Hold to the Gospel Consistently

Title: Hold to the Gospel Consistently

Text: Galatians 2:11-16

Time: October 24th, 2010

This morning we find ourselves again in the Book of Galatians, continuing our study about salvation by faith alone in Christ alone. The Apostle Paul is trying to teach the Christians in Galatia about salvation by faith alone as opposed to salvation by human works or any mixture of faith and works. It’s important for him to make this very important point so that the church isn’t led astray from the truth. To the Apostle Paul truth isn’t very important. That’s different from our day and age, where many people act as if truth isn’t very important, just as long as they get what they want in life. In other words, many people – it seems more and more people as the years go by – simply don’t care very much about what is right or wrong, or true or false, just as long as they can live a comfortable life and get more or less what they want in life. In other words, relativism, or the belief that there are no absolute right or wrongs, or true or false. Relativism is rapidly becoming the dominant philosophy in the modern world. Absolute truth is laughed at, at best, or ignored at worse as simply impractical or impossible to know or live by. So people simply forget about questions of ultimate or absolute truth. Most modern people wouldn’t understand what the Apostle Paul is all upset over when addressing this church in Galatia. People today might say, “So what’s the big deal? These church people are starting to mix faith and works in their doctrine of salvation, so what? What difference does it make? Live and let live. To each his own. Let people believe what they want to believe. Who really knows the real truth anyway? Like Pontius Pilate said to Jesus, “What really is truth? Who really knows what is true?” This skepticism today is all around us, led by no higher authority than the federal government. For example, as far as the government is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference what people believe, just as long as they pay their taxes and keep the peace. The government is agnostic concerning specific religious beliefs, in fact, it goes out of its way to avoid any religious issues if at all possible. This government attitude towards religion filters down to all the social institutions that are under it, like the public schools and state and local governments, and colleges and universities run by the government. So our society is being filled more and more with this kind of skepticism towards ultimate right and wrong, or towards true and false. It’s to the point where people are following the lead of government institutions and becoming skeptics themselves. Of course, the popular culture and media and the entertainment industry are already into relativism, but for other reasons – the best way to justify living an immoral lifestyle is to deny that there is any truly moral life to be lived. The best way to avoid a guilty conscience is to deny that there is any absolute moral truth to follow, or that there is any true absolute law or anything ultimately true to begin with in the first place. So most people today wouldn’t understand what all the fuss is over salvation by faith alone versus salvation by works, or a mixture of faith and works salvation. But for true Christians, for those who take truth seriously – and the Bible is a book from God that teaches absolute truth – we must pay attention to the distinction Paul is making here in the Book of Galatians. It’s the Word of God, it’s God’s Word to us Christians – and really it’s for all men and women – but especially for us who desire to follow the will of God, and so we must trust that whatever God says through the words of the Bible, he says for a purpose, for our good. That’s why we must listen and learn. Today’s passage is Galatians 2:11-16. Let me point out three important points.

First,  Sadly, it’s possible for even the best Christians to act like hypocrites sometimes. Galatians 2:11-13, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. 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 believed to the circumcision group. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.” Now the scene was this – Paul and other leaders were doing Christian ministry in Antioch among the Gentiles, teaching salvation by faith alone and holiness and all the other Christian truths. The famous Apostle Peter visited them there and everything was fine until a group of strict Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem where James the brother of Jesus was leading the church – not that James had sent them or that he even supported there strict Jewish understanding of the Christian faith – but these men came from Jerusalem and were associated with James. They began to teach the Christians there that it was necessary for all the Christian men to be circumcised according to the Jewish law in order to be saved, truly saved. In other words, it wasn’t enough to trust Christ alone for salvation, but instead following the Jewish law was also necessary. Now this group from Jerusalem were very persuasive because not only did they lead many of the Christians in Antioch astray but they also got the great Apostle Peter to go along with them, or at least bow to their teachings when they were around. In addition, the Apostle Paul’s ministry partner, Barnabas, even he began to follow along with their teachings. The Apostle Peter actually withdrew fellowship from Gentile Christian converts out of deference to the legalist group’s wishes. This was consistent with traditional Jewish teaching but not consistent with Christian teaching, especially the example of Jesus. Before this group arrived teaching their strict Jewish legalism, the Christians, both Jews and Gentiles lived in spiritual harmony together in the same church, but after the group from Jerusalem came Jews and Gentiles began to separate in the style of the old Jew-Gentile division. The Apostle Paul began to see the problem and addressed it head on. Now what this shows is that Christians, even great Christians like the Apostle Peter, can be hypocritical at times. What is hypocrisy? Isn’t it saying or believing one thing and then acting out another? Isn’t hypocrisy not living consistently with the truth? Even Christians, we learn from this example, are not immune from the temptation to act hypocritically at times.  Are you a hypocrite? Am I a hypocrite? Probably in some area, in some way, sometimes. If even the great Apostle Peter, the chief among the twelve disciples, could act hypocritically so could any of us. According to the Roman Catholics, Peter was the first pope. If that is so, the first pope was a hypocrite, which counts against the teaching of papal infallibility. No, there is no such thing as human infallibility. No leader is beyond error. That’s why we need the body of Christ, the church, to keep us in check and balance. We need each other to hold each other accountable. Church isn’t just for encouragement – although it’s definitely for that, but it’s also for accountability, to remind us of what is the truth and to live by the truth. The Apostle Paul was holding even the great Apostle Peter accountable, holding him to the truth and challenging him to live consistently with it. We all need that accountability. So don’t get mad at me if I hold you accountable to the truth, and I’ll try not to get upset if you hold me to it too. That’s what church is all about. But let’s move on to the next point.

