Galatians 2:11-21


Again we have a reading which is too lengthy for one sermon. This reading easily breaks itself into at least two texts: a) verses 11-14: Paul defends the doctrine of justification against Peter who plays the hypocrite; b) verses 15:21: the theme of the Epistle to the Galatians. But individual verses, especially in the second part, cold also be used as texts. For example, verse 16 clearly distinguishes salvation by works and salvation by grace by using exclusive particles.

Galatians 2:11 When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong.

There has been much discussion as to when this incident in Antioch took place. The Nestle Greek text notes Acts 11:27 for the occasion mentioned here. In any event, all commentators, so far as we know, agree that this incident took place after Acts 10 which tells us of Peter's visit to the house of the Gentile Cornelius. Peter had thought that it was wrong for him to eat with or associate with Gentiles. But God, through a vision, instructed Peter otherwise. Peter was told that he should not consider the Gentiles unclean. And so Peter went to the house of Cornelius and preached the Gospel.

The congregation in Jerusalem objected. They called Peter to Jerusalem to explain. Peter informed them that God had instructed him not to consider Gentiles unclean. After Peter spoke to them we are told at Acts 11:18: "And after they had heard this they became quiet and glorified God by saying: 'Well, then, God has granted repentance to life also to the Gentiles.'"

Galatians 2:11-14 surely follows Acts 10 and 11 chronologically. Therefore Peter's action in Antioch was absolutely inexcusable.

Paul withstood Peter to his face. Why? Peter was condemned. Public sins require public rebuke. Look at 1 Timothy 5:20. One is not required to go through the steps of Matthew 18:15 if the sin is public.

Luther: What is all creation in comparison with the doctrine of justification? Therefore if you see this threatened or endangered, do not be afraid to stand up against Peter or an angel from heaven. For this cannot be praised highly enough.

But Luther finds comfort here too. The great men of Scripture sinned and were forgiven.

Luther: For it is a great comfort for us to hear that even such great saints sin -- a comfort which those who say that saints cannot sin would take away from us. Samson, David, and many other celebrated men who were full of the Holy Spirit fell into huge sins. Job, 3:3ff, and Jeremiah, 20:14, curse the day of their birth; Elijah, 1 Kings 19:4, and Jonah, 4:8, are tired of life and pray for death. No man has ever fallen so grievously that he could not have stood up again. On the other hand, no one has such a sure footing that he cannot fall. If Peter fell, I, too, may fall; if he stood up again, so can I.

Galatians 2:12 Before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group.

Verses 12-14 explain verse 11. The text does not say that James had ulterior motives for catching Peter in wrongdoing. We know from Acts 15 that James was clear on the matter of Jewish Christians dealing with Gentile Christians. Among others, James insisted that Gentiles were not required to be circumcised in order to become Christians.

Some commentators suggest that these Jewish Christians from Jerusalem were spying on Peter. That is not fair to the text or to Paul's line of reasoning. It had become Peter's custom to eat with Gentile Christians. By the way, if Peter had preferred to eat with Jewish Christians, so long as he did not attach righteousness to this, he would not have sinned. That would not have been hypocrisy.

"But when they came." That's when the trouble started. But they were not the cause of Peter's sin. "He began to withdraw," "he began to separate himself." Because he feared the Jewish Christians. Nothing in the context indicates that these were Judaizing Christians, people who insisted on circumcision in order to be saved. It simply means that Peter feared the Jewish Christians from Jerusalem although they did not cause the fear. He was his own cause of fear.

Luther: Here you see Peter's sin. Paul describes it carefully. He accuses Peter of weakness, not of malice or ignorance. Peter was afraid of the Jews who had come from James, and he fell on account of his fear of them; for he did not want to scandalize them in this way. Thus he was more concerned about the Jews than about the Gentiles and was responsible for endangering Christian freedom and the truth of the Gospel. By drawing back, separating himself, and avoiding foods prohibited by the Law -- foods which he had previously eaten -- he injected a scruple into the consciences of the faithful, who could draw this conclusion from his actions: "Peter abstains from foods prohibited by the Law. Therefore whoever eats foods prohibited by the Law sins and transgresses the Law, but whoever abstains is righteous and keeps the Law. Otherwise Peter would not have drawn back. But because he does so and deliberately avoids the food he ate before, this is a most certain sign that those who eat contrary to the Law sin, but that those who abstain from the foods prohibited in the Law are justified.

Several pages later, Luther says:

It is astonishing that Peter, such an outstanding apostle, should do this. Previously, at the council of Jerusalem, he has stood almost alone in obtaining the adoption of his position that righteousness comes to believers by faith, without the Law, Acts 15:7-11. He who had so steadfastly defended the truth and freedom of the Gospel now avoids foods prohibited by the Law, and thus he falls.

