A Hill to Die On

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Your justification isn’t a matter of “Jesus plus” anything.

The scene where Paul personally and publicly rebukes Peter “to his face” is one of the most pivotal scenes in the entire New Testament. Understanding what happened that day in Antioch is vital to understanding the Christian faith. It is important for us to grasp what Paul did and why he did what he did. In the middle of the brief history lesson, Paul gives to the believers in Galatia, during which he shares an account of his conversion and call, establishing his apostolic authority and clarifying the true nature of the gospel, he is led to rehearse an episode that is recorded nowhere else in Scripture.

“But when Cephas came to Antioch,” Paul recounts, “I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. For before certain men came from James he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?” (Gal. 2:11–14).

As Paul and Barnabas recuperate after completing their first official missionary journey, they report to the church how the gospel of Christ has “opened a door of faith to the Gentiles” (Acts 14:27–28), which, of course, fills the church with great joy. But not everyone was quite so delighted by this development. A clique of “certain men” soon descends upon Antioch, ruining the party for darn near everyone with their demuring message that no one is truly saved unless they are also circumcised (Acts 15:1). Such devotion to this Abrahamic rite earns them “the circumcision party” moniker (Gal. 2:12). These Judaizers were nothing but a bunch of legalists who were adamant that following Moses was just as important as believing in Jesus. Their message was blatantly “Jesus-Plus” — that is, unless the laws of Moses were followed to the strictest letter of the law, no one could be saved. 

Before the arrival of these Pharisaical buzzkills, the apostle Peter was happily dining “with the Gentiles.” It was only when the Judaizers crashed the Antiochian party that he “drew back” (Gal. 2:12). Peter refrained from fellowshipping with the Gentiles out of fear of what those “certain men” might say, do, or think, sending an unsettling shockwave throughout the entire congregation. If you recall, Peter was the beneficiary of a vision and subsequent encounter that made it abundantly clear that the old ceremonial food laws were no longer in force, especially not in the matter of receiving the forgiveness of sins (Acts 10:43). It didn’t matter whether Gentile sinners were or weren’t “eating kosher” since that’s not what justified them anyway. Justification was a matter of repentance and faith leading to everlasting life through Christ alone (Acts 10:34–35; 11:18). 

Yet even with all of that under his belt, Peter cracks under the pressure of the Judaizers. Where before he was welcoming and fraternizing with Gentile sinners despite their lack of keeping the laws of Moses, now he was refusing to sit with them or even associate with them. And lest you think that this isn’t that big of a deal, Paul makes it abundantly clear that this “act of hypocrisy” didn’t stop with Peter (Gal. 2:13). Before long, other congregants began to follow Peter’s lead, defaulting on the camaraderie they previously shared. Soon, fellowship morphed into friction, and delight disintegrated into discord. Peter’s abrupt nonacceptance of the Gentiles because of their lack of Mosaic fidelity was no light matter. This wasn’t a case of differing opinions or preferences. Indeed, the very “truth of the gospel” was being thrown into jeopardy by this sudden wave of hypocrisy.

Consequently, Paul couldn’t stay silent. “But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Gal. 2:14). The apostle from Tarsus calls out the venerable Peter in front of a crowd of peers, exposing him “before them all.” Though we might wonder why Paul didn’t take Peter aside and rebuke him privately, saving him the embarrassment, Peter’s public duplicity had earned him Paul’s public chastisement. Peter was not living “in step” with the gospel of God. With his mouth, he was saying one thing, but his actions said otherwise, which is the very definition of a hypocrite.

Peter knew better. He had challenged these “circumcision party” constituents before and won (Acts 11:1–2). Now, he was back-tracking — and to make matters worse, he was causing others to back-track with him.

Paul couldn’t stay silent

At stake was an issue that threatened to make fellowship in the gospel contingent upon something other than faith alone. Accordingly, Paul pointedly declares: “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law, because by works of the law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:15–16).

We might well imagine him using similar words when he confronted Peter, reminding him that even though he was a Jew “by birth,” that didn’t amount to a hill of beans in the matter of his justification. Peter wasn’t justified because he was a Jew nor because he had kept all the laws of Moses. Just like every single sinner ever, Gentiles included, he was justified by faith. Not because of his works, his efforts, or due to any of the things he was or wasn’t doing. Peter’s right standing before the living God of the universe wasn’t dependent on him. Neither is yours or mine. That is the essence of the good news. “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers,” Paul declares, “that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38–39). 

The gospel announces that every sinner’s justification before God was paid in full by Jesus when he surrendered himself to die for sins he didn’t commit, which is what Paul alluded to when he opened this letter (Gal. 1:3–5). Furthermore, this is the “truth of the gospel” that he was so ready and willing to defend, even if it meant taking a stand in front of someone with the pedigree and position the likes of Peter. Rather than deferring to Peter because of his status in the church, Paul stood up. His God-given calling to preach the good news of justification by faith was far too important to let the opinions of those who “seemed influential” play a factor in what he did or didn’t say. This was his hill to die on, so to speak. That feisty German reformer, Martin Luther would agree: “If the article of justification be lost, then is all true Christian doctrine lost” (xvi).

