Gal. 2:3–5, “But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek. Yet because of false brothers secretly brought in—who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery—to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you.”
Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” These famous words express the joyful release of freedom. They were spoken by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the close of his address at the 1963 March on Washington for Civil Rights. Dr. King’s words conveyed something besides freedom’s joy; they also hinted at its long, hard struggle. They were spoken a full century after liberty was first proclaimed for African-Americans. Free at last! At last, after centuries of bondage and enslavement. At last, after another long century of prejudice and injustice.
Our experience with slavery in America teaches that proclaiming emancipation and possessing liberty are two very different things. Freedom is not easily gained, and once gained, it is easily lost.
The Enemies of Freedom
Freedom has as many joys and struggles in the spiritual realm as it does in human society. Dr. King knew this, for he borrowed his famous words from an old African-American spiritual: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we’re free at last!” The song’s first and primary meaning was about freedom from sin through Jesus Christ.
Freedom in Christ was the Apostle Paul’s concern as he wrote Galatians, a letter sometimes known as the Magna Carta of Christian liberty. Paul knew how precious spiritual freedom is. He knew the price that Jesus paid on the cross to gain it. He also knew how easy it is to squander that freedom and return to spiritual bondage.
This is why Paul wrote to the Galatians with such urgency. They believed the gospel of the cross and the empty tomb. They had gained true spiritual freedom by putting their faith in Christ crucified and Christ risen. But now they were under the spell of teachers who wanted to add the Law of Moses to the gospel of Christ (Gal. 3:1). As a result, they were in danger of becoming enslaved all over again (Gal. 5:1).
What was happening in Galatia reminded Paul of an almost identical situation he had faced some years before, probably in Antioch, where Judaizers secretly entered the church—false brothers “who slipped in to spy out our freedom that we have in Christ Jesus, so that they might bring us into slavery” (Gal. 2:4). Here Paul borrows his vocabulary from the world of espionage. His opponents were conducting covert operations in the church. Like undercover agents, they had sneaked into the church to see what the Gentile Christians were up to. But they were more than informants; they were slave-traders. They were conspiring to hold the church hostage to the law.
These men are sometimes called “the Judaizers” because they confused Judaism with Christianity. They taught that Gentiles had to become Jews in order to become Christians. Their slogan was, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). Since they opposed Paul’s law-free gospel, one might call them “the Torah police.” But Paul knew them for what they really were: “false brothers” (Gal. 2:4)—“brothers” because they claimed to be Christians, but “false” because they did not follow Christ after all.
Whatever we call these men, they were enemies of freedom, which is why Paul took such a strong stand against them: “to them we did not yield in submission even for a moment, so that the truth of the gospel might be preserved for you” (Gal. 2:5). Paul was a freedom fighter. He knew that people who want to keep their freedom in Christ have to fight for it.
Notice that the gospel he was fighting for is not a truth; it is the truth. It is the truth that Jesus had in mind when he said, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (John 8:32). It is the same truth that Jesus was talking about when he said that he was the truth (John 14:6). There is only one Christ, one truth, and one gospel. Therefore, there is only one ultimate freedom worth fighting to preserve. From Paul’s example we learn that the price of spiritual freedom is constant vigilance. It is not enough to share the gospel or even to preach it. The gospel has to be defended.
It is not easy to defend the truth in an age of lies. These days people want to make up their own good news. They do not want to be told that there is one and only one way of salvation. They will put up with Christianity only as long as it minds its own business. Therefore, the church is under great pressure to compromise its message. But there is one thing we will not give up, and that is the freedom we have in Christ. Salvation comes only by his death and resurrection. We will not let anyone add to or subtract anything from his cross and empty tomb. With Martin Luther, we say that “we can stand the loss of our possessions, our name, our life, and everything else; but we will not let ourselves be deprived of the Gospel, our faith, and Jesus Christ. And that is that.”
Titus: A Test Case
Paul’s convert (namely, Titus) was accepted, and his commission was acknowledged.
First, Paul’s convert was accepted. In verse 1 Paul mentions that he brought Titus with him to Jerusalem. Titus was a Gentile convert whom Paul considered one of his co-workers. In fact, Titus was practically like a son to him (Titus 1:4). Eventually he became a prominent leader in the early church, serving as pastor of the church in Crete.
Taking Titus to Jerusalem was a daring move. Because he was a Greek rather than a Jew, Titus was uncircumcised. And if anything was bound to enrage the Judaizers, it was bringing an uncircumcised man into their holy city! Circumcision meant everything to the Jews. It was the sacred mark of Jewish identity, the symbol of salvation. Since the days of Abraham, the removal of the male foreskin had been the visible sign of belonging to God’s people. According to the command of God (Gen. 17:9–14), circumcision determined whether someone was inside or outside the covenant.
