Law or grace?


Read – Galatians 2:1-21

Paul loved God with his entire being. His entire life focused on Him, what He had done for Him and how Paul could serve Him. He was his Lord, his Saviour, his friend and his reason for living. And, furthermore, he knew that the changes that His Lord had made in him, He could make in others. If Jesus could instantaneously make changes in Paul's life, then He could instantaneously make similarly profound and life-changing effects in the lives of everyone else who was prepared to listen to the good news that he had been commissioned to preach.

Map of Paul's first missionary journey

This letter was written just after his first missionary journey, which took place during the period 46–48 AD in the region of Galatia (now part of modern-day Turkey). The purpose of the letter was to dispel some of the false teachings that had infiltrated the newly established, fledgling churches. Some people had arrived in the region and set about trying to take away the simplicity of the truth of the good news (gospel) by attempting to add extra requirements to the faith that Paul had taught them and which they had so gladly received.

We need to be careful today that people do not come to us and draw us away from the simple basis on which our faith is built. Think back for a moment to the time when you became a Christian. There was no fuss. You just asked Jesus to come into your life and you gave Him control. He responded and the joy and peace were tangible.

What is truth?

Just as it was in those days, so it is today. There is something in our human nature that makes us want to say, "but it just can’t be that simple". So when people arrive with things that complicate the simplicity as they obviously did here, then we tend to latch on to them just as the Galatians did. It is in our human nature (not our spiritual nature!) to want to achieve, to do something for God. The reality is that it has all been done. Jesus did all that was necessary on the cross and our relationship with God is complete. All we can ever do to sever that relationship is to intentionally, permanently, irrevocably and cold-heartedly turn away from Him.

In Galatians, chapter two, Paul continues to remind his readers of his background, re-establishing his credentials and reminding the Galatians of his commission and what lay behind it. In Galatians, chapter one, we read of his conversion to Christianity and his calling by none other than the risen Lord Jesus, followed by his early growth in faith, attested to by the reports that "the man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy". Now he recounts how, after fourteen years – probably from his conversion but, perhaps, from the first time he went to Jerusalem (Galatians 1:18-20) – he went up there again. On that occasion, he travelled from Antioch, accompanied by Barnabas (who had been his sponsor when he first went to Jerusalem and everyone had been frightened of this former scourge of the Christians) with Titus (with whom he had been teaching in Antioch) and some other believers.

Why did he go to Jerusalem a second time? We can discover the reason by reading about it in Acts, chapter fifteen. While Paul and Barnabas had been staying in Antioch, some men from Judea had arrived and begun to teach the believers that, unless they adhered to the ancient Jewish custom of circumcision, they could not be saved. Paul and Barnabas argued with them at length, before deciding to go to Jerusalem to talk to the apostles and elders there about this question. The entire congregation blessed them and sent them on their way. On the way, they visited the cities of Phoenicia and Samaria to see the believers there and tell them - much to everyone's joy - that the Gentiles, too, were being converted. (Acts 15:1-3)

Paul was zealous for those who had become Christians. He knew what Jesus had commissioned him to do: to preach the good news (gospel) to Gentiles. He also knew what he had been taught while he was alone with Jesus in Arabia. He therefore considered it an abomination that someone should come in from the outside and begin to destroy the work that he had so carefully begun. But sometimes - and we all know this - there can be that little niggle of doubt at the back of our minds. Something (or someone?) accuses us of being wrong, of not having heard correctly, so we think it might be useful to refer the subject to someone who has been a Christian much longer than us; someone that we and others trust. For whatever reason, Paul also decided that it would be worth getting a second opinion.

Keeping the pattern of sound teaching

It wasn’t just a question of Paul having "got it right". It was more fundamental than that. Not only had Paul and Barnabas established churches in almost every place they had been on their journey - basing their growth on their teaching of the truth as they understood it; within these churches (like the one at Antioch), they were teaching many people on a regular basis. What if their teaching was wrong, especially on a point such as circumcision being required in order to be saved? The consequences would have been far reaching indeed.

