“Substitute Saviors” (Galatians 2:11 – 3:14)

Peter began a ministry to the Gentiles after God had sent a vision showing him why the Old Testament ceremonial law was finished. This vision revealed that animals formerly off limits for being unclean were now clean: “Kill and eat … Do not call anything impure that God has made clean” (Acts 11:7, 9). Peter realized that this was not just a message about animals: “God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear him” (Acts 10:34-35). 

He ate with the Gentiles despite criticism from the formerly Jewish Christians (Acts11:2); he defended the Gentiles as being “purified [made clean] by faith.” (Acts 15:7-9).  God had called him to minister to a particular group of people that had been considered (in a sense) unclean, and Peter was effectively ministering in a way that was God-ordained. It just wan't  necessarily approved of by others.

In Galatians 2, we read Paul's opinion on a new development: because of pressure from his Jewish peers, Peter had changed his stance on how he should interact with Gentiles. Not only was he drawing back, but he claiming that they needed to undergo circumcision in order to be "clean" and acceptable to God.  Paul realized that a lot was at stake:

When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because what he did was wrong. For 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. He was afraid of criticism from these people who insisted on the necessity of circumcision. The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray. (Galatians 2)

In Judaism, circumcision symbolized the covenant between God and Abraham and God and the Jews. It also showed that a man had become a member of the Jewish community. Spiritual and communal identity were on the line. But Peter had received a clear message – the people who you thought were outsiders to God are tied to Him now the same way you are. One does not have to be a Jew to be one of God’s children. In spite of a specific calling God placed on Peter, he was willing to hinder the advancement of the Kingdom because of the petty opinion of others who thought that being a Christian meant meeting their non-essential standard of holiness and becoming specifically part of their group.

The Jewish converts were claiming to be religious purists, but it was a cover for judging other Christians who they thought had an inferior understanding of what it meant to be a follower of Christ just because they didn’t conform.

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, "Since you, a Jew by birth, have discarded the Jewish laws and are living like a Gentile, why are you now trying to make these Gentiles follow the Jewish traditions?”

Notice how Paul doesn’t say it’s simply a matter of Peter enforcing uncomfortable social customs (though it was that too). Paul said the truth of the Gospel was on the line. Peter was compromising the Good News that salvation is an unearned gift from Christ. Being in right standing with God did not require people to conform to one particular groups customs or symbols. How is it possible to convey this message when Peter was telling the Gentiles that they needed to be circumcised even when they clearly did not?

“We who are Jews by birth and not “sinful Gentiles” know that a person is not made right by obeying 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 the works of the law, because by obedience to the law no one will be justified (given a verdict of approval) “For when I tried to keep the law, it condemned me. So I died to the law--I stopped trying to meet all its requirements--so that I might live for God. My old self has been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. I live in this earthly body by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness (right relationship) could be gained through keeping the law, there was no need for Christ to die!”

By adding this one extra hurdle – the gospel + something - Peter has set aside the grace of God. (Other places in Galatians Paul mentions holidays and other observances). That is living for the law, not for Christ.

You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ's death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ. Are you so foolish? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect (be made complete) by your own human effort? (Galatians 3)

Foolish and Bewitched

Paul stresses in Galatians that we are justified (cleared of all charges of sin) by accepting what Christ has done through his death and resurrection, not by anything we do.  If we could wipe our ledger clean or get God’s approval by our own effort, than Christ died for nothing. Think about it: if someone gave their life for you and you didn’t need them to, they wouldn’t be heroic. They would be tragically mistaken.

Paul is not dismissing moral living (check out his letters to the Corinthians). The examples Paul uses in Galatians are things that are not necessarily wrong but can be wrong if we think they are necessary to save us or sustain us. Paul was no longer going to look to The Law as a savior, but he also wasn’t going to look at it as the means of gaining righteousness either. We don’t begin by faith and then proceed and grow through our works.

Well, we shouldn't. Let’s be honest - we are like that. It’s what we see all around us. Singers on American Idol have to earn the approval of the audience; athletes have to earn your admiration; politicians have to earn your vote; you have to earn the promotion at your job It’s what we know.

It’s probably no surprise that we tend to feel we have to do things to be acceptable for God’s salvation (which is a gift), then do things for our righteousness (which is also a gift). Do you ever feel obligated to do any of the following things because you think this will make you look better in God’s eyes,

  • have longer devotions
  • read more books on theology
  • only read/watch/listen to Christian entertainment
  • give money to Israel/ the pro-life movement/pro-family groups/any missionary organization
  • go to the right conferences
  • know something about certain bands/speakers/books
  • develop the right spiritual gifts
  • learn every aspect of apologetics
  • sing more vigorously at church
  • evangelize everyone compulsively
  • give money until It hurts
  • volunteer for everything

Now, are any of the things in the previous list bad? Not at all. Neither was circumcision. It’s not the activity that’s the problem. It’s the reason for the activity. We started our Christian journey when God’s spirit in us justified us (brings us approval in the eyes of God). We continue the journey because God’s spirit makes us righteous (right relationship). We will never be able by our actions and willpower to do anything that is sufficient to cause our salvation, maintain our righteousness, or ensure our reward. If we rely on working to earn or be worthy in the eyes of God, we will never understand grace, and if we preach this false gospel to others they will never understand grace either. It is a great formula for despair.

