Confronting Works-Based Righteousness in the Church
Judaism was a false religion invented by the ethnic Jews, long before Jesus’ incarnation (Jn 1:14). It was a work-based religion that attempted to win favor with God by obedience to the Law of God. In its interpretation of what God required, Judaism produced numerous additional rules, themselves needing interpretation. This was much of the conflict between Jesus and the Jewish political/religious leaders, during His earthly ministry.
Ethnic Israel, as an Old Testament type of the true Israel, was made up of those who thought they were justified by works of the Law. There was also a remnant, who were justified by faith, even as their father Abraham stood right before God, by believing the promises God made to him (Gen 15:6). The justified live by faith (Gal 3:11) because what has been given to them, as a gift of God’s grace (Eph 2:8–9), which has positioned them in righteousness (Rom 14:17; Col 1:13) This is not by any work of their own (Rom 4:5).
So, we see two groups bearing one name “Israel.” This is why the Apostle Paul wrote, “Not all (ethnic) Israel is (spiritual) Israel (Rom 9:6).” Isaiah 49 helps us to see that Messiah would be the true Israel (Is 49:3), and His people, gathered to Himself, would also have the name “Israel” (Is 49:6). This Israel, in which Jesus was the Head and His people the body, would be comprised of members from every nation, tribe, and tongue (Rev 5:9; 7:9). There is only one people of God, and there always has been.
When Jesus Christ came and fulfilled the Scripture promises, by executing the necessary work of atonement, it was not understood immediately. The Gentile inclusion required a church council meeting at Jerusalem (Acts 15). There were also misunderstandings of law and grace. This played out in a contest between Peter and Paul at Antioch (Gal 2).
Right standing before God does not come by works of the Law (Gal 2:16, 21). Therefore, those of the party of the circumcision were leading the Christian Jews back to Judaism and insisting the Christian Gentiles become Jews (Gal 2:12).
Peter, Barnabas, and certain men of James, along with others were succumbing to the temptation to return to the legalism that promoted obedience for right standing (Gal 2:12–13). In truth, only Jesus Christ has right standing before God, by works of obedience to the Law (1 Cor 1:30; 2 Pet 1:1; 1 Jn 2:1). It is futile for anyone else to imagine they could attempt, let alone attain such a position.
Whatever word of grace the Judaizers heard, they did not believe in the imputed righteousness of Christ, as a work of God’s grace, brought by the Holy Spirit, to elect believers. Judaism was all that Peter and Barnabas and others had known. They knew the advantages of being in the commonwealth of Israel (Eph 2:12), having the Scriptures, the Temple, the priesthood, the sacrifices, etc.
Unless the Gospel of grace is preached with consistency, emphasizing the full sufficiency of Christ, the default mode of religious flesh will always be: righteousness by obedient works of the Law. Believers who are tempted back into some set of rule keeping measures should be identified with the Apostle Peter…the hypocrite (Gal 2:13).
Paul’s public confrontation to the face of Peter is an important lesson in how essential our community is, for correcting unsound doctrine, when it slips into the church. No doubt Peter appreciated Paul at a later date. We do theology in community, and we need one another, as iron sharpens iron.
Many Christians abhor the wrangling between the brethren, but our faith would be shipwrecked were it not for those fearless theologians who expose false teachers (Eph 5:11). These men of God love the truth more than their livelihood, even their lives in some cases. False prophets and false teachers have been problematic throughout Israel’s history. The church is racked, today, with a plethora of high profile charlatans, who would love to lead Christ’s sheep astray, with their doctrine of demons.
Martin Luther called Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, “my wife,” because he was standing against the works-based righteousness promoted by the Roman Catholic Church. The Romish church continues to promulgate this heretical teaching, today. We need Romans 6 to debunk antinomians (cheap grace leading to lawlessness), and we need Galatians to thwart those who would put us back under the Law for righteousness.
Quite possibly the best application, for Galatians and Paul’s rebuke of Peter, is the intrusion of the Federal Vision heresy into the Reformed churches. Like many erroneous teachings, it promotes an old teaching under a new name. With a conditional covenant at its center, this teaching includes baptismal regeneration. Baptismal regeneration, a Roman Catholic mainstay, teaches that water baptism saves the one being baptized, making salvation a work of man, not of God. It is a free will decision by one (adult) or by his parents (child) to be baptized, to the claimed effect of union with Christ.
Just as Paul rebuked Peter openly, we must confront all expressions of man-centered theology, in order to denounce their assault on the sovereign will and grace of God in salvation. God’s sovereign election controls the unconditional covenant, whereby, God determines who will be saved (elect, redeemed, regenerate), and how they will be saved by Him (grace), for His glory, alone.
Christian, you must study the Scriptures for your own protection against all forms of legalism. Just as Paul exposed Peter and the Judaizers, and Martin Luther exposed Rome’s distortion of justification by faith, so you must be aware of the insidious intrusion of the religion of works-based righteousness, today. It is your duty to defend the doctrines of grace, in the same manner as the Apostle Paul.
God’s sovereign grace is every true believer’s delight. We have exceeding joy that God has planned our salvation, executed it, and applied it to us. We bear witness of this perfectly effectual work of God…and not some futile act of our own.
Spokane Valley, Washington
November 24, 2022