from the lies of the false teachers who had infiltrated these churches after he left. These Judaizers had defiled the gospel by requiring obedience to the Old Testament Law in order to be made acceptable to God. They had also defiled Paul, claiming that he was dependent upon the apostles in Jerusalem, and not Jesus himself, for his understanding of the gospel. Last week, we saw perhaps his most powerful rebuttal to that charge. Paul relates a story of an earlier incident when Peter had visited Antioch, a church with many Gentile believers. Peter had been quite content to eat alongside these Gentiles until some Jewish brothers representing the apostle James came to Antioch from Jerusalem. These men, though trusting in Christ, had not fully embraced all the implications of the gospel of grace as it related to the new Gentile believers. Peter felt pressure from them to observe the Jewish food laws and he buckled to the gospel-compromising Jewish convention of not eating with Gentiles. He turned his back on those brothers he had earlier eaten with. Peter’s hypocritical example led other Jewish believers astray so that even Paul’s co-worker Barnabas began to separate from these Gentile brothers.
In response to this situation, Paul publicly rebuked Peter in front of the Antioch church, saying to him in verse 14, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews.” That’s a sharp public rebuke to Peter’s open hypocrisy. Paul cites this incident to disprove the lie that he was dependent upon Peter for his gospel. This story shows how genuinely independent Paul was of Peter. Now, we must clarify what is happening here. Peter does not believe a different gospel than Paul. They both hold to the same gospel as we will see in this morning’s text. Peter knew the gospel as well as Paul did on one level. Peter in this incident however sinfully allows his fallen desire to please other people to cause him to compromise what he knew was true. He allowed that fleshly desire to trump his call to live in the liberty he had received through the gospel.
As we move into verses 15-16, we come to the very the heart of the book of Galatians. Paul here continues relating this incident with Peter, but that is not his only purpose in writing it. He also states his main thesis of this letter here in very tightly compressed and compacted terms. Let’s read these titanically important verses. For context sake, let’s back up and recall verse 14. Paul records his rebuke of Peter saying, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how you can force the Gentiles to live like Jews. We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16yet 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.”
After Paul refers to Peter as “a Jew” in verse 15, he also excludes himself from this other group he calls “Gentile sinners.” This was a common first century slur the Jews used to refer to Gentiles, but this is the only place in all his writings Paul uses this term. He’s almost certainly using it sarcastically to highlight Peter’s hypocrisy. As we said last week, Peter knew that God shows no partiality between Jews and Gentiles, but in Antioch, he was making Gentiles second class citizens by removing himself from them. Paul uses the term “Gentile sinners,” to press the point that Peter had been hypocritically treating them this way—like the Jerusalem believers who still saw them as “Gentile sinners.”
In verse 16, he turns to give the main theological reason why Peter should never have separated himself from the Gentiles. He also uses this crucial truth to springboard him into the next section of the letter. In these verses, he reminds Peter, the other Jewish believers in Antioch and the Galatians that neither Jews nor Gentiles can be acceptable to God apart from faith in Jesus Christ. In the first century, the predominant belief among the Jews was that you were acceptable before God on the basis of what you did for him—your performance of the Law. This was not good Old Testament theology. Abraham “believed God and it was accounted to him as righteousness.” The prophet Habakkuk had taught “the just shall live by faith.” But the Jews in increasing number had come to believe that you could be made acceptable to God by keeping the law—not just the ceremonial part, but all of it.
Listen to an epitaph on a first century Jewish tomb that shows their attitude toward the Law. “Here lies Regina…She will live again, return to the light again…she has deserved to possess an abode in the hallowed land. This your piety has assured you, this your chaste life, this your love for your people, this your observance of the Law, your devotion to your wedlock...For all these deeds your hope for the future is assured.” [Ryken, Galatians, 62] The belief system behind that is transparent. This woman was a very pious person on all fronts and the standard of piety was determined for the Jews by the Law. Regina kept the Law, so she was assured eternal bliss. She was a good person as the Law stipulates that, so she is in. That’s the lie of the Judaizers that Paul is attacking when he says in verse 16, “a person is not justified by works of the law.” In this one verse, Paul three times rejects the works of the Law as a way for any person to be justified before God. Verse 16, “…a person is not justified by works of the law…” later, “not by works of the law,” finally, “by works of the law no one will be justified.”
