“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?” We who are Jews by nature, and not sinners of the Gentiles, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Jesus Christ, that we might be justified by the faith of Christ, and not by the works of the law: for by the works of the law shall no flesh be justified.” Galatians 2: 11-16
What we call salvation, being saved, is a dynamic structure of many parts that organizes the life of the individual Christian as well as the Christian community in which he dwells. Last week I made the point that frequently one part is taken for the whole. Justification is an example of taking a part for the whole and so St. Paul’s use of that word we translate “justification,” as in “justification by works,” is our focus today. We are still on Romans but I want to use this story that Paul retells to the Galatian Church in order to get a better understanding of what Paul meant by his use of the word “justification” and I want to begin by looking at how Luther and others have misunderstood Paul on this point and then return to our Galatians story. So here we go:
“a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ…”
When he saw St. Paul’s division between faith and works Martin Luther thought he had discovered the key that unlocked the meaning of the Bible and the key that unlocked the meaning of life as well. “Sole Fide,” “by faith alone,” became the slogan of the Reformation and Luther used it very effectively against the Roman Catholic Church. How so? Luther took Paul’s attack on “justification by works of the law” to be an attack against Pharisees and other serious Jews who tried to achieve a right standing with God by keeping the Law. Luther’s assumption was that the Jews of Jesus’ day believed that they could arrive at a right standing before God, earned their salvation, by keeping the Law of Moses. Luther then broadened that idea beyond Israel and the Mosaic Law and applied it to good works, works or righteousness in general. According to Luther, the Roman Church like the Pharisees taught a false religion – that Catholics could merit their salvation through good works – in opposition to Paul wrote the Galatians:
“a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ…”
But there are several problems for Luther: First of all, no Jew of any strip, including Pharisees like Saul who became Paul, ever believed in justification by works of the law as Luther thought; they never believed they were earning God’s favor by keeping the Law. They believed they were already in God’s favor, already his chosen, his elect – they were children of Abraham and thus heirs of the Promise; they did not have to earn a place at the table, they were in. God gave Israel the Law of Moses to distinguish between Israel and the rest of the world.
The word justification is a forensic term that refers to the action of the judge declaring one to be either guilty or innocent of a charge and this is where we find another mistake that is called imputed righteousness, which means that our Lord’s perfect law keeping is imputed or dispensed to the guilty person who has faith in Jesus. All mankind is in the bondage of sin and since the Law is impossible to keep we are all condemned by our sin. However if one has faith in Christ, God declares the guilty person to be not guilty, but in the right. God the judge turns a blind eye to your sins and trespasses and looks upon the righteousness of Christ and credits Christ’s righteousness to believers. All this is important: first the guilty are truly guilty and being in the right is impossible, but secondly the truly guilty are declared not guilty and God’s declaration that the guilty are not guilty but in fact righteous is because Jesus’ perfect righteousness is credited, assigned, is dispensed to the guilty. In other words our salvation, from Luther’s perspective is ultimately based on a theological fiction. I think it is fair to say that for mainline evangelical/Protestants the ideas of “sole fide” and imputed righteousness are probably the distinguishing marks of their take on justification.
Lets return to our text. I want you to understand two things: First of all justification has to do with your status of being in the covenant, in God’s true family and secondly we have been empowered by God by the Holy Spirit to grow in holiness as his children. If I were a film director I would turn this scene in Antioch into a movie. I think, like Tarantino, I would be bored with the straight beginning, middle, and end timeline, but I would begin right here with this happy scene of the Antiochene Church, Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus the Messiah and maybe even old Ananias, who had baptized Paul, enjoying table fellowship and probably celebrating the sacrament of Holy Communion as well since in the early years the Eucharist was embedded in a common meal. Let’s say all this the Antiochene Christians were enjoying with visiting missionaries and dignitaries like Peter and his traveling companions, Barnabus, St. Paul, and other leaders of the Church. I would place us close to Peter and Paul at the table listening to their stories. At some point into the meal the doorkeeper comes over and whispers something to the master of ceremonies who excuses himself and follows the doorkeeper to the atrium. When he returns he introduces a newly arrived delegation from the Jerusalem Church. As they enter the banquet hall the Jerusalemites stand out from everyone else because of their traditional Jewish dress and one of them declares: “We are the representatives of James, the brother of the Messiah.” He gives a harsh glance Peter’s way and then moves to a table well on the other side of the room hardly acknowledging the Antiochene parishioners. Peter is clearly agitated but he leaves his table and joins the Jewish delegates. The other Jewish Christians from Antioch follow his lead. Even though Barnabus is clearly wound up by this he follows Peter as well. But just as Barnabas stands up one of the Greek Christians who hasn’t figured out what’s going on stands up to follow Barnabus, who then lifts his hand to the man as if to say, “No, stay here.” The man sits back down. All the Jewish Christians are now huddled around the regal delegation from Jerusalem speaking only Aramaic, while the non-Jewish Christians have been left alone, except for St. Paul who is obviously furious. The camera pans from Paul as it zooms in closer and closer to the young man Barnabas left behind till nothing but his face fills the screen at which point it fades to black. After of moment the words appear:
This is a flashback: We fade to a bird’s eye view of Caesarea Maritima on the coast of the Mediterranean in Israel. Like a drone we zero in on the home of a Roman centurion and enter the atrium where we find him upon his knees, his eyes shut tight, and praying in Latin mostly, but with some Hebrew as well – praying as best he can to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Suddenly a light fills his house, he begins to tremble and he opens his eyes to see an angel from God standing in front of him. The angel commands the Italian, whose name is Cornelius, to go to a seaside village named Joppa (today we call it Tel Aviv) and finds an Apostle of Jesus the Messiah named Simon Peter and as he continues to speak the screen once again fades to black. After a moment the words appear:
Up on the Roof in Joppa.
