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Saturday, August 12, 2017

Paul rebukes Peter (and us) (Luther's commentary on Galatians 2:11-15)

In my reading of Galatians and Martin Luther's commentary on it, I've come to the famous passage where the apostle Paul rebukes the apostle Peter.  This passage complements the one I talked about in my last post, because that one was about the importance of reputation and this one is about someone whose reputation was too important to him.  It also sheds light on the overall theme of the book and provides some helpful insight into the nature of true faith and conversion.

You might have heard Peter referred to as "the disciple with the foot-shaped mouth" because of how he was always saying ill-advised things in an impulsive manner and often had to be rebuked by Christ.  Well, here he gets in trouble for doing something else with his mouth, or rather what he was not doing with it.  "For prior to the coming of certain men from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and hold himself aloof, fearing the party of the circumcision" (v. 12).  Luther explains why Paul had to rebuke him for this:

To live as a Jew is nothing bad. To eat or not to eat pork, what difference does it make? But to play the Jew, and for conscience' sake to abstain from certain meats, is a denial of Christ. When Paul saw that Peter's attitude tended to this, he withstood Peter and said to him: "You know that the observance of the law is not needed unto righteousness. You know that we are justified by faith in Christ. You know that we may eat all kinds of meats. Yet by your example you obligate the Gentiles to forsake Christ, and to return to the Law. You give them reason to think that faith is not sufficient unto salvation."  Peter did not say so, but his example said quite plainly that the observance of the Law must be added to faith in Christ, if men are to be saved. From Peter's example the Gentiles could not help but draw the conclusion that the Law was necessary unto salvation. If this error had been permitted to pass unchallenged, Christ would have lost out altogether. The controversy involved the preservation of pure doctrine. In such a controversy Paul did not mind if anybody took offense.

Like I talked about in my last post, Paul didn't care about his reputation unless the ministry of the gospel was at stake.  But Peter, on the other hand, cared too much about his reputation.  That was clearly the source of this problem.  He didn't want the influential Jews to think badly of him, even though he knew it was okay to eat those foods with the Gentiles, and knew he should be standing up for their liberty in Christ.

Fear of man is one of the most subtle but prevalent sins we commit, and it can be really dangerous to the souls of others (as it was with Peter) and to our own souls as well.  At the time of my reading and writing about this, I saw two illustrations of this problem in my own life.  The first was that I heard about someone who thinks very badly of me, and though I knew they misunderstood many things, it still bothered me way too much.  It should be enough to know that God understands and is pleased with me, but my heart places too much stock in others' opinions.

The second illustration was considerably lighter, but still enlightening:  I had a dream that the famous quarterback Tom Brady was hanging out with me one day (I have no idea why--I'm not really a fan of his), and I realized after I woke up how happy and proud I'd been that a famous person would be my friend, and how I'd wanted everyone to see that he was.  The amount of satisfaction I was taking from this in the dream could not have been pleasing to a God who is "no respecter of persons," and tells us not to be either.  So even though it was just a dream, I confessed the idolatry in my heart to the Lord, and asked him to transform it so that my happiness would come from knowing Him and not from the esteem of man.

The way this relates to the overall theme of Galatians (and why Paul goes to to explain it in the next passage), is that a characteristic of true faith is not relying on anything other than Christ for our salvation.  And a big part of the faith journey for God's people is that He is faithful to discipline us by taking away the other things that we might rely on (like our reputation, for example).  Notice how Luther's description of true conversion contains that element of "coming to the end of yourself":

Having been humbled by the Law, and having been brought to a right estimate of himself, a man will repent. He finds out that he is so depraved, that no strength, no works, no merits of his own will ever deliver him from his guilt. He will then understand the meaning of Paul's words: "I am sold under sin"; and "they are all under sin." At this state a person begins to lament: "Who is going to help me?" In due time comes the Word of the Gospel, and says: "Son, thy sins are forgiven thee. Believe in Jesus Christ who was crucified for your sins. Remember, your sins have been imposed upon Christ." In this way are we delivered from sin. In this way are we justified and made heirs of everlasting life.

I am actually growing more and more thankful that by God's grace (and loving discipline) in my own life, I can no longer rely in any way on things like having a solid reputation or the esteem of others, being a "good guy," serving the Lord in full-time ministry, or even being a successful husband and father.  In ways I have never experienced before, Jesus Christ is now becoming my only hope, my only righteousness, and my only audience.

How about you?  Is reputation too important to you, that if it would go away, so would your assurance of God's love?  Or is it financial security, or relationships, or your church involvement, or a particular doctrinal understanding that makes you think, "If anyone is a Christian, it must be me, because..."   Do you find yourself frustrated with others for their sins and weaknesses, because deep in your heart you think you are somehow better than they are?  Do you find it hard to forgive and show grace, because you think your sins are not really as bad as theirs?

If any of that might be true of you, as it is of me, I encourage you to read Galatians 2:16-21 (and Luther's commentary on it) sometime in the next few days, and then take a look at my next blog post about it (comments welcomed!).

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