Note this—when the Bible repeats something three times in rapid fire succession in one verse, you can bet that heaven and hell hang on that repeated truth. This kind of radical triple repetition is reserved only for the most important truths in the Bible. Paul is not wasting words here. The Galatians had believed the lie that a person is made acceptable to God by their works or their performance of the Law. In response to that, Paul comes out like a boxer in this first doctrinal round and he begins to pummel this errant theology. He commences by opening up on his opponents with a rapid fire assault on these lies--boom, boom, boom. There is no subtly here. Once he has laid the groundwork for his argument by re-establishing his apostolic authority, he comes out swinging furiously. Verses 15-16 are in fact the main battery of his assault. The rest of the letter is simply the unpacking and explaining of what he means here.
Likewise, we will spend the rest of our time in Galatians tracing and following Paul’s unpacking of these colossal truths. Today, we will do just what he does. That is, introduce the three major truths that are the foundation stones upon which he constructs his argument. We want to examine Paul’s main argument by asking three questions that revolve around these three crucial terms Paul introduces here. The first term we want to discuss is the word “justified.” Paul says, “by works of the law no one will be justified.” In light of that, our first question is: What does it mean to be justified? There are many professed believers who have only a vague idea of centrally important theological terms like justification. They may tell you that to be justified is to be “just as if I’d never sinned.” That is at best shallow, at worst it is a distortion.
Beloved, please know this--our living out of the gospel–which is the power of God for salvation—for living out the Christian life—our living out of the gospel will never exceed the depth of our understanding of theological truths like “justification.” Don’t get me wrong—it’s possible to understand these and still not live them out or even appreciate them, but if our understanding of these terms is shallow, we will necessarily be shallow in our Christian life. If you have a vague understanding of justification, you will only vaguely live out the gospel in its saving power because justification by faith apart from works is the heart of the gospel and it is what separates Christianity from every other religion.
That means that when you hear a theological word like “justification” don’t think of it only as a theological term. Think of it as a spiritual fuel cell which, as you understand it more fully and meditate on it more deliberately, will make your walk with Christ nuclear powered. If we want to be ablaze for Christ, if we want to honor God, we must learn theology, but we must learn it with a humble heart and motivated by a desire to know and honor Christ better. And so we ask the question--what is justification? What does God do when He justifies someone?
The word translated “justification” is a legal term. It is the opposite of condemnation. Romans 8:33-34 says, “Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn…?” We know that to condemn someone is to legally sentence them to death, but as the Judge of the universe, God can also justify. What is involved in all that? Wayne Grudem’s definition of justification is typical: “Justification is an instantaneous legal act of God in which he (1) thinks of a believer’s sin as forgiven and Christ’s righteousness as belonging to us, and (2) he declares us to be righteous in his sight.”
The second part of that definition implies that when God justifies a person, that does not change the person internally. The reason for that is because justification is solely a legal declaration that the justified person is righteous. It’s a bit like the queen of England legally declaring that someone is a knight or a duke or an earl. The declaration does nothing to change the person; it simply asserts that the person’s legal status and standing has changed. We know justification does nothing to change the person internally from texts like Romans 4:5, “And to the one who does not work but trusts him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness” Paul calls those God justifies “ungodly.” Justification does not change the person internally. That’s not to say that God does not radically change all truly redeemed people. It simply means that this change is not accomplished in his justifying work. He regenerates us and sanctifies us to bring changes, but this is not his work in justifying us. As we saw from the definition, part of justification is the forgiveness of sins. In justification, God forgives our sins--past, present and future. Psalm 103:12 says, “As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us.”
