Friday, January 9, 2009

Christian Legalism and Different Gospels

So we know that Peter and Paul (sans Mary…well, not in the same way) got into it over the gospel. Peter had been hangin’ out with the Gentiles – without requiring them to be circumcised – until the Judaizers caught wind of the whole thing. Peter felt the pressure from a small, but vocal, element of the congregation and caved in. Sound familiar?

Paul didn’t think this was such a good idea, and decided to confront Peter. Publicly. Sound UNfamiliar?

We don’t seem to get many sermons on Galatians that focus on how we should fight for the truth of the gospel like Paul did. This is somewhat understandable, since there is not much dispute these days about cutting our sons’ foreskins. It’s also understandable in light of the fact that complaints of modern Judaizers don’t sound that bad to us. In fact, they sound pretty good. More on that later.

Paul reminds Peter that they are “Jews by birth” and not “Gentile sinners” (Galatians 2:15), then launches into a thrice-stated description of what some have called his “theory of justification in a nutshell”, that men are justified by faith in Jesus Christ, not by works of the law (vv15-16). Paul’s immediate meaning is clear: being circumcised does not save a man, and not being circumcised does not damn him. For Peter and his blade-happy Judaizers to insist that new believers had to be circumcised was peddling a different gospel. One that would not save.

Circumcision, once the mark of God’s covenant, had become a threat to the gospel covenant. But it was not the only threat faced by the early church, and it is not the only threat we face now.
Paul explains that Christ would not be made an agent of sin if they – Jews – in seeking to be justified in Him were found to be sinners (v17). There are a few ways to understand this. Some think he means that if others (like the Judaizers) view them as sinners because they hang with Gentiles, no problem. Others think he means that others might view them as having rejected the law, thus having become like the Gentiles.

It might be that the Judaizers were not so much concerned about specific transgressions of the law, as with the appearance that Peter and the others had set it aside as their governing principle. It is much easier for men to check their righteousness against lists of approved behaviors than to serve God with a transformed heart. So Paul can say that they should not rebuild what they have torn down. That is, they should not return to the checklist. If this is true, then Paul and Peter and the others were not ‘rejecting’ the law, or abandoning the law, but were actually fulfilling the law and finally submitting to its judgments and punishments. In Christ. By faith in His obedience to it and reception of its penalty for us.

Paul can truly say, then, “I have been crucified with Christ,” because in having faith in Christ, the requirements of the law are satisfied in exacting punishment on the only One able to bear it.

We don’t like Paul. We rebel against his teaching all the time. We prefer law both for ourselves (it gives us a measure of our obtaining favor with God) and for others (it gives us a measure of how others have failed to please God). What is the evidence of our legalism on this point? Don’t look for Baptists United for Circumcision or the Cutters’ Union. Instead, our legalism today looks much better than that.

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