How Not to Nullify the Grace of God
Christians believe we are saved by grace, but by our lives we can nullify that grace. This passage shows us how not to.
Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
Amazon is a large and powerful corporation, and one reason it seems they’ve been able to sustain success is because they are often improving their services. One area they’ve improved in recent years is their return process. It’s so easy, especially with the Whole Foods drop-off option. But when you do a return, they do still ask you for the reason for your return. One of the options is, “Product no longer needed.” At one point, when you bought it, you thought you needed it, but now by checking that box, you’re saying you don’t. In the passage on which we’re focusing today, we’re going to see that it’s possible to do that same thing with the grace of God. Grace is God’s unmerited favor. So it’s God favoring you, blessing you in some way, when you don’t deserve it. Part of what makes Christians Christians is we acknowledge that we need God’s grace, God’s unmerited favor, in order for us to be saved from His judgment. Paul and Peter, the two main characters in this passage, both believed that. But by Peter’s actions, he was suggesting that this “product”, God’s grace, was no longer needed. In verse 21 Paul calls this “nullifying the grace of God,” and he shares this story with us so that we will not do that. So do not nullify the grace of God, and we learn from this passage three things we must do to not nullify the grace of God: Welcome those who believe, remember why we believed, and live by faith, not by works.
Welcome those who believe
Our passage begins with Paul’s story of his interaction with Peter in Antioch (Cephas is another name for Peter). Just prior to this, which we looked at last week, Paul showed that Peter, James, and John agreed with the gospel he preached. Now, however, we’ll see that his gospel also had authority over those apostles. It had authority over Paul: He said in chapter 1 that if even he should preach a gospel contrary to the one he’d preached to the Galatians at first, he was to be accursed. Here we see it’s also authoritative over Peter, although Peter wasn’t preaching a different gospel; rather, he was living in a way that was out of step with the truth of the gospel.
At some unspecified time, verse 11 tells us that Peter came to Antioch. When he first arrived, he was eating with the Gentiles, and before we go any further, let me try to explain the significance of that. In in the ancient world, eating with someone carried connotations that are even stronger than those of today. Even today, it is a somewhat intimate thing to have someone into your home to share a meal with them. In a restaurant, you may eat at a table next to a total stranger, but you wouldn’t feel free to just sit at the same table as the total stranger. And, if a family wants to cut someone out, what do they do? They forbid them from coming to Thanksgiving dinner or whatever other holiday might be significant to that family. Eating with someone communicates acceptance of them. That’s still true today, but just realize that it was even more so the case in the ancient world.
It was also a central part of the ancient church’s life together. In the book of Acts, as soon as we read of the first converts to Christianity, once they’re baptized, here are the very first things we read of them doing: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42). The first and last items in that list hopefully come as no surprise: They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching; i.e., they listened to their preaching and teaching constantly. They devoted themselves to the prayers: They prayed together a lot. Then there’s the fellowship, which probably refers to the sharing of their possessions, and right after it? The breaking of bread. One of the basic things the early Christians did together was they ate together. In fact, Jesus even commanded his churches to eat a certain meal together which we call the Lord’s Supper.
And the Lord’s Supper was not open to just anyone. Jesus gave that meal specifically to his disciples, and so we see even in the records we have of the early church after biblical times that outsiders were welcome at the gatherings of the church, but when it was time to take the Lord’s Supper, they were forbidden from taking. The door was open to them; all were invited to come to Christ. But they couldn’t partake of the Lord’s Supper without actually walking through the door, by believing in Christ. So, when Peter came to Antioch, he ate with the Gentile Christians because they had all walked through the same door: They had all professed faith in Christ. That made sense for Peter as a Christian, but it was a radical departure from his life as a Jew. For the very reason that eating with someone communicates acceptance of them, Jews did not typically eat with Gentiles, which is just a word for non-Jews. There was a concern they had related to God’s law: Certain foods were unclean for Jews to eat, so they didn’t want to risk doing that by eating with Gentiles who ate those unclean foods. There was a concern even for the cookware: If a Gentile had cooked unclean food in a certain pot, the Jews felt they couldn’t eat even clean food from that pot. And then there was kind of a folk-level sense that not only was much Gentile food unclean, but the Gentiles themselves were unclean in a way the Jews were not, and so better to just not eat with them at all.
