Justification by Faith Alone
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Justification by Faith Alone

Galatians 2:11–21  (ID: 1398)

When the truth of the Gospel is at stake, we must be prepared to put principle into practice. In an example of such integrity, the apostle Paul confronted the hypocrisy of his fellow apostle Peter when his conduct didn’t reflect his belief in the Gospel and justification by faith. Alistair Begg helps us to understand the importance of God’s one perfect plan to put sinners into a right relationship with Himself through Christ’s work on the cross.

Series Containing This Sermon

A Study in Galatians, Volume 1

Right with God Galatians 1:1–5:12 Series ID: 14801

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to take your Bibles, and we’ll turn once again to Galatians chapter 2. Galatians chapter 2.

As we continue our studies through Paul’s letter to the Galatians, we’ve been discovering that there is an intensity about the way in which he addresses his subject, which we’ve also been discovering stems from the fact that “the truth of the gospel” is at stake. That phrase came in the middle of last week’s study, 2:5, where he was concerned “that the truth of the gospel might remain with” those to whom he was writing. And once again this morning, the phrase “the truth of the gospel” you will find in verse 14.

Last time, Paul was dealing with the matter of spiritual espionage within the developing church. He refers in verse 4 to those spies who had crept in amongst the believers and were calling into question their freedom in the Lord Jesus Christ. When we arrive at the eleventh verse, it introduces us to a section which is striking in its introduction, with the phrase “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face.” And in these verses, what we discover is a head-to-head confrontation between two Christians, two apostles, two holy men, two men of God. And I want us to begin by looking at the nature of this confrontation, discovering, first of all, the hypocrisy which Peter displayed and then the integrity which Paul demanded.

Peter’s Hypocrisy

The essence of Peter’s hypocrisy is described for us in verses 11 and following. And the word which is translated “hypocrisy” in the thirteenth verse is a very colorful word. The word literally means, in the Greek language, “to speak out from under.” It emerges from the background of Greek plays, where it was common in those days for actors to take masks, and as they spoke their lines in the play, they spoke out from under their masks. And the mask which they wore concealed the real them, hidden, as they were, behind the role which they were playing. And this is the posture of Peter in the environment in which we find him. Paul is accusing him of “speaking out from under.” He is accusing him of masking his true convictions; of adapting himself to the changing temperature and to the changing climate; of being, if you like, chameleon in his approach to the situation which confronts him. And we’re in no doubt that this was clearly wrong. In verse 11, we’re told that Paul “opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.”

Now, it wasn’t that Peter was wrong in what he believed, because the first ten verses of chapter 2 end with this lovely picture of the unity of the apostles. He was not wrong in his belief; he was wrong in his behavior. It was not that he had spoiled things in the matter of his creed but rather in the matter of his conduct. And that is why you will notice in verse 14 that it is a very active disturbance which Peter is causing, because Paul says, “When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, which they had already said they were committed to along with me…” The problem, the essence of his hypocrisy, was that what he said he believed as the gospel he was now beginning to deny in his behavior. He said he believed in freedom. He said that there was no difference between the Jew and the gentile. Well, why in the world, then, was he acting in the way in which he was doing?

Because, you see, if anybody had been given a clear mandate for the removal of the old ceremonial barriers between Jew and gentile, then Peter was that individual. Turn with me for a moment, where you’ll find this underscored in Acts chapter 11. Let me just direct your attention to it without reading it all the way through. But you will remember, perhaps, the story of Peter going up to Jerusalem and the circumcised believers—that is, the Jewish believers—criticizing him and saying—Acts 11:3—“You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.” And then Peter goes on to explain why he did that. He tells of the vision that he had received in Joppa and how he had seen this great sheet coming down, and on the sheet were all kinds of animals and wild beasts and reptiles and birds of the air, and he heard a voice saying, “Get up, Peter. Kill [it] and eat [it].”[1] And Peter, being a good Jew, said, “I can’t do that. It would be against the old ceremonial law.” And “the voice spoke,” in verse 9, “from heaven a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’” And then “this happened three times” we’re told, and then the sheet was “pulled [back] up to heaven again.”