But that is only part of justification. If we are left there, as only pardoned sinners, that doesn't make us righteous before God. That only makes us pardoned. We are no longer guilty, but that morally neutral position doesn’t make us acceptable to God. God is holy—he will not intimately relate with morally neutral humans. He will relate intimately only to humans who are righteous—who have a perfect standing of righteousness before him. That’s a problem for us because the only human who has a perfect standing of righteousness before God is Jesus Christ. God in his grace and mercy has solved that problem for us by imputing the very righteousness of his Son, Jesus to all those he justifies. We need the very righteousness of God to be acceptable to him. So Paul says in Second Corinthians 5:21, “For our sake he [the Father] made him [Christ] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Those whom God justifies possess the perfect righteousness of God that Christ lived out on earth. As John Piper has said, Christ was not only punished for us, he also obeyed the Law for us. [Piper, Counted Righteous, p.29] Because Christ fulfilled the law for us, it is both futile and redundant for us to seek to do that.
Justification does not leave the sinner morally neutral before God. The very righteousness of Christ—his perfect obedience of the law and his payment of the law’s penalty for sin replace our sinful spiritual resume. The perfect moral and ethical spiritual resume of Jesus Christ becomes ours’. The question that naturally follows from this is: How can God declare us to be legally not guilty, but righteous, when in fact we are functionally ungodly or unrighteous? How can God call someone righteous who is in fact not living a perfectly righteous life without compromising his integrity? The way God does this is he imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. In other words, he thinks of it as belonging to us. In Romans 4:3, Paul gives the righteousness of Abraham as an example of this. He says, “Abraham believed God and it was counted to him as righteousness.” Abraham’s righteousness was imputed to him because he trusted in God.
A good way to help us understand how God can impute righteousness to the unrighteous is by examining two other instances when God imputes something to someone. This imputation of Christ’s righteousness is actually the third time in salvation history where God imputes something to someone. The first imputation of God in the Bible is when Adam sinned; his guilt was imputed to us. Perhaps you have wondered, “Why does Adam’s sin have such a profound affect on me? Why should I have to drag around this rebellious sin nature just because Adam sinned—aren’t I paying for his mistake?” Romans five answers that question by saying that all of us were in Adam—he is the father of the human race. So God imputed the guilt of Adam to the rest of us because we were all in Him. The human race is “united in Adam” in one sense because he is the father. That is, when we are born into this world, Adam is the genetic and spiritual origin and source of all of us. We are, in that sense, “one in Adam.” That means that Adam’s guilt is imputed to us based on that relationship.
The second imputing work of God was done when Christ suffered on the cross for us and God imputed our sin to Jesus. The reason God could do this is fundamentally because Christ, having lived a perfect life, not committing any sin--did not deserve to die. He however volunteered to take our sin and pay its penalty for us. He willingly took our sin upon himself. As the sinless Lamb of God, he could do that because he had no sin of his own to pay for. Therefore God imputed my sin to Christ. Again, 2 Corinthians 5:21 says, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” When Christ was on the cross he became, if you will, “one with our sin”—he became united with our sin—he took it upon himself. When he took our sin on himself, he became cursed by God and died to pay the penalty for our sin because God imputed the guilt of our sin onto Him.
God’s final imputing work is seen when he imputes the righteousness of Christ to all who believe. This is justification. He credits Christ’s righteousness to us. The reason God can do this and not lose his integrity is because, as we will see more next week, we have been united with Christ. Just as we were united with Adam and just as Christ became united with our sin, so we have been “united with Christ” through the Holy Spirit at our conversion. Because we are united with Christ, being one with him, the Father is free to impute to us the very righteousness of Christ. Perhaps now it is more clear why Paul says, “by the works of the law no one will be justified.” No one could ever live out the perfect righteousness of Christ—we stand condemned apart from Christ. Only those whom God justifies can be acceptable or pleasing to God. We could never obey the law perfectly—that’s why Christ did it for us.