Second, It’s important to correct those who are not living out the truth of God’s Word. Galatians 2:14, “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?’” We need to thank God for the courage of Paul in opposing this legalistic group from Jerusalem, but more important, we need to thank God for Paul’s courage in rebuking Peter. Consider that Peter was Jesus’ right hand man among the twelve disciples. Also consider that when Jesus left, after the resurrection, he left Peter in charge of leading the other disciples. Peter was also instrumental in establishing the early church and was in on all the other important events of the early Christian church. Wouldn’t Peter know what was right or wrong? Wouldn’t Peter – more than anybody – know the difference between what was true and what was false in respect to Christian spiritual truth? Yet, here we have a relatively newcomer in the Apostle Paul rebuking the primary Apostle Peter. How could he do such a thing? Very simple – he was right and Peter was wrong! The truth was on the side of Paul, in this case, and not Peter. And I think Peter knew it all along, but in a moment of weakness gave into the impulse to be a people-pleaser and go along with the Jewish brothers from Jerusalem, the legalists, even though he knew deep down that what they were teaching wasn’t exactly the gospel truth. It took the courage of Paul to rebuke them all – outnumbered as he was – and it took his courage to establish once and for all in scripture what is the true gospel of salvation. But what was Paul’s argument to Peter? Can we understand what he is trying to say? After all, these were Jews talking to other Jews. What was Paul’s point? “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?”  What is Paul saying? He’s saying that no Jew really lives like a true Jew should live – following the whole Jewish law. There is no Jew – even the strict Pharisees, strict legalists – who really do obey all the Jewish laws, because it’s simply impossible to not only number all the laws, but to fully obey them all. So in the real strict sense, no Jew can really be fully Jewish according to the law. The reality is no Jew really even tries to keep all the laws, although good and pious and strict Jews try to keep the major laws and even many of the minor laws as well, but nobody really even tries to keep every single Jewish law because that’s an impossibility. So like most good and pious Jews Peter kept most of the important laws, but neglected to keep the minor or unimportant laws. That was technically inconsistent, but practically necessary. Paul seizes on that point and reminds Peter about it – which was probably a point of guilt for most pious Jews, that they couldn’t keep the whole law so then they didn’t even really try. Paul didn’t mean that Peter was living like the Gentiles in that he didn’t follow any of the Law, or that he was careless in his Jewish life. What he meant was that Peter didn’t follow the whole law – and really didn’t even try to follow every law – and the inconsistency was that now, in front of the strict Jewish legalist group, Peter was acting like following all the Jewish laws was important, when normally he wouldn’t. We need to be thankful that God sent Paul along to rebuke or correct Peter. God will also send someone along to rebuke you in the error of your ways in you are open-minded and open-hearted enough to receive it, reflect on it and if you are in error change your ways. That’s what church is supposed to be about – encouraging one another in the truth, and holding each other accountable in error. That’s why when people drop out of church or play hooky from church or just stop attending and participating, they are setting themselves up for disaster because then there will be nobody there to help lead them back to the truth. That’s why so many who stop going to church start backsliding. But let’s not go that route, let’s stay together and encourage each other, and if necessary, correct each other when we get off track.