Right at that very moment, three men arrived from Caesarea, they come into the house, and they explain that they have been told that they should come and ask Peter to come and proclaim the gospel. He goes and proclaims the gospel, and the Holy Spirit falls on these gentiles, they come to faith in Christ, they are baptized into the family of God, and once and for all, Peter realizes there is no distinction between Jew and gentile. The gospel of God’s glorious grace is a message of freedom to all. “Fine, Peter, but what’s going on here in Antioch? You’re speaking out from under your mask, Peter.” And he had expressed the situation in “draw[ing] back,” as verse 12 says.

Now, we should understand that separation from gentile believers when they were eating wasn’t because of personal animosity on the part of the Jews. It wasn’t because they didn’t like gentiles per se, nor that they were unprepared to share their friendship. But it was that the Jewish believer understood that there were certain things that were contaminated foods. And so they realized that if they ate with gentiles, who were eating contaminated foods, then there was at least an even chance that they would end up eating some of the contaminated foods along with their gentile friends. And so, in order to remove themselves from that possibility, they just said, “We won’t eat with these people.” The trouble was that having professed faith in the same Lord Jesus Christ, being born again of the Holy Spirit, they then called into question the essentials of Christian unity.

And Peter himself had been doing fine in this regard. He’d been doing very, very well until, as verse 12 tells us, “certain men came from James.” James—that is, the brother of Jesus. James—that is, the one who had become the kind of head pastor of the Jerusalem church. And obviously, Peter was somewhat inhibited by their arrival, perhaps was concerned that they would go back to the context in Jerusalem and say that Peter wasn’t toeing the line. And so, “when they arrived,” verse 12, “he began to draw back and [to] separate himself from the Gentiles.” Why did he do this? Because of a matter of conscience? Because of a matter of theological principle? No, because of fear. Now, notice it very, very carefully: he drew back, he separated himself from doing what he knew he ought to do, “because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.” In other words, he lacked the courage of his convictions.

The desire to be liked by everyone, the desire to be well thought of by everyone, opens the door more readily to theological compromise.

Isn’t this the history of Peter’s life all the way through? Peter, who starts well and then stumbles. Peter, who gets out of the boat and says, “Jesus, bid me walk to you on the water. If you could walk on the water and you say I can, I can.”[2] So Peter gets out, and he starts to walk on the water—tremendous start. And then he takes his eyes off Christ, and he cries out for Jesus to save him, because he’s going down underneath. “Even if all fall away,” he says to Jesus, “even if everyone in this room denies you, I will never deny you![3] I’m the one, Jesus, who said—when you asked, ‘Who do men say that I am?’ and then you said, ‘Who do you say that I am?’—I’m the one that said, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’[4] You know me, Jesus. I’ll never mess up.” The servant girl comes to him and says, “Aren’t you one of those Galileans as well that was with this Jesus?” “Who, me? No, I never knew the man.”[5]

The Spirit of God comes after the resurrection of Christ. Peter becomes transformed. He’s given a boldness. He’s given a gift of preaching. He’s given the ability to move magnificently and powerfully amongst men and women, and great signs follow his preaching. But he’s still a man. And the best of men are men at best, right? And he still has those characteristics within his life which, unless he lives in submission to the Spirit of God sixty seconds a minute, are going to trip him up and lay him down as they do right here. And the reason that he backed off was because he was afraid, in the same way that he was afraid in John chapter 18 of a little servant girl.

