How was separating from the Gentiles not in step with the gospel?
It seems Peter and Co. didn’t think they were denying the gospel of justification by faith, they just wanted to unite with this group of people who added on a requirement that to be a Christian you must be circumcised, and I guess Peter didn’t think that was a big deal, but Paul sees a major problem, because forcing the Gentiles to live like Jews conflicts with the fact that a person is not justified by works of the law.
Peter and Paul were Jews by birth (v15), but (v16) they both know full well that that’s not what saves them.
Circumcision was part of the ceremonial law which only applied to Jews before Christ came, and in Ephesians 2v11-16 Paul explains that Christ broke down the division between Jews and Gentiles by abolishing the ceremonial law (the commandments expressed in ordinances).
So with the ceremonial law having been abolished, looking back at Galatians 2v14, Peter had evidently stopped keeping parts of the ceremonial law: “you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile”.
And yet, in order to please the circumcision party, he withdrew from Gentiles who didn’t obey the ceremonial commandment regarding circumcision.
This contradicted the message that Jesus had broken down the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile; it suggested that what Jesus did on the cross was all well and good, but if you want to be truly one of us, you need to obey this law as well.
Then in v16 Paul expands the issue to the law as a whole. It’s not just that we don’t need to keep the old Jewish ceremonies; we can’t justify ourselves by obedience to any law.
I don’t want to insult your intelligence by going back to basics, but I don’t think it’ll do any of us any harm to remind ourselves of the significance of the fact that we’re not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so let’s pause to look at some definitions of some of these key words.
Google defines the word justify as: “show or prove to be right or reasonable”, and specifically with regard to theology: “declare or make righteous in the sight of God”
Justification is a legal term, but most of us are not really familiar with the experience of being in a courtroom to be sentenced for a crime we’ve committed, and, at least in my mind, thinking of justification as merely a legal thing restricts it to just being a declaration that we’re not guilty, but there’s more to it than that; we’re actually declared positively “righteous”.
So another way that we use the term justified would be, for example, I justify my wages to my employer by making them enough money to cover the expense of employing me.
So thinking of justification in that sense, why should God give me another minute to live, let alone welcome me into heaven?
If I were to do enough evangelism, or spend enough time serving the poor or the sick, would that justify me being alive for another day? How much evangelism would I need to do to outweigh the sin I commit each day? And even when I do manage to do something that God considers valuable, couldn’t he find someone else to do it better? Couldn’t he do it far, far better himself? What’s the justification for employing an unworthy servant like me?
Thinking about it that way, to me it’s very clear that I have no hope whatsoever of justifying myself by my works. And if we ever do slip into thinking we’re justifying ourselves at all by serving God, we’re mistaken. God is not served by human hands as if he ever needed anything (Acts 17v25) and all our abilities to serve come from him in the first place anyway, so we can never be God’s beneficiary. God’s never going to make a profit by employing us as his servants, so we can’t justify ourselves by the works we do for him.
What does God’s word say about justification? Romans 2v13 says: “it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous before God, but the doers of the law who will be justified.”
So to be justified means to be righteous before God, and Romans 2 indicates that righteousness has to do with obeying the law.
So if justification requires righteousness, which involves obeying the law, but none of us can justify ourselves by works of the law, how can we be justified?
Romans 5v17 talks about “those who receive… the free gift of righteousness”. So righteousness is available as a free gift; that’s good, because if we had to work for it we’d be in trouble, but how do we claim this free gift?
Back in Galatians 2, Paul answers in v16: “through faith in Jesus Christ”.
Google defines faith as: “complete trust or confidence in something”
So we need to put our complete trust in Christ, not our works. Sometimes people make faith itself into a work. We don’t like the idea that our salvation is out of our control, so we try to find something we can do ourselves to guarantee our salvation. We know God’s word says people are saved by faith, so we think if we work ourselves up to have enough faith then God will owe it to us to save us. But that’s putting our faith in our faith, not Christ.
It would be like, if you fell off a cliff, but managed to survive by grabbing hold of the one branch sticking out that was strong enough to support your weight, and then you thought the important thing was how much faith you had in the branch. That would be ridiculous; you were totally helpless and just grabbed whatever you could.
Likewise, we’re not justified by the fact that we have faith, but by receiving the free gift of righteousness as we grab onto Christ as our only hope of salvation.