Sinners Need to Be Justified

I. The Authenticity of Paul’s gospel demonstrated through Historical Narrative

A. He described an event that occurred 14 years after his first visit with Peter and James.

  1. His friend and defender, Barnabas, the Son of Encouragement, went with him to Jerusalem, as did the Gentile Titus.
  2. He went because of a revelation. God told Paul to go, for the controversy was yet future and the way was prepared by this journey for Paul’s extended historical defense of his personal conduct and preaching among the Gentiles.
  3. When he arrived, those “of reputation” requested a private meeting with Paul in order to hear him out. This meeting occurred in private because the Jerusalem group, in light of the strong advocates of mosaic ceremony still resident in the church, wanted to make sure of the purity of his message and that he grasped the delicate nature of some of the issues involved..
  4. Paul did not have fear of “having run in vain,” but the Jerusalem group was the cautious party in this discussion. They wanted to make sure that Paul was not a reactionary, having gone beyond the clearly revealed truth of the gospel into some kind of cultural reaction against Judaism. We find that throughout Paul’s ministry, he carefully maintained the foundation of revelatory truth in the Old Testament and the promises that came through the nation of Israel (Acts 24:10-16; Romans 1:1-3; 4:1-12; 9:1-8; 11:1-36; Galatians 3:15-22, et al.)
  5. They had this caution because of the influence of the “false brethren” to whom Paul referred in verse 4. The exact place of these “false brethren” is not quite clear. Paul seems to indicate that some made their way into the closed meeting in order to influence the outcome of the evaluation of Paul’s doctrine preached to the Gentiles.

B. He pointed to evidences from this visit that he received his gospel by revelation.

  1. Titus was not circumcised even though Judaizers were present in the Jerusalem congregation. In spite of this caution and even the presence of the ceremonial absolutists, Titus, a Greek convert, was not compelled to be circumcised. Had they been able to influence the outcome, one may legitimately wonder if the gospel as we know it would have survived beyond this interview. A divided apostolic witness would invalidate any claim to absolute truth as concerns God’s way of reconciling sinners. Sometimes controversies may appear to be tempests in teapots to many observers, but to those who see the long-term implications, they become essential elements of faithful discipleship.
  2. I call these stealthy intruders “ceremonial absolutists” because they conflated the ceremonial law with the moral law, giving Old Testament ceremonies the status of moral oughtness, contending that none were candidates for salvation through the Jewish Messiah who would not submit to Jewish ceremonies. Paul makes clear distinctions between ceremonial law and moral law in this letter. If one would seek to impose the one (that is, the lesser) as essential, then how much more must one impose the other (that is, the greater) as constituting righteousness. But the latter, the moral law, does not communicate righteousness to us but places us under a curse.
  3. Those who were of “high reputation” did not see fit to alter Paul’s message and practice in any way. He stood his ground against the Judaizers (verse 5) even though his resistance to them could be misinterpreted. For the sake of the Gentiles and the purity of the gospel, Paul saw through their subtlety and did not allow any dilution of the gospel of pure grace.
  4. The pillars of the Jerusalem church saw Paul‘s message as authentic and the same that Peter had preached to the “circumcision.” In addition, the powerful operations of God’s Spirit among the Gentiles were parallel to that among the Jews under Peter’s preaching (verse 8; compare 1 Thessalonians 1:3-5 – “Our gospel did not come to you in word only, but also in power, and in the Holy Spirit, and in much assurance”).
  5. In an act of fraternal confidence, the pillars of Jerusalem gave Paul and Barnabas the “right hand of fellowship,” a sort of commissioning of them as having special work among the Gentiles.


II. The Authenticity of Paul’s gospel was also demonstrated through a painful confrontation.

A. Though Peter had stood strong in the context of Jerusalem in the company of his fellow leaders of the church in Jerusalem, a later event made him panic under pressure and give the impression that he still considered the Gentiles unclean. As he ate with Gentiles, Lo and Behold, some pretenders at Christianity came from Jerusalem. With Peter leading the way, Barnabas and even the rest of the Jews present at the meal separated themselves from their proximity to the Gentiles, as if they were to maintain those nationalistic and ethnic practices built on the ceremonial distinctions between Jew and Gentile.

B. This troubling bit of inconsistency gave Paul an opportunity to demonstrate his uncompromised grasp of the gospel in which there is “neither Jew nor Greek . . . neither slave nor free, . . . neither male nor female.” No distinction whether of culture, politics, or creation prohibits any divine image bearer from finding the free pardon of sins in Jesus Christ. Christ has destroyed the middle wall of partition (Ephesians 2:11-15) set up by ordinances.

C. Peter had been taught by a vision from heaven that he was not to call any person unclean. After this vision he immediately went to a house filled with Gentiles and delivered a gospel message blessed with effectual power from the Holy Spirit and he saw Gentiles converted (Acts 10:1-48). He referred to this event in defending the right of the Gentiles to gospel privileges without their embracing the ceremonial law (Acts 11:17, 18). God had granted to the Gentiles repentance unto life.

D. Now, Paul points out with a painful honesty the destructive hypocrisy of Peter on this issue in this particular event. Note that he emphasized that their action amounted to this: “They were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel” (verse 14). “If you, being a Jew, live like the Gentiles and not like the Jews, how is it you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Paul was reminding him that Peter himself had been instrumental through divine revelation in breaking the Jew/Gentile barrier. He is saying, “Since you have seen and practiced accordingly, Peter, that the ceremonies are null and void and you are free to go to a Gentile house and even ‘to stay a few days’ (Acts 10:48), why do you now act as if the Gentiles are not worthy to be in your presence unless they consent to the ceremonies which you have formerly destroyed?”


