Gal 2:11-20: We Are Justified Only By Faith

The Situation (Gal 2:11-13)

Part of the life of the early church was that they participated in a communal meal called an “Agape Feast”, or “Love Feast”. Here the whole congregation came together to share a meal prepared from them pooling whatever resources they had. For some slaves, this may have been the only nice meal they had all week. It was a powerful statement of the togetherness of Christians in a very special way.

This is all very good. However, we must not forget that there were Jews who had very strict food laws and ceremonial laws, and that Gentiles who did not have these constraints. Jews literally believed (and it was true under the Old Covenant) that God only accepted people who identified with the Jewish people and submitted to their laws. A strict Jew was forbidden even to do business with a Gentile. So in Antioch, this posed a problem because the church had both Jews and Gentiles. If the old law was obeyed it would be impossible for Jews and Gentiles to sit together and eat a common meal.

When Peter first visited Antioch, he completely disregarded the old taboos in the glory of the new faith. But later some people came from the Jewish party in Jerusalem in James’ name. It is important that this does not imply that these people shared James’ views, or were actually sent by James. In fact, James says he did not send them. He says, “We have heard that some persons have gone out from us and troubled you with words, unsettling your minds, although we gave them no instruction” (Acts 15:24).

Out of fear of them, Peter withdrew from the common meal. Then other Jews also followed Peter’s example, including even their pastor Barnabas. However, it gets worse. This meal probably ended with the Lord’s supper. If Peter joined the Gentiles during the meal, then surely he also participated in their remembrance of the Lord’s death by celebrating the Lord’s Supper together. So by not joining the Gentiles during the meal, he was also withdrawing from fellowship with them over the Lord’s Supper.

Peter should have known better. He heard directly from Jesus Himself, that the food we eat cannot defile us, because it just goes through our bodies and comes out again later. Jesus taught that true defilement originates in the heart, not in external things (Mark 7:14-23). Then he had another revelation from God regarding this, that prompted him to share the gospel with the Roman Gentile, Cornelius (Act 10:9-29). He later defended his actions with full conviction (Acts 11:1-18). This is why when Peter first went to Antioch he had no qualms eating with the Gentiles. However, because he was “fearing the circumcision party he withdrew and mingled only with the Jews (Gal 2:12).

Considering Barnabas, remember that he was the one who introduced Paul to the apostles in Jerusalem (Acts 9:27), and Barnabas invited Paul to minister in the church at Antioch, which began Paul’s public ministry (Acts 11:25). Yet here, “even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy (Gal 2:13). Most likely for Barnabas it was a matter of love. He did not want to grieve the people who came from Jerusalem. But for Paul that was “peace at any price”. And Paul was not willing to buy peace on those terms.

Paul Confronts Peter and Barnabas (Gal 2:14)

At this point Paul decided to act very firmly and decisively, because he saw that a church ceases to be Christian if it contains class distinctions. If we are all children of God, then we need to be able to fellowship together. Paul considers the situation serious enough that he needed to deal with this in public. Paul was willing to oppose Peter as well as his friend because the truth of the gospel was at stake. Interestingly, Paul calls Peter “Cephas” here (his old name prior to being renamed by Jesus). This is a subtle reminder that Peter was not living in the light of his new life.

Peter may not have realized it, but by withdrawing from the Gentiles, he was implicitly saying that Jews were superior to Gentiles. In some ways the Gentiles lacked something the Jews had. Otherwise why would they separate? Now, if you pressed Peter to this point, he would no doubt have denied it. But Peter’s actions asserted it. Just because Peter did not do it consciously or deliberately, did not make it ok. His actions had serious consequences and he needed to be held accountable for his behavior.

Paul starts off by pointing out the basic inconsistency in Peter’s behavior. First Peter did not follow Jewish ceremonial law and ate with the Gentiles, thus “living like a Gentile”. Then by associating with the circumcision party, he was tacitly agreeing with them that in order to be a true Christian, Gentiles must live like Jews (Gal 2:14). But worse than inconsistency, Paul points out that this is hypocrisy. And Peter’s actions were not just personal, but he was misleading others as well.

In addition to using this incident as a means of showing how important the true gospel is, Paul was also showing through this that he was independent of the other apostles, and also had apostolic authority.

This is probably one of the watershed incidents in the history of the church, that God used to preserve the purity of the gospel to us. Imagine what would have happened if Peter and Barnabas’ actions won out. The church at Antioch would have stopped being a “missionary church”. They would have sent out their “missionaries” from the circumcision party that would have either consumed or divided the early church. But this issue did not become a crisis because of Paul’s swift intervention. We may not be here today, if Paul had not defended the integrity of the gospel so vigorously.

