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Paul: The Spiritual Abolitionist, Part II (30)

November 15, 2009 Pastor: John Fonville Series: Galatians

Scripture: Galatians 2:11–2:21

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Paul: The Spiritual Abolitionist, Part II

Not Man’s Gospel!, Part 30


November 15, 2009

Text: Galatians 2:11-21




I. Paul Confronts Peter’s Contradiction of the Truth of the Gospel (2:11-13).


II. Paul Clarifies Peter’s Contradiction of the Truth of the Gospel (2:14-21).


A.            Paul’s Question, v. 14


B.            Paul’s Thesis, vv. 15-16


C.            Paul’s Defense, vv. 17-21


In his thesis, Paul denounced works so strongly his opponents (i.e., Judaizers) twisted his teaching to mean that works (obedience to the Law) have no place at all in the believer’s life. They charged that his gospel of grace encouraged men and women to disregard the law and continue in sin.

Therefore, in response to his critics, Paul offers 4 arguments in vv. 17-21 to show why a Christian who is justified is not given a license to sin but rather is motivated to live a life of grateful obedience unto God. The first three arguments are:


1. Christ doesn’t promote sin, legalism does. vv. 17-18

2. To live for God one must die to the law. v. 19

3. The love of Christ displayed in his life and death motivates the believer to live for God. v. 20


In v. 20, Paul states that Christ’s death was with reference to him and His life was with reference to him. Paul’s sin had become Christ’s and Christ’s righteousness had become Paul’s. The result of this great exchange is a life driven/motivated to live for God, “…the life I now live in the flesh (body) I live by faith in the Son of God…”

The believer’s obedience is secured by God’s love in Christ. As Paul writes in 2 Cor. 5:14, “For the love of Christ controls/compels us…” The gospel compels the believer to repent of sin and to live a life of obedience unto God.

A heart that is filled with a vital awareness of the Lord’s goodness will be the most inclined to spiritual duties. The gospel doesn’t lead us to be comfortable in our sin but to war against it!

This leads us to Paul’s fourth and final argument against the charge of license.




4. Legalism not grace nullifies the purpose of the cross. v. 21


Paul’s opponents falsely charged that his law-free gospel led to a misuse of the grace of God. There are two ways of nullifying God’s grace: License and Legalism. These are the two great tendencies of the human heart that always spring up in direct opposition to the truth of the gospel

License was the false charge brought against Paul. His opponents said that his law-free gospel encouraged people to disregard obedience to the law and continue living in sin so that grace may abound. However, Paul turns the tables and argues that it is not he but rather Peter, Barnabas, Jewish believers, the Judaizers and the Galatians who were nullifying the grace of God!

Legalism is the second way the grace of God is nullified. We nullify grace and distort the gospel whenever we place our trust in our performance rather than in Christ’s.

Going back to v. 20, legalism nullifies Christ’s life by adding an imperfect life to His perfect life for one’s standing before God. Legalism also nullifies Christ’s death (v. 20) by adding to His perfect sacrifice. In legalism, one’s own performance instead of Christ's performance (v. 20) serves as the basis for one’s acceptance with God.

Here then is the question Paul is raising:


Why would Christ become my substitute who loved me and gave Himself for me if justification comes by law rather than by faith alone?


This is the question that Paul poses to his opponents and it ends all debate!

Paul argues that if justification is even slightly based on our obedience to the law, Christ’s death was either unnecessary or insufficient for its stated purpose.

But, the gospel upholds the necessity, efficacy and sufficiency of Christ’s death. Christ did not die to no purpose.

Christ, Himself, taught the necessity of the cross, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised,” (Luke 9:22; emphasis mine).

While Jesus hung on the cross, He declared the efficacy and sufficiency of His atoning work, “It is finished,” (Jn. 19:30). All the work the Father had sent Him to accomplish (cf. 4:34; 9:4) was completed. There was no more penalty left to be paid for sins, no more work was needed.

The gospel teaches that there are no defects or lack of merit in either Christ’s life or death. His obedience in life and death were perfect and complete, needing no additions or supplementation. 

And so, Paul argues that Christ did not suffer, die (and rise again) to help us produce a righteousness in partnership with our own efforts.


“If I can make myself right with God by my own obedience to the law, why did Christ have to die?”

“What need is there of grace if works of the law are also needed for my justification before God?”


If our righteous standing before God is dependant upon what we do (i.e. works of the law such as dietary laws), then Paul argues that Christ died a needless death.

Verse 21 brings us to the essence of the controversy with Peter as well as the heart of this letter. It serves as a fitting conclusion to Paul’s argument. Concerning v. 21 and its importance to the whole letter, J. Gresham Machen writes,


“This verse is the key verse of the Epistle to the Galatians; it expresses the central thought of the Epistle. The Judaizers attempted to supplement the saving work of Christ by the merit of their own obedience to the law. ‘That,’ says Paul, ‘is impossible; Christ will do everything or nothing: earn your salvation if your obedience to the law is perfect, or else trust wholly to Christ’s completed work; you cannot do both; you cannot combine merit and grace; if justification even in slightest measure is through human merit, then Christ died in vain,” (Notes on Galatians, p. 161).


