The Enemies of Grace

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By Kim Riddlebarger About The Law
Part of the series Tabletalk

The apostle Paul was obviously perplexed when he wrote these words: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you, that you should not obey the truth?” (Gal. 3:1a). How could the apostle lament, “I marvel that you are turning away so soon . . . to a different gospel” (Gal. 1:6)? Why would Paul warn the Galatians about the possibility of becoming estranged from Christ (Gal. 5:4)? Why would he go so far as to challenge his enemies to mutilate themselves (Gal. 5:12)? Not even the report he later received from Corinth about a man sleeping with his father’s wife made Paul this angry (1 Cor. 5:1)! What was going on in Galatia? The answer is simple — enemies of grace were undermining the Gospel.

Enemies of grace plagued the Galatian church in the first century, and they are still with us today. Examining how Paul dealt with the situation in Galatia will tell us a great deal about how we are to deal with such enemies of grace.

Paul had passed through Galatia, a region in what is now central Turkey, during his first missionary journey. While there, he had fallen ill (cf. Gal. 4:13) and been nursed back to health by local Christians (Gal. 4:15). In the providence of God, Paul remained there long enough to preach the Gospel with such power and clarity that “Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed among you as crucified” (Gal. 3:1). Because of his preaching, many embraced Christ through faith alone (Gal. 2:16), receiving the Holy Spirit through the “hearing of faith” (Gal. 3:2). Paul’s Gospel, revealed to him by Jesus Himself (Gal. 1:12), was anchored in “the grace of Christ” (Gal. 1:6), that is, God’s unmerited favor to sinners in the person of His Son. When Paul recovered and moved on, he left behind a thriving church.

But the enemies of grace were not far behind. Soon after he left Galatia, Paul’s Gospel of grace was challenged by a group known as the “Judaizers,” men who made it their sworn duty to overturn Paul’s preaching. To these enemies of grace, the Gospel was dangerous. Why? It was too gracious! It did not leave a sufficient role for any human contribution. Supposedly, too much teaching that justification was by grace alone, through faith alone, on account of the finished work of Christ alone led people to believe good works played no role whatsoever. This, the Judaizers said, left no incentive for Christians to live godly lives and would lead to wholesale rejection of the Law of Moses, as well as all religious ceremony and ritual. Worse, it would allow Gentile converts to live in indifference to everything the Judaizers held sacred.

It was not long before Paul got wind of their activities, and the epistle to the Galatians is Paul’s corrective. As Paul speaks to the challenges raised by the Judaizers, he gives us a catalogue of their errors, errors that have bedeviled Christians ever since.

The first thing we learn is that the “Judaizers” were teaching a “different gospel,” which was no Gospel at all. For Paul, we are saved solely by the merits of Christ, His righteous life and His sacrificial death — merits we receive through faith alone (Gal. 2:16; 3:1–9). We are saved by grace alone and not by anything we can add to the merits of Christ. This is why “grace alone” is one of the cries of Reformation Christianity and why grace alone cannot be separated from faith alone, a point which Paul himself makes elsewhere (Rom. 4:16).

The Judaizers were Jews who had come to believe that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. The debate was not about who Christ is but about how we are saved. To be justified, said the Judaizer, one must believe in Christ, but one also must submit to ritual circumcision (Gal. 5:3–6; 6:13–15) and keep the Law of Moses, including its ceremonial aspects (2:16; 3:19–25; 4:8–10). In other words, we must have faith in Christ, and we must add to Christ the merits of law-keeping. But adding human merit to grace destroys grace!

Enemies of grace, such as the Judaizers, don’t deny grace outright. They say, “Yes, God’s grace is important!” and “Yes, you must have faith in Jesus!” But then they add, “You must be circumcised and keep the Law of Moses, including the ritual washings, dietary laws, and feast days.” Enemies of grace are often subtle. Rather than deny the Gospel, they redefine the Gospel so that it is not a gospel of grace alone, received through faith alone. Their so-called gospel is a gospel of grace plus human merit and faith plus human works. But Paul says that such teaching is not a gospel at all and that we are to reject it even if it comes from the lips of an angel or an apostle (Gal. 1:6–9). The best defense, then, against the contemporary enemies of grace is to be very clear about the Gospel! Christ plus nothing! Grace alone!

A second ploy used by the Judaizers was to argue that Paul’s doctrine of grace alone inevitably would lead to license. Too much stress upon grace supposedly opens the door to sin. Sneaking into the Galatian church, the Judaizers spied out those few who abused their Christian liberty (Gal. 2:4) and then used the sinful behavior of the few to argue that the problem was Paul’s Gospel! This enabled the Judaizers to make the case that Paul’s Gospel of grace is dangerous, and for a time they even pressured Peter into withdrawing from Gentile Christians who did not keep the dietary laws (Gal. 2:11–12). To an enemy of grace, Paul’s Gospel of grace is bad news. It makes God the sole author of salvation and takes man out of the equation. And this, they say, leaves the door wide open to sin and careless living.

How did Paul respond to this? First, he rebuked Peter to his face, reminding the Galatians that Peter’s actions compromised the truth of the Gospel (Gal. 2:11). Compromise was no small thing! Then, Paul restated the Gospel of grace as clearly as human speech would allow, saying, “a man is not justified by the works of the law but by faith in Jesus Christ . . . for by the works of the law no flesh shall be justified” (Gal. 2:16). To even consider the point that Paul’s Gospel needs modification is to question the Gospel! Thus, Paul tells the Galatians, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Gal. 5:1), reminding them not to use their freedom in Christ to indulge the flesh (Gal. 5:13). Since they are in Christ, they will bear the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22–23). If people think Paul’s doctrine of grace leads to license, Paul’s response is only to preach grace louder! We must follow his lead.

Sadly, enemies of grace will continue to plague Christ’s church. The extent to which we are not clear about the Gospel being all of grace is the extent to which the enemies of grace will gain footholds in our churches today. With Paul’s exhortation ringing in our ears, we must stand firm and resist them. For it is the grace of Christ that has set us free. To deny grace alone is to deny Christ himself.

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