What Kind Of Culture Does Grace Create?
I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel. Galatians 2:14
John Stott calls this “one of the most tense and dramatic episodes in the New Testament.” An apostle is calling out another apostle – in front of everyone. Something essential was at stake in the early church. Something essential is at stake in our churches today. What made the difference back then was that Paul had the clarity and courage to see what matters most and stand up for it. Do you realize God has put something inside the circle of your existence so precious, so sacred, it is worth fighting for?
May we at Immanuel always – to the tenth generation – always have a clear awareness that something glorious has been given to us from above, something more important than remaining comfortable. Churches that cannot take a courageous stand for the gospel, churches that don’t prize what they believe – how can anyone take that seriously? Dorothy Sayers, the brilliant author and friend of C. S. Lewis wrote,
In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair. . . . the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.
Jesus lived and died for something. He calls us to follow him. What then was on the line both in the early church and in churches today? Something massive. Theologians call it justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from all our works. That is the heart of the gospel. I’ll explain it further in a moment.
But what we see here in Galatians 2 is that the Lord calls us to be faithful to that gospel at two levels simultaneously – both at the level of doctrine and at the level of culture. And this passage is unsettling, because we see in Peter how it is possible to stand for that gospel at the level of doctrine while at the same time betray that gospel at the level of culture. The thought never entered Peter’s mind, “I think I’ll violate the gospel today.” He believed the gospel. He preached the gospel. But he also betrayed the gospel, without even realizing it. Paul saw that there was something sacred to be guarded and enjoyed and spread further. This conflict in Galatians 2 wasn’t about ego. It was about the gospel – not at th level of doctrine but at the level of culture. Both Paul and Peter believed the right doctrine. Verse 16: “We also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ.” But Peter undermined that very doctrine by the way he behaved. Verse 11: “I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel.”
Let me show you a picture of how a church’s culture can get out of step with its doctrine: http://www.irreligious.org/2013/11/ku-klux-klan-jesus-saves-church-meeting.html Let’s analyze this disturbing picture. What is the doctrine of that church? “Jesus saves.” That’s good doctrine. What is the culture of that church? The very opposite of the doctrine! The culture says, “Jesus saves, if you look like us!” That church is denying the gospel by allowing conduct opposite to the gospel. The glorious truth that Jesus saves must never be a mere slogan. That glorious truth creates glorious churches, and that church isn’t glorious, and no church has the right not to be glorious. D. A. Carson, the theologian and leader of The Gospel Coalition, helps us understand the glorious call of God upon us: The church is made up of natural enemies. What binds us together is not common education, common race, common income levels, common politics, common nationality, common accents, common jobs, or anything else of that sort. Christians come together because they have all been saved by Jesus Christ. They are a band of natural enemies who love one another for Jesus’ sake.
Now that is glorious! Here is what the Lord is saying to us from Galatians 2. Gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture, and the culture is as sacred as the doctrine. The biblical message of divine grace creates a social environment of human grace, and no one has the right to disrupt what our Savior died to create. Biblical salvation has never been limited to a private experience only; biblical salvation has always created a place of shalom for sinners to enjoy together. So let’s always remember these two categories: doctrine and culture. And it’s always harder to stay faithful to the culture. It means we die to Self many times over, we humble ourselves, we adjust, we fit in, we create space for others, we look for the win-win. Let’s never be so foolish as to think we’ve settled the matter of gospel faithfulness just by having a true doctrinal statement, essential as that is. Faithfulness is our theology beautifying our relationships.