In the past, if a Gentile decided to become a Jew, he had to be circumcised. This was what the law required. Then Paul came along with his law-free gospel, preaching the good news of the cross and the empty tomb. He said that Jesus Christ had already met the requirements of the law, so that circumcision didn’t even matter. All it took to belong to God was faith in Jesus Christ. Titus served as the perfect test case for the freedom of Paul’s gospel. Here was a man who had received Jesus Christ as his Lord and Savior. Did he or did he not also have to meet the requirements of the law, epitomized by circumcision?
The answer the Apostles gave was that Titus did not have to be circumcised to be saved. As Paul put it: “But even Titus, who was with me, was not forced to be circumcised, though he was a Greek” (Gal. 2:3). The good news is not salvation by faith in Christ plus circumcision; the good news is salvation by faith in Christ alone.
Circumcision is no longer a hot topic for the church, but the deeper issue here is still relevant. Paul regarded circumcision as a synecdoche for the entire law (Phil. 3:2–9); it represented law-keeping in general. Thus the Apostle was fighting for something fundamental to Christianity at all times and in all places: What does it take to become a first-class member of God’s family? Is it simply a matter of faith in Christ, or is there something else, too?
The answer is that there are no second-class Christians. How could there be? Every Christian is saved exactly the same way: by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Therefore, there can be no discrimination in the church. The church cannot exclude people from salvation on the basis of race, gender, class, age, or anything else. The church cannot even discriminate on the basis of relative righteousness. Christians have a way of ranking sins. If someone is struggling with pride and lust, that’s okay. Who isn’t? But someone who is battling with depression, or whose marriage is falling apart, or who is tempted to commit homosexual sin, or who is addicted to drugs had better keep it quiet. Otherwise, people will know that he or she does not really belong in the church.
This seems to be the way that some Christians think, but it is not the way God thinks. Christians have different gifts, of course. We have different backgrounds. We have different cultures, in some cases. We have different ministries and callings, so there is order in the church. We have different trials and temptations. But there is no difference in our standing before God. And if there is no difference in our standing before God, there should be no differences in our standing with one another.
Titus was the perfect example. He could hardly have been more different from the Apostles than he was, standing before them as an uncircumcised Gentile. But he also stood before them as a man saved by the cross and the empty tomb. God had accepted him solely on the basis of what Jesus had done for him. And on this same basis the Apostles even in Jerusalem accepted him as a first-rate brother in Christ, thereby proving that justification comes by grace through faith in Christ alone.
Mission to the Gentiles
One result of Paul’s trip to Jerusalem was that his convert was accepted. Titus was not required to be circumcised. The second result of this apostolic summit meeting was that Paul’s commission was acknowledged.
Notice Paul’s attitude toward the other Apostles. He describes them as men “who seemed to be influential” (Gal. 2:2, 6), or “who seemed to be pillars” (Gal. 2:9). Paul’s comments about the other Apostles may seem a bit standoffish, or even derogatory. But remember that his opponents were making a big deal about them, as if the Jerusalem Apostles were the only ones that counted. Paul responded by saying, “What they were makes no difference to me” (Gal. 2:6). What God had done in Paul’s life was different from what he had done in Peter’s life, and Paul knew it. He was not one of the original twelve disciples (Gal. 1:17). But “what they were”—namely, companions of Christ during his earthly ministry—did not make them a higher authority. Paul had respect for the other Apostles, but he was not intimidated by them. He did not make a fuss over their credentials because he knew that “God shows no partiality” (Gal. 2:6). John Stott explains that “although he [Paul] accepts their office as apostles, he is not overawed by their person as it was being inflated by the Judaizers.”
The important thing is not what Paul thought about the other Apostles, however, but what they thought about him and his gospel of free grace. Paul puts it plainly: the men “who seemed influential added nothing to me” (Gal. 2:6). The other apostles did not have to give official approval to Paul; they simply acknowledged that he already had God’s approval because he was an Apostle in his own right. Nor did the other Apostles add anything to Paul’s message. They did not try to amend, edit, change, or otherwise alter his gospel. They added nothing to it. They removed nothing from it. They changed nothing about it. They simply accepted it as it was.
