Sermon: All By Grace

This morning I invite you to open your bibles with me to the book of Galatians. Galatians chapter 2, beginning in verse 1. Last week we began a new series as we go through this letter that the apostle Paul wrote to the believers in Galatia. We’ve entitled this series, “New Freedom, New People,” which I find especially helpful in our passage today. But, before we hear God’s word, please take a moment to pray with me.

Father, may your Word be our rule, Your Holy Spirit our teacher, and the glory of Jesus Christ, our single concern. Amen.

Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message. On the contrary, they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

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.

We are justified by faith, apart from works.

Paul began sharing his story last week, how he had been a Pharisee and been confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus and re-oriented his life toward the mission of Jesus. Paul told that story and continues this story in our passage this morning because he wants to show us the gospel. He wants us to see the beauty and freedom that is found in Christ.

a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.

Justification is a word taken out of the world of the courtroom. When the judge stood up and declared someone ‘not guilty’ that was called ‘being justified.’

a person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.

We hear God say ‘not guilty’ over us, not because we have kept all the rules (we haven’t), but because of Jesus Christ’s death and resurrection for us.

By trusting in Jesus, we exchange places. Jesus, who was innocent, takes on the guilt and punishment of our sin, and we, who are guilty, are declared innocent.

And all of this, Paul wants to assure us, is through faith in Christ. This is the conclusion of Paul’s argument and Paul’s story. But how does he get there?

Let’s go through it again, more slowly. Beginning in verse 1:

Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I presented to them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek. This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves. We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

Our passage begins by saying that Paul went up to Jerusalem for a second time. He felt called to go and speak to the leaders of the church there. Paul brought along Barnabas, as well as a man named Titus, who was a Greek Christian and therefore not circumcised. You see, Paul had been ministering to the Gentiles — people who were not Jews.

When Paul shared the gospel message with the Gentiles, they understood that what Jesus had done — dying on the cross for our sins — was a gift of grace. It was nothing that they deserved. They understood that they couldn’t do any works that would make them good enough for God. God’s grace, however, was enough.

That gift of grace made them right before God. Those ritualistic laws of circumcision and eating the right foods, were not necessary to gain God’s grace. God accepted them as they came, as broken, sinful people.

Some Jewish believers struggled with this. They had spent their entire lives trying to follow God’s law. They understood that their works were not good enough and that they needed God’s grace, but it didn’t seem fair that these Gentiles were free from God’s law. Some went so far as to insist that when Gentiles became Christians, they had to follow the laws of circumcision and kosher (only eating certain foods that God declared clean).

But, Paul knew that this was not what Jesus, and the church, taught.

Early in his ministry, Peter, one of the apostles, had had a vision. You can read about it in Acts 10. In this vision

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. (Acts 10:11-16)

God declared all foods clean. This vision was given to Peter so that he would know that the Gentiles too were welcomed into the kingdom. They too could be declared righteous before God — even if they didn’t follow the laws of kosher.

Later, after Paul, along with Barnabas, had been ministering to the Gentiles,

certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” This brought Paul and Barnabas into sharp dispute and debate with them. So Paul and Barnabas were appointed, along with some other believers, to go up to Jerusalem to see the apostles and elders about this question. (Acts 15:1-2)

Last week, Pastor Stephen explained a bit about what came out of this meeting. The council decided that the Gentiles did not need to follow all of the Jewish religious laws, such as circumcision, in order to be counted as believers. James concluded saying,

“It is my judgment, therefore, that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God. Instead we should write to them, telling them to abstain from food polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood. (Acts 15:19-20)

There were still a few things the Gentiles should abstain from, but they did not have to follow kosher or circumcision in order to be Christian. They were given freedom in Christ Jesus.

Paul felt the need to present their trials in Jerusalem because some false believers felt that they should still be obedient to the Jewish law. But Paul writes,

We did not give in to them for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.

The leaders in Jerusalem recognized that Paul was called to to preach to the Gentiles, and they agreed with his message. He writes,

…they recognized that I had been entrusted with the task of preaching the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been to the circumcised. For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the circumcised, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along.

Paul, Barnabas, Titus, and the leaders in Jerusalem all recognized that we are justified by faith, and that justification is given through grace, not by works.

Paul goes on to write about an encounter he had with the apostle Peter. He uses the name Cephas, which is Peter in Aramaic (it means “rock”). He writes,

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?

Peter had forgotten what he believed. He came to Antioch preaching grace without works. He lived out that gospel message. He ate with the Gentiles, not worried about the rules of kosher food. But then this group of Judaizers came — members of that group of Jews who believed the Gentiles should be circumcised, and should follow the Jewish religious and dietary laws.

Peter felt pressured and uncomfortable, and withdrew from the Gentiles. He was afraid of this group. Peter — Peter, the “rock”, backed away from the conflict, and caused separation in the church. And since Peter, one of the disciples who had walked with Jesus, backed off, he had a lot of influence. Other Jewish leaders joined him, including Barnabas.

Paul was rightly upset by this. Peter should know better! And so he rebukes him to his face, in front of everyone.

Why does Paul tell the story of his confrontation with Peter? Because the Galatians are acting just like Peter. The Galatians knew that it was by grace, knew that it was not their goodness, but Jesus Christ that puts them right with God. They knew that they needed forgiveness from God, not validation of their righteousness. They knew all this, but when the pressure was on, they, like Peter, backed off. Or, as Paul puts it, turned from freedom into slavery:

This matter arose because some false believers had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves.

They were like the Israelites, who were brought out of slavery in Egypt, led by God in smoke and fire, and then pined for Egypt. They reminisced about how good they had it when they were slaves. Wake up!

We can’t have both. Either we are saved by the grace of God and grace alone, or we are saved by being good people. Either we save ourselves or God saves us. Either we are alive and free or slaves. The stakes are high. When the very core of the gospel is at stake, there can be no compromise. Paul was willing to go toe-to-toe with Peter, one of the chief apostles over this. And if he was willing to rebuke Peter to his face for going back on what he knew, then don’t be surprised, Galatians, if he will do the same to you.

As we hear about Peter and the Galatians backing off and going back, we might shake our heads and find it hard to believe they could ever do it. But friends, we face the same temptation. We think these Galatians are ‘other people,’ but it is a temptation for us all…

The Gentile believers looked different than the Jewish believers. They had completely different backgrounds. It’s a bit like how some of us have grown up in the church our whole lives, while others of us came to faith later in life, possibly without any church background. We really don’t look all that different from the church in Galatia or in Antioch.

As those who have grown up in the church, it can sometimes be a temptation to show less compassion to those who didn’t. We may want them to have their whole mess figured out before welcoming them into our circle. Or perhaps, we welcomed those people with open arms, but after a while we started to feel self-conscious, and backed off. Maybe you’re like me, and you really dislike conflict. While this can be helpful, there are also times when it means you don’t stick up for what you believe, and for what is right. Peter struggled with that exact thing. He knew the truth, and yet he backed off when opposition came. He wanted to please these Judaizers, and as a result the fellowship of believers suffered.

But, like the Galatians, we know that we are not saved by our actions and our works — we are not made right by what we do. We are made righteous only through Christ Jesus, through His death on the cross for our sins. And this is a gift of grace to all. Since God shows such abundant grace to us, let us do the same for one another.

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