III. Paul demonstrated the authenticity of his gospel through an intense doctrinal exposition. It is possible that what follows is still part of Paul’s response to Peter. On the other hand, it could be an independent analysis of the doctrinal implications of this event. To me, it seems that Paul gives a quick summary of his continued reasoning with Peter and expands it with his own theological discourse.

A. Paul now takes his cue from some of the words of Peter himself. Obviously knowing of Peter’s revelatory reconciliation to Gentile missions, Paul gave an intense, distilled exposition of the gospel of justification by faith. Peter had preached to the house of Cornelius, “To him all the prophets witness that, through his name, whoever believes in him will receive remission of sins” (Acts 10:43) Later in his report at Jerusalem Peter said, “If therefore, God gave them the same gift as he gave us when we believed on the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could withstand God?” (Acts 11:17).

B. Paul used that event by introducing his argument with the irony of the ceremonialist Jew’s way of thinking: “We who are Jews by nature [that is, born in the ethnic line of Abraham and the recipient of the mark of the covenant] and not sinners from among the Gentiles [sinners in their provenance from a non-covenanted people]—it is the distinction between these two classes that is being adjudicated in the gospel. In essence, such concepts no longer are valid for “all have sinned” and no person can see the kingdom of God without the new birth.

C. Note how Paul constructs the summary of Peter’s statements into an intense and well-constructed chiasm that has the force of an irrefutable syllogism of universal application:

a.  A man is not justified by the works of the Law

b.  A man is justified through faith in Christ Jesus

c. This implies a conclusion of universal application on belief: Even we, as is necessary for all the rest of mankind, have believed in Christ Jesus.

b’. so that we might be justified by faith in Christ

a’. and not by works of the Law

c. This implies a universal application about the works of the Law: Since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified.

D. (Verse 17) Does the work of Christ, therefore, mean that those who formerly were “not sinners” have been made sinners by his work? Is this moral irony actually the case, that Jews formerly were righteous and the children of God, and now, through the fulfillment of the messianic promises in Jesus of Nazareth their moral status has been changed? Is the Messiah the “minister of sin?” Paul rejects the notion in no uncertain terms (“May it never be!”) for it is completely antithetical to the entire foundation of Christ’s mission and contradicts the manner in which this mission must be accomplished. It is a conclusion that would involve an absolute misconstrual of the Law.

  1. (Verse 18) If Peter, and Paul also, received Christ by faith for the remission of sins in response to the convicting power of the Law (Romans 7:7-12 and especially 13), and then they seek to reconstruct their former adherence to the Law as the means of righteousness, they simply prove that they had not truly embraced the purpose of the Law. If that is indeed the case, they are yet in their sins; in doing this, Paul would prove himself “to be a transgressor” oblivious to the true holy standards of the law and unresponsive to its purpose to lead us to Christ.
  2. (Verse 19) But in fact, “Through the Law,” Paul affirmed, “I died to the Law,” that is, as the way of achieving righteousness. This death to the law as his path to saving righteousness brought him life before God, for it had the effect of seeing the true ministry of Christ for sinners. To this glorious redemptive transaction he now turns.

E. Rather than trusting in any supposed righteousness that he had on the basis of the Law (Philippians 3:9), he now sees the crucifixion of Christ as his own crucifixion, his own execution for his sins, consummated in another who took his place. Christ’s death was particularly substitutionary as well as fully propitiatory [wrath enduring] for the sake of all of Christ’s sheep.

  1. Paul, having a secure knowledge of his election by the eternal covenantal grace of God, sees his identity with Christ at the time of Christ’s crucifixion. “I have been crucified with Christ.”
  2. Having been so crucified in the ransom paid by another, Paul can say in another place (1 Corinthians 6:20) “for you were bought with a price,” and conclude here that “It is no longer I who live.” Rather, on account of Jesus’ resurrection demonstrating that death has been defeated, “Christ lives in me.” I do not, I must not, claim my life as my own if Christ has died for me, for I am ransomed and have been redeemed by his blood. The life I have now and the promise of life eternally has come now only by that saving work of Christ.
  3. Though I still live here in this dying world and in this dying flesh, by the grace of God manifest in the death of Christ I have been transferred to a new sphere. This present life is lived by “faith in the Son of God.” The eternally generated, beloved Son of God has paid a price of infinite value. Now Paul affirms, I trust in him, I capitulate to him and his righteousness and death all things that were supposed gains for me in this life. The identity of the Christian is in Christ. I must not find my most meaningful identity in any worldly category but only in Christ. “You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
  4. I have forsaken the arrogance implied in thinking that any conformity to ceremonial law contributes to the salvation granted through Christ alone. Instead I simply must confess and rely on this alone: “He loved me in the eternal covenant of redemption and gave himself up for me as he bore my sins in his own body on the tree.”

I need no other argument
I need no other plea;
It is enough that Jesus died,
And that he died for me.

F. The damning danger of clinging to the Law as a means of right standing before God is that it eliminates our dependence on grace and, therefore, renders the redemptive obedience of Christ as a needless event. We are placed on our own if we seek to contribute any righteousness through any kind of personal obedience to the law (Galatians 3:10). If we are on our own, we certainly will be found to be transgressors and still under condemnation. A bleeding and dying Christ completely destroys any construal of self-righteousness and makes all people of whatever provenance, ethnicity, gender, or social status come by way of the cross.

Tom has most recently served as the Professor of Historical Theology at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He previously taught at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School where he was Professor of Church History and Chair of the Department of Church History. Prior to that, he taught at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary. Along with numerous journal articles and scholarly papers, Dr. Nettles is the author and editor of fifteen books. Among his books are By His Grace and For His Glory; Baptists and the Bible, James Petigru Boyce: A Southern Baptist Statesman, and Living by Revealed Truth: The Life and Pastoral Theology of Charles H. Spurgeon.
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