So Paul, encouraged by the other leaders of the church at Antioch (who also wanted to be sure of their grasp of the good news), set out for Jerusalem. His purpose was to see James, the Lord’s brother, who was considered to be the overall authority in the new movement known as "The Way". Paul took Barnabas and Titus along with him. (Galatians 2:1-2)

James had not always seen eye-to-eye with Jesus. In fact, on one occasion recorded by Matthew, James and his family had gone along to the place where Jesus was speaking one day and had not been made to feel welcome. (Matthew 12:46-50) But, after Jesus' death, things changed and now James, along with Peter and John, were the recognised leaders of "The Way". Paul and the others travelled via Phoenicia and Samaria to Jerusalem. As they went, they shared with other believers what the Lord had done through them, how the Gentiles had received the good news (gospel) and been converted. What rejoicing there was at this news! (You might also remember that there had been a spiritual revival in Samaria, when Philip went there to preach - as told in Acts, chapter four.)

When the group from Antioch arrived in Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church, together with the apostles and elders, to whom they reported everything that the Lord had done through them. This is a good practice for us to follow today: sharing with other believers what the Lord has done in our lives; how we have shared the good news with our friends and others and how they have responded, leading to their repentance and faith in Christ.

Sharing good news

How is it with you? Have you shared what the Lord has done in your life? Someone out there is just waiting to hear the good news of your testimony, so don’t just clam up because you think it is personal and private. That is not why Jesus saved you. You were born for a purpose; you have been saved for a purpose and those who respond to you (as you witness to the Lord by your life and your words) will become "crowns" with which to worship the Lord Jesus when you stand before Him in Heaven! (1 Thessalonians 4:19)

Who witnessed to you about Jesus, even when you didn’t want to know? God's word is truly life-changing, so we need to be prepared at any time to speak up for our wonderful Saviour. We need to be ready for His return and all our friends and relatives need to have heard the truth, backed up by our prayers for them. (Luke 12:35-48)

The question resolved

It was now the turn of the apostles and elders to consider the question about the need for circumcision as the pre-requisite to salvation for all believers. Peter shared his own experience of how the Lord had decided not to discriminate between the Jewish and Gentile peoples and how salvation was now for all who would truly turn to Jesus in faith. No doubt Peter was remembering the events of his meeting with Cornelius (the Roman centurion): how the Lord had told Cornelius to send for him; how Cornelius and his entire family had become Christians and how they had been baptised in the Holy Spirit. It was then time for Paul and Barnabas to tell the meeting about the signs and wonders that God had done among the Gentile people through them. After that, it was time for decisions to be made. (Acts 15:13-21)

James spoke for the entire assembly when he confirmed (by quoting from the book of Amos in the Old Testament scriptures) that God's purpose had always been to unite all humanity - Jewish and Gentile peoples - in seeking the Lord. The whole church, including elders and apostles, decided that the only requirements for non-Jewish people to observe in following Christ were to respect the common practices of not eating meat containing blood or food that had been offered to idols. They were also to avoid sexual immorality. The church in Jerusalem also confirmed the commission that Paul and Barnabas had received to take the good news to non-Jewish peoples whilst the other apostles and churches in Jerusalem would concentrate on preaching to the Jewish people. They all agreed that one final priority should be to "remember the poor".

Read Galatians 2:11-21

Paul now gives us a very interesting example of tensions within the early church. People in those days appear to have been very much like people today. It is very easy to say that, if you are a Christian, then this is the way you should behave. The Bible is very clear about what a believer should believe and how he or she should act. Unfortunately, we are human and tensions creep in from day to day. This is what happened in Paul's day and he gives us a clear example of what we today might call "double standards". There are many people today, especially on social media, who think it their calling to warn us of "false teachers" who are preaching the good news, but in a very different way to them. Jesus told us that the test we should use is: "by their fruit you shall know them". If we hear public criticism of a Christian leader, we need to check out their "fruit". God always looks on our hearts, not at the outward appearance.

The apostle, Peter, had visited Antioch. He was the disciple who first had the revelation that Jesus was the Christ, the "Messiah" (Anointed One) who, as foretold in the Old Testament, had been sent by God to be the redeemer of God's people. He was the son of the living God. Antioch in Syria (distinguished from another town called Antioch in Pisidia) was a major trade centre in the ancient world. Heavily populated by Greeks, it eventually became a strong centre of Christian faith. In Antioch, the believers were first called "Christians". (Acts 11:26) Indeed, Antioch in Syria became the headquarters for the Gentile church and was Paul's base of operations.

So, when Peter visited Antioch, it would have been expected that he would treat the Gentile believers just as he would the Jewish believers. Apart from their cultural histories, there was essentially no difference between them. The "Council of Jerusalem" had actually resolved that very issue. The Lord had poured out His Holy Spirit on the Gentiles just as He had on the Jewish people. To begin with, there was no problem. Peter and the Syrian believers had no issues. They got on together just fine. But then, certain people came from Jerusalem...