Substitue Saviors

The gospel + something is not the gospel. Really, it’s a form of idolatry. When we try to earn our place in Christ or in His church by adding a “work” to the Gospel, something has now become our functional savior in place of Jesus. Instead of believing that Christ alone is our hope for life and godliness, we look to something else that we can do to make us complete. Of course,  we can never be sure that we are living up to the standard that works require, and it messes us up.

We become overly sensitive to criticism. We do our best to make sure no one can ever fault us, and we become enslaved to the opinions of others. We will go to every function at church because we don’t want people to think we are not committed. If someone says, “I’m not sure your understanding the Bible properly here,” we are humiliated and defensive, as if we were supposed to have perfect knowledge.We don’t go to people who are far from Christ, because we might be seen in places where rumors could start.

We become envious and intimidated by others who outshine us. If we are asked to do something unnoticed, it seems like a waste of time because no one will know and other people are front and center. Being an “unsung hero” sounds really good until the un-song is about us.  When others flourish, we pick at them to try to bring them down to our level.

We become timid - and then boastful.  We only do things that make us comfortable, because we know we can knock them out of the park. So we don’t put ourselves in situation where we might fail, because we have to always win. We might witness by posting verses on Facebook, but we will never talk about our faith with someone at work, because posting on Facebook is an easy win, but we could fall on our face in front of someone we have to see every day. Then we talk about our wins over and over again so people know for sure that God approves of us.

We do our best to control our lives. We organize, and plan, and map out our day/week/month/year/life. We know where we want our education, family, job, church, marriage, friendships and health to go, and we know how we will get there. When anyone or anything crosses our radar that is not part of our plan, they have got to go. People might need money we have earmarked for something else or need someone to spend time with, but that would disrupt our plan. God might even be speaking to them in a way that feels utterly foreign to how we experience God, and we would not be able to manage the relationship or talk about faith on our own terms, so we don’t. • We demand that everything fits our template so, once again, we can win, so we can justify ourselves.

We become legalists. We elevate our preferences and experiences and comfort zone to the level of necessity – maybe even holiness.  We endlessly keep track of all the ways in which we have earned approval and other have not (as least that’s how we measure it).  When people don't prioritize things in the Christian life like we do, we think of them as uncommitted, second-class Christians who just aren’t as spiritual as we are. That is not life in the Spirit; that is life in the Law. That is spiritual bondage.

A Gospel of Grace

The result of believing the gospel of Christ is that we receive the Spirit. The Holy Spirit enters our life through belief in salvation by grace alone through Christ alone. We are given our new birth through the Spirit (John 3:5) and through the word of God (James 1:18). When grace saves us – and we really grasp this – we truly realize that beauty of Christ dying for us while we were sinners. Not after we were sinners. Not when we got it all together. Not when we were sufficiently capable of making good decisions. While we were yet sinners. We didn’t have to earn salvation then; we don’t have to earn righteousness now. These are gifts that only need to be embraced.

This is part of the "good news" of the Gospel: God embeds His living presence in us in spite of who we are. In the midst of our brokenness and sin, God moves in. It is His spirit, not our striving for perfection, that brings strength, renewal, hope, peace, and comfort. Now we are free from the obligation to earn anything from God or others. The bad news was that we could never do enough to become righteous. The good news is that we don’t have to.

God grants us His righteousness. We find our identity in Christ. Now it is no longer us, but Christ who lives in us. We don’t have to earn his attention; we don't have to prove anything to him. We do not begin with grace then continue “by human effort”, as though we must now earn ongoing blessings. That is “foolish.” God works from within so that we can be made right with him.

So how do we see all those things in the earlier list in such a way that our good deeds are not self-righteous works the cause us to rely on substitute saviors, but Spirit-motivated overflow of the righteousness God in his grace is working in us? If you are going to read more books on theology…sing more vigorously at church… get involved in causes… work on developing the right spiritual gifts…. learn every aspect of apologetics… volunteer for everything... don’t do it to impress others or earn approval from God; that’s foolish. Do it as God’s Spirit freely works His righteousness within you. Do it boldly without compelling others to be just like you.

 We are not called to create CLG’ers or Webers or Smiths or Norris’ or Mennonites or Charismatics or Reformed or non-denominationals. We are called to make disciples of Christ. Our message should never add to the gospel: “God so loved the world that He gave His son, and those who believe will not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).  That is sufficient. 


I am indebted to Timothy Keller's marvelous book Galatians For You for helping me to think - and write - more clearly about Galatians.