I believe the time has come for our city to see something new. The time has come for our city to see a new kind of church community where humility and honesty and gentleness are not optional add-ons but matter as much as the doctrine. The time has come to give to our city a church where the people hold themselves to a high gospel standard both in glorious theology and in joyous love. That is how the gospel can visit our city with new power today. Elton Trueblood wrote this about the early church and how intensely they loved one another:
It was the flaming character of the early Christian fellowship which was amazing to the contemporary Romans. This new community was amazing precisely because there was nothing in the Roman experience remotely similar to it. Religion they had in vast quantities, but it was nothing like this. Much of the uniqueness of Christianity, in its original emergence, consisted of the fact that simple people could be amazingly powerful when they were members one of another. As everyone knows, it is almost impossible to create a fire with one log, even if it is a sound one, while several poor logs may make an excellent fire if they stay together as they burn. The miracle of the early church was that of poor sticks making a grand conflagration.
When the grace of Jesus gathers diverse people together as one, that isn’t religion any more; that’s life. It is the life of Christ himself. And there is nothing else on earth like him. And so we receive his peace as a sacred thing, and we offer this church community to our city as living proof that he is real and wonderful.
The doctrine We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; 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 2:15-16
Obviously, these verses are about justification. The word “justified” appears three times. The biblical doctrine of justification addresses a profound human question. The Bible is not asking us to care about something we don’t care about. The Bible is answering a huge personal question we all care about deeply. We don’t always answer our question with theological language, but this universal human longing is the focal point of the whole Christian gospel. It’s a cluster of questions, really, like, “Am I okay? And do I belong? I deeply fear that I don’t measure up and I don’t have a place. And if other people find out who I really am, they will despise me.” Those are very human doubts and questions. But that’s just for starters. It goes even deeper. “What does God think of me? How does God perceive me? Does God despise me? Is there any way God might tolerate me enough to get involved and help me? What is it going to take, to get God on my side? Where do I stand with God, both now and forever? After I die and stand before the judgment seat of God, what will become of me then?”
Those are burning questions. And I could keep restating them in different ways, until all of us would be nodding yes. But without this cluster of mega-questions being answered in a way that satisfies, we live in anxiety and posing. We keep trying to justify our existence in various way. Success in business, setting records in sports, getting into the right school, signing the record contract, getting someone to love me, proving I’m not what my parents said I was – there are as many strategies for self-justification as there are human stories. But here’s the main thing. As long as we’re stuck in our unanswered questions, we cannot love and serve God or one another. What we do is use one another to squeeze out some feeling of completeness. Insecure human hearts say to other people, “I’m so angry, so empty, so miserable, that you have to be my scapegoat.” We project our anguish onto others and blame them for it. Finger-pointing is the strategy for a guilty conscience to find relief, because if someone else is in the wrong then maybe I’m not that bad off. Why are we so fiercely passionate to be found right? Isn’t it because we secretly know we aren’t? Last night I finished reading Macbeth. Lady Macbeth washes her hands compulsively, trying to get the blood of murder off of her, and she’s moaning, “Out, damned spot! Out, I say! Here’s the smell of blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh.” And as his wife is coming unhinged, Macbeth says to a doctor, “Canst thou not minister to a mind diseased, pluck from the memory a rooted sorrow, raze out the written troubles of the brain and with some sweet oblivious antidote cleanse the stuffed bosom of that perilous stuff which weighs upon the heart?” Do you remember how the doctor replies? “Therein the patient must minister to himself.” Is that our hope – to medicate ourselves with “some sweet oblivious antidote” – overwork, drugs, porn, gossip, television? What makes our unbearable guilt go away? Is there any way it can be truly gone and forgotten forever? Is there someone, anyone, who can bear it away for us?
Jesus Christ came into the world to say to us, “I’ll be your scapegoat. At my cross, I was crushed under the real moral guilt of others. I am where sins are forgiven and forgotten forever. That’s who I am and what I do, because I love guilty people. If you’ll trust me and come to me here, I’ll make a trade with you – your guilt for my righteousness. My only guilt will be what you’ve done, and your only righteousness will be what I’ve done. Then, as you stand before God, you are justified forever. Is that arrangement acceptable to you? Or will you continue to cope by your own devices?”