These people were associates of James and would have been known to Peter; that is where the problem occurred. Peter reverted to following Jewish traditions, only eating with the Jewish people and implying that the Gentile believers were "unclean". He appeared to reject his newfound associates from Antioch, preferring the company of the Jewish group who, incidentally, were referred to specifically as the "circumcision group". This made it very clear what their particular beliefs were: that, in addition to being saved by grace, you had to be circumcised, thus following the Jewish religious law. As a result, even Barnabas was thrown into turmoil.

The "Judaisers" accused Paul of watering down the gospel to make it easier for Gentile believers to accept, while Paul accused the "Judaisers" of nullifying the truth of the gospel by adding conditions to it. The basis of salvation was the issue: is salvation available through Christ alone, or does it come through Christ and adherence to the law? The argument came to a climax when Peter, Paul, the "Judaisers" and some Gentile Christians all gathered together in Antioch to share a meal. Peter probably thought that by staying away from the Gentile believers, he was promoting harmony. He did not want to offend James and the Jewish Christians. (James had a very prominent position and presided over the Jerusalem council). But Paul stood up publicly and charged Peter with violating the good news (of salvation by grace alone) through his actions. By joining the "Judaisers", Peter was implicitly supporting their claim that Christ's death was not sufficient for salvation. Compromise is an important element in getting along with others, but we should never compromise the truth of God's word.

The problem appeared to be a clear case of double standards. Peter was acting like a hypocrite and Paul told him so. He uses this example to show the Galatians the difference between Judaism and Christian faith and to demonstrate that you cannot be a Christian believer and then add legal requirements to it. You either trust in God's grace or not. There is no class system in Christian society. You do not get extra points by adhering to some human system that adds to what God has already done.


The Jewish people had discovered from experience that you cannot attain righteousness by keeping the religious law. If you choose to live under the law and trust in its provisions, then you have to keep every part of it and this had proved to be impossible. If you wish to prove it to yourself, just read the "Ten Commandments" (Exodus 20:1-17) followed by Jesus’ interpretation of it. (Matthew 5:27-30) You cannot be justified by the law. It is only by grace that we are saved. That is God’s free gift to us. Just like any gift, we have to accept it for what it is - a free gift - and we have to say, simply: "Thank you" to the giver. It cost Jesus everything to go to the cross for us. His life was given for you, me and every other person in the world - past, present and future. We have to just accept it and rest there. We can add nothing to His sacrifice. It is complete, absolute.

Someone may say: "but what if I then sin?" Yes, we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God. That is why the Bible tells us that, if we sin, we must confess it immediately. (1 John 1:8-10) Bear in mind that, when we confess our sin is not when God first finds out about it! When you and I ask Jesus to take control of our lives, He promises never to leave us nor forsake us. So when we commit whatever sin it may be, we take Jesus with us every step of the way! Thank God that He has made a way for us to be honest and face up to sin. We can also give thanks that Jesus' sacrifice on the cross is more than enough for us to be restored to fellowship again. No shame! This is God’s simple plan: that we have fellowship with Him and He calls us His friends. (John 15:13-17)

Grace or Law?

It is so important that we make the choice to walk by faith, remembering all that Jesus accomplished for us through His death on the cross. We must not try to add anything to our salvation, but simply say "thank you" for our relationship with Him. The following passage makes a wonderful daily confession and, for me personally, is my favourite from the whole book of Galatians.

"I have been crucified with Christ and I myself no longer live, but Christ lives in me. And the real life I now have within this body is a result of my trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not one of those who treats Christ's death as meaningless. For, if we could be saved by keeping Jewish laws, then there was no need for Christ to die." (Galatians 2:20-21)

Thus, Paul has begun to teach his readers about the difference between grace and law. Grace can be described as "God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense" because, without Jesus' sacrifice - His death in our place - we would be condemned to eternal separation from God. Moreover, the basis for that condemnation would have been our own failure to keep the law. God gave us the law, but His intention was this:

"Until Christ came, we were guarded by the law, kept in protective custody, so to speak, until we could believe in the coming Saviour. Let me put it another way: the Jewish laws were our teacher and guide until Christ came to give us right standing with God through our faith. But now that Christ has come, we don't need those laws any longer to guard us and lead us to him." (Galatians 3:23-25)

But more of that in a future module...


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