Message Notes: The Letter of Paul to the Galatians | 2:14-16
The Letter of Paul to the Galatians
Paul’s Rebuke (2:14–21)
"But when I saw that they were not maintaining a steady, straight course according to the Message, I spoke up to Peter in front of them all: “If you, a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your old Jerusalem cronies?”
"We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over “non-Jewish sinners.” We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good."
This entire section deals with the same topic: our liberty in Jesus Christ. We will assume that the entire section represents Paul’s rebuke of Peter. It is interesting to note that Paul builds the entire rebuke on doctrine. There are five basic Christian doctrines that were being denied by Peter because of his separation from the Gentiles. Let's break each one down.
The unity of the church (v. 14). Peter was a Jew, but through his faith in Christ he had become a Christian. Because he was a Christian, he was part of the church, and in the church there are no racial distinctions (Gal. 3:28). We have seen how the Lord taught Peter this important lesson, first in the house of Cornelius and then at the Jerusalem Conference.
Paul’s words must have stung Peter: “If you, a Jew, live like a non-Jew when you’re not being observed by the watchdogs from Jerusalem, what right do you have to require non-Jews to conform to Jewish customs just to make a favorable impression on your old Jerusalem cronies?”
Peter himself had stated at the Jerusalem Conference that God had “put no difference between us and them” (Acts 15:9). But now Peter was putting a difference. God’s people are one people, even though they may be divided into various groups. Any practice on our part that violates the Scripture and separates brother from brother is a denial of the unity of the body of Christ.
Justification by faith (vv. 15–16). “How should [a] man be just with God?” (Job 9:2) was a vital question, because the answer determined eternal consequences. “The just shall live by his faith”(Hab. 2:4) is God’s answer. So important is this concept that three New Testament books explain it to us: Romans (see 1:17), Galatians (see 3:11), and Hebrews (see 10:38). Romans explains the meaning of “the just”; Galatians explains “shall live”; and Hebrews explains “by faith.”
But what is justification? Justification is the act of God whereby He declares the believing sinner righteous in Jesus Christ. Every word of this definition is important. Justification is an act and not a process. No Christian is “more justified” than another Christian. “Having therefore been once-and-for-all justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1, literal translation). Since we are justified by faith, it is an instant and immediate transaction between the believing sinner and God. If we were justified by works, then it would have to be a gradual process.
Furthermore, justification is an act of God; it is not the result of man’s character or works. “It is God that justifies” (Rom. 8:33). It is not by doing the “works of the law” that the sinner gets a right standing before God, but by putting his faith in Jesus Christ. As Paul will explain later in this letter, the law was given to reveal sin and not to redeem from sin (see Rom. 3:20). God in His grace has put our sins on Christ and Christ’s righteousness has been put to our account (2 Cor. 5:21).
In justification, God declares the believing sinner righteous; He does not make him righteous. (Of course, real justification leads to a changed life, which is what James 2 is all about.) Before the sinner trusts Christ, he stands guilty before God; but the moment he trusts Christ, he is declared not guilty, and he can never be called guilty again!
Justification is not simply “forgiveness,” because a person could be forgiven and then go out and sin and become guilty. Once you have been “justified by faith” you can never be held guilty before God.
Justification is also different from “pardon” because a pardoned criminal still has a record. When the sinner is justified by faith, his past sins are remembered against him no more, and God no longer puts his sins on record (Ps. 32:1-2; Rom. 4:1-8).
Finally, God justifies sinners, not “good people.” Paul declared that God justifies “the ungodly” (Rom. 4:5). The reason most sinners are not justified is because they will not admit they are sinners! And sinners are the only kind of people Jesus Christ can save (Matt. 9:9–13; Luke 18:9–14).
When Peter separated himself from the Gentiles, he was denying the truth of justification by faith, because he was saying, “We Jews are different from—and better than—the Gentiles.” Yet both Jews and Gentiles are sinners (Rom. 3:22–23) and can be saved only by faith in Christ.