“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?’” (Galatians 2:11-14)
The actions of a Christian can confuse the message of the Gospel. I doubt that statement would get much pushback from mainline evangelicals. Most of us fully comprehend that moral imperfections can destroy our witness for years to come. The problem, however, is that those aren’t the only kinds of actions that can conflict with the message of justification by faith alone.
I was recently reminded of this important truth as I preached this passage in our study through the book of Galatians. I’ve heard this passage referenced occasionally. However, this is not a passage that a preacher will generally use as a text in a Bible conference. After preaching it, I’m convinced it’s greatly important.
Paul here recounts how he publicly confronted Peter because Peter’s (and others) actions were “not in step with the truth of the Gospel.” Let me remind you that this is the Peter who declared, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Matthew 16:16). This is the Peter who was allowed to see things some of the other apostles were not. This is the same Peter who boldly preached on Pentecost, “Men of Israel, hear these words: Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with mighty works and wonders and signs that God did through him in your midst, as you yourselves know— this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.” (Acts 2:22-24). This Peter was sent to the house of Cornelius to witness to the Gentiles of the salvation offered to mankind through the meritorious work of Jesus Christ. This Peter stood up in the Jerusalem council saying, “Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (Acts 15:10-11). This is the same Peter who penned two books in the New Testament which bear his name. I could go on, but you get the drift.
Peter was not unlearned. Peter was not a false teacher. Peter was not a heretic. Peter was not even a man who made a moral misstep in this passage. Peter is an orthodox apostle, elder and preacher. He completely understood that salvation is wrapped up in the finished work of Jesus Christ alone. He understood beyond the shadow of a doubt that we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone plus nothing. Paul is not confronting Peter over his preaching. He isn’t confronting Peter over his theology. Peter was as sound as Paul was. Paul is confronting Peter because his actions—his religious actions, at that—were not reflecting the orthodox theology he was preaching in the pulpit.
When Peter visited Antioch, it seems he initially adapted his actions to the customs of those Gentiles in the church there. He ate with them. He seemingly ate their food—realizing that the dietary laws had been set aside by the work of Jesus. This was all fine and well until some Jews visited—probably from Jerusalem. Once they came, Peter—out of fear—withdrew from these Gentile believers and ate only with the Jews. Undoubtedly, he only ate foods which were prescribed by the Mosaic Law. To make matters worse, other Jews followed Peter’s hypocritical actions including Barnabas, Paul’s missionary partner.
What’s the problem? No moral transgression had been committed. No one had preached against the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. Why is Paul in an uproar? And even more, why does he write, “their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel”? Let’s see if we can get to the bottom of it.
First things first. The main thrust of the book of Galatians is that we are justified in God’s sight by faith alone in Christ alone. Some false teachers had come into these churches after Paul left town trying to turn these Gentiles into Jews—saying they couldn’t be saved unless they were circumcised and kept the Law of Moses. Paul writes this letter to nip that false gospel in the bud.
Back to Paul’s story of these events in Antioch. Those Gentiles—the ones Peter was initially eating with—they were as saved as any believing Jew was. They were saved because they had believed the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The dietary laws wouldn’t add one thing to their salvation—and Peter was well aware of that. But what Peter knew to be true on paper, he was misrepresenting by his actions. His sermons said we are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. His actions said you had to live like a Jew to be accepted by God. These were contradictory and Paul confronted Peter as a result. Actions matter.
What was the cause of Peter’s misrepresentation of the Gospel? Paul is crystal clear—Peter was “fearing the circumcision party.” The apostle Peter feared how certain actions may cause him to be accepted by more legalistic brethren. Out of fear of those brethren, this apostle caved. I seriously doubt Peter realized that these actions conflicted with his preaching. But they did. And Paul immediately recognized it. Peer pressure is a powerful thing. We often only think of young people being affected by it. But here, a grown man—a spiritually mature grown man, at that—is affected by peer pressure and he buckled under that pressure.
Folks, if the apostle Peter can fail in this way, we can too. It’s probably more accurate to say we have done so. Anytime we give the idea that we are somehow justified in God’s sight by something other than Jesus Christ, we have confused the Gospel—whether we say those words out loud or not. Our singing, our praying and our preaching are all accepted by God only through Jesus Christ. Let us be cautious that we don’t set up an extra-Biblical religious system that confuses the Gospel to our hearers. And whatever we do, let us not succumb to religious pressure which implies that God accepts us through any avenue other than Jesus Christ and Him crucified. And anytime we begin doing something in our churches, let us take an extra moment to consider whether such changes might confuse the message of justification by faith alone. And while we’re at it, we’d probably all do well to consider our current programs as well.
Bottom line, it doesn’t matter what the brethren think—it matters what God’s Word says. And though we are all required to share the Gospel audibly, we can confuse the Gospel without saying a word.
If you are interested in the complete sermon preached from this text, it is available here: Inconsistent Orthodoxy.