Salvation By Grace Alone.

See with what large letters I am writing to you with my own hand. It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh who would force you to be circumcised, and only in order that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. For even those who are circumcised do not themselves keep the law, but they desire to have you circumcised that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation. And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. From now on let no one cause me trouble, for I bear on my body the marks of Jesus. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers. Amen. – Galatians 6:11-18 ESV

The fear of man. It has always been a real-life, everyday problem for believers and non-believers alike. Everyone fears being rejected, disliked, misunderstood or mistreated for their views. Our deep-seated desire for attention and affection sometimes drives us to do and say things that go against what we believe. We don’t want to be the odd man out. Peer pressure is a powerful force in every person’s life, and Paul knew that. He was fully aware that following Christ put a target on the back of every believer. Bearing the cross of Christ was a costly endeavor that often brought His followers rejection and ridicule. Paul had experienced this first-hand. But as he closed out his letter to the Galatian believers, he pointed out that the party of the circumcision, those individuals who were demanding that all Gentile converts undergo the Jewish rite of circumcision in order to validate their salvation, were doing so out of the fear of man. These Judaizers, Jews who confessed to be followers of Christ, were preaching their message out of fear of rejection by their fellow Jews. They also feared being persecuted and ridiculed for putting all their hope and faith in the cross of Christ alone. To do so would require them to reject their dependence upon the law and their reliance upon their own self-effort to justify themselves before God.

But Paul pointed out the absurdity of their logic. “Those who are trying to force you to be circumcised want to look good to others. They don’t want to be persecuted for teaching that the cross of Christ alone can save. And even those who advocate circumcision don’t keep the whole law themselves. They only want you to be circumcised so they can boast about it and claim you as their disciples.” (Galatians 6:12-13 NLT). They cared more about what others thought of them than they did what God would think about their actions. This was man-pleasing at its ugliest. Paul knew that their message had a deadly side-effect that would lead people away from the saving knowledge of faith in Christ alone. For Paul, the message of salvation was found in Christ alone by faith alone. It had nothing to do with works or human effort. It could not be earned. It was a grace gift provided by God Almighty Himself. Which is why Paul appended to the end of his letter, in his own weak and scrawling hand, “But far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:14 ESV). Paul wasn’t going to boast about his Hebrew heritage; his resumé as a Pharisee; his education under Gamaliel, the great Hebrew rabbi; or even his missionary exploits. At one point he confessed, “But whatever I am now, it is all because God poured out his special favor on me – and not without results” (1 Corinthians 15:10 NLT).  Paul had been transformed by the saving work of Jesus Christ. His efforts on behalf of the gospel were the result of the Spirit within him, not himself.

The primary issue threatening the Galatians believers was that of circumcision. But Paul said, “It doesn’t matter whether we have been circumcised or not. What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation by faith in the saving work of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 6:15 NLT). This rule or principle, regarding the efficacy of the gospel, was one that would bring peace and mercy to all who lived by it. Giving in to the false message of the Judaizers would result in guilt, shame, and a never-ending attempt to win favor with God through self-effort. Paul found that choice appalling. He also wanted his readers to know that he was anything but a man-pleaser. He had suffered greatly in his effort to bring the good news of Jesus Christ to the Gentile world. He had the physical and emotional scars to prove it. He closed his letter with the words, “I bear on my body the scars that show I belong to Jesus” (Galatians 6:17 NLT).

The message of faith in Christ is a difficult one for people to understand and even harder to accept. It sounds absurd. The story of God taking on human flesh, dying on a cross and being raised from the dead sounds crazy to most who hear it. Yet for Paul, it was the truth. He had seen it transform his life and the lives of thousands of others. The gospel was not just a message, but a powerful force for change in the world in which he lived. He believed in it wholeheartedly and preached it unapologetically. As he told the believers in Rome, living under the persecution of the Roman government, “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16 ESV). Paul was not ashamed of the gospel because he believed in the power of the gospel. He was willing to suffer ridicule and rejection at the hands of men because he had placed his hope and trust in the promises of God. And he wanted every believer in Christ to know the joy of living with their faith placed firmly in the saving work of Jesus Christ and the future redemption promised to them by God. Their hope was never to waver from the simple message of salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone.

