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Paul Opposes Peter January 19, 2013

Posted by flashbuzzer in Books, Christianity.
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Here are my thoughts on Galatians 2:11-21.

Summary: Paul begins by telling the Galatians that when Peter arrived in Antioch, Paul openly withstood him due to his dissimulation. Now Peter had been eating with Gentile believers – but when Jews from James arrived, he abstained from eating with them as he did not want to offend the Jews. Other Jews, including Barnabas, followed Peter by consciously ignoring the truth.

Now when Paul saw that these believers, including Peter, had fallen from the truth of the Gospel, he criticized Peter for compelling the Gentiles to live like Jews.

Paul then states that those who are born Jews – unlike the Gentiles, who are without the law – know that they cannot be declared righteous by observing the entire law, but only by taking hold of Christ. Thus, believers have faith in Christ so that they can be made free; moreover, they know that observing the entire law cannot enable them to be declared righteous.

Paul poses the following rhetorical question: if believers seek freedom in Christ, yet they still belong to the law and are under the law, does that imply that Christ is a minister of sin? Clearly this is not the case, as Christ can only give righteousness and eternal life. In fact, if Paul had set up Moses’ kingdom again, he would have actually restored sin and death. Instead, grace has freed him from the law so that he can be holy. He has died with Christ to the law – and now he lives in that Christ is living in him; although he is physically alive, his true life stems from the Holy Spirit living in him, since Christ first loved him and died for him. Paul concludes by asserting that he does not reject God’s grace, for if anyone could be declared righteous by observing the entire law, the death of Christ would have been worthless.

Thoughts: This passage provides an account of a seminal moment in the history of the early church. Luther offers some insights on this point in his commentary on verse 12:

But Peter offended through hypocrisy and in this way had established that the law was necessary; and if Paul had not reproved him, Peter would have led both Gentiles and Jews to rebel against the truth of the Gospel, giving them an excuse to abandon Christ, despise grace, return to the Jewish religion, and bear all the burdens of the law. Thus we see what ruin may come from one person’s error if it is not clearly corrected in time. We must not trifle with this matter of justification; we have good reason to remind others of it often.

In some sense, I think the believers in Antioch at that time were blessed, since they witnessed Paul’s:

  • defense of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone
  • repudiation of the doctrine of justification by works alone.

I am definitely eager to meet these believers from Antioch in the next life and hear how they responded to Paul’s sharp rebuke of Peter in this case. Did they immediately reject the Judaizers in their midst, or did they engage in a prolonged struggle? Were they taken aback at the sight of two apostles at odds over the meaning of justification? Did any believers in Antioch renounce Christianity as a result of this dispute?

This passage also contains an impassioned discussion of the true nature of justification and the struggle between faith and the law. Luther presents some intriguing thoughts on this point – in the form of a dialogue – in his commentary on verse 19:

Then, when the law accuses us and shows us our sins, our conscience soon says, “You have sinned.”

If we then take hold firmly of what Paul teaches here, we can answer, “I admit I have sinned.”

“Then God will punish you.”

“No, he will not do that.”

“Why? Doesn’t God’s law say he will?”

“I have nothing to do with that law.”

“Why is that?”

“Because I have another law that strikes this law dumb – that is, freedom.”

“What freedom is that?”

“The freedom of Christ, for by Christ I am utterly freed from the law. Therefore, the law that remains a law for the wicked is freedom for me and binds the law that wants to condemn me. In this way the law that wants to bind me and hold me captive is now firmly bound itself and is held captive by grace and liberty, which is now my law. It says to that accusing law, ‘You shall not hold this person bound and captive, for this person is mine, but I will hold you captive and bind your hands so that you do not hurt this person who now lives for Christ and is dead to you.'”

Reading this well-constructed dialogue between the sinful nature and the spiritual nature helped me see why Luther’s commentary has been widely praised. This exchange centers on Paul’s thought-provoking choice of words in this verse – namely, that grace is represented as “the law” that acts against the entire law. Perhaps Luther devised this dialogue based on the internal struggles that he endured after he triggered the Protestant Reformation. While Luther may have had some form of obsessive-compulsive disorder, my conjecture is that all Christians struggle with the meaning of justification to some extent. Thus, we can be grateful that Luther beautifully portrays this struggle along with a means for overcoming it.

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