Hopefully you can now see why it was such a big deal, both for Peter to initially eat with the Gentiles, and then for Peter to stop doing so. By eating with the Gentiles at first, he was likely eating foods God declared unclean in the Old Testament law, and he was communicating not only that he accepted the Gentiles, but that God did. So verse 12 tells us certain men came down from James, another of the Jerusalem apostles, ostensibly because they had concern about this practice of Peter’s. And then, not out of any change in theological conviction, but simply out of fear of this group of people called the circumcision party, Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles. We don’t know who this circumcision party is, but their name suggests that they required Gentiles to be circumcised before they would say that God had accepted them, and therefore before they would accept them. And that was the problem with these Gentiles Peter was eating with: Though they’d become Christians, they were still Gentiles! They hadn’t been circumcised.
So out of fear of them, Peter stopped eating with the Gentiles. And many were led astray with him, including Barnabas, another leader in the early church. So Paul rebuked him to his face, publicly in front of all. And we learn what Paul’s issue with this course of action was in verse 14. He says he saw that their conduct was “not in step with the truth of the gospel.” Isn’t that interesting? He doesn’t say their conduct was disobedient to God’s commands, though it was. Instead, though, he says it wasn’t in step with the truth of the gospel. And that’s interesting because the gospel isn’t a command; it’s news about what Jesus did for us so that we could be accepted by God. We’ll see in a moment that it means we are accepted by God, welcomed by God, or justified in his sight, through faith alone in Christ alone. Therefore, for Peter to not accept, to not welcome Gentiles to eat with him, was not in step with the truth of the gospel. And Paul points this out to Peter with respect to himself: He basically says in verse 14, “You haven’t been keeping the Jewish food laws, and you’re Jewish! How then can you require the Gentiles to obey the Jewish law before you’ll accept them?”
Peter proclaimed the true gospel; we saw that last week. But here he didn’t live in step with it. His actions communicated a different gospel. With his lips he said we are accepted by God through faith alone in Christ alone, but with his actions he said you must circumcised to be saved. We learn from this that who we welcome, who we accept, who we eat with, can either be in step with the gospel or out of step with the gospel. This is one reason it’s important for churches to be intentional about their membership practices, and therefore who they admit to the Lord’s Supper. If the membership requirements add substantially to a credible profession of faith in Christ, they are out of step with the gospel, because they communicate to people that to be accepted by God you need something more than faith alone in Christ alone. So to give a somewhat famous and analogous example to this one, do you know why the “black church” as we call it exists in America today? Because the white leadership of churches either prohibited black folks from church leadership, or in some cases, from church membership. That conduct was not in step with the gospel, because it communicated that some were accepted by God in part because of their whiteness, while others could not be accepted by God because they weren’t white.
On the other hand, to not require a credible profession of faith in Christ for membership is also not in step with the gospel, because the gospel message is not that all will be saved, whether they believe or not. So in our membership process and when we serve the Lord’s Supper, we make clear that you must be trusting in Jesus to partake. And this is one of the reasons to come to church: So that you can welcome those who believe by eating with them. Don’t miss the significance of that. Consider also who you eat with throughout the week. Who you welcome can be either in step with the gospel or out of step with the gospel. So if you’re a member of this church with others, but the only people within the church you eat with, like hang out with, are people who are just like you, consider: is that in step with the gospel?
And ethnicity is still one of the clearest places to see this. So our church, according to the standard sociological definition, is multi-ethnic, because no one ethnic group makes up more than 80% of the membership of the church. Yet it’s possible for a church to be measurably multi-ethnic, while the members within that church still cluster exclusively to others in their own ethnic group. It’s possible for a church to appear very diverse on Sunday, while if you took a snapshot of their dinner tables throughout the week, you’d actually see a black church, a white church, an Asian church, and so on, that just happen to gather on Sundays. So take stock of your relationships. Consider not just who you’re nice to, but your inner ring, who you eat with. Are they all the same ethnicity as you? If so, what is that communicating about the gospel? If you only accept those who are white or those who are black or those who are Asian, it communicates that God only accepts such people. Do not nullify the grace of God in that way. People of every ethnic background can be accepted by God through faith in Christ. So welcome those who believe into your life. When you’re thinking about who to go out to lunch with after church, or who to invite over for dinner, try inviting someone of a different ethnicity half the time, or if ethnicity isn’t so much your issue, invite someone of a different marital status, a different socioeconomic class, a different age range, with different hobbies, and so forth. To refuse to do so is to nullify the grace of God in which you say you believe. To not do that, though, you must remember why we believed in the first place.