Now, the essence of his hypocrisy was that he spoke out from under a mask, playing a role he didn’t believe. The expression of it was on account of fear, and the effect of it was fairly important. Verse 13. When we make wrong decisions, as well as when we make right decisions, if we have any position of influence at all, we will take others with us in it. And that’s exactly what happens here in verse 13: “The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy.” And even, we’re told, “Barnabas was led astray.” Barnabas, the “Son of Encouragement.”[6] Barnabas, the one who was prepared to take Paul when he had only just ceased to be Saul. Barnabas, the one who brought him and introduced him to the apostles.[7] Barnabas, who had reached out with that great loving capacity of this man Barnabas. Which of us couldn’t love a Barnabas? Which of us wouldn’t be thankful for a Barnabas?

But every personality has its flaws. And the flaw in the Barnabas personality is seen right here. Barnabas’s great capacity was to love. Barnabas’s great capacity was to encourage at all times. And the corollary along with that is simply that that kind of individual likes to be loved by everyone, likes to be well responded to by each and other. And so when the pressure comes, there is a great tendency for the Barnabas type to capitulate to that which is going on around him. And so Barnabas gets swept away. That’s the word that is used at the end of verse 13. The desire to be liked by everyone, the desire to be well thought of by everyone, opens the door more readily to theological compromise.

And that’s why, you see, in the purposes of leadership, even at the local church level such as we have here at the Chapel, it is so important that we recognize that God has given us plurality in leadership, so that one may be very good at confrontation; the great flaw is that confrontation will become confrontational. And so there is the great need for the Barnabas. But the Barnabas has to be careful that he doesn’t become so frayed around the edges that he wants to be well thought of by everyone and do everything everybody wants. And so the Barnabas needs the other guy here, the Paul, to say, “It can’t be peace at any price, Barnabas. It can’t be peace at any price.” If you like, it is the difference between Chamberlain at the height of the Second World War and Sir Winston Churchill. Chamberlain’s approach was essentially “peace at any price,” and Churchill kept crying out, “No, not for a minute! Freedom is the issue!” And Barnabas was about to be swept away along with the other Jewish believers, and Paul says, “Hang on a minute. There is a hypocrisy which Peter is displaying. But there is, secondly, an integrity which I, Paul, am demanding.”

Now, it’s very important we realize that this is not a marginal concern. This is not an issue, as we sometimes hear it referred to, in which both Peter and Paul were right: choose a side; go with whoever you like. No, that’s not the case. Peter was clearly wrong. And that’s why Paul was—as we might say, or some might say, in twentieth-century parlance, according to verse 11—Paul was in his face. And he got in his face. And the reason he did was because the truth of the gospel was there.

You see, the great issue is to know when to get in someone’s face and when not to. If we do it when we shouldn’t, then we’ll cause more trouble than it’s worth. But if we fail to when we should, then the same will be true. And you will notice in verse 14 that Paul did this “in front of them all”: “I said to Peter in front of them all.” Public sin must be dealt with on a public basis. Read Matthew 18.[8] Read 1 Timothy 5.[9] Credibility, if it is going to be established, must be established on the basis not simply of speech but of action. And in the realm of the family of God in the developing church, this was essential then, and loved ones, it is essential now. If we talk a certain talk, if we talk about the importance of purity in the church, if we talk about the importance of standing by the truth of the gospel and then refuse to act in line with that commitment verbally, then people become confused and disillusioned. And they wander, saying they have not the ability to turn principle into practice.

The fact the Peter was prominent, the fact that he was an apostle, the fact that he had a strong group favoring him and supporting him did not dissuade Paul from doing what he did. As Willy Barclay says in his commentary: “A famous name can never justify an infamous action.”[10] It’s a good statement: “A famous name can never justify an infamous action.” “Oh, but don’t you know that Mr. So-and-So said this? Don’t you know it was Reverend So-and-So said this, and he has a great this or a great that?” That is not the issue. If he’s wrong in relation to the truth of the gospel, he’s wrong, no matter how famous the name may be.