A roof top scene comes into focus where Simon Peter appears to be dangerously close to the edge, his arms spread open as he prays over the village when suddenly he staggers backward and we see, through Peter’s eyes, something like a white sheet slowly descending with all kinds of living creatures, sheep, goats, birds, and even reptiles dashing about. Then we hear the unmistakable voice of Jesus as he speaks: “Peter, what I have declared clean, do not call common.” At that moment the Italian delegation finds the house where Peter is staying and request to speak with him and just at that moment the Spirit spoke to Peter: “Three men have come to fetch you. Go with them for I have sent them.” Peter went down to them and introduced himself and they explained that an angel had instructed Cornelius to find Peter to hear his message. Peter agreed to go with them and when he enters his home Cornelius falls down at Peter’s feet to worship him, but Peter lifts him up and says, “I am a man like you.” The home is filled with his family, most of his soldiers, and close friends who have gathered to hear Peter’s message. But look, this is the first thing the Apostle says to them: “You know that it is unlawful for a Jew to associate with or to enter the home of a Gentile, but God has shown me that no one is foul or unclean.” And then Peter preached the Gospel of Jesus Christ and they all believed and the Holy Spirit fell on them in some manner that was immediately recognizable to Peter and his Jewish companions. In fact Peter and his Jewish companions were astonished by the manifestation of the Spirit upon the Gentiles. Then Peter said to his companions, “Can anyone withhold baptism from these Gentiles now that it is evident that they believe in Jesus the Messiah?” Peter then instructs his Jewish companions to baptize all of the gentiles and as they begin the screen fades to black once again. And then the words appear:
Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem.
We follow Peter when he comes into view as he enters Jerusalem and he is immediately before he can do anything else he is called to meet with James and other Jewish Christians. We follow him through the busy streets to the Upper Room he so well knows and after he enters the home he is given a seat and told to wait. In a moment he is summoned to the open room where James and his entourage are waiting. Peter comes and stands before them. I would make sure the camera takes notice of the prominent white and blue tassels attached to the hem of their outer garments, which identified them as authorities in the Jerusalem Church. One of James’ men speaks to Peter as though he is bringing a charge against him:
“You went into the home of an uncircumcised man and ate with them. Explain yourself.”
Peter immediately launches into an exhaustive narration of the events that lead up to his visit with the Italian beginning with his vision at Joppa and the fact that the Gentiles believed the Gospel and the Holy Spirit fell upon them just as he had fallen upon the Apostles at Pentecost and when Peter finished there was totally silence in the room. And then James speaks:
“Well then, it appears that God has granted to the Gentiles also the repentance that leads to life.”
Then our screen would fade to back and then the words appear:
Who is in and who is out?
We return to the opening scene in Antioch. Paul rises from the table positioning himself with the Gentiles and he calls Peter out so that everyone can hear: “Peter let me ask you a question: ‘how do you look yourself in the mirror?’ You are living a double life. You were born a Jew but ever since you began following Jesus the Messiah you stopped living like a Jew. You were the first of the Apostles to baptize uncircumcised sinners. And yet here you are behaving as though none of that ever happened. Shame on you. You know as well as I that God is justifying, making things right, through his promise to Abraham. And you know there is only one promise, one covenant, only one family of God and it is not established through circumcision. Did you circumcised Cornelius and his Italian family and friends before you baptized them in the Name of Jesus the Messiah? I will answer for you: ‘No.’ you know as well as I that Abraham brought the Covenant into being the moment he took God at this word. Abraham effected the Promise that the whole world would be redeemed through his family. He was not circumcised when God made the Promise; it was the faith of Abraham that achieved the Promise not his circumcision. Jesus the Messiah by his own faith, his faith answering Abraham’s faith, has fulfilled the Promise. You and I who are Jews by birth have been made children of the Promise, true children of Abraham by the faith of Jesus. Cornelius, his Italian family, and friends were made children of the Promise, true children of Abraham, true children of God, in exactly the same way as you and I and the whole Jerusalem Church were made children of Abraham: We believed in Jesus whom God raised from the dead, and we were baptized into Jesus for forgiveness of our sin and we received the Holy Spirit.” That ends our narrative.
The upshot of this is that the true meaning of the word justification is not about moral character or theological fictions, it is our status of being children of the Promise, children of Abraham, members of God’s true family. To be justified by the faith of Jesus Christ is to be grafted into olive tree of Israel and to feed upon the root and fatness of Abraham.
“That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.” Romans 10:9