As a young believer, I was eager to understand the Bible. I enrolled in a Christian college as a biblical studies major. But as I sat in my very first college Bible class listening to the professor expound on what it means to be “crucified with Christ” (Galatians 2:20), his words simply did not match my experience in life. The professor taught us that our union with Christ’s death coupled with believing the truth that Christ lives in us would enable us to transcend sin in our lives. This, he said, was how God intended us to live. When I politely questioned him, the professor’s reply subtly, yet unmistakably, communicated that his interpretation of Galatians 2:20 was correct and I was out-of-line for having questioned him. Down the road of my life, I came to realize that what I had been taught about the meaning of Galatians 2:20 was not true, and the gospel I had been taught was not the true gospel. I came to understand that Paul, in the larger context of which verse 2:20 is a part, was addressing the central human drama: Will we see our own sinfulness and need for mercy?
Paul’s letter to the Galatians reveals two conflicts: one between Paul and the “party of the circumcision” and the other between Paul and Peter. Both conflicts speak to this drama, and thus both are relevant to believers today.
Paul’s first conflict was with the party of the circumcision, a group of Jewish believers who insisted that true belief in Jesus Christ entailed keeping the Law of Moses (the Mosaic Covenant), which for gentile converts meant they had to be circumcised. To be certain that gentile converts were correctly instructed in the faith, the party of the circumcision followed Paul in his travels and, counteracting his evangelistic work, taught their own beliefs. Because they claimed to believe in Christ, the party of the circumcision appeared to be Christians, and consequently, they did not attract negative attention among the community of believers. On the contrary, the community welcomed these men, seeing them as sincere, devout followers of Christ. After all, the party of the circumcision held all the right beliefs: Jesus was the Messiah, God’s Son; Jesus was crucified for our sins and raised from the dead in order that those who follow Him might be freed from condemnation; and God’s mercy in response to Jesus’ death on the cross is the basis of that freedom from condemnation. So far, so good.
Where the party of the circumcision diverged from Paul was not by subtracting a belief but by adding one: they believed that living righteously—by which they meant following the Law—was also necessary in order to receive eternal life. Simply put, the party of the circumcision believed that faith plus adherence to the Law justifies a person before God, whereas Paul believed that faith alone—by which he meant trusting solely in the mercy of God—justifies a person.
Contrary to what Christians are often taught, Paul’s conflict with the party of the circumcision was not a theological disagreement about the application of the Mosaic Law to the gentiles. Something more was at stake for Paul; he was concerned about their teaching “another gospel,” and thus he writes to the Galatian church, “…if any man is preaching to you a gospel contrary to that which you received, let him be accursed” [Galatians 1:9, NASB].
To understand more about Paul’s attitude toward this “other gospel,” we can look at how he responded to the disagreement between gentile and Jewish believers in Rome. In Romans 14:1, Paul instructs those who are strong in the faith to “accept the one who is weak in faith.” According to McKenzie Study Center teacher Jack Crabtree, the so-called weaker brother is one who “has a faulty or inadequate grasp of what constitutes the holiness (or righteousness) that God desires” [Sermon June 1, 2008; www.mckenziestudycenter.org]. In Rome, then, the weaker brother to whom Paul refers was a Jew who imposed upon himself a belief that he could not eat meat and that he must keep the Sabbath. In writing to the Romans, Paul extended grace to this weaker brother, responding with mercy, tolerance, acceptance, and respect. Paul never referred to the weaker brother’s beliefs as “another gospel.”
In contrast to his grace-filled response to the weaker brother in Rome, Paul came down hard on the party of the circumcision in Antioch. He was dramatic and confrontational. He rejected their perspective, calling it a false gospel. Why Paul reacted so differently and what he meant by “another gospel” becomes clearer in the context of Paul’s second conflict, the one with Peter. When the two apostles were in Antioch, Paul confronted Peter:
Now when Peter came to Antioch, I confronted him to his face, because he was in the wrong. Before certain men from James came, Peter used to eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he began to withdraw and separate himself, fearing those who belong to the faction of the circumcision. And the remaining Jews followed his example of hypocrisy, such that even Barnabas joined them in their hypocrisy. [Galatians 2:11-13, my translation]
Although Peter was a leader in the church, he was intimidated by the party of the circumcision. Rather than correct their false gospel out of his conviction, he yielded to them out of fear, with the result that other people not only did not see that the teaching of the circumcision party was false, but they also followed it. Paul described Peter’s behavior as “hypocrisy,” which in the Greek of the day meant, “play acting.” Paul saw Peter “acting” as though he believed what the party of the circumcision believed, when in fact he did not. Seeing Peter’s grievous influence, Paul knew that he had to deal with it.