Maybe it was that Peter thought compromise was the best solution, and in that respect, he was also wrong. Paul knew that failure to act at this point would produce two groups emanating from this context: Jewish believers worshipping on their own and gentile believers worshipping on their own. And what he’s going to underscore is this: that if God did not require circumcision before he accepted these gentiles into his family, then we dare not impose the condition after they have been welcomed into the family and use that as a ground for disunity.

You see, as you read this through and as you read the whole of Galatians through—and I hope that you will be doing that in preparation for these studies—what we discover is that there is no distinction between Jew and gentile in the fact of their sin, and there is therefore no distinction between them in the means of their salvation. And that is as true this morning for every one of us as it was for them. No matter our background, no matter our belief, no matter our affirmations of faith, there is no distinction between us in the fact of our sin. Therefore, there can be no distinction between us in the means whereby we are saved from our sin.

God in his goodness puts sinners into a right relationship with himself on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ upon Calvary.

Justified by Faith

Well, that was the issue of confrontation, and it bring us to the issue of justification, which I’m going to try and summarize in these two phrases: there is no way to be justified by law; there is one way to be justified by faith. No way by law, one way by faith.

Justification is a legal term. It is borrowed from the law courts, and if you want to understand what justification is, it is the exact opposite of condemnation. Okay? So you have these two words clearly in your mind: on the one hand, condemnation, which means to declare guilty; justification means to declare not guilty or to declare innocent or righteous. Okay? So here we have condemnation, declared guilty; justification, declared not guilty.

And when the word justification is used in biblical terms, and expressly here in the book of Galatians, it is referring to that act of unmerited favor whereby God in his goodness puts sinners into a right relationship with himself on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ upon Calvary. It is that by which God not only pardons us and acquits us, but he goes beyond that: he accepts us; he treats us as righteous; he draws us into the embrace of his love. It’s not, as it were, the scene in a courtroom whereby the judge goes, “You may go free. Next!” But he says, “You may go free. Now, I’ll have my robes off in just a moment, and I’ll be waiting for you. Join me in my car. Join me in my home. Join me in my future. You and I have become friends and partners.”

And some people have got a very stereotypical notion of justification which is almost cold and clinical and heartless. It is not that in any respect. But when God justifies us, he not only declares “Not guilty” across our file, but he also writes underneath “Accepted into my family with all the benefits and joys and blessings which I can possibly bestow upon this fellow or this girl.” He loves us. He draws us in. That’s why it’s tremendous to sing in that great hymn, “[There’s] no condemnation now I dread.”[11] Why? Because under condemnation, I was declared guilty; under justification, I’m declared not guilty. So why should I fear being declared guilty again? He will not reopen the case. And some of us need the book of Galatians because we think that he does reopen the case, and we think the way that we can get him to not reopen the case is by all the things that we do. Having begun in the Spirit, unable to change ourselves, we now continue in the flesh.[12] And Paul’s going to deal with that also.

I tell you this morning, this is good news. It’s such good news that Martin Luther, describing it as the principal article of all Christian doctrine, said this of it: “[It is] most necessary … therefore, that we should know this article well”—that is, the article of justification by faith alone—“[that we should] teach it [to] others, and beat it into their heads continually.”[13] All right? So if you fear you’re getting a heavy dose of justification—if you go away and say, “Dear me, it’s almost as if he is beating it into our heads”—then the chances are I probably am. But I want you to know I’m beating it into my own head. I want to understand this, for this is the great charter of Christian freedom.

Now, there is no way for this justification to be enacted by law. That’s what verse 16a says: “We who are Jews by birth and not ‘Gentile sinners’ who never obeyed the law in the first place, we know this,” clear statement: “that a man is not justified by observing the law.” Just stop there. “We … know that a man is not justified by observing the law.” Why does Paul say this? He says this because Peter is causing confusion by his hypocrisy. He is going back and he’s starting to remove himself from the gentiles, and he’s calling into question the truth of this freedom. And Paul says, “Now, let’s lay the facts down very, very clear so that even a child can understand. We know this: that a man is not justified by observing the law.”