Contrast the attitude of the Apostles with that of Paul’s opponents—the enemies of freedom. The members of the Torah police taught that Paul’s gospel was all right as far as it went; it just didn’t go far enough. They wanted to add law to faith as the basis for salvation. But the apostles understood that nothing should or even could be added to Paul’s gospel. They knew that it is impossible to refinish the finished work of Christ. The gospel says that through his death and resurrection, Jesus Christ has done everything that needs to be done for our salvation. If we were to try to add anything to that free and gracious gospel, it would be like taking an Olympic gold medal and having it bronzed! The good news of the cross and the empty tomb cannot be improved; it can only be destroyed.
This is a perennial danger for the church. Christians are always trying to add something to the gospel. They elevate some aspect of Christianity to a place of supreme importance, so that the good news becomes faith in Christ plus something else. Usually what gets added to the gospel is something good in itself. Some particular experience of the Holy Spirit, perhaps. Some special ministry (usually the ministry we are involved with). Some methodology for having devotions, growing a church, or raising a family. Some distinctive doctrine or style of worship. Some political or social cause. Some way of doing, or of not doing, what the world does. But for the gospel to be the gospel, it has to stand alone. The gospel is Christ plus nothing. The old hymn by Edward Mote (1797–1874) claims that our “hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.” But our hope is also built on nothing more than Jesus’ blood and righteousness. Back in chapter 1, Paul told the Galatians to accept no alternatives. Here in chapter 2, he tells them to accept no additives.
What more do we need to save us from sin than the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ? Nothing more. The Apostles knew this, which is why they acknowledged Paul’s commission to preach the gospel: “when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me” (Gal. 2:9). The right hand of fellowship was more than a handshake. It was a symbolic gesture of partnership in the gospel. It showed that in the division of their labor, the other Apostles endorsed Paul’s mission to the Gentiles.
Partners in the Gospel
The way the first apostles treated one another is a model for ministry. An older commentary on Galatians states:
The true way to avoid strife, is just that which is here proposed. Let there be on both sides perfect frankness—let there be a willingness to explain and state things just as they are—and let there be a disposition to rejoice in the talents, and zeal, and success of others, though it should far outstrip our own,—and contention in the church would cease; and every devoted and successful minister of the gospel would receive the right hand of fellowship from all … who love the cause of true religion.
The apostles did everything they could to avoid strife. For starters, they were perfectly frank with one another. When Paul met with the Apostles, he “set before them” his gospel for the Gentiles (Gal. 2:2). This is a term for making a full disclosure. Paul did not hide anything. He told the others exactly what he preached so there could be an honest discussion of the issues.
At the same time, the Apostles all rejoiced in the talents and success of others. They were not interested in building their own little kingdoms. The Jerusalem Apostles did not envy Paul’s global success as a missionary. “On the contrary, … they saw that I had been entrusted with the gospel to the uncircumcised, just as Peter had been entrusted with the gospel to the circumcised (for he who worked through Peter for his apostolic ministry to the circumcised worked also through me for mine to the Gentiles)” (Gal. 2:7–8). The Apostles knew the work of God when they saw it. They also understood that the gospel is a partnership. They were unwilling to rob Paul to pay Peter, but recognized that each man had his own legitimate sphere of ministry. Peter was to take the gospel primarily to the Jews in Judea. Paul mainly was to take the gospel to the Gentiles of the world. Although Peter sometimes evangelized Gentiles (Cornelius, for example), and Paul got thrown out of his share of synagogues, each man had his own unique calling.
The evangelization of the world depends on this kind of cooperation in the church. Rather than taking pride in our own ministry, we should celebrate what God is doing through others. We can participate in different campus groups, for example, or belong to various church denominations. We can engage in various means of outreach. We can take diverse approaches to evangelism. We can allow space for different styles of music, according to the cultural context. We not only allow for these differences, but rejoice in them, provided that we are all preaching the same gospel. This qualification needs to be emphasized. Partnership in the gospel goes only as far as the gospel itself goes, and no further, which is precisely why the Apostles took the time to discuss exactly what they were preaching.
Bible scholars often call attention to the differences among the New Testament Apostles. They speak of the gospel according to Paul, for example, and contrast it with the gospel according to Peter. It is true that each of the Apostles had his own way of preaching the gospel. But whatever differences there may have been in terms of experience, emphasis, or style, there was no difference in content. Paul’s gospel was independent, but not different. Any variations had more to do with where he was preaching than what he was preaching. Thus the gospel according to Paul and the gospel according to Peter, or John, or even James, was always the same gospel of free grace.
The principle here is that the church can allow diversity of mission only where there is unity of message. The gospel itself sets the limits on our cooperation with others who call themselves Christians. We are willing to compromise on many things, but we are completely obstinate when it comes to the gospel. We refuse to recognize as Christian any church or any other organization that does not teach the one true gospel. Where there is no fellowship in the gospel, there can be no partnership in mission.