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No Other Gospel.

Then after fourteen years I went up again to Jerusalem with Barnabas, taking Titus along with me. I went up because of a revelation and set before them (though privately before those who seemed influential) the gospel that I proclaim among the Gentiles, in order to make sure I was not running or had not run in vain. But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you. And from those who seemed to be influential (what they were makes no difference to me; God shows no partiality)—those, I say, who seemed influential added nothing to me. On the contrary, when they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles), and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised. Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do. – Galatians 2:1-10 ESV

As we read this autobiographical section of Paul’s letter, we must not lose sight of his main point of emphasis. He is still addressing the issue of a “different” gospel being preached to the people in Galatia. So Paul’s point in recounting his own conversion experience was first, to make it quite clear that the message he preached was from God, not man. And just in case anyone might question the validity of Paul’s conversion and commissioning, he tells of his initial interactions with Peter, James, John and the other apostles in Jerusalem. It had been 14 years since his conversion on the road to Damascus when Paul returned to Jerusalem and met with the church leaders there. He shared with them the content of the gospel that he was preaching among the Gentiles, and it was confirmed by them as the one true gospel. The only difference was that Paul had a divine directive to share the gospel with the Gentiles, while Peter and the other apostles were focusing their efforts among the Jews. Paul recounts the outcome of his visit to Jerusalem:

“when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.” – Galatians 2:9 ESV

But one important distinction that Paul makes in this section is regarding circumcision. He refers to Titus, his traveling companion, who was a Greek convert to Christianity. Paul, in somewhat of an aside, indicated that Titus “was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek” (Galatians 2:3 ESV). While this may appear to be an unimportant parenthetical statement, it is actually quite revealing. One of the big issues Paul had with the Judaizers who seemed to follow him wherever he went and contradict his message and ministry, was their insistence that Gentile converts be circumcised and adhere to the law of Moses for their conversion to be complete. 

Luke records in the book of Acts that there Judean believers who had followed behind Paul, teaching the need for circumcision in order for Gentile conversions to be valid. “But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1 ESV). Paul and Barnabas had what Luke described as “no small debate” with them over this matter. And eventually Paul, Barnabas and others were sent to Jerusalem to discuss the issue with the apostles. Luke records, “When they came to Jerusalem, they were welcomed by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they declared all that God had done with them. But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, ‘It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses’” (Acts 15:4-5 ESV). 

Addressing the council, Paul stated, “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 ESV). For Paul, this was the crux of the matter. Justification with God was by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Circumcision and the keeping of the law were not required. This in no way invalidated either circumcision or the law. Both were holy, righteous, and God-ordained. But with the coming of Christ, God had ordained a better way. Just a few verses later Paul will point out: “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” (Galatians 2:16 ESV).

When Paul and Barnabas had traveled to Antioch on their way to Jerusalem, they stopped in the synagogue, and addressing the crowd there, Paul stated, “Let it be known to you therefore, brothers, that through this man forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you, and by him everyone who believes is freed from everything from which you could not be freed by the law of Moses” (Acts 13:38-39 ESV). Then Paul warned them, using a passage from the Old Testament book of Habakuk.

Look, you scoffers, be astounded and perish; for I am doing a work in your days, a work that you will not believe, even if one tells it to you.” – Habakuk 1:5 ESV

Paul utilizes these words of the prophet Habakuk to warn his Jewish audience not to be like their ancestors and refuse to see and acknowledge the work that was doing. This was a new day and God was justifying His people in a new way. The law, while not done away with, was no longer a necessary requirement for being made right with God.

The result of Paul’s meeting with the apostles was their full support of his gospel message and ministry to the Gentiles. He walked away with their blessing. And while he makes it clear that he did not need their support, because of his having received his commission directly from Jesus, he was grateful and relieved to see that they were all on the same page. There was no other gospel. Nothing more was required to be made right with God other than faith in the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus Christ.