On October 1st, 2023, we will be joining our brothers & sisters at True Vine Ministries for Sunday morning worship. The service begins at 10:30am, and the address is 3701 N Spencer Rd, Spencer, OK 73084.

The Social Dimensions of Justification

August 6, 2023 Speaker: Ben Janssen Series: Independent

Scripture: Galatians 2:11–21

11 But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 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. 13 And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. 14 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?” 15 We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 16 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. 17 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! 18 For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. 19 For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. 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. 21 I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.

This morning, our goal is to conclude the sermon theme for the past year before we begin our annual Crosstown Basics series next week and then announce a new theme for the next year during Labor Day weekend.

For the past year, our theme has been The Life-Giving Love of God. I preached a sermon with that title on September 4 last year. And the main point I was trying to make in that message is that unless we come to understand the love of God we will not be able to draw from its life-giving power.

‌You see, the problem many of us Christians have is that we are dreadfully weak in our understanding of the love of God. There are all kinds of reasons for this, not the least of which is the word understand when we are talking about something like love. Do you understand how much your husband or wife loves you? Does your child understand how much you love them? We are not talking here about something that requires merely our minds, as if love can be understood in the same way we understand math or how to do our jobs. To understand love, we need stories and poems as much as (or perhaps much more than) we need lectures and instructions. We’ve spent a lot of time this past year studying Israel’s story from the book of Ezekiel as one way of getting at the theme of the love of God. And we spent a significant amount of time in the love-poem of the Song of Songs for the same reason.‌

So, how are we doing? Are we coming to understand the love of God?‌ Nothing is more powerful. Nothing is more life-changing. And what if our church were marked by a deep knowledge of God’s love for us? Nothing could make us a more credible gospel community than this.

Today, as we bring this sermon year to a close, I’ve chosen this text, partly because of the appearance of God’s love in verse 20. Let’s read that verse again.‌ The Apostle Paul writes, “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.”

What led to Paul writing that beautiful verse in this letter to the Galatians? Notice that this verse comes in the context of a story found in verses 11-14. What is the connection between this story and the love of God? How can the story we read about here help us understand the love of God better?

What we can see in this passage is that anyone who receives the love of God in Christ is committed to a lifetime of love through Christ toward others, and especially toward other Christians. In other words, there are massive social dimensions to our justification in Christ. To be a Christian does not just change our destiny; it necessarily changes our disposition toward one another. As we grow in our understanding of the love of God, we should find ourselves freed to be authentic since this love has secured for us an identity that radically changes and transforms us.


Let’s talk first about authenticity. To be authentic means to be true to yourself. No pretending. Genuine love cannot last long where there is no authenticity. And Christians who come to understand the love that God has for us, ought to be the most authentic people on the planet.

A Story of Hypocrisy‌

But we’re often not, are we? In verses 11-14, we hear about a story in which there was a confrontation, a little row, between the two most prominent apostles of Jesus, Peter and Paul. ‌Here’s what happened.‚Äč

But when Cephas came to Antioch, 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)

‌In short: Paul confronted Peter, accusing him of being inauthentic, of acting hypocritically. Peter was doing one thing until somebody showed up and then acted in a completely opposite manner.

‌What’s the big deal? For one thing, Paul notes at the end of verse 13 that Peter’s hypocrisy had far-reaching effects. “The rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him.” Because of Peter’s hypocrisy, a whole bunch of other people followed right along. I wonder how aware of this Peter was? I wonder how aware of this you and I are. Do you know how your actions influence other’s actions?

‌Peter’s hypocrisy even led Barnabas astray. Barnabas! His real name was Joseph. But the apostles called him Barnabas, “son of encouragement,” or “son of exhortation.” In other words, this was one of the most authentic people you could ever meet. But he committed hypocrisy right along with Peter and the other Jews.

‌But even more serious is the fact that this hypocrisy was out of “step with the truth of the gospel” (v. 14). What Peter and the rest did here on this occasion was serious enough that it contradicted the gospel message. Just think of the damage that has come to the Christian faith when Christian leaders are shown to be hypocrites, acting in ways that everyone knows is in contradiction to the ways of Jesus. This is a big deal. It causes real damage to the witness of the Christian faith.

The Reason for Hypocrisy

‌Why, Peter? Why did you act like a hypocrite?

Now, we are surely all hypocrites. We all live out of step with the truth we proclaim. Part of this is simply due to the fact that we still wrestle against the temptations of sin. It is not easy to live free even when you are free.

‌But what we’re talking about here is not just a lapse of faith in the moment, but the apparent calculation to act in a certain way. Verse 12 makes it plain that Peter knew better. He ate with the Gentiles deliberately, with theological understanding of the rightness of his actions. Acts 10 tells the story of Peter’s coming to understand that his eating with the Gentiles was not just allowable but was mandatory.

‌But when a certain group of people arrived, he makes a similarly calculated decision to act as if he would not do such a thing.

‌Why did he do this?