Remember why we believed
Now in the ESV Bible, there’s an end quote at the end of verse 14. However, Greek, the language in which this book was originally written, didn’t have quotation marks. So we have to decide from context where the quote actually ends, and along with many commentators, I think it’s best to see the quote ending at the end of verse 21, where Paul clearly turns and addresses the Galatians again in 3:1. So, viewing verse 15 as an ongoing address to Peter, it makes sense: Paul says to Peter that he and Paul are both Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners. Here Paul isn’t intending to imply that Gentiles are sinful in God’s sight while Jews by birth were not; he’s speaking more of their status in the eyes of the community. So here, among the Jews, among people like those who came down from James and the circumcision party, the Gentiles, being born without God’s law, are viewed as sinners.
And yet, Paul says, even me and you, Peter, who were born Jews, who have the law, we know, verse 16, that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also, though we are Jews by birth, we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified. This is the first time the word justified has appeared in Galatians. It appears again throughout the book and is central to the whole book. The key point of dispute between Paul and the false teachers influencing the churches of Galatia was this: How is one justified? Is it through faith alone in Christ alone, as Paul contends, or is to through faith in Christ plus circumcision?
It’s important, then, that you know what justification is. I used the words “accept” or “welcome” in the first point because they’re a little more familiar today, but the central issue here is really justification. To be justified is to be declared righteous. So in the Old Testament, for example, we read of a court case, and the judge’s job is to justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. The judge doesn’t make them righteous or wicked; he declares them to be such by justifying the righteous and condemning the wicked. So Peter, in refusing to eat with the Gentiles, was declaring them wicked. In the context of Galatians, though, the ultimate judge is no mere human; it’s God Himself. Galatians 3:11 speaks explicitly of being justified before God. So we could rephrase verse 16 this way: We know that a person is not declared righteous in God’s sight by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Jesus, in order to be declared righteous in God’s sight by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, for by works of the law no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight.
Now that’s a pretty crazy statement if you think about it. God is just, so wouldn’t you think that exactly the way to be declared righteous by God the just judge would be to keep God’s law? Wouldn’t you think that it would be those who do the works of God’s law who will be declared righteous in God’s sight? Paul says no. He says, rather, that it is those who have faith in Christ who will be declared righteous in God’s sight. We’re going to see more next week why this is the case, but to give a little preview: No one can be justified in God’s sight by works of the law because none of us have actually done what the law requires. So under the law, we stand condemned, and would be declared wicked if it were all we had. But Christ was born under the law, obeyed it on our behalf, suffered the condemnation we deserved on the cross, and then was justified, declared righteous on the basis of his own obedience, when God raised him from the dead. So now, the way we can be declared righteous in God’s sight is by receiving and resting on him alone. When we do that, our sins are forgiven because Jesus already suffered the condemnation they deserve for us, and the verdict of righteous that was pronounced over him is now pronounced over us, because we are one with him. Just as Kate Middleton was declared royalty the moment she married Prince William, because he was royalty, though she was not royal in herself, so we are declared righteous the moment we are united with Christ, because he is righteous, though we are not righteous in ourselves. That’s why the gospel manifests the grace of God, why we say we are saved by grace: We are declared righteous apart from our merits, and thus receive unmerited favor.
So Paul is appealing to Peter essentially saying, “You know this!” I mean, if the way to be declared righteous in God’s sight was by doing the works of the law, Peter and Paul had that! They were Jews by birth, they were circumcised, they had the law. But even they believed in Jesus in order to be declared righteous in God’s sight. They believed they were saved by grace, yet now Peter is nullifying that grace by suggesting, through his actions, that the Gentiles must be justified by works of the law such as circumcision, the very works of the law Peter himself stopped trying to be justified through. Though Peter was declared righteous through faith in Christ, he was unwilling to declare the Gentiles righteous unless they did works of the law such as circumcision.
This is ultimately why Christians believe in Jesus. One of the ways to summarize what makes us Christians is these words of verse 16: “We have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ.” Notice, Paul doesn’t say, “We have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be fulfilled by faith in Christ, or in order to feel loved by faith in Christ, or in order to gain a purpose in life by faith in Christ, in order to feel secure by faith in Christ, or in order to be healed of my past trauma by faith in Christ, or in order to be free from my addiction by faith in Christ, or in order to start living a morally upright life by faith in Christ.” Things like that may get you started exploring the Christian faith; that’s certainly part of my story. But you should not assume that you’ve actually become a Christian until you’ve recognized that you are a sinner in the sight of God, who has no hope of being declared righteous in God’s sight by your own efforts, and who therefore has put your faith in Jesus, in order to be justified, as verse 16 puts it. That’s the ultimate reason to believe in Jesus. Do I think believing in Jesus leads to a more fulfilling life, a deeper sense of security, healing from the pain you’ve experienced in life, and so forth? Yes. But those are more so fruits of the gospel than they are the heart of the gospel. Because the heart of our problem is not that we are unfulfilled, insecure, or even that we’ve been sinned against. The heart of our problem is that we’ve sinned against a just God, and need to be declared righteous in his sight, or we will face his condemnation. And therefore we believe in Christ, ultimately, in order to be justified, declared righteous in God’s sight, through faith in him. That’s where the grace of God shines forth. Do not nullify the grace of God by confusing the fruits of the gospel with the gospel itself.