We join with Paul and Peter as they say, in verse 16, “We also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ.” We’ve given up trying to cope by on our own sweet oblivious antidotes. We’re done making amends with God by our own self-invented righteousness. We’ve come to realize we’ll never offset our guilt before God or go back and do it right this time. We finally admit it. And we too, with millions of others, are putting all our hope in the finished work of Christ on the cross for sinners. And we rejoice in God’s word to us today, who says to us, “You are received. You are cleansed. You are complete. And you are mine.” We are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from all our works. That’s the gospel doctrine.
The culture But when Cephas [that is, Peter] 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
What’s wrong with this picture? The apostle Peter was going back on the gospel of justification by faith alone. There was nothing wrong with faith in Jesus dressed in the garb of Judaism. But there was something very wrong with absolutizing that tradition and rebuilding the wall dividing Jews and Gentiles, because Christ had fulfilled the rituals of the Old Testament law. When Peter distanced himself from the unkosher Gentile believers, he was, in effect, throwing redemptive history into reverse gear and ignoring the triumph of Jesus. He wasn’t going back on the doctrine. But he was saying something by his conduct. What was he saying? He was saying that Gentile believers had to adapt to the clean/unclean distinctions of Jewish culture, for them to be good enough for Christ – and for Peter! What an insult to the finished work of Christ on the cross. How demeaning to those Gentile believers. What a violation of justification by faith alone.
What is disturbing about Peter here is that he knew better. God had taught Peter, through the vision in Acts chapter 10, when he saw the sheet coming down with the unclean animals for his lunch – Peter knew that “What God has made clean, do not call common” (Acts 10:15). So it wasn’t doctrine that was driving Peter here in this situation. What was driving Peter here was fear, fear of church politics, fear of being disinvited to preach at future conferences down in Jerusalem: “He drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party.” When Peter denied Jesus back in the gospels, he was panicking for his physical self-preservation. Here he is denying Jesus again, this time panicking for his social self-preservation. Driven by fear, Peter forsook the gospel – not at the level of doctrine but at the level of culture. By his example – and a leader setting an example makes such a difference – by his example, Peter was forcing (verse 14) these Gentile believers to conform to Jewish customs, in order to be acceptable to God and included among God’s people. Paul twice calls it hypocrisy (verse 13). In fact, the fear and hypocrisy were so contagious that even Barnabas was swept away. It is not hard for a small group to stampede a large group, and even leaders, sweeping them away with a false sense of alarm. Paul had the courage to speak out. We’re glad he did. If Paul had caved too, the spread of the gospel would have stalled, because the gospel would have been accessible only to those few people who would love Jesus and embrace the culture of Judaism.
What was it that Paul stood up for? That we all come to God the same way, that all we need in order to belong is Jesus, that he makes us kosher in God’s eyes, that every culture can find a home in the Christian church, that cultural elitism denies the gospel, that everyone in Christ belongs. We do not accept multi-layered levels of okayness before God. We do not like the slogan in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm, that “All animals are equal, but some are more equal than others.” We do not allow our gospel culture to be violated and disrupted. We revere the all-sufficiency of Jesus for all of God’s people, and we want our conduct to keep in step with that truth, and we aren’t afraid to love one another for Jesus’ sake, and we don’t care who disinvites us, because God has accepted us, and we’re loving his party, and we want this joy for everybody. That’s the doctrine: Jesus is enough for us all. And that’s the culture: everyone in Jesus belongs!
Here at Immanuel, we can’t be everything. I can’t preach in Spanish, for example. But even if we can’t be everything to everyone, we can still stretch and adjust and include as wide a range of people and their cultures as possible. We will never choose to exclude appropriate cultural expressions within this church. We might be limited in terms of talent and ability. But we will never be limited in terms of love and respect.
Something sacred is at stake in this church – the display of Jesus to an angry and dying world. If we will keep putting him first, maybe he will give us the privilege of being Ground Zero for a new demonstration of the gospel in our time. I see no barriers to that. I see only openness in our hearts. Let’s keep it that way. And let’s see what the Lord will do with us, for his own glory.