‌Verse 12 says it was because he feared “the circumcision party.” This is probably not the same group as the “certain men . . . from James” earlier in the verse. Richard Longenecker explains that the ones from James refers to Christian Jews, but the circumcision party refers to non-Christian Jews. Why was Peter afraid of non-Christian Jews? It was because of the situation back in Jerusalem where this delegation from James had come from. In the middle of the first century, a rising tide of Jewish nationalism spelled a rising tide of antagonism toward Jews who sympathized with Gentiles. The more that Jewish Christians blurred all distinctions between themselves and Gentiles, the greater the threat they were perceived to be to Jewish exceptionalism.[1]

‌And so, we can surmise that Peter, out of love for his Jewish visitors, refused now to eat with Gentiles, in hopes it would minimize the suspicions and hostilities of his fellow Jews back in Jerusalem. After all, the volatile political situation back home could mean that this was essentially a matter of life and death for Jewish Christians in Jerusalem.

In other words, it seems that Peter thought he was doing the loving thing for Jewish Christians by doing the opposite thing to what he was previously doing out of love for Gentile Christians. I can imagine him saying, “I don’t want to cause any offence. I don’t want to make anyone stumble.”

‌But, of course, that’s exactly what he did, as verse 13 says.

Now, I feel for Peter. He must have felt like he was in an impossible situation. To show love to one group would feel like, to another group, he was not being very loving. These are the kinds of dilemmas we sometimes find ourselves in, don’t we? And it seemed like Peter made the right call here. His actions might make the Gentile Christians feel like they were second-class citizens of God’s kingdom; but to not act this way might have cost some Jewish Christians their lives.

The Rebuke of Hypocrisy

Paul, apparently, did not feel for Peter. He confronted him. Face-to-face. Publicly.

Come on, Paul. Is this really such a big deal?

You bet it is! The authenticity of the gospel is on the line here. How so? Because, verse 14 says, making Gentile Christians feel second-class, as if they did not quite fully belong in the real family of God, not unless they would start “to live like Jews”—this is to run in the opposite direction of the Christian gospel.


And Paul goes on to explain this, in the next two verses (vv. 15-16). And what he talks about here is Christian identity. Nothing, absolutely nothing, must be allowed to become identifiers of Christian identity other than faith in Jesus Christ. This, and this alone, is what identifies a person as a Christian.

Who Are the Righteous Ones?

Three times in these two verses Paul uses the word justification. Many Christians are trained to hear this word only in relation to their own personal relationship to God: to be justified means to be accepted by God as righteous.

True enough, but notice that Paul uses it here because of its social dimensions: if one is accepted as righteous by God, then he or she must also be accepted as righteous by the other justified ones.

As one Jew speaking to another Jew, Paul can essentially say to Peter, “Hey look, we are not Gentile sinners.” To speak of Gentiles like that probably reflects Jewish perspectives on the Gentiles as “unclean ones,” but Paul is speaking ironically.[2] In spite of the fact that we are Jews by birth, Paul is explaining, we know that a person is not justified by works of the law.

Now “works of the law” does not refer to attempts by Jews to merit God’s favor by doing good deeds. The entire Jewish faith was based on the understanding that God had chosen them unilaterally (Deut 7:6-8) rather than because of any good or merit in themselves. The “works of the law” were the deeds or actions that the law required of them as members of God’s family, not in order to become members of God’s family. Although in the first century there were various Jewish interpretations about what the law required of them, there were two things about which all Jews agreed. These were clear lines of demarcation that marked them out from Gentile sinners, “make or break issues of Jewish identity.”[3] One of them was the issue of circumcision, which Paul addressed in the first part of Galatians 2. The other was food laws which are in view here.

Paul has no qualms with Jewish Christians acting like Jews—receiving circumcision, keeping kosher—unless and until it began to exclude and separate them from Gentile Christians. At that point, these “works of the law” had to go as markers of identity for who truly belonged in the family of God. Why? Because the Christian gospel had a completely different line of demarcation. The “righteous” ones who would, in the end, be vindicated by the Creator God would be identified by something else completely.

The Faithfulness of Christ

And verse 16 says what that identification would be: faith in Jesus Christ. It may also be translated “the faithfulness of Jesus Christ,” emphasizing that it is Christ’s own obedient faithfulness to God that is the basis of our justification. One’s own act of faith in Christ is explicit mentioned next, “so we also have believed in Christ Jesus,” emphasizing that even Jewish Christians must be identified as “righteous” only by this marker.

“By works of the law no one will be justified.” The events of Christ’s life, death, resurrection have changed the whole picture of who is to be counted among the true people of God and on what basis. It is those who trust in Christ and on the basis of Jesus’s own faithfulness to God in our place. The distinction between Jew and Gentile as covenant members is now “obliterated by the power of the new creation” that has come in Jesus.[4]

Now hear what this means. It means that justification refers not only to how one gets in to the family of God who will be vindicated at the final judgment. It also refers to how one is identified in the mean time. Justification refers not to just how one gets in but how one is marked. And that means it cannot help but have social dimensions. Salvation is not just a matter of one’s relationship with God; it necessarily is also a matter of one’s relationship with the rest of God’s family.[5]

Knowing Our Identity

So, we even today must remain vigilant to believe in justification by faith by being ever on our guard against the temptation to mark out justification some other way.