Consider the implications of this for how you share the gospel as well. It’s easy to feel today like your unbelieving friends aren’t really concerned with how they can be declared righteous in God’s sight, so you kinda have to “sell” Jesus to them some other way. But it should not surprise us that unbelievers aren’t concerned about being declared righteous in God’s courtroom; that’s part of their problem. However, we shouldn’t conclude from that there is no use telling them about how to be declared righteous in God’s sight. To do so assumes that God cannot change them, and that’s not true. We aren’t car salesman, who have to figure out some way to appeal to the existing desires of our customers. We are witnesses, who proclaim the gospel, and then leave it to God to change the desires of our hearers. And God does that sometimes! Why do any of us believe after all? How many of us can testify that before we did, we cared little about whether we were righteous in God’s sight? Yet God, by his grace, woke us up, and he can do that in the lives of your unbelieving friends. So sure, in the process of sharing the gospel, you may talk about fulfillment or identity or security or healing or a host of other things, but don’t nullify the grace of God by being afraid to share the actual gospel: We aren’t fulfilled, we’re insecure, our lives are purposeless because we are sinners under the curse of a just God, but God has made a way for us to be declared righteous in his sight through faith in His Son.
And just as it’s easy to think our unbelieving friends won’t really be interested in such a message, it’s easy for us to think we no longer need such a message. We believed this already, right? Paul speaks in the past tense in verse 16: We have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ. Yet Paul felt a need to remind Peter of this, and we need to be reminded of this too, whether the hour we first believed was an hour ago, or decades ago, because we are all prone, like Peter, to get out of step with the gospel. So when you recognize there is actually a group of people within the church who you don’t eat with, don’t just start beating yourself up over it. Don’t just say, “Dang; now I kinda feel like a racist, and nobody wants to be a racist. What am I going to do?” Remember why you believed. Remember, “I believed in Jesus because I didn’t believe I could be declared righteous by my ethnicity. So how can I now only declare righteous those of a certain ethnicity?”
I spent much of my younger years trying to be justified by cool-ness. I wasn’t trying to be justified in God’s sight; I believed in God, but I was relatively indifferent to him. But if you aren’t trying to be justified in God’s sight, you will look to be justified in someone’s sight. That’s one of the reasons, by the way, that this truly is relevant to all of your unbelieving friends and to you. Part of our human condition is that we are all looking to be justified before someone. We can’t escape the fact that we are guilty in God’s sight, and that we need to be declared righteous. But we turn from Him and worship idols instead, the most common of which is people, or some group of people. For me it was the people in my school I perceived as cool. I needed them to declare me righteous, to accept me, so I tried to be justified by works of their law: Whatever they deemed cool. And even after God saved me by showing me that I was ultimately guilty in his sight and could only be declared righteous in his sight through faith in Christ, not by works of any law, I often only “ate with” those I deemed to be “cool” Christians. My conduct was not in step with the gospel. I was nullifying the grace of God, and I needed to remember why I believed in the first place. I believed in the first place because I realized I couldn’t be declared righteous by my coolness; how then could I only declare righteous those I deemed cool?
Citylight Center City, remember why we believed. When you do, when it really sinks in, it changes not just who you welcome, but every area of your life, because you begin to live by faith, not by works. That’s where Paul goes next.
Live by faith, not by works
So in verse 17, Paul considers an objection: If as Paul and Peter are seeking to be justified by Christ, they are found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? This seems to be another accusation that the false teachers were making against Paul, or perhaps that the men who came down from James and the circumcision party were making against Peter. Remember in verse 15 Paul talked about “Gentile sinners”? But in their endeavor to be justified in Christ, what were Paul and Peter doing? Remember verse 14? They were living like Gentile sinners! So has Christ then made them sinners by freeing them to eat with the Gentiles, and even eat unclean foods? Certainly not, Paul says. For, verse 18: If Paul were to rebuild the law he tore down, then we would be a transgressor. In other words, you can only transgress the food laws if the food laws still stand. But Paul, and all Christians, tore down that method of justification when they instead believed in Jesus in order to be justified. Indeed, verse 19: Through the law he died to the law, so that he might live to God.
