One of the biggest problems of the first century Church was, and it still is today, understanding how we become righteous before God. How is a just God able to justify sinners? In our world those who break the law must be punished in accordance with that law. Some are punished with their lives, while others receive community service for minor infractions, but most receive a jail sentence for greater crimes against society. Often, after they have paid their debt to society, former criminals are not trusted by those among us who have never committed a crime. Yet, we are told that all men, no matter how grave the sin or crime, can be forgiven and justified by God. What would such a thing look like?
Paul’s argument in Galatians chapter 2 is that no one is justified simply because he is usually obedient to the Law. Rather, God justifies all sinners through Jesus’ sacrifice. He is the propitiation for our sins (Romans 3:25). On the surface this sounds fine. For example, suppose I have been given a ticket for speeding. The law claims I must pay the fine or be given some jail time (or perhaps some community service). Once the fine is paid, however, the law has no further claim upon me, but what if a friend pays the fine for me? Does the law have any claim upon me in such a case? No, it does not. The fine has been paid, and I am free and clear of any further demands—provided I don’t commit any further infractions. In the most simplistic of terms, this is what Jesus has done for all of us. He has paid the demands the Law has against all men (Colossians 2:13-14).
Great! The debt I owe has been paid, but how does this make me righteous? Why wouldn’t God or other righteous people consider me untrustworthy? Since many criminals in our world are repeat offenders, am I not putting others in the Kingdom of God at risk, if I am given eternal life but turn out to be an evil person? Under such conditions, life in God’s Kingdom could be worse than life in the world. After all, evil men would eventually die in our world, but if evil men had eternal life in God’s Kingdom, the righteous would never be free of the problems of evil. How does justification work out?
According to Paul, there are two creations. The first creation is found in Adam, while the new creation is in Christ or the second Adam. The first is corrupt, and the second in incorruptible. While in my old man, I brought forth the evil fruit of the old creation, but while in the new man, I am free to bring forth the good fruit of the Spirit of God.
The problem is, however, that I am still tempted in the present by the same things that tempted me before I ever received Christ as my Savior. What if, while I receive justification from God, I am then found a sinner, because I fell back into my old ways, even temporarily, or was surprised by circumstance and acted unwisely? Is Christ, who is my life, a minister of (i.e. does he empower me to) sin (Galatians 2:17)? No! Christ, whose life I live (as in the old creation I lived Adam’s life), does not empower us to sin. The new man (Christ) is neither subject to sin nor is he tempted to sin. He cannot, therefore, empower me to sin.
Why not, and how does this apply to what Paul tells us in Galatians 1:4, 6 (cf. Galatians 2:18)? If I reestablish the authority of the Law, it condemns me, because I am rebuilding my old life in Adam (not Christ). The old man has been crucified with Christ, and the life I live now, I live under grace not the law. Christ delivered us from this present evil world (Galatians 1:4). Therefore, we are no longer under its authority or law, as far as righteousness is concerned (Galatians 2:19-20). What we destroyed by embracing Christ is wrong to ‘build again’ (Galatians 2:18).
Transgressions (1John 1:6-10) are treated as learning experiences, as long as we aren’t using grace for license to do as we please, i.e. satisfy our lusts (which is rebellion). If we fall, we get up and try again—we keep going seeking to work out our salvation, knowing it is God who is in us, helping us both to desire and to do his will (Philippians 2:12-13)
I don’t think Peter and those who followed him were building again what they had destroyed (Galatians 2:12; cf. verse-18). They didn’t change their minds about how they were saved. They erred in that they made themselves pleasers of men, and in doing so offended their brethren. On the other hand, the Galatians were building again what they had destroyed, just as Paul says to them in Galatians 1:4, 6. They were acting like they no longer had faith that Christ was their Savior. Rather, they had been convinced by the agitators that they had to become Jews in order to be saved.
What’s the difference? The difference is a way of life. Peter made a mistake and acted the hypocrite—not acting out what he believed. On the other hand, the Galatians, no doubt without realizing it, rejected Christ in favor of a different way of life—Judaism.