There’s nothing wrong with having Christian convictions, but do not make those convictions a litmus test of Christian identity for everyone else. There’s nothing wrong with having political perspectives, but we must be wary of making it sound as if all Christians must share those same perspectives. And it is certainly not wrong to be all the other things most of us are: western, American Christians living in Oklahoma. Just remember that many of the ways we think and the values we hold come more from our Western, American history which must never be confused with our biblical, Christian history. The two are not identical even if there are places in which they do overlap.

So let us be sure we know our true identity in Christ, and then let us be sure that we treat all who are in Christ as equal members of the family.


All this talk about justification by faith in Christ alone sounds nice, but does it really make a difference? That is, does it make a social difference? For us to claim that we have this new identity in Christ, that we are now counted among the righteous ones, but then to go on living the same way as we always have—well, clearly, this is not good news for the world. Remember, it is Paul who is concerned with behavior in this passage. He calls out Peter for behavior that is out of line with the gospel. Now Paul shows us how transformation takes place when we seek to be justified in Christ alone.

Do Not Rebuild the Wall

In verse 17, Paul deals with a common objection. If we seek to be justified in Christ alone, does this make Christ culpable for our ongoing sin? Think of it like this: if we say that we are the people of God simply because we believe in Jesus, then doesn’t this effectively make Jesus responsible for the sin we Christians continue to commit?

Of course, the objection comes with its own assertion. We need clear boundary lines between what true Christians do and don’t do so that we can say, “Well those people are not real Christians because they do this or don’t do that.”

But Paul’s response to this is emphatic. “Certainly not!” And in verse 18, he says, “if I rebuild what I tore down (namely, the law as a boundary marker), I prove myself (rather than Christ) to be a transgressor.” In other words, the whole argument of the Christian gospel depends on the inseparable reality of faith in Christ. If a person is counted as righteous only by faith in Christ, then to start requiring other identifiers for righteousness would destroy the whole gospel message. As Paul says at the end of our passage, Christ would have died for no purpose “if righteousness were through the law” (v. 21).

A Real Problem

But remember, there is a real and practical problem that is in view here as Paul asserts the Christian doctrine of justification by faith. All these Gentiles who are professing faith in Christ are bringing in with them all their pagan ways. They are idolatrous. They are godless. They are sinners. They do crazy things. They are unclean. If we’re going to start hanging out with them as brothers and sisters, then surely we are right to insist that they become a little more holy like us first, right?

What Paul does not do here is deny the importance of Gentiles becoming less idolatrous, less godless. Again remember, he is concerned about Christian morality and behavior, as we all should be. Justification by faith alone does not mean there are no social implications. On the contrary. We simply do not know what Paul means by justification by faith if we take it only as a reference to one’s moral standing before God. What Paul is talking about in verses 17-21 are “the implications of justification by Christ for the lifestyle of Gentile believers.”[6] And the way he makes his point is by his own testimony.

By now it should be clear where the problems are. “Holy like us” presumes that we are the good ones, that since we are Christians, our own preferences and inclinations must always be righteous. It’s those “other people” who are messed up. Paul says, let me tell you what happened to me.

Crucified and Risen

Verses 19-20 summarize Paul’s story and the radical transformation he has found in Christ.

First, Paul says that in Christ he has experienced death. When Christ was crucified, I was crucified with him. So much for those Gentile sinners who deserve death. No one was more zealous for God than Paul, and yet he and his zeal had to die.

And then, Paul says, that in Christ he has experienced resurrection. When Christ rose, I rose with him, though clearly this means that the only way I’m alive is in the life of Christ: “It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” To be a Christian means to forfeit your own way of living, yes, even living for God, in order to “live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”

This is, in a nutshell, what Christian baptism means and why it is required. Baptism signifies that, through faith in Christ, his death and his resurrection are also now ours. That is what it means to be saved.

But being united to Christ also means we are united to the rest of his people who are identified as his in the same way we are: by faith.[7] That is why commitment to God’s people, to his church, is also required for all Christians. To put up barriers between Christians is to tear down the only hope we have for salvation in the first place.

And that is not a small problem. It calls for open rebuke.

If you are a Christian, you are one because you have been loved by the Son of God who gave himself up for you. This is who you are. The love of God has given you life. Now, let this same love transform your life as a member of God’s family.


[1] Richard N. Longenecker, Galatians, Word Biblical Commentary, vol. 41, ed. Bruce M. Metzger, David A. Hubbard, and Glenn W. Barker (Dallas: Word Books, 1990), 74.

[2] Ibid., 83.

[3] James D. G. Dunn, The Epistle to the Galatians, Black’s New Testament Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993), 136.

[4] Michael F. Bird, The Saving Righteousness of God: Studies on Paul, Justification and the New Perspective (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock Publishers, 2007), 139.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Longenecker, Galatians, 88.

[7] Bird, Saving Righteousness136.