Drawing parallels between the likes of Paul and Luther is nothing new. But I can’t help but set the lives of these defenders of the gospel side by side since both were unwavering and inflexible in their commitment to upholding “the truth of the gospel,” which is best understood not as a conditional contract but as an unconditional promise offered to you in the gift of Jesus’s death and resurrection. “The gospel of justification,” writes Gerhard O. Forde, “is not an ‘if-then’ kind of statement, but a ‘because-therefore’ pronouncement: Because Jesus died and rose, [therefore] your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of God!” (24). It is this objective announcement that Luther, we might say, “rediscovered” while reading the Scriptures. 

The Reformation is best encapsulated by the image of an Augustinian monk pouring over a copy of the Word of God and suddenly realizing that what he was told to believe didn’t line up with what the Bible actually said. Instead of letting the discrepancies go, he attempted to get some answers from his higher-ups, leading to the publication of his now-infamous Ninety-Five Theses. The more Luther read and studied, the more he recognized that the church’s doctrines were “not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Gal. 2:14). They had added extra requirements to the good news of “grace and peace” being offered to sinners through Jesus Christ. Sinners longing to experience the peace of having their sins forgiven were instructed to do this penance, pay that indulgence, say a whole laundry list of prayers, etc. 

However, Luther had tried all of that and had always come up short. He could never confess enough sins, pay enough penance, or do anything to quiet his soul. That is until he was brought face-to-face with “the truth of the gospel” itself — namely, that the righteousness God’s law demands is the very righteousness God’s Son so freely gives in his death and resurrection. God in Christ delivered himself up to die to deliver sinners from eternal death, thereby securing eternal redemption and justification for every sinner who repents and believes. Indeed, Jesus died so that sinners could be made right with God. This isn’t something that he leaves for sinners to settle or finish. God’s favor and forgiveness have never been bound to whether or not you were doing “enough.” If that were so, how would any sinner ever know that they had done “enough”? Such a prospect leaves sinners abandoned in a heap of hopelessness. 

Nothing we can ever do can make us justified in the sight of God or bring us into right standing with him. This is why Paul sums up the matter so definitively: it’s all by faith alone (Gal. 2:15–16). As it happens, this was the same confession to which the Jerusalem Council eventually arrived. After “no small dissension” in Antioch, a conference was held in the City of God to settle the issue of circumcision’s bearing on Gentile converts, during which all the apostles agreed: salvation is by grace alone.

“The apostles and the elders were gathered together to consider this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, ‘Brothers, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe. And God who knows the heart bore witness to them by giving them the Holy Spirit just as he did to us, and he made no distinction between us and them having cleansed their hearts by faith. Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus just as they will’” (Acts 15:6–11).

The good news of justification is not only not a matter of Jesus plus your adherence to Jewish dietary regulations, it’s also not a matter of Jesus plus your church denomination, your political affiliation, your stance on alcohol, what music you listen to, or anything else.

It’s no trivial detail to point out that Peter, of all people, is the voice who stands in defense of the purity of the gospel, no doubt having been sufficiently put in his place. It is the purity of that same gospel that remains a hill we should all be willing to die on. As Luther saw it, and Paul before, the truth of the gospel is a matter of highest importance. The absolution and justification of sinners are gifts given in the name of Jesus alone. “Wherefore,” Martin Luther boldly declares, “victory over sin and death, salvation and everlasting life, came not by the law, nor by the works of the law, nor yet by the power of free will, but by Jesus Christ only and alone” (74). It is all by faith. “Faith is the sole, single, solitary means by which the just sentence of God is lifted from your head,” attests Jason Micheli. “Exclusively by faith does God, who is righteous, accept you, who is unrighteous” (38). It is through him and him alone that you are “enough,” that you are accepted and redeemed. Your justification isn’t a matter of “Jesus plus” anything. 

There are no other “secondary matters” that you have to live up to for that to be true, no matter how spiritual they might sound. We might do well to reimagine the scenario, however slightly. The good news of justification is not only not a matter of Jesus plus your adherence to Jewish dietary regulations, it’s also not a matter of Jesus plus your church denomination, your political affiliation, your stance on alcohol, what music you listen to, or anything else. Indeed, there is no room in the gospel for anything that we might add to the announcement of free justification in light of the finished work of God’s only Son. Jesus is your justification. He is “enough” for you. He has done everything necessary to deliver every sinner — including you — from sin and death. Rest and rejoice, sinner, for you have been set free from running yourself ragged in the attempt to pacify the law of God. By faith, you are safe and secure in the right standing that Jesus died to win for you.