A second question pertaining to this text is: How do we acquire this justification—this right standing with God? In verse 16, Paul answers that question three times, “by faith.” Those who believe or place their trust in Christ are made acceptable to God. Ore precisely, what is “faith” in this context? Philip Ryken says, “Faith is a total surrender to Jesus Christ, a complete acceptance of all that he is and all that he has done for us in salvation. The reason faith justifies is that it takes hold of Christ, and Christ is the one who makes us right with God.” [Galatians, p.63] Faith is that God-given gift that hooks us into Jesus and the life-giving promises of the gospel. Faith involves first, rejecting the lie that we can in any way be pleasing or acceptable to God in ourselves. Second and flowing out of that truth--faith eagerly embraces the righteousness of God offered in Christ as our only hope. It is actively pursuing Christ—patiently and persistently waiting on him to do his saving work in us. Faith anxiously seeks after him—that is what faith looks like. Faith actively, intentionally, persistently receives Christ’s perfect obedience to the law in exchange for our daily disobedience of God’s law. Faith actively meditates upon it, deeply breathes in this glorious exchange of Christ’s righteousness for our sin. Faith shows itself in hearts filled with praise and gratitude for what Christ has done. We receive justification through faith in Christ. We must see that faith is an active, vital thing.
We are initially justified by grace through faith and we walk by faith in what Christ has done for us in giving us his righteousness. Here are some specific areas ways in which we walk by faith. When we find ourselves doubting God, through either openly questioning him and his promises, or through our own godless self-reliance, faith brings us victory over that. Faith sees that doubt and self-reliance and says “SIN!” and brings it before the throne of God. Faith then receives Christ’s perfect, childlike trust in the Father in exchange for our doubt and self-reliance. When we find ourselves living for ourselves and our glory—our reputation—when life becomes all about us, here’s the response of faith. Faith confesses that as sin and receives Christ’s perfect motivation to live for the glory of God in exchange for our self-oriented life and motives. When we find ourselves believing that God’s for us is based on our performance of religious duties, faith rejects that performance mentality and embraces our total inability to be acceptable to God, while joyfully accepting the righteousness of Christ alone to make us pleasing to God. Faith clings tenaciously to Christ and his righteousness as our only hope.
A third and final question Paul answers in these two verses is: What must we believe to be made pleasing or acceptable to God? The answer is in this final phrase Paul repeats three times. We are “justified by faith in Christ.” Paul is simply saying here that the object of our faith is Jesus Christ. It is who He is and what HE did—living a perfectly righteous life—dying a sin atoning death—that is what we must hook into by faith. We must continuously renounce any and all confidence in our own works to make us pleasing to God and replace any confidence in those works with a trust in Christ. We must look not to ourselves, only to Christ--not faith in our works, but faith in Christ. Paul says he had suffered the loss of all things so that he might “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith.” Christ’s perfect obedience to the law for us and Christ’s sin-atoning death for us—that and nothing else is the ground of our faith. Anything other than that as the basis of our trust means eternal death in hell. That is the gospel.
Although I trust all of this is readily applicable, I want to give one explicit application by telling you that if we are to consistently honor Christ, we must know this gospel backwards and forwards. If you have been a believer for more than a year and you felt there was too much information here, know this—what I have presented to you today is the heart of the gospel. This should be table-talk for us. This is the air we breathe in Christ. If these basic truths are not incredibly frequent visitors to our mind, it’s no wonder we are not living more in victory for the glory of Christ. This is part of what Hebrews six calls the “elementary doctrine of Christ.” This is at the center of everything we believe. This is the ground of every God-honoring ministry, every God-honoring motivation, and every moment of genuine victory we can experience in Christ Jesus. If these truths are not as familiar to us as the names of our immediate family, then we will not consistently magnify Christ in our lives.
Finally, if you are here today and you have not placed your trust in Christ’s perfect obedience and Christ’s punishment for sin on the cross, do that today. Reject your own good works as a valid path for you to go to heaven. They are a dead end street. The only road to heaven and joy on this earth is to place your trust in Jesus Christ. “In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace.” (Eph 1:7) “He, Christ is the source of your life in Christ Jesus, whom God made our wisdom and our righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” (1Cor. 1:30) As we move through the rest of Galatians, may God give us the grace to live in the joy of Jesus as we habitually, perpetually glory in these truths of the gospel.
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