Receiving the Gospel

Explore the Bible Series

June 14, 2009


Background Passage: Galatians 2:11-3:25

Lesson Passage: Galatians 2:15-3:9




We come, this week, to the heart of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.  After a brief continuation of Paul’s defense of his apostleship (Galatians 2:11-21), the apostle outlined his views on justification by faith.  This section, therefore, contains one of the earliest and most important apostolic reflections on the very nature of the gospel.  How does a sinner find justification before a holy God?  Paul answered this crucial question with crystal clarity.  Christians have long suffered, however, from serious conflict over the nature of justification, a conflict that continues to our day.


Christians generally agree that justification arises from the grace of God and rests on the redemptive work of Christ, on the cross and through the resurrection from the dead.  German theologian, Martin Luther, highlighted impending disagreement when he insisted, in the Sixteenth Century, that the grace of justification was received by faith alone.  Roman Catholics see justification as a process that includes both faith and good works.  From a Protestant perspective, our Catholic friends combine justification and sanctification.  Luther and his spiritual descendants draw a sharper line of distinction between justification and sanctification. 


Most Protestants emphasize the judicial (forensic) nature of justification; that is, they see this aspect of salvation as a decree of God that the sinner has been declared righteous before the divine law, as a result of the sinner’s faith in Christ.  Many believe this transaction includes the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer.  Justification, therefore, does not come to the believer by adherence to the works of the law or by the merit of good works; rather, it is received by faith alone.  The Lord declares the sinner righteous and reckons Christ’s righteousness to the sinner’s account.


Walter Thomas Conner, long-time professor of Theology at Southwestern Theological Seminary, saw justification somewhat differently.  He acknowledged that the term “justification” is judicial, but he claimed that Paul used the word in a non-judicial manner.  For Conner, justification included a relational element.  Not only does God declare the sinner righteous, but the Lord creates a new relationship with the sinner, a relationship of favor and blessing.  Thankfully, Conner carefully avoided the Catholic tendency to equate justification and sanctification.


In recent years, English theologian N.T. Wright has taken a similar position to Conner, and, in doing so, has received a great deal of criticism, sometimes very harsh, from Reformed circles.  The so-called New Perspective emphasizes the sinner’s entrance into covenant relations with God, and Wright diminishes somewhat the judicial element of justification.  His view, as I see it, resembles the position of Conner.


How should we understand this important doctrine?  As always, we must remember that men like Paul expressed heavenly mysteries in human language, and, in doing so, they employed mundane analogies.  Paul called on the legal system of his day to convey deep spiritual truths about salvation.  If my perspective is correct, the apostle did not intend his readers to press too far this analogy; rather, he used a familiar human institution to reflect some aspects of the glorious work of Christ on behalf of sinners.  He did not intend to portray salvation as a legal fiction (a guilty sinner is simply pronounced righteous despite the fact that he is really sinful).  Furthermore, it seems very unlikely that Paul foreshadowed the imagery of the modern American legal system in employing this analogy.  While I have some serious questions about the positions of Conner and Wright, I am grateful that they both emphasize the great kindness and compassion of the Lord as he justifies his beloved people. 


At this point in my pilgrimage, here’s how I understand Paul’s point on justification.  Sinners have broken God’s law and brought themselves into a state condemnation and misery.  Christ’s death, in ways we can only partially understand, has paid the price for sin (redemption), and he has both pardoned iniquity and brought repentant sinners into relationship with God (regeneration and adoption).  For Christ’s sake, the Father bestows his favor on those once estranged from the divine fellowship and sets them on a new path of life (conversion).  Sinners do not (cannot) receive God’s grace by the merit of good works; indeed, at no time in God’s dealings with men have sinners been saved by mere obedience to the law (See Paul’s argument concerning Abraham).  Paul insisted on faith as the means by which sinners receive the grace of justification.  The sinners only hope rests in the redemptive, gracious work of Christ.



Lesson Outline:


I.       Paul’s Confrontation with Peter (2:11-21)

A.     The Nature of the Confrontation (vv. 11-14)

1.      “When Peter had come to Antioch” (v. 11): We do not know the time of this visit, but Peter came, along with other Jewish Christians, to observe the work in Antioch (almost certainly Syrian Antioch).  Apparently Peter arrived before the “certain men who came from James” (a reference to James, the half-brother of Jesus and pastor of the church in Jerusalem).

2.      “I withstood him to his face” (v. 11b): The text emphasizes the face to face nature of this confrontation. 

3.      he would eat with the Gentiles… but when they came he separated himself” (v. 12): Paul found Peter’s ambivalence profoundly distasteful, and he concluded that the Jerusalem apostle feared the Jewish believers.

4.      the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him” (v. 13): Peter’s actions had a detrimental influence on other Jewish believers, and they too withdrew from their Gentile brothers.  Even Barnabas (who had accompanied Paul on the First Missionary Journey and attended the Jerusalem Council) got swept up in these disgraceful actions!

5.      they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (v. 14): Paul understood that the actions of Peter and the other Jewish believers reflected badly on the gospel itself.  Even the simple act of eating had some bearing of the integrity of the Good News of Christ.