Paul’s response to Peter and to the false gospel of the circumcision party is captured in Galatians 2:20: “I realized that the crucifixion of Christ depicts the condemnation that I in my sinfulness deserve…” [my translation]. For believers to be “crucified with Christ” means that, like Paul, we have come to the inward realization that we deserve the death that Christ died on the cross but that God granted us mercy and sent Christ to bear that death for us. This is the true gospel: mercy is available to me!
So then, Paul’s conflict with the party of the circumcision was not just a “theological disagreement” about salvation by faith versus salvation by works (the view of many modern Christians). By teaching that the Law was capable of freeing men from condemnation—that the Law was, in a sense, “completing” the work of Christ’s death on the cross—the party of the circumcision were corrupting the pure gospel and influencing others to believe a false gospel. This false gospel did not represent wrong doctrinal understanding, such as that held by the Jewish Christians in Rome. Rather, it represented an unwillingness to face the truth about one’s own moral unworthiness and need for God’s mercy. For Paul, this teaching was heresy; it was masquerading as the true gospel, and it had to be confronted and corrected.
The party of the circumcision deluded themselves. Although they claimed to believe in the work of Christ on the cross, they desired Law, not mercy, for others. They adopted a condemning, unmerciful attitude toward others who failed to achieve moral goodness. (This explains Peter’s fear.) And by not extending mercy to others, they revealed that they did not see their own need for mercy.
Ultimately, seeing the depth of our sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy is essential for all true followers of Jesus—although we often fail both to show mercy and to see our own sin. One of the most beloved figures in modern church history, Dutch watchmaker Corrie ten Boom, revealed to us her own struggle to see. During World War II, the Nazi secret service arrested Corrie and other members of her family for hiding Jews in their home. She and her sister Betsie faced unimaginable evil, torture, and deprivation in Ravensbruck, the most heinous women’s death camp, where ninety-six thousand women, including Betsie, were put to death. Corrie’s father and other relatives also died in death camps. In her moving autobiography, The Hiding Place (1971), Corrie tells of her miraculous release from Ravensbruck and her subsequent travels around the world to tell of God’s mercy in the pits of hell.
One day, however, Corrie came face to face with her own lack of mercy. Following a service during which she shared her story at a church in Munich, Corrie spotted a former secret service guard from Ravensbruck. The man approached her, smiling, joyfully affirming Corrie’s message of mercy and forgiveness and marveling that “He has washed my sins away!” As the former guard reached out to shake her hand, Corrie reveals that “angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me.” Frozen, she was physically unable to raise her hand to shake his; she could not forgive the terrible things he had done. She quickly saw the sin of her dark thoughts, however, and asked herself, “Jesus Christ died for this man; was I going to ask for more?” Admitting her inability to forgive the former guard, she asked Jesus for help to forgive the man, and she reports that from her heart sprang overwhelming love for the former guard.
Corrie and her family had suffered immeasurably at the hands of this man and others like him. Although she has inspired millions with her call to extend the mercy of God to those who do not deserve mercy, at a critical moment she found no mercy in her heart for the former guard who had caused such horrific pain. Corrie struggled to see her own need for mercy, and she was tempted to withhold forgiveness. In crying out to God for help to forgive her abuser, she was also crying out for mercy for her own hard heart. By sharing her profound, personal story, she allows us to see that we are not alone. Ours is a shared struggle to see our personal need for mercy.
The party of the circumcision, unlike Corrie, did not struggle to see their own sin and need for mercy. Their “gospel” focused on external behavior, which ensured the appearance of correct belief. The true gospel, in contrast, focuses on internal beliefs and recognizing one’s brokenness and desperate need for God’s mercy.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Lutheran pastor, author, and member of the World War II German resistance movement against the Nazis, wrote about life in Christian community. In his 1954 work, Life Together: A Discussion of Christian Fellowship, Bonhoeffer observes that in order to help us understand the true fellowship of believers, we must “be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” Further, he notes that “the sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both.” This disillusionment, not unlike what we may imagine Paul to have experienced with Peter, gives us the opportunity to see both our own sin and that of our brothers and sisters. With undeniable clarity, Bonhoeffer writes that when this occurs,
…is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ.
This is what Paul knew when he stated that Christ, on the cross, took on the suffering and death that he, Paul, deserved and gave him mercy instead. This is what Corrie ten Boom experienced in the church in Munich. Bonhoeffer knew that living in our sin—aware that we sin—reminds us of our need for God’s mercy.
To know the true gospel is to embrace at the core of our being the truth of our own moral unworthiness, and consequently, to embrace the mercy of God demonstrated in Christ’s death. This mercy is the only basis for hope in eternal life. Belief in the true gospel means that we will engage in a daily struggle to see our need for mercy. As Corrie shared so candidly, in the hardness of our sinful hearts, the good news is that when we see our need, we will find God’s mercy, freely available for us.