The lesson this week picks up in the middle of a public confrontation. Paul, apostle to the Gentiles, is confronting Peter, apostle to the Jews, over his hypocritical behavior. Paul does the right thing insofar as he confronts Peter to his face, having seen that he and others were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel. A group of men promoted the false teaching that Gentiles had to become Jews before they could become believing Christians. This had caused confusion leading the Galatians into the error of thinking that they had to follow Jewish practices and customs, in particular the practice of circumcision in order to become right with God. Paul asks Peter “If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?” (Gal. 2:14b) Paul is emphatic in his response to this question. The central message of Galatians 2, which continues this week, is that the Gospel is received through faith in Jesus Christ. Nothing else. What the Galatians needed to understand, what all Christians need to understand today is that following Christ is not based on obedience to the works of the law. The followers of Christ are saved by the grace of God through faith.
Justification by Faith
The subject of justification by faith is not a mere afterthought in Paul’s writings. It permeates this thought. So much so that, Martin Luther was deeply and personally influenced by his discovery of the idea that is developed in the Pauline writings. That we are justified by faith in what Christ has done, became the catch-cry of the sixteenth century Reformation. Rejecting the idea that we are saved via the sale of indulgences, or the stock piling of our own meritorious works, or even commitment to the law, Luther came to realize that his own efforts did not bring him closer to God. Could it be true that Seventh-day Adventists may pride themselves on keeping the law, the Ten Commandments, without understanding the gospel? Can they excel at Sabbath-keeping, using it as a standard by which to judge others and yet fail to understand that we are justified by faith alone? Are Paul’s words in Galatians for us as well?
Paul presents his argument regarding justification by faith in his letter to the Galatians. His goal is to teach them how to live by the gospel truth. That is why he writes to them about his confrontation with Peter in Antioch. Why share about a fight, a controversy unless it bears direct relevance? Notice how he sets up the argument. He reminds Peter that he, Paul, was raised a Jew. He identifies with his perspective even as he tells him of his error. In verse 15 he says, “We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles.” Those who are raised Jews live according to the law. Those who are raised strictly are observant of the laws of Moses, and the laws of the Old Testament. But this is not enough to save. What does he mean to be a Jew by nature? The answer is found in the following verse: “knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law; for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:16). The appeal to Peter is made on the basis of the common knowledge that no one is saved by keeping the law. It has never been the case that what believers do is the basis of making them right before God. This is true of the Old Testament as much as it is true in the New Testament. Nobody is justified by doing the “works of the law.” This is fundamental to Paul’s teaching.
The danger has arose in Adventist history, as the lesson this week points out, that Adventists have taught justification without Christ. Ellen White wrote about this in great depth, as she was concerned that Adventists had become too focused on the law, and on the Sabbath, at the expense of preaching the good news of Jesus Christ.
“The danger has been presented to me again and again of entertaining, as a people, false ideas of justification by faith. I have been shown for years that Satan would work in a special manner to confuse the mind on this point. The law of God has been largely dwelt upon and has been presented to congregations, almost as destitute of the knowledge of Jesus Christ and His relation to the law as was the offering of Cain.” (Ellen G. White, Faith and Works, 18).
So for years, Adventist ministers and Adventists promoted incorrect views about the law and Christ. It sounds like these Adventists needed to embrace the gospel. White further states, “Salvation is through faith in Jesus Christ alone” (White, Faith and Works, 19). A thorough study of the gospel of Jesus Christ was what was needed then, and it might be exactly what many Adventists need more than anything else at this time.
Crucified with Christ: The Church no longer lives but Christ lives in the Church
Paul’s concept of justification by faith includes far more than intellectual assent. It encompasses the entire life of the believer, including thought, action, and feeling. Looking at it from a corporate perspective, it is Christ living in the community of believers, evidenced by the deep love they have for one another that marks the Christian church. The breadth of this concept is summarized in his famous phrase, Galatians 2:20: “I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
While salvation is a personal matter, its expression in the life of the faith community will give evidence of this relationship on a global scale. It is significant then that Paul confesses to the Galatians that he died to the law (Gal. 2:18b). The law had been his source of pride. Prior to meeting Christ on the road to Damascus, Paul had served the law. He lived, persecuted, and died in what he thought was obedience to God through the law. But now, after meeting Christ through revelation, he knows the truth: it’s not all about the law; it’s all about Jesus Christ. In their rush to follow the legalistic Jewish believers who taught false doctrine, the Galatians had become confused about the gospel.