Peter’s Response

How did Peter respond to this confrontation? The Bible does not say. However it has to be that Peter acknowledged his sin and was restored to fellowship. When we read Peter’s two epistles you see that Peter teaches exactly the same gospel of grace in God as Paul does. The word “grace” is found in every chapter of Peter’s letter. Peter also makes it a point to say that he and Paul were in complete agreement (2 Peter 3:15-16). In fact, Peter calls Paul’s letters “Scripture” that “unstable people distort”. This is the highest praise for Paul by the apostle Peter, showing that this incident did not destroy their friendship and unity in Christ, but rather, strengthened it.

Why This Issue Was So Serious: Gal 2:15-21

This section continues with Paul’s confrontation with Peter, and we don’t know exactly when it becomes general teaching from Paul. It contains key words (“sin”, “works”, “justification”, “grace”, “the cross”, “faith”, “union with Christ”) which comprise the heart of the gospel. Here Paul first outlines the gospel, and then spends Galatians chapters 3 and 4, defending it.

Paul gives three arguments explaining why the integrity of the gospel was at stake.

  1. The basis of our justification before God
  2. Freedom from the law
  3. The reason Jesus needed to die.

Justification by Faith (2:15-16)

This is the first appearance of an important word in this letter. “Justification by Faith” was the slogan of the Reformation, and we need to understand what “justification” means. Many of these thoughts have been taken from Theodore Epp’s commentary on Galatians.

Job asked: “How can a person be just before God” (Job 9:2)? God’s answer is “The just shall live by his faith (Hab 2:4). This truth liberated Martin Luther from religious bondage.

Justification is “The act of God, whereby he declares a believing sinner righteous in Jesus Christ”. It is a one-time act, not a process. No one christian is more “justified” than another. God is the one who justifies (Rom 8:33). By obeying the works of the law, no one can be justified. Paul explains later in this letter that the law’s purpose is to reveal sin, not to redeem us from sin.

In justification, God “declares” a person righteous. He does not “make” the person righteous. Of course justification leads to a changed life, which is what James 2 was all about. But justification is an act of God. Before a person was “guilty” before God, but the moment he trusts in Christ he is “not guilty”, and he can never be called “guilty” again!

Justification is more than “forgiveness”. If a person is simply forgiven and let go, he can do wrong again, and become guilty all over again. But once you have been justified by faith, you can never be held guilty before God.

Justification is also more than just “pardon”. A pardoned criminal still has a record. However, in God’s sight God no longer holds our sins on record (see Psa 32:102, Rom 4:1-8).

Finally, God justifies “sinners”, not good people. Paul says that God justifies “the ungodly” (Rom 4:5). The reason most sinners are not justified is only that they will not admit that they are sinners, or come to Christ. It is only such people who can be saved by Jesus.

This is why when Peter separated himself, implicitly implying that Jews were better, he was undermining the truth that all Christians stand equally justified before God due to no merit of their own.

Freedom From the Law (Gal 2:17-18)

The apostle Peter calls the Mosaic law a “a yoke that neither we or our ancestors were able to bear” (Acts 15:10). Here by his actions he was going under that yoke of bondage again.

Paul therefore says, “But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor” (Gal 2:17-18).

This sounds complicated, but he is basically saying: “Peter, you and I did not find salvation through the law. We found it through faith in Christ. But now after being saved you are going back to the law. This means Christ alone did not save you, otherwise you would not have needed to go back to the law. Further, when you preached the gospel to both Jews and Gentiles you told them they were saved by faith and not by keeping the law. Now by going back to legalism, you are building up what you yourself had torn down. So by tearing it down you were also sinning. And this would lead us to conclude that Jesus caused you to sin, making Jesus a ‘servant of sin’”.

Putting it another way, Paul is reminding Peter of his own experience of the grace of God in his life. To now go back to Moses is to deny everything God had done for him.

“Crucified With Christ” (Gal 2:19-20)

For Paul, the “once-for-allness” of his conversion will not allow him to turn back. The law had taken him to the gates of death. He was a condemned criminal without any hope. In turning to Christ the darkness left him symbolized by his regaining his sight, and the light streamed in. So he was happy to let his past reliance on the law die. And he would never go back there.

He then says something very precious in Gal 2:20: “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”.

This is a powerful statement for the total sufficiency and efficacy of the work of Christ. The cross was for Jesus, a complete break from life. Paul is using this metaphor. In putting his faith in Jesus, he had died to his old way of life by trying to please God by following the law. He is dead to all claims that would commend him by way of the law. There went all his hopes. A lifetime of accumulation of “merit” was wasted. In a sense the old Paul died.

But Paul goes on to say something positive. “I have been crucified … yet I live”. Live in what sense? It is Christ living in him now. Every moment he lives in constant dependence on Him. He looks to Jesus for everything. This is a life that matters, and Paul cannot even consider the thought of going back.