Christ will be and do everything or nothing. He is either totally sufficient or He isn’t. This is Paul’s final word!

The heart of Christianity consists of the grace of God and the death of Christ. Nullifying the grace of God, then, is no small sin.

Recall for a moment Christ’s response to Peter when Peter rebuked the Lord for declaring that He must suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised (Matt. 16:21-23).

Christ turned to Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man,” (Matt. 16:23).

Timothy George, in his commentary on Galatians, writes that all who seek to add their works to the cross of Christ for their right standing with God, “make a mockery of Jesus’ death just as the soldiers who spat upon Him, the thieves who hurled insults at Him, and the rabble who shouted, ‘Come down from the cross,’” (p. 201).

Jesus, through the apostle Paul, says to Peter, Barnabas, the assembled church in Antioch, the Galatians and to all today who would seek to add their works to Christ’s death on the cross: Get behind Me! You are a hindrance to Me justifying sinners!

Paul leaves us with a clear-cut choice, namely justification can be sought by grace or by works, Christ or self. The way of grace and the way of law are mutually exclusive.

There is no middle way. Both ways cannot be mixed without destroying the gospel (i.e., rendering needless the death of Christ).

The phrase, “Christ died,” is of paramount importance to the gospel. Christ’s death on the cross is at stake in the issue of justification. Legalism diminishes the purpose and sufficiency of Christ’s death.

The Bible states that Christ died on the cross to secure His people’s justification. In Isaiah 53, Isaiah writes that it pleased the Lord to crush Him. God took delight in Christ’s death on the cross. Why?

What pleases God is righteousness and the vindication of His righteousness. His law must be fulfilled and the penalty must be paid for God to be just in justifying sinners. Justice is served and grace is displayed at the Cross. In His life, Christ fulfilled the law on our behalf and in His death Christ paid the penalty for our sin, which the law demands.

Thus, Isaiah 53:11 says, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities,” (emphasis mine).

The cross is at the heart of justification and the Christian life (cf. Rom. 3:24; Gal. 2:20; 3:10-14). Clearly, the cross is the only means of justification.

The cross exalts grace and destroys self-righteous works. Moreover, it is also the sole motivation for sanctification.

Christ’s death breaks the bonds of legalism and at the same time purifies the soul from sin (i.e., license, it repudiates the suggestion that freedom from law means freedom to sin!). The cross frees us from condemnation and purifies us from corruption!

In v. 20, Paul established the fact that the more we daily live in a vital awareness of Christ’s life and death on our behalf (our legal union with Him), the more we are motivated to repent of sin and live for God.

The necessity of living in vital awareness of our legal union with Christ is of paramount importance in regard to our sanctification. For, if Christ is not a man’s sole righteousness, he will possess no strength to obey. Ralph Erskine writes,


“Then see the necessity of union to Christ, as the end of the law for righteousness, in order to freedom from the strength of sin. If Christ be the righteousness of any he is their strength also, and because he is their righteousness he is their strength, and both in a way of union to him, ‘Surely shall one say, in the Lord have I righteousness and strength,’ Isa. 45:24),” (“The Strength of Sin; And How The Law Is The Strength Thereof, Opened And Unfolded,” in The Works of Ralph Erskine, vol. 5, p. 508).


The Judaizer’s false gospel rendered pointless the death of Christ (Gal. 2:21) and thus undermined the foundation of the Christian faith and any genuine motivation to live for God.

John Stott writes,


“…if anybody insists that justification is by works, and that he can earn his salvation by his own efforts, he is undermining the foundations of the Christian religion. He is nullifying the grace of God (because if salvation is by works, it is not by grace) and he is making Christ’s death superfluous (because if salvation is our own work, then Christ’s work was unnecessary),” (Galatians, p. 66).


Paul opponents believed the cross was important but not totally sufficient for one’s right standing with God. But, Paul opposed the joining together of the cross and works.

If justification is partly due to our own imperfect efforts, even if they be sincere, Paul says there is no need for Christ’s death.

The sole reason Paul exalts faith and decries works in justification is because faith consists in mere reception and apprehension of Christ. The law was never, like faith, instrumental (i.e., receptive) to justification (cf. The Expositor’s Greek Testament, vol. 3, p. 166).

Faith is a self-emptying grace. Unlike works, faith directs a man to look outside of himself and to trust in Christ alone for his righteous standing before God.

Martin Luther writes,


“I refuse to look at anything except this Christ. He should be such a treasure to me that in comparison with Him everything else is filthy. He should be such a light to me that when I have taken hold of Him by faith, I do not know whether there is such a thing as Law, sin or unrighteousness in the world. For what is everything there is in heaven and on earth in comparison with the Son of God,” (Luther’s Works, vol. 26, p. 182).


What is everything there is in heaven and on earth in comparison with the Son of God? This is Paul’s argument to Peter and to us today.

The questions for us then are:


Am I growing in an increasing vital awareness and understanding of justification?

Does the truth of justification by faith alone grip and affect my daily life like it did for Paul?

Am I trusting in the life, death and resurrection of Christ as the sole basis for my standing with God?


Like Martin Luther let us say, “I refuse to look at anything except this Christ…What is everything there is in heaven and on earth in comparison with the Son of God?”


© John Fonville

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