Others have distorted the gospel by using Galatians 2:20 to support a kind of extreme view of the self. Dying to self is falsely interpreted to mean, that in union with Christ, the individual merges with God and ceases to exist a separate entity. In past history, mystics have quoted Galatians 2:20 to support the idea that the highest attainment a Christian can reach is to completely lose oneself in God. Like a drop of water that disappears into an ocean, so the human personality becomes lost, or loses consciousness in union with Christ. But Paul is not arguing that he has lost his self or his consciousness. Rather, it is his identity that is firmly grounded in Christ. It’s not about losing his God-given personality. It is Christ in Him that enables him to live by faith. This comes at a cost: we must die to self and live to God. That is what Paul had to do. That is what Christ did on this earth and it is demonstrated most fully and clearly at the Cross. There’s nothing wrong with striving to love and serve God and others, but not if it is based on self-achievement. Becoming a follower of Christ through a journey of repentance and faith is like learning to breathe.
Learning to breathe: Accepting what Christ has done
Where I come from, in Australia, kids learn to swim at a young age. In fact, infants often learn to swim before they can walk. If a kid cannot swim by a certain age, it’s kind of embarrassing. Well, I struggled to learn to swim. My mother took me to plenty of swim lessons. I loved to dive under the water and hold my breath (which used to drive her crazy as she always imagined I was drowning). I could dog paddle, do backstroke, and swim with a kickboard. But I struggled with freestyle. The problem was, I couldn’t coordinate my breathing. I could manage everything else, but I could not breathe. Every time I needed to take a breath, I would stop, stand up in the water, splutter and choke a little, catch my breath, and then keep going. My swim instructors (and I had several at different swim centers) were frustrated with me. “Keep going, don’t stop,” they would yell from the sidelines. This one tiny detail messed up my attempts to get from one end of the pool to the other.
It was not until our car broke down and was towed to a small town in country Victoria called Gundagai where we spent several days waiting for our 1976 Volvo to get fixed that I experienced a breakthrough. We stayed in a small motel, and ate out in the evenings. To decrease my boredom, my mother gave me some felt, a needle and thread and I embroidered a yellow banana shaped moon with a face, to her delight. My dad discovered a local public pool and as we both enjoyed swimming, he decided to take me. I recall taking off from the edge turning my arms, twisting my head back and forth, under the water and to the side, and kicking my legs behind. I did everything I used to do, except for the fact that I started to breathe as I swam. It came totally naturally. I swam and I breathed and I kept going. I was so thrilled I stopped. My Dad saw what had happened and he was so excited. Big smiles all around and joy. I could swim at last! I didn’t have to think about it, I just did it. After that, we always said I learned to swim in Gundagai. My Dad said it was worth the car breaking down so that we could go to that pool and experience that breakthrough.
I share this story to illustrate the relationship between God’s law and the gospel. Learning the techniques to swim is like the law. It reveals sin (the breaking of the law) and the standard of behavior required. But we cannot do any of it, we only keep to a form of legalism. The gospel is the good news of what Christ has done for us. He achieved this through His perfect life of obedience and sacrificial death on the cross. Through the grace of Christ and His faithfulness, we learn to breathe. It may be a struggle for a while, but we learn to breathe. Faith is a gift. Learning to obey with Christ’s Spirit within is like a baby taking its first breath. If we try to replace the righteousness of Christ with our own works, we struggle and we cannot coordinate the Christian life at all. This is why Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And 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” (Gal. 2:20). Paul died to the law so he could live and breathe the good news of Jesus Christ. He did not reject the law. He never called it bad or evil. But he counseled that circumcision and the practices of exclusion that the false teachers taught and practiced were not a part of the gospel of Jesus Christ.