The Judaizers were active in this respect then, and their equivalent are active today. Those who today propound the same kind of theory as these Jewish rebels say this: that the only way to be justified is by human effort. The only way to be justified is by human effort. This, loved ones, is the religion of modern man if he has any at all. This is the religion of our neighbors if they have any at all. This is the religion of every other world religion. It is a religion whereby man makes himself acceptable to God. And in order to make himself acceptable to God, he has to do all these things. He has to pass all these tests. He has to fulfill all these details. And if he is successful, then perhaps he will have tipped the scales in his favor and will finally have been welcomed into heaven. “Do all these things,” says this religion, “make the grade, and perhaps you can come.”

If that were the case, when Jesus had spoken to Zacchaeus,[14] the little cheat up the tree, he would have said to him, “Zacchaeus, don’t come down the tree until first of all you clean your act up, you change your life, you do all these things. Call me in a few weeks, and I’ll see if you are acceptable enough to be welcomed into my family.” Now, did he do that? No, he didn’t do that! Because he came to save people who are cheats up trees! He came to save people like you and me, who are helpless to save ourselves! He came to save people who have a swearing tongue that they can’t control, whose heads are full of immoral thoughts that they can’t relieve. And he does not come and say to us, “Clean up, and then come.” He says, “Come, and we’ll clean you up.” That is justification by grace through faith plus nothing. That is the gospel.

You know when you go to the fairgrounds, and they have those things? They give you a big wooden hammer, and there’s a bell about twenty-five feet up in the air? Actually, for me it seems like it’s a hundred feet up in the air. And you’re supposed to take the hammer, drop the hammer on this thing, and then it goes up and makes the bell ring. I don’t ever try that. Oh, I might try it if no one else was in the fairground. But I can tell you right now, today, that I cannot ding that bell. Frankly, if I let the hammer go too far back over, I may never come around again. So unless someone would come and ding the bell for me, there will be no bell ringing from Begg.

And some of you are in this building this morning, and you’re trying to ring the bell of acceptance with God without faith in Jesus Christ. You may even have crept in as member of our fellowship. Your testimony of faith means very little. There is no substantiating evidence in your life. You may have been baptized, you may even be involved in ministry, but when you sing the verse “No condemnation now I dread,” it is hollow for you. And the reason it is is because you have never come to know the experience of being justified by faith. And you’re out there this morning, and you’re still trying to declare yourself righteous in God’s sight. I need you to know, loved ones, you’re in a great delusion. You can never, ever ring that bell.

And I say to you again that this is the religion of modern man. Listen to him as he tells us all the things that he has done. Listen to him as he tells us all the contributions he has made, how he has paid his dues, how he has pulled his socks up, how he flatters himself, and how he loves to sing with Ol’ Blue Eyes,

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught.
To say the things he truly feels,
And not the voice of one who yields.
No, the record shows I took the blows.
I did it my way.[15]

“I built this business my way, I raised this family my way, and I will be in heaven my way!” And God’s Word says, “No way! You are living with a dreadful delusion.”

Irrespective of our religious background, education, racial origin, or social status, the way of salvation is the same for every one of us.

Do you get that? Do you understand what this book says? No way by law, one way by faith. We can’t establish a righteousness of our own. There’s no point in us trying to amass, as it were, frequent flyer mileage in the hope of a free trip to heaven. We don’t give chits as you’re going out the door: “Five thousand free miles—take it! Once you’ve come twenty times, you can go a round trip to heaven, see if you like it, and come back and bring your wife and kids.” We’d like that, wouldn’t we? Sure. Especially if someone else is paying the bill so we can make the journey. It won’t happen.