Space does not allow listing all the other explanations which have been given to this text by non-Lutheran commentators.

Galatians 2:13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

"And, as a result, etc." The phrase indicates all the Jewish Christians except Peter and Barnabas. Paul is implicitly saying that it was well-nigh unthinkable that staunch Barnabas went along with Peter and the Jewish Christians. Note that their sin is called hypocrisy twice in this verse. Hypocrisy is the sin of acting contrary to one's own convictions. All the Jewish Christians at Antioch, without exception, became guilty of hypocrisy, sinning against their own consciences.

Luther: It is truly amazing that such great men as Peter, Barnabas, and the others fell so quickly and easily, especially in the matter of a work which they knew to be good and they themselves had previously taught to others. Therefore it is dangerous, as Dr. Staupitz used to warn us, to trust in our own strength, no matter how holy, erudite, or confident of our own knowledge we may be. For in that which we know best we can err and fall, bringing not only ourselves but others as well into danger, as Peter did here.

Luther also has some precious words on Law and Gospel.

Therefore whoever knows well how to distinguish the Gospel from the Law should give thanks to God and know that he is a real theologian. I admit that in the time of temptation I myself do not know how to do this as I should. The way to distinguish the one from the other is to locate the Gospel in heaven and the Law on earth, to call the righteousness of the Gospel heavenly and divine and the righteousness of the Law earthly and human, and to distinguish as sharply between the righteousness of the Gospel and that of the Law as God distinguishes between heaven and earth or between light and darkness or between day and night. There is a time to hear the Gospel and a time to know nothing about the Gospel. You have nothing good; in fact, you have sinned gravely. Granted. Nevertheless, you have the forgiveness of sins through Christ, on whose account all your sins are forgiven. But in a matter apart from conscience, when outward duties must be performed, then, whether you are a preacher, a magistrate, a husband, a teacher, a pupil, etc., this is not time to listen to the Gospel. You must listen to the Law and follow your vocation.

Galatians 2:14 When I saw that they were not acting in line with the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter in front of them all, "You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

Paul realized that the whole Jewish contingency at Antioch was offensive to the Gentile Christians. They were giving the Gentile Christians the impression that they (the Jews) were more righteous than the Gentiles. By the way, that is often the disastrous things about the charismatics today. They often leave the impression that non-charismatics are second grade Christians.

Paul saw that their practice was not in keeping with their faith. If one's practice denies what one teaches about the Gospel, offense results. Practice is very important.

Paul spoke openly, in the presence of all. This likely means a mixed meeting of Jewish and Gentile Christians.

Peter had been living as a Gentile, not as a Jew. Paul means that Peter had freely mingled with Gentile Christians, eating with them, leaving the impression that nothing was required of either Jew or Gentile but to believe in the Gospel. Note the rhetorical question at the end of verse 14: "How do you compel (by example) the Gentile Christians to Judaize?" To Judaize means to require people to become Jews before they become Christians. This, of course, destroys the Gospel which draws no distinctions between ethnic groups.

Luther: Therefore let every Christian follow the example of Paul's pride here. Let love bear all things, believe all things, hope all thing, 1 Corinthians 13:7. Let faith, by contrast, bear absolutely nothing; but let it rule, command, triumph, and do everything. For love and faith are exact opposites in their intentions, their tasks, and their values. Love yields even in trifles and says: "I bear everything and yield to everyone." But faith says: "I yield to no one; but everything must yield to me -- people, nations, kings, princes, and judges of the earth."

Some commentators imply that Paul is biased, and that it would be good to have the view point of Barnabas or of Peter. This implies that Paul did not report precisely. Such a view calls Scripture into question, and comes close to denying what is at issue in this text.

Galatians 2:15 "We who are Jews by birth and not 'Gentile sinners'

This might be a new section. If so, the words are addressed not to Peter and the people at Antioch, but exclusively to the Galatians. Did Paul speak the words of verses 15-21 to Peter or are they transitional to the doctrinal part of this epistle? We cannot be dogmatic. It is comparable to asking whether John 3:17-21 was addressed to Nicodemus or is it a commentary added by John?

It becomes clear in the next verse why Paul speaks as he does. Luther anticipates here by saying:

Luther: Therefore although Peter, Paul, and the other apostles were indeed children of God, righteous according to the Law, and, finally, even ministers of Christ, they were not declared righteous in the sign of God on this account.

Galatians 2:16 know that a man is not justified by observing the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ. So we, too, have put our faith in Christ Jesus that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because by observing the law no one will be justified.

This is a remarkable verse and is worthy of much study. "Because we know." "A man" means "human beings." "Justified" is a forensic verb, denoting a declaration of righteousness, not a making righteous. We translate literally: "A human being is not declared righteous by Law works but through faith in Jesus Christ."