So he says in verse 20, a somewhat famous verse among many Christians today: I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. The life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. Notice the personal pronouns; this is what it’s like when you really know Jesus: He didn’t just love us and give himself for us. He loved me and gave himself for me, Paul says, and you can too if you are in Christ. In saying that Christ now lives in him, Paul is saying that who he formerly was is now dead, and through the Holy Spirit, he has a new love for God and others that compels him to live to God. The very things that compelled Christ now compel him, because Christ is in him by the Spirit. So he lives to God now, not ultimately because the law tells him to, but because Christ is in him. Instead of living by works of the law, he now lives by faith in the Son of God, who loved him and gave himself for him. In other words, he lives by faith that he is declared righteous before God because of the Son of God, not by works of the law. So he doesn’t try to observe the food laws or require others to be circumcised before he’ll eat with them, because he doesn’t want to rebuild what he tore down. He doesn’t want to nullify the grace of God and begin trying to be justified by works of the law or communicate to others that they must be justified by works of the law. If that were the case, he concludes by saying, then Christ died for no purpose!
There is no “both/and” option. If you’re in Christ, you’re dead to the law. Don’t rebuild what you tore down. Don’t nullify the grace of God. You might want to say, and Peter seems to have kinda been saying, “I believe in Jesus, but I also want to play it safe and keep the law, just in case I also need that to be justified.” That’s not living by faith. It suggests that you aren’t actually quite sure that Christ did enough for your justification. Now what’s the alternative? When you become a Christian you go murder, steal, lie, and so forth, because the law commands those things, and you don’t want to nullify the grace of God? No; remember verse 19: Through the law I died to the law, in order that I might live to God, not in order that I might live to my flesh. Living to God is true freedom! That’s living “unburdened” as we’ve titled this series. And in that sense, the law is still a help to you, not as the way of justification, but as a guide, to show you how to live to God.
The contrast, then, between living by works and living by faith is not the contrast between trying to obey God, as though that’s living by works, and simply having positive feelings about God while you do whatever you want, as though that’s living by faith. The contrast is more like this: When you’re living by works, you don’t really love God. But you want to feel righteous, so you try to keep the law, especially the parts that are kinda easier to keep: So you do a good job eating only the right foods, but your pride is running wild, though God’s law forbids that too. You even keep parts of the law that aren’t even binding anymore, like the food laws, which Jesus himself abolished. But you never can be too sure, you know. When you’re living by works, you’re always afraid you aren’t doing enough, so more rules are actually welcomed: You’ll often feel bound to do things or the Bible hasn’t commanded or to not do things the Bible permits. More rules are attractive to you, because they give you more ways to feel righteous while covering up the fact that you aren’t righteous. They’re ways you try to convince yourself that you’re righteous, because deep down you can’t actually be sure God has declared you righteous. And since you aren’t sure of that, you’ll be really susceptible to false teachers. You’ll feel a need for them to declare you righteous, even when they tell you you have to do things God hasn’t commanded in Scripture. And under the surface, sin grows and festers, never really dealt with because you’re so afraid to admit you are a sinner, and you’re so busy covering up your sinfulness with works of the law.
Living by faith, on the other hand, starts with admitting that you’re a sinner, and therefore you can’t be justified by works of the law. It starts with admitting that if you are judged under the law, you are justly condemned. But you don’t stop there; instead you believe that Jesus lived a righteous life under the law, suffered its condemnation, and was justified when he rose from the dead, and so you personally choose to trust him in order to be justified in him, and not by works of the law. And then, because you are one with him, you start to live to God. You obey the weightier matters of the law, love to God, love to neighbor. You begin to live in step with the gospel. You welcome those God has welcomed by grace, because he welcomed you by grace. You no longer steal, but rather you work hard and give your money away because you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. You no longer get so angry with people because you know that though God had every right to be angry with you, He sent his son to love you and give himself for you. Husbands, you love your wives because Christ loved you and gave himself up for you. Wives, you submit to your husbands out of submission to Christ, because you know now that his authority is a loving one. You do not covet what God has given to another because Jesus loved you, and gave himself for you, rather than taking from you.
If you’re here today and you’ve not believed, believe in order to be justified. And to all of who you do, remember why you do. Do not nullify the grace of God. We believe we’ve been declared righteous by faith alone. So declare righteous those who have faith in Christ, apart from their works, regardless of how they are different from you, by welcoming them into the membership of our church, taking the Lord’s Supper with them, and welcoming them into your home. And not only in that area of your life, but in every area, keep in step with the gospel. Live by faith in the Son of God, who loved you and gave himself for you.