• Obedient response to grace: We can be assured that we are not alone in our struggle to maintain our commitment to Jesus in the midst of a religious world that has become very religious, but not according to the word of God. Even one of Jesus’ apostles fell into this religious quagmire by falling back into the security of his Jewish heritage. While in Antioch, the apostle Peter was intimidated by some legal religionists who came from Jerusalem with their “Jewish Christianity” (Gl 2:11-13). This entire incident should remind all of us that it is easy to be diverted from the power of the gospel. If Peter could be momentarily led astray, then certainly we ourselves can do the same.
For our benefit, the unfortunate lapse in gospel behavior on the part of the apostle was recorded for posterity in order to remind all of us that we too can slip back into the security of legal religiosity, and thus, forsake the power of the truth of the gospel. This same apostasy on a large scale was occurring in Galatia. Prior to the destruction of Jerusalem, many Jewish Christians en masse were turning back to the Sinai law and the security of their Jewish religious heritage. The entire book of Hebrews was written in order to terminate this flow away from the truth of the gospel. In some ways, too many today find it reassuring to accept everyone as “Christian,” and thus everyone is supposedly accepted by God in the performance of their religiosity. Therefore, we need to take another look at the actions of Peter.
We must reverently read what Paul wrote concerning his encounter with Peter that took place in Antioch: “But when I saw that they [Peter and the other Antioch Jews] were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, ‘If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles, and not as the Jews, why do you compel the Gentiles to live as the Jews?’” (Gl 2:14). In behaving as he did, Paul said that Peter “stood condemned” (Gl 2:11). This is thus a serious matter because our religious behavior can in fact judge us condemned when we live contrary to the truth of the gospel.
Behavior that is not according to the gospel of grace is simply hypocritical behavior (Gl 2:13). It is hypocritical because one reveals his lack of inner commitment in reference to his faith. He may believe the right things in his head, as Peter who knew the truth of the gospel, but behaved contrary to what grace teaches (See Ti 2:11,14). In reference to his behavior at Antioch, Peter knew better than to behave contrary to what he knew. We would say that in separating himself from the Gentiles because he was intimidated by some Jewish religionists who came from Jerusalem, he was “not straighforward about the truth of the gospel.” He behaved contrary to the nature of the gospel of grace. He thus stood condemned.
In this context, the Holy Spirit introduced the phrase, “the truth of the gospel” in the statement of Galatians 2:16. However, throughout the New Testament, the Spirit commonly used the abbreviated phrase “the truth” to refer to the truth of the gospel. This is significant in reference to understanding the phrase “the truth” as it is used in the New Testament. The Holy Spirit was consistent. He did not change the meaning of “the truth of the gospel” in Galatians when He used the abbreviated term, “the truth,” in other New Testament texts. “The truth,” when read in the epistles, therefore, must first be understood as a reference to “the truth of the gospel,” not to some legal system of religious rules that one would seek to keep in order to self-justify oneself before God.
• The gospel is based on true historical events: In order to be clear we must understand that in Galatians 2:16 “the truth” is defined by the phrase “of the gospel.” Therefore, our understanding of what the gospel is determines our understanding of what the abbreviated phrase “the truth” means in reference to the gospel. And herein many have gone wrong by making the gospel an analytical system of self-justifying religious law. However, in the Galatians context reference was to how Peter behaved, not to what he believed.
Our behavior as a Christian is motivated by our belief that the events of the gospel are true. When in Antioch, Peter had a lapse in behavior, not because he changed his beliefs in reference to the gospel, or that he forgot the historical events of the gospel. It was that his behavior for a moment was not according to what he knew in reference to the truth of Jesus’ incarnational offering, resurrection and kingdom reign. He had not forgotten what he preached on Sunday morning on Pentecost many years before (See At 2:14-36).
In missing this point in reference to Peter’s behavior, some have subsequently brought law in as a definition of the gospel, and thus, brought into the church the law of sin and death. They have forgotten that “the truth” is not our meritorious relationship with some system of law, but a reference to Christ Jesus and the good news of His coming into this world. It is the gospel of Christ Jesus and what He did in this world that delivers us from the law of sin and death. Since this is true, then the phrase “the truth of the gospel” must be believed in order to motivate gospel behavior. Peter for a moment simply fell from the power of the gospel of grace to motivate correct behavior.
If we believe that the gospel is true, then we will act on our belief. This is what Paul wanted to remind the Corinthians. They would remain saved by the gospel on the condition that they continued to “hold fast to that word [by which the gospel was communicated to them] which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain” (1 Co 15:2). If we stop believing that Jesus was crucified, resurrected, and ascended to reign at the right hand of God, then we will lose the motivational power of the gospel.
The gospel can never be a system of law, because law only brings death. It brings spiritual death because no one can keep law perfectly in order to save himself. Law, therefore, can never bring good news, for in the presence of law, we sin. It is then as Paul wrote, “For without law, I was once alive. But when the commandment came, sin revived and I died” (Rm 7:9). Therefore, if we make the gospel a system of law-keeping, then we have introduced sin and death into the body of Christ because we all continue to sin (1 Jn 1:8). This is the other gospel that Paul mentioned was being brought in among the Galatian disciples. It was already in the fellowship of the disciples in Rome (See Gl 1:6-9).
Therefore, we must be careful not to reverse the order of the phrase, “the truth of the gospel.” It is not “the gospel of the truth.” If we believe that the gospel is some system of self-justifying religious law-keeping, then we would be correct to say that it is “the gospel of the truth.” But this is totally contrary to what Jesus said to the Jews in the following statement: “You will know the truth [Me], and the truth [about Me] will make you free” (Jn 8:32). A new legal system of law would not make them free from sin. He would. Therefore Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (Jn 14:6). In these two statements Jesus used the phrase “the truth” to refer to Himself and His salvational work as the incarnate Son of God who was going to the cross. The so-called “five steps” to salvation—hear, believe, repent, confess, baptism—are not the gospel. These are simply the responses of those in the book of Acts who believed the work of God through the incarnational journey of His Son from heaven, to earth, to the cross, and then back to His right hand to function as our only mediator between God and man (1 Tm 2:5). We must not confuse the response with the gospel journey of Jesus to which we must respond.
Jesus is the good news about our problem of sin. And thus, the phrase will always read, “the truth of the gospel.” There is no other good news in reference to our salvation. There is no good news in more laws to which we would supposedly conform in a meritorious effort to justify ourselves. On the contrary, the good news is about Jesus and the grace that was revealed through the true events of the incarnational journey of Jesus. He is the good news because through Him the grace of God was revealed. He did not instituted a new law system that was supposedly meant to be our road map to self-justification.
We must not assume that the “other-gospel” teachers in Galatia had forgotten to teach Jesus. They did teach the gospel of Jesus. Unfortunately, they also added self-justifying obedience to certain religious laws to which they assumed one must also conform in order to be saved (See At 15:1). Their teaching of the gospel of the Son of God thus became another gospel because of their addition of meritorious obedience to other religious rites, rituals and ceremonies that they deemed necessary to perform in order for one to be justified before God. And because they made these additions, they brought into the church a law of sin and spiritual death. No one could keep all the laws perfectly, and thus all spiritually died before God who assumed that they were self-justified because of their meritorious law-keeping, or tradition-keeping. They severed themselves from Christ by establishing their own religious system of righteousness (See Rm 10:1-3).
[Next in series: Jan. 2]