"Law" occurs six time in verses 16-21. Gleaning the correct contextual meaning for the word is always crucial. The three occurrences in verse 16 denote any and all Law, whether divine, human, or of one's own personal choice. "By Law works" means "by human endeavor."

"By faith in Jesus Christ" appears three times. The Formula of Concord calls these phrases "exclusive particles," explaining that these phrases make salvation by human endeavor and salvation by faith in Christ mutually exclusive. Galatians 2:16 is the locus classicus (classic location) on exclusive particles. For other examples of this phenomenon look at Romans 1:17; 3:21-22; 3:23-24; 3:28; 4:13; 4:16; 11:6; Galatians 3:11; Ephesians 2:8; Philippians 3:9; 1 Timothy 1:9. All of these adverbial phrases denote manner (answering "how?"), never cause (answering "because of what?") or time (answering "when?"). This is exceedingly important because in the history of the church some have taught that there is not justification until there is faith. It is true, of course, that the individual does not appropriate justification until he is brought to faith. But Scripture teaches (Romans 5:12-21) that in Christ all human beings were justified before God.

Back to Galatians 2:16. Paul says "even we, etc." Paul is speaking about the true teaching of the Old Testament. Even the covenant Jews were justified only by faith, not by Law works.

And now Paul, brushing Psalm 143:2, makes a tremendous, universal statement. "A human being, a fallen human being, absolutely no human being" is able to save himself. Luther devotes 20 pages to this verse in his 1535 commentary! He shows how the sophists and Romanists have destroyed the meaning of this important verse. We limit ourselves to two quotes from Luther.

Luther: Therefore we define a Christian as follows: A Christian is not someone who has no sin or feels no sin; he is someone to whom, because of his faith in Christ, God does not impute his sin. This doctrine brings firm consolation to troubled consciences amid genuine terrors. It is not in vain, therefore, that so often and so diligently we inculcate the doctrine of the forgiveness of sins and of the imputation of righteousness for the sake of Christ, as well as the doctrine that a Christian does not have anything to do with the Law and sin, especially in a time of temptation. For to the extent that he is a Christian, he is above the Law and sin, because in his heart he has Christ, the Lord of the Law, as a ring has a gem.
Luther: But here the point at issue is how we are justified and attain eternal life. To this we answer with Paul: We are pronounced righteous solely by faith in Christ, not by the works of the Law or by love. This is not because we reject works or love, as our adversaries accuse us of doing, but because we refuse to let ourselves be distracted from the principal point at issue here, as Satan is trying to do. So since we are now dealing with the topic of justification, we reject and condemn works; for this topic will not allow of any discussion of good works.

Galatians 2:17 "If, while we seek to be justified in Christ, it becomes evident that we ourselves are sinners, does that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not!

For true understanding this verse needs to be analyzed. It is a fact or particular condition. It is the type of condition which says: "if this is such and such, then that is such and such." In this case the simple "if clause" is "if even we ourselves (we Jews) have been found to be (unforgiven) sinners." This "if clause" is qualified by an attendance circumstantial clause: "while endeavoring to be justified in Christ."

Then comes the main clause which is a question: "has then Christ become the agent of sin?" Paul has both the Jewish Christians and the Galatians in mind. They had an error in common: mixing works and human worthiness in with the Gospel. Paul is saying: "if what Christ did for us is not sufficient, does He then aid and abet sin?"

Paul comes down heavily: "By no means!" That idea horrifies Paul. Paul is implicitly saying that the Jew who falls back into works-righteousness is worse than a Gentile sinner. Just one quote from Luther.

Luther: I often say that so far as the words are concerned, this doctrine of faith is very easy, and everyone can easily understand the distinction between the Law and grace; but so far as practice, life, and application are concerned, it is the most difficult thing there is.

Galatians 2:18 If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker.

Here we have another fact or particular condition. If the first is true, than the second inevitably follows. If has been suggested that Paul is speaking in the person of Peter. That seems to be the case. Paul is saying to himself what actually was done by Peter. Peter had torn down the idea that Gentiles are not saved in the same way as are the Jews. Look at Acts 10 and 11. But, at Antioch, he again espoused the Pharisaic works-righteousness of the Judaizers. The awful part in doing that was that he set himself up as a transgressor, an unforgiven sinner. By his hypocrisy Peter was actually denying the most important article: justification by faith.

"I am a transgressor." The person who claims a special work or gift, in addition to the grace of God by faith in Christ, declares himself to be a transgressor.

Luther: Am I now to expel Christ and destroy His kingdom, which I planted through the Gospel, and set up the Law once more? What would happen if, after the fashion of the false apostles, I were to teach that circumcision and the observance of the Law are necessary for salvation? In this way I would restore sin and death in place of righteousness and life. For all that the Law does is to manifest sin, cause wrath, and kill. . . . The believer in Christ has the One who took away the sins of the world. If the sin of the world is taken away, then it is taken away also from me, as one who believes in Him. And if sin is taken away, then wrath is taken away; and if wrath is taken away, so are death and damnation. Righteousness replaces sin; reconciliation and grace replace wrath; life replaces death; and eternal salvation replaces damnation.

