Introduction: One of the interesting things about growing up in a Christian environment in the 20th-century South is trying to figure out the balance between legalism and liberty. I think a lot of us have struggled with that. When I came to TDF, I had shaggy hair, over my ears in keeping with my 1970s roots. It apparently occasioned some discussion at a local Bible College, which enforced a severe grooming policy for men. I remember the night a professor, a good friend of mine trying to mediate, pulled me aside and said, “Robert, do you realize that your haircut is in violation of college standards?” I replied, “Well, that’s all right. I’m not enrolled at the college. I’m not a student.” He said: “Yes, but don’t you see it makes it difficult for the college to enforce standards when you as an area pastor don’t obey them?” I said (too bluntly), “Well, those are your standards; but I don’t know why you would force them on me. I have my own standards. I frankly think yours are too strict, and I don’t know why I should reinforce them by conforming to them.” I don’t think I would be so outspoken today; hopefully we’ll all matured some. But it does reflect the fact that a lot of tension fills the whole area of legalism verses liberty. Those tensions go all the way back to the early church. I can’t solve all the issues tonight; and Paul is going to deal at greater length with this issue in chapters 5 and 6. But he sets the stage for it here in the last half of Galatians 2.
Background: There were two centers of church life in the early church: Jerusalem and Antioch. Jerusalem was the headquarters of the Jewish-Christian Church, and James was in charge. He was straight-laced and conservative. Antioch was the headquarters of the Gentile-Christian Church. Paul and Barnabas were in charge, and they were warm and evangelistic. Technically both shared the same Gospel and had the same theology of justification. But atmospherically these two churches were like day and night. It was like two different denominations. The events in Galatians 2 (in my opinion) occurred just before the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, just before the doctrine of justification by grace was codified and ratified by that Council. So here in Galatians 2, things were still in a little bit of flux. Evidently Peter and Paul got into a tiff over it. It’s a fascinating and honest glimpse into the early church.
It might help to understand this passage if we use an example. Instead of length of hair, let’s consider the eating of meat. A good Jewish man or woman would eat meat, but not unclean meat or meat sacrificed to idols. But the Gentile Christians had no qualms about these cuts of meat. They hadn’t grown up with that mindset. What was a very important distinction to one group was inconsequential to the other. With that as background, let’s begin with Galatians 2:11:
V. 11-13. My paraphrase: Peter came up to Antioch and had a wonderful time. He ate with us, even when we had sausage or served a steak purchased from the markets near the pagan temple. He exercised his liberty in Christ. He was a Jewish Christian, but he lived among us like a Gentile Christian. He felt free to do that. But when a delegation from James arrived, Peter changed tables. He was afraid of offending the men from James, so he sat at the table across the room and gave his approval to those criticizing the Gentile believers. The Judean Christians sat over at their table and clucked their tongues at us and criticized us and said we should still be under law. They didn’t understand the freedom we have in Christ. Now if it were just a matter of eating meat it wouldn’t matter so much, but there were larger implications about the Law. It sent a signal that the Gentile Christians were second-class citizens in the Kingdom.
V 14-15: My paraphrase: I told Peter: You are a Jew and yet you have exercised and enjoyed the freedom of being like a Gentile Christian. You have eaten sausage. Why are you now joining those who are criticizing Gentile Christians for doing what you yourself have been doing until now?
V. 15-16: My paraphrase: Even the Jewish Christians, despite their roots in Judaism, know that we can never really be justified by keeping the Law. We are justified by grace alone and by faith alone.
V. 17: This is the most difficult verse in the chapter. I believe Paul is answering an objection he doesn’t state. One of the lines of logic followed by the Jewish Christians was this: If we do away with the Law, we’ll remove all restraint. People will just run wild. Justification by grace through faith is a doorway to unrestrained sin. We cannot remove the law, because it will lead to unbridled sin. Jesus Christ and His doctrine of justification by grace through faith promote sin. But Paul answered that objection with a strong: “God forbid! Absolutely not!”
V. 18: My paraphrase: If I abuse my Christian liberty, I’m simply proving that I’m a sinner in need of grace.
V. 19: My paraphrase: Understood correctly, Christian liberty will lead to my living a holier life because I’ll want to conform my behavior to what pleases my Savior. I died to the Law so that I could live unto Christ.
V. 20: My paraphrase: I cannot continue deliberately living in unconfessed and ongoing sin as a Christian because I am now identified with the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. I died to the law. I died to salvation by works. I died to trying to get into heaven by my own efforts. I have fully yielded to the Lord Jesus who died for me and who lives in me. And the life that I now live is by faith in the Son of God. The Christian life is not my trying to conform to the Law, but Jesus Christ (who perfectly kept the Law) living His life through me.
V. 21: My paraphrase: So grace does not lead to more sinfulness but to righteousness. If the Law could have saved me and given me a holy life, Christ would not have needed to die.
Conclusion: Paul’s speech to Peter, in a nutshell, is: Don’t be afraid of grace. We are saved by grace, not by Jewish law. And furthermore it is a mistake to think that legalism promotes holiness. Legalism simply proves we are sinners; because whatever law we set, we break. Legalism may measure our sinfulness but it cannot restrain it. Grace, on the other hand, leads to holiness because when Jesus saves us and comes to live within us, He begins living His life through us and we begin living our lives to please Him. Now, this may not tell you or me what to do about a haircut or about eating sausage. But here’s the principle: Genuine holiness comes from the inside out, not by the outside in. It’s not the result of our trying to keep a list. It’s the result of the Holy Spirit replicating the Christ-Life through us as we seek to love and please Him in all things. That doesn’t mean we never have rules. It means that rules or not, we understand and emphasize the nature of true holiness, which is rooted in grace and grace alone.