One way. What is it? By faith. And we’re still in verse 16. At least I am: “Know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by” what? “Faith in Jesus Christ.” That is not simple intellectual observance. The literal translation is “faith into Jesus Christ.” “Faith into Christ”: that I place my faith into Jesus; that I say, “I cannot make it on my own. I cannot sort myself out. I must only come to you, Lord Jesus.” So if we’re going to be justified, then or now, we need to humbly admit our helpless condition as sinful. We need to acknowledge before God that we are by nature self-righteous. And we need to place the whole of our trust and faith and confidence in the Lord Jesus to save us. Notice the repetition in verse 16: moves from the general: “We … know that a man is not justified”—that’s a general statement of it—“but by faith in Jesus Christ.” Moves to the personal: “So we, too”—personal testimony—“have put our faith in [Jesus Christ] that we,” personally, “may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.”

So let’s lay it down as clear as we can: irrespective, this morning, of our religious background, education, racial origin, social status, the way of salvation is the same for every one of us. And Paul says in difficult verses, 17 and 18, if what we’re going to do is resurrect the law as a way of salvation, and all that the law can do is show us our guilt, then there is no salvation down that road, and we make confusion for all.

So, he confronts Peter because the gospel’s at stake. He declares justification by faith alone, because that’s the essence of the gospel. And then he finishes with this great personal affirmation.

Paul’s Testimony

Our time is gone, but let me just reiterate the three phrases that you’ll find under the final point on your outline. Galatians 2:20—Paul’s tremendous testimony of faith. This is what he says of Jesus: “He gave his life for me.” “The Son of God … loved me and gave himself for me.” Or, as Peter says: that Christ died once for all, the righteous to bring the unrighteous to God[16]—1 Peter 3. If anybody knew that the walls had been broken down—the walls of Phariseeism, the walls of Judaistic legal observance—then Saul of Tarsus did, because he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees; he was top of his class in rules and regulations.[17] And on the Damascus Road, that wall came crumbling down, never to be resurrected in Paul’s experience. Because he realized that the only acceptance he had before a holy God was that Christ should have taken his place. “He gave himself for me.”

Secondly: “that he might take my life from me”—that I might die to the law as the principle of life; that I might die to the law as any notion of a means of acceptance before God.

“He gave his life for me, to take my life from me, to live his life through me.” People say, “You know, I could never be a Christian. I could never stay a Christian. I don’t know how I could ever make it last, could never keep it going for a day or two.” That’s good. I’m glad you’ve realized that. You’re absolutely right: you couldn’t—unless your experience was Paul’s. You came and you said,

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to your cross I cling,
Naked, come to thee for dress,
And weary, come to thee for rest.
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Jesus, or I die.[18]

Therefore, by works of the law no one in the Chapel congregation will be justified. But all and any, young and old, rich and poor in this congregation may be justified. How? By faith into Jesus Christ.

[1] Acts 11:7 (NIV 1984).

[2] Matthew 14:28 (paraphrased).

[3] Matthew 26:33 (paraphrased).

[4] See Matthew 16:13–16.

[5] Matthew 26:71–72 (paraphrased). See also John 18:17.

[6] Acts 4:36 (NIV 1984).

[7] See Acts 9:27.

[8] See Matthew 18:15–20.

[9] See 1 Timothy 5:19–20.

[10] William Barclay, The Letters to the Galatians and Ephesians, 2nd ed., The Daily Study Bible (Edinburgh: Saint Andrew, 1958), 20.

[11] Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be That I Should Gain?” (1738).

[12] See Galatians 3:3.

[13] Martin Luther, A Commentary upon the Epistle of Paul the Apostle to the Galatians, rev. ed. (Philadelphia: R. Aitken, 1801), 94.

[14] See Luke 19:1–6.

[15] Paul Anka, “My Way” (1969). Lyrics lightly altered.

[16] See 1 Peter 3:18.

[17] See Philippians 3:4–6.

[18] Augustus Toplady, “Rock of Ages” (1776). Lyrics lightly altered.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.