Serving Christ and sharing the Gospel

Faith not works (Gal 2:11-21)

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“You hypocrite!” No one likes to be called a hypocrite, do they? A hypocrite is someone whose behaviour doesn’t match their words. Someone who says one thing but does another!

  • For example, children can spot hypocrisy in their parents a mile off, can’t they? Our kids can always tell when we are not practising what we preach. They see straight away when we tell them to mind their manners, eat their greens or wipe their feet, but don’t do so ourselves!
  • In politics, Boris Johnson accused Barak Obama of hypocrisy last week, didn’t he? The Mayor of London said the US President was being hypocritical by encouraging Britain to surrender powers to the European Union, when Americans would never surrender such powers themselves. Boris said Obama’s words to Britain were inconsistent with what America actually does.

In our passage from Galatians today, the apostle Paul tells us that his fellow apostle Peter was once guilty of a similar inconsistency between his words and actions. Paul tells us that even Peter was once guilty of hypocrisy – so much so in fact, that he had to be openly corrected by Paul - face to face, man to man. The Syrian city of Antioch witnessed an awkward moment in Christian history - a very critical event in the early days of the Church.

Now Paul doesn’t write about this ‘showdown’ to embarrass or belittle Peter. Rather, he wrote these words to help us avoid similar hypocrisy and inconsistency ourselves. Galatians chapter 2 is designed to stop Christians making the same mistake as Peter – the mistake of letting our behaviour contradict our beliefs. You see, Paul doesn’t just want us to believe in Christ, he wants us to live for him. He wants to make sure we always live for Christ - even when peer pressure, popular culture and our own sinful nature put pressure on us to act in ways that are inconsistent with our beliefs.

Living out of line with the Gospel - Peter’s hypocrisy

Peter was a ‘pillar’ of the early church. He was the leading apostle, a man who had accompanied the Lord Jesus during his earthly ministry, a man who had seen and heard all the remarkable things Christ had done. As we saw in John’s Gospel just three weeks ago, Peter had been personally commissioned to lead the church during a breakfast on the beach with the Risen Jesus. And as we saw only last week, Peter had extended hospitality and the hand of friendship to Paul when they first met. Hopefully you remember that Peter had added nothing to Paul’s gospel - they were both agreed on the core Christian beliefs. They shared the same faith in Jesus.

Significantly, Peter and Paul agreed that the Gospel message was for both Jews and Gentiles - they agreed it was good news that everyone needs to hear. Full salvation was on offer to all through faith in Christ. As far as Paul was concerned, Peter’s beliefs were ‘gold-standard’, completely correct in every respect.

But trouble arose when Peter’s behaviour began to contradict his beliefs. On a visit to Antioch in Syria, Peter began to separate himself from the Gentile Christians there. Despite sharing the same faith as them, Peter began to eat apart from Gentile believers in Jesus. What’s worse “other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy - even Barnabas was led astray”.

As Paul explains in verse 12 today, Peter’s behaviour changed because he feared the “circumcision group”. Peer pressure caused him to be inconsistent. This ‘circumcision group; were false teachers who had arrived in Antioch and claimed that Gentile Christians had to get circumcised and follow the whole Jewish law to be acceptable before God. These teachers falsely claimed to come with the authority of the apostle James, and said faith in Jesus simply wasn’t enough to be saved. They said Gentile Christians needed to adopt all their Jewish laws and culture to be totally acceptable to God. They said that Jewish Christians like Peter should avoid Gentile Christians until they had adopted these things.

Hopefully you can see why Peter’s behaviour was so serious and so hypocritical. By separating himself from Gentile Christians, Peter’s behaviour was contradicting the Gospel and threatening to split the Church in two. Unity between Jewish and Gentile believers was on the line. No wonder Paul saw the need to stand up to Peter and publicly set him straight.

Paul tells us what words he said to Peter in our passage today. Words that can be summed up in two sentences: Firstly, Christians live by faith, not legalism; And secondly, living by faith is not a license to sin.

  1. Christians live by faith, not legalism

On Tuesday this week a jury delivered its verdict on the Hillsborough disaster. After examining all the evidence, they gave a full and final verdict on the causes of that tragedy. After 27 years, a verdict of unlawful killing was passed on the deaths of 96 Liverpool football fans at the 1989 FA Cup semi-final.

The Bible is clear that one day a verdict will be passed on all our lives. One day God will either acquit us or condemn us for our sin. The great news of the Christian Gospel is that we can be certain of acquittal if we have faith in Christ. If we are believers in the Lord Jesus, we can be sure our sins have been forgiven – all because of his death for us on the Cross.

The Bible doesn’t actually use the word “acquittal” to describe our salvation. It uses the word “justification”, which means much the same thing. To be justified is to be right with God, to be in his good books, to be a member of his forgiven family forever. It’s the word Paul uses several times in our passage today. For example, in verse 16 he says: “We know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ”.

We are justified by faith by Christ, not by observing the Jewish law or any other religious system. Justification is a gift from God, not something we could earn through pilgrimages, acts of penance, or any other religious or moral act. On our own, none of us could satisfy God’s perfect standards. Jesus’ sin-bearing sacrifice on the cross is the only way we can get right with God. As Paul puts it in verse 21 today: “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!