He then says something absolutely mind blowing: He says Jesus “loved me, and gave Himself up for me”. This is so fantastic we fail to really believe it. Jesus’ love is intensely personal. Jesus did not die for the world in general. He looked through the portals of time, and saw you and me, and when He gave up His life, it was for “me”, personally. He set Paul apart before he even was born. He has done the same for us who know Christ. He has loved us even before we existed. Think about it. Put your name alongside the “me” in this verse. “The life I now live … I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me, Peter, and gave Himself up for me, Peter”! Think of the magnitude of that love. Jesus saw you and me, and chose to give up His own life to save us!

Why Did Jesus Have to Die (Gal 2:21)?

Paul gives one final argument in this section. He just asks a simple question, namely this. If it is possible to please God by doing good things and being obedient, then why did Jesus have to die in the first place? This is beautifully captured in the song by the band Mercy Me called “Best News Ever”. Some of the lyrics go like this:

Some say, “He’s keeping score”
So try hard then try a little more
But hold up, if this were true
Explain to me what the cross is for

Think about it. Even before the incarnation, Jesus was the Lord of creation. He ruled the universe, and He chose to step down and be humiliated and mistreated, and cruelly murdered on a shameful cross. Remember in Gethsemane, He cried out to His Father that if it was at all possible that God would remove this “cup” from Him (Mark 14:36)? The Father did not remove that cup. This means the death of Jesus was absolutely necessary for our salvation.

When we think we can earn God’s favor, we are effectively insulting all that Jesus did for us and “nullifying the grace of God” (Gal 2:21). The fact that earning God’s favor is impossible is why Jesus came. He came because we couldn’t help ourselves. He came because we were horribly guilty and there was nothing we could do about it. So He chose to take away our guilt by bearing it on Himself. If we put our trust in Him, God looks at us and declares that we are “Not Guilty”. The transaction is completed. It is done. Nothing can change this. Is this good news or what!


Have I been saved by the grace of God? This is a question we need to ask ourselves. Grace is “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”. Am I trusting in myself for my salvation? My morality? My good works? My religion? If so, I am not a Christian. A true Christian is one who trusts in Christ alone for salvation. “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is a gift of God – not of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph 2:8-9).

Am I trying to mix law and grace? Law means I must do something to earn favor with God. Grace means God has already done everything for me through the finished work of Jesus Christ. Salvation is not by faith plus something. Salvation is by faith alone. While attending church and other religious activities have their place as good expressions of our faith in Jesus, they can never be added on to our faith to secure our eternal salvation. “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom 11:6).

Do I really believe that I have been justified in Christ? It has been said “justified” means “just as if I had never sinned”. This is correct. We have a right standing before God, and God does not hold us guilty for any of our sin. “As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us” (Psa 103:12). We need never fear judgment, because our sins were already judged on the cross. “There is therefore now no condemnation for us in Christ Jesus (Rom 8:1). Do we really believe this? This is tremendously liberating.

Even Christian leaders can seriously sin. This incident about the apostle Peter shows that even though he was the leader of the Jerusalem Church, he also had feet of clay. This should be an encouragement to us. If Peter could make such a serious mistake and be restored, then there is hope for us. The gospel is tremendously freeing in this way. It frees us from the guilt and burden of sin.

I need to respond well to confrontation. Peter’s humility in response is also good for us to think about. He did not hide behind his reputation or his position in the church. The fact that Paul and Peter had a good relationship with each other after this says something about Peter’s humility. This is also a consequence of the freedom available to us in the gospel. We can allow ourselves to be vulnerable and acknowledge when we do wrong. We are fully “justified” before God, so there is nothing for us to prove. This security frees us to be vulnerable.

My relation with other Christians. Let us now think in terms of Christian fellowship. When we refuse to eat at the Lord’s table with one whom we yet acknowledge to be a fellow Christian, it can only be because we think we have something that the other has not. Whether it be membership of a certain denomination, or the mode of baptism, or apostolic succession or some other theological doctrine. This is what Paul opposed so strongly, because he will point out presently that our standing before God is only by faith in Christ’s finished work on the cross, and on nothing else.

Am I willing to defend the truth at all costs? On the flip side of this, when the fundamental truth of the gospel is being compromised by someone we know, “peace at any cost” is not worth the price. This was Barnabas’ approach. This incident also shows us the power of loving confrontation when a fellow believer is seen to be sinning. A Christian who loves God, will be grateful to receive criticism, because he sees it as God’s way of showing him things in his life that he may be blinded to. The Bible says, “The kisses of an enemy are profuse, but faithful are the wounds of a friend” (Proverbs 27:6). Let us learn to encourage correction from Christians we trust. This is a tremendous tool God uses to help us grow in sanctification.

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