A Sophisticated Way of Denying the Gospel

Do we work as hard at avoiding Gospel-undermining behavior as we do at avoiding immoral behavior?

I wish I knew what Peter was thinking when he was looking at Paul–a ministerial acquaintance at best–who was now confronting him publicly. Yes, publicly. At least some portion of the Antioch Church was looking on as it unfolded. Was Peter shocked, dumbstruck, mouth agape? Was he incredulous, tight-fisted? Was he broken and penitent like a man shaken awake from a bad dream?



These are the kinds of questions that arise when we come across those rare moments when one Apostle gets sideways with another. Unfortunately these are questions that will remain definitively unanswered on this side of the parousia. The Holy Spirit has left us with the only details He deemed necessary for us to have through the pen of the Apostle Paul. In so doing He has given us with several very important lessons:

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?’ (Galatians 2:11–14)

The first lesson we learn from account is that orthodoxy is married to orthopraxy. It may be a rocky marriage at times, but the two are meant to be committed until death do they part. Right doctrine is to produce right practice. Paul tells Peter that he “stands condemned.” Condemned by whom? The context allows a little wiggle room but not enough to deduce any other subject than God himself.

Why condemned? It was because Peter stopped eating with Gentiles for fear of what his more Jewish friends might think of him. Don’t miss this. It was for a particular practice that Peter stood condemned–not for a particular belief. I have no doubt that Peter could have aced a theology exam on the spot. But his knowledge of the Gospel was not all that was required to avoid the rebuke of another Apostle. Paul rightly believed that how a Christian acts can and will undermine what that Christian may confess to be true. Hypocrisy is a theological issue–and a potentially damning one! J. Gresham Machen summed this up so well when he wrote:

Paul rebukes Peter for hypocrisy–not for false opinions, but for concealing his correct opinions for fear of men. In condemning his practice, Paul approves his principles. Peter had therefore been in fundamental agreement with Paul.1

We must remember that this wasn’t strictly a moral violation. Peter wasn’t stealing from Gentiles; he just wasn’t eating with them. I wonder if that is a category that most Christians have. Do we work as hard at avoiding Gospel-undermining behavior as we do at avoiding immoral behavior? If not, it is imperative that we learn to do so. Otherwise, we may find ourselves, in a real way, standing condemned as Peter at the Antiochan meal.

The second thing that we learn from this incident is how just how angry Paul is in this letter.

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