Hopefully none of that is new to you. God-willing you already believe this Gospel of grace. Its certainly would not have been news to Peter - its exactly the Gospel that he personally preached and believed.

But by separating himself from Gentile believers in this same Gospel, Peter was acting inconsistently. He claimed to have faith in Christ, but his actions suggested that things like circumcision and other Jewish religious rules were also necessary to make someone right with God. Peter was a Jew who had come to faith in Christ, but now seemed to be returning to religious law. Rather than being dead to the law, Peter was lapsing back into legalism.

Christians can fall into a similar trap today. We can succumb to legalism ourselves, or even try to impose it on other Christians:

  • For example, we may say we believe in Christ alone for our forgiveness and salvation, but in practice we may start putting our confidence in our church attendance, or our good deeds, our charitable giving and so on and so forth. None of those things are bad, of course, but we should never trust in them for our salvation.
  • Secondly, we should not impose unnecessary rules on fellow Christians - on fellow believers in the Gospel. We should show friendship and fellowship to all other followers of Jesus, and not expect them to adopt our dress sense, our musical tastes or our middle class culture before we will welcome them into our church or enjoy fellowship with them.

We shouldn’t make the same mistake Peter did in Antioch, and impose unnecessary laws on our Christian brothers and sisters. We are one family, united by faith in Christ alone.

  1. Living by faith is not a license to sin!

James Bond famously has a ‘license to kill’, doesn’t he? 007 apparently has the authority to shoot, blow up or otherwise exterminate his enemies. Whether they are in central London, on an exotic island or up in a space station, James Bond has permission to ‘finish off’ the madmen, terrorists and megalomaniacs who threaten the globe! 

In the movies James Bond has a license to kill, but in real life do Christians have a license to sin? Is it OK for people who believe in Jesus to behave any way they choose? You may think the answer is obvious, but one very common criticism of the Christian Gospel is that it seems to gives people an excuse to sin. Critics of Christianity say that if we are saved by faith alone, why bother to be good?

Paul voices this common objection in verse 17 today: “If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin?” And “Absolutely not!” is his forceful reply. Having become a Christian, Paul says we “live for God” not for ourselves. Living by faith in Christ is not a license to sin.

Just because Christians aren’t saved by our good deeds, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t bother to be good. Imagine I’m on holiday, and enjoying a pleasant swim in the sea. But suddenly I get caught in a rip-tide, get carried away from shore, and am in serious danger of drowning. Thankfully a lifeguard sees the peril I’m in, and ‘Baywatch’ style leaps into the surf to save me!

When we get back to the beach, how would I react to my rescue? Well, hopefully I would be enormously grateful! Hopefully I would express my thanks to the lifeguard, and tell all my family and fiends what he had done for me. And hopefully I would make a donation to the RNLI or a local coastguard charity. But what I wouldn’t do would be to dive straight back into the sea and swim back towards the riptide. That would be incredibly stupid and seriously ungrateful!

Its similar with sin and salvation. As Paul wrote in Galatians chapter 1, Jesus rescues Christians from sin. By his death on the Cross he has taken away the penalty we deserve for our sin, and shown us a better way to live. How foolish we would be to return to our past life – how ungrateful that would be to the Lord who loved us, and gave his life for us. If we’ve really grasped what Jesus has done for us, we will want to live to please him, to honour him. We will want to live and speak in a way that points people to him. We will want to obey his words in the Bible, and try to imitate his love, kindness and self-sacrifice.

What’s more, Paul reminds us in verse 20 today that Christ lives “in” every Christian. He lives within us by his Spirit, a Holy Spirit who will help us do good. A Holy Spirit who is changing our hearts to love what is good and run after what is right. A Holy Spirit who overtime will produce a fruit of love, joy, patience, kindness and goodness in our lives. Living by faith really is no license to sin!

Conclusion: Peter learnt his lesson!

As I finish this morning, you will be delighted to know that Peter learnt his lesson. His hypocrisy in Antioch was only a temporary lapse, not a permanent mistake. He took Paul’s advice and returned to full fellowship with Christian Gentiles. His inconsistency was corrected.

We know this because in just a short time later, back in Jerusalem, Peter stood up in front of his fellow apostles and a whole church council, and told them that Gentiles as well as Jews are saved by faith alone. You can read about it in Acts chapter 15. Peter told the Jerusalem Council that full fellowship between Christian Jews and Gentiles was correct because of their common faith in Christ. Consequently, a permanent split in the church was avoided, and the truth of the Gospel was preserved.

So thank God for Paul’s courage to confront Peter in Antioch. Because through him:

  • Peter learnt that we should never be diverted from our faith by fear of man. We should practice what we preach, even when it might be unpopular. Don’t let colleagues, contemporary society or the mass media lead you into unbiblical beliefs or behavior.
  • Peter was also reminded by Paul that we are justified by faith, not legalism. Our good deeds can’t save us – only Christ can.
  • And finally, Paul clarified in Antioch that living by faith is not a license to sin. If we’ve been saved by Christ we should live for him, and his Holy Spirit lives in us.