6.      why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews” (v. 14b): Initially, Peter probably did not understand the implications of his action, but his withdrawal from the Gentiles re-enforced the prejudices of the Judaizers and compromised the gospel.  In addition to reflecting poorly on the Christian message, Peter’s actions inadvertently promoted a kind of Christian elitism that favored Jewish believers and denigrated Gentile converts.

B.      Summary of Paul’s Address to Peter and the Jewish Believers (vv. 15-21): Paul, in his speech to the Jews, rehearsed his understanding of the gospel of Christ and challenged the distortions embraced by the Judaizers. 

1.      a man is not justified by the works of the law” (v. 16a): Paul did not demean the righteousness of the law, but he did point out that the law has no capacity to pardon sin.  It acts as a diagnostic tool to tell sinners of their need of pardon, but it possesses no ability to forgive, restore, and renew.

2.      but by faith in Jesus Christ” (v. 16b): Christ can do for the sinner what the law cannot.  The sinner must cast himself on Christ alone to find forgiveness.

3.      but if, while we seek to be justified by Christ, we ourselves are also found to be sinners” (vv, 17-18): These two verses prove difficult to interpret.  As I see the meaning, Paul assured Peter that the Jews too were sinners, unable to keep the law of God.  Law-keeping had not saved the Jews, and it could not save the Gentiles.

4.      “I died to the law that I might live to Christ” (vv. 19-21): The law had convinced Paul of his need for a Savior.  The apostle, at the time of his conversion, died to the constraints and demands of the law, and, as a result, came to live unto Christ.  Here Paul introduced one of his favorite themes—the believer’s union with Christ.  Paul had died with Christ, and, after his conversion, he lived in union with the resurrected Savior.  If men could find salvation through keeping the law, then Christ died needlessly.


II.    The Example of Abraham (3:1-25)

A.    Five Questions for the Galatians (vv. 1-5)

1.      who has bewitched you that you should not obey the truth?” (v. 1): The foolish rebellion of the Galatians startled Paul, and compared their irrational actions to someone who had come under a spell.  They needed, Paul observed, to return to their initial understanding of the nature and need of the cross.  The redemptive work of Christ was the only sure antidote to their malady.

2.      did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law or by the hearing of faith?” (v. 2): These people received the gospel, by faith, through the operation of the Holy Spirit, not by keeping the law.

3.      having begun by the Spirit, are you now being made perfect by the flesh?” (v. 3): The Judaizers believed in a “Christ-plus” gospel—Christ plus keeping the law.  Paul believed that Christianity begins and ends with faith in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit.

4.      have you suffered so many things in vain” (v. 4): The believers in Galatia apparently suffered persecution for their faith in Jesus; now, however, Paul feared that all of their hardship counted for nothing.

5.      does he do it (supplies of the Spirit and miracles) by works of the law or by the hearing of faith? (v. 5): The Galatians had seen great miracles by the power of the Spirit.  They did not earn these miracles by law-keeping, but they had occurred because of their faith in Jesus.

B.      The teaching of the Old Testament (vv. 6-29): Abraham serves as an important example of justification by faith. 

1.      Abraham’s righteousness came through faith (vv. 6-9): The true sons of Abraham are those who have faith, like Abraham.  Paul implies that physical descendence from Abraham did not bring salvation; rather, the patriarch’s real descendants were people of faith in Christ.

2.      The curse of the law (vv. 10-14): Paul quoted Deuteronomy 27:26 to affirm the inability of the law to save.  Instead, the law brings only a curse—it can only condemn men for their inability to keep the law. Jesus redeemed his people from the curse of the law by placing himself under that curse, on behalf of sinners.  One purpose of Christ’s work centered on bringing the Gentiles to the faith of Abraham.

3.      God’s covenant with Abraham (vv. 15-18) More than four hundred years before God gave the law to Moses, the Lord established his covenant with Abraham.  The law did not annul God’s promise to the patriarch.  Abraham could not have been justified by the law because he lived long before God gave the law.  Please note that Paul highlights two persons as recipients of the Abrahamic Covenant:  Abraham, of course, and the “Seed”, the Lord Jesus.

4.      The purpose of the law (vv. 19-25): The purpose of the law, according to Paul, focuses on confining all under sin (See v. 22).  Furthermore, it acts as a guardian that constrains a person until they come to faith in Christ, but, after faith comes, the believer is no longer under the tutor.

5.      The blessings of faith (vv. 26-29)

a.       you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus” (v. 26): Notice how Paul connected faith (and justification) to a new relationship with God.

b.      as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ” (v. 27): Paul affirmed the believer’s union with Jesus, a union symbolized in Christian baptism.

c.       you are all one in Christ Jesus” (v. 28): This union with Christ transforms personal relationships within the community of faith.  Now, social and economic distinctions, and gender issues, no longer separate God’s people.  They are one in Christ.

d.      you are Abraham’s seed and heirs according to the promise” (v.29): People of faith, Jew or Gentile, are heirs of the promise of justification, made to Abraham.