Paul had a genuine partnership with the Jerusalem Apostles. They demanded only one thing from him: “Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do” (Gal. 2:10). “The poor” refers specifically to the church in Jerusalem. Whereas most Gentile churches had some wealthy members, the Christians back in Jerusalem were destitute, especially in times of famine.
Helping the poor is not the gospel, but it is one necessary result of the gospel. Martin Luther wrote, “Next to the proclamation of the Gospel it is the task of a good pastor to be mindful of the poor.” A gospel-preaching church does not forget the poor—especially suffering Christians around the world—but remembers to care for them. And when it came to the poor, the Apostle Paul set a good example. He never forgot what the Apostles asked him to do. Several of his later epistles refer to the collections he took to relieve the suffering church (e.g., 1 Cor. 16:1–4; 2 Cor. 8:1–9:15). Paul sent the money back to Jerusalem to demonstrate the unity of the church. He and the other Apostles all shared in the partnership of the gospel.
What if Paul Had Lost?
By the time Paul’s visit to Jerusalem was over, he had won his fight for spiritual freedom. His convert was accepted and his commission was acknowledged. He had successfully defended the gospel truth that salvation comes by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. Yet we may well ask what difference this makes. To be sure, it made a difference to Paul. He met with the others “to make sure,” he wrote, “I was not running or had not run in vain” (Gal. 2:2). This did not mean that there was any doubt in Paul’s mind that he had the right gospel. He knew he had the right gospel because he had received it from Christ Himself and had been preaching it for more than a decade. He hardly needed the Jerusalem Apostles to reassure him that he had the right gospel!
Paul’s fear did not have to do with his own commission, but with the church’s commission. Unless he and the other apostles were all preaching the same gospel, the church would never fulfill its mission to the world. In particular, Paul was worried about a permanent division in the church between Jews and Gentiles. Here is how F. F. Bruce describes his concern: “His commission was not derived from Jerusalem, but it could not be executed effectively except in fellowship with Jerusalem. A cleavage between his Gentile mission and the mother-church would be disastrous: Christ would be divided, and all the energy which Paul had devoted, and hoped to devote, to the evangelizing of the Gentile world would be frustrated.”
To describe his fears, Paul used the illustration of a footrace, such as a relay race. Paul knew that he would complete his leg of the race, but he needed to be sure that the other Apostles were also carrying the gospel baton. Otherwise, his efforts would be wasted and the church would never make it to the finish line. So imagine for a moment what would have happened if Paul had lost his fight for freedom. What would the church look like today if the first Apostles had required Gentiles to become Jews in order to become Christians?
If Paul had failed to defend his gospel for the Gentiles, then Christians would still have to follow the law of Moses down to the last detail. Our salvation would depend on such things as being circumcised, keeping the Old Testament dietary laws, and following the more obscure regulations in Leviticus. The church would be imprisoned within the Jewish culture. Not that there is anything wrong with Judaism as a culture. God never asked the Jews to leave their ethnic identity behind. It was fine for them to be circumcised. It was even appropriate for them to follow the law of Moses, provided they understood that they were not saved by it.
It would be wrong, however, for Christianity to be held prisoner by Jewish culture. Christianity is multicultural as a matter of principle, which is one reason it has changed the world. Part of the secret of the gospel’s success is that it can be translated into any cultural context. Paul rightly understood that the Gentile question would affect the entire future of Christianity. He was afraid that if the Judaizers had their way, Christianity would become another Jewish sect rather than good news for the whole world.
Free at Last!
By the grace of God, Paul won his fight for gospel freedom. Gentiles were accepted in the church on the basis of the gospel alone. In fact, according to a work known as The Epistle of Barnabas, circumcision had been abolished everywhere in the church by the second century. Yet the fight for freedom in Christ will not end until Christ returns to make us free forever. For this reason, the gospel still needs freedom fighters today. One of the great freedom fighters in the history of the church was Martin Luther, who wrote:
The issue before us is grave and vital; it involves the death of the Son of God, who, by the will and command of the Father, became flesh, was crucified, and died for the sins of the world. If faith yields on this point, the death of the Son of God will be in vain. Then it is only a fable that Christ is the Savior of the world. Then God is a liar, for he has not lived up to his promises. Therefore our stubbornness on this issue is pious and holy; for by it we are striving to preserve the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to keep the truth of the gospel. If we lose this, we lose God, Christ, all the promises, faith, righteousness, and eternal life.
These things are worth as much of a fight today as they were for Luther. Fight for them we must!