Galatians 2:19 For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.

It has rightly been suggested that here Paul is no longer speaking in the person of Peter, but now speaks in the name of all Christians.

Luther took the first "Law" in this verse to mean that which Christ did for all humans. By taking the Law and its burden upon Himself, Christ redeemed all human beings. Modern Lutheran commentators take the first usage of "Law" here to mean what we call the second use of the Mosaic Law. The Law always accuses. The second use of "Law" in this verse means "salvation by works." In what sense did Paul, and does every Christian, die? To the idea that salvation is by the works and worthiness of human beings.

And now follows a paradox. Paul says that life comes through death.

Luther: Through what Christ did for me I died to salvation by works in order that I might come alive to God.

The modern explanation is as follows: "Through the condemning power of the Mosaic Law I died to salvation by works in order that I might come alive to God." The works-righteousness person remains dead to God. Only the believer in Christ is alive from God's point of view. He is alive because he is declared righteous in Christ.

Paul adds: "I have been (and still am) crucified with Christ." The crucifixion of Christ is mine by faith. As Luther points out, this is an actual crucifixion, a crucifixion by faith in Christ. Paul is explaining how it is possible for him to say that he has come alive to God. It is through Christ's crucifixion.

Luther: Abiding and living in me, Christ removes and absorbs all the evils that torment and afflict me. This attachment to Him causes me to be liberated from the terror of the Law and of sin, pulled out of my own skin, and transferred into Christ and into His kingdom, which is a kingdom of grace, righteousness, peace, joy, life, salvation, and eternal glory. Since I am in Him, no evil can harm me.

Galatians 2:20 I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

Bengel: This is the sum and marrow of Christianity.

Correct. Verses 19-20 are the locus classicus (classic location) on what faith accomplishes in both justification and sanctification.

The issue in verse 19 is whether or not the Law is a life-principle. The Law is good and it is necessary. But it is never a basis for justification before God. That comes only from Christ through the Gospel.

Luther: But who is this "I" of whom he says: "Yet not I"? It is the one that has the Law and is obliged to do work, the one that is a person separate from Christ. This "I" Paul rejects; for "I" as a person distinct from Christ, belongs to death and hell. This is why he says: "Not I, but Christ lives in me."

"In" occurs three times. The first denotes the mystical faith relationship between believer and Christ. The second could be concessive: "despite my sinful flesh," or it could denote attendant circumstance: "In this sinful, mortal frame." And the third denotes instrument: "by faith."

What causes justification and new life for a child of God? Law works? No. Only Christ and His Gospel.

In this verse the human nature of Jesus is plainly indicated. How did Jesus give Himself for me? By dying. Only a human being can do that. Both natures in Christ are spoken of. Let no one tell you that Jesus loves him unless he also believe that Jesus gave Himself for him. The Bible always explains its usage of the word "love."

By the way, the willingness of Jesus to die in our place is plainly indicated here. "In my stead" is plainly vicarious

By the usages of verbs and pronouns Paul, in the name of all Christians, mentions himself at least seven times in this verse. But it is done in such a way that all credit, honor, and glory go to Jesus for justifying and sanctifying the Christian.

Luther: Therefore read these words "ME" and "FOR ME" with great emphasis, and accustom yourself to accepting this "ME" with a sure faith and applying it to yourself. Do not doubt that you belong to the number of those who speak this "ME."

And here is another thought-provoking paragraph from Luther:

Luther: Therefore I say that there is no force that can resist the sects and no remedy against them except this one doctrine of Christian righteousness. If this doctrine is lost, it is impossible for us to be able to resist any errors of sects. We can see this today in the fanatics, Anabaptists, and Sacramentarians. Now that they have fallen away from this doctrine, they will never stop falling, erring, and seducing others ad infinitum.

Galatians 2:21 I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!"

This verse is the summary of chapters 1 and 2. Paul had evidently been accused of doing away with the grace of God. "The grace of God" here means "the saving grace of God."

Again, if the first part is true, then the second part is true. This little verse brings out so many things. It warns against synergism and works-righteousness. It shows the forensic nature of the atoning righteousness of Christ. And it shows the disastrous consequences of any and all theologies which do not teach the vicarious atonement to the exclusion of all human works and worthiness.


Adapted from Exegetical Notes, Series C Epistle Texts, Sundays After Pentecost, by Harold H. Buls, Concordia Theological Seminary Press: Ft Wayne IN, 1985, pp. 18-23. Used with permission.

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