Third, justification by faith alone is the only consistent gospel salvation message. Galatians 2:15-16, “’We who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners know that a man is not justified by observing 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 observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.’” The problem with the strict Jewish legalists – and the problem that led the other Christians astray, even the Apostle Peter – was that something was being added to the Christian salvation message. Instead of faith alone for salvation, it was faith plus this Jewish law and that Jewish law, and so on and so on. To the Pharisees who had converted to faith in Christ but who were still more Pharisee than Christian, they insisted that new converts be circumcised in addition to faith in Christ before they considered a person saved. It is easy to understand how the Jewish Christians could be taken in by such arguments because after all being good Jews they were raised with that teaching all their lives. Of course all males would be circumcised, that’s just how things are done. Then the next step is, “Of course new Christian converts, males, need to be circumcised, because that’s just how things are done.” Without realizing it, the Jewish Christians were trying to convert people to the Jewish faith with the addition of Jesus, instead of what is truly the case – converting people to Christ primarily, with or without the Jewish faith. Paul’s point is that the gospel is salvation by faith alone in Christ alone, period. If the Christian is saved by faith alone, why put on the pretense of being or trying to be saved by observing the works of the law. That’s what Jews did. No Jew really believed that he or she kept the whole Jewish law, the Law of Moses, or all the laws of the Bible. No Jew really ever did or ever could keep the whole law, but every Jew tried to put up the pretense of trying to obey the whole law, even if they couldn’t. But if a Jew was honest with himself in his heart of hearts, he knew just like every other Jew knew, that he wasn’t keeping the law in all that it required. For Jewish Christians, salvation by faith alone in Christ alone was a welcome relief from the futile strivings of obedience to the Law of God. Yet, here are Jews like Peter who were truly saved by grace through faith alone in Christ alone bowing to the legalism of a group of Christian Pharisee converts who hadn’t learned the true theology of Christian salvation. This group was confused about salvation, but like often happens, those who are most confused are the strongest and most forceful advocates of their own falsehoods. I’ve seen that happen time and time again in the church – not this church in particular – but the Christian church in general. But we need to be careful about so-called teachers in Christianity, whether on television or radio or in books, in ministries, churches, and other places. What does the Bible teach us? “Test all things, cling to that which is good.” It’s not so important who is teaching something, but what is being taught? Is it in line with the truth? In this case, Peter was teaching error, or at least going along with error. That doesn’t mean that he wasn’t a Christian, he certainly was, but we shouldn’t follow him in error when he’s wrong. Test all things.

The gospel of salvation is so important that Paul was willing to risk division in the Body of Christ by rebuking the great and famous Apostle Peter. In this respect, I think of the Catholic monk Martin Luther when he faced off with the great Roman Catholic church in the 1500’s, some five hundred years ago. The established church was firmly in control of all the local churches at that time, but here was a lowly monk in Germany who dared to rebuke the Pope of Rome. How dare he? That was what the argument against Luther was, “How dare this minor monk correct the Pope – in the chair of Peter the chief Apostle – how dare this German priest rebuke the so-called Vicar of Christ on earth?” But he did, and the world was change. Why? Because Luther was right and the Pope was wrong. Luther is still right, and Rome is still wrong on this point of salvation. Salvation is by faith alone in Christ alone, not by works of obedience to the Law of God, or by any mixture of faith and works. Works don’t count at all as far as salvation is concerned. In fact, the only thing works count for is a ticket to hell, to put it bluntly. The only thing our works earn us – even our best works – is judgment, condemnation and ultimately damnation. Nobody fulfills the Law of God completely. Nobody lives up to the whole law. Our works fail us. Only Christ on the cross can save us. Only Christ’s perfectly righteous life, which did fulfill all the works of the Law on our behalf, only Christ’s righteousness transferred to us by our faith, only this way can we be saved. Don’t make the same mistake as these Pharisee Christians did, thinking you can start by faith in Christ alone but add to it with your own meritorious works of righteousness. Don’t be led astray like the Apostle Peter was in compromising the gospel to please some important group or person. Be willing to step out and risk everything in order to present and live the gospel of salvation correctly. There are many people who walk around thinking they know the gospel of salvation, but really don’t have a clue as to what it is at all. Don’t you be one of them. And there are also many people walking around who do know the true gospel of salvation who let themselves be compromised because they don’t want to risk offending other people by stating the truth. But sometimes it’s necessary to draw a line in the sand and say, “Here is the truth and here is error. Believe this truth and don’t believe error.” Now that may cause some hard feelings, that may cause some division, that may cause trouble, but like Paul we need to hold to the truth no matter what. Are you willing to do that? I hope so because that is being a good and faithful witness to God. Let us pray that we can hold to the truth here at New Life Chapel no matter what. What good is it to grow big if it isn’t growth based on truth? What good is it to be a success if you ultimately fail in the truth? No. Let us build our lives and build our church on the truth of God’s Word and never let anything take us off the path.

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